Sharpening the saw

For many years during my early career I was immune (or certainly resistant) to business and professional development books. The thought of them repelled me; indeed many still do. The particular brand of let’s say ‘bravado’, as pedaled by the likes of Tony Robbins, leaves me utterly cold.

The later discovery then of how different Stephen Covey’s philosophy and writing is became all the more significant. And for me, that revelation came in the form of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”.

It is a shame how listicles – the click-bait articles that appear daily around the web (“11 awesome ideas your website must include!”) – have served to cheapen any ideas put forward in a numbered list. I say a shame, because “7 Habits…” is essential reading for any professional, and should in no way be categorised with all the poor relations in print and on the web, which mimic its title.

One of the principles Covey introduces in the book is the 7th habit, that of ‘sharpening the saw’. The phrase derives from an allegory of a wood-cutter who cuts through logs for a living, sawing all day. He’s so busy sawing he doesn’t have time to maintain the saw. With inevitable consequences.

My career has taken me in a number of directions, each of them self-initiated, and generally fuelled by a relentless fear of getting lazy, or growing complacent. Covey’s words and ideas have helped me in any number of situations over the years, and he continues to inspire. This last year though, it strikes me that I’ve fallen well short when it comes to the 7th habit.

Earlier in the year I had one of those forehead-slapping moments of clarity: the unchallengeable fact that everything we choose to do in turn means not doing something else. We have a finite amount of time available to us – as illustrated with stark clarity in a post earlier today from Chris Murphy – and if we are fortunate, then we choose how to fill that time. As competition for time and attention increases, so too does the need to differentiate between activity that helps to develop you as a person, and activity that you simply feel obliged to take part in.

As an example, after signing up in 2008 Twitter very quickly became an essential professional tool for me, a discovery engine that has without question enhanced my professional life. But at its worst Twitter becomes just a way of filling up time. “Catching up on Twitter” was at one point an additional task to fit into the day, just in case anything was missed – a link, a conversation, an announcement – that would leave me disadvantaged. Ludicrous when put as bluntly as that, but a fact nonetheless.

So it’s important then to make sure that activity is nourishing, and encourages the right kind of thinking. And overall I feel like I’ve fallen behind over the course of the last year, littered as it has been with books and articles unread, and no end of unfinished writing.  Somewhere along the line, I’ve made bad choices about what to give my time and attention to, at a time when competition for both has increased exponentially. As with everything in life, it is all about choices.

This coming year, I commit myself once again to sharpening the saw – and never letting it get to the state it fell into last year.

You can read a short passage on the 7th habit, plus the other six, here. See if they makes sense to you. It does for me:

A criminal past

My name is Patrick Stuart Monro, and I have a criminal past.

Some weeks ago this thought occurred to me:

It had begun to feel that so much of what I was saying, whether on Twitter or off it, sounded like that old stereotype of the ex-smoker whose every utterance forms an unrelenting diatribe against their former habit.

Moving deeper into the wold of user experience research and user-centred design has turned my professional sensibilities on their head; I’m a poacher-turned-gamekeeper. From an inauspicious start at a design sweatshop, successive developments brought me to increasingly align with principles that should have been ingrained from day one, but were not.

I envy those who realise early in their design careers – perhaps through effective education – that people should be at the centre of their work, those who will consume the outputs from it. My early career was a series of exercises in aesthetic futility, recurring attempts to prove something about myself that rarely manifested itself in user-centred design of any variety.

Graphic work particularly was more often than not an exercise in Photoshop promenading. Maybe I would shoe-horn in a new typeface that I liked the look of, usually in wilful ignorance of the ultimate audience or purpose.

That said, no-one suffered, no-one died. Every piece of work I produced was signed off by a client as fit for purpose (not necessarily an endorsement of it being effective of course), and the work I was doing was no better or worse than numerous design projects created every day around the world.

What my tweet made me aware of was that I wish at times I could address my younger self (doesn’t everyone?), and begin to plant the seeds of responsible design earlier.

An opportunity has become available to do something approaching this, as a contributing lecturer to the Interactive Multimedia Design course at the University of Ulster. I can at least begin to make amends for my own lack of understanding (something I can’t solely attribute to poor levels of design education) by passing on some of what I’ve learned in 20+ years as a designer, albeit far too few of those spent as an effective one.

I find it cathartic to admit that I really haven’t been the designer I should have been for most of my career. But – as with all personal transformation – admitting aproblem is the first step. Followed by taking each day as it comes, and working to improve, one day at a time.

And I use each day to distance myself as far as possible from that younger version of me; the one who didn’t appreciate the privilege of working as a designer, and the responsibility that it brings with it.

I remain an eternal student of design. There are those in the industry (the ‘design’ industry in its widest possible sense), both globally and locally, that I look to now to help me make up for lost time. And it’s time I acknowledged them.

And with that, the subject of a future post becomes clear.