It’s your first big project, your first time working with an experienced team of product owners and designers and developers. Part of you can’t help thinking that it’s a miracle you landed this gig, and another part of you is silently hoping that no one finds out just how much you don’t know. And as excited as you are to be here, to have the chance to really do what you’re best at, you just can’t seem to shake that fear.
You’re not alone.
I’ve been doing this for three decades now, and I still have these same moments of doubt, times when the complexity of the systems, processes and industry standards before me looks like Mount Everest — and I have no clear vision as to how I’m going to scale the summit.
Not a week goes by where I’m not speaking to a student entering the field of UX or a professional whose career trajectory has launched them into UX orbit for one reason or another. And the core question they all ask is the same one I’m describing in this scenario:
“What if I don’t have enough knowledge/experience/skill to do this?”
There are multiple answers to that question, but there are two that stand above all the others. Two critical components that enable success, even when you have no idea where to start or what to do first. Two things that you absolutely must remember. These two mantras will help you tackle the task in front of you, and they’ll pave the way to a successful UX career.
1. Let go of the idea that you have to be right.
Don’t get yourself locked into the idea that you have to know, at every point in a project, exactly what your requirements are, exactly what will result in the best UX or exactly how something should be designed. You can’t, you don’t, and you shouldn’t be expected to.
You don’t miraculously have that intrinsic knowledge, and neither do I. We get it by investigating, by being willing to try some things and be wrong about them and learn from the results. This, contrary to what you may believe, is the foundation of a successful UX career.
You’re not the smartest person in the room and you don’t have to be. In my new book, Think First, I spend a lot of time talking about how you work with other people in a project situation, how you leverage their individual talents and subject matter expertise. Why? Because you are a thousand times stronger with their contribution. No matter how good you are, you will never know as much about what they do every day — and why they do it and how it benefits the business — as they do.
So silence that voice in your head that says you have to be the one to lead every charge and turn over every stone and find every answer. That’s not only impossible, it’s counterproductive. When you follow the road of knowing and doing all, you will never do the proper amount of digging to figure out what the right problems to solve are. You’ll miss the stuff that matters most. So learn to collaborate instead; put all the brainpower in the room to work.
Be patient, be flexible and remember that there is always more than one right way to do something.
2. Let go of the idea that success comes from being fearless.
I say this to myself as often as I do to young designers and developers. Forget the idea that successful people are somehow fearless in their endeavors. That’s not true — what these folks really are is brave. There’s a difference, and I’ll illustrate the point.
If you ever want to feel like the odd man out, sit in a room with a bunch of research scientists from Johns Hopkins Hospital. These are folks who are paving the way for cutting-edge medical research. In just a few sentences, I am completely lost; the train has left the station and I’m still looking to buy a ticket! Despite this, I take a deep breath and raise my hand. “Folks, I’m admittedly a little lost. Can you explain that to me in a way that beings of lesser intellect like myself can understand?”
Everyone laughs and they gladly break it down for me, as I ask additional questions. They don’t expect me to have all the answers, so neither should I. So if I give into my fear at that moment and remain silent, I walk out of that room knowing as much as I did when I came in, which is zero. If I’m brave enough to admit I’m lost, I get what I need and am now in a position to help.
People who succeed are almost always feeling more fear than they think they can handle, but they dive in and do it anyway. There will be no shortage of moments where you’ll think to yourself “what if I can’t pull this off?” Bravery is the voice that says “yeah, but what if you can?”
Years back, in the early 90s, I had a conversation with Henry Rollins (musician, author, spoken-word artist, et. al) about his struggles and successes as a self-made entrepreneur. At one point I asked him, “what do you say to somebody who’s trying to get a venture off the ground for themselves but is afraid to make that leap?” I have never forgotten his answer:
“Go out there and get your nose broken.”
He went on to say that the learning that comes after failure is actually what helps you gain clarity about who you are and what you do, that it clarifies the parts of your craft that are worth doing. That even if you do get your nose broken, you’ll learn that it doesn’t kill you and that, in fact, the next time is a lot better from having had that experience. I have followed that advice from the moment I heard it, and it’s never stopped being true.
So whatever part of the UX career path you may be on, always remember this:
In whatever you’re doing, allow yourself to feel the fear — and then do it anyway.
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