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Work-Life Balance? Or Harmony?

I recently wrote about the point between contentment and ambition, and touched–briefly–on the idea of work-life balance. Basically, I said balance is important. You stray too far to one side, and you lose yourself.

My colleague and friend, Bradley, read this and pointed me to another concept: that of work-life harmony. This is an idea espoused by Jeff Bezos, who dislikes the term. I think it’s worth quoting in whole from the Business Insider article:

“This work-life harmony thing is what I try to teach young employees and actually senior executives at Amazon too. But especially the people coming in,” he said. “I get asked about work-life balance all the time. And my view is, that’s a debilitating phrase because it implies there’s a strict trade-off.”

Instead of viewing work and life as a balancing act, Bezos said that it’s more productive to view them as two integrated parts.

“It actually is a circle. It’s not a balance,” Bezos said.

Bezos said that the relationship between his work life and personal life is reciprocal, and that he doesn’t compartmentalize them into two competing time constraints.

“If I am happy at home, I come into the office with tremendous energy,” said Bezos. “And if I am happy at work, I come home with tremendous energy. You never want to be that guy — and we all have a coworker who’s that person — who, as soon as they come into a meeting, they drain all the energy out of the room … You want to come into the office and give everyone a kick in their step.”

I like this. A lot. Part of the reason I like this is because “harmony” invokes the idea of music. Life is a song, with various parts and instruments coming together to form some greater whole: a piece of masterful music. There may be different movements within that larger song, moments where one instrument or melody comes to the fore, but it can all string together effortlessly. This image of life is lovely, with work and life in lock-step with each other, each lending to the other a great deal of movement and progression.

Balance, by contrast, evokes more severe images: the scales of justice, or just a waiter at Olive Garden trying to juggle far too many drinks on that tray of theirs.

The one caveat, perhaps, is understanding this: some jobs are enjoyable, engaging, and energizing. Some jobs allow for flow. Some jobs lend themselves to a harmonious combination of work and life. But not all do. Balance can be a more apt metaphor when one’s job is draining or drugery. Ideally, someone could just leave their job in that case for a better one, but that’s not always possible–something Jared Spool, a UX Designer I admire, points out in a recent article.

Still, I think harmony is the ideal. It’s a lovely image, a life akin to music, “the shorthand of emotion” (as Tolstoy put it).

Alan Cooper, Jared Spool, and the ROI of UX

I enjoyed reading a recent exchange between Alan Cooper and Jared Spool this weekend about this question: “What is the ROI of UX?” Alan Cooper argues that good design doesn’t have value–at least, not if the company and boss is seriously asking .

From what I gather, Alan Cooper is an intelligent man whose work has impacted the industry for good, so I can’t believe that he is arguing that UX has no value–period. But I do think he’s arguing that the value should be assumed, and that the company has no need to be persuaded. If you have to persuade the company of the value of good design, Alan seems to be saying, then you have a choice: stay, or leave and find some place where your work’s value is seen.

Jared Spool responds–rightly, I think–that yes, there is value, a “return on investment,” of UX–though not all design is valuable, and not all valuable design is equal. And he argues that Alan Cooper is presenting a privileged, and foolish, choice. It’s a privilege if we can just leave and find some place that values us–a privilege that not all designers have. And it’s foolish. By this, I mean it’s a “fool’s choice,” a term I’m borrowing from Crucial Conversations: it’s a false dichotomy, an “either/or” that ought to be replaced with an “and.” Can’t we stay and help others at our company see the value of our work?

Of course we can. Jared Spool regularly argues for the value of UX here. Don Norman and Jakob Nielsen have a website, Norman Nielsen group, that is a great go-to place for new studies and evidences on the value of UX. For a more practical guide, Tom Greever has a whole book on the subject of communicating design decisions, a book I really need to read again. And Product Hive, my local group in Utah, has meetups that regularly discuss the value of UX, from both qualitative and quantitative perspectives.

Jared Spool’s conclusion–his answer to his either/or question–is this: be a design leader. Be someone who can persuade others to see the value of the design work we do.

A design leader finds where poor design is costing the organization money and pain. They start documenting it and put together ideas around what the design team could do differently to reduce those costs.

When the boss comes to ask, the design leader will be ready with answers for them. They can tell their boss which poor designs cost their organization and how they believe they could fix it.

Good ROI happens when the cost of fixing a problem is less than the ongoing costs of letting the problem continue. By having a ready plan, they’ll have the perfect starting point to discuss the ROI of design.

