Well, That Was Fast: A Retrospective On My First Steps Entering UX
It’s ten weeks later and my head hasn’t stopped spinning. “Trust me, I need to be in this class” I remember breathlessly telling the General Assembly liaison on the phone. Truth be told I was only 3/4 of the way sure of this statement, but after two years on the wrong path I knew I needed a career where I could be curious, creative, and engaged. I sent in my application for yet another credit card with a 5k limit to pay for this class before I even hung up.
Three years in New York as a starving artist-esque person and I finally think I’ve found something that will stick. I knew UX was creative, collaborative, empathetic, and would find constructive use for my inherent nosiness — so I knew it was where I wanted to be. When I entered my first UX class at General Assembly’s Flatiron classroom I definitely had more confidence in the school than I did in myself — I had little to no idea what I was doing, just what I believed to be the natural interests necessary and a strong desire to change my life up. I hoped they’d wave a wand over me and the rest would settle itself. I remember the instructor writing what we would learn on the board and thinking to myself “Good God, I don’t even know what half of that is.” I remember people asking questions about concepts I’d never even heard of and getting a sinking feeling “Am I in the right place?” But with the constant reassurance that we are all here to learn and by doggedly following every book, video, and website recommendation I was getting, I found my footing.
I had to go hard between working two jobs and freelancing, not to mention shooting extra prints to sell to pay for class, to catch up to what I believed to be an acceptable place. Where I once was rigid about criticism I learned to love feedback. Where I used to be satisfied with the surface I learned to crave getting deep into an idea and finding the unexpected gem. I learned that just because something is unattractive doesn’t mean all is lost. What I found as time went on, was that the most valuable skills I developed in those ten weeks were grit, resilience, and the ability to let go. I know. It sounds like the back cover jacket of an Elizabeth Gilbert novel( I can say this because I know she’ll never read this and because Eat Pray Love was crazy indulgent). But I would wager that most UX professionals would agree with me. You start out with this idea, you love it, its your special thing. You take that little precious baby idea and you put it through the ringer, you expose it to criticism, you chase it through many iterations, you let go of assumptions and concepts that you loved about it, and in my case, in the end it grows to be something completely unexpected. Mine, personally, ended up as garbage.
Upon presenting I learned, after watching presentation after presentation of attractive interfaces and great ideas that there is still a broad gap of space needed for my talents to catch up with my tastes. Well its more like an ocean. But I’ve come to learn that satisfaction for me may not come from a perfect ending — the best feeling for me is knowing that there is lots of work to be done, and being excited about doing it.
I Court and Spark
I wanted to Love New Orleans. I wanted to be moved by the history of the land and the legendary warmth of the people, but fresh off my flight and still in my New York state of mind - I didn’t. I only saw what was wrong, what could be fixed - cracks in the road, old houses with peeling paint, people day drinking beyond their good reason and judgement, the constant warnings not to go into the neighborhoods, travel alone or wear expensive jewelry, the distant strains of out-of-tune trombone music that worked their way into my window late at night, the heady sweet and poisonous smell of white oleander that crept up every fence and rested on the side of buildings. Beautiful and deeply flawed. I didn’t love it because I didn’t understand, and there is no love without understanding.
New Orleans is a place of resilience where the past and present coincide in a way I'd never previously experienced. You can go into a Voodoo shop for a love and prosperity spell and then for an iced latte and free wifi all in the same breath. It's a place where excess is comme d'habitude and you can see it all at once -
After a few days and much chipping away at my personal walls, I was finally able to understand that this was a place of feeling - not to be gathered and dissected - but viscerally felt and enjoyed. The kind of magic and romance people attribute to New Orleans is intoxicating for its lack of perfection. It’s special blend of beauty and melancholy, like the sweet and toxic scent of the oleander flower is what keeps the artists and the spirit here. It's what Ernest Hemingway, Ann Rice, Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote saw. The grit, mystery, levity and heaviness that occupies the city is intoxicating once you stop resisting it.
The last three days of my time in NOLA were days of great luck and uncanny coincidence which my friend Anthony attributes to my exposure to a hundred-year-old oak tree whose Spanish moss draped over my shoulder in the wind - “that tree literally reached out and touched you Alex! It’s a sign!”. In the spirit of not trying to unpack my experiences and overanalyze when I should be living I just let go and said "yeah, you're probably right." And then things got crazy- Starting with finding a neatly folded hundred dollar bill on the ground while I was stepping off the Saint Charles streetcar. Three people ahead of me had walked past it without noticing. I couldn't believe it. Later on, 20$ of that went towards a CD from a music duo playing in Jackson Square. The haunting strains of violin music had reached me from the river side of the park and when I followed the music to its source it turned out to be a violinist that I’d played with in college orchestra. This was my first time seeing him in 6 years since he left Kent State for the air force and now here he was with his partner, a musician, and their baby. Even more unbelievable. the coincidences kept coming, but after that I was sure that keeping track of them would ruin them. By that time I was feeling my way through life instead of living in my head.
