Hopeful and Powerless? Design in a Crisis

I used this image from the game ‘Journey’ as my cover slide. It’s… very fitting!

There’s a quote I’ve been thinking about, a lot:

The greatest mapmakers of old were not the ones who made better maps of places that were known. They gleaned insights about the places yet to be explored and mapped out uncharted territory

In this, I see two roles. One role, iterating and improving upon what it known; the other role, exploring and mapping what is unknown.

I came across this quote in a book about organizations, learning, and complexity. What I love about this quote is how it uses the analogy of a mapmaker to challenge the work that we, as professionals, do:

  • Where do we spend our time — on what is known, or unknown?
  • In what ways do we ‘map out’ uncharted territory?
  • For us, what are the places yet to be explored?
  • What insights have we gleaned?

Here’s what hasn’t changed, since I first came across this quote: We still need maps to navigate the unknown. And by maps, I’m thinking about canvases, games, toolkits, models, simulations, algorithms, and other designed tools that might help us think better, together. That need hasn’t changed.

“Things to Think With”

What has changed is this: The islands of certainty that we’ve occupied, they’re shrinking. The problems we were putting off until to tomorrow, they’re here. The world is looking increasingly…unknown.

We need maps to guide us through these uncharted times.

We need artifacts that will help us chart a course, things that will keep us from crashing into the unseen rocks, or being lost to dangerous sea dragons. So what are the dangers we should be navigating?

I took a moment to write down some of the really complex and turbulent tensions I’ve seen or experienced—not just in 2020, but over the past several years. See if you can relate to any of these:

  • How do we talk about checking our beliefs and perceptions of reality, without legitimizing cases of ‘gaslighting’ and other toxic situations?
  • How do I support BLM without also perpetuating the kind of colonialism that got us into this mess?
  • How do I focus on the positives, without crossing over into a ‘Pollyanna’ positivity that ignores reality?
  • How do I be the positive change that is needed, and also be authentic, when my authentic self is really struggling?
  • How do I inspire confidence as leader when I don’t feel confident myself?
  • Should I stick it out and fight for change, or is this a lost cause, where I should cut my losses and move on? How do I tell the difference?
  • How do I know which actions will make a difference, and which ones are waste of time?
  • How do I reconcile what is being asked of me against what is (or seems to be) actually needed?
  • How do I be a kind, supportive person (supporting individuals, regardless of where they’re at), but also speak up about the outrage I feel about injustices, intolerance, and idiocracy?
  • How do we go about business as usual, with so many bigger issues going unaddressed?

I don’t have direct answers to any of these questions. But I think I can respond—at least indirectly—to all of these.

What I’m promising today is a map.

A map, mostly because that’s what I can do—attempt to draw a picture that makes sense of it all. This map (a canvas, actually) is an attempt to organize my thoughts about a lot of very complex things, in a way that others—that you—might use. That’s the promise of this talk. A map to guide you on your journey.

And like most maps of the unknown, it’s based on a personal journey, my journey. These are things I’ve experienced and learned over the past few years, and how I’ve tried to make sense of it all. I’ll share what I’ve seen and learned along the way, and where I have yet to go. But, this is only one map among many…

This map is a canvas, intended to provide a bit of structure for self-reflection.

But, let’s skip past the boring canvas looking version. Wouldn’t you prefer something a bit more fun?! How about a version of this canvas themed as a…







(Sidenote: It turns out that this past Saturday, while I was buttoning up this talk, was International Talk Like a Pirate Day. So, there’s that!)

1. Crisis

Like all good epic journeys, let’s start together, in the middle, with that word ‘crisis’.

I suspect that this illustration from Liz and Mollie sums up what many of us are feeling right now:

In the midst of everyday work and routines, we’ve got these incredible things hanging over our heads: The pandemic, of course. But also the record unemployment (at least here in the US). A climate crisis. Racial injustice…

And there’s another crisis many underneath and exacerbated by all these things: A mental health crisis.

But crisis need not be global or even collectively shared with others. We can be struggling with a situational crisis.

  • Just a few years ago, I went through an existential work crisis. After 20 years as a designer, I was done. It just didn’t feel authentic anymore—I struggled to find purpose in what I was doing. But I wasn’t sure what I did want to do next. (I’ll come back to this one.)
  • A crisis can be personal, such the death of someone dear—or distant. We can talk about this loss on its own, but even harder to talk about is the grief that hangs around after…
  • At a smaller scale, we can even think of that conflict with a co-worker or boss as a crisis; maybe taking that job that didn’t turn out like you had hoped…

And here’s where the ‘hopeful and powerless’ part of the talk comes in. Yes, we feel hopeful. It’s hard to design without the ability to imagine how things might be better. But dang, if it doesn’t feel like our ability to affect change, especially in the face of the Big Things, is somehow… constrained? We feel powerless in the face of these really big concerns.

But, there’s a path through all this. This is the journey I’m want to try and map out for us, albeit with broad strokes.

