If only I’d known myself and my true interests better in college, perhaps I would have transitioned into the field of User Experience much sooner. Or perhaps if UX had been a better defined, more widely understood field at that time, it would have been easier to recognize the synergy between my interests and its objectives. But there is no excuse, having attended Carnegie Mellon, that I would not have been exposed to both innovative technology and top-notch design or had the opportunity to try it out myself. More than likely, the answer as to why it’s taken me this long to finally get it together is that I was a far too headstrong 18-year-old with a conceptualized career path wildly out of sync with my actual desires. Perhaps I wanted to be the next Hillary Clinton, or more than likely her Chief of Staff. But either way, politics and governance seemed exciting and sexy and diverse and meaningful. To hell with everyone who thought I should be an engineer, to get into tech, to everyone who ultimately knew me better than me at that time.
And so I entered the working world, at age 23 with a Master’s in Public Policy, a burning desire to make a difference (whatever that means). What they don’t tell you in college, and what I learned the hard way, is that while the mission of whatever endeavor you seek to pursue does impact overall life satisfaction, the day-to-day functionality of a job and workplace matters so much more. Put another way, the “what” and “how” of what you do is a far more critical than the “why” (though it’d be great to have the why).
The “what” and “how” of what you do is a far more critical than the “why” (though it’d be great to have the why).
And so the mission I ultimately stumbled into in 2009, a great time to enter the job market with a master’s degree and no experience, was affordable housing: building it, retaining it, financing it, and making it easier to access. It’s a worthy and necessary pursuit, and for a long time the purpose of what I was doing — helping people in desperately vulnerable situations find and maintain a stable, safe home — sustained me through a series of jobs characterized by navigating red tape and staving off monotony.
Our job was the un-fuck the system.
A friend once described my job, and his and so many others, as “un-fucking specialists”. Our job was to un-fuck the system — in my case, un-fucking a housing shortage. In the process, however, we inevitably create more things, more processes, more regulations, more systems, that we’ll need to un-fuck. Because we can’t start from zero and it’s hard to unravel the existing systems that work so poorly if they’re so convoluted we forget how they were supposed to work in the first place.
What I lacked in my job, and what I’ve finally identified, is creativity. A musical child, I missed creating and seeing the effects of my work viscerally. My favorite parts of every job I’ve had so far hasn’t been executing the process (the memo-writing, the endless box-checking, the spreadsheet-filling), but to conceptualize and design better systems for doing so. In organizing share files, re-formatting spreadsheets to make them clearer and more usable, and designing better forms for daily use I would find my “flow” state. I’ve never considered myself an adept visual artist, so I thought I lacked the ability to be employable in a field in which so much of the end product was visual. But in my career, I’ve continually interacted with systems so poorly designed with the end user in mind that they were practically nonfunctional and suffocated productivity. All I wanted to do was fix them and was frustrated that I just didn’t know enough to do more. That’s when it finally clicked — there’s an entire field and profession devoted to it! Why not get into that, learn more and more deeply about both the concepts behind user-focused design and its execution, and take those back to places that desperately need it?