How to survive in a world full of boxes that don’t fit…
Learn to shapeshift
I’m a little bit of a chameleon. I don’t define myself by the roles that I do. The roles that I play are defined by who I am and what I feel needs to be done. I find it difficult to clearly delineate where one thing starts and another one ends. In my mind, everything is connected. I can find connections between many seeming unrelated things that you wouldn’t imagine.
This often leads to more chaos and misunderstanding than you would think. In a world where people like to make everything fit into neat little boxes that are clearly marked and labelled, I feel a little bit like the outsider. It took me a little while to realise that they do not see what I see.
Create your own path
The biggest struggle of my teenage life was preparing for that moment of making a choice about what I wanted to become. What career to choose, what subjects to pick and what to leave out. I loved so many things. I wanted to be an artist, I wanted to be a programmer, I wanted to be a writer, a designer, a teacher, a doctor, a traveller, an entrepreneur and a ton of other things.
Trying to figure it out was very stressful. I didn’t understand why I had to choose just one thing. Aptitude tests only made it worse. It seemed to work for everyone else. When they did the test, they would get a clear outcome of which areas they were good at and which areas they we not so good at. My tests only showed that I could be equally adept in multiple areas, which didn’t help much with decision making. It only made me feel more uncertain.
When I went to University, I was a little dismayed that they did not offer me a menu of courses to select. I had to pick from a selected group of related subjects. How absurd! I always assumed I could be anything I wanted to — until I got to University. At this point I was supposed to ‘choose’ some bits of me and ignore the others.
Explore your Multi-potential
I spent a lot of time trying to find out what was the right thing to do, for me. No matter what I tried, I could not be happy choosing one path over another. I struggled for a long time until I came across an interesting concept, Multi-potential. It was a real eye-opener. I didn’t have to fit into the boxes and labels that the world had waiting for me.
It was about discovering that I had real options. I could use my imagination to mix and match and construct something that really had meaning for me. That was the day that I stopped forcing myself to fit in. It was a very liberating experience. I was finally free. I have never looked back. I shudder to think about how miserable and empty I would be as a person if I had to give up so much of myself to be just one thing, the same thing, for the rest of my life.
I was fascinated by the prospect of mixing seemingly unrelated ideas, jobs, roles, motivations and skills together. I clearly remember the early example of a medical illustrator. I had an affinity for drawing, and I was interested in medicine, but I didn’t really want to give up art to do it. If I could combine these two seemingly unrelated fields, imagine how many other combinations I could put together?
The world was wide open and I no longer had the immense pressure of giving up my passions to pursue a career (seems ironic doesn’t it?). I wasn’t really worried about the end result anymore, and I was now more interested in the journey. I let my mind just wander around the world getting hold of anything that fascinated me. I was no longer driven by a career goal. My learning was now a way of life and no longer a means to an end.
Don’t worry if the world is still catching up
Unfortunately, the rest of the world did not have the same idea about my career that I had. People kept trying to conform me with their ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ stories. I didn’t understand what they were talking about. Our roles, taxonomies, skills and everything else were defined by people who like to make categories out of human experience. I don’t think God has a library of books with subjects as well defined as ours. We only classify things in order to understand them, and our understanding of the world is very simplistic. To Him, everything makes perfect sense, and there is no need for deconstruction into a rudimentary understanding of how things fit together.
Sometimes you have to fire your boss!
I remember firing my boss. Yes, I fired my boss. He just wasn’t cutting it, well not as my boss anyway. At the time I was working in a software development firm. I couldn’t quite figure out where I wanted to go. He needed more developers and I loved to code, but I always felt that there was something missing. I prepared a presentation, hoping he would help me put the pieces together. This was my first attempt at professional development.
I told him I wanted a career where I could use my skills in Anthropology, Psychology, Linguistics, Computer Science and Art together. I could see that he thought I was nuts from the rolling-eyeballs look he gave me. I expected some creative thinking, some leadership, some direction from this man. I was sorely disappointed. “There is no such thing. You will never have a job where you can use all these things.” I was not deterred. I just rolled my eyeballs back at him. He just didn’t get it. I left.
Un-define your role
I carried on doing what I just saw as a convergence in my mind. I wasn’t too worried about if there was a demand for it. It started off with HCI as a mix of Computer Science and Psychology — it could have gone either way really, it was either HCI or AI. The more things I added to the mix, the more interesting it became. I was no longer constrained by the needs of a job role.
It became something I just did, just a collection of things I found interesting and had a passion for. As time went by, it became a more defined discipline — User Experience. Everyone was doing it, even though few really understood it. Even now, people don’t clearly know what it entails, and their feeble attempts to categorise it into a role makes it difficult to continue working in this space. (If I hear UI/UX one more time…)
Looking back, I’ve realised that my best experiences at work were in undefined roles. The spaces between projects where I could easily fill the gaps that others never saw, undefined and inexplicable things that made all the difference. A bit of vision, a bit of strategy, a bit of research, a bit of design thinking and creativity but mostly a lot of seeing between the cracks.
These are not things you can understand just by studying a single subject to doing things you were trained to do. It is the gestalt of many different things, the minute people try to simplify it for their own limited understanding, they ruin it.
Don’t be tempted to box yourself in
We try to classify and group everything, even our thinking. We are either too left-brained or too right-brained. I never understood it. You have both hemispheres, so I always assumed you needed to use them both equally well. They’re both there, right? You can think and feel, you can be creative and logical, you can be whole, can’t you?
Aptitude tests, Personality tests, IQ tests, EQ tests…. the list goes on and on. These are all our little constructs trying to define who we are at any given moment. The problem is, who I am when I take these tests might not be who I am the next day. Just by taking the test I might learn something new about myself and it changes who I am, rendering the result invalid.
I have given up many job opportunities because of this little thing that HR likes to do — box me into a corner. I am not what you define me by. I learn and grow everyday.
Humanity is complex, messy and ambiguous. Go with it!
The more you slice and dice to make things fit in, the more meaning you lose along the way. Thinking about future careers and the skills we will need, are not defined by our roles, subjects or our limited understanding of human experience. You have to learn how to be more human, and the human experience is a complex, messy, confounding thing. It is not limited to a single view from a single subject.
Learn to handle messy situations. Don’t run away when things are ambiguous and uncertain. The cusp of change is where the seed of creativity is born. Life is not a neat little box and neither is the future. Learn empathy, learn to feel, to think, to solve problems and be creative. The world needs more divergent and critical thinkers with a variety of interests that can be applied to solving the problems that the rest of us have created because of our own lack of foresight and understanding.
We are not robots, so stop trying to act like one, or they will easily replace you. Embrace your complex, messy and ambiguous human experience.