Crushing Contraints as a Marginalized Group — Part I

The uphill battle against ourselves and the world

Constraints are not unfamiliar to anyone working in the product space. Designers may be limited by time and budget to conduct research and design exploration. Product managers are all too familiar with the limitations set by the business goals and developers can be bound by a tech stack used by the company or client. Constraints can be annoying at the outset of a project, but at times you’ll find these limitations pushing you to innovate, testing the bounds of your thinking and behavior.

Being a designer of color is sometimes like being a unicorn. It’s no secret, we are few and far in between in tech. I personally belong to two underrepresented groups, (which are historically marginalized). I’ve experienced imposter syndrome, compounded by my high-achiever, perfectionist mentality, and self-limiting beliefs. And, let’s not forget the biases that come with being a black woman.

Many who identify as a member of underrepresented groups are fighting an uphill battle within themselves and the world. We struggle to be seen as worthy and more than the biases that follow us. Internal & external factors play a huge part in why we place constraints on our potential.

Let’s dive into the internal elements that impact our ability to charge ahead towards our goals: 1) your relationship with self and 2) the ability to make adaptive changes.

Relationship with Self

“The ability to overcome resistance, self-sabotage, and self-doubt is way more important than talent.”

Steven Pressfield

I always envisioned my career taking off. I dreamed of moving to a major city, and working my way to creative director, winning awards along the way. But that’s not what happened. Voices of self-doubt, caution, and falling confidence made that vision cloudy over the years, paralyzing me.

The voices in your head, or your judge, beat you up repeatedly over mistakes or shortcomings, warn you obsessively about future risks, and wake you up in the middle of the night worrying about things that are beyond your control. Not so long ago, mine sounded like this:

“Your design work isn’t good enough.”
“You’re a black designer, just be grateful to have a job.”
“You don’t really know what you’re doing.”
“You don’t have anything to offer.”
“Why would anyone hire you, when they can hire someone better?”
“Maybe you should have picked a different path.”

For years, these limiting beliefs were embedded in my thoughts and actions, or lack thereof). Through my leadership coach, I discovered the science and psychology of Positive Intelligence.

Positive Intelligence measures the relative control you exhibit over your own mind and how well it acts in your best interest. According to Shirzad Chamine, author of Positive Intelligence: Why Only 20% of Teams and Individuals Achieve Their True Potential and How You Can Achieve Yours, your Judge is the universal saboteur we all have. It exaggerates negative circumstances, finds faults in yourself, others, conditions, and circumstances. The Judge generates much of your anxiety, stress, anger, guilt, frustration, anger, disappointment, and shame. The lie it tells is that without it, you’d be lazy and unmotivated and is therefore mistaken as the voice of reason instead of a destructive force.

This is a mechanism that develops to protects us in our childhood, forming the lens through which we see and interact in the world. Mostly, we are unaware of our saboteurs’ existence. We grow up and mature, outgrowing reliance on them for survival. Yet, the deep-seated negativity has had years of free reign on our way of thinking, poorly influencing our relationship with ourselves.

Blows your mind a bit, huh?

As I learned about saboteurs and reflected on my own path, which often brings up feelings of regret, shame, and disappointment, I realized I’ve been my own blocker. When it came down to evaluating things I wanted, it’s not the right time, it’s too expensive, I had too many responsibilities. Insert all the excuses here.

What I thought I was doing: ‘I’m being realistic and responsible.’
What I was actually doing: Self-sabotaging; imposing constraints on myself.

When I think about it, my face is hot, eyes filling with tears. Chamine speaks to the importance of empathizing with yourself. As a designer, it’s our job to be empathetic to our users. It was lesson number 1 for practicing good UX. And yet, I couldn’t find it in myself to empathize with my own thoughts and feelings.

I’m confident you could identify similar moments in your own past. Fortunately, we can change the narrative. If you’re down to learn more about Positive Intelligence and silence your saboteurs check out the Positive Intelligence website or read the book with me.

Technical & Adaptive Change

Hindsight is 20/20. I recently reread Leadership on the Line and I quickly realized how last year I succeeded in reaching my goal: break into product design. In the book, authors Marty Linsky and Ronald Heifetz, explain people’s general responses to change. They describe two types of challenges/changes organizations and communities face: technical and adaptive.

A Technical change could be characterized as a simple fix, something you inherently know how to do.

An Adaptive change is deeper than a technical change. It requires experimentation, discovery, and adjustments, typically within an organization or community. As I continued to read the book, I couldn’t help but see the connection. Let’s look at an example of a professional named ‘Will’:

Will finds himself feeling unhappy with his current role. He isn’t being challenged and isn’t developing new skills.

If viewed as a technical challenge, Will might believe his best option is to find a new job or do nothing, maintaining the status quo.

If approached as an adaptive challenge, he might first assess the alignment of his values, reevaluate his mindset and expectations, review long-term goals, and explore his crazy-ass dreams. Adaptive challenges, call for adaptive change. This requires a fundamental shift in what you believe, how you behave, and what you value.

I didn’t realize it until more than halfway into the book that by happenstance, that I’d made this fundamental shift. A year ago, I’d have never been so confident forging relationships with industry professionals, I’d never have given a talk, start this blog, let alone launch a passion project and tell anyone about it.

Having success with small, attainable goals allows you to build on them. And effectively, those successes make taking bigger risks more palpable.

The commitment I made to creating change in my career required me to make an adaptive change to an adaptive challenge. It was crucial to change behavior, beliefs, and my way of thinking to create lasting change and see the progression I’d been craving. It made sense that changing jobs didn’t address the root cause of my discontent.

It’s not all sunshine and rainbows. The saboteurs I mentioned never go away. Now, those inner voices sound a bit different:

“Goal achieved. No time to celebrate. Move on to the next thing.”
“The more you accomplish, the more value you have.”
“You’re only as good as your achievements.”
“You’re so behind in your career, you can’t slow down.”
“You can change careers but it doesn’t mean you know what you’re doing.”
“I’ll be happy when _____ happens.”

It never stops! The voices may shift in volume, but you can learn to live with them and be productive. You can learn which voices are the loudest in your mind here.

The internal factors are just half of the equation when it comes to constraints. In part 2, I’ll get into the external forces that impact how the underrepresented navigate tech, the workplace, and the world.

Digital product designer at Dialexa, advocate for BIPOC, speaker, and hustler.