#btconf Düsseldorf, Germany 02 - 03 May 2022

Aarron Walter

Aarron Walter is Director of Product on the COVID Response team at Resolve to Save Lives. Previously, he was VP of Content at InVision, and founded the UX practice at Mailchimp where he helped grow the product from a few thousand users to more than 10 million. He's the author of a number of books, the latest of which is a second edition of Designing for Emotion. Aarron's design guidance has helped the White House, the US Department of State, and dozens of major corporations, startups, and venture capital firms. Aarron co-hosts the Webby nominated Design Better podcast.

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Returning to Your Maker Roots

Work is all consuming. It gobbles up your time, leaves little space for your passions, and can ultimately lay claim to your personal identity. It’s a recipe for an existential crisis. You can find the balance you crave and the growth you need by investing yourself in projects outside of your day job.

In this talk, Aarron Walter shares how launching a podcast about the challenges of life and the alchemy of satisfaction helped him grow in ways he’d never expected.

Transcription

[Music]

[Audience applause]

Aarron Walter: While we’re clapping, we’re on the home stretch here, and this feels pretty momentous -- I don’t know about you but -- for me, to be back in person, talking about creative things, being inspired, and being together again. Marc just does an amazing job of doing this over and over again, so I just want to recognize him, what he does for our community. Thank you so much, Marc, wherever you disappeared.

[Audience applause and cheers]

Aarron: Thank you.

I want to do a little informal research. I wonder if you could help me. Could you just raise your hand if you’re about less than five years into your career, so you’re relatively new to technology, design, et cetera. Don’t be shy.

Okay, so there are a few.

How about if you’ve been at this maybe five to ten years?

Okay, so that’s a larger percentage. We’d say maybe 30-ish percent.

And how about 10 to 15 years?

Okay. It’s a good 20% there.

And beyond 15 years?

That’s a lot of you.

[Audience laughs]

Aarron: That’s a lot of you. That’s very interesting.

Here’s the funny thing about a career is that the thing that brought you into your career, your passion or your excitement about whatever it is you do, if you write code or you design or you illustrate, that’s the thing that got you very excited to do this professionally, and it feels like you could merge your economic needs and your creative needs into one thing, one discipline that you do because work can consume so much of our life.

But the irony is that most of us, as we progress in our career, we get further and further from the thing that brought us in, that passion about creativity and being really good about what we’re doing and learning more. We start to spend more time in meetings. We spend more time emailing, more time in our calendar, more time on calls -- now it’s Zoom -- and we get further and further away from the thing that we really love.

If we want to advance kind of higher up and get paid more and get higher status in the organization with a title, that probably means management, which means you’re helping others be creative and enabling them, which is a noble thing but it can leave us in a difficult spot where we feel something is missing.

For me, the pandemic, I think, was a very unique and special opportunity. It was a terrible opportunity because probably some people in this room lost loved ones. You lost people or you were touched by it in some way. At the very least, you were supremely inconvenienced that you couldn’t go to the grocery store or go see your friends or do the things that you wanted to do, and you went stir-crazy being locked in the house.

I learned a few lessons from that experience, and I wanted to share some of those as kind of a framework for what I wanted to talk about today. The first is that the pandemic taught me that there’s a fair bit of bullshit in life, and it creeps in, in sort of an insidious way: the recurring meetings that have no end dates, the amount of emailing and coordinating and discussing that we do.

That’s part of work. That’s part of what we do. It’s necessary, but there’s a fair bit of stuff in our life that, really, it is bullshit. During the pandemic, because we had to slow down so much, I could see that bullshit very clearly; what was worth the time and what wasn’t.

Has anyone read Oliver Burkeman’s recent book? It’s a best seller, 4000 Weeks. Four thousand weeks, incidentally, is the average lifespan of a human being. Four thousand weeks, it’s not that much time.

It’s a very good book. There’s a passage in there where he says that the Great Pause, this pandemic that we went through, it’s a rare and truly sacred opportunity to get rid of the bullshit and only bring back what works for us.