II Soul Food
“You all get summa dat good grub while you was outchyea?” says the Southwest Airlines attendant as my boarding pass for my flight back to New York is printing. I can never muster the same boisterousness that I’ve encountered every day from New Orleans locals. That’s just something you’re born with and grow up in. I just smile politely and say “of course”. That’s my way. Although admittedly a little austere, I believe myself to be a soulful person. I recognize genuine people and I appreciate the ones who own every inch of the skin their in without second thought or apology.
New Orleans, Louisiana is a place of the soul. It’s known to have one of the shortest life expectancies in the US, but the amount of living that the people do in that time is more than many of us could touch in a hundred years. All that we call soul food contributes to this. Of course it’s sterling culinary achievements are the first to come to mind - spicy crawfish in broth with corn and andouille sausage, charbroiled oysters bubbling with cheese, warm praline candy studded with pecans, pies, gumbo, jambalaya, red beans and rice, etouffé - rich, spicy, sustaining food you have to take your time to cook and even more to eat - and never alone, and absolutely never without music. Sometimes things are best when there’s no easy way out. The people carry the same warmth, depth, and zest for life.
This was the first time in a while I’d been away from a place where dreams of being unfathomably rich are a shared part of the collective consciousness. New York is my city and I accept it with its flaws, one of which being an overweening material that is felt in every bit of brick, steel, and glass it is composed of. People crave the almighty dollar with a vicious lust because it comes with the promise of a penthouse, untouchable beauty, and access to mythical social strata. I’m not saying that New Orleans doesn’t have its share of luxury apartments - but I found there to be a greater sense of intrinsic value. I never felt pressure to be “cool”. Bars encourage you to put away your phone and talk to the person next to you. When you make eye contact with a person they smile - they might even say hello.
Joy Inside My Tears
I have a history of missing Stevie Wonder concerts. Even though he’s one of my favorite musicians, one of the ones that gets me through hard times and highlights the good times, I can never seem to get it together to see him live. Songs in The Key of Life tour in Madison Square Garden? Too expensive (SHRUG). That time he did a surprise concert in Central Park? Decided to “take a break from my phone” and didn’t get the update. And now, New Orleans Jazz Fest? Flights and concert tickets were twice as much, wasn’t gonna happen. But next best thing? A Secret Life of Plants music and art installation homage to his legendary album? Tickets - affordable. Distance - doable. Party- CANCELED AT THE LAST MINUTE. What on God’s green earth have I ever done to continuously elude this good fortune!?! I’m a sensitive person, so something like this is something that bothers me because I know just how quickly life can change. The people of New Orleans know this too, and continue to live in humbling appreciation.
Hurricane Katrina has long left, but traces of her are still all over. Not in the new and expensive downtown areas that are taken care of by tourist traffic, but in the deep cracks in the sidewalks in the neighborhoods. In the eerie quiet, you can sometimes be met with driving past the not quite recovered Bywater area that meets a strong contrast to the brassy undulation of the rest of the city. Hard times have touched this city and its people, but the persistence of the “Let the good times roll” attitude (MORE)
“I had to move away after Katrina, but I couldn’t stay away for more than a few years. It's home”. Our Uber driver, Frank for instance
Before I even cross over Rue Gilford I can feel the warmth of the scene inside of Maison Publique, a local and revered gastropub, via the window facing the street. The duality is incredible - the the glowing invitation of the bar in front of me through glass and quiet nightfall and a 30 degree wind at my back. Regulars huddled over the bar, laughing, chefs running back and forth in their open-format kitchen, slicing charcuterie, taking kitchen torches to oysters and putting final flourishes on top of caramel pot de creme, people smiling and hugging upon arrival. It’s warm, convivial, charming, and... terrifying.
Oh my god. What did I do?! Why on God’s green earth did I do this?! Oh, that’s right, because I stayed up binge watching travel vlogs and thought “wow, I wish I was the kind of person that did stuff like that”. And now I am. Now I’m the witless American too afraid to try and order food in french and now I’m outside, freezing my fingers off outside of one of Montreal’s best restaurants. The place isn’t even intimidating, it’s lovely; it’s the idea of being in such a lovely place by myself that’s flooding me with inky anxiety. The whole reason I took this trip was to get away from everything and everyone I knew and see who I would be against a new backdrop -What I acted like, what my thoughts looked like without the white noise of outside opinions. Now here I am- New Yorker on the loose in the quaint, quiet streets of Le Plateau and all of the sudden rendered meek and scared and shy. I can ignore a man playing African drums and shouting at me about diaspora at 9am, or even skirt zealots, perverts and extremists on the regular without spilling my coffee- but being present enough to order gnocchi and spend time with my own thoughts - that’s scary.
I don’t think enough of us are actually brave enough to sit down and let our minds turn over without an end point or daily prompt. It’s hard to let the mind exhaust itself of all it’s thoughts - good, bad, ugly, indifferent, until we are left the that humming silence that monks devote their lives to and tech start up dudes and lululemon moms devote 5-10 minutes and maybe a big retreat to if they’re like, really brave. Okay, that was me being trite - in all seriousness, 5-10 minutes in a quiet mind can feel like an eternity. Sorry tech guys and lulu moms.
