“There are limits to what the human body can endure. Go find them.”
So says the New Balance quote on the wall at Big Peach. I smiled when I saw it a few weeks ago, picking out new running shoes before leaving Atlanta.
In process development, we do something called “edge of failure” trials. We start by doing things that make things that we know are good - this speed, these ingredients, this much pressure. And then, we get further and further away from good - from baseline - to see how far we can go and still be ok.
Edge of failure studies usually involve more than one variable. A process isn’t usually about one magic lever. Rather, what makes something stable and good is the balance of a few key things, and the effects of a lot more things. Some things happen and knock you off kilter, and give you a few days of extra productivity - good weather, early supply. Then something else comes around - a stomach virus, a big thunderstorm - and erases any gains or shifts you to the edge of what might be optimal.
I started this post just after finishing the protocol for an Edge of Failure study, at 5 AM laying on the couch of a cabin in Tahoe. Surrounded by friends. Safe. Warm. Comfortable.
This, was good.
I rewrote it at the SkyClub in Narita, reflecting on a seven day stretch that took me from skiing in Tahoe, through Brahms & wine, weddings & friends, and oysters at The Optimist, to a 14 hour flight for a stint of unknown duration in unnamed Asian countries.
I’m finishing it now, on the balcony of a condo in Kuala Lumpur, after a week from hell and long days of sniffing latex fumes.
In an Edge of Failure, there are highs, and there are lows, and there are nominals. You run your process at all three windows to see just how far you can go before you lose control.
If you don’t try it, you’ll never know.
I came to Asia with a return ticket after four weeks. A defined experience. Goals. I knew what I had to do, and I knew what resources - time, energy, people - I had to get it done.
This past month has brought highs - flying down Burnout on the backside of Northstar listening to Brad Paisley’s It Did. Wine and cheese and OMGCHURROS at Iberian Pig. Sitting in the sand outside a beach bar in Langkawi, 2 am, making new friends, having new experiences.
But the hallmark of my life for the last 20 months has been uncertainty so strong I’ve found myself asking for mercy. And so it was on Thursday, me huddled in a corner of the office making a long-distance phone call to a sleepy team in Atlanta, fighting back tears and exhaustion and unbelievable stress, finding that asking questions didn’t bring the answers I needed to hear.
This is the loneliest trip I’ve ever taken.
It’s also the most amazing.
I’m a design center lead in a plant 9,500 miles away. The product decisions on the ground are mine. Even when I don’t feel qualified to make them.
Even when all I want is for someone to tell me what to do, what I’m capable of, and how far to push the process.
This is my life. There are highs, and there are lows, and there are nominals. I’m running my life at all three windows, trying to see how far I can push myself before I lose control.
I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t love it. There’s not a day I don’t remember that I am blessed to do what I love, and to travel and see and experience. This is me owning the process & the product, which is an intoxicating and exhilarating feeling in product development. This is me jetsetting around Asia, exploring new places & taking gorgeous photos.
Sun setting across the Bay of Bengal.
But I’d also be lying if I said that was the whole story. Because this is hard. This is me feeling like I’m not good enough to be here and to do this.
This is me, lonely, ten thousand miles from home.
It’s the sound of endless empty ringing when all you want is a familiar voice on the other end of phone. It’s the pang of longing I get every time I pull out my iPad and see Sawra’s face, reminding me of all the things that I left behind. This is me reading emails and iMessages about birthday dinners that I’ll miss, knowing that my return date is still, like me, up in the air.
This is what guilt looks like.
There is a constant state of uncertainty in between the highs and the lows. I have an unbelievable need for control, and an alarming lack of control in my present state.
I’m in the place where #travelsinasia meets #sleepinginairports and it’s all I can do to not lose myself somewhere because of it. Because the road home first winds through Shanghai, and Singapore, and Tokyo, and I’m afraid I’ll find the limits of what my body can endure before I make it back to Atlanta. I’m trying to find my magic mix of variables that brings me away from the edges of failure and back to nominal.
Back to balance.
Back to good.
More specifically, i’m thankful to have the opportunity to make mistakes.
Just in the past month, I said the wrong thing in a board meeting. Sent a few emails that I could have thought through better. Scraped someone’s car in a tight parking lot. Messed up last night’s Video Pop dance (and threw everyone else off in the process).
I’m superb at making mistakes. and I’m really proud of it.
“I hope you find God’s grace in every mistake
And always give more than you take.”
One of my favorite memories from college came from a weeklong leadership retreat called LeaderShape. We had an alumni panel, and I, being a young and impressionable 19-year-old, was rapt with attention.
His name escapes me now, but the story he told I’ll never forget.
”I went in for a job interview with a commercial real estate firm, at a time when real estate was a good ol’ boys club of white males.” [he’s black] “The man grilled me, clearly thinking I was over my head. He had made up his mind that I was too young, that I was a football-playing jock with no future in his world. That I didn’t look like him.”
The interviewer asked him, “I can’t give you this job. You’re just a kid straight off the school football team. How do I know you won’t make a mistake?”
And his reply, still crystal clear in my mind: “Sir, with all due respect, how old were you when you stopped making mistakes? Because you’re right. I will make mistakes. I make mistakes all the time. But I hope that I learn from them and move on from them and make them right all the same.”
