This is Your Brain on Grad School

I think its safe to say that almost everyone who was alive in the 90s remembers the “This is your brain on drugs” PSA where the woman cracks an egg into a hot skillet and we watch in horror as our poor brain is cooked to a pulp. Replace the word “drugs” with “graduate school” and you essentially have the same idea.

This past week has been a dizzying string of deadlines, deliverables, lectures, and exams. Hardly a month in, I was already feeling the same level of intensity that I didn’t feel until finals time last semester. My biggest priority became checking as many things off of my to-do list as possible. The more and more I did this, the less joyful and inspired I felt.

This changed when the other day I was flipping through an old issue of Marie Claire. No, I was not leisurely absorbing the latest spring fashions (if only!). Instead, I was finding images that would become part of an interactive products assignment. While my primary goal was to find images of vintage women’s fashion, my eyes stopped when I turned the page and saw a LifeStraw accompanied by the ostentatious title 6 Simple Ways to Save the World.

Having exposure in the nonprofit and development sector, LifeStraw was nothing new to me. Why, though, was it in Marie Claire? The brief article went on to describe incredible, simple innovations for promoting positive change in the lives of women and girls around the world. In addition to LifeStraw, it highlighted Q Drum, clean cook stoves, a cervical cancer screening test with vinegar, natural pads for schoolgirls, and rural birthing kits.

I sat for a moment and took the article in. As I looked at the pages, I suddenly remembered why I wanted to be an industrial designer. These products were not new to me. In fact, I remember being just 18 when I first learned about Q Drum. But these products were significant to me for a range of personal and professional reasons. Revisiting them in Marie Claire was a wake up call for me, aggressively reminding me why I was here in Atlanta. These were the i-pods of the development world, and the preeminent example of the kinds of products I wanted to design. Being a part of the global development community has always been a goal of mine. I won’t hide the fact that I am an idealist, nor will I suppress my desire to make truly impactful designs that will improve the lives of women and girls, globally (as goody-goody as that may sound).

I still have a long way to go, however, and my current skill set will be of no use to anyone until I put in the time to work on it. Seeing this article was a breath a fresh air, and the jolt of inspiration I so desperately needed to keep moving. So, while I may not be ecstatic about every assignment, and there might be some nights that I want to pull my hair out, I need to be conscious about putting things into perspective and remembering my end goal.

Object Permanence: Associating Nostalgia with Object Value

In January of 2008, I bought my very first computer. It was a white MacBook, and I had been saving waitressing tips for months in order to pay for it. It was arguably the most expensive thing I had ever purchased. I was entering my first semester of college and I knew couldn’t show up to the first day of school without a shiny new plaything.

Seven years later, to the date, I found myself purchasing my second MacBook. This time, however, the $1500 price tag seemed like chump change compared to my student loan debt and surprisingly high credit limit. The employee at the Apple store was beaming with excitement over my purchase, exclaiming, “Oh, how exciting! Are you not so excited to get home and set this up?”

I appreciated her enthusiasm, truly, but there was something oddly bittersweet about the whole experience. Granted, I now had the latest and greatest MacBook Pro. It had a retina display, fancy interface features, and more ram, guts and glory than I knew what to do with. But as I got home and plugged my Time Machine into my new computer, I couldn’t help but feel a little sad staring at my first MacBook now relocated to the corner of my living room.
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How often is it that we own something for seven years? Cars? Technology? Clothes? There are very few things I have owned for as long as my Mac. The past 7 years of my life have been incredibly transformational, filled with the highest highs and lowest lows and little consistency in between. So, when an object, such as a computer, has served as one of the few common denominators in my life, it seems natural that I would form an attachment to it. Right? I wrote term papers on my Mac, watched movies with my friends, emailed far away crushes and lovers, and procrastinated on Buzzfeed. My MacBook was an undeniable fixture of my life. It housed my creative writing, my art, my favorite cooking blogs—all of the things that made me…me.

I remember a few years back reading an article by the president of Patagonia. In the article, he spoke at length about the importance of investing in quality products. He argued that it was critical to consider the longevity of an object’s life, while also weighing the ethics behinds its production, and the quality of its material. When we do this, he stated that we would be more likely to financially invest more, and also be less likely to dispose of them thereby contributing less to the global waste stream.

I found a significant amount of validity in his argument. In fact, as a burgeoning industrial designer, this is one of the ideas that I grapple with the most. When the success of my career relies on making desirable things, how do I ensure that I make quality goods consumers will value and not merely discard for the next best thing? How do I, as a designer, make my profession’s equivalent of the MacBook Pro—and object that can last over seven years, and be valued not merely for its function but its significance in the users daily life.

