Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman is a maker of awesomeness and a doer of good. She is a designer, speaker, author, and educator. As such, she connects industry, education, and community. Leslie is Co-founder of Center Centre and the Unicorn Institute, where she works to improve the state of design education. Creative Director and Co-Author of InterACT with Web Standards: A holistic approach to web design, Leslie has written numerous articles for publications such as A List Apart and .net.
Reflective practice: Living an inquiry-based life
Our actions may speak louder than our words, however, it’s in our words where we discover the meaning of our actions.
The details, that often go unnoticed as we experience them, are the keys to understanding the essence of ourselves. And it’s through written reflection of our actions that we uncover the details of our experiences.
The learning process is both active and reflective. We learn by doing and we learn by reflecting on what we have done. True, transformative learning—learning that engages our entire being, that changes who we are, that stays with us throughout our lifetime—requires both action and reflection on action.
Written reflection exercises provide us the opportunity to process our experiences in authentic and meaningful ways. Written reflections allow our experiences to move from things we have done to things we have learned. When we think about, reflect upon, and write about our experiences, we capture the greatest amount of knowledge.
A journey of meaning is guided by a search for answers. Living an inquiry-based life means living a life filled with questions. We truly engage in the entire lifecycle of the learning process when we answer questions like:
- What is the most important thing I learned today?
- What unanswered questions do I have as I finish this day?
- What went well?
- What did not go so well?
- What can improve in the future?
- How can I integrate what I learned from this experience into my life?
- How will what I have learned from this experience change the way that I think about my life?
- How will what I have learned from this experience change the way that I approach my life?
Recording—in a written format—answers to these types of questions allows us to both focus and expand our thoughts. We are able to focus our thoughts on specific experiences while gaining a broader understanding of how those specific experiences fit into a larger whole.
Reflection on action doesn’t need to be complicated. It just takes a little time and practice. Today, choose a reflective question and spend 15 minutes answering it. If you finish answering the question before 15 minutes is complete, move onto another reflective question and answer it. Then repeat the process tomorrow, the next day, and the day after that. The answers don’t need to be written in full sentences, the punctuation doesn’t need to be correct, and there is no right or wrong answer. It’s the act of thinking and writing about your experiences that is important. When you do this, you’re on your way to living an inquiry-based life.
All it takes is 15 minutes each day, for about 66 days to form a habit. Forming the habit of maintaining a reflective practice allows us to find the patterns of our lives and provides us the perspective we need to live a life where we make awesomeness and do good. Reflection allows us to learn from what has been, why what is, and how things can be.
This past year, through The Pastry Box, I’ve shared thoughts that started out as reflections. These fully-formed thoughts started out as short, 15-minute free writing exercises that answered reflective questions. Sometimes I start by writing my reflections in a notebook and other times I write them on the computer (my favorite application for this is Day One). I use what is convenient and what feels right at the time.
Living an inquiry-based life has allowed me to construct meaning from the experiences I’ve had. This past year has been filled with high highs and low lows, such is the way of life. Reflecting on these experiences and the experiences of my life have changed my life. I learned: it was time to take back math; my misshapen back has shaped my life; curiosity is an integral part of making; to surround myself with people who wear different shoes; to be comfortable with being untitled; since time travel isn’t real (yet), accepting my time is limited is important; community is at the heart of our industry; to be where my feet are; to work hard at being fortunate; to ask the follow-up question; and, leadership is based on relationships. Maintaining a reflective practice has changed what I understand about me and my experiences. And sharing what I’ve learned with you has created additional meaning in my life.
I challenge all of us to maintain a reflective practice and to live an inquiry-based life. Then, let’s share what we’ve learned. You don’t need to be a contributor to The Pastry Box to do this—you just need to be a contributor to your own life. And then share your reflections and what you learn with others so they may reflect on their lives as well.
It’s pretty amazing to share our experiences and the meaning that surfaces from them with others. We more fully become aware of ourselves, our dreams, our goals and we help others to more fully become aware of themselves, their dreams, and their goals.
By performing the act of writing down our words, and reflecting on those words, our actions really do speak louder than our words.
When I was a university professor, I knew people saw me as the leader of the courses I taught. It makes sense. Professor = leader, right? However, I was never fully comfortable with this role because I never saw my role as the all-knowing sage on stage. Instead, I saw my role as a connector. I was there to help connect disparate pieces, to bring them together, and to help make sense of the beautiful chaos that exists in design, technology, business, and art.
My goal was to help students learn how to learn instead of telling them exactly what to learn. In doing this, I helped students discover the patterns of learning and, I hope, guided them to a path of lifelong learning. I served as counselor/education optimizer, communicator, project manager, and learning coach. Although, I often lead the class, I was not the leader. l was a facilitator of learning and leadership.
We talk a lot about leadership…design leadership…ux leadership…all kinds of leadership. Leadership is a word that is often used and often defined in many different ways. A quick Google search of “define: leadership” returns 325,000,000. Click on “More” to reveal the dictionary definition of leadership:
- The action of leading a group of people or an organization
■ different styles of leadership
- The state or position of being a leader
■ the leadership of the party
- The leaders of an organization, country, etc
■ a change of leadership had become desirable
- The ability to lead skillfully
■ they hailed DuPont’s courage and leadership.