[he got the offer]
Ethan and I were talking yesterday about perfection. Ethan has an intelligent & beautiful wife and a brand-new, absolutely adorable baby boy. He is smart, successful, kind to his bones, and the kind of friend everyone wants to have. He & Laura are shining examples of God working through people.
So I’m a little bit obsessed with this photo & a lot bit obsessed with this family.
It’s easy to resent people like that. It’s easy to write him off as someone who does everything right, has everything in the world.
But why I love Ethan is because he works for everything. He acknowledges that not everything will go perfectly, but works to make it perfect in its own right anyway.
He isn’t afraid of imperfect circumstances, because he learns from every experience he has.
This Thanksgiving, what I am thankful for is the opportunity to make mistakes and not be crushed by them. Whether those mistakes have financial implications, or career implications, or (when you do what I do) health & safety implications, I am thankful to have the support and structure around me to be able to recover from them before the consequences turn dire.
I am thankful to be surrounded by people like Ethan, who understand that people need to make mistakes, without letting them fail because of it. Who understand that if you aren’t making mistakes, you aren’t doing anything.
People who are doing something.
People who are enabling the world.
… but I felt sort of guilty using the long comic as a single image post. So I’ve decided to link it to instead.
READ THIS NAAOOOOO
This is my life:
… including the part about being riddled with guilt. Everything I can tell you is not worth telling, and everything worth telling I can’t tell you just yet. So
bear with me thank me for not wasting your time. And thank Brandon Kearse for sending this to me today.
It’s election night in America, and I am not, like millions of others, sitting in front of a TV. I am not watching polling coverage. It’s not that I am not interested in the outcome. It’s because I have a lot of writing to do, and because regardless of who wins this election, it does not change my responsibility to my country.
what i wore to the polls today. BOOM.
Two nights ago I was reading a special report in the Economist on India. The report weaves through politics and manufacturing, foreign policy and education. The last essay in the series is about collective responsibility, and as an Indian-American, it was this one that resonated the most.
“Fast-growing economies with few rules often run into problems of this sort. But in India, especially in the north, few people seem to have much of a sense of shared ownership of public spaces or obligation to the natural world around them. It is depressingly common to litter, extend private property by encroaching on public land and flout safety and environmental rules if you can get away with it. ‘It is a tragedy of the commons,’ laments Mr. Pachauri. ‘Everyone feels it is someone else’s job.’”
(as a side note, I was shocked to see the omission of the Oxford comma in quotation- poor form, Economist, poor form)
There’s something else on my mind tonight. Read it as you will, although I don’t intend it to be a statement for either party or candidate. This comes from a favorite book - To Heal A Fractured World, which I read (and quote) often:
“… that common belonging that comes from a sense that we are neighbours as well as strangers; that we have duties to one another, to the heritage of the past and to the hopes of generations not yet born; that society is not a hotel where we receive services in exchange for money, but a home to which we feel attached and whose history is (literally or adoptively) our own. That requires covenantal, not just contractual, politics.”
I laugh a little when I hear how a particular candidate will save / ruin our country. Sure, I have my opinions like most people. I can see - and have seen - how policy and personality both combine to affect our standing at home and abroad. This is true of any single person we know - both their beliefs, and their way of communicating them, change how we view them.
America is not just a contract between a citizenry and a government. America is more than that - a covenant. A home.
The reality of elections - of elected office - is that it takes everyone. America is not just a President’s job. It’s a citizen’s job.
This election will not change the respect I have when I hear the Star-Spangled Banner play at the Duke - Georgia Tech game next weekend.
It will not change the smile on my face when I walk into Customs anywhere in the world and pull out my American passport.
I do not vote in a battleground state; I harbor no delusions that my vote for President will be the deciding factor on which this election is hung. But irrespective of who wins, I will continue to go to the polls every chance I get. Because this is the price and the promise of citizenship. This is my job.
And it’s the most important one we have in this country.
It is not lost on me that I have written six posts this year.
So much of me wants to justify my absence, wants to tell you all the amazing things that have peppered my days, to announce the deal I’ve been working on for months behind the scenes. I want validation for my vacancy, and I want you to not think less of me for more or less ignoring you here while I go do “more important things”.
But there aren’t “more important things”. There are only things. There are the projects, and products, and trips. They are the mundane things that seem like the exciting things when I write about them, but that are really just the day-to-day of doing hard, unglamorous work.
I’ve spent a lot of time over the past year waiting. Waiting, maybe, for a singular day that will change everything. That will spark an idea. That bends my life and gives me the perfect excuse to write the perfect post about the perfect way things are coming together.
“The process will be long and in parts very painful; but that is what we are in for. Nothing less.” – Mere Christianity | C. S. Lewis
Seven days ago I was on the phone with Delta trying to change flights from Thursday into Barcelona to Wednesday into Geneva for a day of meetings about vaccine R&D strategy. A single day that might change everything. That might bend my life.
But the truth is, it’s never one glamorous day. It’s the culmination of a month of effort and research and back-and-forth emails. It’s the result of transatlantic Skype calls and meetings that started at 6 PM Eastern and went on past midnight in Berlin. And before that, it came from the ability, and more so the willingness, to take risks outside of professional and academic pedigrees. To push the boundaries of what a biomedical engineer does and to ask questions that maybe people like me haven’t asked before. It was the desire to design my own technical electives at Georgia Tech, to reject the traditional route of Medical Image Processing and Biosolid Mechanics, to focus on how technology can change lives at the bottom of the pyramid.
