Illustration by Natalie Kay at Off The Beaten Press

Creativity Through Compassion

This article has been adapted from a talk I gave at Creative Mornings in Richmond, VA in October 2017.

As a human-centered designer for over two decades, I was excited to learn my Creative Mornings topic would be “Compassion.” It’s something that has woven throughout my career, and yet, I’ve never stopped to ask how and why, or paused to articulate what makes compassion so impactful to creative work.

The word compassion means “to suffer with.” It’s “a feeling of pity for the suffering of someone else that often includes the desire to help alleviate it.” From the late Latin, “fellow feeling.”

What a beautiful expression that is! It describes how we connect with another person’s experience, really understand their needs and feel what they feel. As creative people, we are motivated to bring something new into the world, to use that understanding as motivation. But how do you harness it to really transform someone else’s experience?

Well, that depends on who will be experiencing your creativity and compassion: customers, teammates, or yourself. We’ll explore those three perspectives today.

The User Perspective: Compassion reveals the true problem

When I say “user”, I really mean “audience” or “customer;” I mean the person whose problem you’re trying to solve. In creative work, especially in corporate or business settings, people often approach problems with a solution in mind. The first thing you have to do is step back and make sure you’re solving the actual problem. The best way to do this is to observe.

Before thinking of solutions, get away from your computer, get out of your own head, and go out into the world and understand. What are people trying to do? What is at the root of the problem they’re trying to solve, the need they’re going after? Don’t just ask them. Watch someone try to do something with whatever tools they have. And, because you’re observing — not just listening — you’ll see things that they might not even be able to articulate themselves. That’s the A-ha! that will reveal the root of the need, and something you can use as a beacon through the rest of your problem solving.

Let me tell you about a little “A-ha!” from my time at Adobe. Keep in mind, this was circa 2004. I was leading the team that worked on Enterprise tools including Acrobat Reader. It was fascinating to observe how different people used our tools to get their work done. How does a lawyer organize and use documents compared to a creative professional?

We were working on Acrobat and the problem statement was, “Help people find stuff in their documents.” The project handed to us was, “Create a better search tool.” This seemed like an obvious solution but seemed technology-first. Searching is often word-based, but not always, so we went to different people’s work places to observe how they did their work. One of the things we noticed were the stacks and stacks of papers scattered all over people’s spaces.

When we’d ask someone to find some piece of information, they usually didn’t start at the computer; they seemed to know where, physically, in their office it would be and went to some stack and thumbed through it. It’s like flipping through a book, you’ll seeing little glimpses of things as they go by, and you might remember, “There was something green on the right side of the page.” We saw people do this over and over again and we realized, “There’s obviously an unmet need here that a search box and search results aren’t going to tap into.”

That “A-ha!” realization led us to a major innovation. You know that little thumbnail preview of the pages when you scroll through a document? It’s a gesture that mimics flipping through a physical stack of documents or pages of a book. Nowadays you see that feature in most iPad apps, but Reader had it first and Adobe owns the patent. It came from observing and understanding a customer need that led us to quite a different solution than a redesigned search tool. (We also redesigned the search experience, but I’m most proud of that small thumbnail interaction that is now ubiquitous in digital experiences!)

The Team Perspective: Compassion aligns people to shared solutions

We’re all human beings with our own creativity, aspirations, and egos, and when we work with teams, it can be really hard to align. Alignment isn’t something you can force; you can’t just say, “Let’s get aligned,” and believe that it’s going to be a genuine connection with everyone’s needs met.

When we go about solving a problem, people come with their assumptions and expectations. It’s easy to categorize these ideas as “mine” or “yours” but that immediately creates a wall, which usually has to be overcome.

When you take it out of “mine” and “yours” and start turning it into “ours,” that’s when you start to line up. You’re not trying to align yourselves to one another — you’re trying to line yourselves up to something that’s shared. If you’ve done the work of observing, and you’ve crystallized around a real need, everyone can use that as a beacon that rises above the wall.

I’ll never forget breaking down the wall of “mine” and “yours” at one of my first meetings at Yahoo. I was a junior designer at the time, circa 2000, and the meeting was filled with about 30 different engineers. The problem statement was very techy, and I was terrified to go into the room and be perceived as the young new designer saying, “Hey, you’re doing it wrong and you should totally listen to my excellent idea.” Especially because what I needed to convince them of was how we were going to draw the interface in a way that was optimized for the customer and much more difficult to code. (This was before real-time streaming and adaptive interfaces.) I knew from history that they were going to be against this idea.

