Minority Report

In week seven of the Shattering the Meme Novena, we focus on how to stop feeling like a victim.  Overcome feelings of being left out or treated unfairly by looking past the superficial differences and finding the more profound sense of connection that is available.

Do you have a chip on your shoulder because you feel that everybody else is ganged up against you?  Do you focus so intently on how you are different from everyone else (race, sexual orientation, gender, age, experience level) that you forget to notice how much more profoundly you are the same?  The minority meme is rife in creative professions because the criteria for success is so subjective.

If you feel insecure or dissatisfied, it’s way too easy to focus on that sense of isolation and to feel like you are a victim.  And minority status can be defined in many, many ways.  For example, you may feel like the young gun misunderstood by the senior members of your firm.  Or maybe you feel like you are more creative and loose in your work process than your hard-driving professional environment and that you are steamrollered, never getting an opportunity for your ideas to blossom.  Even the “usual”  kinds of minorities, based on race and gender  allow you to feel like you are not in control, thereby absolving you of all responsibility for your own success.  How do you really want the world to see you as a (fill in the blank) minority group, or as a talented creative person with the unique ability to (fill in the blank)?  I would suspect that it is the latter, so how do you stop allowing the former to shape your identity for yourself and others you interact with?

Birds of a feather

It’s important to see what you have in common with others in your workplace, to really work to find others with the unique and unusual traits that you share so that you have something to really bond over.  Even if you work at a firm where the culture is very innovation oriented and your co-workers and superiors are equally committed to thinking outside the box as you are, you will find an even greater affinity and sense of connection with someone who shares your trait for say, using storytelling techniques in the design process.  If you don’t feel that there is anyone you can connect with, can you identify others in your professional community who you can form an alliance or mentorship with?  Find your tribe and draw strength and energy (as well as validation) for the point of view and work style that you contribute to the profession. 

Step outside of the box

The less you define your self as any type of outcast, the less others will perceive you in that way.  Understand that what makes you different is what forms the basis of your identity.  You get to choose how you are perceived and defined by either playing into a stereotype, or playing into your strengths.  It’s critical to know the difference.  For example, I am an introvert.  Introverts are not the least bit shy, but we can seem rather aloof, as we tend to be more comfortable with an outside-looking-in approach to the world.  For many years of my life, I let others (first my extroverted mother, then teachers, then colleagues) make that core personality trait wrong.  I fought to push myself to be more extroverted, which of course, only led me to feel more like an awkward outsider.  Then my path crossed with Dr. John McIntosh, who headed up the urban design program for Arizona State University.  I was a young architect on the Phoenix Housing and Neighborhood Commission and looking to make a difference in my community and John saw that.  He helped me see how I could orchestrate the right collection of people in the room to take action on initiatives, not just talk about doing something.  Even more than that, he modeled unabashed introversion, while being a well respected and influential community leader.  I realized through my connection with him that I could do the work I wanted to do without having to change my personality.

Take a stand

As important as it is not to make yourself a victim when you feel less than connected to a group you work with, I am not insinuating that there is not real discrimination of every stripe going on in the world.  And that needs to be addressed, not ignored.  If looking for common ground is still not breaking the ice, or someone is willing to “play nice” and say things you want to hear to your face, but takes actions that show they view you otherwise, call them on that.  Ask them point blank to explain to you why they are not following through, or why the opportunities you have expressed a desire to achieve seem inaccessible.  Then, listen, really listen to their response.  If you receive constructive advice you can take action on, work with this person to put together a success plan with a timetable.  If you hear a response that creates self-doubt in you, makes you feel embarrassed for asking, sweeps your concern under the rug, or makes you feel inadequate, then your feelings of being a victim may very well be stemming from psychological manipulation called gaslighting (read my detailed post on that) or downright prejudice on the part of this individual.  In that case, you need to call a spade a spade and  leave that situation.

The purpose of looking past differences and finding common, shared traits is to help you feel less intimidated about building a network, finding a mentor and going for your goals big time.  The superstar of design that you admire is still just an designer and had to deal with the same basic challenges as you do every day.  Looking at them in that way, takes away the unapproachable “aura of success” and lets you see how you can best approach them to form a connection.


