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