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Designing Your Work Life

Your work is a narrative that threads through your life.


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Mo Carim

3 years ago | 7 min read

Let’s take a moment to reflect upon a common question grown-ups tend to ask us when we’re growing up:

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

It’s a question with good intentions but it’s not the most helpful to ask yourself because it assumes that what you want to be when you grow up is something that is final, fixed and absolute.

What I’d like to offer is a different perspective inspired by a message from my manager at Siri at the time on my 30th birthday when I was trying to figure out the next step in my work life:

“Your work is a narrative that threads through your life. You get to be the author and then you get to go out there and live it every day.”
— Adam Cheyer, Founder of Siri

This stuck with me because it changed my perspective from a work life that is fixed and absolute to one that is fluid, dynamic and a journey of self-discovery. It showed me that I can be the creator of my own narrative.

In this article, I’m going to go walk you through the 4 steps in the design process for how you can create your own narrative for your work life.

Step 1: Understand 3 key questions

The first step in creating a work life is to start with understanding what is the work life you really want. To do this we’re going to tackle this question:

“What work life do I want?”

This is a big question and it can be overwhelming to answer. So to make this more manageable we’re going to break this down into 3 key questions:

  1. What am I excited about? — We tend to get asked “What am I passionate about” but I use the word excited here on purpose. It’s important that our design process is measurable. Excitement is something that you can more easily measure because you can actually feel different levels of excitement within your body.
  2. What do I believe in? — This question addresses the values you have as a person such as community or family, or maybe it’s about sustainability or staying healthy. These are topics that have a strong personal meaning to you. You can also think about it in terms of the kind of world that you would like to create.
  3. What am I good at? — This is a more straightforward question but it can take time to answer because it’s something that requires learning from work experience and from getting feedback from people around you such as your manager or colleagues.

It is at the intersection of the 3 sub-questions where we will find our answer to the big question:

The good news is that the design process means you don’t have to have a perfect answer to all of these 3 key questions right off the bat. You are allowed to iterate and refine your answer as you uncover, learn and explore.

As an example, we’re going to go through the first sub-question — What am I excited about? Take a few minutes and write down for yourself the 3–5 things that you are excited about what it comes to work. If you need help, think of the moments where you found yourself in a state of flow and lost track of time or found a moment of joy when you were working.

I completed the exercise for myself and here are 3–5 things I am most excited about my work:

  1. Leading my own team
  2. Building a novel or unique product
  3. Learning about business strategy
  4. Working from anywhere in the world
  5. Impacting millions of people

You can repeat the same exercise for the other 2 sub-questions.

For the next exercise, I am going to use the second point above as an example — Building a novel or unique product — and go through the 3-Why’s. The idea here is to ask “Why?” 3 times to help us to get to the root cause or kernel behind the statement. Go ahead and do this for each of your own statements. Below is the result of the 3-Why’s for my second statement:

I am excited about building a novel or unique product

But why?

Because I want to offer something new to the world.

But why?

Because it helps me express what is unique about myself.

But why?

Because I value creativity.

What I discovered here is that creativity matters a lot to me. This makes sense because I find joy and excitement when I am doing something creative. Creativity is my kernel.

I repeated the 3-Why’s for all my statements and these are the kernels I came up with:

  1. Leading my own team → help others become their best selves
  2. Building a novel or unique product → value creativity
  3. Learning about business strategy → build a sustainable company
  4. Working from anywhere in the world → gain my freedom
  5. Impacting millions of people → make a big impact

Step 2: Define your point of view

The next step is where you get to synthesize what you’ve discovered from your answers to the 3 sub-questions so you can put together a clear and concise point of view statement. To help guide you, I already went through the exercise and put together my point of view statement for each of the questions:

What am I excited about?

I am excited about work that enables me to be creative, helps others become their best selves, gives me freedom and makes a big impact in a sustainable way.

What do I believe in?

I believe if more people could pursue work they love and start their own businesses to become financially independent the world will be a better place.

What am I good at?

I am good at building great teams, crafting product strategy and designing unique user experiences.

Step 3: Brainstorm solutions

The next step in our process is to brainstorm ideas for work that fit your point of view statements. Grab some post-its and a whiteboard and feel free to invite a friend or colleague who understands you well to make this process more fun.

Come up with ideas that you’re excited about, you believe in and you’re good at. Here are just a few of the 30 ideas I came up with:

  1. Start my own company
  2. Work for Airbnb
  3. Build a school for children in Nepal
  4. Become a writer
  5. Coach or mentor startups

If you’re someone who tends to come up with tons of ideas, there’s a framework to help organize your ideas— it’s called a 2x2 matrix. The 2x2 matrix allows you to plot each idea against a set of criteria so you can see which one really matters most. Here is my 2x2 matrix:

I find all the ideas above exciting and something I am good at but I am going to decide to focus on projects that use my product and design skillsets for now and so I am going to focus on the 2 ideas shown in bold first.

Step 4: Prototype, test and measure

The next step in our design process is to prototype our 2 ideas for work. Let’s start with the first example — Starting my own company. Here are some quick ways to begin prototyping starting your own company:

  1. Carry a notepad with you and record observations and problems your friends, family and colleagues are going through. Observe anything weird or out of the ordinary. Hang out with people who live at the extremes of life so you can understand what’s happening at the edges of society that could be niche or unexplored. This is where you can find your wedge and build something innovative.
  2. Create a landing page to capture signups and interest from a set of customers. This helps you test your concept without building your solution. If you’re a visual person, create some mockups on Figma and show it around to a few people who could fit as a customer to get their candid feedback.
  3. If you’re more of a writer, write a story about your product. Write an e-mail to someone who might be a first customer and see if you can convince them to use or buy your product just via e-mail. You don’t need to be a tech whiz or product expert to do this.

Doing these 3 things can help you quickly prototype and test if you have a real company on your hands. And if you find out you don’t, it’s no big deal because you learned a lot and didn’t have to put in too much investment. And the next time you prototype starting a new company, you will be much better prepared and have a higher chance of success.

But what if you prefer to work for a stable and larger company? Let’s take a look at prototyping the second example — Working for Airbnb. Here are 3 things you can do to when applying to a company for a job:

  1. Identify what the company really needs. Do your research online or speak to employees within the company to find out what the company urgently needs to grow.
  2. Figure out why you are the right person with the excitement, beliefs and skillsets to address those urgent needs.
  3. Find a stakeholder within the company who will notice you and hear what you have to say.

To illustrate these 3 points, let’s turn to Nina. Nina really wanted to work for Airbnb. She identified an opportunity for how Airbnb could grow in the Middle East. She published her analysis and case study on a website which automatically showed just how excited and good she was at solving Airbnb’s problem.

She then tweeted about it which got the attention of Brian Chesky, the founder of Airbnb. Brian was so impressed that Airbnb ended up hiring her.

Image credit: https://www.nina4airbnb.com/
Image credit: https://www.nina4airbnb.com/

This wraps up our 4 steps to Designing Your Work Life. We went through understanding the 3 key questions, defined our point of view statements, brainstormed several ideas and learned how we can prototype and test our solutions.

But this is not a one-time process, it’s an iterative process that you can go through multiple times to discover your excitement, define your beliefs and refine your craft. So do yourself a favor and go through this design process and I am confident you will come up with an exciting and compelling narrative for your work life that expresses what is uniquely you.

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