Purposeful work

Alex Wright
Mar 19, 2017 · 5 min read
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Good work uses no thing without respect, both for what it is in itself and for its origin …. It does not dissociate life and work, or pleasure and work, or love and work, or usefulness and beauty. — Wendell Berry

For the next stage of my research at CMU, I’ve been collaborating with Erica Dorn of the The Good Work Institute on a workshop geared towards helping UX practitioners and creative entrepreneurs locate a sense of purpose in their work, by adapting and applying a few core concepts drawn from the emerging field of Transition Design.

On March 8, 2017, we piloted two new workshops: one with CMU students, and another in partnership with the Latham St. Commons, a “living laboratory” started by CMU professor Kristin Hughes to address the social, educational and economic needs of residents in Pittsburgh’s Garfield and Friendship neighborhoods.

Taken together, these workshops helped us assess how well some of the core concepts of Transition Design might resonate with a non-academic audience of practitioners, and to begin developing a set of tools for making these concepts more accessible. Over time, I hope to apply the learnings from these and future workshops to begin formulating a set of design principles and rubrics to guide UX practitioners who are interested in embedding systems thinking and sustainability concerns into their work practice.

These preliminary workshop offerings took shape as two separate but related programs:

CMU student workshop

March 8, 2017 at Carnegie-Mellon School of Design

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Participants at Purposeful Work seminar, CMU

A two-hour, participatory workshop that drew a 25-person cohort comprised primarily of graduate students at CMU (drawn mostly from the Design and Public Policy programs), intended to help them identify and prioritize a set of core personal values to guide their future professional work.

For this exercise Erica Dorn and I began by sharing an overview of our respective work experiences with Etsy and the Good Work Institute, and asking participants to introduce themselves, their areas of interest, and to spend a moment reflecting on their career aspirations.

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We then shifted into a solitary reflection exercise in which each participant was given a set of 30 paper slips, each containing a one-word value statement. The values were initially drawn and then further adapted from James Clear’s list of core values. We asked each participant to winnow this list down in stages to a final list of three values that resonated most strongly.

We then asked participants to get together in pairs and conduct 1:1 interviews with each other, probing on the personal resonance of each selected value, followed up small group discussions on potential obstacles they anticipated in realizing these values in their future professional lives.

Finally, we reconvened the entire workshop for a group “harvest” of key learnings from the exercise. Among the key themes that emerged from this group of students pondering their future careers:

  • Coping with pressure to earn, especially in light of student debt loads
  • Apprehension about the fixity of job roles and responsibilities in organizational settings
  • Potential loss of self-sovereignty and agency
  • Risk of long-term resignation and complacency

After the workshop, we solicited input from all the participants on what they found most useful or not useful in the exercise, as well as key lessons learned (see Learnings section below).

Good Work Forum

March 8, 2017, at GBBN Architects (hosted by Latham St Commons)

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Participants at Good Work Forum, PIttsburgh

In this workshop we hosted a group of local Pittsburgh residents, many of them creative entrepreneurs, for an evening discussion organized by Kristin Hughes of CMU and the Latham St Commons. Participants came from a wide range of backgrounds, including a weaver, a jewelry maker, clothing designer, the owner of a graphic design studio, two woodworkers, a start-up founder, the the owner of a local community arts center.

Again, Erica and I shared perspectives on our professional lives from Etsy and the Good Work Institute, before moving into a series of interactive exercises built on Ethan Roland’s framework for Eight Forms of Capital.

The centerpiece of this exercise involved asking participants to visualize their own resources in the shape of an eight-sliced pie, each representing one of these eight forms of capital. We then invited themto engage in solitary reflection and sketching to explore how these forms of capital manifested in their own lives.

Here are a few examples of these initial sketches:

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We then invited the participants to break into three groups of 7–8 each, for a moderated discussion to further reflect and explore how they might apply this framework in their professional lives.


As expected, we found that some aspects of the curriculum worked well while others may need further refinement. At the end of each session, we spent the last ten minutes asking participants to reflect in a structured way on the exercise itself, sharing feedback on what worked, what could be improved, and inviting them to identify a “take-away” from the workshop.

Following is a sampling of verbatim quotes from the participants:


“Breaking down my worldview”

“Really caused me to reflect”

“Loved the process of thinking, reflecting and narrowing.”

“Great collaboration process”


“Felt rushed”

“Set us up with what we may expect to take away from each exercise”

“Longer discussions”


“I need to feel like there is transparency and honesty in my workplace”

“Leaving feeling energized to ensure my work reflects my values”

Reflections and next steps

From my perspective, both workshops felt like promising first steps but clearly need further refinement — especially around the presentation of the initial subject matter, and creating more space for active discussion and reflection among the participants.

Looking ahead, I’ve identified a few key directions for further exploration:

  1. Creating a more sequenced “scaffolding” for the presentation of subject matter, possibly involving sharing reading material in advance
  2. Altering the balance of lecture and discussions to allow for more of the latter and less of the former
  3. Exploring methods for delivering this material outside of a conventional, time-limited workshop format

Enormous thanks to Erica Dorn, Kristin Hughes and Mary Lou Arscott, who played central roles in making these workshops happen.

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