I was asked, during one of our weekly #dchat's, to share what I have learned in my time as the editor-in-residence at the d.school. There are far too many lessons for one blog post, but here are the lessons I believe are the most important:
If you ever receive a golden ticket, take it.
Invitations to spend a period of your life in one of the most beautiful places on Earth don't come along every day. In all honesty, when I landed in California, I wasn't sure I had made the right decision. My career ladder, while not entirely structured, was clearer from the relative safety of a newsroom than it was on my brother's front doorstep, which is where I spent hours waiting to be let in on my first night out West. I didn't have a home yet, but I was in the process of renting an apartment sight unseen, and had packed up my home in Washington, D.C. -- many of my belongings landing in places I no longer remember.
But the past ten months at the d.school have taught me this: if you're offered a golden ticket -- an opportunity that makes you that strange combination of apprehensive, terrified and queasy -- take it. It will force you to rest in the uncomfortable, an essential part of personal and professional growth.
The 'creative' skills are just as important as the 'quantitative' ones.
I have been surrounded by more engineers and scientists than at just about any other point in my life. I, however, am not what one would deem quantitatively confident. Now, the main push of this past year at the d.school was the instilling of creative confidence. If you have not read Tom and David Kelley's book by that title, I highly recommend that you do. The term is likely to come up in your daily life sooner rather than later.
Now, I came to the d.school anticipating I would finally dive in and become quantitatively confident. What about quantitative confidence for creative people?, I asked boldly of the d.school's core team at the beginning of the year, going so far as to scrawl it on a large sticky note.
That sticky note rests on the wall of the d.school's teaching teams' space. Every time I looked at it during the past ten months, I felt more and more embarrassed by the question. It was completely off. It came from the frame of mind where skills were "soft" and "hard" -- where "soft" is useless and "hard" is lucrative.
It's not about the density or perceived profitability of one's skillset, it's about one's confidence in the skills they possess. My question highlighted less my quantitative weakness, than the weakness of my confidence in my own creative abilities. If I struggle with the quantitative, I can apply my creative strength to make the quantitative more accessible. That's on me and no one else. That's what creative confidence is all about. I am not "soft" relative to those with an affinity for the quantitative if I have equivalent confidence in my own abilities.
Don't drag people along. Meet people where they are.
I was charged with tracking nine professionals over the course of a ten-month residency and chronicling their learning and application of human-centered design. What did they learn? How did they apply it? What was the impact?
Engaging in this work reminded me of an important lesson in life: don't drag people along; meet people where they are. Don't think that your expertise as a storyteller, journalist, editor, videographer, producer or whatever you happen to be is enough to convince someone to tell you their story. It's not.
I have come to learn that the process of extracting great insights from human-centered design work is difficult and requires an incredible amount of flexibility and creativity. Working with each of the fellows this year taught me something different about the process of capturing a story. Some capture methods worked for some fellows and not for others. The one method that did not work across the board was sitting back and waiting for them to come to me with their stories. I had to meet them where they were.
Design is a discipline and a frame of mind.
I am a designer. Then again, I am also not a designer. There is an entire world of what I call "Big D"-design that I am not a part of. I cannot build you the latest piece of consumer technology, to say nothing of designing it. But I am a designer because I have the tools to prioritize users' needs ahead of my own, to approach every problem as if I know nothing but am curious about everything. I'm now aware that my ignorance isn't my weakness -- it is my greatest strength. In concert with that, I know I must also be confident in my own skills and stay open to new insights and always welcome the unexpected. These are all elements of design work -- whether the "d" is large or small. Design is a discipline -- and a skill hard-earned. But it is also a mindset -- one more easily applied than many may think.
A true leader stands back.
The famous image of George Washington standing in a small boat cutting through the ice of the Delaware River is often what came to mind when I thought of leadership. There are similar images of world leaders throughout history. Chest out and chin raised, they point the way forward trailed by a devoted band of followers.
That is no longer my image of leadership
I am not a leadership expert, and I recognize that there is a vast repository of work written about the topic. But I've worked on enough projects to know that I am an unhappy rower on a ship where I have little-to-no input as to the direction of the boat.
Teams at the d.school practice emergent leadership where individuals collaborate to determine the direction of a project. Working alone or big-footing in is the fastest way to kill a project at the d.school. This is not the place to show off how good you are at being "in charge." This is a place where you show off how good you are at getting things done collaboratively, under tight deadlines and in as creative a way as possible.
The greatest leaders know when to stand back.
Be selfish in your pursuit of good health.
I have learned at the d.school, that there is nothing -- and I do mean nothing -- more valuable than a healthy life.
Granted, I say this at 11 p.m. after a long day of editing, writing, advising, meetings and more cups of coffee than I am willing to admit to. But I love the day I had and was very much fulfilled by it. I love the interactions, the distractions and the people who made them possible. I love that I was told I am "awesome" by someone I deeply respect. I love that I had a candid moment with a colleague about frustrations in the day-to-day work, but that we resolved and got back to that work with fresh eyes and open minds. I love that I rode my bike for nearly an hour today and sweat straight through to the bookbag clinging to my back. I love that I sat down and wrote this post and that, in so doing, again opened a window on this messy, difficult and radical process of discovering the d.school.
Stay uncomfortable, be kind to yourself and have a great summer.