Maybe you’ve found something during the pandemic and that great pause that really lit you up. For me, I started to play the piano, and I get lost when I play the piano. My eight-year-old will come sit down next to me and start playing with me, and that felt like magic. That is the opposite of bullshit, whatever the opposite of bullshit is. It’s really magical for me.

Second was remember what lights you up because, again, there’s a lot of just the mechanics. If you’re a parent, if you have a house to care for, if you have to pay rent, if you have to get groceries and cook a meal, there’s a lot of just mechanics and operations of life that occupy a lot of our brain space, and it’s pretty easy to lose track of the thing that lights us up.

I think that’s why I really enjoy being around kids (most of the time) because there’s no barrier between what lights them up and what doesn’t. They are only singularly focused on the thing that lights them up. As we get further on in those 4,000 weeks into adulthood and into the twilight years, we lose track of that, and we have to pause and consciously rethink what is it that lights me up and how do I get closer to that.

A friend of mine Maria Giudice, who has been a design leader for a long time and run agencies and so forth, she said this. “If you just stop and ask what is the thing that you really love to do, it can point you on a whole new trajectory.”

We heard yesterday from the Patata folks. I really loved the message that they had about going back to their craft, making time for that space to discover the unknown, what is that’s going to happen next.

For most of us, we kind of live -- our little inner voice is living in the future of “When I have this set up,” “When I have that much money saved,” “When I have this job,” whatever, where we’re projecting in the future.

The future is a space where fear often resides and occupies our minds. Making space for the unknown to discover what’s next, it’s hard to do. It can be a bit frightening.

The third lesson for me was I had more deep relationships during the pandemic, and I had less shallow acquaintances. My wife is a very good host. She throws amazing parties.

We would have Easter parties with hundreds and hundreds of people where we hit 2,000 Easter eggs and people would descend upon our house and hunt for the Easter eggs. The kids loved it. The Easter Bunny magically showed up at our house. It was an amazing experience.

But afterward, we would often say the same thing to each other. “Who did you talk to and what did you learn?”
“I don’t know. I was just running around doing all this stuff.”

Contrast that with the pandemic where we had one bubble family that we spent time with, and they were all we had access to. We spent a lot of time with them.

It was not uncommon for them to come over at, like 1 or 2 o’clock on a Saturday. I would cook a meal. We would eat outside. And they wouldn’t leave until maybe 10:00 or 11:00 at night.

Our kids would be exhausted. We would be a little tipsy and with full bellies and full hearts. It was really fantastic.

It reminded me that deep relationships, that was actually a void. That was something that I was missing before the pandemic.

Sorry. My clicker is a little buggy today.

Making space for discovery, which I talked about already, but having space to discover new things, I wasn’t making enough time for that in my life. So, I made a phone call to a friend of mine, this guy named Bob Baxley. He’s been in the software industry for a while. He’s someone I feel really close to and connected with.

He read something I wrote on Medium a few years ago, and he just cold emailed me and said, “I really liked that. Would you like to chat on the phone and talk?” I was curious, so I said yes and, from the moment we started talking, we felt a connection.

I had made some space during the pandemic, taking a lot of walks. We got a puppy. That gave me some mental space to think about what I wanted to do.

I had an idea that -- I was doing a lot of thinking about, like, life and what’s this all about and what’s next. I thought that this is the human experience, and I think that there could be something interesting to investigate here.

I called up my friend Bob and said, “Bob, I’ve got an idea for a podcast,” and we started talking about it. We actually made this podcast during the pandemic, and it’s out in the world. It’s called Re: Considering.

Eva-Lotta is here somewhere, I think. I just want to give you a quick hat tip for all of the amazing branding and illustration work that you did. This is Eva’s work, Eva-Lotta.

This podcast that I was talking to Bob about, it’s a podcast about life and trying to do it better. Really, what I wanted to do was create an excuse to learn how to be a better human being, not necessarily how to be happy, but how do you find satisfaction.