Although this definition might accurately define leadership, it does not define the nuanced relationship we have with the concept and action of leadership. For that, we need to go beyond the dictionary definition—we have to delve deeper. A definition that more fully describes the complex relationship we have with leadership is Joseph Rost’s “four essential elements” of leadership:
- The relationship is based on influence.
- Leaders and collaborators are the actors in this relationship.
- Leaders and collaborators intend real changes.
- The changes the leaders and collaborators intend reflect their mutual purposes.
The relationship is based on influence.
Leadership is based on relationships—the relationships between influence, people, and intentions. Leadership is not a role, but an action. As Paul Schmitz said, “Leadership is an action everyone can take, not a position few can hold.”
We need to help students, employees, and colleagues develop their leadership skills. One way we do this is by stepping back and encouraging others to step forward. When we move away from thinking, “I am a leader, therefore, I must lead,” we allow other people to bring their unique perspective to the problems we are trying to solve.
When we step back to allow others to step forward, we acknowledge that all people within the group have the potential to influence all of the other people within the group. This gives every member the opportunity to persuade others to follow a specific course of action.
Leaders and collaborators are the actors in this relationship.
Leaders and collaborators—every person within a group—have the opportunity to influence the directions the group moves. This means that there is not a single person who serves as the leader, leaving the remaining group members to be followers. Instead, every person is a leader and a collaborator. And each person’s role may change throughout the course of the relationship with the group. Although, all group members have the potential to influence the choices the group makes, not all members will have equal influence.
However, leadership is an act that can be performed by anyone, if they are given the opportunity and support to cultivate leadership skills. By providing a safe place to practice skills, like meeting facilitation and group critique, students, employees, and colleagues begin to understand that their ideas hold merit and their voices can be heard. As their confidence grows, they begin to teach each other new skills, facilitate discussions, and lead critiques. Students, employees, and colleagues begin to understand that they have influence with colleagues and even professors and managers.
Leaders and collaborators intend real changes.
In order for leadership to occur both leaders and collaborators must truly be working towards meaningful transformation. However, changes do not have to be implemented in order for leadership to happen. A group only needs to intend to make substantial changes for leadership to take place.
We see this a lot with projects we start but never complete. For example, a project might be a clever, new solution but then another company or person launches a similar idea before we can get ours to market. If there was the intention of real change, even if only during a period of working towards launching a solution, there was the potential for true leadership.
The changes the leaders and collaborators intend reflect their mutual purposes.
When we embrace the four essential elements of leadership, we become liberated. We no longer have to be the leader of everything. This allows us to see challenges from different vantages. We can perform acts of leadership as the professor of a course and students can also perform acts of leadership. For example, instead of leading every class discussion, educators can allow students to share a new resource they’ve found and lead a class discussion about the resource.
In this example, allowing students to share resources ensures the changes to the course curriculum reflect what they find important and meaningful. This gives students the ability to feel ownership within the course. Thus, encouraging them to engage in future leadership actions.
We can perform acts of leadership as the design lead, project lead, or manager and those people who serve in roles that appear under our roles in an organization chart can also perform acts of leadership.
We become enablers of leadership instead of the only people who have the authority, responsibility, and ability to lead. This also allows the people we work with to be more invested in the work we’re doing together and the relationships we’re building together because they know they play an important role in the working relationship.
This understanding empowers people to take initiative and perform great acts of leadership. People start to share their ideas and skills with the group. They begin to lead meetings, discussions, and critiques. They begin to encourage other group members to take a more active role. All of this combined, provides us more flexibility with our teams because we can trust that teammates will step up and lead. We no longer need to lead everything, therefore we can focus our attention on specific tasks that need to get finished.
By encouraging students, employees, and colleagues to perform acts of leadership we help our industry grow and mature. And when we help others practice their leadership skills, we are in turn sharpening our own leadership skills. When we let go of the idea that only leaders can lead, we open ourselves to a world where leadership is nurtured, developed, and shared.
“We’re going to a village of 20,000 people in France where everyone is naked!” The woman, who I had never met, confided in me as she was placing her carry-on items onto the conveyor belt to be x-rayed. She was traveling with her husband. Their age well exceeded mine. The husband’s left leg was made of metal and molded plastic and she was bouncing with excitement.
“Is this your first time?” I curiously asked.
“It’s our first time to this nudist village but not our first time. I have stories to tell you…” The women—who I just met less than five minutes ago—proceeded to share their naked escapades.
When I travel, I always bring a book with the intention of being able to read while waiting for the plane to arrive and while inflight. However, I rarely get to read as much as I intend. Instead, I get into conversations with complete strangers who tell me very personal details of their lives. For example, on two different flights in one day, I had two separate women tell me about their hysterectomies. I hadn’t asked anything specific that would lead both women to share this very personal experience, but they both did.
I shared these and other examples of stories that have been told to me with a friend. I wondered if he had similar experiences. He clearly explained, “People share things with you because you ask the follow-up question.”
This gave me pause. It’s true. I find people’s stories interesting and I always ask a follow-up question. Then sometimes I ask a few more. Other times, I just actively listen and people talk to me about whatever they feel like sharing.
It can be a little overwhelming at times. My husband, who rarely asks me for anything, asks that I don’t even make eye contact on long, international flights. He knows if I do, we’re in for 13+ hours of listening to strangers tell stories. And even for me, that’s a bit much. But on shorter flights, I enjoy listening to what people want to share.
