2 Pivotal Lessons on Identity for Designers

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Like many of you, I took a circuitous route that landed me in UX design.  After graduating, I started my career in a management rotation program. The program consisted of 6 rotations over 2 years, meaning I was changing jobs every 4 months. As an Econ major with no clue what I wanted to do, this was perfect for me.

Most of the rotations were OK. But there was one that nearly killed me – Financial Planning. I was terrible at it. My job was to make forecasts about a business unit’s profitability, revenue and costs. I had no idea what I was doing, and I’m 90% sure boss hated me.

During that time, I had low self esteem. It came to a point where I questioned everything about myself. Was I stupid? Maybe I’m not cut out for business after all. And many other self-defeating thoughts.

Then I switched to the next rotation.

I worked half as hard and got my highest job evaluations yet. What the hell?

Even though the days of that rotation are long gone, here are some lessons I took from that experience:

Learn to separate events from identity

Designers – especially those transitioning in from other careers – are a special bunch. We come from all walks of life, yet one trait I noticed about my cohort is this…

We are all extremely hard on ourselves.

Just because you’ve performed badly does not make you a bad performer. If you’ve designed something badly, that doesn’t make you a bad designer.

If you failed at something, that doesn’t make you a failure.

That took me a long time to understand.

In my other life, I love reading about dating and relationships (and used to blog on it). One of the most important pieces of relationship advice I ever came across was:

Don’t make an identity out of it. Meaning, don’t make a permanent judgment of someone’s identity based off of their temporary actions.

Consider the following phrases:

Identity-Based Event/Behavior Based
He’s a douchebag He was acting like a douchebag today
I’m a lazy person I haven’t been motivated lately
You’re stupid You made a careless mistake

This has nothing (and everything) to do with design, but with this knowledge, you can now spot couples who are likely to break up.

They are prone to making personal, identity-based attacks of one another or each other, instead of recognizing it as an individual event.

Your environment matters 

When something bad happens to you, it’s easy to assume you’re 100% at fault. What if it’s not you? Sometimes it’s your environment. It takes two to tango, and your job is a like partner you’re dating. It might be roses and butterflies in the beginning, until you realize the job/relationship is a huge mismatch.

It’s quite possible that changing your environment – by changing jobs – is the most effective career hack. 

True story from a friend (names redacted):

There was once a hotshot UX Designer who’s worked at many prestigious companies. He took a new role as a UX Lead, and did a good job for the first couple months. But he started struggling because the team dynamics required a lot more collaboration and less personal ownership of each project.

Things started falling apart until the designer was fired. My friend shared that this guy suddenly felt like he was a terrible designer.

The thing is, he had always excelled in the past as a lone wolf – a UX team of one.

Sure, he might have learned to become a great collaborator in that new job. But he also could have changed his environment and continued to have done superbly well.

It seems to be a paradox that we may have to revisit often: are you the one who’s wrong, or are you simply in the wrong environment?

As with many situations in life, the actual answer matters less than the knowledge of an alternate option.

 

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Sometimes, I post stuff that’s more related to career management than UX specifically. If you dig this intersection of personal development + design , then subscribe below!

The 1% Designer

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Oz, I can’t believe you’ve changed so much

 

Catching up with old friends one night, I didn’t expect this comment. To them, my job, appearance, and general life trajectory has changed vastly since they last saw me. It came as a surprise because all the changes – becoming a UX Designer, picking up random skills – felt rather slow and gradual to me.

But that’s the power of compounded change over time. Similarly, I can’t believe how much my friends have changed. There’s the friend who:

  • studied his ass off for years and is now a doctor
  • scraped together every penny she had and bought her first house at the age of 25
  • struggled with his startup for years and now runs a million-dollar software business.

We’ve all heard the cliches “slow and steady wins the race,” and “little by little you’ll get there” when we were little. But cliches take on actual meaning when you experience it for yourself. I call it the my mother was right moment.

There’s a common thread between all those friends, and I want to translate that to something I’ve been thinking about a lot: how to become a better designer. Especially for the completely new designer, where the hell do you start? I hope the following helps you find clarity in this constant struggle to become better.

Part 1: The Benefits of 1% Thinking

All the friends I mentioned earlier did one thing well: focus on making small improvements over time. They tried to become 1% better every day.

But wait, that sounds incredibly slow. 1% better? Don’t you want to be 50%, 100%, heck – 200% better? Why would we settle for a measly 1%?