I’ll admit I’m squarely in the midlife crisis dip. If you’ve ever seen any research, the happiness curve through life, it’s U-shaped. Very happy at the beginning, and then at the bottom, around 47 or 48 is your lowest point, and then you get happier as you get older. I’m in the U.

[Audience laughs]

Aarron: This podcast was a great excuse to talk to some interesting people. It started out just me and Bob, and we actually prototyped this. We talked to -- we did, I think, a total of five interviews.

We did a lot of writing. We did a lot of production. We did a lot of sharing it with some people who would give us honest feedback.

They told us, like, “Yeah, you know, it’s okay but some things are a little rough here,” and so we actually threw out, like, six months- worth of work -- it just wasn’t quite right -- to try to find a better format.

One of those five interviews was with our friend Meredith Black. Meredith was so compelling in the interview that we actually said, “Would you like to join us and be a co-host on the podcast?”

What’s interesting about us is, until just a few months ago, we each occupied a different decade of life, so Meredith in her 30s, me in my 40s, and Bob in his 50s. It’s really fascinating to talk to them about career, work, navigating the challenges of life, what’s it all mean type of stuff because you have different perspectives in these different passages of your life.

We’ve been talking to all kinds of people, people like Katherine May, who is a best-selling author who wrote a wonderful book I can’t recommend enough. It’s called Wintering, and it’s about those times in your life when you’re energy is depleted, maybe your creativity is depleted, and you need to take that space to recharge and rejuvenate.

We talked to Judy Wert who helps people find their next career opportunity, and she’s seen so many careers and can map the career arch of where people are.

We talked to Bill Burnett, who is the head of the Stanford D School, and he wrote that great book, Designing Your Life and Designing Your Work Life. I also highly recommend those.

So many interesting people about lots of different types of topics, and we’re starting to learn some things, which I will share with you here shortly. But all of the people that we talk with, they have spent a lot of time thinking deeply about these subjects, like how do you listen very actively to create better relationships. Ximena Vengoechea has a whole book about this. The Practice of Groundedness, et cetera, et cetera, so we’ve been reading a lot of books. Running a podcast also turns out to be a book club where we get to read a lot of things and take a ton of notes.

Doing this is really a way to connect myself, my co-hosts, for us to connect back to making because Bob is a senior vice president of design. I’m also at an advanced point in my career, as is Meredith, and it’s a way for us to reconnect to that making process, which just lights us up. It makes this very exciting.

The making process is a learning process. When we make something, there is that unexpected thing we don’t know about. We discover it, and we react to it, and it becomes this generative loop, this relationship that we have with the things that we make.

I started painting and drawing, and I remember, in grad school, the best moment of my day was the moment, the seconds after I woke up, and I remembered what I’d been working on the night before, that painting. I wanted to rush to my studio to see that painting again and feel connected to that creative idea that I was pursuing. This is a way for me to reconnect to that making process and feel that spark.

Of course, also inherent in the making process is the notion of play and being curious about something. I’m a very curious person. I like to learn new things. I like to try different things outside of just my discipline in design and software.

I like to learn all kinds of things, you know, engineering and science experiments. I like to cook. All kinds of experiments in my garden. I find that play and curiosity is such an important part of my satisfaction.

When we talked to Bill Burnett, who runs the Stanford D School and wrote that great book Designing Your Life, he told us, “We think play is frivolous and don’t value it. But it’s neurologically necessary in order for us to continue to be curious and learn.”

If you think about growth, growth in your career, growth in your relationships, growth just as a personal human being trying to navigate the complexity of life, you have to be curious and you really have to always be learning. You can’t go to sleep. You can’t check out. You’ve got to constantly be learning to find that satisfaction.

If you’re like me, you’ve got this creative spirit built into you that just wants to come out all the time. but in work situations, it feels a little bit contained, a little bit more like this, like you’re boxed in at a meeting. You’re maybe not able to express that as fully as you’d really like to do.