People like to share. People need to share. And we need to listen more. We need to listen better. If you’re intentionally performing acts of good each day, some of those good deeds can be the simple act of listening to others. So ask the follow-up question and truly listen to the answer. You never know what the response might lead to. It might even lead to stories that seem very relevant to what you’re working on or what you’re working through.
Another example on a recent flight, my rowmate was a newly retired female airplane mechanic. Our plane was very delayed and we sat on the runway long enough that the flight attendants were able to do a full drink service. In other words, we sat on the runway for hours and then had a few hours of inflight time together. She talked with me about her personal life and her professional work. She shared stories about her transition from a gate agent, which was a common job for a woman in the 1970’s to being an airplane mechanic which was a very uncommon job for a woman in the 1970’s (and even now it’s uncommon for women). She was the only woman in a team of all men. The stories she shared resonated and reminded me that we have a long way to go in diversity and equality in many fields.
I participate in these momentary, fleeting relationships that delve deep very quickly. Maybe it’s the safety of believing we’ll never see that person again. Or maybe it’s the anonymity of not knowing a person’s name that drives the conversation deeper and more quickly than it may normally would. But I’ve come to realize that the reason people share their lives with me is because I ask follow-up questions and I actively listen to their responses.
Work hard at being fortunate
I keep finding myself saying “I’m so fortunate. I’m so lucky.”
It’s something I think and feel each and every day. The thing is, thinking and feeling I’m fortunate and lucky kind of feels crazy. Crazy because this week, this month, and this year have been filled with chaos and challenges.
Earlier this year, I ended up in bed sick for about three weeks. I had a severe case of sinusitis which meant I couldn’t smell and my entire body felt like there were spiders crawling underneath my skin (a side-effect of the medication). I couldn’t drive or leave the house because the medication was so strong that it altered my vision and motor function. During this time my husband flew 1,300 miles away to help his mom through cancer treatments, all while other members of my family were going through a similarly difficult time plagued with destructive illness. It was a time filled with lots of chaos and challenges. The weird thing was, I still felt lucky.
Through these experiences, I gained perspective on things like: time, health, and relationships. Sometimes, life stinks and sometimes it seems especially odoriferous. Even still, I wake every day and think to myself, “I’m so fortunate. I’m so lucky.” This year has been tough but I am fortunate to have gained: perspective, patience, and understanding. I am fortunate to be surrounded by good people.
I may feel lucky, but I don’t really believe in luck. I do believe that I can feel lucky and I can be perceived to be lucky. I believe working hard leads to good fortune—that being prepared for opportunity and being ready to embrace it makes you seem lucky to those around you, even when your world is upside down.
Many of us in our industry are perceived as lucky. However, we are not here today, collaborating on exciting projects and exploring new worlds, because we are lucky. We are here because we wanted more. We wanted more from life and we’ve been willing to put forth the effort to accomplish this.
How we roll, as an industry, is by rolling up our sleeves and getting stuff done. We jump in headfirst and we submerse our entire beings into our work. So much so, that our lives and work are interwoven into one tangled, beautiful mess.
And when we can’t find opportunity, we make it. What did comedian Milton Berle once say: “If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door”? We are an industry made of people who build doors for ourselves and for others. Then, we take steps to open the doors and cross over the thresholds—often crossing thresholds together.
In life, we are faced with a variety of doors that we can walk through. Some are heavy—really heavy—and we cannot open them ourselves. This is when we call on our friends, family, and colleagues to let them know our goals and to let them know that we need assistance in opening a door, a door that will lead us on a new journey and bring more opportunities.
Most people want to help and by allowing them to help, we give them the opportunity to feel good about themselves. We allow them to make a positive difference in our lives. My friends, family, and colleagues supported me when I was sick and faced serious life challenges. These same people know that when they need me to provide extra support for them, I will be there—wherever their “there” may be.
When we start and end each day by focusing on things that make us feel fortunate, we begin to frame our lives in a way that seems fortunate. Instead of falling victim to my circumstances, I view this year’s sickness, chaos, and challenges as opportunities. It’s up to me to take these situations and apply what I’ve learned to my life. It’s up to me to recognize when opportunity is knocking, even when it is disguised as chaos. This type of framing allows me to better handle life’s tough situations. Life has a way of finding balance—that painful moments are oftentimes mirrored by exciting opportunities. This awareness helps me prepare for the fun and the not-so-fun aspects of life.
Let’s take our tangled beautiful messes, and: support each other through tough times, help each other frame our lives through a lens of feeling fortunate, and remind each other that even the chaos and challenges are filled with opportunities for learning and growth.
We aren’t lucky. We work hard at being fortunate.
A thought can start out as a snowflake and quickly snowball into an avalanche. This process of thought escalation happens to a lot of us creative folks. I notice this happens to me when the veiled illusion of control over my life is lifted. Reality is exposed: there are a lot of things in life I have little control over. This is when thoughts as small as a snowflakes clump together to form rough weather in my mind.
This escalation in rough weather, formed by fear and anxiety, doesn’t just happen to us, we allow it to happen to us. The one thing we have any real control over is our thoughts. When the veiled illusion of control is ripped away exposing the nerve (that is, my fear) to the elements (the reality of life) I’m in control of what I do with my thoughts.
When I feel in limbo and feel I have no control over anything, I remind myself to be where my feet are.
I say these five words to myself. Then, I press my feet onto the floor and ground myself. I feel my feet firmly planted on the ground and I’m grateful that I have two feet. I’m grateful that I have the strength, ability, and life to be able to press them to the ground.
