Address to Students at Sri Balaji Society

Hi! Thank you for having me over today to talk to you. It is great to talk to you all. And while I’m a lot of people have been coming to talk to you over the last months, I’m don’t know how many designers have come. Well, I’m Navneet Nair. And I am a product designer. Specifically, a Software Product Designer. I lead the design team at PhonePe and before that I have worked with companies like Ogilvy, Yahoo and Google. I got into Software Product Design about 20 years ago. This was long before people really thought about Software Product Design and User Experience as a career. So, looking back, it may seem that I had a head start. But, to me, a lot of it looked like things were happening by chance.

But when I look back, I realise that there were some patterns at play. And these are the patterns that I want to talk to you about today.

I never wanted to become a UX designer. That is not saying much. In fact, when I was growing up (and this is in the 1980s) There wasn’t even a job profile called User Experience or Software Product Design. I would urge you to think about this a bit more. Some of the jobs most of you will get into after you graduate may not have existed till maybe a couple of years ago. And some jobs that are around today, may not be lucrative or exisit anymore.

New job roles are getting created every day and old ones are losing relevance. As we speak.

In fact, when I was young, I used to collect stamps, and to me my dream job would be something that would let me be around stamps all the time.

There was really a time I wanted to be ahmmmm, a postman.

By the way, that reminds me, when was the last time anyone saw a postman on the road? I’ve not seen them for at least a few years now. Luckily for me, I never stuck with the plan of becoming a postman for long. To be honest, I hardly stuck to any plans at all.

And I would recommend you too make plans as flexible as possible. Just remember what John Lennon said – “Life is what happens to you, when you are busy making other plans.”

So how did life take me on this path, you may ask.

My first real interest was in the sciences. Especially space. I was fascinated by Carl Sagan and the series Cosmos. Most of you would be more familiar with the Neil deGrasse Tyson version of the same show.

But this love for space and an interest in mechanics and physics motivated me to try and pursue a career in Aeronautics. However, when the time came, I failed to get in. Now this is not one of those inspirational stories of how people tell you that you should try and try again till you succeed. No, I’m not one of those guys. I just took whatever closest option I had in front of me. At that point, it was Mechanical Engineering.

However, about a year into Engineering, I realised that my heart was elsewhere. I wanted to create stuff. And I could not see myself doing that as a Mechanical Engineer. Now, I’m not saying that there are no creative jobs in Mechanical Engineering, I was just not aware of the possibilities at that point.

However, there was a shiny object in my radar. I had a cousin who worked in advertising at that time. And through him I got a peek into the creative and glamorous world of advertising.

I wanted to try my hand in advertising. Specifically, copywriting. And rather than wait the four years to finish my degree, I took the easy way out. No, I did not drop off. I started making posters for college events and during vacations took up internships with advertising agencies.

In software development, we have a concept called the ‘Minimum Viable Product’ or an MVP. This is a stripped-down version of the product that you release to a small audience to test out the feasibility of the actual product. It is a low risk and low-cost way to test the waters.

Just like that, internships are MVPs for your career. You should be using them to test the water and see what works for you. People today use internships as a way to keep score, so that you can add it your resume. Don’t do that. Take up as many internships as possible with some of the best mentors you can get a chance to work with. This will tell you if that particular job or career is something worth pursuing for you.

And even if you love your internship, my advice is to finish your course. Unless of course you are 100% sure you have the next Facebook idea and can execute like Mark Zuckerberg. Well, at least, I finished my degree, and it helped me later on when it came time for me to apply for my masters.

So, looking back, one of the things that stand out for me, during my time in college, was the courage to experiment. And college is the best time in life where you can freely explore and experiment. Try to do this as much as possible.

Now did explore a lot during college, and still managed to finish with fairly good marks. But then I had already made up my mind to join an advertising agency. So, I did not apply for any engineering jobs instead headed out to drop a few resumes to some of my shortlisted advertising agencies. And since I was applying to advertising agencies, I had to make sure that my resume stood out.

For that I, created a resume that looked like a donation box with the headline ‘Contribute to the brain drain’. I dropped it at a number of advertising agencies -this was before there was email, so I physically went around Mumbai to advertising agency offices to drop these boxes off. Must have looked like some sort of scamster, right?

It caught the attention of a creative director at FCB-Ulka and I was offered a job as a copywriter.

I loved it at the advertising agency. The fast paced and glamorous life was addictive. I was working long hours and totally loving it. I also started progressing fast. Apart from winning awards one of my dreams was to work with Piyush Pandey. And in four years I found myself working as a Senior Copywriter at O&M. On the outside, it looked like my life was moving according to plan. But it really was not.

