“To grow is to go beyond what you are today.
stand up as yourself.
do not imitate.
Do not pretend to have achieved your goal, and do not try to cut corners.
Just try to grow.”
~Svami Prajnanpad

Instead of reviewing the year with the good and the bad, I’d like to review what I learned. Assuming that I did the best I could, I learn the most when I fail. I’d like to share six of my biggest learnings from this past year:

Focus on creating a process or system, not goals. Do have goals but spend the time focusing on creating a system or process of doing in order to establish good working habits. In 2016, I made a goal of painting more portraits than the year before. If I look at how many finished portraits I painted, I completely failed at that goal. I only finished two portraits in 2016 versus 10 in 2015. However, I created a working system that allowed me more time to paint in 2016 than the years before. No matter how busy life gets, Sundays are for creating. At least four hours each Sunday is my time to sit and think, make, read, research about art. I accepted constraints like time, limited color palettes, space, and materials as a part of my process and system so that I can focus on asking different questions to explore deeper into what I’m making. In the end, I chose to explore 4-6 different directions of the same portrait, even though I only finished two portraits. I “failed” many times at how best to communicate visually, but I was learning new things at the time. By sticking with the process and system that works for me, reaching my painting goals was a natural byproduct.

Fail quickly, and learn. User experience leader Jared Spool said this at a UX conference on my birthday last year and I took it to heart. There’s no point to failing fast or often if I don’t learn. And being aware and accepting that I’m failing is not enough. I have to be able to articulate why, what worked and what didn’t. In order to gain that insight, and come to the best possible outcome, I have to experiment with at least two or more different possible solutions. Take everything as an experiment and hold nothing precious. When it came to painting, I tried different color combinations, different surfaces – thick and thin paper, clay surfaces, and different watercolor brands. There were a lot of unsuccessful experiments before I found the right visual language that best communicated what I wanted to say. It was fun and uncomfortable at the same time, but in doing so, I found new colors combinations that I like and new ideas to try for my next portraits.

Document as much as possible because my memory sucks. Often times, I’d learn things in the moment but get too distracted to write some of the details down. Time would pass, and I’d forget some of what I learned, and often the forgotten details would be the most important part of my process. How frustrating it is to forget what you learned and then repeat the same mistakes over and over again. Documentation increases awareness, and consciously help me to break bad habits or form better ones. At a certain point during one of my design projects this year, our communications broke down because our process didn’t empower our team, internally and client-side to make informed decisions. We failed at this before, but why are we failing again? What exactly are we doing wrong that we can fix for the next time? Thinking back, I couldn’t remember all the details that lead us to where we were. It was frustrating but at the same an opportunity to rethink our own documentation process. When it comes to design, whether someone or their mothers like a design or not doesn’t matter as much as whether the design solved a problem we intended it to. What mattered was what worked and what didn’t work. So I wrote down these questions at the beginning of the next project for our team to document as we go along. As we think and work through our process, new ideas would come up so I added another column to record “new ideas to try” that for whatever reason, we couldn’t try them for this project. On a document, I created four quadrants, each containing these 4 questions: “What worked?” “What didn’t work?” “New ideas to try” and “What questions do we still have?” When we do a post-mortem to review the project at the end, we learned so many insightful things from the observations we recorded in the moment. This has become a new approach to learning for me.

Find and understand the problem first before working on solutions. This is an on-going lesson that I keep practicing every year. I trained to be a solutions-oriented designer so I see problems as possibilities and I learned to feel excited about solutions. Good solutions change lives and that’s awesome. But solving a problem without taking the time to really understand it means I’m assuming a lot based on my own experience, and that’s not fair to the people I’m solving for. Or worse, I’m solving the wrong problem and that’s not productive. Understanding problems mean understanding the context and people who are experiencing them and believing in that they hold the keys to the solutions. The best possible solutions involve solving the right problems in the first place and including people’s experiences and context as part of the equation. The more I know, I more I don’t know, and there are beautiful possibilities there. I am embracing understanding problems as much as the process of getting to the best solutions.

Simple and deep, not complex and shallow. When I began my selfie portrait project, I had questions that I wanted to investigate, and I wanted to include other people’s point of views as part of that process. Can I empathize with the person conceptually through a constrained visual language? Are they willing to share themselves and their likenesses to me? I was surprised by the amount of people who wanted to participate, and I was excited about their support and encouragement. I wanted to paint everyone, as fast as possible. I have painted more than 20 portraits overall, devoting to a system of time and constraints of four hours or less with each portrait. However, working with just two portraits this year had taught me more than all the last three years combined. I learned that by working simply, focusing on less, I can see more depth. We think that we are complicated beautiful messes, but our true needs are not that complex. We all want to be understood; to be seen as we see ourselves. The things that are clearest and therefore most impactful/influential are those that understand us for who we are. So, I’m learning to keep things simple in order to go deeper. There are more interesting insights there than in the complex and shallow.

Enthusiasm works! When you expect magic, you will find it! Maybe? What if you enthusiastically expect magic, will you find it? That’s for me to find out in 2017.

It’s January 2, 2017, and this is my documentation of my learnings so far. I will keep going and continue to improve my process so that I can learn to ask better questions in 2017. These are my current, living questions, meaning that I revise them as I go along, as I subconsciously brainstorm answers:

How can I be a better listener so that I can solve for the right problems?
How can I maximize my time experimenting with new materials without being distracted from finishing a painting?
How can I effectively develop a more succinct visual language that is my own so that I can communicate more thoughtfully?
How can I be better at calling out bullshit without coming off as uncaring or not listening?
How can I better apply design methodologies to solve complex problems in regards to new technology that I don’t understand?