Beginner’s Mind

As you progress in your career, you’ll get better at what you do. At first, you’ll bumble around. After a while, you’ll become (merely) competent. Eventually, you’ll be an expert in a few things. Finally — if you persist — you’ll develop mastery. You’ll face different challenges at each stage. (Of course, there’s no guarantee for any of this. Among other things, you’ll need ability, focus, persistence, and luck.)

Early on, a lack of real-world experience is a problem. This inexperience may be aggravated by a head full of ideas you’ve picked up from books or professors (such as myself.) Inexperience + certitude = bad decisions. When you’ve achieved some level of competence, distractions become a challenge. You may grow disenchanted with your original path or enticed to switch tracks for extraneous reasons. You start to long for a change. Perhaps a management track seems the most viable way to advance. And you may be right — but then you’ll have to develop different skills.

Let’s say you stay on track and become an expert. Then you’ll face a different challenge: experience + certitude. In some ways, this is more dangerous than not knowing what you’re doing. Now other people listen to you, and it’s harder to admit you’re wrong. You have a reputation, which you feel compelled to defend. You stop paying attention to particulars. You find it harder to empathize with less knowledgeable people. What’s worse, new projects start to look like “another one of those” — so you’re tempted by shortcuts. Work becomes repetitive; practice becomes mindless or a chore. Quality suffers.

What to do?

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Last Thursday’s panel covered a lot of ground regarding the mindset necessary to have a successful career in UX. That said, we didn’t cover all the points that came up during the discussion. There was one in particular that I thought worthwhile, so I’m tackling it here.

The point is the following: Some of the ideas we discussed — e.g., having the agency necessary to move on from a job that doesn’t align with your values — require self-confidence. This doesn’t come naturally to a lot of people, especially someone who may be starting out in their career. Or another way to put it, “that’s easy for you to say, given the stage you’re at in your career. But it’s not so easy for folks like us, who are just getting started.”

It’s an excellent point. It’s natural to feel uncertain when you start a new endeavor.

How do you build up the self-confidence necessary to make bold career decisions? The only way I’ve found to break through is to stick with it through the uncertain phases. There’s a paradox here: sticking with it requires some degree of certainty, but certainty only develops if you stick with it long enough. You must give yourself enough leeway at first to enable you to push through.

In the mid-1990s, I got into rollerblading. Eventually, I was quite good at it; I could do all sorts of tricks and even joined a roller-hockey league. But I still remember when I was first learning to rollerblade. My movements were awkward and jerky. I’d fall all the time​, and injured myself on several occasions. I was often hesitant and scared. At first, each fall made me more uncertain. “Aw crap,” I’d think, “why am I doing this?”

Why indeed. We’re taught that we should do things we enjoy, not things that are painful (or have uncertain returns.) Often, when you’re learning to do something hard, you can feel more frustration than enjoyment. You fall often, you hurt yourself – or at best, make a fool of yourself. (That is, you hurt your ego.) This is a hard period to endure​ since you’re disincentivized to keep at it.

Over time — if you stick with it — the hurt/pleasure ratio inverts. A point comes when you’re enjoying yourself more than you’re hurting. From then on, you’re more willing to put up with the pain. (Or, in the case of rollerblading, you learn how to fall without injuring yourself. That was a major breakthrough for me!) Because of this ratio inversion, you’re doing the activity more often — and with greater gusto. In other words, you’re practicing more. And so, a virtuous cycle ensues: The more you practice, the better you become at it; the better you become at it, the more you enjoy it; the more you enjoy it, the more you practice. And on it goes.

With this virtuous cycle comes self-confidence. You’re less tentative in your choices and more willing to try new things. You stop thinking about your next motion​ and just do it. Eventually, you see yourself as a “rollerblader” (or “designer”) — it becomes part of your identity.

The key here is that this takes time and patience. It’s not something you can learn about in school or books. It can’t be taught.

That said, it can be modeled.