You see, in the year 1995, the Internet was launched in India. And this was also the time that I got access to it at my workplace. I was totally fascinated by the possibilities that opened up. Internet in those days was fairly rudimentary. However, the potential was evident even at that point. There was the web browser named Mosaic that I used to access a site named Yahoo! Little did I know at that point, that sometime in the future I would be working for Yahoo!

One of the things that changed the course of my life completely, was a software released by a company called Macromedia. It was called Flash.

You see, in those days, bandwidth was limited. And most webpages were made up of text with small images. Animation, if any, were only in the form of jerky animated gifs that looked like crap.

Flash changed all that. Suddenly it was possible to deliver beautiful and smooth vector animation in a fraction of the bandwidth. As a creative producer, I could see that this was a game changer.

I downloaded a one-month trial of Macromedia Flash on to my old Pentium computer. I played with it for a month creating amazing animations. There was no YouTube those days, so when someone said they were self-taught. It really meant self-taught. At the end of the month, I had learnt enough but not everything. I wanted to keep playing with it. But I knew I would have to give the trial up. I could not afford the software. I earned what – Rs. 4000 per month!

Moreover, buying it online was not something that was possible those days. At least, not in India. So, I did what anyone else in my position would have done. No! no! it did not involve anything illegal. I kept the computer on – I did not shut it down.

And I used the software for a day more, expecting that maybe tomorrow I will get a pop-up saying that my trial has expired. It did not happen. I kept working and gave it a day more. But the next day the trial was still working. And the next as well. This went on for at least a month more. Enough for me to get a good hang of the software. Flash did become an important part of the Web 2.0 revolution.

My foresight served me well.

The web was nowhere mainstream at that time and I had no way of working in an industry that did not exist. So, by working on weekends, I taught myself how to build websites using HTML and Flash. And, I took every opportunity to create websites for the clients as side projects. This gave the opportunity for the agency to look as if they were in tune with the latest technology and at the same time gave me the opportunity to work on real world problems.

This, you see, is another pattern that has helped me in life. The capacity to constantly course correct.

And this requires both agility and flexibility. These are both traits that will help you in the long run as well.

You see, with this background, I joined O&M in the year 1999 and was working on print and TV advertising with some of the best ad folks in the country. But I knew the immense potential that the online space held. So, I took a tough decision and quit the lucrative job to pursue a Masters in Multimedia Design. A completely new field. And I decided to pursue it in a country that very few people went to study in those days. I went to Australia.

I would love to say that this was a carefully planned strategic move. But that would be lying. I left a well-paid and sought-after job on a whim that this is the technology of the future. I went to study a course that was started just one year before in a country that was not popular for students in those days.

Now, this was a stunt, a gamble, that paid off. But while it was a gamble, I did have some safety nets in place.

I had experience and skill that I could always revert to and I was carrying forward some of the value that I had created by working in advertising. I had simply transformed it.

When we think about our career, we are often inspired by people who passionately move into a career of their choice and make it big. On the outside, my career might also look like that. But that is not true. Before I made my move from Engineering to Advertising, I had done a lot of groundwork to make sure that I would like the work and had developed enough basic skills that would allow me to perform well in the new position. I did the same when moving into design.

Thinking a few steps ahead in planning your careers is always a good move, but never let the plan stop you from achieving your goals. As Dwight Eisenhower said – “Plans are nothing. Planning is everything.”

Also, when you read the lore, you will come across stories of people who moved lock stock and barrel to follow their passion and achieved success. But remember the media will highlight the stories from a few outliers. This is not always the best strategy. Also, in order make the story look more interesting, sometimes the authors will deliberately leave out all the hard work they would have put into making the move successful.

So, the main pattern I see in this part of my journey is to be stubborn about your vision but be flexible about your methods and how you get there.

How does one go about building this vision, you may ask? One simple way is to ask what your own strengths are and how can you use that to help fulfil an unmet need.

For example, my strengths were in combining design, technology and communication. The unmet need was there in the software industry where all these three needed to come together to create intuitive interfaces.

But what about passion? Follow your passion is not really sound advice. You see passion is not inherent in you. You are not born with a passion for music. The passion is in fact a measure of your intrinsic motivation.

As for intrinsic motivation, according to Daniel Pink, that is a combination of three things. Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose.

Mastery comes with being good at what you do. Autonomy comes with being the one in control of your output. If you are able to fulfil unmet need, the chances of you being in control of your output is very high. Which leaves us with the last part. Purpose.

It is more important to find your purpose in life than to look for passion. We need to be aware of our purpose every moment in life. But then how do we find our purpose in life.

One way is to use the Japanese technique called ‘Ikigai’. Ikigai, in Japanese, means ‘The reason for being’ and it is an intersection of what you love, what you are good at, what you can be paid for and what the world needs.

Now I would love to say that I found my ikigai early in life, but the truth is that even today I’m trying to find the balance between these four factors. With every correction I’ve made in life I have come closer, but true balance has always been elusive.