That’s the siren call of setting ourselves up for failure. It sounds simple, but the magic of incredible growth is this: start small and show up every day.

These are the many benefits to the 1% better approach:

1) Easier to Track 

Becoming 1% better is more manageable than going for big goals.

Think of a grand goal like “I’m going to be a master UX Designer in 1 year!”

This approach to goal-setting is debilitating because “becoming a master” is hard to measure, and having expectations like this can actually be debilitating.

On the other hand, going for small wins like making 1 wireframe a day is concrete and achievable. Getting a small win becomes simply a matter of asking yourself a question “Did I make one wireframe today?” with a Yes/No answer. It’s something you can wrap your head around, and easy to track.

2) Keeps you in the game longer

Getting 1% better is about making a long term, durable system that lasts.

One of my new favorite bloggers this year, James Clear, talks about how using a system is much more sustainable than aiming for goals:

And that’s why systems are more valuable than goals. Goals are about the short-term result. Systems are about the long-term process. In the end, process always wins.James Clear

The thing about goals is that once you’ve reached them, one can be demoralized that there’s nothing left…or that it takes so much energy to come up with a new goal.

But with a robust enough system, you can stay in the game for a long – maybe even indefinite – amount of time.

3) Enjoy the journey 

When you put one foot in front of the other and don’t stress about the path 5 miles ahead, you’ll be surprised at how far you can go.

Becoming 1% better helps you enjoy the journey, rather than obsess about the outcome.

Let me tell you a real life story (with fake names) to drive the point home:

George is a smart guy but couldn’t find his direction after college. After graduating, he squandered half a year chilling at his parents house, until his mother and friends urged him to apply to a job – any job. They said that just getting out of the house and working at a local business could be good for him.

But he didn’t want to work a job below his intelligence – he was an engineering graduate, after all. He wanted to work for big companies like Boeing or Tesla, but didn’t have the work experience to get those jobs. So instead of starting somewhere – even if it wasn’t a glamorous job – he’d rather do nothing until the dream job lands in his lap.

Work harder than you’re willing to dream

The larger and more undefined a goal, the bigger the fear of failure, which leads to bigger inaction. The alternate path? Start small, start somewhere, and keep going.

By focusing on getting 1% better little by little, we take advantage of the compounding effect. Just as a small amount of money will grow to a huge sum if it compounded every day, the habits and skills we want can be achieved if we chipped away at it with daily practice.

 

Part 2: Becoming a 1% Designer

The entire article has been set up to arrive at this section: what are some actionable things you can do every day to become a better designer?

Here’s a process you can follow:

1) Pick a skill you want to get better at.

It can be wireframing, visual design, HTML, whatever floats your boat.

2) Determine how much effort you’d like to set to that goal.

Ideally, choose an input effort like “I’ll spend 30 minutes a day making wireframes,” whereas an output effort is “I’ll make a wireframe every day.”

Input goals lower your stress and help you stay consistent. You’re more in control of how much time you spend on something than you are in how fast you can complete it. This also removes the guilt of creating something you’re not happy about.

3) Set an initial tracking period.

1 week (7 days straight) is a good start. Allow for adjustment, meaning that at the end of 7 days you reflect on the effectiveness of your approach. Perhaps 30 minutes of practice a day is too little and you want to adjust up to an hour. Or perhaps you decide the goal is not worth pursuing, and you want to switch to another one.

Adjusting as you go is fine. Some people feel a lot of guilt for not sticking to a goal, but this process encourages to you evaluate your goals quickly and gives you a guilt-free way out.

4) Track your progress

Use Google Sheets or app like Coach.me to track your progress quickly.

Can you give me some UX specific examples?

If you’re a budding UX Designer, here are some 1% goals that can make a big difference over the long run:

  • Read 30 minutes of a UX or design book every day
  • Go to 1 design event every week
  • Read 1 design article a day
  • Look at 1 new website or app a day and write down why you like it
  • Learn 1 new UX term a day

Jennifer Dewalt made quite a buzz last year by making 180 Websites in 180 Days. That’s pretty hardcore, and I’m not sure if many people can replicate an effort like that (also, she was doing that full time).

Specifically for new UX Beginners, I have a beta course called UNBOX which helps you practice wireframing. If you’re interested in getting hands on practice, you can check out UNBOX on my Gumroad page.