One of the reasons why I stuck with the pain was that I knew an older guy — let’s call him Steve — who was really good at rollerblading. Steve would skate around wearing a Walkman and bouncing fluidly along to whatever song he was listening to. He’d occasionally spin around on his axis, ostensibly in response to some flourish in the music. He’d do this with perfect, thoughtless control. I could tell he was in a state of flow, and it looked utterly delightful.

Steve was a model for the sort of skating I wanted to do. I knew it was possible because, well, there he was! When I became a little better — that is, I didn’t fall as much — I’d try to emulate some of the moves I saw him do. Whenever I’d tumble, I’d consciously try to emulate Steve. How would he handle this?

The traditional way of learning design — that is, before our more formalized educational system emerged — was by apprenticing to a master. Apprentices would join an established studio and help out. Initially,​ they’d help with menial tasks. They’d endure humiliating tumbles, as all of us do when learning something new. They’d be uncertain and clumsy. Over time, they’d get better at it. And the better they got, the better they’d become. All the while, they’d have the master modeling the behavior that made someone “good” at it.

I think about this master-apprentice framework often. I’ve learned — and keep learning — from masters in my discipline. This requires a balance of humility and confidence: “I’m not very good at it yet, but I know I can do better because somebody else is. And it looks like they’re having fun.” It also requires persistence: the ability to stick with it over time, despite the setbacks and uncertainty — to the point where the hurt/pleasure ratio flips.

Falling In Love (Again) With Your Work

A career requires occasional renewal and refreshment. Re-engaging with the subject, perhaps at a different level; falling in love with it all over again. This is especially important if you aspire to have a long career, and doubly so if your chosen field involves technology.

Throughout my career, my primary professional identity has been as an information architect. The popularity of this term has waxed and waned over the years. In the late ‘90s, there was a lot of energy around the term. Then there was a time (about a decade later) when friends and colleagues started moving away. Some continued doing the work but not calling it “information architecture;” while others changed tracks entirely.

Although I’d like to say that external validation isn’t necessary, the truth is that a vibrant community matters. So these were challenging times. While I still loved what I did, I yearned for renewal. I revisited the book that introduced me to information architecture, Richard Saul Wurman’s Information Architects. The cover of the book defines terms:

In•for•ma•tion Ar•chi•tect [L infotectus] n. 1) the individual who organizes the patterns inherent in data, making the complex clear. 2) a person who creates the structure or map of information which allows others to find their personal paths to knowledge. 3) the emerging 21st century professional occupation addressing the needs of the age focused upon clarity, human understanding and the science of the organization of information. — In•for•ma•tion Ar•chi•tec•ture.

“There it is!,” I thought. “Regardless of what my peers decide to do with their own careers, this area of practice matters. People will need to find personal paths to knowledge, regardless of whether people are calling themselves information architects or not. It’s important to people and important to the world — and it’s what I do.” I re-engaged and re-committed to my practice — wherever that may lead.

Re-visiting the text that had introduced me to the field released a tremendous amount of energy. As an artifact, the book hadn’t changed. But I had changed, as had the context around me. I didn’t have as much to prove as I did earlier in my career. I could now see the book (and my work) through beginner’s eyes — but looking through the lens of experience. That’s a powerful combination!

I keep my copy of Information Architects close at hand. Every once in a while, I open it again. Some parts have aged more gracefully than others. Overall, it remains a powerful reminder of why I do the work I do; it inspires me to continue evolving. What about you? Do you have something that reminds you of why you do what you do, that helps you grow while moving towards the direction you initially set upon? How do you refresh your commitment to your work?

Staying Relevant as a Digital Designer

My family does movie nights on Friday evenings; we all sit in our living room and pick a movie to watch from one of the online services. Before the movie, we see trailers for other movies or YouTube videos. As my kids get older, the latter have become a bigger part of the program. Most are music videos made by kids not much older than mine: The Haschak sisters, MattyBRaps, and so on.

Looking at these videos, I feel conflicted. On the one hand, I’m amazed at the production values, the kids’ talent, and the technology that’s made it possible for them to have a global stage. On the other hand, I feel old. I like the music, but don’t recognize it. I’m compelled to show my kids the music videos I grew up with, to share that part of my life with them. Of course, they don’t want to see that. Why would they?

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