We’re going to talk about to do with all this, but first, it’s good to pause, take stock, and name some of things we’re struggling with. I’m going to pause for about 2 minutes. I’d like you to check in with yourself. Identify those things in the world that you’re concerned about. A crisis. A cause. A conflict. A concern. Whatever it is, write it down. Go for quantity. Get it all out.

Ok. You’ve got your list. Let’s pare it down.

I can’t recall where I picked up this advice, but it’s stuck with me: Pick three causes to support. And that’s it. Any more and you’ll just be spreading yourself thin or wearing yourself out. If your goal is to actually affect change in a meaningful way, then focus on just a few things. So, in my map, I’ve only got space for three sticky notes, only three things you can work on. Prioritize!

Aside from forcing us to focus, this simple exercise also relieves some pressure. If you are an empathic, caring, human being (which you are!), then it’s easy to get exhausted ‘pinballing’ from one crisis to the next. This exercise gives us permission to let some stuff go. Let it go! Yes, you should still donate, vote, write—keep contributing in some basic ways—but be clear, if only for yourself, what things you care most about; then focus on those things.

When I did this exercise, these are the three causes I wrote down:

  1. The Climate Crisis
  2. Data Privacy (& Human Rights)
  3. Critical Thinking (and Education, more broadly)

Now, there’s more work to do. Let’s sort these three items.

While you may care deeply about the three things you’ve identified, what’s the topic that you care most about? Not ‘care’ in the ‘I’m concerned’ way, but ‘care’ in the ‘I think about this all the time and I could talk about this all day long!’ way.

When I did exercise for myself, something interesting happened.

I discovered I care deeply about climate change, if only because it’s an existential crisis; fail to address this one, and nothing else matters. But, when I took an honest inventory of the articles I read and the conversations I’ve had, this isn’t a topic that thrills me, not like education does. I feel deeply about education. I think about the literacies I’d love to see everyone develop. I attribute many of our present ills to a lack of education. I think about games, play, and learning, and novel ways to scaffold learning. I think about learning strategies—a lot! My personal mission is to ‘make learning the hard stuff fun’.

I’d love to teach the world the joys of learning.

Data Privacy isn’t far behind, but even that’s a topic I see myself addressing through the lens of better education. And scaffolding for self-discovery.

So, here’s my list, sorted now by passion:

  1. Critical Thinking (and Education, more broadly)
  2. Data Privacy (& Human Rights)
  3. The Climate Crisis

You should now do the same—sort your top three concerns. Why is this important? For the rest of this talk, I’m going to ask you to focus on only one crisis (or cause, or conflict). Which is the one you feel most connected with—that’s what you should move forward with… Take a few seconds, sort the three things you identified… If it helps, imagine that the other two things will be in the best hands possible—you needn’t worry about them. Given this scenario, what is the thing that’s left that you really, really want to work on?

Okay. What do we do with this thing that concerns us so much? Before I share the next part of my map, there’s one other reason to prioritize what we care about.

Agency, or the Lack Thereof

It’s been said that Designers have a ‘bias for action’. We see something wrong, and want to fix it, now! Part of the struggle is when change doesn’t happen quickly enough. Or when we feel our efforts aren’t leading to change.

I love how web developer and accessibility advocate Marcy Sutton articulate this struggle through the lens of burnout:

Judging from the reactions, this lack of agency is something widely felt.

We’ll talk a bit more about agency, and how to affect change, but this is a good time to highlight something I’ve learned to avoid: The ‘Action-Reaction’ Loop.

You’ve seen this, I know. Something outrageous happens, everyone is furious. It’s the trending topic for a day or month, then… what next? How many causes have we bounced around from, one after the next? And yet, if we return to these same things that outraged us last month, or last year, have they been solved? Did the momentary support, however much attention it got, lead to lasting change? Clean water in Flint, Michigan. Voting problems. The police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and too many others. Maybe the crisis is something professional, your team ships a feature that’s not been tested for accessibility. We might throw a fit in that moment, but have we addressed the underlying problem? A culture that values speed over all else. This action-reaction response is perfectly fine if you are in imminent danger—by all means act in a way that gets you to safety. But, this isn’t about those situations, this about creating lasting change.

What I want to propose is more intentional and sustainable. It’s what activist and author Rebecca Solnit describes as a coupling between hope and action.

Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope.

—Rebecca Solnit

Okay, let’s move out of crisis land… Let’s peer into the future. But, before we do so, I want to offer a critical reframing: A crisis is a chance to rethink everything anew. I didn’t know this until I looked it up, but “crisis” is defined as “the turning point” where “decisive change happens.” Wow. That sounds like a great transition to the next stop on our map: Hope!

2. Hope

There’s a narrative I want to change for you, if it’s needed, and that is what we mean by hope. Here are some things I’ve learned about Hope.

