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Liminal Butterfly Goo: The talk!
In which I share why I quit my UX job, and what I'm doing instead
Here it is! The transcript and audio from my 2023 IA Conference talk, Liminal Butterfly Goo. Although I've made a few small tweaks to the transcript for clarity and to adapt it to print, you'll probably get the best experience from listening to the audio. If the talk moves you, please do consider telling me; I think there's collective growth to be done here. Cheers!
Liminal Butterfly Goo
In the summer of 2020, my dad began nurturing monarch butterflies. He would walk to the path behind our house, go to the wildflowers, and pluck the caterpillars off the milkweed that he had planted for them. He would take them back to front deck, and there he would put the caterpillars in the enclosure he had built.
Of course, he took photos and he sent them to all of us on the family chat, so we could follow along with the butterflies-in-progress. They would start as caterpillars at the bottom; then, they would climb up to the top, where they would hang ground in their chrysalis that looks like a pea pod, but a little bigger. About 10 days later, you would get a butterfly.
Now, I don't know about you, but I'd never thought much about what happens in that chrysalis, but it's not that the caterpillar crawls in, grows some wings, and comes back out.
No, the caterpillar sheds its skin, becomes the chrysalis, and then, it digests itself. You read that right! It turns into literal goo. All of its component parts separate, and then, from that goo, it reforms into the butterfly that emerges.
Is. That. Not. Relatable.
A butterfly's metamorphosis is what this talk has the title, Liminal Butterfly Goo. The image of the butterfly's chrysalis came to me while I was in the middle of my own transformation.
It is not the transformation I thought I was going to have.
The transformation I thought I was going to have, was, yes, I was going to go on parental leave, and I was going to become a mother. And then, after I came back to work, we were going to hire the first junior researcher who was going to report to me. And I was going be a manager.
That's not what happened. But this story is not about why that didn't happen.
This story is about why I left UX when I did, and how I came to be in this messy, gooey, pile of confusion that I am right now.
So, to do that, I'm going to share with you three insights: the first two are what propelled me into own chrysalis, and the last is helping me to emerge.
Number 1: I am a recovering people pleaser, and I could not heal while I was doing UX.
If you are not familiar with this phrase, here's a partial definition: "A ‘people pleaser’... feels a strong urge to please others, even at their own expense."
"Even at their own expense" is the most important part. A people pleaser will not just let you have the last piece of chocolate cake today. They will let you have it tomorrow, and the day after. They will not only hand it over with a smile on their face; they will hand it over if they don't want to do it; they will do it if they were looking forward to that cake all damn day.
And then they will their resentment will build, because no one thinks to offer them the last piece of chocolate cake.
I found out, that summer of 2020, that I was behaving in this way.
The pandemic gave me lots of opportunities to practice being authentic and setting boundaries. These are the things, among many others, that let us heal from being people pleasers.
When I returned to work, six months after I had my kid, I was all ready to keep healing. One of the boundaries I wanted to set was: "As a UX researcher, I work on research that supports decisions."
To me, this is what distinguishes UX research from academic research. The skills that UX researchers have are ones that help us do a quick study—whatever quick means to you compared to academics—and learn something that will then help a product decision be a little more grounded in reality.
I had this boundary tested when I came back maybe a month or two in, and one team said, "Oh, we're going to launch soon, and we'd really like to have some usability testing done."
And I really focused in on that word, "soon."
I said, "Well, you have three or four weeks before launch. What changes are you planning on making based on the study I'd do for you?"
And they were like, "Oh no, no no no, we want to reassure stakeholders that launch is going to go well."
They were not going to make a decision! So, I got together with my manger, and I told her the story. She agreed that we shouldn't do the study. I went back to the team and said, "Hey, we get it, reassuring stakeholders is one of your primary responsibilities, and that's tough. We're not, however, going to do this study."
And then the next week, I went to the design meeting, and I found out that the designer on the team had done the study.
I was not a manager yet. I was mentoring people, and they didn't have to get my permission to do anything. My colleagues were free to squander their own time. I thought about how, if I was going to recover from people pleasing—and that is doing it in all the rest of my life and my job—it felt like too much.
I also started thinking about how, throughout my career, I kept getting farther and farther from actually doing the thing. I started out as a front end developer, went to UX designer, went to research. I'm now asking a designer to ask a developer to do a thing.
I decided that the next thing I wanted to do, I wanted to make more than I wanted to fix. That's why I chose writing and doing a newsletter.
So that's number 1.
Number 2: If we value money above all else, we can't value people first.
This one came to me thanks to a Carolyn Rouse, who is an anthropologist. She's is from Princeton, and she gave a keynote at EPIC in 2017. Her mission is to answer this question: “How do well-meaning people create unequal systems?”
