One of the challenges of design (and life) is to focus on the present and enjoy it and at the same time plan for the future.
But too much focus on the future, we get anxiety. We worry too much: “How will this project turn out?” “What if I fail? Will I succeed?” “What will people say of me?” “What am I doing with my career?” “How can I achieve success?” “What should I be focusing on right now?” “I wonder if my boss hates me?”
All these things takes us out of the present moment. Then, while at work, we don’t enjoy our day. Our minds have taken over — and we can have a subtle feeling of anxiousness or worry that paints everything we do.
The rat racer
I just finished a wonderful book called “Happier” by Tal Ben Shahar (I highly recommend it). In it, he calls this worrying person the “Rat Racer”. He suggests that at a young age, we learn to put off enjoying the moment and instead, learn how to sacrifice for the long term future. For example, in school, we are told we need to focus and do our work, regardless if we like it, because ultimately, this will get us a good grade or get us into a good college. We carry this into adulthood, where our hope is that buckling up and working hard will allow us to one day buy that home, buy that car or take that vacation. In other words, we say to ourselves “I will be happy some day…”.
But this is a pipe dream.
Shahar mentions the rat racer has made a secret pact with himself — he thinks that sacrificing current happiness will get him happiness in the future. Thus the rat racer doesn’t care about happiness in the moment too much — since it’s all about some future prize. This is summed up in the “no pain no gain” mentality. We continue to disregard how we feel about what we’re doing and plow through. We continue to encourage ourselves with other similar slogans like ‘work hard’, ‘hustle’, ‘put in the hours’, etc. while disregarding enjoying the process completely.
On the extreme end, this makes people very competitive and insecure. You get people who are focused so much on their future ambitions and career that they justify bad behavior in the workplace.
Hate to break it to you, but just achieving our goals doesn’t make us happier (I’ll explain more in the next sections).
Side note: This sort of rat race/competitive thinking is prevalent in self-help books which emphasize ‘ambition’ and ‘grit’ at any cost. They imply that we must force and motivate ourselves because we are lazy or undisciplined (and if we don’t — they imply we will lose out in life like the majority of “lost” people!). Sure, sometimes it sounds like sweet words (example: “hustle hard stay humble”), but underlying this context is that we need to PUSH for success. It MUST be effortful. It’s like a good friend once told me, it’s not the carrot, it’s not fully the stick, it’s like someone is beating you with a carrot.
This rat racer motivation style may work for a while – but we end up not happy. Work becomes a chore, design becomes a chore, life becomes a chore. People can fall sick, feel existentially lost, or get angrier as time goes on.
Happiness = pleasure + meaning
Tal Ben Shahar counters this common thinking. His idea is that man/woman needs to have two things to be happy: pleasure and meaningfulness. We must enjoy the current efforts in the moment (pleasure) while at the same time move towards meaningful goals.
From “Happier” by Tal Ben Shahar:
Attaining lasting happiness requires that we enjoy the journey on our way toward a destination we deem valuable. Happiness is not about making it to the peak of the mountain nor is it about climbing aimlessly around the mountain; happiness is the experience of climbing toward the peak.
Reaching our goals is not satisfying in itself (as Shahar mentions in the book). Often we confuse the relief of accomplishing a goal as ‘happiness’. But “Happiness is not making it to the peak of the mountain.” Countless studies have shown that those who have won the lottery return to their baselines of happiness months after winning. The rat racer hopes that reaching the peak (their goals) will bring him happiness, but its just “relief” – momentary discomfort is removed. Not only that, life goes on. New goals will be created that the rat racer will be struggling towards. Again, discomfort settles in.
So do we disregard goals all together and just focus on enjoying the moment? Not so fast. If we just focus on doing what makes us happy — without any regard to goals — we end up doing meaningless activities. We do things for fun, but without purpose. This is why Shahar says “[Happiness is not] about climbing aimlessly around the mountain.”
Ultimately, happiness is about trying to balance your life and tilt it more towards doing things you enjoy AND doing things that help you work towards goals you find meaningful. Of course, sometimes that may be tough to do (example: a job or project that isn’t providing interesting work at all), but we must aim to strike this balance in all areas of our life and also improve our present conditions (or attitude) so we can enjoy the moment more.
Applying this to your design work
Are you enjoying the process of design? What parts do you find meaningful and pleasureful? Do you have clear meaningful goals?