I become fully present in the moment and stop thinking about the “what ifs” or the “whens.” Instead, I’m mindful of my present state. I’m aware of me. I’m aware of where my feet are. I’m aware that I’m alive and that’s way better than the alternative. I am grateful. I am present. I am just me, in that moment. I do not have to be surrounded by swirling cold winds carrying snow and inclement weather. I create a momentary oasis that allows me to breathe in the warmth of life and breathe out the cold of fear.
However, I can’t just press my feet to the ground and visualize a peaceful oasis all day. Although that would be nice, I have work to do. I’ve come to realize I feel more relaxed when I can find a way to create an effective process for a task I often repeat. Below is one of the processes I’ve adopted and adapted that helps me get things done, so I can focus on being present.
I use Trello, a free online organizational tool, to help me sort out much of my life. It works both in my professional and personal life, which is good because the two blur the edges so often that I rarely know the difference. Oh, and I don’t have anything to do with Trello. The folks there don’t know how much I love their product, unless they’re reading this now.
One day, I needed to relax so I started researching an effective process for a repeated task using Trello. I came across this post by Angela Bowman, How to Manage Your Physical, Mental, and Creative Space With Trello.
I was really interested in what Angela wrote about how space affects creativity and how to manage space using Trello. She made a lot of sense, and reading the post by Jeff Goins that Angela referenced helped clarify things even further. Jeff describes the three spaces in our creative lives like this:
- Physical space: There is a relationship between the place you work and the work you do.
- Mental space: If your mind is consumed with worries and concerns—pending deadlines and to-do items—you won’t be thinking clearly.
- Spiritual space: Creativity is a spiritual act, a work of the heart. If my internal life is messy, can you imagine what that means for what I’ll create? You guessed it—a mess.
I like the ideas of different spaces and how they affect your creativity. I’ve always believed this and known it to be true in my own life. When my physical space is messy, I know my emotional space is messy. But I’ve never used this idea of spaces in my to-do lists before. Since reading these articles, I started to use this concept in practice and it really worked for me. I started to get more to-do items done and I felt a lot more grounded in all of my spaces. There’s something really satisfying about moving cards (how you make to-do items in Trello) around on Trello. I like the way it’s so visual. I like how easy it is to see the pacing of my day, of my life. I like being able to see where in the three spaces of my life there is a potential bottleneck.
I’ve made a slight adjustment to the three spaces concept. I’ve added a separate mental space for both my personal and my professional life. Even though my personal life and my professional life are very interweaved (and I don’t believe in life-work balance, just life balance), I found myself needing a separate mental space to-do list for each. This might be because when the lists get really long, I feel more stressed out. However, it doesn’t stress me out to have two separate lists next to each other. (This is probably some sort of psychology thing that is the complete opposite for other people.)
If you try this, I suggest that you do what works for you. That’s the beauty of Trello, you make it be what you need it to be. Nothing more. Nothing less. Just a little slice of organization heaven, right there own your screen.
Something else I should note, my professional mental space list isn’t filled with work project to-do’s. I keep those in Basecamp because I work with a team of people and we use Basecamp to collaborate on our projects. Instead, for my professional mental space, I make cards that are more about details for speaking, writing, and my personal/professional websites that live outside our team projects. Often, I’m the only one responsible for getting these details accomplished.
I’ve found that most of the things I need to do to keep balance in my creative/emotional/spiritual space are the same everyday. So I’ve added cards for these items and I don’t even bother checking them off the list, because I know I will need to do these things again. My creative/emotional/spiritual space to-do’s are:
- Write Morning Pages
- Be where your feet are
- Kern something
- Do one of four good deeds for the day
- Take a walk
- Create an effective process for a repeated task
- Be mindful
- Do water aerobics
- Read a physical book
- Answer: How did I make awesomeness and do good today?
- Write daily reflection
When I start feeling like a snowflake is snowballing into an avalanche, I choose one of these things to do and I do it, right away. I don’t wait until I’m buried by emotional snow because that’s a real mess to clean up. After I choose a to-do in my creative/emotional/spiritual space, I move onto another item in another space and get it done.
Creativity happens when we make room for it to happen, when our spaces aren’t cluttered. Using this system helps me stay grounded and, at the same time, it allows me to move forward. I do my best to remember to be where my feet are and when I forget, I have a to-do item that reminds me.
Wonder Woman Underoos—children’s underwear that looked like a superhero uniform. I didn’t just wear my Underoos. And I didn’t pretend I was saving the world by myself. I had a partner in crime, my friend Thomas, complete with his very own Spider-Man Underoos. We were a team. We worked together to save the world in our own four-year-old kind of ways.
One summer day, we saved a slug that had made its way onto the hot paved driveway. The slug couldn’t find a way back to safety (aka the yard). Our challenge: work together to figure out how to relocate the slug without hurting it. We started on our superhero adventure together. We fashioned a contraption out of sticks and fresh leaves. Together we were able to bring the slug to safety and continue onto our next superhero adventure.
Guess what? There’s science behind this kind of superhero league adventure! As Tomasello wrote, “Even young children already have some sense of shared intentionality, that is to say, that they are part of some larger ‘we’ intentionality.” The larger shared intentionalities we’re a part of are our communities. Our “we” intentionality extends to our families, friends, colleagues, neighbors, towns, cities, and industry.
