On Being Real

So here we are, the end of another month. Once again I crack open WordPress and ask myself: What’s worth writing about this time? What do I care enough about to spend time assembling words and pictures on a screen for others to read? And what will others find valuable enough to invest their time and attention?

Design, information design, communication, understanding, visualization, creativity, and other professionally-rooted topics get plenty of air time here, and a few greatest hits have already emerged. Occasionally I’ll share some more personal reflections, but alas, no greatest hits there. At this very moment, however, I find myself shooting down virtually every idea that comes to mind:

me: Another information design rant?
inner critic: Please, haven’t they had enough already?

me: How about one more visual thinking post loaded with drawings?
inner critic: Kinda clickbaity at this point. 

me: Maybe some fiery commentary on the perils of technology?
inner critic: Yeah, sounds like every fifth tweet in my tweetstream…

me: There’s always something to say about design and designers, right?
inner critic: Everybody’s saying something about design! Haven’t we hit peak design?

I haven’t lost all confidence in my ability to write anything of substance (although I am completely comfortable tearing apart my own work). It’s that I’ve become too concerned with being relevant and writing what I think others would actually find interesting, which is fast becoming a moving — and shrinking — target. I’m so preoccupied with tackling hot topics in my fields of interest and practice that I’m not writing about the stuff that’s really on my mind: the messy, unpleasant issues that always linger in the back of my mind. Why steer clear of them? For fear that they deviate too far from my usual repertoire and, consequently, may alienate whatever readers I have.

Why would anyone want to read about any of this here?

Dealing with life’s hardships

I’ve had some tough things to deal with over the past 7 years. Despite support from family and friends, it was up to me to do most of the heavy lifting of finding answers and getting things sorted out. Why do we always have to struggle to make sense of difficulties such as loss, financial instability, loneliness, medical emergencies, and disasters? Why do so many of us have to start problem solving from scratch when we could learn from all those others who’ve endured the same things and emerged stronger and wiser? Can’t we ease the burden for one another somehow and share our “best practices in times of crisis”? 

Addressing social invisibility and neglect

It troubles me to see people left out and left behind in my own neighborhood and broader community: the elderly, the needy, the mentally unstable. Ignoring these human beings and going about our business won’t solve anything (is it really “not my problem”?). I want to do something with the skills and capabilities I possess, but I haven’t invested myself in better defining the problem or finding solutions. There has to be a productive way to move beyond recurring feelings of guilt and lame excuses for not doing anything. How can I dig into this topic further and work towards meaningful action for myself and others who are concerned about this and want to do something too?

Living less wastefully

I drive a car that consumes resources and releases pollutants. I live in a house that is expensive to heat, cool, power, and maintain. I throw out way too much stuff that isn’t recyclable and ends up in landfills. I find it harder to draw the line between necessities and luxuries, reusables and disposables. The systems in place where I live make it hard to live a low-impact, waste-minimal lifestyle, and getting to that state is enormously difficult as I depend on wasteful systems like supermarkets, retail chain stores, and local energy and sanitation service providers. I (rather, we all) could be doing much better, but how?

Total downers, and way off-topic! But maybe there’s value in taking side trips into unconventional territory.

I’m all for focus and consistency, as well as providing some light and digestible content, but the risk of clinging to safe, repeatable successes that (usually) generate social buzz is that things get stale and flat after a while. Even the design of most websites is too clean and pixel-perfect. I question personal sites and social media accounts that are too good to be true: the Swiss-clock content scheduling, the effortlessly engaging writing style, the impossibly perfect photos of the good life, and the stream of always-fresh, primo content. It’s like they’re projecting some version of the Wizard of Oz — the Expert, the Scholar, the Thought Leader, the Tech Whiz, the Cool Hunter — because the real man or woman behind the curtain is just too… real? Too bad, because that’s the person I really want to know about: the one who’s hustling like crazy behind the scenes to just keep it all together!

I wish we were more honest with each other in the outlets where we choose to express ourselves. That doesn’t simply mean being blunt in our opinions or candid about our views in any current arena of debate. Nor does it mean being explicit about the details of our lives and putting it all out on display. It means occasionally going off-script and sharing a bit of our common, ordinary human-ness: the uncertainties, mistakes, problems, and questions that permeate our existence but so quickly get squelched by our own internet censors for exposing too much of who we are or threatening our social reputation. Granted, moments of “realness” might not be for everyone, but they can potentially spark unexpected conversations that lead to new insights and understanding. 

Who knows? I may test out one of the “downer” ideas above in a future post…

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