Here are my two suggestions:
1. Discover what design activities you enjoy
For myself, I have realized that I really enjoy learning about ethics in design. So I have spent some time reading blogs and books about it. Other designers may be enjoying learning a new software or creating high fidelity wireframes. Whatever it is, learn to articulate this interest.
2. Set meaningful goals
No one is going to tell you what is meaningful for you. You must decide that. Is that getting promoted? Is that winning a design award? Is that applying a new skillset to your project? For me, I enjoy doing workshops on things I’ve learned — this allows me to connect the ideas I’m learning to a future meaningful goal. Discover what is meaningful for you — and then try and connect enjoyable activities to it.
Suggested activity: rate both activities and goals
Here’s an activity to help you. Shahar suggests you write down your day-to-day activities and goals that you set — and then rank them on a scale from 1 to 10. This helps build more awareness of what you enjoy- what you personally find pleasureful and meaningful.
Are you coming home energized or drained?
Think about the majority of your days. Do you come home drained or energized? Too many activities that don’t bring pleasure will bring you down. The journey becomes a chore and you get into the rat racer mindset – where you just want relief for some day in the future.
Do you enjoy what you do, but have no sense of where you are going? Do you feel like you are wandering? Maybe spending some time articulating goals or working with your manager to articulate goals may be helpful. But again, only YOU can say what is a meaningful goal or not.
My advice (and Shahar’s), make sure you can enjoy the process AND work towards meaningful goals in your life.
What do you think? What’s your general philosophy about being happier as a designer? Feel free to share any comments below.
A difficult challenge for me at times is just to chill out when I meet people at work.
If I am to be honest, I find myself “trying hard” when I meet someone new, people senior to me, or with new clients in top positions.
We all do it, but when is it unhealthy?
To some extent, we all “try hard” when we meet someone new or want to make a good impression. This extra energy and enthusiasm is what people tend to appreciate too (no one likes a dead unenthusiastic personality when introducing themselves).
However, the definition of “trying hard” to me is: overextended energy going beyond basic first-time meeting energy exchange.
What does “trying hard” mean? Beyond the first meeting of someone, you:
- You provide extra effort, time, energy to please another person or get their attention, approval, validation.
- You smile more often than what’s nature to you (could be real or fake smile, sure why not).
- You give “unearned” or “undeserved” extra attention to someone else due to their rank, newness, position, etc..
- You do things against your typical nature or behavior to try and befriend another person.
Problems with “trying hard”
There are a few problems with “trying hard” that can end up hurting you in your career and life.
Problem 1: Trying to please everyone rarely works and often pushes people away
This is an interesting irony, but the more you try to please someone the less they respect you and like you. This is indeed contradictory to most typical advice to “work harder!” if you don’t get your result the first time. Pleasing others with more effort, backfires. Big time.
You would think people would be flattered right? Rarely that happens. Oftentimes an opposite effect can happen where others find your behavior unappealing.
“People pleasing”, “Looking good”, “nice guy/girl syndrome”, “trying hard,” or “butt kissing” are all forms of trying to impress others.
When you try hard to impress others and befriend them, people consciously or unconsciously know you are really trying to get something from them.
Now, you may think — no, I am not trying to get anything from them. I’m just being friendly! An extra amount of friendliness doesn’t hurt!
Well, let’s be honest here. You are trying to get something – the obvious thing being their approval, a return of friendliness. You are forcing an emotional exchange – when the other person may or may not be that into it or even deserving of it.
Try too hard to impress others — unconsciously rings an alarm. People can sense you are changing yourself (not being at ease) for them.
If the alarm could talk it would ask:
Why would you change who YOU are just for MY sake? Must be a plan in the works.
Unconsciously, people’s “sales-man” radar goes off. They unconsciously ask themselves, what does he want from me? Does he want my approval? My trust? For what?
Problem 2: You fail to see people as they are
I think another big problem with “trying too hard” is something I have seen myself do.
I have tried so hard, that it has blinded me from seeing people as they really are.
If you are trying so hard to please others — no matter what they do, you are really not being self aware of who you are dealing with.
That person may be a complete jerk and undeserving of your extra attention, energy, good will, etc.. — but you are too busy trying to get their approval (or reciprocity) to notice that you reealllly need to stay away.