Although “community” can be defined in a number of ways, I prefer McMillan and Chavis’ (1986) four-part definition:
- Membership—“the feeling of belonging or of sharing as sense of personal relatedness.”
- Influence—“a sense of mattering, of making a difference to a group and of the group mattering to its members.”
- Integration and fulfillment of needs—“the feeling that member’s needs will be met by the resources received through their membership in the group.”
- Shared emotional connection—“the commitment and belief that members have shared and will share history, common places, time together, and similar experiences.”
Currently, I’m focused on figuring out what a school for user experience designers would look like. I think about community. Okay, I obsess over it. I think about how to build and sustain community. There are millions of little details that need to be considered to craft the right experience and create the right outcome: structure, curriculum, physical location, geographic location, furniture, project-work, hiring, space planning, and branding. All of these details affect the community we’re building. That’s correct, the community we’re building. Of course, I am collaborating with other people to build this community because collaboration builds community. And let’s face it; the real fun in building community comes from building community, together.
We are a project-based industry—we learn by working on projects. We learn more when we work on projects together. In essence, we learn by doing and we learn more by doing together. Learning does not need to be a solo pursuit or static pursuit. Instead, it takes a community actively collaborating on project-based initiatives to create meaningful learning experiences. As we research what makes a great UX design program, we keep community at the forefront of all of our decisions. We consider how everyone involved—students, businesses, organizations, staff, and faculty—need to feel that we: belong in the community, serve a purpose in the community, are supported by the community, and fit within the culture of the community.
We need to feel all of this and we need opportunities to experience the “we” intentionality that has been engraved into our DNA. Seriously, science shows the act of doing good work while connecting and helping others actually changes our human form through our vagus nerve (a cranial nerve). Keltner states, “Elevated vagus nerve activity…orients the individual to a life of greater warmth and social connection.” An increase in vagus nerve activity creates a change in a person that has him or her caring for others more than for himself or herself. From this we can deduce that people actually gain a positive physical change from doing good for other people when working with other people.
Just like superheros, we take on a physical change when we work together to accomplish great things. We don’t even need to receive our superpowers as a blessing from the Olympian deities or by getting bit by a radioactive spider. Instead, all we need is to work together to do great things and our bodies will physically morph into the superheroes we were born to be. Let our powers combine! Let others look to us to as an example. Let us join forces and be a community of superheroes.
I was 20 when I lost my sister. She was 38. I don’t mean I lost her in a crowd, I mean she died. She died from Leukemia. Cancer—a word no one wants to hear, let alone experience.
I found my mom when she was 36-1/2. That’s how old she was when she gave birth to me. Birth—a word that brings hope, that brings new life.
Late 30’s. I grow closer and closer to being in my late 30’s. The age where these life-changing events took place for my sister and my mom.
I struggle—I struggle with the feeling that time can be so limiting. And yet…so expansive. I struggle with the idea that maybe my late 30’s is when all things end and at the same time I struggle with thoughts that maybe my late 30’s is when a new chapter begins. I struggle with time. I struggle with my family’s past and how it will play into my future.
Sometimes, I think about the effect of my sister’s death. It has been profound and long-lasting. I wonder if some of my passion to get meaningful things accomplished and accomplished quickly comes from knowing that my time is limited. Not as in, I have-too-much-to-do in a single day kind of limited, but that I am mortal and my time is not infinite.
So, what to do with my limited time?
That becomes the question—the very essence of my existence. It’s the question I challenge myself with everyday. Each day, I wake up and ask myself: How will I make awesomeness today? How will I do good today? And every night, I go to bed asking myself how did I make awesomeness today? How did I do good today?
I use the word “awesomeness” frequently, but to me, it’s more than just a word to describe something that’s “cool.” Awesomeness is the quality of being an awesome human being. But how can we possess the quality of being awesome and really what does that even mean? In many ways, this is a personal question with an even more personal answer.
Being awesome means: inspiring wonder. Each of us has the opportunity and the responsibility to inspire wonder in the world. Why? Because each of us adds to the outcome of the world that we touch and thus, we create. Inspiring wonder, making awesomeness—this seems like a pretty hefty responsibility and sometimes it can be. Fortunately, for all of us, small acts of kindness can help to instill a sense of wonder within our world. We just have to commit to making awesomeness by focusing on doing good.
How will I make awesomeness today? How will I do good today? How did I make awesomeness today? How did I do good today? These questions keep me balanced. I want to do amazing things, but I want these amazing things to go beyond me. I want to help our industry, our community, and our world. I know I don’t know how long I will have here, on this earth, so I must give what I can, as I can. It’s something I feel deep within myself. I know when I give to others I am spending my finite time in positive ways and by doing so, I’m actually growing time. By sharing my time with others, it multiplies and grows exponentially.
It’s like being the ultimate Time Lord and my vessel—myself—is the ideal Tardis. When I step into the story of myself, it suddenly is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. That’s what I need it to be. I need to be happy with my own story and understand that no one will really understand the depth or scope of it. And that’s okay. It may always look smaller from the outside—even when I’m the one standing on the outside of my own life and have momentarily lost perspective of the infiniteness of my own possibilities.
