Contemplating Career Directions

I had a long coffee meeting with Fred Schechter yesterday, an industrial designer based in northern California that I’ve been talking to on-and-off for the past couple of years. Industrial Design is one of those majors I wish I’d known about when I was applying to college; not knowing any better, I had gone into Electrical Engineering. Fred himself had originally started in Mechanical Engineering, but thanks to a chance conversation with a friend (“they have a MAJOR for making cool stuff???”) he made an early exit and jumped to the world of product design. Anyway, we’ve been chatting about our mutual interest in making and selling our own products, and Fred’s perspective on it from the industrial design / manufacturing side has been invaluable in fleshing out my next steps. He’s an enthusiastic guy too, so if you’re looking for someone to talk to about early-stage concept and prototyping for manufacturing, it’s worth dropping him an email. Anyway, the conversation has helped solidify some thoughts on my personal career direction, so I thought I’d share them.

What Do I Do?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it is that I do, because it doesn’t neatly fit into a simple category. Or rather, I don’t want it to, which makes telling people what I do difficult. And if I can’t tell people what I do, it’s hard for them to imagine a way to work together. This is essentially a kind of marketing / branding problem, but from my personal perspective it is an aspect of my ongoing search for identity and how I relate to others; this is the million dollar question. It is what really drives my design process too. I suppose if I billed myself as a marketing or branding person, I would have to say that I’m NOT an operational or strategic manager (which is what a lot of people seem to do). What I like to do occurs before strategy so it can inform strategic planning, but it is not strategy in itself. What the heck is that called? I don’t know, therefore I can’t explain it.

For most of us getting started in the job market, we’ve learned to define ourselves through skills and years of experience (this includes education, which becomes less relevant as years of experience accrue). For “creatives”, we add a portfolio that showcase the physical work we’ve materially contributed to. If your job does not produce artifacts like this, then you use position and job title as the lowest common denominator for placing yourself in context to the field with which you’ve identified; this implies you have relevant knowledge and experience. All of these “markers” of “job identity” work if you fit in the pre-existing system. I could fit into this system (I’ve tried several roles to date), but they have not fully satisfied me. For the past few years, I’ve been trying to figure out my niche, so I could adequately define something NEW that fit me well. I haven’t thought much beyond that, but that’s OK: I’ve learned to appreciate that chance encounters are pretty much the mechanism through which the Universe makes my life interesting.

In the conversation about making books, Fred helped me figure out a few attributes about my writing methodology from a more detailed perspective. Here’s what I think I do from a blogging perspective:

  • I am obsessive about documenting process meticulously and accurately. I hate bad docs, having been exposed to plenty of them.
  • I scaffold my documentation with personal experience and context. I can safely use myself as an example without stepping on other people’s toes.
  • I am inclusive of my readers as friends as I document and relate these experiences. I don’t like feeling like an outsider, so I try to be as inclusive as I can so long as it feels good.
  • I always try to create original expression and new content, rather than just report on what others are doing. It’s a personal value.
  • I summarize and distill working principles as succinctly as I can, because that’s what I find easiest to remember
  • I maintain personal continuity in my writing, because I happen to find that kind of thing interesting.

From this, I could see how I could induce general principles of interest from my specific interests. For the past few years, I’ve been aware that I tend to write about these specific areas:

  • Design
  • Development
  • Productivity
  • Personal Empowerment
  • Inspiration
  • Sharing Personal Experiences

Repackaging these into general principles, I come up with this:

  • Design Thinking and Concepts
  • How People Work (from a process psychology perspective)
  • Building Stuff
  • Chasing Dreams and Making Them Real
  • Creating Practical Process Guides with Useful Insights

It is interesting to note that my specific interests were inward facing: they are my activities and interests. The general principles, however, are outward facing: they include other people’s interests and activities. For example, I’m very interested in what other people are doing with their dreams, and I’m happiest when I’m a part of that process of making them real. With the general principles, I now have the critical balance of perspective that I was missing.

And, finally I can see how I could spin this into a general consultancy specializing in making sense out of things. The skills I have—that is, the specific experience I have with design and development tools, new media development, interactive design, etc—are just tools used to express the general principles.