Recently, Michael told me a story about his father’s hitting philosophy when he played for the Phillies. Most players, he said, wait for the perfect pitch. Wait for the right time, the right ball, the right winds. Most people look for the ball that’s going to give them a home run.
A tribute to Chipper.
A baseball analogy calls for a baseball picture. 755 Club at Turner Field last week.
Don’t do that. Learn to hit every ball that comes at you. Don’t look for a perfect pitch. If you can hit any ball reasonably well, then you set yourself up to hit the perfect pitch perfectly.
And if the pitcher messes up, and gives you the perfect ball at the perfect time, hit it unforgettably well.
The message here is to work through it all. Work when it’s easy, and work exceptionally hard when it’s not. Do what you’re good at and what you’re not good at, consistently. Do the things that aren’t glamorous (because most things that sound glamorous, aren’t). Come home early on a Saturday afternoon and spend six hours reading about vaccine adjuvants instead of going to Counterpoint.
Until suddenly you end up one day in Barcelona running along the port at sunrise and thinking about an incentive strategy to present next month in Paris that might turn the tide in global vaccinations.
Every time I get in the pool I coerce myself to swim an extra 100 before I go. I hate swimming. I’m terrible at it. But I think every time of Will Durant: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
Our characters are revealed in the face of the unexpected, the days that bend our lives. But they’re shaped by the everyday. Our growth does not come in epiphanies; it comes in chores. It comes from cab-ride-conversations in San Francisco, from pulling yourself out of bed at 6 AM on cold mornings to go for a run, from six-week-sprints in the final phase of product launch. Character is built in those long, graceful sweeps of living that aren’t peppered by fireworks.
Then, when that one day comes and we hit that home run out of the park, we turn around and see just how far we’ve come. What seems like a single moment that bends our lives can be seen as the sum total of weeks, months, years of habits that we’ve built, attitudes we’ve fostered, and relationships we’ve cultivated.
Men form habits, and habits form futures.
I’m really terrible at knowing my own strengths. I can pinpoint approximately 214989.72 things I’m terrible at, and only about 3 things I’m good at: I am good at stretching, I am good at finding just the right song lyrics to capture the moment, and I’m good at gratitude.
A few weeks ago I turned 26. It was the best kind of weekend – cooking dinner at home for friends, a surprise brunch party, night out at a favorite restaurant with good friends, and a weekend on the lake. It’s a summer that’s looked an awful lot like a Zac Brown music video, and I can’t say I missed the craziness.
Sorry I’m not sorry that this is what my summer looked like.
But the itch always comes back. The desire to fill up the days with trips and projects and products. I’m guilty of being the busy type – of self-imposed anxiety and overcommitments. I’ve worn my sleeplessness as a badge of courage, and prided myself in being able to manage a double- and triple-booked calendar more than once. On tap for the fall are PHL, SFO, LAX, CVG, KUL (tentative), BCN, SVQ, and CDG. The itch is back, and I can’t wait to lose myself in the thrill of good work.
I’m trying again to remind myself that those are not the things that matter. Never let the things that you do overtake the things that you are. And definitely don’t let them become more important than the people you’re sharing your life with.
I’m sitting here at One Flew South, my favorite bar in my favorite airport, in my favorite city. There’s a glass of wine, a cake pop decorated like a globe, and an open notebook with a list of to-dos sitting next to me. We just kicked off a new project, Michael and I, in the global health space. We talk a lot about the ability to pivot – about “intellectual fearlessness,” and the willingness to take on new challenges. I’m a practicing engineer, and his academic background is in policy and international affairs, but here we are, doing research and making recommendations for one of the most well-respected nonprofits in the world. He commends me on my ability to pivot, but I know that that’s not my real talent. My real talent is my ability to surround myself with people far better than myself. To convince them, for just a little while, that I am cool enough to hang out with.
Michael is an incredibly talented, incredibly intelligent, incredibly hard-working person. His ability to excel is eclipsed only by his passion for his work. I am grateful – honestly, immensely grateful – for the chance to work with someone I respect and admire so much.
Time and time again, I feel this way about the people that surround me. I have the lucky experience of sitting down to dinner with successful founders, amazing product people and incredible developers, global health visionaries, Presidential Innovation Fellows (congrats, Ryan!), famous meteorologists, and people who dedicate their time and lives to help people with developmental disabilities (yes, that means you, Andrea!). I’m actually en route to visit my favorite heart surgeon.
My gratitude does not stem from having flexibility in my work, a vocation that I love, or the means to have nice things and beautiful experiences. I am grateful for those things, but they pale in comparison to the things that matter most.
Thank you for the experiences we’ve shared, for the trips we’ve taken, for the jokes and meals and games of Scramble. For the times that you could have been doing the 50,000 other amazing things that you fill your time with, but instead, you spent shooting the breeze with me sitting out on the patio at the lake drinking a glass of wine.
And thank you, even more still, for all the things that we still have to look forward to together.
The best of days is yet to come.
isn’t this what happiness looks like? (Taken with Instagram at SurfSide Beach Resort)
There’s a technique in concept design called personas. You start with the idea of a typical user. You want to know how often they go to the doctor, and how much time they spend exercising. Then you go deeper than that – what kind of cell phone does she use? What does she do on idle Sunday afternoons? Who are her friends?