Sometimes by helping others, the effect is immediate and easy to see. Other times, I know that I am a stone in a pond and the ripples of goodness I share travel beyond the horizon I see. And maybe that’s the point of it all—for us to be stones in the ponds of life. To share with others. To support others. To laugh and cry with others. To connect with others. And that we connect in such profound ways that the ripples we start are continued infinitely throughout time and reach others in ways we may never experience firsthand. To make awesomeness and do good and hope that we have spent our limited time here, on this earth, in the most productive ways we can.
We can make awesomeness and do good in many ways—through our professional lives and through our personal lives. Here’s the thing: Many of us have come to realize that there is no such thing as life-work balance that there’s only life-life balance and with this realization comes the knowledge that it takes us making awesomeness and doing good in both our professional and personal lives.
So the challenge I pose to all of us is to make awesomeness and do good. To be the ripples in life’s pond—to give beyond what we can see as immediate goodness. To be open and brave. To share and connect. To embrace and grow time. To be present in each and every moment in our lives.
Let’s do this for our industry, our community, and our world. Let’s do this for ourselves. Let’s not let time define us, but instead let’s define our time.
I stood there, 18-inches away from Mark Rothko’s work. At 12 years old, I allowed myself to be completely absorbed by it. I allowed it to speak to me—to tell me its story. Like many of Rothko’s paintings, this piece was named “Untitled” so I had no guidance as to what to think or feel as I experienced the painting. I understood it in a way only I could because I brought my own history and my own expectations to the piece. I saw in the painting what I needed to see.
A few years ago, I was in the process of designing new business cards. I decided that I would include my name, my title, my email address, and my Twitter handle. I started to layout the information and realized that I didn’t know what to put as my title. At the time, I was working as a professor at the university level, so I could have put “Professor.” But it seemed limiting—I was doing so much more than just teaching. I was writing, speaking, designing, and more. I struggled with finding a title that would capture who I was and what I did. So I designed my business cards without a title.
In our industry, we see a lot of titles like “Rockstar” or “Ninja.” Heck, I’ve even used the title “Maker of Awesomeness.” Although, some people might actually think they are rock stars, I’m not sure all who wear this label truly believe they are. We are at a time and place in our industry where most of us do a lot of different things. We serve in many different roles. Our roles, like the fields of color in Rothko’s painting have bled together. They now overlap. They have created new shapes. Job titles that once explained our neatly contained roles, no longer do because our roles are no longer neatly contained. It’s no wonder we turn to titles like Rockstar, Ninja, and Maker of Awesomeness. We don’t know how to describe our roles because our responsibilities are so varied.
Designers develop and Developers design. Most everyone is expected to write some sort of copy, but are all of us Writers? How do we encapsulate the vast diversity that each of us do in a title? How do we say “jack of all trades” on a business card without saying “jack of all trades?”
In our industry, we don’t yet have the language that supports the change from specialist and compartmentalist to generalist that has occurred. A specialist is a someone who has more expertise in one area over others. A compartmentalist is someone who has equal expertise in only one area. A generalist is someone who has equal expertise in most areas.
Most hiring companies can’t afford specialists, desire generalists, and will die with compartmentalists. It’s very challenging for teams to function when they are built with specialists and compartmentalists because only specific people can perform specific tasks. This becomes a problem when a team member gets sick, goes on vacation, or leaves the team altogether.
The team is left asking: Who takes on their tasks?
When life events such as these occur, projects get bottlenecked. Sometimes projects completely stall or fail. Also, in a work environment with specialists and compartmentalists, during the lifecycle of a project there are often times when some members of the team sit idle while other team members are pulling intense hours. However, when a team is made of generalists, bottlenecking is less likely to happen because team members are able to perform any and all of the tasks needed to get a project done. Hiring companies need generalists not to survive, but to thrive.
Although it’s easy to create a job title for a specialist or compartmentalist because either type of person really only holds one role at one time, generalists are who companies need. On the other hand, it’s challenging to create a job title for a generalist because they hold many roles at one time. With hiring companies moving towards hiring generalists, it’s easier to find a job as a generalist but more difficult to find a job title.
Until we have the language that supports the change from specialist and compartmentalist to generalist, maybe we go “Untitled.” Maybe, like Rothko’s paintings, we embrace the changing shape of our fields. Maybe we allow them to bleed and to blend. Maybe we allow them to take the shape they need to take in order to create the masterpieces held within our industry.
“Untitled.” What if we allow ourselves to be seen by other people in ways similar to Rothko’s paintings? When people get close to us and engage with us, they bring their own history and expectations to us. They see in us what they need to see. We are to them, what they need us to be. Since we are generalists, we are able to live authentic untitled careers. Careers that allow us to be what each person we engage with need us to be. Careers that allow us to be who we need ourselves to be.
Leslie Jensen-Inman, Untitled.
I looked down and in that moment it hit me—I was the only person wearing different shoes. Every other person sitting in the circle was wearing the exact same type of shoes. The shoes were the same brand and even the same color. My shoes did not match the mold. I didn’t get the memo.
That’s when it hit me like a ton of bricks falling onto my toes—I was not in my tribe. These people were not my people. They were nice enough, but nice enough wasn’t what I needed. I needed to find my people.
After this shocking shoe incident, you might assume I went to search for people who wore the same types of shoes as I did. Those people would be my people, my tribe. But I didn’t. Instead, I knew that in order to be with my people, I needed to look down and see none of us wearing the same shoes. That my tribe would be wearing a mix of cowgirl boots, Converse, platform heels, flipflops, sneakers, flats, boots, and work shoes (any shoes except for those sporty toe shoes, those sort of freak me out).
