When web designer Ben Blumenfeld was working for a major TV network, he was responsible for creating websites for mainstream shows. One day, he made a breakthrough that led to a significant uptake on a show, but the success struck Ben in a way he had not expected. His success meantmore people would spend even more time watching TV, and he ultimately didn’t see that as a goodthing.
The moment proved to be an inflection point for Ben. He decided to stop thinking of his career as something separate from himself, and the values, ideals and principles that were important to him. He believed in making a positive impact in his community, and realized his day-to-day work wasn’t aligned with that. He decided it was time to pursue a path that baked his mission into his career.
While still in that mindset, he received a phone call from Jeff Hammerbacher, the COO of a newfangled Silicon Valley startup with 8 million student users, who persuaded Ben to fly to California to meet the people working there. Later, when Ben mentioned his desire to make a positive impact in his community, the CEO assured Ben that the venture would impact the very way the human race communicated with each other, across cultures, political differences and national territories — literally bringing the world together. Ben concluded the CEO — Mark Zuckerberg — was either quite mad, or that he was a true visionary. Ben told me, “I knew Mark was going to build the company with or without me, and once I met the design team, I was just blown away. Every designer was insanely talented, both visually and technically.” And so, he decided to join in the effort.
In time, Ben would come to lead the communication design team at Facebook as they built the company from 8 million users to almost a billion. He found the scale of every initiative to be surreal. “It was strange to design experiments that were measured in millions of people,” he told me. But, he also knew that the ability to connect so many people offered a huge opportunity to stay true to his goal of melding his career and his intention to make a positive difference in the world. Ben had an idea to work with Stanford’s Peace Innovation initiative, in connection with Stanford’s Persuasive Technology Lab, to start peace.facebook.com, which in turn sparked a conversation around the world about whether people believed we would reach peace in the next 50 years. (Incidentally, Americans are consistently far more pessimistic about this than other countries, such as Egypt, which is among the most optimistic). It was just one of the many ways that Ben decided to bake his mission into his career.
Most recently he left Facebook and joined with Enrique Allen to cofound The Designer Fund. Enrique is also part of the founding team at 500 Startups, an early stage seed fund and accelerator in Silicon Valley. The Designer Fund invests in designer-led startups that bake positive social impact into the mission of the institution. Instead of impact being an afterthought or separate project, like some company’s apologetic foundations sometimes appear to be. (Explore some of their inspiring investments here: Neighborland, Angaza Design, Solar Mosaic and Launchpad Toys).
I use the example of Ben to illustrate someone who’s approaching his career by design — not by default. It’s something that each and every one of us has the potential to do. When you get to a place in life where you’re questioning what the work you are doing — all the hours you’re spending — are ultimately adding up to, you need a process for evaluating what matters most to you. Here’s what I suggest:
Step 1: Sketch Your Career. It is so easy to get consumed by the stream of activities in our careers. We get so caught up in living our lives that we don’t stop to think sufficiently about our lives. We are reacting instead of being strategic. When I find this happening, I use this simple tool to get a broader perspective. You start on the left at the beginning of your career and end on the right hand side (today). You draw a single line up if you were enjoying the experience and down if it was unfulfilling for you. Write down where you were working, what you were working on, and any other factors that shaped your experience.
It ends up looking something like this:
Step 2: Connect the Dots. Use the sketch from Step 1 as a launch pad into being an anthropologist of your own life. Go somewhere quiet. You might think of it like a strategic offsite for your own life and career.
Ask: When was I truly happy and why? What activity or theme do I keep coming back to? What is my gravitational pull? When was work effortless for me? What isn’t working for me? When do I seem most like myself? When was it meaningless and why? When was work meaningful and why? Don’t rush the process. Pause long enough to listen. Write the answers down as they come so you can reflect on them later.
Step 3: Ask, “What Will I Create that Will Make the World Awesome?” That may sound like a bit of a wild question but an essential element of strategy is, to state the obvious, thinking about what we want to create in the future.
Ask: What would I do if I could do anything? What would I do if all jobs paid the same? If I could only achieve one thing in my career, what would it be? What do I really want? Again, these are big questions. But my experience is that people spend far more time worried about their job than in creating a vision for their career and how they can uniquely contribute to the world. (If you are looking for a pep talk, this three minute video from “Kid President” does a brilliant job challenging us to figure out what we can do to make the world awesome).
Many years ago I followed a process not at all unlike this one and, without exaggeration, it changed the course of my life. The insight I gained led me to quit law school, leave England and move to America to start down the path as a teacher and author. You’re reading this because of that choice. It remains the single most important — and strategic — career decision of my life.
It’s a simple process. But it can help us to break down some complex questions. Like the poet Mary Oliver’s beautifully haunting question: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”