From backpacking New Zealand to pursuing a career in UX.
My Year in Review
January 1st, 2018 — I rolled off my air pad, unzipped the door to my two-person tent and groggily poured some water to start the morning coffee routine. After igniting my portable stove, the second tent six feet away began to move, a signal that Cameron was awake. I added more water to my cooking pot, enough for two cups of coffee. As we ate breakfast, the campground discussion turned to what was next in the day’s itinerary:
- Explore the trails and canyons surrounding nearby Arrowtown
- Find cell service to wish our friends back home a happy new year
- Drive north through Mt. Aspiring National Park
- Resupply on ramen (after splitting the last pack the previous night)
- Don’t run out of gas.
Within 15 minutes we had packed everything we owned into our hatchback and hit the road.
New Zealand offers a unique experience for travelers. Within two hours, you can drive from arid, high country desert, to temperate coastal rainforests, to snowcapped alpine mountains. Perfect for two dirtbags who don’t mind eating canned tuna every night in exchange for an outdoor playground. Four months we spent covering every inch of the north and south islands, working part-time gigs when the cash was running low. This entailed camping out on the side of a vineyard for a few weeks, waking up at dawn to tend to vines before the March harvest. The Otago wine region is reminiscent of parts of Wyoming and Montana, carved out by ancient glaciers that left behind an arid, high desert — perfect for growing grapes.
I knew that with my temporary visa, I could keep up this lifestyle for a year at most. So what’s next?
Admittedly, I had no idea. Under the surface there was an intolerable itch to do something different. Change it up. Pivot. Quit the dirtbag life for a minute and rejoin society with a little more depth and understanding than when I left it three years ago to travel abroad.
So, I came home early. I picked up a part-time gig at a startup brewery to prevent idle hands, and began throwing darts at the wall. I’ve just now completed a 10-week course in user experience design. I was still getting up at dawn, but this time to commute two hours by bus into D.C. I’ve traded in my tent for the generosity of friends and their couches. I underwent four client-based projects, honed my ability to use various software tools, and absorbed everything I could about UX.
“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.” — Robert A. Heinlein.
While UX roles are shifting to become more specialized, our understanding and perception of users does not need to be. Human behavior isn’t determined from a two week sprint, as much as a three day layover in Reykjavik doesn’t enlighten a traveler on best whaling practices in Iceland. Research requires ongoing, prolonged observation that subdues the user interview sound bite, and asks what is best for society as a whole.
My introduction to UX was brief but robust. With it comes the new challenge of finding work in a competitive and growing field. Instead of shouting into the void, my new focus has turned to helping those understand that my background, while unorthodox, is a credible strength.
Building on past experiences, UX merged my preexisting perspectives with the design process:
Prototyping unconventional ideas first was evident when I needed to create a curriculum for my 3rd grade students in Thailand (we learned about gravitational force by making homemade spaceships that held egg-astronauts and throwing them off the roof.)
Advocating for less was exemplified by exploring New Zealand, a country the size of California, yet 30 percent is dedicated to national parks.
Patience was a value best learned while spending 22 hours in the international terminal in Beijing.
Going into 2019, I must ask myself the same anticipatory question I started on — What’s next?