As my Time Machine sync finished, I placed on the Two Sisters Cafe sticker I had been saving for a new computer since I went to visit my brother in Alaska this past August. It was the first step in making this new machine my own. I don’t know how long I will have this new computer. Nor can I say what the next seven years of my life will look like. I can only hope that this machine will stay with me for as long as the first one did, and that I hope the next seven years are as blessed and transformative as the past seven have been.

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What’s in a Name? That Which We Call and ENTJ

There seems to be an innately human fascination with the idea of putting ourselves into categories. From the time we are little, we take quizzes and assessment to justify our behaviors or bring clarity to problems. When we are in high school, we take career aptitude tests that are supposed to map out the rest of our professional lives. Buzzfeed is always there to tell you “What Famous Ginger is Your Secret Best Friend” or “What Beyonce Song are You?” Identity is so much of who we are, so taking 5 minutes to fill out a questionnaire that will put into words the traits we know we possess but are unable to articulate seems like a small price to pay for clarity and self actualization.

It comes as no surprise, then, that on the first day of my Professional Practice course, we were told to take personality assessments. The first was a Meyers Briggs personality assessment, and the second was a design skills assessment.

I had taken Meyers Briggs tests many times before and had always been told I was an ENTJ. I was proud of this. ENTJs were no nonsense, executive leaders. We were the bosses and the visionaries, and I enjoyed being held in the same esteem as Madeleine Albright, Bill Gates and Katherine Hepburn. But to my surprise, this quiz told me I was an ENTP. Talk about an identity crisis!

As I began to research the traits of an ENTP, however, I came to find an alarming amount of attributes which I had known to be true about myself prior to this test. For example, a common theme is the love of verbal sparring. We could debate about anything, and love to debate simply for the sake of debating. Words are our weapons, and we are constantly looking for ways to gain information in an attempts to better equip ourselves. ENTPs are also quick decision makers, processing a large amount of information in a short amount of time to make decisions based on logic and gut intuition. Because of this, many ENTPs are often politicians, comedians, and the hybrid political satirists such as John Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Knowing that I could now cozy up to Stephen Colbert made me rest a little easier.

What, then, does this knowledge have to do with my course work? The course is focused on contextualizing ourselves as designers in the current work force. What about our personality will be advantageous, and what will be detrimental. As positives, I was happy to know that the ENTP type validated my quick thinking, knowledge driven, and innovative approach to problem solving. All of these, as I have come to learn, will be hugely advantageous in a design setting. These same traits, however, can all contribute to the ENTPs downfall if left unchecked. Our overactive minds can be interpreted as scatter brained, our propensity to debate comes across as argumentative, and our passion for our ideas can come off as an inability to compromise or insensitivity. Just as with the positives, the negatives traits have also been common occurrences in my personal and professional life. To mitigate this, I have found it most affective to be (1) conscious of their existence and (2) constantly working to redirect these tendencies in a positive direction.

The second assessment was a self evaluation of our skills based on a list of core competencies outlined by IDSA. For each competency, we had to check if this was a strength or area for improvement. The items ranged from traditional design roles, such as “Physical model making” and “3D rendering,” to managerial roles, like “Is able to leverage networks” and “Advocates for teams’ recommendations.” With a few years of post college experience under my belt and a slew of part time jobs throughout my life, I was please with my assessment. I felt as though I possessed a large portion of the cognitive, communication, management and leadership skills. Those I selected as needing improvement I had either had a little exposure to or were familiar with the concept. Ironically, I found the highest percentage of my weaknesses lied in the creative boxes.

While I have a background in fine arts, I am quickly learning that an aptitude for oil paints is very different than being able to design a widget from start to finish. This assessment made me painfully aware of my novice level, and the skills that I still need to learn that will make me a marketable designer. Despite this, the assessment also served as a tool to push me to better these skills, and was motivating in a nagging mother sort of way.

So, what is in a name? How much weight should we give to assessments such as the above. We cannot view these results as absolute dogma and let them stifle our process, or give us license to rationalize poor decisions and continuous weakness. Yet, we also should not write them off completely, and rather respect their validity and use as a tool. So, like many things in life, we have to find the happy medium. We have to use these tools as guidelines, allowing them to add clarity to our decisions, but not let them dictate every choice we make. Because, people are not static, and we can always take actions to lessen our weaknesses and accentuate our strengths.

For a good resource on deciphering Meyers Briggs types, might I suggest 16Personalities.

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