Note from Ray: At our recent RWDevCon tutorial conference, in addition to hands-on tutorials, we also had a number of “inspiration talks” – non-technical talks with the goal of giving you a new idea, some battle-won advice, and leaving you excited and energized.
We recorded these talks so that you can enjoy them, even if you didn’t get to attend the conference. Here’s the final inspiration talk from RWDevCon 2016: “What’s Your Why?” by Jaimee Newberry. I hope you enjoy!
I want to tell you about this life changing phone call I had a few years ago. Before I do, I want to ask a couple questions.
How many of you love your work?
Yes! This is why I love speaking at these events: people are here to learn, sharpen their craft, and improve on work they love.
Has anybody ever seen any of my burnout talks before?
Okay, so a couple of you, that’s cool. I talk about burnout a lot, and in 2013 I hit burnout. Has anybody here felt burnout? All right, so it happens to us even when we love our work, right?
The Phone Call
Let me tell you about this phone call. In January of 2013 I was having a phone call with a friend of mine, and the phone call was me sharing my experience about an eight month ramp up to the worst burnout I’ve ever had in my life. It was triggered by the death of my dad in early 2012. Month after month this sort of built up.
Now, if you’ve seen my burnout talks before don’t get nervous, this isn’t the same materials, this is some things I’ve learned since working through burnout. (I had to make that disclaimer.)
I’m having this phone call with my friend and I’ll telling him, “Okay I’m coming up on a two week vacation, and I’m really just trying to figure stuff out.” My two week vacation wasn’t about going somewhere tropical, or getting away from work so much as figuring out if I was going to leave the only career I had ever known for the previous fifteen years. Burnout had been so bad that death actually seemed more appealing than designing another product.
I was in a pretty bad place, and I was having this conversation. The question that I asked, I was like, “Okay Stephan,” (my friend on this phone call), “I’ve got to figure out if leaving is right. That is what feels right, but I don’t know what’s next.”
He says to me, and this is what made it a life changing phone call: “It’s not about what’s next, it’s about what’s important.”
He kind of continued on, he didn’t say it like it was this sage advice – it was just a casual thing for him to say.
I struck me. It was the most important message I had heard. I was hearing the right thing at the right time. It helped me put into perspective where I needed to be.
It wasn’t about what was next, it was about what was important.
Figuring Our What’s Important
I thought about what was important. For three years after that phone call this started me on a journey of designing my life. Basically what I did is for that first year I spun the product design process towards myself.
Instead of designing products I decided to design my life as if my life were the product I was designing. I did quit my job, I had other things bringing in income, but I really put the focus on what was important.
In terms of what’s important, this was the first list that I made:
As soon as I got off that call with Stephan I made this list, and this is the list that said, “Okay, right now, right here, at this moment, these are the things that are the most important thing to me in the world. More important than work, more important than money, these are the things that are important to me.”
I thought that was great, it walked me through the design process. The first thing that you try to do in the design process, or when you’re making products is to figure out, “Why?” What it is, what’s your reasoning, what’s the logic behind all of this?
I realized that I was doing something wrong and I didn’t realize that until a couple years later, about a year and a half later. This was my first list and I thought, “Okay, this is me right now, but this could change, this could be somewhat dynamic as life situations change and in situations, your needs change. I might need to update the list, and re-prioritize the list.”
What I realized about a year and a half in, things were going pretty well as I was working my way through burnout using the design process. My habit was to kind of review the list every three months or so and figure out if everything was still on track.
Where I Went Off Track
I reached a point about a year and a half in where my savings had dipped a little bit. I was like, “I need to replenish that, I’m going to put something financial at number one. That’s going to be my focus.” A couple weeks after I did that I got a three month engagement with a client that was killer money, but I was taking a step back from what I had been focused on.
I didn’t really realize until I got about two weeks into the project and I was like, “God I’m miserable all over again.” I haven’t recovered from burnout, even though I thought I had. I ended up compromising number four: doing things that I love. It took changing this list for me to realize that was wrong.
I always explore the parallels in how we create the kinds of products we make, and how we can apply those to our actual lives.
There’s so many parallels there. In making that error I started to analyze things and go back to what had worked. At points in my life, and in my professional career of designing super awesome products I started to analyze, “Okay what was working? Where did I go wrong here?” What I realized is that breakdown occurs when clarity of vision is lacking.
You have your goals, and this clarity of vision, but when you derail from that, that’s when things start to go wrong. Whether you’re making a product, or you’re designing your life the same thing applies.
I started to think, “Okay, all right, all right. Everything that I’ve ever done, my philosophy, the clarity of vision applies to every product I’ve ever made, or will make. It applies to every goal I’ve had, or will have. It also applies to who I am, and who I want to be.”
Then when I needed to reassess, okay, what product history do I have that went really well. What product would I really consider a success, and what was right about it? How do I analyze this so I can fix whatever is going wrong in my process here?
My Experience at Zappos
From 2009 to 2011 I worked at Zappos.com. And 2009 to 2010, the first part of the engagement of that two year engagement I was focused. I was a product manager for the website. My mission was to give the website an overhaul, a visual re-skin, look and feel.
Immediately upon completing that, June of 2010, the mobile apps were my babies. The very first mobile apps for Zappos were my babies.
