A Change of Identity
A little over two weeks ago, I felt a pain on my right hand—which is what I use to write with—specifically around my ring and pinky finger. It was uncomfortable enough to prevent me from typing, let alone designing. I knew I had to see somebody for it because it wasn’t just any type of pain: it was difficult to do regular everyday tasks like opening a water bottle, but it was also numb enough to realize it wasn’t just a regular muscle issue.
This is worrisome because like most people, I need my hand to do anything. And especially for me, I need my hand to do the thing I’m paid to do, which is to design user interfaces (with a mouse and keyboard). I already have a pretty ergonomic setup: I have a standing desk at work and at home, an ergonomic mouse, a mousepad with wrist support, and a keyboard rest with wrist support. And still, a problem persisted.
I went to see an occupational therapist in Union Square (thanks to my girlfriend Sara who is also a designer and currently seeing one).
The pain was on my hand but the issue was elsewhere: I was diagnosed with Cubital Tunnel Syndrome:
Cubital tunnel syndrome is neuropathy of the ulnar nerve causing symptoms of numbness and shooting pain along the medial aspect of the forearm, also including the medial half of the fourth digit and the fifth digit. It is caused by compression of the ulnar nerve at the elbow region
Basically, I have my ulnar nerve is pinched in my elbow area, likely from flexing it too much. I have it flexed in the day for my job, and I also have it flexed at night while I sleep. This pinch nerve causes pain, numbness, and tingling around my ring and pink finger.
I currently experience discomfort anytime I have my elbow flexed, but it has become much better since going to therapy.
This setback—while relatively minor and treatable with time, presented a very interesting juncture in my career: should I start thinking of a life outside design? Or specifically, should I start thinking of a life outside of doing the design myself?
I’ve been a manager before (and to be honest, I’m probably at a point where I’m a better manager than I am a designer) and have delegated design work to others. But this conundrum felt different: the thing that I found to be where my greatest value lies was challenged because I literally could not do it. It felt like an athlete going through an injury, but also, different—athletes don’t change jobs just because they’re injured (unless it’s career-ending).
For me, I had to dig deep and really evaluate where my greatest contribution lies. And maybe this was my sign that while I enjoy designing, and it’s a core part of who I am and it’s one of my best assets—specifically being strategic, systematic, and technical on top of foundations in interface and experience design (which I’ve worked hard to really develop the last few years)—that designing the pixels may not be where my greatest value is.
It’s all the things around design that I bring to the table that is extremely rare and extremely valuable. Can somebody else design better and faster than me? Absolutely. Can somebody lead product and design simultaneously, make hard decisions with conviction, and build it with a strong sense of strategy specific to a business, and build it with a passion for and deep understanding of product, design, and engineering? Yes, but very few.1 How many people can do this in consumer startups? Even fewer. And how many people can do this in consumer healthcare pre-product market fit? That list becomes extremely small.
I always felt like an outcast as a designer because while I deeply care about design, I care just as much about all the other things outside of the design itself: the business and product strategy as well as the engineering capabilities required to make the design happen. So I put it upon myself to learn all of those things: business, product strategy, and front-end engineering, while getting better at my design skills. And I did so not because it was something I thought would propel my career, but more so I was just interested in building things better. It felt natural for me to learn strategy and front-end engineering as key parts of design, because they are two very important anchors around design decisions.
And looking back, it’s actually funny because I always measured my worth around the things that I felt were necessary to be a great designer, while discounting the things that truly made me unique.
So I’m taking this moment while I’m going through this Cubital Tunnel Syndrome to take a step back and appreciate the things I’m really good at. I’m taking it as a moment to not just measure myself based on my perception of what my job is as a designer, but to double down on the things I’m naturally drawn towards: and ultimately that’s just building better technology products for people through product, design, and engineering. I can care less what the title is. I just know that, thankfully, I now have the opportunity to do more of what I want to do and know I’m really good at.
p.s. Life comes at you fast. So much for writing a month ago that I need to “design everyday”.
Adam Mosseri of Instagram and Evan Spiegel of Snapchat are two examples who started out as designers that eventually became this. Not to say I’m anywhere on their level but there are many companies led by engineers and salespeople and very few by designers who led product & design.↩︎
April 2, 2023