The Hero’s Journey to Becoming a UX Designer

Monish SubherwalDesign Mindset and PhilosophyLeave a Comment

Every once in a while I teach a UX bootcamp for General Assembly – typically in Santa Monica or Downtown Los Angeles, California. The bootcamp covers the fundamentals of user experience design and students walk away with understanding the design process by practicing UX and building a mobile prototype.

The students who attend are often career shifters. These are people so deeply curious about User Experience Design as a new career possibility that they are willing to pay good money to attend my class and spend a day with me.

At the beginning of the class, I like to tell the students something which I’m not sure they fully understand, but is worth discussion. This is what I generally say:

“I’ve taught both part-time and full-time courses on user experience. But the large value of those classes are NOT that you learn user experience skills. Don’t get me wrong, the skills (domain knowledge) are a big part of the class. But the real value comes from being able to have an identity level shift at the end of the class. To be able to go from your previous profession (accountant, marketer, sales, whatever) and be able to confidently and congruently say ‘I am now a UX Designer’. That is why you are taking the class.”

To be honest, some students instantly grasp what I tell them about “identity level shift” and others sort of gloss over it. For myself, it’s a big realization I have had about my role in teaching user experience — and I think it’s important for new students to understand. Allow me to explain…

What’s Required for Transformation

To transform from one career path to another – to be able to say (and believe) that you are a UX Designer is something quite extraordinary. Any identity level shift is very difficult. For example, I can’t wake up tomorrow and credibly say to anyone (including myself) “I am a physicist!” All my internal voices in my head would say “yeah right!”. Internal doubt and incongruence would take over and people would find out soon enough I don’t know squat about physics.

This is why I’ve never been a fan of the “fake it til you make it” idea. It’s bogus. There is no “fake it”. You just make it. You can’t lie to yourself and others for too long.

How to “Make It”

So how does one “make it” then if you can’t fake it? Well, sacrifice. Hard work. Reading the books, paying for and attending the classes, and watching the videos are a part of that process of transformation. And it can be very confusing and emotionally draining too – that’s part of the sacrifice process too.

However, even in order to “make it” (to do the hard work) – you have to do something before that, which is even harder for some people.

And what could possibly be harder than the long hours of hard work?

Well, that is to admit your career isn’t where it should be — and that you don’t have it all together. That’s the hardest part!

In life, in order to achieve big things you have to be somewhat dissatisfied with where you are now. You have to admit where you are is not that great — and that learning user experience design is a worthwhile endeavor.

To those career shifters who become UX Designers, dissatisfaction and general unhappiness with ones career and life is the beginning of their call to adventure.

The Hero’s Journey: Becoming a Student again

The students in my class hear a call to adventure and it beckons them. This is the start of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.

To even start on the hero’s journey – one must admit where they are now isn’t that great (and that they don’t know everything).

Only then, can they desire for a better future.

This desire leads them to turn into a student again and get back into the learning process. This is an amazing feat in itself.

I often find it amazing how when I come into a classroom, there is a clear role reversal. I may have students who are insanely intelligent experts in a different field, who now sit quietly to hear what I have to say.

They take on the role of “the fool” in tarot. And I don’t mean they ARE fools, but rather they are taking on the spirit of the fool.

The Fool

For the record: I’m no tarot buff, but I heard Jordan Peterson mention how in order to be a master, you must be a fool. Students must be willing to admit that they don’t know everything like “The Fool” tarot – a man who is carelessly walking around.

Additionally, when you see the “The Fool” tarot card, you can see the man carelessly walking towards a cliff. Ouch.

What does the cliff represent? Sacrifice. To be more precise, the cliff represents dangeroussacrifice (which can be very painful).

Students must first have the courage to admit they are lacking some information. They then have to desire for that information. And lastly, they have to sacrifice a lot to get that identity level shift.

And sacrifice they will. These courses are intense. They are called “bootcamps” for a reason (in fact, the full time course at General Assembly is called an Immersive or Intensive).

But at the end of the hard work is a pay off. “The Fool” goes on to become a master.

My Role as Instructor

Earlier I had mentioned the Hero’s Journey. Dissatisfaction, desire, sacrifice – are all parts of a student’s own personal hero’s journey.

I play the role of the “Mentor/Helper” in their hero’s journey. After their personal call to adventure, I appear in their lives for a short while. I help guide them into the unknown world of UX. I challenge them and test them (the ‘Trials and Failures’ in the Hero’s Journey image above) and help them learn new skills.

Some could say I also personify the obstacles they must overcome to reach their true end goal: ‘identity level shift’ – to be able to say they are a UX Designer.

This is their immense accomplishment and I am honored to play a part in it.

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