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.