I. Choice Reflects Value
In 2014, the philosopher Ruth Chang gave a TED talk on “How to Make Hard Choices.” In it, she defines that “hard choices” are the ones where two commensurate options are desirable in different ways, but neither is more desirable than the other, overall. She gives the examples of deciding whether to pursue law or art. Living in the city or the country. Eating a donut or a piece of fruit. You get the idea. However, in the end, we make a choice, implying that we obviously value one choice over the other. The question is, if neither is truly better than the other, how do we make the choice?
Her central thesis is that we make reasons that allow us to choose between two options that are on a par or are in the same neighborhood of intrinsic value. Why is it important to think about how we make hard choices? Because, ultimately, the reasons we create for doing the things we want to do tell us a great deal about what we actually value.
Identifying my values and seeing how they matched up with what various choices offered me was at the core of how I chose this work, and also how I managed my pivot.
II. Synthesizing the Self
This is the difficult part. What is the process of identifying choices made in the past and why they were made? Also, how do we make sense of that string of choices? In another article, I lay out a process I used to identify my core values. Essentially, I created data points that were tied to my past choices, current interest in UX and future ambition. Following these instructions, with some modifications, I unveiled what my values looked like at the time.
For each item below, use a different colored sticky note. On these sticky notes:
1. Write down all the interests you have had. Start with career-related interests, and then drill down into specific topics you like to read about, hobbies you have, etc. (eg. medicine, neuroscience, psychology, technology…)
2. Write down all the hard and soft skills you’ve built over the years. (eg. communication, leadership, statistics, analysis…)
3. Answer, “What are all the possible roles I might have one year from now?” with as many roles as you can think of. (eg. UX Designer, UX Researcher, Product Manager, Lab Technician…)
4. More specifically, write down reasons for choosing this field. (eg. I get to flex my creative skills, I can use critical thinking and problem solving skills…)
After collecting my data, I used a thematic analysis method for synthesizing qualitative information known as affinity mapping to identify major themes across my answers. For me, the two main groups that came up were
empathy & compassion
The names of the groups are arbitrary. However, the content of the groupings and how the pieces of data relate to one another, in your perspective, are what will provide you the most insight into your values.
For me, creating the capacity for change in others has been a common theme throughout my life. From volunteering in a social justice non-profit, to lending time at a local hospice, I can weave together a theme. Fundamentally, I can extract the idea that I’m interested in bettering people’s experience of life. This tells me something about how I look at the world, and the values that tie together the seemingly disparate interests I’ve had in my life, such as social justice, UX, or biology.
This is a framework, but not the only path. It worked for me only when I paired this exercise with a conscientious approach to how I told my story to others.
III. Building Relationships & Telling an Accessible Story
This won’t be surprising to hear, but the most impactful thing I did to facilitate my career search after General Assembly was to build relationships. There are limitless resources out there on how to do this effectively. Instead of pontificating on do’s and don’ts, here, I’ll speak to my personal experience and the lessons I learned.
When I was first beginning my job search, I focused on finding the right people to network with. Often, there’s a spray and pray approach that a lot of UX newbies participate in, which can work in the short-term, but, what I found to be critical to networking was actually focusing on the long-term ROI. Focusing in on 3–5 rockstar practitioners who shared my values, worked at places I wanted to be, and had job titles I felt I could eventually hold was my strategy.
The trickiest bit is identifying who those rockstars might be. The world is now saturated with UX professionals — it’s actually not hard to find people to talk to if you’re kind, honest and curious. However, it takes a little bit of strategy to identify people who are willing to invest time into you. In my job search, I did a lot of desk research on people — I scoured their LinkedIn to see what work they did, I looked at their portfolio, I reached out to connections that we had in common to learn more. I tried to answer these questions with a “yes!”:
Did their work align with the work I envisioned for myself?
At a surface-level, can I look at their personal brand and relate to their values?
Is there a way I might be able to reciprocate value to this individual?
(For me, personally) Is this individual a POC or other minority group member?
From these questions, you might be able to see that it was very important for me to be able to relate to the people I wanted to learn more from. And not only that, I wanted my story to resonate with them, if we did get to meet for coffee.
Making Your Story Accessible
Once I had done this stalker-ish research, I simply cold-messaged the people I wanted to learn more from. A few, I had met through brute-force networking at social events, while others I connected with on LinkedIn. Usually, a kind, curious ask to learn more was enough, of course, being mindful of their busy schedule and valuable time. After coffees were on the calendar, I prepared for these chats like I might for a job interview.
I usually came to these meetings with a list of open questions that related to this individual’s background, what project they were on, if they had any advice, etc. But, no matter how prepared I was to these initial meetings to learn, I would also always be asked to talk about myself. And, it took some trial and error, but I learned that my story was not accessible, on its own. People had difficulty connecting the dots between a background in medical sciences and biology to my interest in user experience.
Over time, I learned to seek insight into others’ experience of me. In my earlier coffee chats, I failed to connect with these individuals, but not because they were difficult to connect with. I just didn’t put effort into making sure their time with me was spent answering questions. Instead, they’d probe to try to understand why I was even there.
The biggest lesson I learned during this time was to make it crystal clear for others how my personal history related to UX and what I might hope to gain from the interaction.
Once I humbled myself, and could deliver this reasoning concisely, it brought me and the people I spoke with to a common ground, from which, relationships eventually thrived.
I’ll end with this quote from Dale Carnegie:
You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.
After the seed was sewn, it was all about being consistent, following through and showing genuine interest in the work and lives of the people who would eventually lead me to job opportunities. I treated this time with a lot of respect, especially if people met me during work hours. Over time, the ROI would start evening out on both sides, and if it didn’t, those connections surely dropped off. It would be fulfilling for people to advise or mentor me as I grew from their wisdom and acts of kindness.
Interestingly, as my interactions with people became more refined and specific, I began to see my future with more clarity. In a way, being diligent with my network was also a way to continuously improve and stay accountable towards reaching my eventual goal.