What she did in her keynote was basically give us a capitalism 101 lesson. I am going to share some of the things she said.
“We think capitalism is a zero-sum game.”
“When it comes to unfettered capitalism, [however], there is a bug in the system: The system needs a pool of exploited labor, a population so dehumanized, that we don't question their treatment.”
Perhaps this recalls the land recognition—of both indigenous heritage and black history in New Orleans—that we had at the beginning of the conference?
“Of course, there are two types of capitalism—," she said. The one that is mostly fine—"(1) [a] simple exchange of goods, and (2) the rational, bourgeoisie capitalism, where people essentially own the labor of others.”
“…in order for there to be a wealthy group of people, there need to be poor.”
Now I knew about both of these things—our country's history of oppression and our culture's capitalism—but I had never really put them together in my mind. I didn't study this in college. And it's definitely not part of the high school curriculum in the US.
I was enraptured by Rouse's talk, but it wasn't until later that I started having this set of logic in my head: If capitalism requires exploited people and UX wants to help people, are UX and capitalism inherently opposed?
Oh, buddy, I don't know the answer to this problem. This is part of why I'm in a chrysalis right now.
But I think it is possible that I was drawn to IA and UX because I have always unknowingly been an anticapitalist activist.
And more than that, I'm an incompetent one! I didn't know what I was trying to counteract.
At the beginning of my career, I just thought that people were kind of forgetful, and I thought that if we did this UX thing, people would notice and it would catch on. And that has been mostly what's happened, I think. We've seen that.
But there's always these extra roadblocks. There are these parts where you're thinking, "This shouldn't be as hard as it is." And I'm starting to wonder if this—the opposition of UX and capitalism—is why.
These are the two realizations that got me here: People pleasing and, apparently, I'm anticapitalist.
Here's what's getting me out.
Number 3: Before, work provided me with purpose; now, I can find purpose in community.
What does yoga have to religion for Americans? If your answer is maybe it is religion, no, you would be wrong. And so was Carolyn Chen. She's a sociologist out of Berkley.
She wanted to figure out where people were going for what religion used to give them fifty years ago. Chen defines religion as providing the things that "fulfill their needs for identity, belonging, meaning, and purpose."
When she went to these yoga studios, she found out that she had it backwards. People were coming to yoga to support the thing that was giving them purpose. And that thing was work.
So, she went where she knew she would find the workaholics; she went to Silicon Valley.
This is what she found: "For tech workers these days, work consumes so much of their lives that it’s in work that they find their identity, belonging, source of meaning, and purpose in life."
When I finally left my job in January 2021, I really felt this. Because even though I had been living in St. Louis for two or three years after leaving DC and working remotely, I was still getting most of my social satisfaction from work, from my coworkers and these people who I loved and worked together.
When I did quit, and I had this infant, I didn't have anyone to even consider putting in my bubble. Building local community was what I was going to be doing during my parental leave. I had planned on it!
But now, three years later, I'm finally getting to build my community in St. Louis. I get to have coffee with parents! My kid gets to play with other kids, and I'm volunteering for an organization.
When I am doing each of these things, I keep coming back to what I said about make, don't fix.
It would be so easy, for example, to come barging into this environmental organization of amazing humans who have been doing it for 10 years. I could have come in, and been like, "Hey, we're gonna do some facilitated workshops; we're gonna do some card sorts; we're going to figure out what we're all about."
And instead, I'm trying to be a little more humble. Instead, I'm trying to be an equal participant with my fellow volunteers. I use UX to understand our work, but not to get them to understand themselves. I did a card sort myself, so that I could better understand what we were doing.
It turns out, this is Carolyn Chen's recommendation. The people in her study who were grounded and who were not only basing their purpose in work—they had something else that was more important to them. Sometimes it was religion, but sometimes it was just people around them who they loved and who were more important than getting the deadline met.
Chen says that "We can stop worshiping work by choosing to workshop something else." By worship, she just means what do you dedicate yourself to: What's important to you?
Relishing and emerging from my chrysalis
These are the three insights that I've had, and this is why I'm a puddle of goo.
I've been recovering from people pleasing; I'm discovering what it means to be anticapitalist; and I'm finding purpose in community.
I used to think that my pause was a failure, and there are still moments when this liminal time feels pretty shitty. I miss that imagined research team that I was going to build.
But I also think that this experience was a gift. I think I would rather be in the now, with all its complications and its panic attacks and its hard times, knowing that I am getting closer to something I really want to do, than doing the thing before that was burning me out.
Pauses are natural. We need to listen to our doubts and find meaning in them, so we can become the butterflies we choose to be.
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