It came to me right after the iPad had come out. In June of 2010 I was approached with this project and we had decided that the iPad was the way to go, we didn’t have a mobile app at all in the space. Nothing: no iPhone or anything.
We decided to lead with iPad, and I consider this project a success because we went from never having touched an iPad to having an app in the app store when we submitted it, Apple called us to say, “Wow, good job.”
Then we repeated that process with iPhone in eight weeks. Again, we got a call from Apple. That was really cool. When I analyzed what happened there, why did that go right, what I was able to chalk it up to is I’d had that year with Zappos of working on the website where I really understood what Zappos was about.
I understood their core values, and I understood their business goals with absolute clarity so that when I got this project, I knew exactly what to do with that information to have this team make some awesome stuff.
Analyzing core values versus business goals, this is where I went a little wobbly on my own list of what’s important.
I quote this all the time if you’ve ever seen one of my product engagement talks. Aarron Walter wrote this book called, “Designing for Emotion.” He says, “Finding out who your customers are is only half the question. You also have to understand who you are.”
I used to always internalize that way beyond the product realm. Zappos is a company that I feel like really gets this; they know who they are as a company. I’m kind of tapping into this, and analyzing okay, what went right? Core values: they know who they are.
Let’s look at this. Let’s look at their core values in 2009 when I was there.
This is what they were and these were established far before I got there in 2009. I went back, when I was writing this talk a couple months ago, I went back to see what their core values were now. That’s them now, they haven’t changed, not one word.
The core values remained the same, static.
Their business goals in 2009 looked more like this, doesn’t matter if you can read it or not, that’s not the important part. The important part is that the goals were defined by a really clear timeline, 2009 to 2013.
And they’re really specific sort of dynamic things, like a dollar amount, a vertical, really defined brackets of information that can change over time. They’re expected to change over time. But core values are static, foundational.
What I Realized From Looking at Zappos
That was really, really important for me to analyze and go, “Okay, now I was treating my core values as something a little more dynamic, a little more goal based. That was wrong, that was not the right way to approach it.”
Goals are important, but they’re not foundational.
Looking again at the core values of Zappos, when I analyze this stuff these are the core values that we used when we made those apps as design principles. Every decision, every feature, every function, every animation transition, even the raining cats, I can cross reference this list and say, “Yes, it supports one of these things. Everything we did aligned with these core values.”
When I flip that to the me side of things, I aim those questions at me, and all my life struggles and the things I was trying to work through.
When I did that and I looked at my list in the context of core values up against Zappos core values, I realized I was in pretty good shape, but I did have one more goal: write more.
It’s something that I could have defined a little bit better with what does “more” mean, I could establish that. Really, this goal supports doing things I love. It supports contributing something positive to the world because that’s the angle I take on what I write. And it supports the idea “if it seems scary go for it” because putting things out publicly is terrifying for me.
This is a goal, and that was one thing that I needed to edit on my list. That was a more dynamic thing, that was a thing that can change with time and as I grow.
My core values needed to stay the same. And again, every action supports what’s important. In my case this was my life, and all of the choices that I was making as I worked through burnout, needed to align with my values there.
And then there’s the financial piece, and you know, for other people maybe the financial piece is a core value. To me the financial piece actually supports being the best mom I can be so I can provide for my children and give them necessities and luxuries. To me the financial piece, it can change what defines it, just like my writing goal. It can change, but it supports the core values, it isn’t a core value for me.
If you’re force fitting stuff into that list it might be a sign that you’re doing it wrong. Basically though that comes down to your why.
What Do You Need to Take Positive Action?
Here’s my perspective on stuff like burnout. When you’re feeling off, when you’re feeling like the course isn’t aligned. It applies to products, and it applies to you on a day to day basis, your mental and physical health.
You lose track of where you are when clarity of vision is lost, when your core values are misaligned. When we fall off of those things, we lose the understanding behind the why.
The phone call that I talked about, the phone call that changed my life, it started this big wheel in motion for me. I don’t know that without that phone call I would have figured out that I had the tools already inside of me from my Marry Poppins bag of fifteen years of design experience. Every one of you has experience on making the products that you make. You have a bag of tools within you to design things, to develop things, to make things.
When you have clarity of vision about what you’re doing, you’re able to do a better job. When you don’t have clarity of vision you get frustrated, you don’t understand why you’re being asked to do something that doesn’t seem to make sense because you don’t have the big picture, the why behind it.
What’s Your Why?
What’s important uncovered the why for me. When we have the clarity of vision around the why we have the answers in front of us. Every single decision we make moving forward, goals change and the situations change, but again, that foundation has to remain the same.
Like we saw with the core values of Zappos, that example, the foundational principles can’t change. When we know why we can take positive action. I guess that’s where I end up.
You’ve got all these tools. Do you have the clarity of vision to stay aligned, to keep yourself going? What is your why?
About the Speaker: Jaimee Newberry brings industry leadership and experience gained from advising C-level and senior management teams at startups, agencies, and Fortune 500 companies to her role as COO at MartianCraft. Her insight, practices, and a personal ecology has proven to elevate the culture, processes and product quality of high-performance software design and development teams worldwide. Jaimee has worked with Audi, Apple, Barnes & Noble, Disney, McDonalds, Nintendo, Zappos, and more.