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Why designers should embrace small wins
Once upon a time in ancient Greece lived a seasoned VP of product named Sisyphos.
Before becoming VP on the client-side, Sisyphos was an accomplished creative director working for a renowned ad agency, where he was celebrated for his wit and creativity. Unfortunately, at some point he had gotten into a quarrel with his client Zeus, the all-mighty CEO of the tech monopoly Olympus, and his advertising career was over.

He managed to get a job in a stable yet fairly unknown tech start-up named Corinth, as a VP of product.
Working on the client side was, to put it mildly, weird. He couldn’t figure out whether he was successful or not. His fulfilment was low and his anxiety was high.

In the ad industry campaigns have distinct starts and ends. They get launched into the world, you celebrate, then you shift to The Next Big Thing.

Now, his job looked like an infinite cycle of tiny iterations. The work itself was not boring, but the dynamics were quite different from the advertising world. It was common that design solutions considered done would have to go back in development immediately after their launch. It didn’t really make much sense. It felt like he was pushing an immense boulder up the hill, and the next day the boulder was at the bottom again.

In order to find fulfilment in such a tedious job, he decided to take a different approach and redefine the term “success”.

Sisyphos captured his thoughts in a brief deck and shared it with his team:
Success
What is success in the design universe? Is it professional recognition? Praise from your colleagues? Customer satisfaction? Reputation? Exposure? Wealth?

The term success is defined as desired outcome. Desired outcome is quite a generic framing. What one designer would desire and find successful another might not. Again, blindly trying to match what is commonly perceived as the ‘success’ won’t take you far. Even if you achieve it, it could taste differently than desired. Your success requires your own definition.

And, what if the outcome is not desired? Does it mean that you failed? What then? Pain? Depression? Misery? As a metric, desires are pretty unreliable. Desires are dreams. You need them to push you forward, make you hope, believe, and strive. However, they shouldn’t be a measurement of your success.

Success should be interpreted as a continuous concept. In that sense, the only rational way to gauge it is to look into your growth and fulfilment over time. In a nutshell, it’s a self-reflection exercise. It helps you get clear thoughts on how much you’ve improved as a designer and whether you’ve been fulfilled by doing it.
Fulfilment
Similar to success, fulfilment is not something you achieve once and it sticks forever. It’s a feeling that’s around only when you know that what you’re doing is right. Fulfilment rests on personal values. It’s organic. That’s why it beats all the imposed vanity metrics of success like status and rank, awards and accolades, money and fame, or whatever else humans come up with to feed their egos.

The problem is that many designers think fulfilment is an outcome of success, so they bank on a big win. 

They believe that the big win will profoundly change their careers and bring long-expected happiness. It’s a dangerous fantasy. It feels like chasing a holy grail or living a myth. You’re always so damn close. You just need a little bit, just one more step, which usually never happens. Unfortunately, this type of illusion will carry you straight down into the rabbit hole of despair. The bottom line is if you want to be happy you should strive for gradual improvements, not one weighty shot.
The big win myth
Think big! It’s gonna be huge! The greatest… ever!

These are common punchlines that fuel the big win myth.

Don’t get this wrong, there is nothing bad in thinking and dreaming big. However, you should not confuse dreams with reality. In reality, there is no big a win that would at once unlock reputation, exposure, fulfilment, happiness… everything you’ve ever desired.

Moreover, scale is another human delusion. We strive for grandiose acts to disguise our own insignificance and temporality. The big win hardly exists. It’s an outlier. A black swan. But we perceive it as a norm, especially when it’s done by someone we admire. That way, it looks even bigger. Not to mention that the big win relies on luck, a fickle ingredient you can’t own or control. This alone sets up standards that are hard to repeat. Then the big win turns into a huge burden.
Small win delight
If success is to be perceived as an ongoing thing and the big win is a myth, what should your focus be?

Small wins. Small wins are direct proof of your personal growth and fulfilment over time.

But what exactly are the small wins?

They’re the quick prototypes you make, the good questions you ask, or the spontaneous brainstorms you have. They’re anything that captures and champions your day-to-day achievements.

Let’s take design feedback as an example. If given properly — meaning that it addresses the design, not the person behind it — it’s a recognition of someone’s work. Whether it approves or disapproves the design itself, design feedback acknowledges the work effort. And that’s what is important. The feedback receiver gets recognition and valuable suggestions for further growth, and the feedback giver gets the pleasure of helping out a colleague. Both parties have reason to chalk up a small win.

How often should you be marking the small wins? Daily? Weekly?

There is no golden standard. And there shouldn’t be. Small wins should emerge from your work routine spontaneously. They are not supposed to work as prescription pills. If you turn them into a duty they would backfire. Your anxiety would stick out its ugly head and you’ll be at the beginning again.
contributor
Visual storyteller. Passionate about guiding people through the maze of narratives, symbols, and meanings.

The article first appeared here.


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