Hope is not the same as optimism. We can be optimistic and pessimistic about all sort of details and all sorts of things, and through it all still be be hopeful. Hope is something beyond all of the daily wins and losses, joys and frustrations. Hope is the belief that things can and will get better. Unless you’re struggling with more serious mental health issues — for which I encourage any of us to seek counseling and therapy — we all have hope. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be here. We wouldn’t care if we didn’t have hope in something more, something better.

[ Hope ≠ Optimism ]

Hope does not mean having a certain, positive future. Having a rosy, positive picture of things. Rather, to hope is to see possibilities. To hope is to live with the thrill and risk of uncertainty. To dwell in hope is to imagine what might be. This is meaning behind the clever book title ‘Hope in the Dark’ which isn’t as I had assumed, about hope while in darkness, with darkness being a terrible thing; rather, it’s all about the hope we find in the inscrutable darkness. This is what’s meant when Virginia Woolf wrote “The future is dark, which is on the whole, the best thing the future can be, I think.”

[ Hope = Uncertainty = Possibility]

Hope does mean taking action. This may sound obvious, but consider how often we imagine a hopeful future as something that happens to us.

[ Hope Requires Action]

With this in mind, I want to confront a serious issue: Our hopeful images of the future are under threat. Let’s take stock of the images—especially of the future—that occupy our minds:

Black Mirror? The Expanse? Wall-E? Snowpiercer? Interstellar? These sci-fi narratives accept human destruction as all but given.

Like all good sci-fi, these are meant to be warnings about present dangers. And yet, somewhere along the way, we started thinking of these cautionary tales as predictions of an inevitable, dystopian, future.

With the recent fires burning up and down the west coast, images of San Francisco were likened to images from the movie BladeRunner 2049. It’s hard not to draw comparisons. “See, it’s happening, just like was predicted!”

This isn’t a hopeful perspective.

Even if we’re trying to actively fight against these negative visions of the future, it’s hard. Really hard. I’ve recently been re-watching Mr. Robot, the TV series that (on the surface) is about computer hackers fighting against evil corporations. It’s hard not to start believing Elliot’s perspective on reality is accurate, given the headlines we see nearly everyday about corruption at yet another corporation. To this, I have to check my narratives and remind myself that confirmation bias is a powerful thing.

It’s all too easy to relate to Elliot’s frustration with Evil Corp

Adopting a hopeful stance has become increasingly difficult, and is increasingly needed.

To be honest, there’s a part of me that’s been cynical about “positive stories.” I mean, a good story needs conflict and tension, right? A positive, utopian, “everything is great” story is going to bad story, right?

And then, the recent death of Chadwick Boseman had me thinking again about the movie Black Panther.

On the surface, it’s got all the trappings of a superhero blockbuster movie. But let’s sit with this. Here’s a movie with a black man leading one of the most advanced civilizations on this planet. On and off screen, we see a hero who embodies the best of us, the best of humanity. Behind the scenes, we also get glimpses of s similar fight for what is right. We know that Boseman fought for T’Challa to have an African accent, when studios were ready to rationalize a (more commercially acceptable) British or American accent. He was fighting against colonial tendencies, in the dialect of his character. The results? Yes, a hero we can all look up to. But for millions of people of color, there’s also representation for a group that’s normally depicted with disparaging stereotypes.

And what of Black Panther’s inherent narrative tension? While the ‘good guy’ and ‘bad guy’ are clearly distinguished by their actions, the fundamental tension in ideologies isn’t so black and white. We see a tension between reparations for past injustices vs acceptance and healing for all. Whoa. That’s heavy stuff. This tension has led some critics to ask who is the real hero of this story? And wow. Isn’t this a great—positive—conversation to be having?

I’ll confess to a bit of cognitive dissonance the first time I saw the film. Seeing African people as the most technologically advanced civilization on the planet—I’m ashamed to admit it, but I felt a bit like that UN representative we all laugh about at the end of the movie: “With all due respect , King T’Challa , what can a nation of farmers offer to the rest of the world?” We can laugh at him, but we’re laughing at ourselves. A narrative about “poor African villages” and what they’re capable of was exposed for what it is: Prejudice. And think that’s part of the point. What kind of unconscious racism did I have that made the (fictional) city of Wakanda feel so jarring?

For me, this movie opened doors to ‘Afro-futurism’, N. K. Jemisin’s amazing book series The Broken Earth trilogy, the writings of Ta-Nehisi Coates, and more.

That’s Black Panther. A positive future. We could also look at The Martian (I recommend the book!), or Arrival. Or, if we want to be hit over the hit with this message of positive futures, Tomorrowland. All of these stories celebrate what’s good and possible, when we work toward that ideal. So, yeah, we can have hopeful stories that aren’t also hokey.

But back to my point: We need more hopeful stories about the future. And these hopeful stories start with us.

So, how do we create these narratives?

