What shaped you?

People can be shaped by a mix of factors: genes, people, places, events, both the good and the bad. Everyone is a unique blend. As good product designers, we consider these contexts in relation to the users for whom we design, with the intent of creating experiences that suit their needs and expectations. But we don’t often take as much time to understand what has shaped us. Why do we gravitate to the problems and solutions that we do? A little self reflection in uncertain times can help us realign to higher quality, impactful projects and can also remind us, as we approach the Thanksgiving holiday, to thank those that had a positive impact on who we are now.

I’d like this post to inspire you to reflect on what defined you, by sharing some experiences of my own. There is also a personal motive behind this post: In addition to everything else that’s happened over the past few weeks, my father passed away. I’ve thought a lot about the role he played in my life as part of processing this loss. And I came to the conclusion that he, far more so than any other thing I can think of, had the biggest impact on who I’ve become. It’s something I never had a chance to tell him, and I don’t think it should go unrecognized. So, if you’ll indulge me in a short post that’s not my usual UX fare, I’d like to highlight just a few ways in which my father shaped my life.

My dad’s the reason I love, and respect, the aquatic world

My first, clearest memory is of a time my father took me fishing. It was a brisk autumn morning, and it was just the two of us over at a local reservoir. My dad was hoping to catch a trout for dinner; instead, we reeled in a baby sunfish. I remember demandeding that we keep it as a pet. But my dad sternly explained that it needed to be returned to the water so it could grow up in its own home. He gently unhooked it and made me release it back into the reservoir. That moment stuck: I had to respect fish, even if they were occasionally a food source.

Throughout my childhood, we would continue to “fish” together, a ritual that involved little actual fishing, some light conversation, and Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. It was really an excuse to hang out on a lake all day. Sometimes we’d drive to the ocean and go whale watching, and we’d laugh as other passengers hurled their lunches over the side while our iron stomachs allowed us to stand for hours on the top deck with the seas spread out ahead of the boat.

My dad also took me to aquariums. Put a fish tank in my room. Built a swimming pool in our yard. He’d sit patiently on the local beach, long after everyone else had left the water, waiting for me to get cold enough to get out, but never forcing me to leave. He taught me that sharks weren’t like the monsters depicted in the Jaws movies. He helped me decorate my room to look like an underwater grotto (complete with real sand). He’s the reason I feel so in my element when I’m swimming or diving, why I paint aquatic watercolors, even though, as it turns out, he was terrified of being in the water himself.

My dad made me a DIYer

“Why pay someone else to do something when you can do it yourself?” For better or for worse, that was my dad’s philosophy. He was a plumber, an electrician, a carpenter, a mechanic, a snow plower, a pool cleaner, a computer engineer, a landscaper, an accountant. I vividly remember a handmade dollhouse I received for Christmas, which was preceded by several weeks of hearing my dad hammer away, swearing intermittently, down in the basement. He refused to buy his daughter a toy if he thought he could make it better himself, and had gone through many “iterations” of that dollhouse in the days leading up to Christmas morning. Now I know why he looked so haggard while I opened my present.

I grew up surrounded by his prototypes and in-progress works. He also helped me figure out how to build prototypes of my own. One such project was for my 7th grade Technology class’s annual contest. Students were challenged to design a combustion-free ping pong ball launcher and beat a long-standing distance record. My dad helped me experiment with various options, using supplies like empty plastic bottles, slingshots, and PVC piping. After a bunch of failures, we came upon our solution: An air cannon made from two segments of PVC pipe, a plastic bag to separate two chambers, and a bicycle pump. It took me 3 whole minutes during my turn in class to pump enough air in the cannon to pop the plastic bag and launch the ping pong ball, but it broke the record 3 times over.

Because of my dad, I wasn’t afraid to try crazy things with just the supplies around me, and I was well exposed to the concept of failure.

My dad made me believe I could do anything

My dad was smart and talented, but he’d never claim to be. He never attended college. His mother passed away when he was in high school and his father ended up working long hours through the grief, so my dad forewent higher education to help care for his younger brother. He didn’t have a fancy degree, family money, or influential friends. But he didn’t let that stop him. He was mostly self-taught. He got promoted, time and time again, at every company he worked for (at his service, all of his most recent employees showed up to share how he was the best boss they’d ever had). He raised a solid family. Became a pilot. A million other things I’m not mentioning.

Humble beginnings didn’t hold him back, so he didn’t let them hold me back. He always invited me to be a part of his projects. And he was always there to help give me an extra push if I needed it to achieve a goal—like driving me to Philadelphia for Wizard World, a comic book convention, so that I could get my comic book art into a portfolio review.

He’s the reason I’m a designer

My father would laugh if he heard me say this, because he always thought of my mother as the designer in the family and claimed he didn’t have an “artistic cell in my body.” But it was my dad who gave me the resources I needed to hone my skills and enter the digital world.

A common story my mother used to tell from before I was born was that my father spent his first salaried paycheck on an Atari system. It infuriated her. But it was emblematic of his passion for new technology. I remember the day he booted up one our first home computer and showed me how to type an MS DOS command to open Microsoft Paint. Later, he excitedly showed me how to drag the long phone extension cable up from the downstairs kitchen to the upstairs landing, plug it into the computer’s modem, and connect to the Internet. As time went on, he proactively introduced me to Photoshop, web design, and digital games (ah, the many hours we spent playing Myst!).

Meanwhile, he was also the man proudly circulating my artwork. He would hang up my drawings in his office. He encouraged me to enter my work into local art shows to demonstrate that it was a discipline worth pursuing. He didn’t bat an eye when I announced my intention to go to an art school 8 hours away, instead helping me set up my photography rig so I could create slides for my college application portfolio.

There are many other things my dad contributed to my life, but you get the drift. And not all of these contributions were positive. There are plenty of things that served as cautionary tales and pushed me to develop different values and skills in an attempt to be better than him. But there’s no doubt about the extent to which he shaped who I am now.

I hope you’ll take a moment to reflect on who, or what, contributed to you. This week, thank the people who had a positive impact. Acknowledge those things that had a negative impact, if you feel comfortable doing so. And use this opportunity to discover how you might leverage your unique blend of values and skills to have a positive impact on someone else.