We’re trying to get Mom to open a restaurant (I kid you not, she really is THAT good). On Mothers’ Day, sitting at Starbucks on Peachtree, I asked her, who is the person you would design your restaurant for?
Like a typical mother, she said, “Someone like you.” (cheater)
So I asked her, who am I? [side note: updated!]
For the record, mine is easy. In the words of kate spade, I am a quick reader and a voracious dancer, with a penchant for losing umbrellas. I think flowers belong in mason jars, love a good brunch, and have a severe case of wanderlust. I am an Indian-born Southern girl who knows food and loves maps.
the best example of persona i’ve seen in use. kate spade century city.
Also for the record, it took my mom several minutes to describe me in words. But she made a really interesting comment along the way. As a child, she said, I ignored the parts of me that were Indian. Even now, I’m hypersensitive to what I consider cultural elitism – reverse segregation of an immigrant population away from the “others”, away from the majority, away from other minorities, because of a belief that “we aren’t like other people.” I was unique, but in a small-town elementary school, unique was highlighted without being celebrated. I dreaded the way that teachers mispronounced my name. I tinged with jealousy at the Southern Sunday culture, always on display yet never accessible to a Hindu-born half-Brahmin girl who spent weekends packed in minivans with other Indian families, on the way to the mandir in Nashville.
It wasn’t until my 16th birthday, landing at Indira Gandhi in Delhi on five days notice, groggy from the jet lag and thrust into a culture that I had let myself forget, that I began to recognize the pieces of me that I had long ignored. And only in adulthood have I become at once wholly Indian and also wholly American.
It strikes me now, the extent to which old Southern values mirror those found in India. The same implicit understanding that no matter what, blood is thicker than water, that Mother & Daddy’s final word is just that – final. The same respect for and celebration of hospitality. These values are what have caused two intense cultures to endure. What have allowed them, for centuries, to captivate the imaginations of people the world over.
wearing a dot on my forehead
To be sure, there are ugly parts, too. To be an Indian is to understand the role of history in shaping the past – the same way that British classism made its way into the Indian caste system, so too do centuries-old race relationships color the traditions of the New South. At once we can embrace and be ashamed of the places we come from, but neither of those emotions excuses us from the obligation to cultivate awareness in the interest of mankind.
Indian culture, like American culture, is at once unique and universal. This is what soft power is.
In the context now of China: Brandon sent me an excellent article the other day from the Atlantic about the Chinese dream. What China has failed to do, in the face of enormous growth and prosperity, is use its’ soft power to captivate the imaginations of the rest of the world.
I read something the other day, on Garden & Gun, that stuck with me. It’s long, but I think you’ll find some truth in it:
For my mother, being Southern means handwritten thank-you notes, using a rhino horn’s worth of salt in every recipe, and spending a minimum of twenty minutes a day in front of her makeup mirror so she can examine her beauty in “office,” “outdoor,” and “evening” illumination. It also means never leaving the house with wet hair. Not even in the case of fire. Because wet hair is low-rent. It shows you don’t care, and not caring is not something Southern women do, at least when it comes to our hair.
Southern women know how to bake a funeral casserole and why you should. Southern women know how to make other women feel pretty. Southern women like men and allow them to stay men. Southern women are not afraid to dance. Southern women know you can’t outrun your past, that manners count, and that your mother deserves a phone call every Sunday. Southern women can say more with a cut of their eyes than a whole debate club’s worth of speeches. Southern women know the value of a stiff drink, among other things.
I want my children to know they belong to something bigger than themselves. That they are unique, but they are not alone. That there is continuity where they come from. Comfort too. That there are rules worth following and expectations worth trying to meet, even if you fail.
I’ve said before that you don’t have to choose one over the other. That your persona can be as complex and intoxicating as the smell of grass and grease and gameday excitement on a Friday night in September. I am at once a Southern woman, and also an Indian one, and I’m starting to see that the differences between the two are less pronounced than you might think.
I live in constant fear of not being enough.
Smart enough. Successful enough. Nice enough. Pretty enough. Good enough at karaoke. Every dumb thing you can think of.
This is what makes your 20s difficult. On the one hand, we see people who are able to create amazing things, smart people who build enormous value in the world. We see the Facebooks, the Googles, the 30-under-30 lists that set off a mental ticking clock in my head, reminding me to hurry. That my time might be running out.
“Tonight I am worrying that other people have greatness and there is a finite amount of greatness and it is slipping out of my hands. Also, it is embarrassing to admit to wanting greatness knowing there is a risk I might not achieve it.” - Penelope Trunk
This is an incredibly hard post to write. I’m anxious about being imperfect, which makes me anxious about being anxious. But my anxiety has stopped me from writing perfect and glossy posts about snowboarding and design strategy, technical diligence, serendipitous space. So I’m trying to be vulnerable. Imperfect.
Some days the anxiety eats you alive. Stops you from running in the rain at 6 AM. Stops you from returning a phone call. From going to wine bars with friends on Friday nights because you’re curled up in the fetal position listening to Jack’s Mannequin. Right now, my anxiety is like that.
I have an unbelievable amount of self-doubt at the moment. I live in constant fear that the scope of my ambitions so completely outweighs the scope of my abilities.