When I was a kid and throughout my entire stint of being in K12, I never belonged to one clique—to one tribe. I was the kid that didn’t quite fit in anywhere and I wasn’t really interested in rounding my corners to make the fit easier either. I wasn’t interested in entire cliques of people. Instead, I enjoyed spending time with specific people from a variety of cliques. This worked out pretty well until it came time for my birthday parties.
My friends would arrive for my birthday parties and the only thing they really had in common, was me. This meant that most of them didn’t know each other. I became the kid that had name tags at her birthday parties. Okay, maybe I was a total organizational nerd even then, but I promise you, “hello my name is…” was an absolutely necessary birthday party accessory for all of my guests.
My friends had fun at my parties. I had fun at them, too. And we experienced this fun while none of us wore the same shoes.
If we really want to make sure that we’re in a strong, great, creative, tribe, we need to find people who are different than us, but who complement us. And no, not compliment us but complement us. People who might like our style of shoes and let us know, but people who go way beyond that and help to balance our strengths and weaknesses.
When I was a child, I really liked Mister Rogers. Okay, I was a little obsessed.
I wasn’t so into Mr. R’s cardigans or the fact that he took off his shoes in front of me, in front of all of us (ew!). Instead, I was fascinated by the fact that we didn’t just hang out with Mr. R, we visited his entire neighborhood. We traveled beyond the land with the little puppet people to go on field trips to learn how things were made.
The field trip I remember most fondly was the trip to a crayon factory. Through the magic of moving images I was able to join him—we all were. We were able to see how crayons were made. And, it was awesome—truly spectacular. I couldn’t get enough.
I was hooked on these fields trips. Hooked, because I was curious. I wanted to learn how things were made. Mr. R took us into the factories we couldn’t go to as kids. Through these field trips, I learned how pieces fit into a whole. I learned that it took people, machines, design, and technology all working together to make the everyday items, like crayons, that I used.
I earned a respect for the people who worked on the manufacturing line. Their jobs looked challenging. Even though they repeated the same task, over and over again, they approached their work with a sense of mastery and professionalism that I could understand—even as a kid.
The workers were making—they were makers. Watching these makers turn hot liquid wax, hardening powder, and pigment into one of my favorite things—crayons—taught me the importance of standards. I learned the importance of professional standards and the importance of product standards. If something wasn’t made up to a specific set of standards then it was pulled from the assembly line.
These field trips, this idea of searching for the answers of how things are made, have stayed with me my entire life.
My first job out of college was at a design studio that had multiple printing presses on site. The studio had a team of designers and a team of pressmen. I didn’t have lunch with the designers—I spent most of my days with them already. Instead, I ate with the pressmen. They had all been working on printing presses for at least 25 years and had a wealth of knowledge to share with a young designer. Because I was curious, they were willing to share their knowledge with me.
I learned how to make my design work better by listening to them talk about the presses. After lunch, they would bring me into the press room and show me how to take the blankets and plates off the press. They showed me how the machines, that brought my designs to life, worked.
The pressmen showed me why hiccups and orange peeling—two things you really don’t want to happen to your printed pieces—happened. And they showed me how to design in a way that helped avoid common printing problems. They shared with me design decisions designers made that really ticked them off—things that made the pressmen’s jobs harder and sometimes impossible. In essence, the pressmen showed me how to make my work stronger. They showed me how to think beyond just being a designer and they helped me to design as a maker.
They did this by encouraging my curiosity. They did this by sharing their experiences and their knowledge.
Sometimes, as designers, we forget that it often takes teams of people working together to help make our products come to life. It takes people, machines, design, and technology all working together to make the items we and other folks use. We all need to encourage the curiosity of learners. Learners of any age. If someone is curious about learning how to make something, let’s take a little time and show them our process. Let’s all be a little more like the pressmen and Mister Rogers. Let’s share the world of making—cardigans optional.
I was five years old and I was going to a special doctor.
I was in a really cold, medical office where I disrobed down to my undergarments and put on a child-size medical gown that opened in the back. I waited in the office with my mom until the doctor arrived. He was there with two or three residents. They all wore white medical robes.
The doctor had me stand, look at him, turn around to face away from him, bend over to touch my toes, stand up, and turn around to face him again. He pointed out specific areas of my back to the residents who stood around him. They asked questions. He answered. I stood there.
The doctor, an ever-changing group of residents, and I repeated this examination dance for the next thirteen years.
I was five years old when I discovered that I have scoliosis—basically my back curves in very interesting ways. There have been many times that I’ve wished my back was less interesting. One of these times was when I was about twelve years old and in eighth grade, the last year of middle school.
Middle school was a challenging time, filled with lots of preteen angst. For social reasons, it wasn’t the ideal time to find out that I was about to endure a treatment that would make me visibly different from my classmates. But in eighth grade, I realized there was no escaping it—my scoliosis had become significantly worse—I was about to enter a world of being discernibly distinct.
To be fitted for my hardshell back brace I had to go to a different specialist. This specialist was a rather creepy guy who had scraggily long, white hair and an untidy, long beard to match. He wore a white (were it not stained) ribbed sleeveless undershirt (as his only shirt). I disrobed to my undergarments and then I was wrapped in elastic bandage material. Then, this specialist rubbed plaster of Paris material from my neck down past my hips. I waited uncomfortably while the chalky, gloopy material hardened.