I think there’s something to this. Obviously, finding “where poor design is costing the organization money and pain” is easier said than done. And I work at an agency / consultancy, where the rules are different: we work with a variety of clients, and I can’t change those clients minds in every instance. I can’t always argue on the strategical level, for a client’s whole company, that they need to reprioritize design. But in a way, this is a blessing: I have to argue on the tactical level–project by project, client by client, button by button and design by design–why this design matters. I’m forced, at an agency, to be incredibly concrete with my arguments, to argue for the value specifically, which is surely a powerful foundation to being able to argue for good design on a broader, more strategic level. And that’s what makes a design leader a design leader: they know how to communicate that value, to discover, uncover, and articulate it.

Jared is implying that UX design is, generally speaking, very valuable. It has a return, and in cases where it’s well-practiced, a strong one. Whether it’s the costs of poor design, or the potential earnings of delightful designs, it does. I can’t forget that, and I can’t afford to let others, either.

Isaiah’s Two Halves

In my scripture study, I’m starting to study Isaiah. And so far, it’s going alright!

I’m starting with two chapters from Joseph Spencer’s amazing and incredible book A Vision of All: Twenty-five Lectures on Isaiah in Nephi’s Record. The book is mainly about Nephi, the Book of Mormon prophet, uses Isaiah, but there’s two chapters in the beginning that introduce Isaiah’s book generally. And it’s Isaiah’s book that I want to understand first.

The first thing I learned is that Isaiah’s book is split into two halves. I drew up some sketchnotes to figure this out.

The first half? It’s about God’s judgment on God’s covenant peoples and the gentile nations; it’s about writing a book and sealing it up; and it mainly focuses on the 8th century BCE, when Assyria was the dominant power–and threat.

The second half? It largely centers on Babylon in the 6th century BCE, after Israel had been defeated by Babylon and was set to return from their exile; it’s about opening the book that was written, and reading it; and it’s about God restoring his covenant people withe help of the gentiles.

I like starting with the big picture stuff because it gives me a map of where I’m going. Mentally, I’m going to wade through a lot of judgment with some promise of better times, when God is going to save his people; and then I’m going to wade through a lot of God saving and restoring his people. And I’m going to be bouncing across two very different time periods to do it!

It was also interesting to realize that Isaiah is the first prophet whose writings we have, bound up in a book. As Spencer points out:

In the first half of the Book of Isaiah, primarily focused on judgment, there’s a strong emphasis on writing, on the actual work of writing prophecies down. It’s an essential theme, since Isaiah was among the earliest of the Hebrew prophets whose oracles were put into writing. Before his era—that is, before Amos (his near-contemporary and the earliest of the so-called “writing prophets”)—prophecy seems to have been considered a kind of in-the-moment affair, an oral business that was supposed to accomplish something important but basically temporary. So what we get with the prophets before Isaiah’s day are really just stories. We have stories about Elijah, but no book of Elijah. But something about Hebrew prophecy changed at the time of Isaiah… Because he was called to prophesy, but to a people who couldn’t receive his word, he helped to launch an era during which prophecy was understood to be directed to a later age rather than to the prophet’s own people. And that’s why it was to be written down.

Rad, right? But it all makes sense. Isaiah wasn’t writing to his people then and there (as much as he would have liked to, I think). He was writing to a future people, a people who would actually listen. That’s got to be frustrating, but at least he understood what would happen, what his mission really was.

There’s more, but those are the main strokes. I think my next goal is to get a sense of the two histories, particularly what was going on with Assyria and Babylon. Then I think I’ll try to get a sense of who Isaiah is. And then I’ll come back to the book: Joseph Spencer has another chapter on the theology of the book, and I have another commentary by Gary Smith on the same subject. So it might be a little while before I get into the actual text, but I think this preliminary stuff will be good!

Between Contentment and Ambition

What is it called, when a man’s found balance between being content–and wanting more?

This is the question I’ve been asking myself lately, both professionally and personally: what is an appropriate ambition? Whenever I spend time in the classics, I’m always reminded–be grateful for what you have. Life’s short, there’s a lot you can’t control, and–well, I’ll let the Roman poet Horace take over:

… You’ve got to be well if you want
To enjoy the things you own. If you life is governed
By cravings for what you lack, or else by fear
Of losing what you have, then what you have,
Your house and your possessions, give you as much
Pleasure as a picture gives a blind man…

… The avaricious man always feels poor;
Set limits to what your desires make you long for;
When his neighbor grows fat the covetous man grows thin.
The worst Sicilian tyrant couldn’t invent
A torment worse than envy…

(Epistles, i.2)

There’s a lot of wisdom here. Be glad for what you have. “Enjoy the things you own.” And of course, I know that. But it’s also obvious that it’s possible to enjoy what you have too much. There’s a balance–and on the other end lies ambition.

