Creating Your Personal Mission Statement

Written by: Louis Rosenfeld

You’re weird. In a good way, but weird nonetheless.

Weird in the sense that people outside of work likely have absolutely no clue what it is you do. Maybe many at work as well.

For me, this weirdness manifests itself at parties. Inevitably, a new acquaintance asks me what I do. Beads of sweat form on my forehead. My eyes dart around, desperately seeking my far more articulate wife, Mary Jean. I find her, ask her to explain me, and flee.

If you’re in UX or a related field, congrats: You probably have more work than you can manage in a time when many people are underemployed. But that doesn’t diminish the discomfort those weird moments cause.

How might we explain ourselves better?

I created a simple exercise to help create personal mission statements—something short and meaningful to say about yourself—with some help and encouragement from Christina Wodtke and Anders Ramsay. It’s fun, simple, and quick; in fact, I recently tried it out with a group at the Re:Design conference and it seemed to work well. Here’s what to do.

Start with a context.

It could be public, like something to include on your business card, your Twitter bio, or blurt out at those nerve-wracking parties. Or something private, like a statement you write down and keep in your wallet for you and you only.

Tell your story.

Find a friend or colleague—someone you don’t mind being a bit vulnerable with—who will take notes while encouraging you to talk about yourself and what’s important to you. Ten minutes is plenty.

Basic questions like these can get you going:

  • What kind of change would you like to be part of?
  • What’s your superpower?
  • What’s the difference between what you’re expected to do and what you want to do with your life?
  • What has always pissed you off?

Craft a short statement.

Together, take those key terms and phrases from the notes and work them into something that fits the context you chose. Easier said than done, so plan to iterate.

At Re:Design, I was the guinea pig. My context was finding a new Twitter bio to replace this one:

Founder of Rosenfeld Media and veritable UX action hero.

“UX action hero” is an inside joke: pointless for 99.99% of the people who encounter my bio. Time to axe it.

I started with the “What has always pissed you off” question, and told my session’s attendees a story of 20+ years of frustration with the traditional business models (and their defenders) that I’ve encountered in higher ed, consulting, publishing, and professional associations. Telling one’s “true story” is never easy—especially in front of 70 people—but two things really helped:

  1. The floor is yours. Whether you’re telling your story to one person or 70, it’s your time. Take as much of the ten minutes as you wish, and make it clear that there will be opportunities to discuss your story and brainstorm after you’re done.
  2. Vulnerability is engaging. The goal isn’t to impress anyone with a slick presentation of your many fine attributes; rather, use this opportunity to begin figuring out what you’re about. Your stumbles and your quirky, imperfect, unfinished story will actually draw in your partner(s). If they have an ounce of empathy and interest in you, they’ll be able and eager to help brainstorm ideas about who you really are.

My group was anxious to brainstorm before I was even done telling my story. They came up with these options:

  • Happy but not satisfied
  • Re-architect/Assassin of business models since 1965
  • Shapeshifter
  • Internet sherpa
  • Learning by teaching
  • Step, pivot, repeat

My faves are the second and the last one especially, as verbs (like “step, pivot, repeat”) are fairly constant when it comes to describing how we live and what we do. And if I wasn’t happy with any of these, repeating the exercise with someone else would have made sense—after all, it takes less than a half hour. In fact, I’m considering repeating it as often as I get the urge—maybe once per year.

In any case, here’s my new Twitter bio:

Founder of Rosenfeld Media. Slayer of traditional business models. Step, pivot, repeat.

And here are shiny new Twitter bios from some of the session’s attendees:

helping people be less afraid of making things better

…and…

Persuade. Connect. Convince. Judging user experiences everywhere.

Though I’m not sure which questions got each of them started, I am sure they were excited. In fact, they were anxious to share their new personal mission statements with the group.

They found it fun, simple, and quick. I hope you will too.

(Not) Defining the damn thing

Written by: Louis Rosenfeld
“I like to think there are more fruitful communal pursuits, such as finding better ways to market ourselves, organizing ever more outstanding conferences, and setting up local professional groups for networking and commiserating.”Discussions of how we should label ourselves and define our work are like flu epidemics. They break out from time to time, follow a fairly predictable course, and often make us want to barf.

I’m not saying that such discussions aren’t worthwhile. Testing our self-labels can be useful. For example, we may learn that the working definition of interaction design has changed substantially over the past five years. Or the European and North American definitions of information design differ more than we realized.

But these discussions draw off an incredible amount of creative energy from a brilliant community of thinkers and practitioners. I like to think there are more fruitful communal pursuits, such as finding better ways to market ourselves, organizing ever more outstanding conferences, and setting up local professional groups for networking and commiserating.

Worse, these discussions are ultimately pointless if we hope to determine singular labels and definitions. That’s not how language typically works anyway; synonyms and homonyms exist for a reason. Context ultimately determines what our labels and definitions mean, but all too often these discussions take place in the same context over and over again via a handful of discussion lists. In this context, we’re simply talking to ourselves, and we run the risk of monoculturing how we describe ourselves and define our work.

So I’d like to suggest that we introduce the following basic issues into future discussions of labels and definitions, wherever and whenever they may take place:

  • What exactly are we trying to label and define? The field? The profession? The practice? The practitioner? The community? The methodology? The deliverable? These are not one and the same thing.
  • Who is the audience for our labels and definitions? Each other? Co-workers? Customers? The web industry? The broader world? One’s grandparents? Different audiences necessitate different labels and definitions.

Does this seem obvious? I’m sure to many of you it does. Of course, common sense is always all too uncommon.

Do you think that singular labels and definitions are feasible and practical? Then try responding to these questions to see if you use the same answer for each question:

Self-test of labels

  • What’s your job title?
  • What would your ideal job title be?
  • How would you label what you actually do at work?
  • How would your teammates/colleagues label what you do at work?
  • How would your manager label what you do at work?
  • When you attend an established professional association’s conference, how do you label what you do?
  • When you attend a conference of practitioners, how do you label what you do?
  • How do your closest professional peers label themselves?
  • When you are selling your services to a potential client, how do you label what you do?
  • If a reporter happened to interview you on the street, how would you label yourself?
  • What do you tell your uncle or grandmother you do for a living?

Self-test of definitions

  • How do you define your field?
  • Is your definition different than it was two years ago?
  • How do the people you work with define it?
  • How does your manager define it?
  • How is it defined by your professional association?
  • How is it defined in academia?
  • How do the analyst firms define it?
  • How do the marketing departments of your industry’s big players define it?
  • Are there different definitions out there that you’d consider valid?

Labels and definitions inevitably vary from context to context. But is it unethical to consciously provide different answers to the same questions? No, but it is a bit two-faced and can sometimes make one feel a bit uncomfortable. Just remember: we’re always speaking different languages in different contexts. It’s simply a requirement for effective communication.

For example, if a prospective client asks me what I do, I couch my response in the language of solutions to her problems, rather than waste her time with a term such as “information architecture,” which she might find meaningless, jargony, or pretentious. If I’m talking with an old friend of my dad’s, I might say I’m a web designer; that’s all the other person really wants to know, and he’s probably had too many martinis to care enough to learn more. Regardless, I’m still the same person, I still do the same work, and I’m still just as committed to my field.

So let’s pick the best labels and definitions to get us over whatever conversational pickle we find ourselves in and look for opportunities to educate afterward. This approach should work well for information architects, experience designers, knowledge managers, interaction designers, usability engineers, CRM specialists, information designers, content managers, user experience specialists, or whatever we’re calling ourselves…at the moment.


Louis Rosenfeld is an independent information architecture consultant.