The Lion in the Wild


A lion I saw on safari in Tanzania almost exactly a year ago

The last month, I’ve been just about incommunicado.  There’s a good reason for this– I promise.  Four weeks ago, I told my boss I was leaving Microsoft.  The next two weeks, I prepared for my departure, making sure all of my areas of responsibility were in good shape before I took off, and then, two weeks ago, I went in to the office one last time.

I’m now a freelance user experience designer.  What’s a UX designer?  Someone who makes websites and apps easy to use.  Ergonomics of the mind.

But that’s not what I’m writing to talk about.  I’m writing to talk about being a freelancer, lions, and my theme for 2013– “the lion in the wild”.

I’ve never been a freelancer.  For the last 2.5 years, I’ve had a full-time job.  I’ve been hand-fed a nice paycheck every 2 weeks– more money than anyone my age should be allowed to make, I half-seriously think.  Excellent benefits.  But it’s not without a cost.  At an ultra-large company, things move slowly.  Everyone knows this.  Layers of people to ask for permission; battalions to argue against anything new.  Bureaucracy.  You can receive non-negotiable instructions changing your day-to-day life from people you’ve never met, never even seen in person.  They don’t know you either.  They don’t know what you’re good at, bad at, or want to learn.

They can’t though.  They literally have no time to do so— there are thousands of such people they are responsible for managing.

The whole situation– that of unparalleled comfort yet unnaturally curtailed freedom– seems to have a certain analog to me.  And I’m not the first person to make the comparison.

* * * * *

In his essay “You Weren’t Meant to Have a Boss“, Paul Graham makes an observation about founders that go through his startup school Y Combinator.

I was in Africa last year and saw a lot of animals in the wild that I’d only seen in zoos before. It was remarkable how different they seemed. Particularly lions. Lions in the wild seem about ten times more alive. They’re like different animals. I suspect that working for oneself feels better to humans in much the same way that living in the wild must feel better to a wide-ranging predator like a lion. Life in a zoo is easier, but it isn’t the life they were designed for…

Founders arriving at Y Combinator often have the downtrodden air of refugees. Three months later they’re transformed: they have so much more confidence that they seem as if they’ve grown several inches taller. Strange as this sounds, they seem both more worried and happier at the same time. Which is exactly how I’d describe the way lions seem in the wild.

Watching employees get transformed into founders makes it clear that the difference between the two is due mostly to environment—and in particular that the environment in big companies is toxic to programmers. In the first couple weeks of working on their own startup they seem to come to life, because finally they’re working the way people are meant to.

There’s a lot to this analogy.  I imagine kids standing around my desk at Microsoft, pointing excitedly when I started to do work “Look– he moved!”.  Now the kids point at my bank account– “if he doesn’t make it before that runs out, he’s going to get eaten!”  Maybe the choice isn’t so clear for everyone, and maybe I’ll change my mind later, but for now, I know which game I want to be in.

Leaving Microsoft was still dang tough.  Rarely had I heard anyone there speak of their team more highly than I spoke of mine (only one instance in those years comes to mind– and it was so remarkable I had to write it down in my journal).  There was a lot I was walking away from, and a lot of uncertainty in moving to an adjacent discipline, without a degree or full-time work experience in it, to do freelance work for clients I didn’t have.

In fact, I expected to go 90 days without clients, just building skills, doing work for free, creating a portfolio, etc.  I expected to wake up 90 mornings and only spend my money that day.  No trading money for UX work.

It turned out I went 7 days until I signed my first contract.  That’s not to say I’ve made it.  I haven’t.  But I’m making it.  Slowly.  Just like the lion.  “Hey Lion, you just killed an antelope.  You got it made!”

“For today, yes.”

* * * * *

Last year, my theme was Eurisk and on New Year’s Day of last year, I wrote about the virtue of taking risks where good things might happen.  I wondered about what a future would look like outside of the paycheck zoo.  And now I’m here.

In keeping with my New Year Themes > New Year Resolutions, I’ve made a theme for 2013.  Because what got me here won’t get me there.

My theme for 2013 is the lion in the wild.

From now into the foreseeable future, no one will hand me a paycheck unless I go, spot the opportunity, and sprint after it.  There’s a lot of freedom to this that I’m looking forward to.  But with it comes a lot of responsibility and potentially worry.  And that’s why I have my theme.  So I can remember that no day is just given and that I have no one to blame but myself.

But in my mind, that’s a good thing.  An excellent thing.

– – – – –

PS.  A bit more about what I’m actually doing– as an User Experience Consultant (focusing on interaction design), my job will be to make website and apps easier to use.  I do this primarily by user research (figuring out who uses a product and why), interface design, and usability testing (watching people use a program, trying to understand what they do and don’t understand in it, and making changes accordingly).  I want to work primarily for startups in the near future, but am open to hearing about any UX projects.  If you know someone looking for a UX professional, feel free to give me a shout.

As for this blog, it will continue on as usual.  Perhaps a bit more, perhaps a bit less.  We’ll see how things go.

  1. February 19, 2013
    David Kurkov

    Hey Eric,

    Perfect analogy. I wish you the best with your endeavor!

    Hit me up if you ever want to grab a lunch (or make one 🙂



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