The One, Simple Secret To A Successful Career

The Loch Ness Monster is furrealz … well, maybe not.

This post is dedicated to my mother, Yumi, who always told me throughout my life, “I believe in you.” It always made a difference.

I think that I’m more susceptible to clickbait titles than most of my peers because I grew up in a household where The National Enquirer was one of my primary sources of news.

My mom was always busy running the tofu store with my father, and as a big fan of Elvis she always wanted to keep tabs on his latest resurrection from the grave. So whenever she rushed through the shopping line at the supermarket, that’s when she would pick up her newspaper. As a result, I developed a strong interest in Bigfoot, UFOs, and of course the Loch Ness Monster.

When I later left for college I discovered that families with much more education did things differently when it came to their newspaper habits. They tended to subscribe to a few publications that were foreign to me: the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. For the life of me I couldn’t get excited to read them because they seemed so comparatively boring. As I moved up in life into the graduate school crowd, I became puzzled by something called The New Yorker, which seemed to be a mainstay of many of my classmates’ upbringings. I frankly found it hard to imagine getting excited about this staid, erudite magazine, even though it had funny cartoons.

If all my beliefs came from the narrow worldview of my parents, I might still be comfortably stuck in their world.

Many years later, the Internet has subsumed the mediaverse and I find myself in an algorithmically tuned bubble. When I need to be smarter in business, the bubble bends a little bit and becomes more WSJ-y. When I need to get my current-events game on, the bubble wobbles over to be NYT-y. And when I have nothing better to do, the bubble rearranges itself to be National Enquirer-y for me. Shopping through sensational headlines in search of time to waste is one way I can relive my former childhood, but I can’t spend too much time there. If all my beliefs came from the narrow worldview of my parents, I might still be comfortably stuck in that world.

I want to highlight my use of the phrase “comfortably stuck” — because it speaks to my implicit desire to experience the comfort of fitting into a box. Growing up in a lower-class American family is where I made sense of my early self. Then, after many layers of education, I managed to defeat the gravity of where I came from. As a result, many younger folks reach out to me to ask me for the secrets of my success. When I have sat with a few who wished to “pick my brain,” they have tended to look for a simple formula that they can somehow replicate.

As someone who’s had the opportunity to intellectually travel across many strata, cultures, and disciplines, I’ve noticed how words change meanings depending upon one’s situation.

Instead, all I can do for them is clarify that “pick my brain” sounds like an activity that might hurt me with their pick or shovel. In that moment, they’ll often argue that I’ve interpreted the phrase in a way they didn’t intend. Some will recover. Some will get stuck. My intention isn’t to ruin their day or anything like that. My goal is to clarify that words have a powerful effect over different folks in different ways. As someone who’s had the opportunity to intellectually travel across many strata, cultures, and disciplines, I’ve noticed how words change meanings depending upon one’s situation.

So what’s my one simple secret to a successful career? For me, it’s been having the ability to remain uncomfortable and not get stuck within a particular norm. What that means for someone who chooses to take that route is to constantly be aware that they when they’re using their words wrongly, that’s evidence that they’re in a different world. And they’re failing to communicate. And that might make them look a little stupid to someone else.

This feeling either wears you down, and you go back to a more comfortable world where you’re always smart. Or, you soldier forward and re-learn the humility one tends to forget when they get too comfortable. If you are in the former camp, then my advice can’t reach you at all. However if you’re in the latter camp, then c-o-n-g-r-a-t-u-l-a-t-i-o-n-s-!-!-!-! You have mastered the one simple secret to a successful career!

I think I summarized this whole feeling most accurately in a tweet:

Complacency occurs when u forget that ur not as good as u became.

So the secret to my success, such as it is, is that I’ve come to relish the opportunity to fail whenever possible. It’s how I tend to remain more humble than complacent. And if this clickbait-y title worked on you then I guess I grew up reading the right newspaper after all.

I’ll be walking through the various components of the safety stack in my upcoming CX Report to be presented at SXSW in March and entitled, “Safety Eats The World.” And if the topic of How To Speak Machine interests you, there’s a book for that. Stay tuned! — JM

John Maeda: Technologist and product experience leader that bridges business, engineering, design via working inclusively. Happily working at Everbridge☁️ :+).

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