I don’t think anyone wants to be a robot. But as we grow older we find ways to “automate” our lives in various ways, to make things easier, to be more efficient. It begins with the alarm clock. Then it may seep into how we shop at the grocery store — “Think in meals” — and you buy a specific amount of food that you consume throughout the week. Or it may be in how we dress, cue Steve Jobs’ black turtleneck.
But these automations have a certain cost. Serendipity can be lost. You can lose a sense of what makes you you, or what makes you most happy, balanced, and content.
To keep my humanity in a highly automated world, here are five things I need to do — some daily, some weekly — to stay balanced, to stay most me:
1. Spend me-time
Some people get energy from being with other people for long periods of time. Not me. To keep my energy and stay level-headed, I need time alone to think, to ponder.
It took me a long time to accept this. When I was in college I used to go out until 5am with friends because otherwise I’d be the outcast of the group. I’d think that if I didn’t hang out with them, then I would somehow miss out. But now, sometimes I go home right after having a great dinner with friends — they walk towards the clubs, I walk toward my bed. And my friends have learned to be fine with that. To be true to what I want, I need me-time.
Growing up, I’d spend a lot of time dancing alone in my bedroom. I loved putting on my headphones and going nuts.
As an adult, I thought this was childish, or just not what you’re supposed to do in your own apartment, when you’re not drunk or at a club. But I’ve realized in the past few months that I am much happier if I put on my favorite tunes and dance. I love doing it, it makes me happy, and this happiness makes me feel more like me.
3. Writing every day
Writing is a way for me to think. If I don’t write, my thoughts get cloudy; I become moody. Sometimes when I’m stressed I grab a paper journal out of my backpack and find a quiet place to write about how I’m feeling.
Since I started writing regularly on Medium and on this blog, I’ve been a lot happier, much more clear-headed. Writing is a way for me to connect with the world, and to connect with myself.
If I don’t work out within five days, I begin to feel antsy, like I have too much energy welled up inside my chest and I need to get it out. It doesn’t matter what I do — yoga, swimming, lifting weights — I just need to do something physical.
5. Shul go’in
I grew up religious, and since the last year and a half I’ve been going to shul regularly. It’s as if my soul knows where it needs to be and walks me directly to synagogue on Friday night, because it knows it needs to be there. If I don’t go to services for longer than a week, something feels off.
So, there you have it: my five things that keep me feeling happy and healthy.
And what about you? What do you need to do regularly to make you, you?
Adult life can be difficult. So many responsibilities thrown our way, so much to do day to day. But how do you still manage to carve out your own play space? But more than that, what is your playground in the first place?
I used to think a “playground” would be a particular room, a desk space, or even a cafe. Stephen King had his laundry room, Dani Shapiro has her library.
What I’ve discovered is that as an adult, my playground is not exactly a room, but rather an activity that helps my heart to grow. It’s where I can connect most with the me who I feel most comfortable being, the me who’s happiest when I have time to create and make.
Wherever I am - whether on a plane, in a train, or in the office - I can activate this safe sense of play just by focusing on what I love to do.
As kids, we were lucky. Kindergarten was etched into our daily schedule, and when the bell rang we ran out to play. Now, we must remember to ring that bell ourselves.
But how? Some of us are fortunate and have some parts of our work where we can experiment and play. For example, I love iterating through different design concepts or coming up with research questions- these activities create a sense of play for me. If you love your job, I bet you can find an activity within your role that allows you this sense of wonder and fun.
If you can’t find time or space to play in your work life, then carve in playtime in the early mornings, evenings, or on weekends. Whatever brings you joy, whether that’s knitting or painting or dancing - designate time for play. Don’t give up on the child within you, full of wonder and excitement for discovery.
It’s easy to lose sense of this playground. So much in the world is vying for our attention, our time. It’s almost as if there’s a conspiracy against allowing adults to activate their hearts by doing an activity that gives them a sense of wonder, a sense of play.
But there’s no conspiracy. You have the responsibility to the child within you to be bold and find your own playtime and space. To build in that sounding bell from kindergarten into your adult life schedule, to have the resolve to make time to play.
As kids we ran out of school to the merry-go-round or jungle gym. We ran to feel and express joy. I encourage you to find and run towards that playground of your very own making, where your heart can grow once again.
When is the right time to share work? I’ve struggled with this concept in the past, both as a designer and writer. Many blog posts and books have probably been written about this, I am sure. But nothing has resonated with me until I began asking myself: how present am I?
I’ve found the more work I show, the more present I feel. It’s like telling my small tribe of makers: “hey — I’m here!” And then following up with: “And where are you?” so that perhaps, just maybe, they can find me among the billions that are on this Internet-thing.
So here’s my little list of advice for how I’ve started to get the courage to be present and share my work. It may be helpful to you.
1. Stick to a schedule
Clicking ‘Share’ consistently makes you get used to getting out there and being present. Even if it’s not perfect, showing your work often can make you less sensitive to criticism and more importantly, allow others to get to know you and your craft.
How are others supposed to get to know you and your work if you’re under a stagnant layer of ambivalence or self-doubt? Sharing regularly builds a certain power, a fortitude — and this can help propel you forward.
If you want to produce work and find your creative tribe, you have to organize:
Start scheduling in regular time to work on your craft. Don’t be overly ambitious at first, keep your scheduled time attainable to give you more confidence as you progress. Start compiling lists of people you look up to. One of the lists I’ve created is called “Product Friends” — a spreadsheet of product designers, managers, and researchers whose work inspires or encourages me. I include information such as location, current company, portfolio or profile link, and how we’re connected (if such a connection exists).
3. Ask for feedback
Ask for help from strangers whose work or viewpoint you admire. This can sometimes be difficult, but if we’re going to get better, we need to ask people for help. But it’s not only about you, it’s also about helping them, too. You may have knowledge that they need as well.
