Defining mission

“If you want to live a happy life, tie it to a goal, not to people or things.” – Albert Einstein

Recently I was visiting a college classroom to talk with students about my design career and the work I do on the web. During the visit, I was asked for a “single piece of career advice” that I could give the students, all of whom are studying graphic or web design. Now it’s a common question that I, no doubt, asked guest speakers countless times throughout my years as a teacher, but at that moment a million things ran through my mind: how fast the industry changes, the high expectations of clients, the competitiveness of the design field, automation and the changing nature of employment as we know it, global economic uncertainty, the falling price of bitcoin, the rising Fed rate (damn you Jerome Powell!)…the list goes on. I fumbled an answer about “knowing the value that you bring to your employer” that must have came out as a sort of ‘work hard, be smart’ pitch that resonated with this group about like my outdated iTunes library would have (not well). The truth is that, despite having spent many years giving students advice about this very question, I found myself less confident than ever about how to respond.

The last year has been one of growth and change for me, both personally and professionally. I left a really great position in academics to pursue an opportunity in the private sector. That involved a physical move, as well, placing me further from my family than I’ve lived before. Culturally and experientially many aspects of my life have changed for the better. And in my career, I have gained a much deeper grasp of design, technology, and business–the type of practical wisdom that can only be acquired first-hand. It’s been, objectively, a pretty positive year for my life.

So, with a lot of things going well, why was I struggling so hard to give a simple piece of advice?

I think the real struggle was not just in what to say, but also what not to say. “God–please don’t let me mention to this classroom of optimistic young people that life after college is actually really fucking challenging. That no one tells you what to do anymore, and it’s up to you to decide how to live your life. That ‘bad things’ happen to good people and even if you work super hard that might not be enough because some robot or global employee might do it better or cheaper. That even if you achieve ‘goals’ or ‘success’ you still might not be happy. And that every single day you must deal with all of this knowing that slowly but surely the people you love will one-by-one die leaving you more and more alone until it’s your time to follow to the infinite darkness yourself.”

I mean, that didn’t really seem like the kind of thing they were asking for when they invited me.

But everyone wants an easy answer. A technical solution. Just tell me the password. Show me the shortcut. Just give me the Buzzfeed condensed ’20 Things Everyone Must Do To Become a Successful Graphic Designer.’ Unfortunately, for those with that attitude, life’s an adaptive challenge–not a technical one. The only key to being successful is just that–being successful. It’s a combination of lots of things, any of which could spawn advice: showing up, working hard, being innovative. But it’s also a whole shit ton of luck, being in the right place at the right time, knowing the right people, and adjusting your expectations to what constitutes success as your reality and experience evolve.

After reflecting on this question many times over the past couple of weeks, I think I have some better advice: know what you want in life. For the audience, it might sound too simple or general. After all, I could have said, “learning React and how Service Worker APIs make your apps more performant will set apart your web portfolio…” or “doing the things that no one else wants to do will make you stand out as an employee in the workplace.” Both true statements, but they don’t really seem to answer the questions I had as a young person struggling to find my place in life and in work.

So, if I could, I would reframe the question to this: “what gets you out of bed in the morning?”

I’ve been fortunate in my professional career to work for two truly mission-driven organizations. Northwest Tech’s mission of providing technical skills and employment for graduates is core to everything the institution does. And at CivicPlus, we make government work better with everything we do–or else we don’t do it–simple as that. Each mission also informs the organizational values that guide strategy and vision and set expectations for how we live and work as employees. The mission is the unchanging core that drives all else. And having a mission is great because, beyond all of it’s other benefits, it will never be reached. No matter how hard you work it’s always out there on the horizon pushing you to strive towards every single day.

Time and perspective are powerful influencers. Three or four years ago I was full of highly ‘technical’ advice. Today, I feel, as professionals and educators, we should be encouraging young people to consider how their professional careers are just one aspect of how they achieve their personal mission. And reminding them that success comes in all shapes and size and isn’t always measurable in wealth or possessions or accolades. That your time on earth is limited and you must balance what you give to the world with what you take. And that, above all else, nothing will bring you more happiness than defining and owning your own mission and living up to the values you believe in.

“You can do anything in this world if you are prepared to take the consequences” – W. Somerset Maugham

Life’s an ironic situation where often the most knowledgeable are the least confident and the loudest voices are the least informed. Throughout your life there will always be people telling you what to do–building in your mind their vision of success and reality; imposing on you their mission. The greatest realization I have had in the past year is the radical freedom I have in determining what my life will become and embracing a great deal of responsibility and chance that comes along with it. It’s awesome and overwhelming and there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ answer. But one thing is for sure–after spending way too many years of my life living other people’s missions as my own, the last thing I want is to encourage someone else to live mine. æ

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