Last year I was named to the Council of Outstanding Young Engineering Alumni. Placed on organizational “High Potentials” lists. Invited to speak about success, leadership, and women in technology at half a dozen conferences. And last Tuesday my nomination to the Board of Trustees for the Georgia Tech Alumni Association was announced, making me (as my friends like to remind me) one of the youngest trustees, maybe ever.
We all have our own insecurities.
I’ve learned that the last thing I should do when I get anxious is shut down. And the first thing I usually do when I get anxious, is shut down.
So I push. I push in ways that aren’t easy, or comfortable. I push myself to publish posts, when the last thing I want to do is share any part of my soul. I push myself to learn to snowboard, when I could be perfectly comfortable, perfectly safe, perfectly good at skiing. Push myself to share my thoughts – all of them, the mundane, the hopeful, the anxious, the silly - with two friends on an obscure social network, at the risk that they’ll see all my insecurities and think less of me for it. And then I deactivate my Path account because there’s only so much pushing I can take.
Thanks for responding to this, Elli.
I push myself to remember that it’s ok to have insecurities. Even if other people think you shouldn’t.
Elli reminds me all the time that if we were perfect at what we are chasing, that we aren’t chasing the right things.
He came to see me last week. After taking Step II of the USMLE, three weeks before graduating from one of the best medical schools in the world, before moving to Philadelphia, after an 8 hour test. He sat on the couch in the living room at 1:20 in the morning and reminded me, in a still, small, voice, that I’m only 25. That the world still lies ahead. That I am enough.
“We are the daughters of feminists who said ‘you can be anything’ and we heard ‘you have to be everything.’ “ – Courtney Martin (stolen from Kontrary)
My ambitions have always been greater than I can justify. To write world-class content. To develop technology that saves millions of lives. To empower billions of people out of poverty, out of hopelessness, and into a situation that preserves their dignity, that removes shackles, that brings people along. I don’t know that I have the ability to do it. I don’t know that I’ll ever get there. But I’m trying.
A still, small voice.
You are enough.
My first reaction to the CNN article about Sheryl Sandberg going home at 5:30 was the same as Pamela Stone’s: “This is news… ?” I mean really, a woman has two kids and she goes home in time to eat dinner and hang out with them. Shocking.
But I think back to the last time I went to dinner with friends. Imagine this conversation on a Friday night:
“Man, I’m exhausted. I got up at 6 cause I had an early morning meeting. I hate tax season.”
“Oh that’s nothing, I didn’t get home from the office till 9, cranked through some more work, went to bed at 1:30, and then got up at 5:30 with the dog.”
“Yeah, I’ve gotten less than 18 hours of sleep this whole week.”
“Forget tax season. We work 80 hours a week, every week.”
I too work in Corporate America, and let me tell you, in Corporate America, we do not brag about going home at 5 PM. I started to think, if Sheryl Sandberg didn’t have the courage to talk about this until she became the COO of one of the most recognizable tech companies in the world, what is that saying about the millions of us who aren’t in that position? About the balance of our lives?
Why has this become a badge of honor? Why are we so competitive about how little we sleep and how much time we spend at the office? We’re a culture of one-uppers competing around the wrong metrics.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m just as guilty. There are days when I get up to run at 5:15 so I can be in the office at 7 AM, but there are also days I get to the office at 8:45. There are days when I leave at 7:30 PM, but more often than not, I’m gone before 6. And I’m just as apt to chime in about crazy hours and sprints and stress and work at the dinner table as any of my consultant / lawyer / accountant / software friends.
I’m early in my career. I’m not the COO of a huge tech firm. I don’t have kids, or a family to cook for, or kids to drive to soccer practice. But does that mean that my life is my work? That my time should be spent only at the office? Do I even have any credibility to talk about effectiveness, productivity, or work-life balance?
And the real question there is, does spending more time at the office make me more productive? Does taking my work home with me every night after 11 hours at my desk make me a better engineer? Does eating lunch at my desk so I can finish a CAD model make me a better designer?
Because of (or in spite of) my type-A-sleep-deprived-11-hours-a-day-in-the-office, am I creating better devices? Am I saving more lives?
Activity does not equate to value.
We know this, but we still refuse to believe it, to internalize it. We live in a culture where the perception of a young, single professional means if they’re not in the office beyond the 9 – 5, that they’re not serious about their careers. Where if you don’t have kids to take care of, you don’t have a legitimate excuse to leave early (although one look at my dog’s puppy eyes when I get home for a walk should make you disagree). That people who skip out at five are doing less, or producing less.
My very legitimate excuse to leave work before the sun goes down.
It’s clear that time spent on a task is not the right metric to measure success. So the next step is, what are we doing about it? As young engineers, consultants, developers, accountants, lawyers, researchers, are we using the right metrics in our own lives? Unless you’re working for yourself, it’s hard to completely quash the perception issues with working a four-hour workweek, but first things first: are you productive? And if not, what are you doing about it?
A few weeks ago Brandon gave me an interesting quote from a mutual friend: a truly meaningful career is “more than a job, but less than a life.” Don’t wear your my-life-is-work mentality as a badge of honor. Understand that there are things more important than how many dimensioned drawings you can produce in a week, or how many spreadsheets you can jockey before tomorrow morning.
Understand what the organization values – what you value – and pursue that. And then stop. And go home. And walk your dog.