To start, we can—quite pointedly—start with ourselves…

I first started thinking about ‘positive futures’ by way of a self-awareness class I was teaching last year. One of the exercises we would do is to take a personal goal we are after, and to imagine—in vivid detail—what life will be like when that goal is realized. Students could draw or describe this future. The important thing was to do so at such a high fidelity, that you could see and feel this ideal future; the instructions guided students to activate our senses and bring this ideal state to life. In addition to making things seem more real and concrete, I found this simple exercise also helped me clarify all sorts of nuanced details I hadn’t thought through.

I recently came across similar thinking from futurists and Jane McGonigal, who shares three specific questions we can ask to “spark hope for the future.” In her short post, she asks us to identify “one thing you’re looking forward to doing in the future, that isn’t possible (or advisable) today due to the current pandemic?” Then, “Why are you looking forward to it?” But here’s the part I want to draw your attention to:

Now picture yourself doing this activity again, in the post-pandemic future, as vividly as you can. What time of day is it? What is the weather like? Where are you and what do you see around you? Who are you with? How do you feel? Most importantly — when you imagine this moment, what do you think will be different about it, compared to pre-pandemic times? Try to identify at least one specific detail that will be changed as a result of our pandemic experiences. Imagine this detail of change vividly — how do you experience this change in terms of what you see, hear, smell, taste, or touch? How are you adapting to this change? (And if you don’t think anything will change when you get back to doing this activity — look closer, for even the tiniest detail of difference in the environment, or your actions, or other people’s behavior.)

You can read McGonigal’s post for more on the science behind why this works. But essentially, creating these stories (1) sparks positive emotion, by creating neural pathways the fuel anticipation rather than anxiety, and (2) by being specific, is more likely to result in hope and motivation to act (to name a few of the benefits).

To recap, these stories that we create need to:

  • Appeal to our senses
  • Clarify specific details
  • Focus on actions

What about the really big stuff, well beyond us? Stories about the kind of world we want to live in?

It’s funny how different interests all start to collide and blur into one another. I mention self-awareness and hope, and the need for positive stories. But over the past year, following an entirely different strand of curiosity, I’ve learned a lot more about what futurists and foresight strategist actually do. I would never have thought about connecting the literature on hope with the creative work of futurists, but we should look at how these worlds overlap.

At its heart, futurist work is about imagination. Imagining possible and preferable futures. And fortunately for us, futures studies makes available to us a rich toolkit that’s been added to and iterated on over many decades. There are a variety of tools that channel our imaginations in different ways.

For the last three months, I’ve been doing a deep dive into a very specific futurist tool, known as ‘alternative futures’. It basically asserts that all visions of the future fit into one of four archetypes. Continued Growth. Collapse. Transformation. Discipline. I was drawn to this tool because it seemed to offer a kind of intellectual comfort: Whatever happens, it’ll fit into one of these patterns. Learning about, and using, this tool has been a wild, exhilarating ride, but one that has only deepened my appreciation for the work that futurists do, and have done for many decades.

And while we’re talking about hope, this is a good time to dispel one of the biggest myths about futures work: That futurists predict the future. This is wrong on three accounts:

Futurists do not “predict” the future. Rather, futurists use a variety of methods and tools to help us see and assess several (plural!) possible alternative futures.

Why? The purpose is not to anticipate what might happen, but to change what we do today, to help make our preferred future the one that comes to be.

That’s a critical point worth restating: By imagining possible futures, we can more effectively change what we’re deciding on and doing TODAY.

And that leads us back to Design in a Crisis. We can, by employing our skills at imagination bring imaginative ideas to life, and begin to move from “From What Is to What If” (to cite another book I’ve been reading).

Why is all this important?

Fighting For (vs Against)

With all this in mind, I want to emphasize an important reframing in all this: The difference between fighting against something versus fighting for something.

Fighting for something beats
fighting against something.

I believe we’re far more likely to be successful, whatever ‘success’ looks like, when we can describe and share a vision with others. And there’s a strength in knowing how we’d like to see things changed, not just for the destination it lays out before us, but for the challenges we get handed in the present.

I love how Paul Goodman expresses this:

Suppose you had the revolution you are talking and dreaming about. Suppose your side had won, and you had the kind of society that you wanted. How would you live, you personally, in that society? Start living that way now!”

What is worth fighting for? What is the positive future you would like to see?

This is the Hope-Action cycle we want to move toward. We want to shift our mindset from one of fighting against something to fighting for something.

C. Otto Scharmer describes this same idea in a slightly different way, when he says “energy follows attention.”

“Energy follows attention. Wherever you place your attention, that is where the energy of the system will go. “Energy follows attention” means that we need to shift our attention from what we are trying to avoid to what we want to bring into reality.”

C. Otto Scharmer, Leading from the Emerging Future: From Ego-System to Eco-System Economies

So, the second stop on our map is our imagined destination. The place we want to be.

When you stop to do this, it’ll lead to some interesting places. And you may find yourself cycling between (and adjusting) how you defined your crisis—expect that. This is good.

