I told myself I was a firefighter. I was hiding from my work.
For much of my career I told myself I was a firefighter, fixing problems that nobody else could. I would get contract gigs as a developer, and web agencies would hire me to fix a content management system or finish a messy project.
For example, in 2007 I spent 6 months working on a demo website that was supposed to showcase the “future of corporate reporting” for the digital arm of a print-focused design agency. They’d promised the CEO that the demo would be ready by now—complete with a man “walking” across the website explaining its features (I wish I was joking)—but they kept getting stuck. It was urgent, so they found me and I spent a ridiculous amount of time managing the project, writing code, and wrangling stakeholders. Eventually we launched the site at a fancy event: I’d put out the fire, even if it took 5 times longer than planned.
Of course, the demo didn’t revolutionize corporate reporting—the agency’s real aim was to bluff their way out of a business model problem. They were trying to use flashiness to convince corporations to pay more for online annual reports, because the switch to digital was killing their lucrative print commissions. I’d led them on, and taken their money too.
I only realized recently why I was telling myself the story that I was a firefighter: I was avoiding the difficult part of my work, the part that scared me most. For this job, and all the others too, I chose not to ask, “why?”
I’d lecture clients about user experience, but in reality I was there to fix a short term problem. Firefighters make themselves vulnerable to help others—they’re brave, and they often risk injury or death. They don’t like fires: they do everything they can to prevent them from happening. What I was doing wasn’t brave at all. I was addicted to fires—they were my specialty. Clients never asked me how to stop the fire next time (that is, stop screwing up their web projects). I realize now that I was comfortable with that, even though it made me miserable.
I remember when I first heard about content strategy. I was working at an agency, and I’d often complain that their processes weren’t user centered, that they didn’t “get” the web. When I talked to clients, I’d downplay the importance of my work, saying things like, “I’m just a web developer, I don’t know anything about your actual business”. I realize now that I was avoiding difficult conversations—how much time were they willing to commit to maintaining their website, and how would they change working practices? (Answer: they wouldn’t.) Then I read “The Discipline of Content Strategy” by Kristina Halvorson in A List Apart magazine:
…who among us is asking the scary, important questions about content, such as “What’s the point?” or “Who cares?”
At the time I remember saying, out loud, “me! I’m asking those questions!”
I was fooling myself. I’d never asked those questions—or at least, not with enough persistence to be helpful. They were too scary: I couldn’t handle the vulnerability, so I avoided the hard part of my work.
And that’s our challenge, as a community. How do we break out of our cover stories, our excuses, our distractions from the real work? How can we admit that doing our real work is hard, that we’re scared to fail, that we often take the easy route and feel bad about it?
I’ve stopped telling myself I’m a firefighter. Instead, I’m trying to do what scares me, to feel the fear and do it anyway. Here’s something I’m working on: “The Dare Conference. Let’s be brave together.”
You’re a troublemaker. You can’t ignore the clash between today’s soulless production-line culture and the digital revolution, which values connection and openness. Our outdated organisations need your help more than ever—and yet, you can’t change the world on your own. Join us! Together we’ll dare to take risks, be vulnerable, and do work that matters.
Photo by the US Army.