So I didn’t go in and try to convince them; I didn’t go in with MY idea. I had heard from different people what the challenges might be, and I asked them, “Why?” I wanted to understand where each teammate was coming from and what was important to them. Instead of going into that meeting and saying, “Here’s what we need to do,” or asking, “What do you need us to do?” I started the meeting by writing the problem I thought we were trying to solve on the whiteboard. I asked the room, “Does everybody agree this is the problem?” And when there wasn’t agreement I asked, “What do you think the problem is?” 
 
It’s important to have that kind of visible beacon. Get up with a marker and write the problem on the board so that everyone can see it. Get everyone out of their own head and onto the whiteboard. Because when it’s written there and someone says, “Ooohh I don’t agree with that,” you can ask, “Okay, where is it wrong?” You can cross it out, add to it and continue to ask, “Alright, do we all agree to THIS? No? Okay, great. We’ve got a good list of considerations here, let’s write them up!” You start to build the problem statement together, and pretty soon, instead of having my ideas about the solution and their ideas about how they’re going to build it, we actually have a board full of problems and ideas for how we’re now going to solve it as a team.

It’s compassion for customers plus compassion for everyone in the room. Turn your powers of observation and understanding users into a method to connect teammates. You’ll quickly move away from solving the problem for yourself — to solving the real human problem within real development constraints, and each of you can bring your special skills to going after it.

The Self Perspective: Compassion reminds you to care for yourself

Compassion and creativity both take a lot of energy. To be observant and open in a land of grey trying to harness something, to have to turn some sort of pain or need into a solution, it can really drain you. I think a lot of us are fueled and inspired by challenges, but to do it again and again as a part of your profession takes up a lot of energy. Having compassion for yourself reminds you to care for yourself.

I spent years living and working in the heart of Silicon Valley at some of the biggest, craziest companies during the dot.com heyday. It was exciting, and it was terrifying, and it was delightful, and it gradually wore me down. I reached a point where I was getting divorced, both my parents had health scares in one year, and I thought, “Whoa. How did I end up in California, disconnected from my family, feeling like my creativity is getting tapped out? What am I doing? What is important to me? To my life?”

I went to a therapist whose work combined talk and energy therapy. (It was California, after all.) It felt like we unzipped me, took out my soul, and sorted through it looking at every little piece to figure out what’s really important to me. What makes me tick? How am I using my energy every day? Is it meaningful or it is because I’ve simply fallen into comfortable patterns? Because if I can’t do that for myself, then I can’t do that for my family, for my customers, or for my teammates.

I did this work with a completely open mind. Maybe I’d leave the industry. Maybe I’d move. Maybe I’d go back to school. Maybe I’d find a new partner. Maybe I’d build a family through a less traditional approach. How would I decide what to do?

I read a book by Suzy Welch called 10/10/10. It’s a really simple yet profound guide to decision-making. You ask yourself a question: If I make this choice, how am I going to feel about it in 10 minutes? How am I going to feel about it in 10 months? How am I going to feel about it in 10 years?

When I started asking myself, “If I stay in California, what might that feel like in 10 years?” I realized I didn’t want to miss the next 10 years with my parents. I didn’t want to remain in a professional holding pattern while losing the opportunity to start a family.

I put a lot of thought into what I’d use as my beacon, so that I could make choices that lined up and solved for what was most important to me. I decided I wanted to live in a place that was close enough that I could drive to my parents in half a day, that had a friend who could help me build a new community, and had a really vibrant, artistic, creative spirit. I looked at Boston and New York and a bunch of other cities on the East Coast, and my (coincidentally, Capital One) friends in Richmond said, “Pick Richmond!” And I was like, “Huh? What’s in Richmond?”

I came and I lived in my friends’ basement and prototyped a new life. I fell in love with this quirky and creative city, and within a few months, moved my life across the country. I met my new husband soon after moving. The following year my parents retired and bought a condo a couple blocks from me. I got to know some amazing people and got connected into the art, food, and music communities. I said goodbye to Apple and hello to Capital One, able to bring renewed energy fueled by feeling aligned with my heartfelt goals. And the best part, I adopted a beautiful daughter. And I love it. I love everything about my life. It’s amazing how when you direct compassion toward yourself and connect to your own pain and needs, then make choices that line up to that beacon, everything else falls into place.

So remember that compassion is a “fellow feeling,” whether that fellow is a customer, a teammate, or yourself. Compassion channels your creative energy not just toward solutions, but toward discovering the real problem by observing and understanding. Compassion enables you to create a beacon to not just align but connect your team to a shared solution. Compassion is a reminder to dive deeper than the surface solution and tap into a place of authentic caring. You’ll be amazed at how things start to line up and everything feels easier and has real purpose. Most importantly, you can tap into and harness your creative energy in a way that is sustainable, satisfying, and exciting. And from that place of creative compassion, you will bring some pretty incredible ideas into the world.

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