The cobbler’s children go barefoot
This year, TEDxLausanne 2016 explored the nature of growth in all its forms: organisms, data, personal, business, society and environment. My talk, The Cobbler’s Children Go Barefoot, was presented for the first time. This entry is an adaptation of my talk.
Update: Video of the talk now included
Design, at it’s essence, is taking deliberate and reasoned steps to identify core purpose, solve the right problems, and create new, desired outcomes. If we were to take the products we use most in our daily lives, our favorite products, deliberate and reasoned steps were taken at some point to create experiences that became memorable and stood out.
My favorite product ever is the Schwinn Sting-Ray.
This beauty was my first bicycle. It came in a gorgeous shade of red, had a banana seat (which scientifically speaking, could fit three of my friends), chrome fenders I could see myself in…it even had a light. But none of those reasons are why it’s my favorite.
It’s my favorite because it provided me with three things for the very first time. Autonomy, discovery, and freedom. Whether or not the designers who built this bike intended to deliver autonomy, discovery, and freedom, I’m not sure. I am willing to bet though, they understood this bicycle was more than steel, rubber, and plastic.
Many of the conversations we have when building products are around the engineering, the materials, and the components that will be used. Those things are absolutely vital to the success of the product, but when we use products, we connect to them because of something else. We connect to the products we use every day because of outcomes, like the capabilities they provide us or the emotions they stir. You see, as users, we don’t adopt products; we adopt better versions of ourselves.
As designers, when we’re trying to win the hearts of users and gain that adoption, it’s important to discuss the attributes of a bicycle, but it’s critical to understand the needs of users and how a bicycle might meet those needs. In my case, designers understood I wanted to be able to make my own choices of where I go, to discover new places because of those choices, feel the wind in my hair, and perhaps the option to do all those things at night.
An accidental job into a deliberate career
I am a designer. Professionally, I’ve been designing for over 15 years, but I had no intent to ever become or make my living as a designer.
I’ve had many jobs in my life. I’ve worked on a farm, was a ski instructor, a student, a bartender, an event coordinator, an actor, a designer…you get the idea. As a young adult, my biggest fear was becoming someone I didn’t want to be. I believed having many jobs gave me permission to be mediocre and noncommittal, to avoid getting stuck in a career I hated. Those jobs were allowing me pretend I was someone I wasn’t.
Noncommittal, mediocre, avoid, pretend; those aren’t exactly inspiring words to live by. I’m interested in a lot of things, and while that’s good thing, for a long time those interests were just distractions. Those interests were behind many moments where I asked myself:
“Why does this keep happening to me?”
It’s a statement you might have said to yourself at one time or another. Usually, it’s said when we are stuck, when we have undesired results in our lives and want to create new outcomes. But wow, it is difficult to sort that stuff out while you’re living in those moments!
In 2003, after saying to myself, “why does this keep happening to me?” one too many times, I decided enough was enough. I had to do something about it. No matter how difficult it was or how long it took, I had to figure out what was going on with me, what would make me happy, and what I stood for. I decided to write a manifesto.
Honestly, this manifesto wasn’t very good. It wasn’t really a manifesto (it was more a statement of being), but the good it provided was that I did it. I sat down with my fears, my pains, my strengths, and was able to be honest with myself. I taped this manifesto to my bedroom wall and each time I left my room, I saw it. I was reminded of who I was and what I had to live up to that day.
I also had to become a full time designer.
“Les cordonniers sont toujours les plus mal chaussés”
In English, this translates to, “Daddy, you say all the right words, but your accent is terrible.”
Another translation could be, “The cobbler’s children go barefoot.” This phrase is a modern version of a 1546 proverb by John Heywood. While this proverb comes in many forms, the meaning of each remains the same: often, those closest to us do not benefit from our own expertise. Who could be closer to ourselves than us?
In the years following that initial manifesto, I continued to reflect, but honestly, who wants to be the person who’s written more than one manifesto? It’s an exhausting process and probably not necessary to do over and over again. So, my process of reflection has transformed over the years. About 10 years ago, I began experimenting with the idea of using the deliberate and reasoned steps from my professional life as a designer and applying them to my personal life. As a result, my manifesto has evolved into my own personal opportunity workshop or P.O.W.
When and why
If I had to guess, I take this workshop 2–3 times a year. When I find myself speaking in negative tones, doubting my own abilities, or having moments where I’m not really sure what to do next, I take a step back and jump into the workshop. While I have used the workshop under various circumstances (moving to Europe, deciding on a new neighborhood to live in, confronting a close friend) the majority of the time has been related to my career.
For many of us we are affected greatly by our careers. What we do for a living has a huge impact on our self-esteem and our sense of achievement. If you were to consider your career path, it might look something like the image on the left.
Full of peaks, valleys, and repetitive cycles, with the hope it has some type of upward trend overall. When we look at this path we know where we started, we know where we are, and where we we want to go, but the reality is we can’t predict what will come next.
So, when I’m feeling frustrated or stuck in my career, I use deliberate and reasons steps to try and give myself a sneak peek of what will happen next. To see if I can better predict what my future path holds.
