2 Pivotal Lessons on Identity for Designers


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-BasedEvent/Behavior Based
He’s a douchebagHe was acting like a douchebag today
I’m a lazy personI haven’t been motivated lately
You’re stupidYou 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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