Justin Kropp

Beyond familiar

I recently visited Chattanooga in Tennessee. It’s my hometown and a trip there is never easy for me. There is always a point during my visits when I become emotional as slivers of my past — the good and the bad — resurface. There are parts of the city that conjure up memories that I’d rather not revisit: painful breakups, a car accident, and familial drama. But there are also locations that provide an overwhelming source of happiness and fondness — the hundreds of beautiful days I spent outside rock-climbing with friends, the amazing job I had at an outdoor shop during high-school and college, and my first kiss with Erin.

While growing up here, the city always felt comfortable and safe. I knew the people and I knew my way around. Getting lost in this place was almost impossible. The city was predictable, and as I grew older and my curiosity stronger, it didn’t offer what I needed: unfamiliarity and opportunities for discovery. My hometown became destined to be just that: my hometown, a place where I grew up. So I did what I needed to do and moved away.

On my most recent visit home, while wandering through the town and past some of my usual spots, I began to realise not only how my feelings had changed, but how the city itself had changed. I was now an outside observer visiting a place that felt foreign, despite the familiarity. This was not the hometown I knew anymore. This was not that muted city with only one decent coffee shop and a notable population of vagabonds. This town felt alive and vibrant; its pulse youthful. I found myself discovering things to love; things I hadn’t encountered before. These discoveries were nourishing and restoring my relationship with the place that I once couldn’t wait to leave.

A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions ~ Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

For many of us, there’s a period in our adolescence when we can’t wait to leave home. We yearn to strike out on our own, carve our own path, and prove that we belong in this world. We need to test ourselves, to prove that we can provide for ourselves and accomplish something. Leaving home is never easy. Change, in general, is never easy, but it’s necessary if we’re to allow ourselves the chance to grow. I’m reminded of a quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. who said “A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions”.

I find a lot of parallels between the experiences I’ve had returning home and the relationship I have with our industry. I love what I do and find comfort in knowing that discoveries in technology will continue to push the boundaries of what we do and how we do it. I count myself lucky to be engaged in a creative pursuit that rewards curiosity. But I still get burnt out, run down, and frustrated. Our work not only demands innovative thinking with a pragmatic approach, but managing clients, project budgets, growing to-do lists, and the elusive inbox zero. Our field is evolving at an ever-increasing pace, and if we want to remain relevant we, too, must evolve right along with it. As a digital product designer, change is a responsibility I owe not only myself, but the audiences my work serves.

However, over the years I’ve learned that professional growth isn’t just about remaining abreast of the advances in our field. Keeping up with the changes in our profession is necessary, but in the process, it is all too easy to close ourselves off in an echo-chamber of design and technology. Sometimes we need to step away from our professional roles and pursue other interests in order to grow. Experiences we have outside the realm of our expertise can help us to provide additional layers of insight to the projects we take on. Our work may become better as a result and provide new perspectives to those who see it.

I had always been interested in psychology, so several years ago I began pursuing a degree in behavioural psychology. I was presented with fascinating facts about the way we behave and the influencers of that behaviour. Entering an unknown territory and engaging with an entirely new subject matter helped me become a better user experience designer.

I left home and gained a new perspective on why I loved where I was from. Stepping away and leaving the familiar behind, if only for a short period of time, can help us broaden our horizons. A renewed vision brings with it a restored focus. We can return to work with a deeper respect for what we do and who we are.