I bought a new keychain today. It’s not a particularly notable keychain. It’s got some pink sparkly shoe charms (imagine that), a lever detach, and it was $5 at Walmart. But my old one broke, and when my keys break, my life falls into disarray. So it’s been on my to-do list for almost a month now.
What a weird way to start a blog post. I’ve been thinking a lot about how to explain my hiatus. Ideally, I’d tell you about my glowing adventures hiking Kilimanjaro, or paddling the backwaters of the Amazon. But I haven’t written in two months, and all I can open with is “I bought a keychain.” Maybe now you’ll forgive me for my leave for absence, knowing that everything else I’ve written in the past two months has been shot down by my [volunteer] editors, sometimes kindly (“You might want to try a different angle on this…”) and sometimes not (“Don’t write this.”).
Think back to your first set of keys. The weight that keychain carried in your hands. Your first key to the front door. Your first car keys. You had responsibility. You had places to go. Keys were about freedom, about unlocking doors that had never been yours to unlock before.
As we get older, keys become just as much about locking people out. About hiding parts of ourselves behind closed and locked doors. About compartmentalizing our lives into buckets - house keys, office keys, car keys - insulating each piece of ourselves with a different circle, not letting the pieces intertwine.
These days, my keys remind me that I have places to come back to. For all the wanderlust that permeates my life (the past 8 weeks have taken me to Tahoe, New Orleans, and Beaver Creek), there is something real about coming home. Something grounding.
A reminder of a place where I belong.
I don’t often need anything but my single car key, but I don’t go anywhere without a full set. I like my keychains heavy, because there is a certain gravitas in the idea of home. They’re my totem. Everything I need, every part of me, on one ring. When the keys fall apart, so do the pieces of my life.
My new keychain has two house keys, an office key, and a car key. Three small charms, barely there - a cowboy boot, a pink sparkly heel, and a miniature replica of the Tour Eiffel. Four cards - the dance studio, the yoga studio, the climbing studio, and the ubiquitous Kroger Plus. My life, in the palm of a hand. An intimate connection to the things that I do. To the person that I am. Finally connected again.
Sarah sent me this article a few weeks ago, from the LinkedIn Today Design portal: The Three Most Romantic Gestures Any Man Can Perform. I’ll save you the trouble and tell you all three: write a love poem, whisk her away for a surprise getaway, and give her your coat. The article isn’t anything out of the ordinary. But Sarah didn’t send it to me because of the content. We both agree that these are romantic things to do (maybe not the most romantic, but romantic nonetheless). What’s really funny is the comments section.
Shocked that flowers didn’t make this list.
The guys are all, “I would never date a girl that was too dumb to bring her own coat if it was cold.” Note that the guys after it are like, “Yeah!” and “Amen brother!” And then, note the girl’s response.
“There are so many situations where this can be applicable. For example, womens’ formal clothing is by its nature much colder than mens’….”
In fact, scroll through the comments. Not every single one, but most – a majority – of the women express some level of agreement. Maybe not perfect agreement, but some agreement. And yet, some guys are still complaining about how dumb it is and how they would never blah blah blah.
Ramit Sethi has dubbed 2012 the year of mastering the game being played around you, and I can’t think of a better example [bonus side note: “OMG the first sentence of this post reminds me of Shan!” – anonymous] . The game is this: guys will sit around and complain about how dumb girls are for not bringing coats, and yet they’ll miss the underlying idea that a girl just wants to feel cared about.
Boom. They’ll call guys who write love poems and plan impromptu picnics “whipped” and “cheesy”, and they’ll sit at home playing Halo with their buddies on Saturday night wondering why they can’t get dates like those other “losers.”
Halo on a Saturday night. Intentionally blurred to protect the innocent.
There’s a classic line in The Seven Habits about effective presentation: “Who do they send back to school when the salesman doesn’t sell – the buyer?”
Being effective means empathizing with the person you’re trying to convince. If you’re trying to romance a girl, put aside your own notions of what is romantic or not, and test out ideas that you normally wouldn’t. In the world of design, that means getting outside your own head of what’s useful to the customer and testing out multiple ideas – even if you think they’re stupid – to find the ones that resonate.
Sure, maybe giving a girl your coat isn’t your thing. Maybe whisking her away for a weekend – or an afternoon – seems over the top. And maybe you think a love poem is sappy and lame. But remember, gentlemen – you aren’t the target audience. We all find different things romantic (for the record, I’m a quality time kind of girl).
Know your audience. Question your assumptions. And Godspeed this Valentines’ season.
For many, the day after Christmas marks the end of a season of giving. For a month, we give to our families, to our friends. Christmas gives way to images of an overflowing pile of presents stacked under a tree. Hindus aren’t much better, the commercialization of Christmas in December replaced by lavish displays of gifting at Diwali in October. We give for the 12 consecutive nights of Hanukkah, at once bemoaning a culture of commercialism and materialism, while ourselves partaking in the chaos of showing people our gratitude for their presence in our lives through physical gifts.
Let’s be clear: there is nothing wrong with giving.,American culture may have turned Christmas into a commercialized secular display of wealth, but at the heart of any tradition of giving is something humanizing and holy. The privilege of wealth is not what we do for ourselves, but what it enables us to do in the lives of others.