This reminds me a common story of the scorpion and the frog. Here’s the short version from Wikipedia (but it’s a fairly old fable):
A scorpion asks a frog to carry it across a river. The frog hesitates, afraid of being stung, but the scorpion argues that if it did so, they would both drown. Considering this, the frog agrees, but midway across the river the scorpion does indeed sting the frog, dooming them both. When the frog asks the scorpion why, the scorpion replies that it was in its nature to do so.
If you are used to “trying too hard” too often, you risk the possibility of developing a very agreeable personality type that blinds you from staying away from those who may not have good intentions for you.
Side note: I have done this in my own career and warn you against making the same mistake. If you are too nice and agreeable and always trying hard — you can fail to stay away from negative or toxic co-workers.
Problem 3: You can hurt your self-respect
Another big problem with “trying too hard” is that you end up hurting your own self respect after some time.
If you “try too hard”, for reasons I mentioned earlier, you are going to frustrate yourself. You will find that your effort doesn’t give you the results you are looking for (you will find people are hard to control and won’t bend to your try-hard-willpower too often 😉 ).
This can lead you to hurting your self-respect since you are doing things you really don’t want to do and is NOT effective. You are not honoring any personal boundaries or limits with others, which doesn’t build personal power.
This can lead to shutting others down more quickly or keeping others away subconsciously (think of teenagers or heck, even adults, who break up and remove the other person from facebook since others won’t comply with their affections).
The Paradox: Try Less = Get More
The paradox is that the more you accept yourself and release acceptance from others (try less to impress others), the more you will be respected for your own opinions and ideas (others will accept you more).
So how can we move to this self-acceptance state? Here are some tips:
Tip 1: Ensure you have a “neutral” tone of voice
You’ll notice when you are trying too hard, your tone of voice will rise. This is your “making rapport” tone of voice. It’s usually higher pitched – signaling that you are not a threat and are eager to make friends.
Example: When people visit after a long time they’ll usually say “Heeyyyy!! Great seeing you after so long!” This tone of voice is definitely more higher pitched — it’s the “making rapport” tone of voice.
Compare this to harsher tone of voice that accompanies people who are used to breaking rapport. Executives in companies are very OK doing this (as a power move? I don’t know. But it doesn’t win friends).
Timmy: Good evening Mr. Scrooge! (Making rapport tone of voice)
Mr. Scrooge: Bah Ham Bug! (Breaking rapport tone of voice).
People who use the “making rapport” tone of voice with strangers and new people TOO OFTEN, signal to others that they are too open and eager. They are “trying too hard”.
Others subconsciously know they are fishing for commonalities or connection without warrant.
So what’s my tip? Aim for neutral tone of voice (or slightly higher energy) when meeting people. This doesn’t mean be a lame duck — no personality at all. It just means to cut down your energy and “try-hardness” such that your voice of tone slows down a bit.
Tip 2: Catch yourself impressing and start expressing
Start becoming aware when you start getting in your head, and trying to say and do the right thing.
Watch yourself if you’re trying too hard to please and be a certain way for someone else — be it your boss, friends, loved ones, family, or even Facebook (I know many people who won’t post whats on their mind simply because they fear other peoples responses and reactions).
This way of being stifles true self-expression and creates a false way of being.
A lot of people don’t even know they are trying to impress others because impression can be a very subtle thing. Oftentimes you have to catch yourself doing it.
For example, if Tom tries too hard to get to know his boss, this is a form of impression. “Lets go for lunch!” Tom says with a beaming grin. He’s trying too hard and his boss knows it.
Watch when you give opinions and ideas. Is it to get a certain reaction or approval from someone? Even a positive intention like a desire to get an approving nod or a smile from someone can be a form of trying to impress.
Don’t cater to others and also don’t let others stifle your opinions and ideas. Find your own voice, accept it, and then express it. Then you can speak without the approval of others.
People sense you don’t need their approval and THIS is what is truly what wins admiration.
This is what people secretly want. No one wants you to impress them.
Tip 3: Be a contrarian (do the opposite)
It might take a while to embody this idea of true expression with others. While you catch yourself trying to impress, you handy trick is to start saying and doing things intentionally to NOT impress.
This is like being a contrarian.
You tell yourself, “oh man, I know I am going to try to impress him/her, so I will take the opposite approach and not impress him/her.”