This was the first time I really realized how uncomfortable my life was about to become.
After the material set, the specialist marked the hardened form so he would know where he needed to leave a cutaway to accommodate a developing young lady’s body. Then he cut away the form and popped it away from my body.
I waited a week or two and returned to see the specialist who had crafted my back brace. He made slight adjustments and I started to wear the device.
For the next two years, I wore the contraption for 23 hours each and every day. I wore it at school, at home, and even in bed. I wore four layers of tops every day: an undergarment, a men’s sleeved undershirt, the back brace, and an oversized shirt to try to disguise the other three layers.
I was not allowed to take gym class, which also meant no more extracurricular activities like basketball or cheerleading. I understood that wearing the back brace could prevent me from having surgery but at 13 years old, the entire experience seemed devastating.
One day, I was sitting in the bleachers watching my classmates participating in gym class. They were trying to climb the ropes. It dawned on me, I really disliked trying to climb the ropes in gym class. Because of my back brace, I wasn’t being faced with the humiliation of not having the upper body strength to do it. In that moment, I began to see the benefits and opportunities that not having to take gym afforded.
Eighth grade ended and it was time to move on to high school. I was very fortunate to have gone to a good high school—a high school that had a graphic design teacher and a graphic design/photo lab filled with: photo equipment, a printing plate machine, a one-color printing press, and Mac computers.
I still couldn’t take gym, so for my entire four years of high school I took independent courses in graphic design.
My life would be different if I didn’t have a back filled with interesting curves. I might not have witnessed a doctor immersed in experiential learning where he helped residents by having them experience various types of patients and cases first-hand. This helped me to understand the importance of immersive, experiential learning.
I might not have learned empathy for people who have to approach situations differently because of a physical challenge. This helped me to understand the importance of accessibility.
I might not have developed my passion for design at such an important time in my life. This helped me to understand the world in a design-centric manner.
And I might not have learned that everything happens for a reason. This helped me to understand that sometimes only distance and time will help me to see the reasons why I am faced with the challenges that appear in my life.
So that contraption—my back brace—helped shape more than my back. It helped shape my entire career and life.
I’m taking back math.
The other day, my mom handed me a stack of papers. I shuffled through them and stopped at a piece of folded yellow paper. I opened it. The paper contained the results from my third grade Iowa standardized test. I don’t remember taking an Iowa standardized test when I was eight years old—I grew up in New Jersey, not Iowa—but I must have because the results were there in front of me. I looked closer at the information. To my surprise, the area I scored the highest in was math.
I thought about this and realized that the last time I remember feeling smart in math was when I was ten years old and I was in the fifth grade. I’ve always learned best when I can do the something that I’m supposed to learn. Mrs. McCarthy, my fifth grade teacher, was pretty amazing because she understood this and she helped me to not only feel smart in math, but she also helped me to love math. I don’t remember working on specific math problems or having a math workbook while I was in the fifth grade. What I do remember is playing the stock market. I remember learning math through doing, through playing. In fifth grade, I learned math through projects set in real-world contexts and I loved math because of this.
When I think back to the stock market projects, I remember opening up the newspaper. I recall the smell and the touch of the newsprint. I remember the feeling of excitement at discovering whether or not my predictions about a specific stock came true. They often did because Mrs. McCarthy taught us about math, language, business, and culture through the experience of playing the stock market. All of this information lead to solid predictions. It felt incredible to learn about math this way and it all made sense. I was learning more than just math. I was learning about many aspects of life—in a holistic way—and I was having fun doing it.
Then, fifth grade was over. It was time to say goodbye to Mrs. McCarthy and hello to my sixth grade math teacher, Mrs. Chaney.
As I held the yellow paper of the Iowa standardized test in my hands, my mom and I talked about Mrs. McCarthy and the fun of learning. My mom and I have both been educators. She was a physical education teacher. I’ve come to understand that physical education is the epitome of learning through doing, learning through playing. My mom and I talked about the importance of learning through doing. Then my mom said, “Mrs. Chaney stole math from you.” I looked at my mom. Her face had a mix of anger, frustration, and sadness.
I vividly remember being eleven years old, in my sixth grade math class, sitting in straight rows, instead of small groups like we sat in fifth grade. In Mrs. Chaney’s class, I sat in the middle of the classroom. My last name started with a “J” and we were seated alphabetically—middle letter of the alphabet meant middle of the classroom. I remember raising my hand over and over again to participate in the class. I had answers and I had questions. I was in the middle of the classroom and I knew my teacher could see me raise my hand. I don’t ever remember being called on but I do remember the boys in the class being called on. Mrs. Chaney only called on the boys. After some time, I realized that raising my hand was an exercise in futility and I stopped raising my hand. I stopped engaging in the class, I stopped feeling smart in math, and I stopped loving math. I started to realize that gender had meaning far beyond “pink is for girls” and “blue is for boys.” I understood the lesson Mrs. Chaney was teaching—only boys could do math.
Sixth grade is the year math was taken from me. Although I use numbers on a daily basis, I’ve never felt the love that I once had for them. I’ve decided to change this. I’ve decided that twenty+ years after math was taken from me that I’m taking it back.
I’ve also decided to be more aware about myself and the people in my life. I will not allow anyone to take the things I love away from me. I will not let the things I love go easily and I will do my best not to take the things other people love away from them. I will fight for what I am passionate about but I will remind myself that my own words affect others.