Puppy suspiciously eyeing her Christmas presents.
A few weeks ago, the amazing Gina Lee coordinated a Christmas party for a womens’ shelter and foster care facility. We “adopted” kids, got their Christmas lists, and were off to the races to give them a memorable Christmas. As we were setting up for a Christmas party last weekend, we went upstairs to attend the Sunday service at River of Life AME Church.
What my brand of Hinduism lacks in structured gatherings at the temple, I’ve learned from the religious leanings of others- I’ve attended service at many a Baptist church, a mosque, a Baha’i temple, and a Jain festival. I’ve attended Catholic mass at the Vatican. Sunday service at a Black church was a welcome window into a world I hadn’t seen.
Afterwards, Brian and I were outside waiting for the kids to come join us in a game of football, and he remarked to me how strange it must be to attend a service so different than what I’m used to, and to still partake in the tradition of Christmas for people who believe something so different.
There is a Christmas gift I got several years ago. A book, one of my favorites, titled To Heal A Fractured World. There’s a passage that came to mind then, from the back of the book, in response to Brian’s point.
Religions reach their highest levels when they stop worrying about the needs of people’s bodies and cater instead to the needs of their souls.
Why do we give? To fulfill our own ideas of what a good and moral life are? To make ourselves feel better about our relative wealth? To achieve moral salvation by telling ourselves that we are helping others do the same?
We are merely human. We cannot be expected to take our emotions out of giving. To give to those who may not believe the same things you do doesn’t diminish the fact that it feels good to give. I’d rather give for the needs of their bodies, than try to change the whisperings of their souls.
Spending time with the children that Sunday morning was an absolute joy – the younger ones were eager to play games, the older ones wanted to talk about their days at school. The idea of receiving from strangers has not yet brought with it the connotations of haves-and-have-nots, has not yet led to feelings of inferiority and shame. For a few, enchanting moments in time, Christmas wasn’t about giving gifts, but giving freedom, giving companionship, giving attention. These are the true gifts of the season.
But as we get older, we understand the ideas of charity and dignity. As the kids went back up to the sanctuary for Christmas carols, the parents came down and made a line to pick up the gifts that we had brought for their children.To see parents lined against the wall, with eyes averted, accepting bags of beautifully wrapped toys and clothes, is at once humbling and heartbreaking.
Rabbi Sacks talks about eight degrees of charity, and how the highest levels of giving center around the dignity of not letting someone know who has given the gift. Poverty is a plague, because it robs people of their dignity.
Here we get into the territory of aid, economic development, and the developing world. I am, as Jaspal Sandhu (who, by the way, is a pioneer of design research in the developing world) described over coffee in Oakland, a bleeding heart. I want to believe that I can save the world, that my purpose in designing for the developing world is to give someone something that they cannot build themselves.
The world doesn’t need saving, and certainly not by me. People don’t need my gifts as much as they need my partnership, my willingness to listen, my compassion in understanding the need for dignity. We design things not because people need them or because it makes us feel better, but because we want to enable a way of life that preserves someone’s dignity. We must care for the needs of the body before we can expect people to understand the needs of their souls.
Freedom is essential to the human condition, and no matter how freely the gift is given, whether or not we have the means to provide it ourselves, we want to be free from obligation to someone else for meeting our needs and desires. No matter the recipient, giving is about dignity, and the best gifts are the ones which preserve and enhance the dignity of the individual.
A beautiful, handmade graduation gift hanging on the tree.
I’ll be the first to confess that I am not good at receiving graciously. Sacks cites an African proverb, “The hand that gives is always upper-most; the hand that receives is always lower.” I’d much rather give than receive, and it’s not because of moral piety, but rather a selfish desire to prevent awkwardness, to keep my power in the subtle dynamics of interpersonal relationships.
I have trouble even accepting money from my parents.They can afford to give to me, and I don’t need their help - it’s vulnerable to receive graciously. I can stand on my own two feet, and a part of me still wants to prove that to the world. I’m still not comfortable with my own wealth. Maybe giving graciously can help me come to terms with it.
We were at Frjtz in Hayes Valley on a Sunday morning, when Shan told me I had a “type.”
“What do you mean, I have a ‘type’?” I was indignant.
“What do you mean you don’t have a type? You totally have a type. Think about it. Tall. Skinny. Athletic. Nice. Weird.”
This guy is not my type. Creepy airport randars do not fall in those parameters.
Ouch. I couldn’t even think of an example to refute with. If you ask me, I’m completely diverse in the people I choose to hang out with. My friendships and relationships span the gamut of cultures, upbringings, ideas, and backgrounds. I like people who are intelligent, nice, funny, interesting, adaptable. Right?
The truth is, humans are terrible at articulating what it is they like or want. So goes the old adage: actions speak louder than words. Whether it’s what you do in your spare time, your dating history, or how you use a medical device, it’s universally true. And if you don’t believe me, sit down for brunch with your best friends and ask them what they think of your past relationships.
On Thursday, at Phoebe Putney, I asked a nurse which modality of measuring body temperature in the ICU is most accurate. “Core temperature - so either rectal or bladder.” (PP doesn’t use esophageal probes in ICU or floor units - only the OR)
“OK - so if you’re running a hypothermia protocol, and you’re using two modalities - oral & bladder-based - you trust the bladder based first?”
