The symbiosis of personal growth

Every day we consume pieces about thoughts, revelations and lessons learned for the sake of improving ourselves. We read articles, listen to podcasts and watch videos to learn more about what others have found, experienced and felt in certain situations. But why are we doing this? And why should we share ourselves?

Learning is like rowing upstream: not to advance is to drop back.

When I was in secondary school, someone had printed this Chinese proverb on a sheet of paper and attached it to the wall of one of our classrooms. Being a teenage student, I perceived this wisdom as patronizing and it didn’t have any appeal to me, besides evoking natural denial. I figured one of the overambitious teachers must have put it there hoping to attain a moment of revelation in us. But, as you would expect from a class of pubescent kids, we were either indifferent or defiant — “F*** you, I won’t do what you tell me!

It took me many years and a couple of personal setbacks until I really understood the true value of constant learning, personal growth and development. I realised that working on myself can be a path to self-fulfillment, meaningfulness and contentment. Learning about my own field via books, articles or online courses induces a feeling of satisfaction and elatedness.

Some bigger tech companies like BufferGitlab and Auth0 have established themes of consistent improvementalways learning, and sharing mistakes for ultimate transparency within their company values and declared them as their core beliefs. Leadfeeder, the startup I currently work with is also in the process of framing its own company values which will convey the same sentiment. They will encourage personal development as well as providing a safe haven for experimentation and mistakes. This understanding will unlock the full potential of an individual as well as the the whole team and lets them thrive.

Embrace the steady learning

As designers, we tend to be curious, always interested in all the different things, and maybe even a bit nosey. We want to know about how things work, understand human behaviour and deconstruct prevalent circumstances. Maybe that’s a prerequisite for becoming a designer? Or a trait that evolves over time? Or maybe both?

We are striving to absorb as much information and knowledge as possible to create the best preconditions when tackling a design problem. We are trying to make use of the knowledge we possess and apply it to a given situation or to solve the problem at hand. But we are always looking for more input, more information and more profound insights. Every little detail is questioned and we’re longing for answers.

We’re using acquired knowledge to inform the design process, discover new things or to come up with inventive solutions. The more we know, the more we can make use of it. This may be cultural peculiarities or a deep technical understanding which helps to push an idea forward. There is virtually nothing that’s not worth knowing about. We are perpetually learning, improving and expanding our skill set to be better prepared for anything ahead of us.

Every time we are roaming through libraries or skimming online course catalogues, we should become excited about the wealth of wisdom in the world. We should realise how much is out there awaiting to amaze us or catch our interest. Let’s not waste any time and start exploring it.

The axiom of consistent learning is a trait that we need to embrace. Learning about new things will benefit our personal, as well as professional, development. It will broaden our horizon and help us to better understand the world that surrounds us — the environment we live in. Personal growth is a process that will help us to become the human beings we want to be.

“Share your knowledge. It is a way to achieve immortality.” — Dalai Lama XIV

But where does this knowledge actually come from? What are the sources out there that we can hook into? How is it possible that we can just type some keywords into a search bar and we are likely to learn that the same issue has come up and has been approached before?

The answer is: people. We are able to do this because people are willing to share. They are willing to share their case studies, their learnings and their mistakes. They are willing to open their vault of wisdom so that everyone can benefit from it. They care to tell their story and take the time to document what they have done, how they have done it and what they have learned from it. And we should be thankful for everyone who has shared just a single grain of knowledge with us.

Every day we read articles, blog posts and book chapters, written by people who care about their fields and are willingly sharing their knowledge with us. We reach out to our colleagues, communities or forums seeking help, advise or experience. And we get answers.

But this should be seen as a two-way street. The whole system only works if it is understood as a symbiosis. When everyone obtains a mindset of giving and receiving — consumption and contribution. If we can benefit from, but also rely on, each other.

This touches on the keystones of scientific research and academia, where knowledge is acquired through studies and findings are shared with the community to inform further research to push the discipline forward. And the general principle should hold true also on a smaller scale. When we are facing a challenge, we seek information, we experiment, we learn and we share. With the goal that others can take our experiences and run with them.

It is this altruistic behaviour that enables us to benefit from the experiences others have made. Sharing knowledge is a core principle that not only designers and researchers should believe in. If people did not share their findings, we couldn’t use or build upon them. There wouldn’t be any advancement, because everyone would need to go through everything by themselves.

Admit your mistakes

There are a myriad of reasons why we should share our learnings. But the most obvious answer here is probably (again): people. By leading others through our process, it will help them to comprehend how we have approached a situation, which patterns, methods and strategies we tried and whether they worked or not. By sharing our stories, we allow others to learn from our experiences, our findings and also from our mistakes.

Especially the latter entails an incredible source of insights. Yet it seems we are usually too shy or too proud to talk about our mistakes. Making and admitting mistakes can be a painful and intimidating reality which we are inclined to ignore and forget about as soon as possible. But it’s actually our mistakes and misjudgements that will allow us to mature. They will open our eyes to reveal what we haven’t seen before.

Our mistakes will help us to better assess a situation because they compel us to review an approach again, equipped with newly attained knowledge. Therefore we should accept them as part of our design process and be honest with ourselves and others about their existence. If we are not making mistakes, we are not making progress.

Recognise your growth

Personal growth happens if we learn, reflect and contribute regularly. Not everything we do will lead to revelations or instant recognition in our discipline, but this shouldn’t be the goal anyways. It’s a slow process, usually unnoticed by ourselves when happening, maybe recognised by others. It’s often in retrospect, when we are looking back on a specific situation and are reminded about how we have dealt with a certain situation that we will realise, that we have actually grown with the challenge.

We shouldn’t be afraid of sharing even smaller case studies, or seemingly simple design challenges that we have faced. It is likely that someone will still benefit from our learnings. This doesn’t mean that it has to happen in a written format. We should rather choose a way that we feel most comfortable with. This could mean to tell our stories as feedback in a design critique, giving a talk at a local meetup or just talking about our experiences within informal conversation.

We also shouldn’t be intimidated by ruthless and insensitive people who will give us the feeling that sharing our experiences is useless, needless or even wrong. We are not sharing facts, we are sharing personal sentiments and impressions. We are not claiming something is right or wrong, we are allowing others to ascertain what we have experienced and draw their own conclusions.

We are able to leverage our learnings and knowledge and use this to inform our design process. Allow others to do the same. Provide them with your personal takeaways and insights so they can use it in their process. Share what you have learned and prevent others from making the same mistakes as you. Help disciplines to evolve, and peers to develop, by contributing to the bigger symbiosis. Because it will help everyone to flourish.