A few years ago, I was going through a rough patch. Things were not going the way I hoped at work, and I was feeling frustrated. As so often happens, I took it out on my wife, Jimena. We argued. Now, these situations can often end badly, with one or both parties feeling hurt and resentful, perhaps even shutting down. But Jimena said something during the argument that broke me out of my funk and immediately made me realize how much of a jackass I was being. She said, “You need to stop playing the victim.”
That’s exactly what was happening. I was playing the victim. In my mind, I’d spun up a scenario in which I was being victimized by an unspecified third party. Nothing in the facts substantiated this. If you strained, perhaps you could imagine an interpretation of the situation in which I was intentionally victimized, but the scenario didn’t survive Occam’s razor. There were many more plausible explanations for what was happening. I hadn’t even realized I was feeling victimized until Jimena called it out. I’d done it completely unconsciously.
Hearing the word “victim” made me stop in my tracks. What if I wasn’t a victim in this situation? What would it look like? How would I approach it differently? What avenues for action did the new perspective open up? I felt an immediate sense of relief. I apologized to Jimena, and we talked through possible solutions.
We’re constantly telling ourselves stories about what’s happening “out there” in the world. Some of these stories (like the one about me being victimized) are unhelpful; they make it difficult for us to accomplish our goals. Other stories help us predict outcomes more accurately and therefore help us act more skillfully. Whether they help or not, they’re still stories. Reality gets along quite well without our interpretations of what’s going on.
Design requires that we empathize with people who may be very different from ourselves. It’s inherent to how design works; if you must become a neurosurgeon before you can design a system to help patients suffering from brain trauma, there won’t be many such systems around. Having a powerful narrative underlying your understanding of reality can make it difficult for you to see things clearly from other perspectives.
As designers, we must be especially conscious of the stories we overlay on the world, and whether those narratives are helping or hindering us. Often — as with my case above — we may not even know we’re doing it. We just take for granted that that’s how the world works. Except it doesn’t — and believing that it does keeps us from achieving our full potential.