For Myself, By Myself

Bad Chinese Food I’ve finally landed in Austin, Texas, for the 5 days of Web 2.0 community empowerment goodness that is South by South West Interactive. I had a few interesting thoughts on the flight over, while I was contemplating the nature of my bad airport meal (pictured left)…you know, anyone with a deep fat frier can create fast food and sell it. Hot grease covers a multitude of shortcuts, from the quality of the chicken in my “curry chicken egg roll” to the mediocre wrapping. Still, it wasn’t bad…if it had been baked, it would have been totally awful.

The thought that arose from this poor meal experience was that it doesn’t take much to credibly claim to offer a product or service or, in this case, an edible egg roll. This got me thinking to a conversation I’d had recently with Senia, during which I became re-aware that I was in fact embarassed by personal success, and that I’m rather bashful about wanting what I want. This was as much a surprise to me as it was to her; I’d thought I’d gotten over this years ago. What would it be like if I was totally not embarassed about what I wanted to achieve in my career life mix?

Hmm.

Careers and Expectations

I like to think that I don’t fall in the usual career paths, having made the decision to make a few largish jumps in my training. From engineering to art. Then from art to management. Then from management to design. And now to freelance. I’ve covered a larger area than I might have if I’d stayed with one thing. I think that’s pretty cool. However, in every case I have adhered to a basic guidelines: choose to practice a skill that has obvious value. In engineering, I was drawn to microcomputers for their ability to tell stories, but stuck with it because the degree had credibility. I was never happy with it, and finally I decided to pursue art school. Even there, I saw this as a move to combine my understanding of digital computers with aesthetics, seeing this as a powerful—and likely quite marketable—combination of skills. And so it has been. Every move I’ve made has been an attempt to define what it is I do in terms that other people could understand. I’ve written about this quite a bit in the past, because that question of identity has always eaten at me. It’s partly an issue of wanting to find some peace with myself, and partly a challenge in marketing my skills and services. I have never found the right combination of keywords to describe what it is a do; it’s a problem that faces a lot of people. On the one hand, there are no easy ways to describe ourselves, though we desperately want to so other people can understand us. Emotional gratification aside, being able to communicate our essential qualities to a prospective client is absolutely critical. I gotta eat.

The approach I’ve been taking recently has been to just accept the generic Designer label. It represents “problem solver” and “visual aesthetics” to most people, which is in the ballpark. The big breakthrough I made in 2005 was realizing that people didn’t intuitively understand the terminology that quantifies excellence within my field, so describing what I did was doing no good. Showing people what I did and thought, through this blog and other places, was far more successful.

The epiphany I had in the airport today was that for all the progress I’d made, I was actually not addressing the root of the problem: that feeling of unease that I hadn’t identified my passion in a way that could be explained easily. And this, I realized next, was directly impacting my ability to put a business plan together for whatever my next stage was going to be.

Up to now, my approach has been to define—maybe “evolve” is more accurate—a set of descriptive parameters that focused my energies productively toward a particular niche, and that felt like progress. With time to refine, I would certainly could define a workable business, then pull together a few key people and get going.

The problem: It didn’t feel right. I was engineering a business plan according to a set of expectations that were not mine.

Mine versus Theirs

By defining a niche, I am actually creating a workable compromise of skills, interest, and understanding. My niche right now could be described as “graphic design for workflow, process, and productivity”, and my skillset with new media allows me to create tangible pieces that can be applied by clients in their working contexts. This is all fine and good, but this is not actually what I’m interested in doing. However, I have trained myself to think entirely in terms of customer expectation management and delivering value, and have thought that finding a niche was my only option. I didn’t even realize I was limiting my thinking.

What would I end up doing if I didn’t have to think about meeting other people’s expectations?

I gave this some thought on the flight from Baltimore to Austin, and noted the following:

  • I like it when people feel good and make progress toward their goals.
  • I like it when people feel comfortable being who they are
  • I cheer when people pursue their dreams
  • I love being around people who are positive and self-empowered

This is pretty much the same epiphany I had over a year ago in Passion Turn Me Round and Round.

If I were to really admit what I want to do, it would be this: I want to make things that empower people, as directly as possible. That is, the connection is from me to you. My dream business would be to create tools, props, books, software, and experiences that empower people. Everything I make will have to follow these guidelines:

  • Insightful
  • Fun
  • Rewarding / Affirming
  • Novel / Cool
  • Affordable
  • Tangible
  • Fun to Share / Talk About

What I am trying to describe is a kind of agency of empowerment, using all the tricks from all media and psychology to create a transformative experience through the creation of useful kits, how-tos, books, party favors, funny noises…whatever it takes to get someone from point A to B and have a good time doing it. It’s like being a game designer or movie producer, except the goal isn’t just entertainment. It’s empowerment, which includes the ability to inspire, educate, train, and guide people toward the fulfillment of their desires.

I’m not sure what to call it, and it sounds kind of insane when I type it out loud, but this is what I want to do.

Redefining Markets and Services

The market for an agency of empowerment is the DIY and self-improvement people, which I think is pretty large. I can design and offer products that cater to this, using my existing design principles. The service that I enjoy offering, though, is figuring out how people do things to achieve a particular end. This is a lot more interesting than it sounds, since a lot of time we don’t really know what we want to do or how to do it. This is what is called discovery in a research or design project, and it’s the necessary pre-step before analysis and strategy.

I have to outline this in more depth, but I think I’m on to something here. I really want to make my own products of a certain kind, and I will need to find people who share the same passion for this. Because I value competency in production, I tend to believe I have to be able to do everything myself. However, perhaps it is enough to merely guide the efforts of more skilled practitioners and focus on where I’m interested. I dunno…I figure SXSW will be a good place to figure this out.