The theme of week six of the Shattering the Meme Novena is guilt.  Built into our profession is a need to please and to feel responsible for our client’s decisions and actions.

If you find yourself often “made wrong” by others and feel an endless need to overcompensate for your mistakes through self-deprecation and lavish make-up efforts, you are trapped in a cycle of guilt.  No, you don’t get a hall pass to be a screw up, but you do need to recognize a good meme for what it is.  The atonement meme is all about feeling like your efforts are, at their core, inadequate.  Accordingly, any criticism you receive must not only be accurate, but proof of an inexorable flaw you must make up for at every turn.  The education and internship phase of a career is especially ripe for instilling this guilty mindset.  Modeled for us in the profession is the desire to slavishly cater to a client’s every whim.  Trained by our industry to expect perfection, our clients then pick apart our every effort, becoming cranky if we are not always available, armed with answers and willing to take on all of the responsibility for the outcome, even in the areas where we had no control.  And we not only accept it, we feed the meme by looking for ways to overcompensate. 

Your resources have value

Resources include your time and energy, not just the “project deliverables.”  However, we act as though we somehow don’t feel that our fee or expertise has real value, because we keep giving these other resources away as some kind of “value-add” when instead, we should hold the line.  Here’s a great example: You can’t get the user group to meet at all over the next month due to their busy schedules for a project they consider critically urgent to get done ASAP.   Yet, you accept responsibility for getting the client to have their priorities in order.  Obviously, they aren’t willing to make this project the priority they claim it to be by rearranging their schedule to meet with you.  But the meme tells you that you are responsible for their prioritization problem and that it will be your fault that the schedule for the design phase has slipped. So you over-deliver in the form of offering meeting way outside of business hours at a time totally inconvenient to you, when you should have just reminded the client of their self-imposed deadline and asked them to make the choice about whether to meet with you on designing their project or be available for other obligations.

Who really wants this?
You cannot want the project to succeed more than the client does.  Therefore, if they are not willing to make the commitment of their own time and resources, as well as being open to innovation, you will never succeed in forcing it on them.  You will end up selling them on your big ideas, which involve collaboration, then unilaterally be responsible for delivering them.  I can smell the failure of that from here.  The message needs to be communicated pre-design that your process has benefits, and that it requires their full participation to succeed.  To the extent that they don’t engage with you, spell out clear consequences to the project.  No matter what schedule or budget constraints exists, what client wants to waste their limited resources to build something that is mediocre and only partially solves the problem?

Release the guilt
Distinguish between the job responsibilities that are yours and those that are not.  Make sure that others you are working with, both inside and outside of your office, clearly understand this.  Ask yourself why you would feel bad if things that are not your responsibility go astray.  If it is because you fear being unfairly blamed, think about why you are letting that happen to you.  Do you need to have a meeting to clarify your role on the project?  Do you need to fire a toxic client?  Do you need to leave a passive-aggressive work environment?  If it’s just your own perfectionism and need to be a control freak, work on letting go.  See the ways that you can still contribute the things that you are passionate about to the project and focus on promoting those benefits to those working with you.

Shatter the meme:
Doing things because you feel you have to is a losing proposition.  Doing things because they feed your soul and meaningfully contribute to making people better means dropping the guilt complex.  Stop feeling responsible for holding up someone else’s end of the bargain, and trying to make your efforts enough for all parties concerned.  Let your clients and co-workers be meaningful participants in generating priorities and make sure all involved understand their role as a stakeholder in the outcome.  Make sure that the consequences of milestones not being met are also clearly established and agreed upon.  Then relax and concentrate on your role in facilitating the design end of the equation.  Don’t allow others to offload their responsibilities onto you, trigger the consequence if they don’t meet their agreed to obligations.  And above all, don’t allow yourself to feel bad about it.

Swatting Flies

Week five of the Shattering the Meme novena, explores the link between distraction and fear.   We derail our dreams without even realizing what we are doing as we load up our days with seemingly virtuous activities that deplete us. 

