Navigating Adulthood

IMG_5135.JPG

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” 

Ferris Bueller immortalized those words (many) years ago, but as my own life swirls around me, I now realize he was right. Our small day-to-day decisions may not seem important – let alone life-altering – but taken in aggregate, these smaller choices add up to the life you’re living right now, at this very moment. 

The funny thing I’m learning about life is that often there’s a script we hold onto in our heads, the play-by-play of 'how my life will end up’ – and then there is reality. Like two paths diverging in a wood, the direction our lives actually takes often diverges from the script we’ve written in our heads. 

Case in point: I’m from California, I’ve spent almost my entire life in California, and the script in my head has always said that I would live in California. And then, three years ago, I went ‘off-script’ and moved to Washington DC. Although that felt like a small decision at the time – ‘I can always move back!’ I swore to myself – I now realize that this seemingly-tiny change has completely altered the path of my life.  

How do we manage the distance between the path we thought our life would take, and the path we’re actually on? My theory is that making sense of this gap and managing it is what makes us Grownups. In fact, in my own experience I’m learning that much of adulthood is about understanding and reconciling the distance between these two paths. Sometimes this means finding ways to course correct and bring the two paths back in line with each other. Other times this actually means celebrating the new direction my life has taken, and appreciating that the script I had in my head could have never envisioned a path better than the one I’m on. 

IMG_5142.JPG

How are your two paths diverging or converging? What gaps between paths have been easy to manage as you’ve grown into adulthood, and which ones have been harder to reconcile? 

As Ferris so wisely told us, it’s in our best interest to take stock of our lives every so often and evaluate how we’re doing. The piece that Ferris missed, however, is that it’s not just about taking stock, but about actively managing the direction we’re heading in. 

Whether you’re taking time to reflect once a year, once a month, or once a week, it’s important to practice giving yourself the time and space to check in, evaluate how you’re doing and identify the steps you may want to take to make changes. This may be in a journal, in your own head on a walk, or over coffee with a trusted friend or mentor. In the end, it’s this practice of reflection combined with forward planning that matters, not the method. Over time, this thoughtful work will help you not only see more clearly where you might have gone off-track, but also open your eyes to the places where going off-script resulted in serendipitous opportunities, new discoveries and important life lessons.

And that, in my opinion, is truly the definition of being a Grownup.
 

Field Notes: Designing for Everyone at The Crayola Experience

Field Notes: Designing for Everyone at The Crayola Experience

This Field Note comes from Easton, Pennsylvania – the home of the Crayola Factory. Imagine this: a four story building dedicated to all things crayons: the history, the colors, the creativity. Of course, in addition to playing and coloring, there’s also a lot of opportunity for parents to shop – new crayons, new toys, and much more. Recently my husband Dan and I took our son Eli to this crayon heaven and while Eli was ensconced in the experience, I noticed a few things...

Read More

A Love Letter to Risk Taking

A favorite window sign in Palo Alto, ground zero for risks, failure and resilience.

A favorite window sign in Palo Alto, ground zero for risks, failure and resilience.

As a child of Silicon Valley, I’m no stranger to the mantra of failure as a virtue. Fail fast to succeed sooner, they say. Failure is often talked about as a badge of honor, a show of strength and resilience, not something to hide or shy away from.

When you take a risk, you open yourself up to the possibility of failure. Thinking on my career over the last 15 years or so, I’ve actually taken a number of risks. I moved across the country to go to business school on a hunch that I needed to learn more and get exposure to new ideas. I accepted a job at IDEO without a lick of design training, all on instinct that the risk would lead me somewhere good in the end. I even agreed to move my entire family to Washington, DC to join a new startup in government, the Presidential Innovation Fellows program – a huge risk given that almost nothing about the Fellowship was fully tested and set in stone.

Recently I took one of the biggest professional risks of my career: signing on to open up the first US office for a talented organization of engineers, designers and technology strategists based in Europe. Talk about an untested experiment – this opportunity was all about trusting my instincts and jumping into the unknown. Yet again, taking a risk.

Thinking about it more, this big risk – saying yes to the job – was actually made up of a series of smaller risks that I also agreed to take on. Like a collection of puzzle pieces coming together and forming the whole. For this opportunity I took a risk joining a team I didn’t know, but that I instantly respected and connected with. I took a risk creating a role for myself that included new challenges and unexplored responsibilities, but that I was certain would help me flex new muscles and grow as a person. I even took a risk on the content of the work, moving out of my comfort zone of ‘easy’ topics and diving head first into novel conversations and vocabulary.

Everything about this big risk was exciting, fresh, invigorating and challenging – and I loved every minute of it. 

Unfortunately, yesterday I found out that this big risk I took – the one where I jumped into the unknown and embraced the experiment of trying – didn’t work out. Does that mean I failed? 

As our old pal Tennyson said, ‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” For relationships of all kinds, even professional ones, the truth is we have to take risks. We have to trust that we’re making a good choice based on the information we have, and then we have to be prepared to take a leap of faith on the rest of it. Really, everything is a risk. In the good moments of this latest risk, I laughed, I had fun, I enjoyed my teammates and our shared experiences together. In the bad moments of this risk, I struggled, I gritted my teeth, I toughed it out, and yes, sometimes I even cried. And in the end, taking this risk forced me to stretch myself, learn new things and become a stronger leader. 

Taking risks requires bravery. It requires being vulnerable, opening yourself up to something untested and unknown, and spreading your arms out wide to see what comes back to you. In this way taking a risk – whether in a new professional capacity, in a new personal relationship, or in some other way – is actually the opposite of failure. You fail when you say no instead of yes. You fail when you don’t try. You fail when you don’t learn. 

