More thoughts by Karen McGrane
“My job shouldn’t be trying to convince you that I should get to do my job!” It’s one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard from when interviewing a design professional, someone toiling in obscurity in an organization that didn’t appreciate her work. Sure, they told her all the right things when they hired her. We know user experience is important. We need someone to help develop this practice. We value your perspective.
Except hiring someone to “do UX” never solves the bigger problem, which is always rooted in organizational culture and politics. Processes that are “the way we’ve always done it.” Values and business practices that aren’t aligned around the customer experience. And always, always, no support from the executives with the power to make change happen.
I told the students in my Design Management class this year that I hoped one day they’d be offered this job. Not in five years—they wouldn’t be ready. Maybe in fifteen years. See, some of the interesting problems in the world that need solving happen in organizations that don’t yet know how to value what we do. The smart ones will figure it out—with the help of the right change agents. I told my students that I hoped when they were offered that job, they’d know themselves well enough to assess whether they were the person to do it.
Your job is going to suck.
Not all the time, of course. But some of the time. You’re going to do things you don’t like, sometimes. You’re going to do things you don’t love, most of the time.
Imagine your dream job. Let’s say you want to be a rock star. A rock star! You love music, you love performing, you love fans, you love groupies. How much of your time do you spend actually doing what you love? Ten percent? Let’s be generous and say you spend twenty-five percent of your time actually being a rock star. A quarter of the time you spend working is spent actually performing music for your adoring fans, and reaping the other associated benefits.
What happens the rest of the time? Long lonely bus rides or plane rides to dreary towns, where you stay in faceless hotels. Frustrating arguments with bandmates. Interminable hours spent trying to write new music, questioning whether your next album will be as good as the last one. Soul-deadening meetings with corporate A&R types, the vampires of your industry. Self-doubt, magnified by the sharp words of music critics. Your job, it sucks.
And that’s if you’re a rock star. But the same is true (in varying proportions) whether you’re a waiter or a designer or a teacher or a developer.
Many of us are deeply committed to the work that we do, passionate about having found employment that so naturally maps to our skills, focused on making the world a better place by making better products for people to use. I’ve conducted hundreds of job interviews in my life, and I’ve developed an eye for the true believers. I joke that I can spot the naturals by the chip implanted in their brain that convinces them they were programmed from birth to think UX design is the perfect job for them.
And it’s not. It sucks. Some of the time.
If you’re doing work you like to do more than twenty-five percent of the time, you’re doing great. But I’m convinced the secret to real job satisfaction isn’t trying to maximize your time spent doing what you love. It’s learning to tolerate and accept the downsides. It’s being able to look the parts of the job you don’t like squarely in the eye and say “I can deal with you.”
Note that I didn’t say “love” the downsides. Or “embrace.” Or “transform into something you truly enjoy.” The parts of your job that suck are just that: sucky. You can’t wish them into something better. You are never going to like them.
Whatever it is about your job that you hate—whether it’s content inventories or detailed functional specifications or recruiting for usability tests or monthly invoicing or schmoozing potential clients at conferences—it doesn’t take away from the parts of your job that you truly love. Being frustrated that you sometimes have to do work that you hate shouldn’t make you question whether this is really the right job for you. If you’ve found work you enjoy (at least some of the time) then savor those times.
And quit bitching about the parts you hate. Everyone has them.
(This also holds true for your personal relationships, for the record.)
The best career advice I’ve ever gotten came from JP Maheu, who at the time was the CEO of Razorfish. We sat down to do my performance review and he gave me this gem:
“Figure out what it is that makes you really enjoy your work, and then make sure you get to do it.”
Many people, as they advance in their careers, move away from doing the thing that got them into the field. Designers stop designing, and start managing people. Developers stop coding, and start managing resources and budgets. One day, you look up from your computer monitor and ask yourself “Is this really what I want to be doing?”
For me, that moment happened when I realized that my whole job was resource management spreadsheets, staffing calls, hiring, and putting out fires. I got into this business because I wanted to design products, not manage operations.
I know I’m not alone in struggling to balance “making” with “managing.” I’ve talked with dozens of people who question how they can find the right split, particularly as their seniority grows and they’re asked to take on more responsibility. Some people alternate between the two, focusing for months or years on project and people management, and then make a deliberate choice to spend time designing or building. Others control their daily calendar to ensure a mix of the two.
What’s clear from everyone I’ve talked to is that striking your right balance won’t happen on its own. The demands of work will always pull you away from doing the activities that give you the most joy. You’re the only one who will make sure you get to do the things you really love. So be intentional about building those into your work life—each day, each month, each quarter, each year.
“How can you live with yourself?”
Everyone has been hurt by a loved one or close colleague, sometimes badly wounded. Callousness, lies, back-stabbings, betrayals—these knives pierce deep. The most damaging cuts come from the people we thought we could trust.
Truth is, none of us are saints. We’ve all hurt other people. How do you live with yourself, knowing you’ve damaged—even devastated—someone you care about?
Asking implies a simpler and yet more damning question: Do you have a conscience or not?
Most of us have a conscience. Conscience sits someplace closer than morals, more intimate to your self than external religious or legal dictums. It’s the still, small voice that speaks loudest in the middle of the night. It’s empathy and compassion, an inability to behave cruelly towards the people closest to you because you can imagine how you’d feel in their shoes. You strive to act honorably towards other people because you couldn’t live with yourself if you didn’t. Go against your conscience, and your feelings of regret, remorse, guilt, and shame remind you to act differently next time. The pain you feel when you violate your conscience ensures that you consider and respect other people.