When I decided to pursue my master’s in design, I was doing it because I loved designing and creating, and I was good a technology. So, multimedia design seemed like the right option for me.

Soon after graduating, I had established myself as an expert in the Flash community and was discovered by a start-up that was building a product in flash. That told me that there are people in the world who needed what I was doing and were ready to pay me for it. That in one way led me to my Ikigai, though to be frank at that moment I did not realise it.

However, I feel, we should not be too worried if we do not find our life purpose immediately. Give it time and you will find it. However, we need to develop one quality. Self-awareness.

This is something that Simon Sinek uses in his purpose discovery technique called “Find your Why”. It uses people and experiences that have inspired you to come up with a purpose statement.

So, in life, paying attention is very important and determines the quality of your life. As the father of modern psychology, William James puts it– “My experience is what I agree to attend to”

But more importantly, put this self-awareness into action and find your purpose in life.

This brings us to the question – How can we build our attention? This is what the core teachings on mindfulness help us develop. I had the very good fortune of being exposed to mindfulness practices at a very young age. And while I did practice it for a few years, as I grew up, other habits ate into my meditation time and I found myself forgetting all about it. Till I had a bit of a rude awakening.

Stress and related health conditions had started to take over my body and I found myself taking the practice up again. It started with small 10-minute sessions about 20 years ago which have now become a regular habit. I don’t start the day without my regular meditation session and take at least one annual 10-day meditation retreat.

This has helped me develop attention; however, I would not say it has been in the right direction all the time.

At Google I used to work in the Social team and the product I worked on was called Orkut. Apart from some older folks, not many of you may remember it, but before Facebook, Orkut was the biggest Social Network in India.

Now, as the designer of the product I needed to know how the product worked so I spent a lot of time on it. I also spent an inordinate amount of time on the competing products. I was, to say the least, a social media junkie.

If any of you have watched the Netflix Documentary ‘Social Dilemma’ you know how addictive this can be. Interestingly, I was designing these tools and was well aware of the tactics that we used to keep users hooked to the site, however on a sub-conscious level, I was falling prey to them as well.

However, this was not my first exposure to this issue. I have always been an active creator on the internet and have had a blog running since the year 2000. When you have a blog, there is a large amount of time you spend creating content for it. But there is an even larger amount of time that one spends promoting it. This inordinate focus on the non-core part of the work is a time waste. It takes attention away from activities that can enrich your life and career.

Today I have some strict rules about devices and apps. I have uninstalled most of the social media apps on my phone and keep myself logged out of all of them. This additional hurdle of having to log in before using it, stops me from checking the sites often. Also not having the app installed on the phone means there is no constant barrage of notification.

In fact, each notification that you attend to, disturbs your flow and it can take up to 20 minutes to get back into the flow. This is highly ineffecient. Turn off those notifications, and you will realise that the world does not want to get those instant replies to the Facebook or WhatsApp messages. And the world will not fall apart if you don’t know how many likes your Instagram post got in the last hour.

Apart from that, during work time, I have an app that bocks out distraction and only allows it during a strict break time. The world really does not care to hear from you. So, it is best to reach out only when you have something important to say.

Instead use the time to invest in something more engaging and meaningful.

There are two types of work that one can engage in. The first is shallow work. This is non-cognitive, logistical or minor duties performed in a state of distraction. The other option is deep work. This is professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.

In today’s economy, more and more of the shallow work is being done by computers and robots. As we speak, there is less and less opportunity to earn from shallow work. All those jobs are disappearing.

Instead we should focus our efforts on deep work.

However, if we do not know how to engage in deep undistracted work, when the opportunity comes, we would not know how to perform them.

So, it is really important how we examine our relationship with work. Do we see it as something that we can perform while being distracted or is it something that is more meditative?

The irony of the situation is that, the environment around us, right now, is the least suited for this kind of work and that is why the few who would be able to master distraction and improve their output will be the ones who would make progress.

However, output is not the only measure of progress and what really matters is outcome. How we control the outcome is by having a clear set of values and purpose that drives us.

This brings me to a summary of all the patterns we observed

  1. Now is time for you to Explore and Experiment: Use your time in college to do this and get the most out of this experience.
  2. Develop Foresight, Agility and Flexibility. All of these are states of mind that can be cultivated. Nothing is inherent in you and you have the potential of achieving anything.
  3. Be stubborn about goals, not how you achieve them. While goals are important, just because you encounter a minor roadblock, it should not deter you from it. Neither should you be so overcome by the problem that you stop making rational choices.
  4. Engage in Deep Work that is engaging and meaningful. Reduce distractions is life as much as possible.
  5. And finally define you values and purpose. This is a lifelong process. Keep at it

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