In the end, I took a risk. I tried something new. And it didn’t work out. But no – I definitely didn’t fail. 

So to all my fellow risk-takers out there, I say, ‘Onward!’ Oh, and to anyone who’s hiring, I’m ready to say yes to my next risk.

From Perfection to Prototype

At vizzuality, we believe that the people who use the technology we design and develop deserve a voice in what gets built, which is why we spend so much time learning about people's real experiences and asking users for feedback.

What does it look like to ask for project feedback – before you even start? 

As VP of Development and Impact at vizzuality, I help connect-the-dots between our environmental and social impact clients and our project teams who design and develop engaging digital tools that tell stories through data. One of these dots – in fact, the one I care about the most – is making sure that what we build for our clients is not just what our clients want, but something that our clients’ intended audiences will actually use and enjoy.

When I think about feedback, my mind often goes to something like an ‘after action review’ – what did we do, what worked or didn’t, and what did we learn? But in order to design and develop something that actually resonates with the right community in the right way, we must be willing to collect and act on feedback from our users, stakeholders and partners from the very beginning. Sounds easy enough, but the reality is that asking for feedback can often be scary or even paralyzing – especially in the beginning of a project when pieces of our work can feel nebulous, unstable, or high-stakes, and we want to get things just right.

With this in mind, here are my three easy tips for incorporating feedback into your project design and development from the very beginning:

Know who you’re designing for (hint: it’s almost always not you)

One of my favorite adages from my time at IDEO was ‘Don’t jump to ideas.’ For a firm with a well-known reputation for creative idea generation, IDEO actually has a particularly strong commitment to not jumping straight into ideas, but rather starting first with inquiry, inspiration, observation, and asking questions of the people they intend to reach through their designs.

There are lots of methods for outlining who your users are (the good old pen and paper works quite well), but in essence, it’s important to pause and have an actual conversation with your project teammates about who you are trying to reach and why. Ideally this happens before you have a solution in mind for whatever problem you’re trying to fix; otherwise you’re most likely jumping to ideas and putting the cart before the horse.

Step away from your computer and talk to a human being

How do we make asking for feedback less scary? My best advice is to recognize – and then actively practice embracing – the idea that there is simply no way we can know absolutely everything. In fact, if we knew everything already, we would have already solved whatever problem we’re trying to tackle – making none of our work necessary in the first place!

So, forget the idea that you can know it all, and instead commit to start asking questions. Begin by talking with one or two people (or five or ten) to learn about their world and gather insights to inform what you design. There are a lot of great resources out there with sample formats for interviewing users (some of my favorites come from DesignKit, a how-to guidebook from IDEO.org) but truthfully, it’s not rocket science. It can be as simple as a cup of coffee and a few questions.

Feeling adventurous? Once you’re ready to level-up beyond conversations and interviews, give observations a try. It turns out that we humans are hard-wired to create shortcuts in our minds and to abbreviate the steps we take to perform tasks. A time saver for us, yes. But this means we’re really actually pretty terrible at explaining what we do and why we do it. So, to account for this, we can use observations to get at the heart of how our users perform activities, behaviors, processes and tasks in a way that’s unobtrusive, inconspicuous and often quite revelatory.

Stay in touch

Want to know one secret to building something that people will actually use? Invite them into your design process early and often. In my experience, a user will be more likely to adopt a solution – technical or otherwise – if she can see herself in the design and execution of that solution. If I have a hand in determining a feature, or refining a user experience, for example, I’m not only going to feel proud of my contribution, I’m also going to be more likely to use and recommend the solution to others.

It’s true that by staying in touch and creating regular moments for collaboration with our users, we open ourselves and our work up to a slightly messier process – one where more voices and more needs must be managed. But the trade-off – the thing that makes all that messiness worth it – is that by inviting in the feedback of others early and often, we have more teammates to lean on, more champions to share our stories, and ultimately more impact through what we’ve built.

What’s your favorite way for including feedback in your early project design and development stages?

 

This blog was originally published as part of Feedback Labs’ Three Things Thursday series — a terrific collection of feedback stories in all stages of work. Thank you Feedback Labs for including me!

First Day / Last Day

Yesterday marked my last day as a White House Presidential Innovation Fellow

When I joined the PIF program in September 2014, I didn’t do it out of a love for my country. Sure, the public service element was meaningful to me from the start, but I never would have used the word ‘patriotism’ to describe my reasons for joining. My reasons were more personal, perhaps more selfish – career growth, new opportunities for my family, that sort of thing.

As soon as I got started, it was clear I was in a fight to swim upstream. It turns out that getting stuff done in government can be even tougher than it looks from the outside, especially on a short timeline. The reality is that there have been many moments over the last two years where I have raised my hands in frustration and wished I could quit. 

Yet, as I wind down my stint as a Fellow, I can’t help but feel immense pride at having witnessed and perhaps even played a part (albeit a very, very tiny one) in the impact and legacy of the Obama Administration. It may just be coincidence that I am concluding my federal service as our next election is picking up speed, but watching the battle taking place – for our new leader and for the future of this country – I now understand what’s truly at stake, as well as what’s truly possible when people come together in service of mission that’s bigger than themselves.

Over the last 23 months, it has been a personal honor and privilege to serve my country in the way I know how, to do my part to make our government more efficient, effective and ultimately more successful in meeting the needs of the public. It’s been an experience full of big lessons and small victories, and I am so grateful for all of it. Thank you to all of my friends and colleagues at the Presidential Innovation Fellows Program, the White House, and across the government for inviting me in with open arms and supporting me over the last two years. 

While it’s bittersweet to close this chapter, I’m moving on with an expanded understanding of my own identity and purpose as an American citizen and patriot. I didn’t start out on this course because of my love for our country, but I am certainly leaving with it.