What does "best" mean?
During a coaching call with a senior designer the other week, we were discussing his goals for our sessions. This designer is a very determined and mindful, so I was intrigued when he said one of his goals was to become one of the best UX designers in the industry. I had never really stopped to reflect over what that could entail, so I was curious to hear his meaning of "best". It turns out he wasn't really sure what "best" meant to him either, so I asked who he thought were the "best" now. His list included many familiar names including Brad Frost, Mike Monteiro and Dan Mall. I know Dan personally, I know of Brad through SuperFriendly, and I've read most of Mike's writing. What's interesting about this short list is they three very different profiles. I'm not entirely sure any of them would actually see themselves as a UX-designers - and if so, certainly not one of the best in the industry. Instead, what I think they all have in common is that they are very skilled communicators and all of them possess strong personal brands.
This conversation led me to think about my own career, my personal brand, and what are my strengths? What helped me get to this point in my career? I was recently interviewed by Maze and they asked the me, "What do you think you're most known for?" Despite being a designer per trade, I do think I'm most known for writing rather than designing. For voicing my opinion, which could be done through design too, but I think more elaborate thinking requires words. So just like Dan, Brad, and Mike, I've built my brand on having an opinion, on encouraging discussion, and - perhaps most importantly - on educating. I try to connect with everyone that reaches out and attempt to connect with anyone looking for help transitioning into the field of UX.
What I believe has served me well is something that's often overlooked when you think about being the "best" - being easy to work with. I'll try and stay off tiring football references, but even someone like Zlatan realises that in order to succeed, you need to be a team player. I've worked with countless designers, developers, and managers throughout the years that were possible the best in their fields, but were terrible to work with.
Some time ago, I read a tweet that resonated with me (which I can't find now obviously) that stated that 'a job interview is merely a vibe check'. Having been on both sides of the table in countless job interviews, this really hits the mark with me. Matt Orlando of Amass in Copenhagen emphasises something similar: "You can teach a skill. You can't teach personality." The most common feedback I give on student's portfolios? There's no personality here. They're great at showcasing cases that highlight their skills, but there's no sign of them as individuals.
The downside of being "best"
For an industry that focuses on metrics and KPI's, I find it interesting that there's not even the slightest suggestion to what being the "best" looks like. And don't get me wrong, I don't think there should be one. So many professions compete within their professions, sports obviously but same goes for realtors, artists, and many more. A few days ago, the Michelin guide handed out their stars to restaurants which is arguably their industry's way of selecting the "best". Talking to my girlfriend (who's a head chef, so more familiar with that world), she told me that there are restaurants turning down stars. I was absolutely baffled. Isn't that what they're all striving for? Would an olympic athlete not want to win the gold medal? Would an actor not be interested in winning an Oscar?
The reason she said, is that once you have a star, there's an enormous amount of pressure. You will have to spend the next year making sure that you will keep that star or get another one, which then will add even more pressure the coming year. Because if you get a star and then lose it, you might as well close up shop because you'll be out of business.
If you think about it, this applies to many professions. Once you reach the top, there's just one way from there. So while striving to become the "best" is admirable, I think it's worth reflecting over why that's important and, frankly, what made you want to become a UX designer - or a chef - in the first place? I'd imagine the answer fairly seldom is to become the "best".