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An Old Kind of New

Cover Image for An Old Kind of New

For the past few years, I’ve been independent — as a consultant, as a contractor, as an indie developer, or in different kind of liminal states. It’s been overall awesome, though with its host of stressors. It’s also been uniquely beneficial as a new father, giving me a degree of agency to be present and learn what life is with a child. But a thing that I discovered about “being independent” is that while I had a huge amount of control over my work and what I did — the content of that work (with the exception of Knowsi and an absolutely awesome year working with IKEA) never presented the novelty that I’d kicked down the door seeking in the first place.

I started a new job last week — I’m joining as a design director and team lead for a team of creative technologists and researchers at ManyOne. After five years of being independent and mostly solo, the idea of working with a co-located (covid pending) team again was something that felt like a whole new adventure despite also being very familiar. I’ve read a lot about the great resignation and the changes that’ve come over the past few years; and somehow I was drawn to something different this time.

What's odd is that I’ve spent years trying to figure out how to break up with consulting. There’s a draft blog from about four years ago titled “Breaking up with Design Consulting” which I never published because it never felt particularly true. The first attempt after IDEO was with the US Digital Service. I was so excited to dive into the biggest institution I could find (the department of defense) and just get my mind completely blown. Which happened. But as I hung out with a Marine teaching himself javascript out of frustration or marvelled at the excel spreadsheets masquerading as software platforms (while running hundred million dollar ops), the main thing I DID with the US Digital Service was … consult. We built a product or two, but mostly the real value was going into institutions and teams that didn’t have the same access or privilege I had, and just trying to help them out. I had one lens, they had another, and I had the privilege of learning while being paid, and they benefited from my experience and abilities to make connections. I was still a design consultant. All the skills got stressed and grown.

The second attempt was with a research fellowship — researching social enterprise with the New America foundation. I’d originally been accepted to the fellowship as a small software enterprise, but the whole thing changed at the 11th hour and I decided to take the risk. It was a pretty cool learning experience. I got to build some software (again), collaborated with some awesome people (foremost amongst them Dahna Goldstein), and generally had the time and opportunities to write and explore a space that I was interested in. And it wasn’t that different from consulting. I was being paid to listen, and synthesize, and produce from that synthesis. I was given space to explore an interest that meshed with the needs of an organization, and that organization incubated those interests and connections. Those connections multiplied, and I helped (and had help) turning them into some kind of meaning. Still design consulting.

Then, the past few years I’ve run my own company, Stupid Systems. I built Knowsi through that, but I’ve also been consulting in different capacities with companies like IKEA, Mozilla, CIID, Cookpad, Opentrons, and Innovation Fund Denmark. I’ve been a product manager, a research lead, an interaction designer, a prototyper, a facilitator, an advisor. Bunch of different “design consultant” roles. And I’ve had a blast consulting, despite this lurking idea in my head that I was trying to change that mechanism for sustaining myself and my explorations.

So, with this new role, I know pretty well what I want — a platform to become better as a manager and coach; a team to learn from and help with their own journey; and portfolio of work that is both novel and familiar seen from a different angle. I also feel like I can put to rest the idea of breaking up with design consulting, because it's taken me six years of exploration to realize I missed the point.

I suspect that the impulse to do so was coming from two things: my impulsivity as someone who is drawn towards the new, and my personal conflation of disposition with career path.

Being drawn to the new (and the impulsive and occasionally obsessive tendencies that come with that) is something that lots of us share, and even more of then have foisted on them through advertising. If you’ve been reading along, you might have noticed my drive to writing a non-stop stream of abstract posts about amateurism and such. This is partially because I’ve been trying to wrap my head around this impulse and figure out how to make a workspace and a skillset that is intrinsically responsive to the new. I want to be able to do something well enough to use it for sense making, and to clue me into something hidden underneath. That’s fun. That’s exploration.

But it’s also a bit of a crutch. If you can’t focus long enough on getting proficient at a discipline, then you’re not a useful generalist. Rather, being amateur at many things and deep in one or two things seems to be the sweet spot, and that’s been a cautionary tale I’ve held onto for a while now. Being wary of that impulse might help you realize that the shiny new thing over that isn’t necessarily better — it just refracts the same light in a marginally different way.

The other side is conflating disposition with career path. I’m intrinsically motivated towards a particular kind of exploration and growth. I need a thing to learn, otherwise I get bored. On one hand, this has been useful. On the other hand, it makes me a weak maintainer of things that don’t grow alongside me. The things that I have been able to maintain effectively are those things that fit into the narrative of continuously new knowledge. Skills and hobbies are really good examples of this, where the new depth unlocked as you get deeper keeps your interest up. Unfortunately, that can come at the risk of losing ones attention to rote practice, and the skill itself being hollowed out. Eventually, enough accreted layers over a weak foundation will collapse in on itself.

Because I saw other things being built with skills analogous to mine, I figured that the thing to do was to end the consulting work, and go do whatever else those others were doing to create what I was interested in. It wasn’t nearly so simple, and as I discovered, it also wasn’t all that different. The fact that the same feelings, motions, curiosities, and mysteries emerged as a fellow, as a civil servant, as a product manager, as an indie dev… I kept seeing the commonalities with what I was convinced I was trying to escape, instead of appreciate that maybe I was bringing something intrinsic to the way that I approach creation, problem solving, and intention regardless of where I was.

Anyway, last week I stepped into an old kind of new, and it’s already feeling different.