To be honest, I’m still ironing out the details on my own story about critical thinking in the future. But, here’s an excerpt of what I’m writing:

Politicians, salespeople, retailers — they’ve long since given up on exploiting cognitive biases and using persuasive tactics. Why? It’s simple: These things stopped working. People learned to spot these errors in their own thinking. It didn’t happen overnight—it took decades (and generations) to take hold. And it took the Information Wars of the 30s (and the near collapse of civilization!) for people to wakeup and prioritize this kind of reflection, but we eventually did. Critical thinking skills became one of several basic literacies expected of all citizens; spotting logical fallacies has become a bit of sporting past-time, with chuckles all-around when someone tries—without success—to mislead or distract us. Critical thinking became second nature, as common as breathing or walking…

This is a BOLD and lofty vision. But you know what? It begs the question: How might I (or we) make this a reality? What steps can I start taking today, to make the come true? I like this reality. It’s certainly aspirational. And, yeah. I have other examples, less grandiose and more near term. This one is decades out, but I’ve got other examples that look out only a few months or years. The point is to cast a specific vision, one that makes our fuzzy ideals real. Then, we have something to guide our actions.

I’d challenge you to spend some time at this stage, before moving on. But, this will have to be homework. We’ve got to move on with our journey…

Which leads us, finally, to Action, right?

No. Not yet.

We need to take a detour through some very personal spaces…

3. Check In with Yourself

I want to share a quote that linked two different worlds for me. It’s from the book Immunity to Change, about adult learning development.

When we experience the world as “too complex” we are not just experiencing the complexity of the world. We are experiencing a mismatch between the world’s complexity and our own at this moment. There are only two logical ways to mend this mismatch — reduce the world’s complexity or increase our own. The first isn’t going to happen. The second has long seemed an impossibility in adulthood.

For the longest time, I felt torn between two worlds:

  1. The world of external, outward problems. Service design challenges. Organizational complexity. Systems problems. The need for better decision and thinking tools.
  2. The world of inward struggles. Things like psychological safety, vulnerability, self-awareness, team coordination, and the like.

I felt like I had to choose, between that of being a consultant, focused on systems and complexity, and that of coaching, helping individuals work through interpersonal struggles. It was this quote from Immunity to Change that helped me reconcile these two worlds, and see them as two sides of the same coin:

When we experience the world as “too complex” we are not just experiencing the complexity of the world. We are experiencing a mismatch between the world’s complexity and our own at this moment. There are only two logical ways to mend this mismatch — reduce the world’s complexity or increase our own. The first isn’t going to happen. The second has long seemed an impossibility in adulthood.

How can we hope deal with outer complexity until we learn how to deal with inner complexity?

So to be effective change agents, or futurists, or provocateurs, or quiet whisperers—whatever role we play—we must start by checking in with our selves, at this moment. What are my motives? How am I feeling? Have I checked the facts? What narratives have shaped my thinking? How are my behaviors contributing to the situation? I could go on. This part of our journey is a wide open space that I’m fairly certain we’ve been filling with all kinds of self-care tips and advice from mental health experts (and non-experts).

Given this, I want to highlight just a few things, things I’ve picked up on my journey. And then, I’m going to invite you to fill in this space with your experiences.

Facts, Beliefs, Narratives, and Prior associations.

First, I’ve spent the last few years thinking a lot about the beliefs and narratives we construct, often beginning at a very young age. A lot of the work I’ve seen comes from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, where we’re challenged to differentiate between facts and beliefs, and learn to recognize the power we have by recognizing and changing our beliefs. While this is one branch of psychology, the notion that we all have narratives that sit quietly behind our beliefs and actions, this does seem to be fairly universal. From a neuroscience perspective, I could talk about the same idea, but I’d talk about prior associations and perceived affordances we’ve accumulated through interactions with the world.

Beliefs. Associations. What does this have to do with design in a crisis?

It feel it’s important to start with an honest assessment of things, before we proceed. The fastest way to discredit our work, or short-circuit our own efforts, is to start with faulty assumptions. Moreover, there’s a hero narrative that many of us our prone to— ‘Hey, there’s a problem, I must fix it!’. Learning to ask “who else is working on this, and how can I help them?” is hard. Even harder, is asking ourselves the question “Is this my problem to work on?”

The point of all this work is to scratch at the stories we tell ourselves, often unconsciously, about a situation. It’s hard work, that I’m only hinting at here.

There are other, less beneficial, narratives some of us assume: The victim. The helpless bystander. The inner critic. It’s easy to construct these narratives that excuse us from taking action. Confront these stories for what they are: Stories. And belief systems. For an especially good exploration of this topic, I highly recommend this talk that Andrea Mignolo gave at Leading Design 2017:

When facing a crisis, there’s a particularly nasty narrative that we must be on guard against, and that’s the despair narrative. It’s easy to amass evidence that proves hope is futile. But if we spend the same amount of time and energy looking for historic moments of progress and change, we often find (or might find) things are a lot more hopeful than they seem. Seriously, take a topic that you feel overwhelmed by and discouraged about, then invest some serious hours looking for all the wins and signs of progress; I’m willing to bet you’ll find this an encouraging exercise.