Thwack!  How did that extra meeting sneak into your week?  The planning for it is swarming around your head like a bunch of flies, an endless stream of issues to deal with.  It’s bad enough to cope with the constant distractions of a day, the ping of email (thwack), people walking up to your desk (thwack), and crises real and imagined that never stop rearing their ugly heads (thwackety, thwack, thwack, thwack).  All of these tasks add up to distractions that derail us from achieving the things we really value in our lives.  But while swatting all those flies, you might want to notice that you are the one who left open the screen door.

It’s done with the best of intentions (or so we think).  After all, big life goals are, well, big.  They take time to reach.  And today was exhausting.  This week is an endless stream of meetings, in between which are deadlines.  Better to think about what you need to do next week...month...year. Year!  That’s real time we are talking about, and deferring progress on achieving the things that will lead to your professional and personal fulfillment can’t wait that long.  What happens when you don’t make time for the things that will make you happy is that you begin to define yourself by the things that distract you.  The meme of virtuous distraction draws you in with task lists and deadlines, then starts pulling you ever downward in its spiral.  Other people validate this by demanding “responsiveness”  and instant attention to their issues.  The idea of setting any kind of boundaries seems downright unholy.  So instead of doing our life’s work, we spend our time swatting flies.

Business equals avoidance

Chores are one thing.  Departures from your life path are something else.  I want to define chores here as any of the things you have to do in work or life, whether reading your email or attending a meeting, or dropping your kid off at karate class.  Chores that can be delegated should be and the remainder of them done as efficiently as possible so that they do not consume all your time and sap your energy.  Your day itself should be about far more than the to do list, if it’s not, you have crossed the line into distraction.  Distraction is easy.  It gets your mind off of things.  It alleviates the pressure of seeking fulfillment.  It tricks you into thinking you are making progress all the while corroding your soul.  You keep so busy doing all these “necessary” things that you can justify procrastinating on the things that really matter.  I strongly believe that we make time for the things that matter to us and excuses for the things that don’t.  When we are afraid of what it will really mean to take the risks and do the work to accomplish our dreams, we decide that they aren’t nearly as important as all the busywork.  Resolve right now to add more structure to your day so all these duties and expectations occupy a smaller and more concentrated percentage of your time and  won’t keep pulling your attention away.  If you find that you go to the distraction zone when you feel stuck, it’s especially important that you have a routine that doesn’t allow you to run around with that fly swatter.

Stop settling
You go kind of numb inside and start to settle when you are in the business trap. You tell yourself that this is how life is.  You lower your expectations.  And you probably start to like using your fly swatter.  The mind craves action and will take it any way it can get it.  However, you did not become an architect so that you could respond to urgent emails about paint color.  Ask yourself what you would tell a high school student who was interested in majoring in architecture.  If your first thought was to jokingly give your condolences, you have settled.  Fix that by no longer accepting the premise that professional practice is defined by a whole bunch of chores.  Get in touch with why you love being an architect and resolve to do more things related to that.  Every time you think you have to put those activities on hold because you have too much to do, recognize it as fear of the unknown and make it a priority to open your schedule up.  Some of the most successful people are the busiest, and they never let that little fact stop them, do they?

The meaningfulness litmus test
We have explored the meaning of success in this novena, but you can’t be successful if you don’t pursue things that are meaningful.  Being your boss’s right hand might get you on her good side, but the rush you feel from that “attaboy” doesn’t last very long, does it?  Don’t mistake the stress response for actual creative energy, either.  Meaningful work feeds your soul, and leaves behind a trail of accomplishments that build on one another and take you closer to the things you want for your career.   Ask yourself where you want to be in ten years and whether or not anything you did today helped get you there. The things that did are actually meaningful, the rest was a waste of time in the larger context of your life.  Get a handle on your compulsory activities so you can make some space to freestyle.

Shatter the meme:
As creative people, we are often attracted to action and new ideas, but it’s so much wasted effort if you can’t see things through to completion, or lose sight of why you ever started down this path in the first place because you have stopped so many times along the way.  Nature abhors a vacuum.  Your life will fill up with a bunch of activities you didn't choose if you leave the space for them.  Along with those activities will come the expectations of others, and your own need to meet those expectations.  Swatting the flies of distraction can be exhausting.  No matter how many you kill, more will keep buzzing around.  Shouldn’t you redirect your energy in a more meaningful way?