This means if you are eager to help out always (your way of “trying too hard”) — maybe you lay low and don’t volunteer this round.
Do the opposite of your “try hard” behavior.
Be careful though. Too much contrarian-ness may lead to being a jerk! What we are aiming at is to treat others fairly and with due respect as well as honoring your true self expression and way of being.
Keep at it. Over time you will find a healthy middle ground where you will know how to just express yourself without even worrying about impressing others.
Trying too hard is a lot of work. There are a number of problems that can arise in your career as a result.
Some of these problems I mentioned:
- Trying to please everyone rarely works and often pushes people away
- You fail to see people as they are
- You can hurt your self-respect
The cure? Paradoxically, trying less ends up getting you more (more respect, more affection and friendship, etc.).
Well, here are a few tricks and tips that have worked for me:
- Ensure you have a “neutral” tone of voice
- Catch yourself impressing and start expressing
- Be a contrarian (do the opposite)
What are your thoughts? Have you experienced “trying hard” in your work and life? How has that resulted? I’d love to learn your tricks and tips as well.
When I taught UX Design, I would tell my students that looking for a job was a matter of just applying daily, keeping at it! Through planning and sheer willpower you can ensure you are making all possible efforts.
And then one day, as I realized I needed to get out of my current job, I began actively looking for job opportunities. Boy, it was difficult! Putting my foot in my mouth, I realize it’s easier said than done.
Looking for a job can have a tremendous emotional impact on your wellbeing as it always brings in questions of your self worth.
When you don’t receive a call back, when you apply continuously without any results, or when you do go on the interview and reach the final stages but don’t get the job — it can be very tough to not take things personally and feel down.
This can be especially true if your job search goes from weeks to months.
The Downward Spiral
The more we “fail” and get hurt by our failures, the more we can feel like nothing is working and we’re not good enough. This in turn, leads to more failures. Subtly (or not so subtly) we can sabotage any interview chances by either a negative or skeptical attitude, a low energy or mood, or even not following up or applying as much as we should.
This is the “vicious downward spiral of defeat”. Viewing a situation as a “failure” ends up draining internal resources. It can also lead us to have negative beliefs about ourselves and our capabilities.
I know one designer friend who kept getting to the final stages of interviews at 3 companies and didn’t get selected. As a result, he was so discouraged he spent 1 MONTH taking a break and not applying anywhere. Instead of celebrating the successes he had so far — he ended up taking himself out of the game.
We don’t want to be like my friend.
Tips for getting out of the downward spiral
To counter this downward spiral, here are some tips to help you get immediately out of your funk:
Tip 1: Apply more!
I often talk to designers who are struggling with the interview process. They complain that they aren’t qualified and aren’t getting phone calls back and aren’t sure why.
When I ask them, how often are they applying, they tell me “oh, I apply about once a week”. Once a week! That’s hardly enough! You need to be applying daily to 1-3 companies (3 a day is what I would say is aggressive mode). You should also be reaching out to people you know, asking for introductions, talking to recruiters, going to job fairs, etc..
Yes, I’ve heard “it’s about quality and not quantity!”. I respectfully disagree. It’s about quality AND quantity. You need to be doing both and more.
Tip 2: See your failures in terms of outcomes
For some folks caught in the negative spiral, the first thing they need to do is get out of focusing on their “past failures” and “bad results”. They’ve got to change their attitude!
To do that, refocus on the outcomes you’ve created so far. An easy way to do that is, to see a failure as a stepping stone to where you want to go.
- What am I aiming to achieve?
- What have I achieved so far?
- What feedback have I had?
- What lessons have I learned?
- How can I put the lessons to positive use?
- How will I measure my success?
- Pick yourself up — and have another go!
For a designer who is applying to jobs, these could be your answers:
- What am I aiming to achieve? Trying to get a job as a UX Designer!
- What have I achieved so far? I’ve applied to numerous places, got my resume in good shape, worked on my portfolio.
- What feedback have I had? My last interview did not go as planned. They didn’t invite me back. I asked the recruiter and she said I didn’t have enough research experience.
- What lessons have I learned? I do have enough experience! But maybe I need to talk more about my research process in a compelling and confident way.
- How can I put the lessons to positive use? I’m going to add a research section to my portfolio and prepare (and write down) a better answer for next time someone asks about my research capabilities.
