A few years ago, I hated flying. I'd been deathly afraid of it since I was a kid.
I knew this was a completely irrational fear. I knew the odds: only a 1 in 20,000 chance that anything might ever happen to me in my lifetime. Compared to the odds of dying due to cancer or a heart attack, I had bigger fish to fry.
Flying was something I knew I needed to do, especially as I grew up on the East Coast and have lived on the West Coast for eleven years now. Whether to see family and friends or take off on an adventure, I'd have to fly. But whenever possible, I would try to avoid flying. Even for most vacations, I was content to stay in Seattle or drive to somewhere in the Pacific Northwest.
Last year, I had an epiphany that helped me to better understand this fear, and make some peace with it.
It was on a plane flight two years ago, commuting to Austin to help lead a work session. We were at that fulcrum point in the project, where you start moving from the initial immersion and research into full-on design. There wasn't any more work I could really do to prepare, or try to stave off how most designers feel at this point in the process: a mixture of excitement and fear.
I was staring out the window of the plane for a really long time. Just sitting with the discomfort: my fear of flying, blurring into my excitement for us to get there and start doing our design work.
At a certain point, I realized they were almost one and the same. Excitement, because we were about to create solutions that were going to help people in need. And fear, because we didn't know exactly what we were going to make yet. This fuzziness, in the journey we take when we work in a creative discipline.
When you get on a plane, it's really easy to imagine the journey. Through the magic of technology, you'll be thousands of miles from your home in a matter of hours. San Francisco to Boston. There'll be a crappy in-flight movie. Some peanuts and soda. Germs and crying babies.
My fear about flying was all about the reasons why we might not reach Boston, or Austin, or Madrid. And I realized those are some of the same hurdles that stand in the way of someone who wants to lead a design team.
When you're a design leader, you're the one getting on the plane for the trip and you're the one flying it. But it's not clear if you're going to Boston, Shanghai, Toledo, or some borderland between countries that no one has ever visited. Would you tell someone flying on a plane that's where you're going when you take off? A city that does not yet exist, with an airport that needs to be built while you're in transit.
This is the challenge for a design leader: making awesome s*%t real. You could argue that any designer is a futurist. But the best design leaders that I've worked with, the ones that inspired their teams to go far beyond what they thought was possible, were able to describe a place to travel that did not yet exist and say, "Go there." They didn't exactly know where we would end up. But they knew by attempting to get there, the right destination would emerge from the haze. That excitement and fear blurred together again, as we discovered where we could travel next.
The only risk is that where you're at in a project may not feel like a natural end. You would have to go somewhere new before you had a sense of the destination where you'd arrived.
That is the journey that we all take as leaders, and the vision that it takes to sustain that journey, trip after trip, year after year.
And you'll have the frequent flyer miles to prove it.