So, that’s beliefs and narratives. I think checking our motives is wrapped up in there somewhere, too. But, this space alone could be filled with dozens of talks; my goal is simply to present the map, or ‘container, where we can share things to consider.

Systemic Problems

There’s another ‘check-in’ we need to do, and that’s an honest assessment of the situation. There are problems we can address at the level of a few individuals. The conflict with a co-worker. The strive for a personal achievement. But many more crises are more complex, and systemic. These kinds of problems require a different approach, and an assessment of our role in a broader system. I’ll say a bit more about this when we talk about taking action.

Check your Reserves

There’s at least one more “check-in” question I can’t skip over, and that’s this: “How are you doing, really?” Do you have the strength and energy at this time to work on the positive future you’ve imagined? It’s ok if you don’t. Throwing ourselves into something, when we’re exhausted, is likely to only result in burning ourselves out. Rest. Respite. Sabbath. Time for healing. Breaks. These are important ideas that span cultures and generations. (Note: You can also find energy when you feel depleted by taking action on something that you really care about; these ideas of rest and/or action as ways of recharging needn’t be at odds—the point is to become aware of which things drain you and which things energize you!)

And it’s not just our energy reserves, it’s also our financial reserves. While I’ve had the privilege, I’m supporting local businesses, individuals, and causes, as I can. But this may not be sustainable, given an uncertain economic situation. It’s vital to stop and ask “What am I capable of now, and what is unhealthy for me, at this time?”

Check In, with Others

In all this, there’s a glaring omission: Other people. Connections. Relationships. We are social creatures. Learning is itself a social activity And yet, everything I’ve shared so far is all so very individualistic. ‘What can I do in this situation?’ Let’s change that to ‘What can we do?’

The need to connect is so critical, so essential, that I’ve wrestled with the IA of this space, on this map. I think simply adding a tip like ‘connect with others’ to a column called “Check-in with yourself” downplays just how vital this is. For this reason, I’d either add a “Check-in with others” section (as you currently see) or change the label for this entire section to be less focused on the individual.

When it comes to the hard work of uncovering hidden narratives, the most success I’ve seen (in my workshops) comes through pairing people together, where one person listens while the other person shares. And vice versa. And then, throughout the day, these partners become the mirrors we need to see things otherwise hidden to ourselves.

And it’s not just about seeing ourselves. People can be a source of strength, comfort, and support. We need others to lean on. I say this all as an introvert and a control freak—I know how hard it is to bring others into your world. But, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, again and again, over the past many years, it’s the importance of ‘working and learning together.’

On this note…

Your turn:

I mentioned asking you to fill in this space with your own experiences. Tips, tricks. Check-yourself questions. Self-care. Anything that would fit under the header ‘Check-in…’ In the spirit of working and learning together, I’ve setup—in Miro—a version of the map I’ll be sharing at the end of this talk . I’d like to use this as a blank canvas to collect your best ideas. I invite you all, after this talk and throughout the remainder of this week, to share some of the helpful ways you’ve discovered to check-in on yourself and others. Questions for reflection. Articles. Tips. The field is wide open. And my instructions are vague! My hope is that following this conference, this can form the basis of a toolkit that can be iterated on and shared more broadly.

OK. Now we can take action, right? Not just yet…

4. Know Yourself

Deeper than checking in with yourself at this moment, is knowing who you are. And to be clear, we are dynamic creatures, always learning and changing. But, there’s a generally persistent set of values and strengths and traits and other things about us that change much more slowly, often over years and decades. Knowing this—knowing who you are and what makes you tick—is critical, if we are to effect lasting change.

There are many ways to think about who you are, but let’s call out four considerations: Strengths, Values, Mission, and Role.


The easiest place to start is with your strengths. These are the things you do really well. I’ll give a shout out to a tool I’ve actually found really helpful for identifying and discussing strengths: CliftonStrengths Assessment.

First, I love the ethos behind this tool. Essentially, this tool argues we should focus on strengths, instead of weaknesses. If there’s something you’re not good at, instead of trying to work on that, let it go; instead, let’s pair you up with someone who does excel in that area. Instead of performance reviews that cut against the grain of who we are, as individuals, let’s double down on those unique strengths that people bring to their work.

Second, unlike most assessments that try to pin you down to one of 4, 9, or 16 boxes, CliftonStrengths is different. It helps you identify your unique rank order of 34 identified strengths. Because of this approach, and the complex interplay of strengths, this approach stresses the uniqueness of every individual. It’s fuel for a highly tailored and nuanced conversations. No labels!