That creates a weird conundrum where we’re kind of like a dual human. We are our work selves and we are our creative selves in a different capacity. I think it’s more advantageous to have those two things merge, so finding a way to merge those, and find balance with those is a really important thing too.

I’ll share a quick story with you. I used to work at a company called MailChimp, and I was one of the early people hired there. I was number four. I built that design team and saw it grow from just a tiny little company to just recently it sold for $12 billion.

We started with -- it was easy to turn to my colleagues -- like the CEO, co-founders and engineer -- and just talk through ideas, and creativity just -- it was easy. It was just always present.

We grew and grew and grew, and then it became harder to access. Then something really strange happened. I stepped away from it, and I wasn’t at MailChimp. I invested so much of my personal attention and identity in building the brand, building the product, building the story of that.

When I stepped away, I didn’t have any hobbies. I really didn’t have any interests except for my work. I’ve got to tell you that’s not a good place to be. You do not want everything to be in your work. Finding a way to integrate that becomes really, really important.

Again, Maria Giudice, who has been on the podcast, she said, “Your career is a continuum. It’s important to do things you’re great at. But it’s also important to listen to what things bring you to whole new levels of creativity and possibility.”

I really like that. I like that idea because one thing I’ve often tried to do in my work (and also in my personal life) is do things that make me feel uncomfortable. I’ve found that when there is a bit of fear that I’m going to try something new, I’m going to start a new team, I’m going to help the company in a different way or I’m going to try to learn something new, there’s often a little bit of fear. And fear is usually a good signal that you’re going in the right direction.

Wit this podcast, there is collaboration with two of my good, good friends. They were good friends before we started the podcast, and now it’s kind of on a different level. And I really love the compounding effect of collaborating with smart, talented, capable people, and it goes back to one of those principles I shared earlier. It’s an opportunity to create very deep relationships.

We have a recurring Wednesday meeting (Bob, Meredith, and I). When we get on those meetings, one of us always says the same thing. “This is my favorite meeting of the week. I love this. I love to talk to you. I love to work on this with you together.”

There’s a lot of jokes. There’s a lot of fun. There’s a lot of productivity. There’s a lot of creativity. There’s a lot of curiosity.

We recently saw each other in New York for the first conference that I had been back to since the pandemic. This was just a few weeks ago. I had actually only met Bob two times in person, and I’d met Meredith one time in person.

This is what it felt like when I saw them in the hotel lobby, to actually be in their presence. It was wonderful.

The thing also about having collaborators is there’s accountability and support. There are some things I’m just not very good at, especially operational things. If it’s a big idea thing or writing or something to that effect, I feel really confident and good about that, but if it is checking Asana and sending a bunch of emails, I get a little flaky. I get a little flaky on those things. Meredith is very good at those things, so we find that, the three of us, we have a great chemistry because we’ve got complementary different skillsets, and we keep each other accountable for what’s due and what we have to do.

That is the one danger of doing side projects on your own is that it’s very easy to say, “Oh, my God. I’m so underwater this week. I’ll get to it next week,” because you’ve got no one to report to and say, “I didn’t do that thing. Sorry.”

But I’ve got Bob and Meredith who are always looking at me and saying, “Did you do what you were supposed to do?”

I want to share a few lessons from the show because I think they might maybe be relevant to you. It turns out that humans have been struggling with almost the exact same set of questions for thousands and thousands of years.

Misery loves company, so the nice thing to know is that whatever struggles you experience now, ten years from now, and further on in your life, chances are everybody else, lots of people have come before you and struggled with the same things.

One is about identity, and I kind of already shared this identity challenge that I confronted after I left MailChimp. It was like, “Who is Aarron Walter when he’s extracted from this role that he’s so invested in?” That creates an existential crisis, really dangerous, what we would call in software a single point of failure where your eggs are in one basket. You’re only identified with that. Having diversified interests, having diversified relationships is a really important thing.