- How will I measure my success? I keep applying weekly to at least 5 jobs!
- Pick yourself up — and have another go! 🙂
Notice how this process gets you to focus on outcomes and your progress towards those outcomes. Hopefully, you should be feeling much better and more inspired.
Tip 3: Troubleshoot what isn’t working
Each “failure” we encounter is just feedback. That’s all. Sometimes it’s just evidence of what didn’t work and is telling us to try again or try something differently.
In UX interviews, troubleshooting is usually easier than you think. Here’s a list of common problems that happen and what you can do to fix those issues:
Common Problem 1: I keep applying online, but don’t get any anyone emailing me or setting up a meeting.
This may be due to a number of factors:
- You aren’t applying enough (mentioned earlier). Apply more often.
- The company is EXTREMELY slow (they’ve got other things going on!) and/or you have been put on the bottom of the stack. Try and follow up with recruiters at the company or other contacts at the company via LinkedIn.
- If you are a seasoned UX professional, you may overqualified for your position. Take a hard look at the position and your resume, scale down and customize as needed.
- You are doing online only! A LOT of positions come as a result of knowing someone or talking to independent recruiters who are connected to companies seeking candidates. Reach out to recruiters via LinkedIn and start networking with people you know and asking for introductions.
- If you are a good fit for the position, it could be your resume or portfolio are not compelling enough! Seek the advice of recruiters or other senior UX designers to get their honest feedback.
- You are under qualified! This means you need to take on freelance projects, get additional schooling, or build up your skills. Recruiters and senior UX colleagues may be good guides to help you feel more confident in your skills and showcase that appropriately.
Common Problem 2: I got the phone screen with the recruiter, but didn’t move further than that!
This may be due to a number of factors:
- Could it be your salary is out of range and scared them away?
- Could it be you didn’t project enough confidence on the call? Create a list of common UX interview questions (google them online) and come up with answers that are congruent to you.
- Perhaps you didn’t show them what they needed to see in your portfolio. You have to reflect on what didn’t work and focus on fixing that.
- The company is weird/nuts/insane. Sometimes the person on the other line doesn’t connect with you because you two aren’t a good fit. Either way, I wouldn’t sweat that too much. Next!
Common Problem 3: I got the interview with the team, but they didn’t invite me back!
This may be due to a number of factors:
- This one is a bit tougher. You have to reflect where things went poorly. Sometimes it could be just that you answered one question wrong. Could be your presentation wasn’t compelling. Could be you didn’t do a great job during the design challenge they set up for you. Could be you got tired. Whatever it is — this is ALL free feedback to make you better next time! You can always ask the recruiter for a reason why they didn’t hire you. Sometimes they’ll give it sometimes they won’t. Either way, it doesn’t hurt to ask.
- Someone on the team didn’t like your answer or didn’t like you for some reason. Could have been your garlic breathe. Who knows? This can happen (and has happened to me). It’s tough to make everyone your advocate. Keep calm, carry on.
- They have a better candidate who is possibly cheaper than you or they like more that you. Hey, it could happen! We like to think there aren’t others more qualified than ourselves, but it’s true. Don’t worry about that and keep trying.
Tip 4: Believe you dodged a bullet (or two)!
“Remember that sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck” – Dalai Lama
I love the above Dalai Lama quote. It’s SO true. You NEVER NEVER know if the company whose interview you bombed was really the right company for you and your future. Sure people may say so and so company is a good company, but it may not have been the right company for you.
For example: you may have been put on a terrible project, your boss may not have liked you for whatever reason, your commute may have been terrible (or you ended up in an accident and got paralyzed), you may had a terrible colleague who was out to get you…who knows!
Since we aren’t fortune tellers we can’t predict the future at all, it’s not a bad idea to assume things are going perfectly as they should be. This sure beats being negative and isn’t about putting on rose-colored glasses when coupled with tips 1-3.
When I used to teach UX, I used to say this to my students when we put them into groups for projects, “The group you get put into is the right group for you.” This similar attitude, that the right job will come for you when it’s ready – is a positive one when coupled with the tips 1-3 above.
Overall, I’ve given you 4 really good tips for handling failure. Feeling bad happens to us all, but we have to adjust our thinking and our actions so that we get closer to our desired goals.
What do you think? Do you have a tip or two that may help others struggling with failures? I would love to hear them — please share below.