For something more narrowly targeted at designers, I recommend checking out the Superpowers Card Deck from SYPartners. I believe there’s also an app you can download that’s actually a bit easier to use than the cards. And, it’ll lead to some great conversations!


Similar to strengths, we can talk about values. A good friend of mine who does a lot of team coaching recently observed that most team conflicts stem from a deeper conflict in values. We see a hint of this in the stereotypes we feed about what it means to be a designer or a product manager or an engineer. ‘Designers get upset over little things and slow things down’. While there may be some correlations between values and job professions, it’s far healthier if we do the work to identify and become aware of our own value system; then, we can constantly be checking our life and actions (and the jobs we take) to see how they align with our values. I suspect we’re all most energized and effective when we’re working, playing, and acting, in a way that is aligned to our personal value system.

For this work, a good place to start might be the Schwartz Theory of Basic Human Values, as this work has been tested across cultures (they’ve tested this in 82 countries), making it seem more valid than other things I’ve come across. If you want, here’s the Personal Values Assessment based on Schwartz’s work; it’s a good, fast way to identify your top (and bottom!) values.

Mission & Purpose:

Simon Sinek talks about Starting with ‘Why?’ and has written a number of books on this topic, as have others. Finding purpose and meaning to our work is a well-tread theme, so I won’t say too much here, except this: try out a number of frameworks and models, until you see some recurring themes and patterns begin emerge (I haven’t had luck with any one framework). I have a mission statement that I plaster everywhere I can, but it took several years, and many attempts using different frameworks, before this mission statement felt right. Oh, and if done well, these are words that will ring off the page (and roll of your tongue), and energize and recenter you whenever things start to feel off. They’ll be specific, and tell you what without locking you into how.

My personal mission statement:

To make learning the hard stuff fun, by making ‘things to think with’ and ‘spaces’ for generative play.

Oh, and recall how I stressed the importance of relationships and connection? It took a friend of mine, who happens to also be a life coach, to get me unblocked. I recall sharing drafts and iterations of this personal mission statement with her, until it got right.


One of the things I’ve learned is that we all have different roles to play.

  • There are those whose role is to provoke, through polarizing and extreme statements. These people bang a drum and call attention to critical topics. They’re not necessarily wrong, but they can be controversial figures.
  • There are others whose role it is to translate and explain, in a less divisive way. These are the teachers, who will explain why yes, this is a concern, they’ll unpack the inflammatory statements.
  • There are others who spread the message, passing on and sometimes amplifying
  • There are others who are are there to support or encourage, as needed.

And so on.

I’m not going to offer up a taxonomy of roles to choose from — that misses the point. And to be extra clear: I’m NOT talking about about job titles or industrial era labels. Rather, the point is to figure out how you’ve been wired, to discover what kinds of activities come naturally, and to stop trying to be someone we’re not.

In fact, thinking about this reminds me a bit of the sorting rituals so common young adult novels. Amity. Erudite. Hufflepuff. Slytherin. There’s a grain of truth to this trope: The sooner we can discover what we’re suited for, the better. This isn’t about trapping ourselves in a box, but simply recognizing those positions where we’re most alive and authentic. And again, this may change over time or with the topic!

I’m sure there’s more we could identify under the heading of Know Yourself, but the broader point is simply this: Whatever actions you’re taking in the world, you want them to be consistent with who are and how you’re wired!

5. Action

Finally, we can now talk about taking action! Again, I’ll share things I’ve learned. Highlights from my journey.

In the realm of actions, there’s no shortage of potential things we can do.

Just a few of MANY possible actions!

But, there are some special considerations to be made:

Coherent Actions

Which things are consistent with who you are and what energizes you? I felt like this talk was a broad, sweeping mess (and it still might be!) while I was treating it like any other keynote. The reframing I needed was to think about this like a game, or a toolkit. In fact, that’s what I did about 6 weeks ago:

I love making tools people can use. And if the tool can be playful or gamelike—even better! It was this shift to thinking about all this as a sort of ‘meta-model’ or boardgame we could play that got me really excited! And I’m still excited. To be completely transparent, I got kind of stalled out on the cards for “Check-in with yourself,” and then I remembered one of my core value statements: Work and Learn Together. So, here we are. Nudge. Nudge. I mention all of this not to be meta about this talk, but to be meta about how I approached this talk, and rebooted it to be more aligned with everything I’m trying to practice.

Letting Go

On the topic of agency, there’s something specific I want to share. For most of my career I’ve either worked in companies small enough that my voice was heard, or I was hired into a position of influence. Even as a HS English teacher (ages ago!) , I had some control over how I ran the classroom. Agency, autonomy, purpose—while I spoke about these things, they had never been a personal struggle, until a few years ago. I ended up in a place where, despite being a senior leader, I felt a loss of agency for the first time ever in my career. There were many reasons for this, that I won’t go into. But I want to share a model that helped me through this.

Everything in your life falls within either your Zone of Control, Influence, or Concern. Essentially, here’s a canvas to think consciously about what is within our control, what we can influence, and what things we have no control.

