Work experience paralysis

In which my designer woes are not particularly designer woes, after all

Half a decade ago, I could deliver a project easier than I can today.

Back then, I thought experience would eventually make me able to take better decisions (it has), and make me able to tackle larger projects with more complexity (it has).

I didn't understand the compromise that would come with it.

Having experience implies seeing the consequences of our decisions better. Having responsibility means dealing with these consequences. This leads into a sort of experience paralysis, where our ability to better foresee outcomes, and the fact that none is without compromise, makes us more hesitant to pick any direction and move with confidence.

Despite my subconscious’ best efforts, I'd rather not wallow in this situation. I want to apply ways to dial back – or prevent – the paralysis. Most of these I picked from the things we do as skilled beginners when we work, and I now try to apply deliberately. Here's where I’m at these days:

Template the outcome immediately

I need to act more like there isn't much of a process, and design for the document or format I have to deliver. To me, that means I prepare a canvas for my deliverable very early on, and fill it with drafts-that-could-be-final as I progress.

Make space for trying

If you need to read this, or need a reminder: Any environment where there’s no space for what-ifs and mistakes, is a place where you can’t grow. Tasks accomplished in a defensive posture are always held back in one way or another. Trying is vulnerability, and vulnerability is unsafe when we’re alone or exposed to risk.

We don’t all have the option to just up and go find more space, though. And if we do, it’s only sometimes. That makes it important to notice the space when it exists.

Then, uh, I left myself a draft note saying vocabulary over perfection. I think the initial metaphor escaped me between this note and my writing right now, so let’s freestyle this together — write to me if the prompt resonates with you in a different way!

Perfection is strict, but vocabulary is expressive

This is a bit more hand-wavey and felt, but bear with me for a paragraph. Think of vocabulary as a concept much larger than language: a breadth of capacity, our possessing different means with which to achieve a given goal – each getting to that one destination, but infusing a distinct quality to the process and the result. Vocabulary, in this large sense, defines the freedom we can find in skilled work. In contrast, perfection tends to start with a constraining view of what accomplishment looks like. A perfection mindset rejects the idea that the process is the part worth exploring, and that the better outcome may be unknown at the start.

As beginners in any skill, we are forced into learning the process and building vocabulary – we explore because we must. With experience, it becomes easier to forget that doing and exploring is a much better state to be in than having done and knowing. We all have our pounds of ceramics left to shape.

Read you soon,


Keeping with the theme here, I had originally written a draft that I thought would be for fellow designers, but it turns out that the lessons in there weren’t really specific to design! So there we are, with the better topic discovered by trusting that the process is richer than the intent.

❤ Loved lately

If you haven’t heard (of), try it out right now! Alex Bainter has been creating generative music pieces for a few years now, and it makes for a great collection to browse. No doubt, this one will become a periodic reminder on here.

If you were fascinated by the illustrated science books your school library had, Digizyme made the Internet rounds with an intricate render recently. The theme is Cell Signaling Technology, and it’s beautiful, in a weird way! Which is to say, the best way!

Self-Renewal, an old (and somewhat old-school) speech given by John Gardner in 1990:

The things you learn in maturity aren't simple things such as acquiring information and skills. You learn not to engage in self-destructive behavior. You leant not to burn up energy in anxiety. You discover how to manage your tensions, if you have any, which you do. You learn that self-pity and resentment are among the most toxic of drugs. You find that the world loves talent, but pays off on character.