Why happy accidents and a non-linear career path are your secret weapon

4 min read
Joe Thomas,
Leslie Witt
  •  Apr 12, 2018
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This post was inspired by the topic of our upcoming webinar series, DesignTalks: Careers. Be sure to save your spot here to join Leslie and other design leaders, as they share their personal tips and advice for advancing your career.

When I look back on my career in design, it’s a curvy path, at best—a weathered road riddled with forks, bumps, and barriers that led me to my current role as VP of Design at Intuit. It’s these twists and turns that define who I’ve become. They mark the lessons learned, choices made, and the moments of epiphany along the way.

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A belated ‘thanks’ to the bad boss for helping me take that scary first turn

I jumped right into the deep end with architecture, committing to Rice University’s 6-year professional program while in high school. I loved architecture school so much, I decided to become a professor. I went straight from Rice to even more schooling at Princeton.

Unfortunately, as I started to actually practice architecture, I realized I didn’t like the profession. Yikes.

This realization was instantly present, but slowly embraced. It took me a few years and a few jobs to admit it to myself. I refused to let myself see that staying on course wasn’t the best course of action. I wanted that straight arrow path to hit its target.

That is, until the bad boss appeared. My bad boss was a man renowned in the architecture field not only for his ego and crushing criticism, but also for his network and influence, particularly in academia. His awfulness was hard to endure, but it gave the gift of clarity. I wanted no part of the culture he represented.

I’d been passionately devoted to this path, and I was now faced with a crisis of conscience: How could I train students to do something I didn’t want to do myself? The answer was clear: I couldn’t. But I still didn’t know what to do next, nor how to get off this bus. I didn’t want to travel this road any longer, but I didn’t know where to turn.

Fortunately, beyond meeting the bad boss at Princeton, I also met my husband. He was new to the architecture world and from California, to boot. That newness (perhaps with a little help from California) translated into his sense of freedom: bigger vision, fewer constraints, less patience for the hero-worship culture. He introduced me to a new and bigger world: The world of design, west-coast style. This showed me that there wasn’t just “one right path,” but many, and it led me right into the arms of IDEO, a powerhouse design firm. While already famous in 2005, IDEO had been completely off my laser-focused radar.

The worst applicant ever

I was probably the worst applicant ever for IDEO. Blind send, zero follow-up, no interview prep—a true newbie.

The only thing I did do right was to show up as my authentic self. And, thankfully, they saw beyond the superficial gaps. They understood that while I might not “talk” like them, the connection between us—in our core philosophy—was deep. I also happened to fill a very concrete need: someone who could create 3D models and renderings.

Or, it could have been that they realized we were soulmates… I’ll never know.

IDEO introduced me to terms like “design thinking” and “human-centered design.” These were words I had never heard before, but they represented a mindset of problem-solving that I’d had from the very beginning. At IDEO, my belief in the power of the designer, that person I’d dreamed of being in high school who was capable of capturing the spirit of a culture, was reignited. IDEO restored my faith in the impact that design could deliver and radically expanded my toolkit around how to do so.

Curve successfully caught, new road to travel.

Taking a chance on a project you don’t want

I was two years into IDEO when I was pushed against my will onto my first financial service project. This new area for me—designing for money—was one I would accidentally discover I truly loved. It would become the focus of my career and my way to deliver positive impact to the world.

Although I didn’t want to be on the project, I gave it my all. And I loved it. I discovered my sheer joy at tackling the complexity of back-end system constraints, compliance environments, and institutional norms. I loved figuring out how to alleviate the anxiety, stress, and guilt which enshrouds people’s interaction with money. And I even enjoyed diving into the non-glamorous but necessary challenges presented by the project. Most of all, I loved that the world of money represented a way to make a big difference in people’s lives.

This geeky love and zeal for impact led me to establish IDEO’s financial service innovation practice. Eventually, it even led me to my current role as VP of Design at Intuit.

It’s hard for me to imagine what my career would be like today if I’d insisted on staying my course. What if I’d refused to open my eyes and see that there was a glorious path down a previously darkened alley?

Why most (design) careers aren’t linear

It turns out that the curvy career path is the norm.Twitter Logo It’s an agile trajectory for those of us willing to embrace change and the lessons that can guide us in new directions. I know I haven’t seen my last curve, and I look forward to reflecting on the serendipity that showed me a new way. I find that most leaders, and pretty much all design leaders, have taken a non-linear course. They’re learners, they’re adaptors, and that zeal to evolve rarely looks like moving in a straight line.

In the book Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, the authors state that only 27 percent of college graduates have a career related to their majors. That means roughly three in four graduates will be doing something completely unrelated to what they studies for at least four years in college.

Knowing that most people will end up in a field they didn’t studyTwitter Logo, does it make you want to rethink how you approach your next job or project?

Catching your career curveballs

Design is growing and shifting at breakneck speed. This isn’t surprising. Designers are focused on creating positive change in the world, and we take a learner’s mindset, using it to explore and solve tough problems.

From that perspective, what design “is” has moved far beyond the studio; it has, in many ways, become more mindset than craft. Rather than meaning a loss of depth, this translates into the opening up of multiple depths. Some designers love to sharpen their research skills, digging in to become true masters of customer insights. Others love defining the next visual trend. And some still fall in love with experimentation, exploring emerging technology to make real our fantasies and musings on what the future may.

“What design ‘is’ has moved far beyond the studio. It has become more mindset than craft.”

Twitter Logo

All of these can be the right path for you, depending on your passion, your strengths, and your willingness to discover and listen to yourself.

Feel free to apply design thinking to your own careers. By identifying the ideal state of your career, you can create experiments and prototypes that will give structure to your decision making. But don’t get too married to the ideal. No matter what your bias, you should never lose that openness to serendipity and forget that the best-laid plans might need to pivot.

Leave room for the happy accident.

I’ll leave you with one last piece of guidance, something I say often to my team today: You’ll only get the chance to discover untapped passions and explore new avenues if you put the energy into tackling a challenge with vigor, depth, and commitment. Go explore!

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