If I was a tough, adage-spouting boxing coach type I’d say something here like “you come into this world alone and that's how you leave it”. Well, yes, I guess that’s the truth - the truth in hard fluorescent light, but the truth nonetheless. Depending on which way you look at it, this can be one of the greatest melancholies or most profound freedoms of life.
One of my favorite books is “A Spot of Bother” by Mark Haddon. My copy of it is beat up and fraying from being thrown into bags and thumbed through on the train. I remember the main character, George,a stoic man whose mind was slipping out from under him musing to himself in a rare moment of clarity that “At twenty life was like wrestling an octopus. Every moment mattered. At thirty it was a walk in the country. Most of the time your mind was somewhere else. By the time you got to seventy, it was probably like watching snooker on the telly.” I remember breathing a sigh of relief that someone had finally put it into words. Well, at 25 I’m resting right between wrestling the octopus and walking in the country. Imagine that.
I’m walking up Mont-Royal. It’s a gentle, winding road up the mountain. Wet canary-yellow and and halloween-orange leaves stick to the ground and paint the sloping sides in a way both muted and brilliant. Low murmurs in french, the click-and-wizz of bike gears changing, the jangle of collars of dogs in motion, and the air is just cold enough to encourage forward motion to generate body heat.
It’s been a few days now here in a new city on my own and I can evenly say that the nerves have subsided. Attachment to expectation of other people’s reactions has left me - a luxury I rarely afford myself. French, no French, intrigue, dismissiveness, friendliness, brusqueness, I just let it all go now; I forget it as soon as I walk away. I find It’s easy to be this way when things are unfamiliar - too much of your attention is rooted in the sound of the mountain, the color of the leaves, the uniqueness of a quiet city. Back New York, my chosen home where everything has begun to become familiar I find it a little more difficult to feel this fluid. Back in Ohio, the home I was raised in its near impossible because my town is small and everyone is in each other's pockets from the time you board your first school bus. There's a perpetual haze of assumed expectations surrounding familiar places.
I don't know how much time has passed by the time I get to the top of the mountain, but I know I've listened to the same album at least twice through my headphones. Of course, the only reason to travel to such heights is to look back down at how far you've come and see how alien the ground below looks. Ive always loved looking at things from far away, being able to take away the details and just look at how still and solid and fragile everything seems at a distance. From the top of the mountain the city I've been set loose in like a nervous chicken is, in fact, looking pretty sleepy and unintimidating. Maybe I'm closer to the walk in the country than I thought.
Revisiting Forgotten Self
“Alex, you should try watercolors again, and take yourself seriously this time”- My friend Marcus in my college dorm room my junior year at Kent State University. I was surprised at his easy and confident appraisal of the half of a face I’d painted hastily on a paper plate that was taped to my dorm room wall. Although I rarely put his advice into practice, I’d always appreciated knowing that if I sat down and did the work that I could be an artist. It's one of those lazy thoughts that creeps up when I'm doing other things. I occasionally imagine myself surrounded by brilliant watercolors and textural acrylics - but there was always another party, another hang out, another networking opportunity where I might encounter the right handshake that would pull me out of the pit of myself and carry me up the ladder of success and deposit me at that great mythical center-of-the-universe place where all the people who are excellent with people toast to their success. I always did love thinking from time to time, though, that I had a budding talent that, when I chose to shine a light on it, might grow into something worthwhile - after I’ve conquered the social scene.
Fast forward to 5 years later and here I am sitting in the tucked away room I've rented just off of Pampineau for 27$ a night and unwrapping the new watercolor block I'd picked up before the trip - you know, just in case I was gripped by a rush of artistic genius despite my lack of practice, skill, or training. A few streaks of cobalt blue later and any hope of instant genius has subsided and I've dived into this the same way 3 year olds do- but now with the learned consciousness that if I judge too harshly what I'm doing I'll stop doing it at all - and then there will be no growth to speak of. So I delight in watching the colors spread and the paper ripple from too much water, tossing it aside and starting on another. I could never imagine myself behaving so erratically or with such singular -boarding-on-lunatic level focus and childlike brutishness in a classroom or around my peers. Even some of my most treasured and trusted friends don't know the careless animal I occasionally have to turn into. The beauty in solitude for things like this - creative ventures, bizarre relaxation habits, secret behaviors - is that it allows us the space to become the untrained version of ourself that is otherwise kept quiet for the purpose of polite interaction. Alone we can venture to our primordial instincts without a trace of self-consciousness or guilt. Back in New York that part of me is tucked away an uncomfortable amount of the time, as even the most private moments of your life are somewhat public thanks to a necessity for roommates, close transportation quarters, and endless foot traffic. You are rarely without a witness. Thank God for small getaways.
I don't break the kit out again until I'm on my way back to New York. Everyone looking out these train windows looks like an Edward Hopper painting. They’re not trying to, frankly, they can’t help it, gold shafts of sunset light cut through the windows and the moving backdrop of the Adirondacks. I can't tell you how much I love looking at people - admiring the way they move when they think no one is watching, seeing sweet and quickly passing glimpses between couples, furrowed brows over notebooks. I also can't tell you how glad I was that no one sat next to me so I could have those thoughts and - that time to paint to myself.