Every inspirational movie has one. It usually happens right at the main character’s turning point. Just after they decide to make a change and throw themselves into the pursuit of whatever it is they are choosing to pursue. We’ve all seen it. It’s “The Montage Sequence.”
I’ve always been fascinated and amused by the montage sequence and how we’ve all come to expect and accept it. The role this sequence plays is to pay homage to the hard work and perseverance that is undisputedly necessary to achieve success, but also not to harp on it for longer than about 2 minutes because let’s be honest, no one really wants to see the more realistic representation which would include hundreds of hours of dead space featuring the actors sitting on the couch doing nothing, staring at the ceiling or watching Netflix in a perpetual state of sloth, broken only by procrastination and food delivery services. Progress, perseverance, they ain’t pretty. So we cut it down to a neat little montage of sweat, blood, and tears, the actor looking studious and intense, and we’ve agreed to pretend this is a suitable replacement to acknowledging the days, weeks, months and even years that it actually takes to achieve a goal. It’s an easy way to gloss over all the grittiness and keep the momentum flowing. It’s the montage sequence, we know it’s a gross misrepresentation, but we accept it for the sake of cinema and storytelling.
Recently, I asked a pretty accomplished friend of mine what the title of their TED Talk would be, if they were to give one. I am known for asking questions like this and sometimes my friends indulge me. This friend told me they had to think about it, and then asked me what my answer would be. I laughed. I told them that I was still living it and would have to get back to them in a few years. I am also known for asking questions to others that I have not yet answered for myself. Then I started to think about it, and I circled back to the answer I gave my friend as a joke.
I started to think about what it meant to be living in my TED Talk. About a half a year ago, I made one of those statements to the world, and by world I mean those who choose to follow me on Facebook and Instagram, announcing that I was going to be pursuing Something More in my life. The post came after days and weeks of gut-wrenching soul searching that lead me to understand that I was feeling stuck and needed space to grow. At the time I thought the only path available to me was to pursue a Ph.D. And that meant taking the GRE. Which meant facing a serious fear, but that’s a different article for a different time.
This proclamation I made so publicly was my attempt to hold myself accountable to the process from-here-on-out. If the world knows, then I can’t back down. And more people responded to my well written and inspired, if-I-do-say-so-myself, post than I thought would. Which just meant it was serious. Not only did I answer to the social media universe, but I also answered to the actual real people I sometimes forget inhabit it. I started to study for the GRE.
While I was studying, I reached out to past professors for advice and counsel. I’m young and hot-headed and I need some sage advice from time to time. All of my past professors were supportive and encouraging and things seemed to make sense. I decided to talk to more people because it felt like something that was out of my comfort zone and part of growing meant forcing myself out of the space I had so been so comfortably ensconced in to the point that it was now suffocating me. So I did a social experiment, and reached out to someone I did not know at all. This experience is also another article for another time, one day I’ll write about it because it was pretty life-altering in and of itself. The main point of that story, though, is that the post-doctoral research fellow I reached out to told me to figure out what I wanted to do and then figure out how to do it outside of the stifling world of academia. He called me on my reliance on convention to move to the next step. He told me that the suffocating feeling would likely follow me wherever I went next if I didn’t get creative. Academia is a luxury, not a calling, he implied. Get out there and figure out how to do it, he said.
I hated that advice. Especially since it came from a 32-year-old, ridiculously brilliant, good looking, white male with a Ph.D. and job in a prestigious social research lab. But I also listened, because when I actually heard his story, I came to understand that his experience was nothing like anything I had imagined and that was a deeply meaningful learning experience for me. I was still stuck though because I had no idea where to go. I decided to keep talking to strangers, it seemed to be working and I hadn’t been dismembered yet.
Speaking to people is really hard. It’s super not my speed to talk to people I don’t know about things that are important to me. But I also found that talking to people was like putting together puzzle pieces. Each new person had an insight that made the picture that much clearer. Although sometimes the picture resembled blue sky for miles. Regardless, that’s how I found the world of Human-Centered Design. By talking to a bunch of people and by relentlessly seeking a truth that felt real. Also by sitting on my couch and watching Netflix while waiting for food delivery. Also, I work full time, overtime, job.
Once I found the field of Human-Centered Design, I fell madly in love. I became that crazy, obsessed girlfriend who needs to be together with the object of my adoration at all times. Books, podcasts, tutorials, Meetups, I dove headfirst and headlong into the world of service and experience design. This happened over the course of a couple of months. Months. That’s a lot of time. When the honeymoon phase ended and my brain rejected any and all things design-oriented, I did find a semi-normal balance. I started studying the field seriously, building a portfolio and gaining necessary and meaningful skills. Painstakingly and slowly.
I started listening to the stories of the people doing the kind of work I admire because their stories tell me a lot about how to get where they are. A theme emerged. They all worked mad hard and sacrificed a lot, then they met the lucky person who gave them their lucky break. They tell the story the same way too. They skim over years and years of painstaking toil, the foundations and fundamentals of what made them who they are, in a 40-second recap. They miss telling the really important parts, I wonder why? People are so used to the montage sequence; we’ve become accustomed to doing it to ourselves. I found this interesting. I started to think about what my future self would want to tell others like me about this moment in my journey. I started to think about this moment in my journey.
When I ask myself the question now, I’m still not sure what the title of my TED Talk would be, but I think I know what it will be about. I want to focus on actually living in this montage, not just waiting for it to be over. Right now I am living in every single minute of the hard work, the frustration, the hope. It is not easy, quick or accompanied by just the right soundtrack. One day, when I’m off doing incredible design work, someone will ask me about what it took to get here. One day, someone will look at me and ask how I got to where I am and I will have to answer. Someday I will look myself in the face and reflect on my journey.
And when that day comes, on a TED stage or anywhere else in the world, I do not want to turn this beautiful, complicated, searingly painful, yet indescribably meaningful experience into a simple montage of moments. The hard work, the perseverance, the doubt and despair, the comfort and inspiration, my couch and cheap alcohol, this is the journey, this is the point. These are the moments worth celebrating. I don’t really believe life is ever about the destination, it is always about the journey. I am living every single second of my montage, however long it takes, exactly as I should.