“Let it go, let it go…”

I might have scoffed at this model in the past, under the belief that we all have agency and that influence starts with our own attitudes about leadership. But, as I just laid out, this was my belief system reinforced through 20+ years of privilege, where I had agency and influence. Being placed into a position where there were things beyond my control, even as a leader at this company—it wasn’t good. I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t influence change like I had elsewhere. I only got more frustrated and unhappy as I repeatedly tried to influence things that were—I finally had to acknowledge—truly beyond my control. And while I’ve never (fortunately!) struggled with addiction, I found serious comfort in the serenity prayer said by members of Alcoholics Anonymous:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference


There’s another lesson I’ve learned over recent years, and it’s this: Change takes time, and patience (of which, I’ll add, I have very little of!).

I think we know if we’re working on a complex problem, we’re not going to see change overnight. That’s a given. But, how do we keep going on and on, working on big problems, without a proper feedback loop? How do we maintain courage, and enthusiasm, when change can take years and decades to come?

Again, I have a history of working at small companies, where change could be seen and felt fairly quickly. Working for a large, enterprise, company, with really big, complex problems, I had to invent a new metaphor that reframed how I saw myself and my role, a metaphor that would help me feel good about the daily, uphill battles. Over time, but I came to see my role as adding drops to the bucket.

Let me explain: Think of a bucket being filled with water. The moment of real change is when the water begins to overflow, out of the bucket. We tend to talk about and celebrate that moment, the water overflowing. That’s the moment of change. What we don’t talk about enough is all the many people along the way—often over many years—who added tiny little drops of water to the bucket.

When I look back over my time at the particular company I mentioned, I can point to specific moments when I, and others, added a drop to this bucket. And while I left before there was real and lasting change, I can speak confidently about the drops I added, and how the bucket is filled with just a bit more water now than it had when I joined. This is my story of hope, and how I think about my contributions.

I wondered if this wasn’t all some crazy rationalization, to tell myself a story to make me feel better, but then I came across a similar ideas from activist Rebecca Solnit.

I used the analogy of adding water a bucket. Rebecca Solnit compares change to mushrooms:

There are major movements that failed to achieve their goals; there are also comparatively small gestures that mushroomed into successful revolutions

We tend to see and focus on that moment when things “mushroomed” into successful revolutions.


Solnit speaks to the invisible work of an underground fungal system, that can be present for some time, before we ever see the fruiting body (the mushrooms) punch up above the ground. We talk about the mushrooms and blooms as moments of change, but we can’t forget the underground and unseen fungal system that made all this possible.

Do nothing

There’s a special kind of action I want to call out, and that is to Do Nothing. You may, after doing the hard work of checking-in with yourself, find that you don’t have the resources or capacity to do anything at this time. Once you realize this, it’s ok to declare that you are going to do nothing. I think if we don’t do this, if we don’t declare the intention of doing nothing, then we’re holding onto to some shame and guilt about not helping out. But, it’s ok to conclude that this just isn’t the right time. Sometimes, taking care of ourselves, or our immediate family, might be all we’re capable of. This is ok, and if you find yourself in this position, then be intentional about doing nothing, and declare that as the action you are taking. Let it go! Take care of yourself.


Let’s bring some closure to all this.

What I’ve shared with you today is a map. A map to help us think about how some really heavy stuff. It’s just a map. And it’s a rough map, drawn at a very high-level, which is both good and bad. Good, because it might serve as a container, a structure, to make sense of a dizzying array of topics; you might even put this broad use to the test, and see how well the talks and workshops from this week fit into this structure. But the strength of this map—how broad it is—may also be a weakness, as it isn’t specific enough to be useful in some cases.

With that in mind, I’d like to leave you with another challenge: Yes, in addition to populating portions of map I’ve shared with specific tips, I’d like to invite you to share your own maps. This could be a map you’ve found, or one you’re working on. Whatever the source—share it. Whether we’re talking about a literal map or a Wardley map or a site map—these artifacts help us make sense of and navigate really complex things. All maps are wrong, but they’re something useful. Whether we’re navigating a shared, global crisis, or the inner complexity of a situational crisis, maps and tools for reflection can guide us, and help see us through.

Let’s end how we started:

The greatest mapmakers of old were not the ones who made better maps of places that were known. They gleaned insights about the places yet to be explored and mapped out uncharted territory

This is my challenge to you: We are, all of us, in uncharted territory. The challenges we face are only getting more complex. You are all skilled mapmakers. Use your skills for good. Go forth and make maps of these uncharted territories.

Thank you.

A special thanks to Andrea Mignolo, Mariana Ivanova, Andrew Maier, Jason Mesut, Debbie Spalding, and Martina Mitz who all gave me early feedback on this talk!



Speaker, educator, and design leader. On a mission to make learning the hard stuff fun, by creating ‘things to think with’ and ‘spaces’ for generative play.

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