What’s also interesting to me, I had a conversation recently with a billionaire who had recently become a billionaire. They didn’t have -- it’s sort of like getting the cheat codes on the video game, like, “You win, man. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.”

Surprisingly, this person was really struggling because they were like, “I don’t know what I like. I don’t know who I am. I don’t know what I’m doing.” This existential crisis, it is an equal opportunity crisis that you can confront.

Oliver Burkeman again, he said that your sense of self worth gets wrapped up with how you use your time. You think about when you go to a party or you’ve met someone out in the lobby. Usually, one of the early questions in a conversation with someone you don’t know, what’s that question?

What do you do? What do you do? Which is, how do you use your time?

We are trying to understand, okay, what are you interested in, but also, like, what value do you bring to your work, to the world, et cetera? Where do you fit in the hierarchy?

It’s tricky. How we use our time says a lot about who we are as individuals, which is another reason why it’s good to diversify how you spend your time.

Katherine May, when we talked to her on the show, she said, “We have to stop buying into this culture that says we have to throw our whole souls at work in order to be doing it right.” So, working longer hours, responding at inconvenient times. I mean I’m guilty of this. I’ve done this so many times in my life just feeling like my allegiance is to the work that I’m doing. I really need to show up.

I do think that the pandemic has shaken a lot of us by the shoulders where you realize, “Oh, all right. There was a lot of stuff that I really shouldn’t have been doing because that wasn’t the important stuff. Now I’ve got clarity on what the important stuff is.”

Also, Katherine May, she said, “The people who are really surviving and thriving are the ones who are pushing back on the demands that are made of them,” to make space for themselves, to make space for their own needs, recognizing their own needs, being creative in their own way for themselves.

We talked to Brad Stulberg. He is a very interesting guy. He’s a performance coach, so he works with athletes and executives to help them operate on their peak level.

He told us when we talked to him, “You don’t need to feel good to get going. You need to get going to give yourself a chance at feeling good.”

I really liked that of flipping this idea on its head. We often think, you know, I don’t feel great right now. I’m not ready to take on this new project. When I feel better in the future, when things are more aligned, that’s when I’m going to go forward. But Brad is challenging us to think differently, to think just getting going, the act of getting momentum will make you feel good.

You might be familiar with this guy who was on the show. His name is John Zeratsky. He was at Google Ventures. Now he’s doing his own thing.

He wrote, co-authored the book Sprint, you know the design sprint book that’s very, very popular. He also co-wrote with Jake Knapp a book about time, making time.

John Zeratsky, I would think -- I was expecting him to be, like, “Here’s how you can be more productive,” which is a bit of a trap, to be more productive, to answer more emails, to schedule more meetings, et cetera because even if you win, you lose.

John is actually the opposite of productive. He’s just a miser with his attention. I asked him, “Do you have goals that you set for yourself, like goal for this year, goal for the week, goal for this decade?” We’ve heard that from some people.

He said, “I don’t have a lot of goals. Instead, I think of things that I’m working on and the way I’m spending my time. It’s a portfolio and periodically I just rebalance that portfolio.”

Right now, I’m working on a podcast. I’m working on some work things. I’m working on learning the piano. I’m working on being a dad. I’m working on being a better cook.

Those are things in my portfolio right now. I can rebalance those. Right now, unfortunately, the piano is a little further down on my list and I want to bump that back up.

Then Bill Burnett, who wrote Designing Your Life, he talked to us about the idea of happiness. Happiness is often the thing that we chase, that someday, in these circumstances, I’ll be happier.

Bill pointed out that you make yourself happy by wanting what you’ve got, not by getting something new. That’s super interesting. I can internalize this, but it’s still a challenge for me to remember that.

Just appreciating. Just appreciating what you have. I think that’s another thing that happened for me more during the pandemic was just appreciating a bit more of what I have.

At the end of each one of our episodes, we ask the same question. It is, what advice would your 24-year-old self give you? Not the opposite way around because that one is kind of easy, like, “Hey, you’re further in your career. You’re wiser. You’ve been around the block. How would you advise your younger self?”

