Last year around this time, I started following an eating plan called The 4-Hour Body by Tim Ferriss. At the same time, I was feverishly traveling the globe presenting my talk Design Principles: The Philosophy of UX.
Midway through the book, Tim begins a chapter with a quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson that draws a surprising parallel between his philosophy on eating right and my philosophy on designing right.
“Without ambition one starts nothing. Without work one finishes nothing. The prize will not be sent to you. You have to win it. The man who knows how will always have a job. The man who also knows why will always be his boss. As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”
In a few short sentences, Emerson encapsulated exactly why I felt the message of my talk was such a crucial one to tell:
In order to figure out how, you need to know why.
Put bluntly: strategy always outperforms skill.
Purpose makes perfect.
This is the theme that exists across all of my talks, especially the one I’ve been giving this year, What’s Your Problem? Putting Purpose Back into Your Projects.
All the more so, it is the philosophy by which I live my life. I don’t aim to be the smartest, the fastest, the richest, or the first. I aim for wisdom. I dig for the deeper meaning and look for lessons in every experience. I want to know why things work the way they do, not just how to do them (though my boyfriend who has been struggling to teach me how to drive stick would beg to differ).
Best practices in business, just like in life, are shortcuts that are often totally misapplied. If we don’t know the reasoning behind why something works, for whom, and under what conditions, our assumptions will fail us every time.
Emerson is known as the father of Transcendentalism, defined as:
“any philosophy based upon the doctrine that the principles of reality are to be discovered by the study of the processes of thought, or a philosophy emphasizing the intuitive and spiritual above the empirical”
“a [philosophy] based on the idea that, in order to understand the nature of reality, one must first examine and analyze the reasoning process that governs the nature of experience”
This is in many ways the foundation of the User Experience discipline. UX practitioners advocate for understanding the needs of their target audiences before crafting products for them to use. Why? Because each person’s experiences are filtered through their own lens through which they see the world. And in order to create something that matters to them, we must first discover what matters to them and why.
We can never know everything there is to know about each one of our customers, and we can never predict every single one of their future needs and how we intend to meet them. But understanding their attitudes, motivations, behaviors and frustrations helps us to create a sketch of the principles by which they live their lives. And furthermore understanding our team’s attitudes, motivations, behaviors and frustrations helps us to create a sketch of our own principles — and the principles by which we want to run our business.
Emerson died 100 years before I was born, and yet it still seems that we live in a world where medals and awards and diplomas are bestowed upon those who demonstrate superior skill, and not extraordinary purpose.
The prize will not be sent to you. You have to win it. I think Emerson was referring to a very different type of prize than the one our society seems to value most.
My mission is to help companies discover their own philosophy and develop a set of principles to govern their decisions. Not only so that they can be more financially successful, but so that they can be more morally successful, and forge a much deeper connection with the other human beings they wake up every day to serve.
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