Five minutes later: “I had this patient last week that went septic. I had a temp Foley in him, but his temperature seemed really low. It shouldn’t have been that low. I put in an oral thermometer, and it gave me a normal reading. I figured, that Foley must have just been lagging.”
Wait a second. She just told me, five minutes prior, that the Foley reading - the bladder-based temperature - is the most accurate reflection of what’s going on inside a patient. But then, when it came to taking care of a patient, she didn’t like the number the Foley gave and put in an oral thermometer - like you get at CVS - and took the measure.
When we do design research for product development, asking questions is a good start. But it’s only a start, and doubly so if you’re developing something new. The only way to drive behavior, is to observe and understand it. That means: don’t rely on focus groups, or interviews, to give you the information you need to design a successful product.
Enter design ethnography.
Ethnography, if done right, is exhausting. Wendy Newstetter put it best: “You should be drained after four hours, because you are the instrument of data capture.” It requires a basic understanding of the environment you’re in, but a perpetual sense of “newness” or naïveté. You have to dwell in conscious incompetence: you know how much you don’t know.
But it’s worth it. I spent some time on the phone with Jane Chen of Embrace last week, and she told me the biggest learning so far after launch has been that you can never know your users enough. They will “continue to surprise you in the way they approach the problem and the product,” even after - especially after - it’s been put in their hands.
Alas, although I’d really like to videotape our simulated use sessions, HIPAA dictates that this is the closest I can get to taking pictures inside the hospital.
We took our (rough) prototypes to Phoebe. We got better feedback in the first 60 seconds of letting the nurses simulate use, than we did in the 15 hours of clinical IDIs we’ve done this month. It doesn’t matter that they weren’t polished - you can’t be afraid of letting someone in the sandbox before you’ve finished your castle. After all, they’re the ones that will be living in it one day.
About two months ago, my friend Thomas asked me over dinner why I don’t publicize my blog or push content to Facebook. I had to laugh a little. I don’t really push content to Facebook (although I’m getting better!), and I don’t consider myself a “real blogger”.
Truthfully, sometimes I feel like I don’t put enough time into my writing. I justify it to myself by saying that I’m busy, or I’m tired, or I don’t have enough good content to weave into a post. And by not publicizing it, I let myself off the hook for not pushing myself.
If I hired you as a consultant to help me design my life to accommodate blogging better, what would you tell me? Block out time on my calendar to write each week? Each day? Keep a running list of topics that strike my interest? Find a quiet place without distractions that stimulates writing?
Three weeks ago, waiting on a plane from ATL —> DEN, I had three hours to kill. Perfect time to blog about what it takes to understand needs in product design, I thought. I had just started a new job, and was spending lots of time in the Holy Trinity of device design - the lab, the clinic, and the whiteboard. I sat down with a glass of wine, and wrote… absolutely nothing.
What I was doing in Denver :).
Can you understand what my problem is? If you know me in real life, you might (I’d be impressed if you did). If you work with me on a day-to-day, it might be a little clearer. It took me two weeks to figure it out, and I live with myself.
There’s little that’s more frustrating than finding the right solution to the wrong problem. My problem is not time. It’s not motivation. It’s not a lack of content. I keep a 15-page Word document on my desktop with topics, links, and ideas that I want to explore in writing. I set aside time every week to write, and I write plenty in a day.
In technology, there’s a dangerous tendency to design products that we are capable of producing. The larger a company gets and the greater its capital investment in a particular technology, the less likely they can be to branch out and create something new. But customers aren’t surprised and delighted by economies of scale. Rather, they are enchanted by solutions to their real problems.
Check out this USA Today article about solar panels in India. Houses in the rural countryside have been wired for the grid for years without having access to electricity. The electric company in the area is trying to answer the question, “How can we increase capacity to expand the grid faster?” But people in the rural countryside are bypassing that question, and asking, “How do we get electricity without relying on the grid at all?”
Or how about this Fortune article about P&G shampoo in China? A Fortune editor tags along on a trip to Shahe to watch a woman wash her hair, and makes the assumption that Wei Xiao Yan’s first priority is function - to have clean hair. After all, she lives in a part of the developing world where people spend less than $5 a day to survive. But when she’s given the proposition of cutting it, we learn that her primary motivation is beauty - to look pretty for her husband.
These may seem like subtle nuances, but these subtle nuances about user needs are the difference between products that users love to use, and products that users don’t use.
Did you know that Facebook has an analog design lab? The idea is not to create the greatest technical solution that you can - the idea is to “build a system that actively maps people’s relationships in the world - offline”. The only way to design something that interacts with people the way they need to be interacted with, is to understand that interaction. That’s meaningful social.
How this post started out.
Here’s the correct answer to the consultant question: I start all my posts on paper. Like, with a real pencil. I am a whiteboarder. A Sharpie addict. They’re not written out in their entirety (even I’m not THAT old-school), but I like to map my ideas out on paper - literally. Every blog post now starts on a piece of cardstock - even the paper is important, because cardstock gives a very real sense of gravity and substance. And what I didn’t have with me in the airport that day was a piece of paper and a pen.
It dawned on me as I was walking into Hartsfield last week with an hour before the boarding door closed. I had a five hour flight in front of me, and no pen in my bag. So I hustled down to One Flew South in Concourse E to bum a pen off of Tiffany before I got on my plane and started writing.