Not everyone has a conscience. Like a small but vital subroutine absent from their operating system, some people simply don’t feel empathy, aren’t troubled by guilt. Remorse doesn’t wake them up at 3am. They know right from wrong—they just don’t care. Research shows that 3–4% of the population operates without a conscience:
About one in twenty-five individuals are sociopathic, meaning, essentially, that they do not have a conscience. It is not that this group fails to grasp the difference between good and bad; it is that the distinction fails to limit their behavior. —Martha Stout, The Sociopath Next Door
“Sociopath” makes you imagine a cold-blooded murderer, a serial killer who wears his victim’s skin as a hat. The reality of not having a conscience can be more mundane and more insidious. It’s the investor who buys a business by promising to help it grow and then shuts it down, destroying a life’s work. It’s the girlfriend who gives you a hug and tells you how much she cares about you while she stabs you in the back. It’s the husband who carries out multiple affairs, lying to his wife’s face and making her feel like she’s crazy for being suspicious. It’s the boss who takes credit for her employees’ accomplishments when they’re useful and fires them without a second thought when they’re not. It’s the freeloading boyfriend who gets his comfortable lifestyle provided by a string of girlfriends.
It’s someone who repeatedly and callously uses people as pawns, manipulating and deceiving and betraying them, who then walks away without so much as a backwards glance when she gets what she wants—what she believes she’s entitled to.
People without a conscience are usually quite charming, glowing with charisma. People who behave horribly don’t wear a sign around their necks to warn you. Just the opposite. Their social skills are like prosthetic devices, learned behaviors to help ingratiate themselves with the rest of us. They teach themselves how to build a false sense of intimacy; they learn how to play off your pity.
With one in twenty-five odds, chances are you’ve met a few sociopaths in your life. Even if you think this phenomenon must be more rare—say, one in a hundred? One in a thousand? They’re still out there. If you’ve met someone whose behavior left you gasping “how can you live with yourself?” the answer might very well be that they just don’t have the inner sensibility that keeps them in check. They run roughshod over the rest of us, because they simply don’t feel pangs of remorse.
This difference between normal emotional functioning and sociopathy is almost too fantastic for those of us with conscience to grasp, and so for the most part, we refuse to believe such a hollowness of emotion can exist. And unfortunately, our difficulty in crediting the magnitude of this difference places us in peril. —The Sociopath Next Door
There is no reasoning with a sociopath. He’s not going to grow a conscience because you explain his behavior was wrong; she’s not going to feel compassion when you tell her how much she hurt you. The only answer is to walk—no, run—away. Cut your losses, and don’t look back.
Around this time of year back in 2011 I was working with Jeff Eaton, preparing to speak at Duo Consulting’s WebContent conference, the theme of which was “Going Mobile.” I recall Eaton saying to me “This would be a lot easier if either of us knew anything about mobile.”
Truth was, mobile intimidated me. I liked the desktop web. I understood the desktop web. I’d made a career out of being an expert on how the desktop web should work, and I didn’t want to learn a whole new way of doing business. “Leave that for the next generation,” I thought to myself. “Mobile’s not for me.”
Eaton was valiantly trying to explain to me how a CMS could support multi-channel publishing via an API, and I just wasn’t getting it. He used metaphors (“imagine the API is a straw sucking out the content”) and probably even resorted to hand puppets acting out a short play. I felt dumb, frustrated, out of my league.
And I had a flash of insight, one that transformed how I approach my work:
If I feel so clueless talking about content on mobile, think how everyone else must feel.
See, I get this stuff. I have never done anything else! I’ve been a practicing information architect and content strategist for going on 20 years. I have a graduate degree in technical communication and HCI. I’ve worked with every major CMS out there, led projects for dozens of publishers. I grok how content works online at an almost cellular level.
I don’t say that to talk myself up—just the opposite. I was struggling to understand something that intimidated me, something I knew was important to my work, and I was scared.
And I felt compassion. Compassion for everyone out there, struggling with the same challenges on mobile. That flash of insight connected me with genuine empathy for all the people, all the businesses that have to understand and adapt and make decisions about how to move onto this new platform.
They’re scared. They’re afraid of making a wrong decision. They’re worried that they’ll waste money and time, developing a solution that customers don’t want. They’re overwhelmed by too much information, too many competing perspectives. How is mobile different from the desktop? Are apps the answer? Is responsive design just a fad? Back the wrong horse, and risk an embarrassing, public failure.
Our clients, our co-workers, our bosses and stakeholders: they are sick of the internet. The pace of change doesn’t stop. They don’t know who to trust to help them make the right decision. There are so many ways to get it wrong, and so few obvious right answers.
Have a little compassion. Be nice to them. They have a hard job.
As a result of this flash of compassion, I am doing the best work of my life. My motivation to write and speak and consult on content strategy for mobile comes from a deeper place, inspired by a genuine desire to make a hard problem easier for other people to understand. I know what it feels like to be scared and to be afraid of getting it wrong, and that empathy informs how I engage with my clients and the community.
If I can understand it, they can too.
Here are the dates of Karen McGrane's future thoughts
- Saturday, 8 June
- Monday, 8 July
- Thursday, 8 August
- Sunday, 8 September
- Tuesday, 8 October
- Friday, 8 November
- Sunday, 8 December