A time for slowing down

Last May, I decided to take a year off my PhD after months of struggling to find a research niche, finally finding it, then realizing (with some panic) that I could create a bigger impact in the industry. A summer internship at Google kickstarted the year, justified the expensive move to the Bay Area, and gave me time to become a kickass designer who could land any job she wanted.

I said yes to my dream job when the internship ended, and since then, I rode in the fast lane, swapped research skills for a place in the industry, learned what it’s like to be a designer at a fast-paced startup, said yes to every invitation for a month, got engaged and married (not because of the previous experiment!), and traveled to Paris and China.

During my honeymoon in Yangshuo, my husband and I were drifting peacefully in a bamboo raft down the Yulong River, talking about what it would be like to be a digital nomad and work from anywhere in the world. I realized that I had not lost my wanderlust, and that I would very much like to live in some unknown town while being a freelance designer or photographer, but I was at a loss about how I could make it happen.

Yulong River bamboo rafting

Yulong River bamboo rafting

Part of it was loving my startup. Part of it was not being confident in my skills. It dawned on me that while I was on my career highway, most of what I was doing was reinforcing skills I was already good at. I was not learning new skills as quickly as I wanted, nor was I making big breakthroughs in solving problems in my area of expertise.* When I came back to work, this nagging thought, coupled with a few slow work days, left me feeling uncertain about how to further my career.

For a few days, it felt like there was heavy traffic on my highway. I felt bored with reading about the latest design trends and paralyzed by the choices for self-directed learning. I took breaks by experimenting with new smoothie and ice cream recipes with our wedding gifts, which made me realize that I could not remember the last time that I enjoyed cooking and trying out new recipes. I was not giving myself permission to slow down, enjoy, and reflect. Likewise, I needed a fresh way of solving design problems. I gave myself permission to take a step back, slow down, and relearn what it meant to be a designer.

I started reading through my blog feeds slowly, instead of scrolling through them all so they would be marked as read. I noticed and appreciated clever, creative solutions to common problems on Co.Design and Kickstarter. I talked to the creative director at work about what he thought I should do. I discovered two new websites, Sketchplanations and 52 Weeks Of UX, that re-opened my eyes to design and sketching, which I had taken for granted and stopped doing. I started sketching and writing again with my favorite pen and notebook instead of Evernote.

Rather than feel frustrated that I hadn’t made breakthroughs and wait for my next break, I recognized that I needed to push through out of the valley of doubt before I could get better at what I did.

Sketchplanation: Get good ideas (getting beyond the getting stuck)

Sketchplanation by Jono Hey: Get good ideas (getting beyond the getting stuck)

I am still working on becoming unstuck, but I blog about this now because we often hear advice from people when they are already successful, not when they are still struggling but learning the most. We hear what worked for them in the end, but not how they dealt with being stuck. This is my reminder that progress doesn’t always come by speeding down the highway to your destination. Sometimes, there will be traffic, but you can still appreciate the slower pace and enjoy the scenery around you.

*I want to create compelling data visualizations that drive behavior change.

Other relevant reading:
IDEO’s project mood chart (skip to the IDEO section)
[Book] So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love

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