15 years ago I was sitting on a tram on my way to work and contemplated whether I was good enough to be a designer. Bright eyed but a complete rookie and unfamiliar with the demands of a studio working environment. The stress was too much, the obstacles too high, I wasn’t doing well on the job and I really struggled to find my footing. If only I was good enough I thought to myself, if only things were easier and I could just go on autopilot. How much better would that be if that was the case? I really felt I wasn’t good enough and that maybe I should quit and not step foot off that tram. It seemed to be the easier route.
The people at the studio were great but I was not used to such tight project deadlines and the internal pressure mounted. In the end I persevered and looking back had I’d quit right then and there, I would’ve missed out on forging one of the greatest joys of my life. My career and work.
At that point in my life I was young and didn’t have the foresight to look into the future. And to appreciate that the obstacles I was facing was in fact a turning point for incredible things that were about to come. That these difficulties are actually life's opportunities for you to grow as a person, and for you to build tools to cultivate your own happiness.
And this theme has presented itself throughout my career and life. We all think it gets easier if only we could do ‘[insert dream activity here]’ or had ‘[insert dream object here]’.
Maybe it’s millions of dollars in the bank.
Or clients that love our work all the time.
Or if only we had more followers oh how much easier it would be.
Or as simple as not having to worry about paying our bills on time.
Well the newsflash is life’s always going to throw some obstacles your way. Chaos is a natural occurrence of life. No one has it ‘easy’. I love my life and feel very grateful. But the joy I have derived from it is not because it has been easy. Actually a lot of times it has been quite the opposite.
It’s that fight and effort that makes whatever’s on the other side to derive its meaning and value. The journey is what grants us perspective. You will be grateful for what you have earnt, and will be less likely to take what you have for granted. The gift is not in just the result but what we learn on our journey.
I know what it’s like to worry about my job. I know what it’s like to break an arm. To go into painful rehab. What it’s like to keep running even though your brain and lungs are telling you to stop. I know what it’s like to be in debt, because of the choices your parents made. I know what it’s like to feel immense pressure.
Rising above the obstacle
But in the end you overcome these obstacles. And learning to overcome and deal with problems helps us become stronger mentally and physically. By building mental fortitude to solve problems we build a set of skills that we can use for life. And upon that process we are blessed with the insight for extreme gratitude. How thankful we are for what we do have. The sun being out. The health that we have. The great friends that we’ve forged. Our family. Our work. The community that we build. These are made a lot clearer from the obstacles that we are faced with in our lives.
Sometimes what we need in life is not the easy way, what we need to reach our potential, is to be challenged. What we need is something for us to overcome and to dig deep, and to look at our resolve in the face and say that maybe....just maybe we can do it. We need to slowly and steadily build a set of tools to deal with challenges. Something that is extremely valuable both as a designer and also as a person.
Embrace the obstacles that come your way and see them as opportunities not roadblocks.
A state of flow and happiness
I’ve been reading a book called Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi about happiness and optimal performance. There’s a great diagram that illustrates the concept. There are 2 axises. On the ‘Y’ side are the difficulty of the challenges that we face, and on the ‘X’ side are our abilities. Both from low to high.
The best moments are when we are faced with challenges that are both high in difficulty and push the upper echelon of our abilities as well. And it is when these 2 are in alignment where we can reach a state of flow. And as a byproduct of that process we will grow our skills and thinking.
The joy is intrinsic. We are not doing things for any particularly gain but am deeply focused on the task in front of us. The ‘satisfaction’ is derived from the task itself and not what the task brings.
When I was on that tram I was in the Anxiety quadrant. The challenge was too high and my ability was too low. For some this can be a breaking point, and if you’ve tried and don’t have the resolve to move forward, speak to someone. Your friends, family members and even a professional. Speaking out is a good thing, and if it’s a mental health issue it is a fantastic idea to seek guidance.
Luckily I built the skills across that time. I doubled down and tested my own resolve and passion. And along the way something funny happened. My abilities increased and in the end it was in sync with the challenges I was facing. And it lead to flow – I was in the zone and extremely happy. I stepped up to the plate and it is something I am extremely proud of. Looking back it was such a small thing (even though it felt like a big deal at the time), but it was a catalyst for so much of the great things that occurred later on. In hindsight it was a pivotal moment for me.
I notice this in a lot of areas in my life. Like when I go for a run, when I would focus on tennis, when I wonder if I’m going to design something great and I’m challenged immensely. The task itself becomes intrinsically important. And I really get in the zone and enjoy the process. I challenge you to do more of the things that put you in a state of flow.
You’ll know because:
Time goes by quickly.
The world melts away.
You take no notice of whatever is around and am completed absorbed in what you are doing.
You are not passive or relaxing but you are challenged and focused.
Doing things that required you to push your comfort zone and abilities that are in perfect balance. Where you have to improve and keep growing.
That zen like state and satisfaction you get. It’s fulfilling and satisfying.
It’s important not to sleepwalk through life.
We will be challenged and chaos will be thrown at us, it is up to us to eventually find our own order in this chaos.
We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails.
Adversity builds resolve and growth
Do things that challenge you constantly, and push your resolve. This entropy builds resilience over time. There are great challenges that I am yet to face – the death of a loved one and eventually my own mortality. It will be orders of magnitude greater than anything I’ve dealt with.
But through adversity there can also be joy found within ourselves. People like The Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Helen Keller, David Goggins – show us that regardless of the external circumstances with the right resolve and tools we can find happiness in the face of obstacles.
So try to do more things that promote flow in your life. Take a look at that diagram and see what various tasks in your life will be mapped on.
In the end I got off that tram and I didn’t quit and working in this profession has one of the greatest joys of my life. I can honestly say that I truly love what I do. I don’t love every moment and that’s ok, but if I had to average it all out it’s been an incredible run. And if I had a choice to do anything else with my life I’d pick the same thing.
So if you are facing obstacles see them as an opportunity for growth. The greater the challenge the greater the victory. It is through repetition and building that mental muscle of resilience that we can overcome these challenges and to thrive in situations where others may find difficulty. Keep going I’m cheering you on.