There’s a tendency, reading the Ancients (and even many Moderns), to hear that wealth and power and fame are all bad. And with all of that, it might seem that ambition of every kind can be “bad.” But a careful reading show that Horace, at least, still has ambitions for something:

And if you’re able to learn to do without
Anxiety’s chilling effect, you’ll be able to follow
The lead of wisdom up to the highest reaches.

Horace said he wanted wisdom, and history shows that he wanted, too, to be accepted and revered as a great poet. In other words, ambition wasn’t all bad. Ambition for fame, along with professional achievement as well as my own family legacy–that is alright for me to have, as long as it’s not to excess.

So e shouldn’t have too little or too much ambition. Too little ambition–that’s slovenly indifference–and we shouldn’t have too much ambition–that’s, well, I can’t think of a better word for it than excessive ambition, or over-reaching resolve. (It’s what ruined everything from the Roman republic to modern souls, like the people running Enron or Bernie Madoff.)

Now, whatever the state is called, of being perfectly balanced between contentment and excessive ambition, it is an Aristotelian virtue. It’s a virtue with too vices. Courage is a good example: too little, and you’re a coward, and too much, and you’re rash.

So, here’s my question: what is the middle point called? And as a creative as well as a human being, what does it look like?

I’m not going to belabor the point, but two things come to mind. First, I don’t think it’s bad to be ambitious in our careers. Writing this blog is, in part, an attempt to hone my thinking and, yes, showcase it as well. I want to design good things, and I want to be known for being a strong UX designer, capable in several domains. I think the danger lies in letting our careers and professional ambitions ruin the other dimensions of a good life, insofar as they’re present: marriage and family, recreation and leisure, emotional and physical health. I think balance is essential to being not just a great worker (creative work is hard if you’re exhausted or your family life’s falling apart), but also to being a great human being. In other words, desired rightly, professional success, accomplishment and even wealth can–along with wisdom and the other “classic” goods–can be worthy ambitions. We just have to find the balance, and remember which goals are most important.

My second point is about what to call this balance of ambition. There is a term I like, a term that has admittedly religious overtones: divine discontent. This was used by a leader in my church, Neal Maxwell, in a 1976 address to church members:

We can distinguish more clearly between divine discontent and the devil’s dissonance, between dissatisfaction with self and disdain for self. We need the first and must shun the second, remembering that when conscience calls to us from the next ridge, it is not solely to scold but also to beckon…

Perhaps divine discontent is too religious a word to cover every kind of ambition. Maxwell is talking about ambition on the moral, character-forming front, but we can also feel a desire to improve our professional work, our net wealth, our notoriety, our knowledge in a particular domain, or our relationships. Maybe “righteous discontent?” “Tempered ambition?” Neither do quite as well for me as divine content, which has the benefit of a poetic, memorable phrasing.

There are still questions to ask and answer, but I’ve reached this conclusion: whatever lies between contentment and ambition, it’s real, and whichever way I’ve steered too far, I need to correct. How this reflects in my professional life is still, for me, up in the air–am I ambitious enough? Am I after the right things?

Creatively and morally, these are important questions, because I’m convinced that finding the sweet spot between satisfaction and ambition allow me to make my best work–not overburdened by “anxiety’s chilling effect,” nor under-burdened and incapable of making anything at all for lack of drive.

Spotify’s Native Voice Assistant

Spotify has added a small floating action button to the top right of their screen, that takes you to an in-app voice search.

Two points: Dierks Bentley is amazing. (“Burning Man” is a fantastic song/meditation on the human experience.) Two, the effect of this feature was to make search nearly frictionless: it took less than a few seconds to find the song. Gary Vaynerchuk, in a recent interview with Paul Cutsinger from Alexa, said “voice will rise to be the dominant user interface because it is simply faster.” This strikes me as exaggerating to make the point–voice is faster, at least as an input. Spotify, long native to Alexa, now has its own voice assistant, and I suspect this will provide it a competitive advantage. The experience of searching for a song was delightful, if only because it was quick.

Preliminary notes on daily blogging

With blogging, I’m not so sure it’s about quantity as much as it’s about frequency: for me, there’s something kind of magical about posting once a day. Good things happen.

So wrote Austin Kleon, in “A few notes on daily blogging.” Austin is a writer and artist I admire a lot, and is one of a small coterie of bloggers who have got me thinking: why not try writing?

Since I graduated from college a year ago–in English literature–I haven’t written much. Oh, here and there, but nothing consistent. So here I aim to write. Every. day. I’m trying to remind myself, it doesn’t have to be big. Even ten words a day would bring me to 3,650 words after a year, and 36,500 words in a decade! Who knows? Maybe good things will happen.

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