The Difference Between Envy and Inspiration

I had a conversation today about the difference between moments of envy versus moments of inspiration. Both emotional states are triggered by an outcome that we want for ourselves. The difference is in how we perceive the path required to achieving that outcome.


When we see someone else achieve something great, but we don’t see how they arrived at that place, then we are in a state of envy. We assume our circumstances are different from theirs. Our approach, skill set, and personality is different from theirs. I see what I want, but I don’t see how I’d get there with what I have now. Envy is yearning without resolution.

Seeing another person’s accomplishments without a clear path to attain it for ourselves shifts us into a zero-sum mindset. I don’t know how I could create the same outcome for myself, so I want what is yours.


When we see someone else achieve something great, and we see the path forward, we are inspired to act. I see what they did, I see how they did it. My circumstances are similar to theirs. I still have work to do, but I can see how I’ll get there. Inspiration is a preview of where I could be.

Seeing a path forward creates a sense of possibility, which places you in a mindset of plenty. I see something I want, I can figure out a way to get my own version of what you have.

I hope my work inspires action rather than envy.

What is Design Pairing?

I learned about pairing when I started working at Pivotal. It’s a way for two people to collaborate on a single problem at the same time.

The main benefits of pairing:

  • Short feedback loops: By working with someone through a problem, you have someone else’s feedback helping you course correct as you are solving the problem, rather than after you have solved it.
  • Focus: Having someone else there helps you keep your direction and scope in check. Are you solving for the most important thing now? Or can those issues be solved separately at a later time?
  • Knowledge Transfer: Working closely with someone else creates a shared understanding of the problem space and how you arrive at a solution. Along the way, you also get to learn about other ways to think about the problem, and other ways of crafting a solution.

How does it work?

The key to pairing is externalizing your thinking and receiving feedback while working through a problem together.

If my pair and I are designing a screen inside Sketch, we would be sitting next to each other, using one computer. To make pairing easier, we attach two sets of keyboards, mice, and mirrored displays to that one computer.

Only one person is controlling the computer at any one time, while the other person is either listening or providing feedback on what he/she sees on the screen.

Even though only one person is actively using the keyboard and mouse, the other person can start to drive the computer at any moment. The two sets of keyboards, mice, and displays makes switching easy enough to happen dozens of times during a pairing session.

While working through a problem, you might have discussions on the scope of the problem you’re solving, approaches to solutions, and ways to execute the solution.

Common Questions About Pairing

  • Isn’t it slower to have two people working on a single track of work than two people working through two separate tasks?
    • It depends on the task. If it’s a rote task, and all you need to do is to execute, then it’ll be faster to have each person churn out their own widget. However, if you’re working on problems where there are multiple possibilities, tradeoffs, and solutions, the outcome will be better with another person.
  • What if I work faster by myself, and I need space and time to think?
    • This is probably true for a lot of us, since we have only worked at the two ends of the spectrum, by ourselves or in groups. There aren’t a lot of places where we articulate thoughts in progress. We work alone, and present in public. Pairing flexes a different set of muscles, where you externalize your thinking and intentions. It brings the dynamics of day-to-day conversations to problem solving. There aren’t many places to practice this, and the skills you pick up while pairing also improves how you work by yourself.

What I’ve Learned Through Pairing

  • You practice communicating your intentions more clearly. Ideas crystalize faster because they need to be understood by someone else.
  • You come across unknown unknowns and learn a lot of things that you didn’t think to ask. This happens when you see another person think through a problem differently than how you would’ve tackled it. Outside of pairing, our thinking is mostly invisible to ourselves and others. When we pair, we see the contrast of all the things we take for granted.
  • You learn to disagree and find paths forward. It’s useful to separate whether you disagree on the problem, goal, priority, or solution.

How to Try Pairing

  • Find someone else that is interested
  • Work on a problem together.
  • Spend 1 hr to 1.5 hrs pairing
  • After the session, spend 10 minutes talking about how it went. What you would do differently next time.

If you would like to try pairing, send me a note. I’m interested in meeting new designers and introducing pairing to more people.

Design Tools

A few years ago when the design team at Facebook launched Paper, there was also a lot excitement around the tools they built to explore new interaction patterns for the app. This is when I first heard about Origami and around the same time, Framer.

The idea that certain teams build their own tools stuck with me. It makes sense and seems to be the type of productivity advantage that you’d want your teams to have.

I’m interested in tooling, because it is such a direct route to be a force multiplier for individual or team outcomes. You can have an impact on your team by improving the process; experimenting and sharing how something can be done differently and better. Tools are another venue for having an impact on teams.

I’ve heard how designers at Apple have a similar tool to Principle. There are design systems and style guides that are internal (AirBnb) or open sourced (Bootstrap, Tachyons). There are Sketch plugins that help designers share their document styles, prototype, and design with content and data.

We usually think of tools as a category that only includes hammers and other hardware. Outside of the interaction design domain, I’ve heard of spoken and written language be described as a tool. It’s used as a way to capture and spread ideas. A tool, technology, or concept, fundamentally changes how you work and what you create.

Without innovating on our toolset, the possibility of our output is limited by the tool’s range of possibilities.

Third Places

Ray Oldenburg introduced the concept of a “third place”. These are the places where you socialize outside of your home and work. They help establish a sense of community and grounds you to a city or neighborhood.

The characteristics that make a good third place:

  • Free or inexpensive
  • Food and drink, while not essential, are important
  • Highly accessible: proximate for many (walking distance)
  • Involve regulars – those who habitually congregate there
  • Welcoming and comfortable
  • Both new friends and old should be found there

Thinking back to my school days, the computer and printing lab served as this third place for me. It was the place where you ran into other students spending time outside of class working on assignments. The place where you shared what you were working on, helped each other troubleshoot printing woes, chat about class, and worry about graduation.

What are your third places? Your go-to spots outside of your work and home? Is there a third place for designers?

Designing Culture

Over the weekend, I spent 3 hours with 20 strangers and friends designing an intentional community. The premise of the exercise—imagine that you pooled money together to buy 50 acres of land, how would you define how you want to live?

There were more questions than answers at the end of the session. It started off with idealistic energy: wouldn’t it be nice to escape all the madness that is the current state of the world to build a new place from scratch? A place that has all the values that we want without any of the cruft?

At the end of the experience, I started to wonder, what’s preventing us from actually creating the communities that we want? Is starting from scratch better than improving what we have now?

Some immediate questions seemed to have a bigger impact on the direction of the group:

  • How do we make money?
  • How do we sustain ourselves?
  • What kind of values do we want to have as a group?
  • What kind of commitment am I making to the group?
  • How do we prioritize the needs of the individual or the group?
  • How do we decide who to let in?
  • How do we make decisions?
  • What kind of comforts can I have or have to give up?
  • Why am I leaving what I have now to join this alternate community?

There was a need for more community, and a change in the ratio of time spent working to sustain ourselves versus spent doing what we enjoy.

The relationships we have with family, friends, and coworkers exist in curated contexts. Each relationship is different because of the assumed permanence and the implied commitments.

The yearning to start from scratch assumes that it’s an easier path than changing what we have. It assumes that some things aren’t worth the effort to try to change.

Bringing this back to reality. How can we improve the cultures that exist at home, school, or work? In our neighborhoods and cities? Are the constraints and values as immutable as we believe?