Emotions and work - know yourself

March 16, 2020

A couple of times every year, I like to get away for a few days and reflect on the work I'm doing. It's crucial for everyone, but for even more important for someone who's running their own business. You need to redirect your focus and set new priorities.

One thing I do on these trips is to make sure to catch up on my reading. I generally try to read two books each trip and choose ones that seem very different on the surface. This past trip I found that both books actually struck the same chord within me. Here's what discovered...

Stillness is the key

After enjoying Ryan Holiday's Ego is the Enemy, I was looking forward to reading his newest book, Stillness is the Key. Like presumably so many of you, I too find it difficult to disconnect from all of the inputs our digital life keeps throwing our way — emails, Slack notifications, Linkedin requests, Twitter messages, and Instagram likes.

We now live in a world where we’re connected to everything except ourselves.The most important skill nobody taught you

Unfortunately we can't blame just technology because this isn't a new phenomenon. Technology certainly adds to the mix, but man's inability to sit is something we've struggled with for centuries. We often use the noise of the world to block out the discomfort of dealing with ourselves. This, however, doesn’t mean that this discomfort goes away. Blaise Pascal, a French mathematician in the 17th century famously quoted:

All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.Blaise Pascal

No hard feelings

The other book, and one I truly enjoyed, was No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Feelings at Work. It touches on a subject which I think most of us have had close encounters with - what's an appropriate relationship to have with your work? Feeling fulfilled by your work is awesome, but how do we make sure that we don't BECOME our work? Let me know if this sounds like something you've experienced.

How do you stop the office grouch from ruining your day? How do you enjoy a vacation without obsessing about the unanswered emails in your inbox? If you're a boss, what should you do when your new, eager hire wants to follow you on Instagram? 

The modern workplace can be an emotional minefield, filled with confusing power structures and unwritten rules. We're expected to be authentic, but not too authentic. Professional, but not stiff. Friendly, but not an oversharer. Easier said than done!

As both organizational consultants and regular people, we know what it's like to experience uncomfortable emotions at work - everything from mild jealousy and insecurity to panic and rage. Ignoring or suppressing what you feel hurts your health and productivity -- but so does letting your emotions run wild.No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Feelings at Work.

Just like Ryan Holiday essentially advises us to allow ourselves to feel bored, this book tells you how to make the boredom result in something of value. I've personally struggled with being bored, but not being able to find ease with boredom or turn it into something valuable (not necessarily 'a thing').

Knowing yourself is the most important skill

One of the quotes from last year that kept popping up in my head recently is from Yuval Noah Harari. Yuval was asked what the most important skill people will need to know in the next coming decades. While some might argue it's 'programming' or 'Chinese' or even 'creativity', Yuval argues that it's more about being flexible and knowing ourselves.

Unless you are 80 years old or something, you will have to repeatedly reinvent yourself in the coming decades—you'll probably change your job a number of times. Some people imagine that it will be like this one time, big revolution, that—I don't know—in 2025, 60% of the jobs are taken over. And then we have a couple of rough years in which people have to retrain, and new jobs appear, and some people don't find new jobs and you have a large problem of unemployment. But then eventually things settle down into some new equilibrium, and we enter a new kind of economy.

The problem with this scenario is that it assumes that AI will kind of reach its maximum capacity by 2025, which is extremely far from the truth. We're not even approaching the full capacity of AI. It's going to just accelerate. So yes, we will have these huge changes by 2025—but then we'll have even bigger changes in 2035, and even bigger changes in 2045, and people who have to repeatedly re-adjust to these things.

I think the most important thing is to invest in emotional intelligence and mental balance because the hardest challenges will be psychological. Even if there is a new job, and even if you get support from the government to kind of retrain yourself, you need a lot of mental flexibility to manage these transitions. Teenagers or 20-somethings, they are quite good with change. But beyond a certain age—when you get to 40, 50—change is stressful. And a weapon you will have [is] the psychological flexibility to go through this transition at age 30, and 40, and 50, and 60. The most important investment that people can make is not to learn a particular skill—”I'll learn how to code computers,” or “I will learn Chinese,” or something like that. No, the most important investment is really in building this more flexible mind or personality.
The Most Important Survival Skill for the Next 50 Years Isn’t What You Think

The hard truth is that most of us don't really know ourselves. We're easily manipulated and directed by external factors - people and technology. And here's the killer piece... AI doesn't have to know us perfectly, it just has to know us better than we know ourselves in order to rule. Unfortunately, for most of us, that's not a high bar to set.

Words, like emotions, matter

We as UX designers are creating tools and services for people using user research and testing. It's ironic then when we consider that we may not know ourselves all that well. Think about it this way, if we don't know ourselves and our users don't know themselves, who are we creating for?

Meanwhile, we design our apps to be human-like and exhibit qualities like "inspiring", "addictive", "engaging", or even "fun". I'm currently working on a project where we had a discussion around the concept of fun. In our guiding principles, we had described the service as fun, but during a team meeting, it was obvious that our individual ideas of fun were very different from one another's. While I initially thought of fun as something that's engaging and the opposite of serious (while still professional), others on the team thought of fun as haha.

Follow fun. "My main focus in life is surrounding myself with interesting and fun people and curating my environment to be maximally fun" writes MIT Media Lab Director Joi Ito. Take not of the moments that bring you lightness to help you uncover the parts of your job you find most meaningful.No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Feelings at Work.

I think a lot of us would benefit from spending as much time on ourselves, improving our working methods, and getting to know what we enjoy as we do trying to perfect the apps we work on. I strongly believe in order to do great work you have to be comfortable with yourself. Going to the gym is seen as a sign of willpower and determination, yet going to a therapist is still mostly seen as something negative. That's a problem.

I wish we'd spend more time improving ourselves as humans as we do perfecting the work we do. I'm confident improving ourselves will naturally flow over into the our work, but I'm not sure it works the other way around. Why can't we run a small A/B test on ourselves? We all know the tools, it's all about applying it to something we might not know as well; ourselves.

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