Actually, flip it on its head. What would your younger self advise you today?

The patterns are interesting.

Katherine May, she told us, “I think the 24-year-old Katherine would tell me how much I wanted this life that I’m living and how much I love writing.”

It’s interesting because, when we talked to Katherine, like before we asked this question, she talked about struggling with money. She’s a writer, she’s a best-selling author, and she’s still struggling to pay the bills a lot of times.

She struggles with depression. There’s just a lot that’s going on in her life.

Then she paused when we asked her this question, and she said, “You know when I was 24, I was so hungry. I was so hungry to be creative, to be a writer, just to have the opportunity to do this on a big level.”

She would have done anything to be a New York Times Best-Selling Author, and here she is. She’s there, right?

Her younger self was pining for the future. Now that she’s arrived, she had to pause and think, like, “Oh, actually, I’m already here, and this is good, and I can just appreciate what I have instead of wanting what I don’t have.”

Judy Wert, who runs Wert & Co. and helps design executives find their next role, she said, “Keep doing what you’re doing. You’re making a difference. And don’t worry so much.”

This is another theme. This is the theme that a lot of people say. I think a lot of brain cycles in the human experience are spent worrying about what will happen tomorrow, what will happen in the future, what will happen to me.

To be honest, we just don’t have any control over that, so worrying about it is not exactly productive. So, I really liked that. That resonated with me from Judy.

Oliver Burkeman again, I liked this. He said, “Choose uncomfortable expansion over comfortable diminishment wherever you can.”

This resonates because I think it’s easy. You get a good job. You get a good point in your life. Everything is good. I feel great. How do I maintain this?

It feels counterintuitive to upend the apple cart and try something different: switching jobs, moving, maybe there’s something going on with your relationship that you need to examine. Always choose expansion over comfort, comfortable diminishment, to be growing and learning.

We also talked to a woman. Her name is Shanti Brien. She’s a lawyer, and she defends people who are on death row. It’s a pretty heavy job.

She said that her 24-year-old self, if they were to meet and talk, would have said, “Damn, you’ve done awesome! Look around at the relationships you’ve created.”

What stood out to me with that is she didn’t say, like, “Hey, you’re a successful lawyer,” and “Look at this great house that you’ve got, and this beautiful place you live in, in California.” It’s, “Look at the relationships you’ve created,” which I found really just beautiful and very true. A very true, clear perspective.

Lastly, we talked about Vipula Gandhi. She is a researcher for Gallup. She’d done a ton of research on the Great Resignation, why people have quit their jobs and shifted to something new.

I kind of thought that we were going to talk to someone who was going to be a data wonk and just tell us people are moving from this industry to that, they are retiring early, et cetera. But she had something really fascinating to say that hit home.

Her 24-year-old self would say to her current self, “You are the hero of your life and you build the life that you want. No one else but you can decide what your future looks like.”

This goes back to what we heard yesterday evening about agency and how a lot of creative people often give away their agency. That my creativity is in service to this company. My creativity is for other people. Or I can’t do this because of these circumstances that I’m operating in. We have agency to choose for ourselves what’s meaningful and how we want to spend our time.

For me, thinking about the pandemic and hopefully being close to the other end of this situation, it is a privilege to live through this. It’s a once-in-a-many-generation thing. Unfortunately, it will happen again to our ancestors. But being locked up and being slowed down, having the great pause, this sacred opportunity gives us perspective about our work and our life and what to do next.

For me, reconnecting with making and the discovery process and building relationships are what making is all about, that time that I get to spend with Bob and Meredith, deep relationships with them. Publishing this podcast, Re: Considering, there’s no bullshit in it for me. It’s all just signal and no noise. It’s just a lot of learning, and I’m getting a lot out of it.

I hope that you might check it out as well. You can take a listen on Spotify, Apple Podcast, Google Play. Wherever you listen to podcasts, it’s out there. With that, thank you so much.

[Audience applause]

Speakers