I promised a daily post this week. Here it is, moments before midnight.
Nine months ago I abruptly walked off the edge of a familiar landscape and into a new one.
My career so far has spanned several landscapes: I started doing advertising design work out of a two man shop; then moved in-house to join a massive corporate creative team; then strategy and design work for a brand consultancy; and now product, UX, and UI work for a company I co-founded.
Each landscape brings with it a new set of tools for navigation. When we first enter, the path is covered in a fog of war. But over time we master the tools, and it opens up new territory. We no longer stick to the comfortable and known paths. We take courage, explore, follow tangents, uncover unseen opportunities. We are free to chase the rabbit into the woods.
You’ve developed this kind of intimate relationships with your tools. Putting them to good use is intuitive; the movements between them seamless. Then suddenly, there is a misstep. The blade slips, but instead of gashing you finger, you recover, pause, and take notice. You’ve cut a new shape, found a new form, simultaneously uncovered and solved a hidden problem. Your blunder becomes something beautiful.
“Work is most fulfilling when you’re at the comfortable, exciting edge of not quite knowing what you are doing.”
~Alain de Botton
Perfection is deterministic — there are no ‘exciting edges’ with perfection. Proficience — that comfortable space of no quite knowing — allows improvisation. Many classically trained musicians practice for perfection. Jazz musicians practice for proficience. They are constantly, beat by beat, floating at the exciting edge of not quite knowing what they are doing, or rather, what they are about to do.
When we master our tools, we go to a problem with intention and then work through it with process. Intention sets a trajectory, but it is the process — with all of its tangents, accidents, and breakthroughs — that determines the outcome.
When we enter a new landscape, we use familiar tools to find our way around. We rely on old patterns to give us hints about how to navigate. We’re lost looking for an apple among rows of oranges.
Because of this disorientation, our path forward has to be much more deliberate. We either miss opportunities or lack the confidence to explore them. With our eyes carefully set on the path forward, we miss the tangent running off into the woods. In unknown space we stick to the inertia of what we know.
The tools will set you free.
When we work in a static space, we lose the opportunity to discover new modes of interactions. When we are navigating a 2D landscape, we lack the sensitive touch that finds a new form. I have, at times, stubbornly insisted on navigating a new landscape with my old tools. I was uncomfortable being at that edge of knowing what I was doing.
I look back at the tools I’ve had to learn — typography first, then on to branding, writing, print, advertising, strategy, and now business, product, UX, UI, and code. Whenever I have put in the work to learn the tools, the tools have generously repaid me. The tools end up doing a lot of the work for us.
Familiarity allows us to stumble, get lucky, rebound, and discover flukes, anomalies, quirks and good fortune. The more intimate we become with our tools, the more opportunity they have to surprise us.
And the same goes for those we collaborate with. The more comfortable we are working together, the more we are willing to let each other run down unexpected paths, explore tangents, break out of roles, and surprise us with hidden personality and potential.
Mastery of a tool, and masterful collaboration, is not a matter of control. It is being at that comfortable edge where you can look up and take notice of the surprises.
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