Fulfilling My Dreams, and Saying No Along the Way

I am crying. And I am desperately trying not to smear the mascara I just put on.

I’m emotional this morning (well, more emotional than normal) because a professional dream of mine has been fulfilled: I’ve been published by A List Apart.

I read A List Apart when I was in college and needed to understand the difference between usability and design. I read A List Apart when I started my first full-time job and needed to create my first wireframes.

Today, people are reading Issue 311 of A List Apart and it’s my name at the top of that article. No One Nos: Learning to Say No to Bad Ideas by Whitney Hess. Woah.

Kevin Cornell’s accompanying illustration is kept under wraps until the article goes live. When the page loaded and I finally saw it, saw how perfectly he captured the essence of my message…that’s when the tears started flowing.

A shield and a whip mace. Holy shit.

I believe this is what Oprah calls a “full circle moment.”

In the summer of 2003, just around this time, I sat at my desk, head in hands, trying to decide which career path I was going to walk down. I was entering my senior year of college and thinking about grad school: Master of Arts in Professional Writing, or Master of Human-Computer Interaction. I was double-majoring in both, and now I was being forced to choose.

In my heart, I wanted to be a writer. I wasn’t great at it, but I loved writing more than anything in the world. I loved the research, and the synthesis, and the craft, and the iteration. Newsrooms turn me on. But my parents warned me of a lifetime of pain and suffering and measly paychecks. Was I, a Manhattan girl, really going to spend my 20s at a free newspaper in Tulsa? I had second thoughts.

Having been a gadget freak since the age of 3, the technology sector was always the obvious choice for me. I had taken computer science for all four years of high school, and had been accepted into Carnegie Mellon’s prestigious School of Computer Science. But within weeks of getting there, I hated it. Being in the computer cluster spending hours hunting for a misplaced semicolon just wasn’t for me. I wanted to go out and explore the world, and I wanted to make it better.

When I first learned about HCI, a light bulb went on over my head. It was a calling. Thank God for Carnegie Mellon or I just might never have found it. Yes! I can “make technology more useful, usable and desirable.” That was our HCI program’s tagline. And it fit me to a tee. The research, and the synthesis, and the craft, and the iteration. Still I couldn’t see the parallels at the time.

So there I was, deciding which grad program to apply for, and I was crying. I was furiously searching my mind for a way to combine my love of writing and my love of HCI. Now you’re going to find this hard to believe: it never occurred to me that I could write about HCI. Even at 21, I was sure that the only way to combine writing and tech was to be a tech writer, and I desperately didn’t want to do that. I wanted to write about people. I wanted to write stories. I wanted to write to inspire. And in my mind, traditional journalism was the only way to do that.

And with a mental flip of a coin, I gave it up. I said no to writing and I chose HCI.

Seven years later and I’m crying again. I’m crying because I haven’t thought about that day ever since. I woke up this morning and pointed my browser to alistapart.com and I saw my name at the top of the page. And it all came flooding back. I remembered. I had been heartbroken over having to give up one passion for another…

Today I realized that I never did.

These are tears of joy. These are tears of revelation. These are tears of pride.

I am doing what I love. Both loves.

What a gift. It hasn’t been a straight path, but then again, fulfilling your dreams never is.

Thank you to acquisitions editor Carolyn Wood. Thank you to editor-in-chief Krista Stevens. Thank you to article editor Mandy Brown. And thank you to the entire crew at A List Apart for allowing me to take another wild step forward on this incredible journey.

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  1. says

    Great job on that article, I read it before heading in to the office today… and what do ya know, I was able to apply it practically within the first hour or so.

    oh an congrats on having what I would consider to be the best ALA article art to date. :)

  2. says

    Congrats, Whitney! And thanks for not truly giving up your writing dreams and instead bringing them to bear on topics and information for the Ux/IxD/HCI community.

    Your thoughtfulness, honesty and insights into the practice of making technology better for all have a profound impact.

  3. says

    Hats off to you for not giving up, and for doing the things that you love! You’ve blazed a trail for other UX designers/writers to follow (like me.)

  4. says

    I’ve been going along on a similar track since college. Always was a writer – and everyone thought I *should* do it full-time – but after spending 10 years dipping my toes (ok, up to the mid-thigh) into publishing, I realized that the age of Wharton, Hardy, and Dickens was slaughtered, probably around the inception of the self-help book. If that’s the case, then I’m not sure I can join up to that community, especially if it means bowing obsequiously to Oprah.

    For a variety of reasons, I’ve ended up as a designer and while I’m not ever going to be the best in the world, I think it’s been healthier and much less personal than being a writer. While I’m still flexing my raw, 30-something energy, I think that’s OK.

    Wonderful articles – so glad ALA found you so I could follow too!

  5. Kevin says

    Congrats on the article and keep on writing about UX!

    I remember when I had the light bulb go off about UX (about 14 years ago) at SIGCHI in Vancouver. Everyday I try to find ways to improve my craft, including reading your blog.

  6. says

    Well done Whitney.

    I’m so glad I got this post in my Google reader first, it was even more enjoyable reading the ALA article after reading this one.

  7. says

    I just enjoyed reading your article. Not a word was wasted. In fact, I want to read it again. Congratulations! Now go buy yourself some new mascara. ;)

  8. says

    I am so overwhelmed by all of your support. It’s impossible to convey just how grateful I am. Thank you, thank you. You guys keep me going.

  9. says

    Hmm… I’m thankful you wrote this post. It provides some insightful background to your career that is inspiring to many.

    A mutual friend suggested I speak with you, way back in January, but I hesitated. I didn’t know what I’d say to you, but now I see why he suggested it. I’ve seen you at events, but just stayed sheepishly away. Would you be up for a conversation at the next opportunity? I have so many things I’d love to ask you!

    Many thanks again for the bravery and generosity of your honesty and knowledge.

  10. says

    Great article (again)

    I’m sorry I don’t have a witty title for this blog comment.

    Just read the post and followed the link to the wire frame and started reading about scope creep. Then I realized I’ve read it before. Really great stuff Whitney, I connect with it on a professional level and it’s great to see some one make it through with their dreams. Really glad for you.

    I might have read the about page and saw the photography interest. Check out my flickr if you want. Thanks again and continue helping designers with your work.


  11. says

    > Present the facts and let the other draw their own conclusions.

    I couldn’t agree with this more. It’s so much easier to just lay out the cards and let people double-check their hands: most of the time, this is the least confrontational (affecting the “how” you say no bit you mentioned) and most effective way to come to an informed consensus.

    I’ve also found that, a lot of the time, saying “no” isn’t as organizationally rewarded (as in quality over quantity) as committing to bloody everything and then killing yourself doing it. So, often, people’s unwillingness to say “no” is a cultural issue – something to be mindful of as a consultant.


  1. […] best bit about this mornings’ reading was Whitney’s post about getting published on ALA. I have to say I was surprised this is her first (she’s spoken at An Event Apart and other […]

  2. […] after completely bombing a presentation, I went back to the drawing board and turned it into a hit; I was published by A List Apart; I was approached by multiple publishers to write a book for them; I was invited to Foo Camp. I […]

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