So there you have it, an entire approach and system to becoming a 1% designer. Imagine a year from now, what becoming 1% better every day could do for you. Will you be a wireframing master? Will you have learned the ins and outs of information architecture?

I’m positive that with this approach, you will improve faster than you ever expected. And in a year, your friends will also say “Wow! You’e come a long way.”

Set Higher Expectations for Yourself

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On the drive home today, I listened to an incredible episode of This American Life (you can listen to it directly for free).

The story is about Daniel Kish, a blind man who bikes, runs, and operates just as freely as those who can see.

But this story is much more about a blind man. It’s about the power of expectation. 

Expectations affect students, children, soldiers, in measurable waysCarol Dweck

Allow me to regurgitate two examples from the podcast of how people’s expectations about others – and themselves – shape society.

Example 1

Researchers took a bunch of random mice and split them into 2 groups. They told a cohort of people that Group 1 was made of intelligent mice. They told another cohort that Group 2 was comprised of stupid mice.

With mice in both groups being essentially the same, the intelligent mice outperformed the stupid mice in a maze experiment by 2 times.

The conjecture? Because the cohort handling Group 1 had higher expectations of the mice, they handled the mice more carefully, which correlates with higher performance in the mice.

Example 2

Lots of blind children from an early age are shipped off to schools for the blind. It makes sense at first, but at many of these institutions, the children are essentially taken care of to such a degree that they don’t develop the independence to navigate the world themselves.

The subtle message being repeated: you’re blind, you can’t do that. 

But Daniel Kish, the blind man who bikes, had a different fate. Early on, Daniel’s mother made a conscious decision to allow him to play, explore, and thrive – at the risk of accident and injury (which happened).

But because Daniel grew up with a different set of expectations – one that he can navigate the world just like anyone else – he was able to leapfrog his peers.

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How to Set Higher Expectations for Yourself

None of the above is directly related to UX or design, but as you might have already guessed – this theory of expectancy can affect all aspects of life. We’re going to look at how to leverage high expectations for your professional benefit.

1. Believe in others 

When I was younger and more immature (some might argue I’m still immature), I felt threatened by how much better someone else was than me. Then I’d think yeah, they’re good at X…but they suck at Y!

I’d proceed to make myself feel better with this petty inner monologue. Don’t do this.

Resist putting limitations on others. Resist judging others. Often times you’ll find that the most judgmental people are the most self-conscious and have low self esteem.

As Mark Manson, one of my favorite authors, incisively said how we judge others is how we judge ourselves.

At a certain point I decided it was more productive to see the potential in other people and have higher expectations in those around me.

This simple idea is a game changer for me…

The more you see potential in others, the more you can realize your own potential.

2. Surround yourself with good people

I’ve quoted Jim Rohn probably dozens of times since I discovered his mantra: “You are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with.” This is why having mentors can pay big dividends.

Seek good people who hold you to high standards. The A Players who have high expectations of you.

Conversely, you may have to cut some people out of your life.

This might mean physically moving out in a space where the people living with you aren’t conducive to your growth. This might mean quitting your job, or getting out of a bad relationship.

Emotional drain is no joke. Set higher expectations for yourself by getting yourself out of a bad place, and surround yourself with better people.

3. Give yourself opportunities

I finally caved and listened to Taylor Swift’s Blank Space. Two lines of her lyrics are particularly poignant:

Find out what you want / Be that girl for a month.

I took this to mean that if a guy wants date a girl with certain qualities he should try having those qualities himself.
(A friend later corrected this was a misinterpretation, but I don’t care.)

It’s whacky, but the lesson I took from this is that you can advance faster in your endeavors if you act like it’s already your job.

Want to be a manager? A designer? An entrepreneur? Act like it’s already your job – even if you don’t have the title. Think of the work you want to do eventually, and challenge yourself to do that type of work now.

This means finding opportunities to be what you want to be. Give yourself the opportunity of side projects, some late nights and long weekends.

You can carve out, little by little, the person you want to be.

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This blog is called UX Beginner because I want to help beginners transition into UX, and into their first UX job. This is tough position to be in – I’ve been through it myself. There’s a mountain of information to digest. If you’re transitioning from another career, somedays it may feel like you’re way behind, and everybody else just seems so much better.

Relax. Recognize that you can control only what you can control. The power is in your hands to expect more out of life.

I have high expectations of you. Have a great start to your 2015.