I wanted to work for Google (and here's what changed my mind)
I set a goal that ultimately set me up for failure: I wanted to work for Google at some point in my career.
I was an avid painter in high school, and with all honesty, I thought I would pursue a career as a fine artist. As with any art- or design-related career, there aren’t many solid indicators of when you’ve ‘made it’ as an artist, designer, architect, etc. So, I set my own bar of what would indicate that I ‘made it’ as a fine artist: I impacted at least one person with my artwork.
Simple enough, right?
It certainly wasn’t a SMART goal, in any sense. However, it provided me with enough motivation to finish my portfolio and apply to some college art programs across the United States.
All was well, until one day, I gave a high school teacher a framed original watercolor. The teacher was so thankful, they wrote me a thank you letter and hung the painting up in their classroom (I still carry around that letter with me to this day). From that moment on, my motivation and drive suddenly dissipated.
This was a clear indicator that I had impacted someone with my artwork.
… So what was I to do now? I achieved my goal of impacting someone with my art, so what was my next goal? My next step?
Suffering from burnout, lack of purpose, and a complete identity crisis over my art career, the rest of my high school years were spent trying to find new career goals — ones that would be achievable, but I would have to work long and hard to attain.
This is when I realized that goal-setting is hard, and it’s rarely taught well to students and young people.
Creating achievable, feasible, and realistic goals is an art form in itself. Through goal-setting, we play a delicate dance in finding ways to push ourselves to new heights while also ensuring our goals are crafted to fit reasonably within our reach. We often end up making Tantalus-like goals, where the goal dangles right above our heads for the rest of our careers. Every time we reach out to grab it, the goal recedes further away. All we think about, all we see, is that goal we’ve fixated on, and it becomes our sole reason for living (or dying).
Near graduating from my UX/UI boot camp, I created a Tantalus-like goal that set me up for failure: I wanted to work for Google at some point in my career.
Unlike the goal I made for my fine art career in high school, this one seemed far enough out of my reach that I would have to fight hard and strong to land a gig with Google. To my UX-newbie mind, working at Google was a sure indicator that I was a ‘good’ UX designer. And, it seemed like everyone else around me had similar goals as well — to work for a large tech company some time over their careers, to confirm that the $10k they spent on a boot camp didn’t go to waste.
Upon graduating from the boot camp, I quickly set off to find what I needed to land a job at Google. I looked at the portfolios of people who were my age that had already worked with Google (as an intern, part-time, full-time), learned some front-end development, and applied to some colleges where Google employees have studied. Everything I did weighed in line with this question: ‘Will this land me a job at Google?’
Over the following months, my mind became fixated on following what others did to become UX designers at Google. I pushed myself into the mold of what I thought Google-bound designers looked like.
I was constantly reaching, like Tantalus, for a fruit branch that was out of reach.
I became afraid of failure, afraid of satisficing with internships and jobs that I believed wouldn’t set me on the path to working for Google.
‘A Google-bound designer would know how to prototype a screen in less than five minutes.’
‘My portfolio and resume aren’t strong enough to apply at Google, but I don’t have the experience or knowledge to know how to improve it.’
I could not be a ‘good’ designer until I worked at Google. No other indicators of ‘goodness’ applied, no other forms of success applied.
For a newly-minted UX designer, this mindset was terrible. It was the anti-growth mindset. It was my own puddle in the Underworld, where I was reaching out for fruit I could never have.
After a few months, I grew tired of being in this perpetual state of distress. I took a look back at my goal of wanting to work for Google (not wanting really, more like needing) and unpacked why I set this goal in the first place.
‘Why did you set this goal of working at Google?’
Working at Google is a sure sign I’m a ‘good’ designer.
‘Hm, is it though?’
In truth, there are countless other ways of indicating that I have become a ‘good’ designer. What indicates a ‘good’ designer in itself is completely subjective, and my goal was not only very unlikely to attain (about 0.2% of three million applicants are hired per year), but also rooted in the idea that all designers at Google are ‘good,’ my definition of ‘good,’ to which I had no evidence of. I followed the stereotype of ‘Google = good and success,’ completely forgetting that there are other ways to pursue ‘good and success.’
I asked myself this: ‘Pretend that Google, your previous indicator for success, didn’t exist. What would you strive for instead? What would your new goal be?’
Many young designers get caught up in the prestige and holiness of these large tech companies known for ‘good’ UX and UI designs. In all honesty, is working for a company like Google what you really want? Or are there other forms of success you are trying to mask with a goal such as landing a gig at Google?
If your goal is to work at the specific company for its utter prestige, then by all means follow it, as long as you know the prestige is what you’re truly after. For many designers, working at a large tech company like Google just isn’t in our cards, and that’s okay. Working at Google, or Microsoft, Apple, Uber, and/or Facebook aren’t the only indications of success we designers can use to feel satisfied with our careers.
We have to dig deeper, throw away the mask of wanting to work at a specific company, at a specific location, with specific people, and truly uncover what our own personal indicators for success and ‘goodness’ are.
If I were offered a job as a UX designer at Google, would I throw it away? Most likely not, if the timing is right. I’m not betting on such a lucky chance happening, though. I’ve found other forms of success and ‘goodness’ I use to mark my progression as a UX designer.
If I’m gaining enough experience to have a senior design position at a company within the next ten years, I’m en route to reaching my goal.
If I’m learning how to communicate effectively with clients, designers, developers, and stakeholders, I’m en route to reaching my goal.
If I’m failing and understanding what doesn’t work in this industry, I’m en route.
We don’t teach young adults how to use proper goal-setting techniques, so most of us are left floundering, hoping to get lucky and land what we think we want to achieve.
Whenever you find yourself in a Tantalus-like predicament, take a step back and ask yourself: ‘Pretend this [company, location, person, job title, or award] doesn’t exist. What would you strive for instead? What would your new goal be?’
Kathryn is a user experience designer in Denver, CO. They uncover practical, inclusive, and accessible digital solutions with great attention to detail and precision. Since graduating from a UX/UI boot camp in 2020, Kathryn has worked as a UX designer for two tech startups and a B2G software company. They're currently enrolled in the undergrad Emergent Digital Practices program at the University of Denver.