But what if you’re a painter and don’t know any other painters? Or any other writers? Or interior designers? Then use social media like Instagram or Twitter or Pinterest, or go to art stores/schools, bookstores, poetry readings, home decorating shops — any which way, get out there. Get engaged and ask for help. You’ll need it.
4. Get gritty
As Angela Duckworth describes, grit is “the combination of perseverance and passion for longterm goals”. One must have a positive outlook and the stamina to do great work, and bar unhealthy habits from becoming a threat to bringing work forward.
Television shows, the news, social media, alcohol, dating apps, certain relationships — all of these can be devastating to your craft. You need to get a handle on them and understand how they’re affecting you and your ability to make your life’s work happen.
5. Show YOUrself
Don’t try to be anyone else besides you, because your own uniqueness is what people are looking for. In a world where everyone is slowly lurching towards sameness, do something different, make something only you can.
One such designer is Dani Balenson, whose Intercom and Haggadah work seems impeccably her own. Another unique designer is Alexis Hope, who organizes hackathons like “Make the Breast Pump Not Suck” to improve women’s healthcare.
But what if you don’t know who you are yet? Go to therapy, see a career coach, start meditating, and/or journaling. Or ask friends who know you best what they think. Be realistic about what you want and what you can accomplish. Don’t shoot for the stars, focus on what’s in your heart.
So what are you waiting for? Or better yet, where are you?
Thanks for reading! For a great book on this topic, check out Mike Rognlien’s “This Is Now Your Company” or Austin Kleon’s “Show Your Work”. If you’re a part of my creative tribe, send a DM and let’s connect! 👀🧞
What qualities does it take to be a good user researcher? Empathy, curiosity, active listening, (re)framing, persuasion, patience, experimental-mindset, neutrality, and tenacity. The ability to be comfortable both when the data are unclear and when one must make solid recommendations. The ability to suspend judgment, and to courageously serve as the voice of the user.
But aren’t these just qualities of being a good human? I think so.
A friend doesn’t call on your birthday? Wait to judge, perhaps they‘re having a crappy day. Your manager doesn’t agree with your argument? Reframe the problem, taking in account what she cares about. Yoga pose too difficult? Experiment with what you can do.
To be a better human is to understand not only those around you, but also yourself. How do you engage and relate to others? How can you get more out of your friendships and relationships by recognizing your own behavior?
The line between being a good human and good researcher can often seem blurry. Some years ago I worked for a group that disliked one of an adjacent team’s product features. They talked incessantly about how that other team didn’t understand what good product was because of a particular “annoying” feature. I then asked to do a part time research project for that team— poring over quantitative data and conducting user interviews. And what I found surprised me: my own team wasn’t being fair.
What the “annoying feature” team didn’t need was criticism, they needed help. When I showed my results to this team not only did they feel understood, but my research allowed them to see the problem anew, from a different, more refined angle. This gave them energy and allowed them to move forward in improving that feature.
Designers can be notorious in their criticism when Twitter or Uber or Facebook or Apple changes something visual or UX-wise, but they often don’t have the full context for why something was done, or the months and months of research that went into making that change happen. Don’t get me wrong: constructive criticism is OK, but simply tearing down others without asking questions and considering the possibility of good intentions is not.
For me, one of the most important qualities in a designer is empathy — not only for users, but for their engineering and product colleagues and their wider community. I’d like to think that everyone is doing their best to make a positive impact on others’ lives through putting better technology in the world. But perhaps that’s just the user researcher in me, trying to empathize, trying to understand.
Not all user researchers are good humans, and user research is not the only discipline that helps people become better. But I truly believe: to be a better human, think like a good user researcher.
Thanks for reading! If you’re ever in Zürich, let’s get coffee. ☕️ 😎
Research is a serious thing. Design is a serious thing. Life is a serious thing. But what good is any of it if you don’t love doing it? If you don’t enjoy practicing or living it? If you don’t show the fun in any of it?
It can be so easy to get bogged down in the details, the seriousness of the task. Kids to feed. Pixels to push. Stakeholders to please. But when activities feel like a slog, ask yourself: “where’s the fun? Where’s the enjoyment?”
Fun has a strong connection to uniqueness. If you smile or laugh it’s because something is a little off, a little kooky, perhaps a little weird or unexpected. And the world needs more of this.
A couple days ago I discovered a presentation by designer Meg Lewis giving a talk wearing moon shoes, bouncing around on rubber bands discussing her journey as a creator. Her design work is even more unique, something unexpected.
Similarly, design director Stewart Scott-Curran posted a heartfelt thread about his time at Intercom and the branding work they’ve done. For a product company focused on business to customer communication, it’s awe-inspiring to see the kind of work the Intercom Brand Studio produces — it’s distinct and fun.
But uniqueness and fun shouldn’t only be with branding or visual design, but also UX and research. In my own projects my team and I have tried to design in a way that shows the fun side of travel for those seeking to learn a language abroad. Product Designer Mara Goes incorporates delight into her UX work with colorful illustrations and transitions. Mara once showed me a case study she presented for a company and in the middle of it she snuck a picture of her dog Giddy — just to bring a smile to the reviewers’ faces. She got the job.
If you’re work can’t be fun per say, at least it can be approachable. Instead of a dry 40-slide Keynote, why not have your findings illustrated and posted by the coffee bar? Or make a video? Or a simple list of key findings backed by strong, empathy-inviting audio files? Seek out other ways to present to your stakeholders, that’ll communicate the user’s voice better, or findings more thoughtfully.
Whatever you’re doing, ask yourself: Where’s the fun? Where’s the uniqueness? Where’s the humanity?
Bring. It. On.
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