This structure affords me two things. First, to be a participant; to allow my subjective feelings in that moment to come out, and then, to be a facilitator; to make some objective decisions around those feelings. This structure is based on two techniques I use in my professional life, Affinity Diagramming (sometimes referred to as the KJ Method) and Self-Assessment, and it involves 5 steps.
An example workshop
To better demonstrate the format of this workshop, I’m going to use a familiar scenario from my past; concerns about my career. While this example is not specific to any one moment in my career, it does provide an overview of many moments throughout my career. Here we go.
Step 1: Determine a focus statement.
It’s important to set the stage for the workshop itself. Identifying a clear and concise focus statement allows me to work with one topic at a time. Since this example is around career, here’s a focus statement I’ve used in the past which might be familiar.
“My job is not going the way I want it to.”
This focus statement will drive the results for the entire workshop and after I have it, I’m ready for step 2.
Step 2: Answer four questions.
No matter what focus statement I choose, I always ask myself the same four questions.
1. What are the problems I am currently having?
2. Are there any missed opportunities right now?
3. What is going right with me?
4. What is just “plain important” to get right?
Now, it might seem like these are easy questions to answer, but experience tells me it’s not so straightforward. I either struggle trying to get perfect answers or spend way too much time with specific answers. To help with both, I use two tools to keep me focused on getting answers out quickly and effectively: Time and Post-its.
First, I give myself 10 minutes to write as many answers as I can, knowing full well I won’t be able to write down every answer, but accepting that the answers I come up with will be good enough for me to make some decisions.
Second, I write each answer separately on an individual post-it. Post-its are great, not only because I can stick them on any surface, but also because the size of a post-it is perfect for one answer.
When it comes to the answers themselves, I typically come up with some that I’m fond of and some I don’t like so much. It’s very important to have that blend, especially to see the positive when I’m feeling stuck. When thinking about my career, previous answers I’ve had are:
“The job isn’t what it was described to be.”
“I have great benefits.”
“There’s little trust within the workplace.”
“My colleagues and peers respect me.”
“I’m not being challenged.”
Do these look familiar to you? If so, continue reading.
Once I’ve captured 10 minutes worth of answers, I place each post-it side-by-side on a table or wall so I can step back and consume the answers at a macro level. I like to look at the answers I’ve provided and see if any of them belong together, which inevitably they do. I’m now ready to organize my answers.
Step 3: Organize my answers into natural groups.
There are many ways to organize these answers, but this is where post-its really comes into play. I physically move individual answers next to each other to form groups, until those groupings make sense. From these groupings, themes start to develop, and I give each theme a name.
Again, speaking about career, themes like Trust, Support, and Opportunity commonly appear as these themes really resonate with me.
Perhaps more importantly though, as I write my answers down and arrange them, the acute, emotional feelings I had just moments ago, start to become “just” words on paper. Words that mean a little less, words I can separate myself from, and words I can crumple up to throw away if I want to. These words I now start to see a little more objectively.
I’m ready for step 4.
Step 4: Develop a ranking system.
Self assessment is very useful tool for reflection. Assessment is simply the process of collecting information about previous tasks or performances to improve future capabilities. Essentially, finding out where I’ve been, understanding what’s been successful (or not), to figure out what works and what doesn’t.
The ranking system I use in this workshop is meant to be straightforward and when it comes to my career, there are two metrics I’m concerned with:
Desire to have
Attempts to resolve
The desire metric is fairly straight forward. It’s, my “do I want something?” and, “how much?” rating. The attempts metric is my reality check. If I haven’t attempted to resolve something, it must not matter as much as I think it does, so I need a metric to reflect that. In a way, it’s my process of de-prioritizing some of the answers I provided in step 2. After all, and despite what many might claim, not everything can be the highest priority.
Now that I have metrics defined, the final step is to rank my answers.
Step 5: Rank my answers.
I go to each of my answers and calculate a score using the following formula:
(2 x Desire) + Attempts = Total Score
You may notice desire is weighted differently. Desire is the most important factor when it comes to my career. I also don’t believe I can learn desire. I either want something or I don’t, so I weight it by a factor of 2.
After applying a score to each answer and throwing them into a spreadsheet, the results give me something like the chart below.
It’s not a perfect system, but it’s not meant to be. It is however, a quick, deliberate, and reasoned way to understand what I should focus on, which is exactly what I need when I’m stuck.
I’ve spent so much of my time wanting to have grown than to be growing. As I child, I remember lying awake in bed at night with terrible pains in my legs; growing pains. Like those growing pains, it was, and still can be, painful to be honest with myself. For years, I looked for examples of personal growth to try and emulate, in an attempt to skip that pain. It was only when I discovered the conditions upon which my growth occurred, which was painful, that I began to feel better about myself.
I believe many of us are more powerful than we could ever imagine. I believe many of us walk around with some of the answers we seek right in front of us, but just need a little structure to find them.
In closing, I challenge you to provide yourselves with the capacity to explore, to grow in random bits or in big bangs, by leveraging things you already know. The more experienced I have become, the more I need basics, like this workshop, to keep me honest, to keep me in the moment, and to establish the conditions for a meaningful life.
I still have lots of interests, but I am no longer distracted.