Just get clear about what you’re about

When I was young, as young as 5, I wanted to be a diplomat. I had an uncle who was (and still is) a diplomat and so I had a model of what that really meant. When people asked me what I wished to be when I grew up, that’s what I’d tell them and when they inquired as to why, I learned early to lie and talk about all the travelling and speaking other languages. It was evident at an early age that what I found really interesting about diplomacy — helping people with differences get along to create something together — sounded stuffy and beyond a child’s understanding or grasp.

I regret immensely that I was so good at conforming. I think it’s because of this “skill”, my ease to quickly adapt and fit others’ expectations, that I ultimately did not pursue a career in diplomacy. Interestingly, I think this same characteristic would have produced a really valuable diplomat.

Over the past months I’ve been reflecting on my life and what I’ve done with it so far. It started from a professional standpoint, as I was trying to articulate what my job should be in the year ahead, and it extended to what I have accomplished as a person in this trajectory. It seemed like an inescapable analysis as I have worked over 50% of my life (I am 31 and I have worked continuously since I was 15).

I couldn’t tell you precisely why I became a user experience designer. I think now that it was an accident due to two factors: First, I came across the tools of design and was blown away by what they had to offer me – both intellectually and as practical approaches to do whatever it is I was doing. Second, I let my infatuation with the practice go as far as it would take me, rather than think of what it was that I wanted for myself out of this practice.

When I speak to other practitioners (and I have spoken to many over the last few months) about how they see me and what I have accomplished, I am humbled by kind words and appreciation. Those who worked directly with me tell me about what impact I had on their own work and how impressed they have been with certain abilities, such as making really complicated stuff digestible, managing difficult people and helping them turn around to a productive path, and being very organized (this last one being the most mystifying to me as I do not see myself this way at all).

Those with whom I interacted with in the design community at large tell me they appreciate certain perspectives I bring to discussions (even the define-the-damn-thing kind), specific advice I have given them through coaching or presentations, and have thanked me for my time above all (I’ve spent a significant amount of time over the past 8 years regularly volunteering on organizations and projects that are about advancing the practice of user experience design).

While it is truly nice to receive this feedback (Notice how all of this was affirming feedback. Believe me, the adjusting feedback comes immediately as things happen, with urgency and fervor, but never when you ask for feedback), I find myself incredibly dissatisfied with what I am doing.

I am proud of what I have accomplished so far and I feel confident about my abilities, but as I look back I believe I have forgotten what it is that I wanted to do. So much so I am uncertain if I knew that in the first place. Maybe I just need reminding, but I’m trying to resolve this now and I am finding it difficult. I’ve received really great advice from very smart people I am lucky to know and before I sat down to write this I decided to re-listen to a recording of Harry Max’s IA Summit talk in 2010. He talks about developing strategies and how designers already possess the tools needed for that job. In the last minute of the talk, Harry shares this:

If you know where you’re going, amazing things can happen. AMAZING things can happen.

And so, it’s profoundly useful not just to recognize that you have these cool tools at your disposal, and not that you can do strategy and you can do design and you can do this and you can do that. None of that on some level really matters. What matters is that if you have a sense of where you want to go, and you hold a crystal-clear vision of it (not in that “The Secret” kind of way, but more in that kind of “just get clear about what you’re about” and get clear about what success is for you, and get clear about what successes is for your organization), you have the tools that you need, the gaps are relatively small.

If you can identify what those gaps are, go close them. Learn the tools, read the books, it doesn’t really matter. You’re way ahead of where you think you are right now. Way ahead.

And, what matters is asking good questions, showing up in a non-judgmental way with an open heart and recognizing that you are now a participant in the process of creating the kind of world you want to live in.

I rewound that minute and listened to it 8 times. And another two times so I could transcribe it here (I HIGHLY recommend you listen to this talk. The transcribed part starts at 1:28:41).

I feel like it speaks to my frustration so clearly I could not find better words; I feel as well equipped do get stuff done as I could possibly be and yet, the “just get clear about what you’re about” seems very fuzzy. I feel no joy or enthusiasm in being this “ready to attack”.

So, that’s what I have been working on.

9 thoughts on “Just get clear about what you’re about

  1. Vicky

    Hi Livia,

    Thanks for writing this! It’s a great call-to-arms to stop and think whether we’re actually doing what we want to be doing. I try to check in with myself every quarter year (if not at the end of each month, which is today), to see what I’m doing and how it relates to where I want to be. I’ve only had enough self-clarity to do this for just over a year, but now find it invaluable as a way to make sure I’m not just losing time.

    Funnily enough, I’ve just finished reading a (must less inspiring, but practical) article on doing a SWOT analysis on your own career http://www.careerealism.com/swot-analysis-career/ . A nice little follow-on, methinks.

  2. John Labriola

    Great personal and insightful piece Liv. One those that I think causes others to pause and reflect.

    I am in the middle of a big transition in my life and career. It all seems to be happening so fast that sometimes I feel like I have no control and if it is working out it is luck. But about 2 weeks ago I sat and reflected on what is happening and thought no, it is not out of control or luck.

    I have set goals for myself and pointed in myself in a certain direction, the things that are happening to me are happening, because I enabled them. And now I am trying to get through this transition and in a few months when I am settled will think about the next path.

    Thanks for the inspiration!

    And thanks for sharing the link to that talk, queuing it up now.

  3. Natalie Hanson

    Livia – I caught this when you re-posted to Twitter. It is great that you’re doing this kind of self-reflection, and I love the idea of using the tools of design strategy to work through it. I will definitely listen to Max’s talk. So, first of all, thanks for sharing! When I got to a similar point in my life, I was lucky enough to find a life coach who stepped me through some exercises which really help me get clear – and ultimately manifest – what I wanted. I just found I couldn’t get there without a thinking partner. I’ve become too accustomed to collaborative working approaches, maybe. :) If you’re interested you can read more about that process on my blog – http://nataliehanson.wordpress.com/2009/09/11/my-journey/. Good luck! Natalie

  4. Livia Post author

    Thanks for the comments everyone.

    Vicky — I like SWOT analysis as a business tool so a couple of years ago I tweaked and used it as the framework for my team’s annual reviews. It was a little weird a first, but I thought it was helpful (specially because I had to review 10 people in a short period of time) and our goals were moving targets. SWOT allowed for more flexibility and helped me speak to long-term goals and interests of the team in addition to specific goals their performance was being measured on. While interesting, I did not use it again. I think it’s a great tool for assessing businesses and its circumstances, but I feel that people have too many other dimensions that are important where SWOT falls short.

    Natalie — Thanks for sharing your story. I’ve been experimenting with a number of different approaches in the past few months – from self-assessments, to workshops to coaching. I haven’t found something that helped me address my specific challenge – distinguishing what I WANT from what I CAN or think I SHOULD do.

    For anyone interested, I found this exercise interesting and helpful: http://www.stevepavlina.com/blog/2005/01/how-to-discover-your-life-purpose-in-about-20-minutes/ …though I was not able to reach the place the author describes myself. And here’s another one I came across last night: http://marthabeck.com/blog/?p=82 It only took a few minutes and helped me think through a few things.

  5. Kimberly

    Wow, you and I are in the same place, Livia. Maybe we should get lunch or dinner one of these days and talk.

  6. Anna Kalata

    Livia – Don’t be afraid to give yourself permission to change! That’s one of the major things I struggled with when deciding to start freelancing full-time. Go be awesome, whatever it is you decide to do.

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