I recently spoke with Elise Nardin over on Impromptue about moving through life’s phases with empathy and acceptance. You can read the whole feature over at: www.impromptue.ch
I met Lena Blackstock at Lift, an innovation conference back in 2013, where I attended a design thinking workshop Lena and her boss were facilitating. We connected IRL, then on Twitter, and lastly on Instagram. Over the past 4 years, I’ve followed Lena’s career and life changes, from one move to the other, with brief insights into her work and into her life. Lena carved the time out of her busy schedule to talk empathy, self-care, and the forward-propelling value of taking “risks”. There might have been some shared Nokia nostalgia, a giddy snowstorm infused interviewer, and many unison ‘exactly-s’.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I’ve just relocated to Toronto, Canada with my husband and my 2 kids after spending the past couple of years in Nashville, TN. We’ve moved quite a bit, I was born and raised in Germany and moved to the US when I was 19. After doing my undergrad in the midwest, I moved in with my now-husband Jim. We started our first business out of our tiny one bedroom apartment a couple weeks in and a week after getting married I told him that I wanted to move to Scotland to pursue a masters’ degree in Design Ethnography. After our time in Scotland, we spent a couple of years in Berlin before moving back to Nashville, just a few months after giving birth to my daughter Isla. Still nursing, I became pregnant with my son, Eames. I focused on motherhood for a couple of years, worked some freelance gigs, until I accepted a full-time remote position for an IT company right before Eames’ 1st birthday. This is when my husband stopped travelling for work (he works in the Film and TV industry) and transitioned to full-time stay-at-home dad. Honestly he is the reason that I have been able to pursue a lot of my life and career goals.
I was not happy in my job and one afternoon I received a call from Idris Mootee, the CEO at Idea Couture, an innovation and design consultancy company I had always admired. I accepted a position with them, first working remotely while we waited for my visa to process, and then finally relocating to join the team in the Toronto Headquarter in July of this year.
How did you get into this kind of work?
I always loved design and had always dreamt of studying industrial or product design but refused to pay that much money for art school…so I got a “basic degree” in Journalism and on a semester abroad I went to study in India, where I stumbled upon a class called “ethnographic approaches to Indian society”. I was hooked immediately (Seriously, I get to observe and try to make sense of the world around me?! So awesome) but I knew the “PhD academic track” wasn’t for me…
I continued to work in the Advertising, Branding and Design fields and on a flight back from a visit to see my family in Germany I stumbled on an article in the in-flight magazine on the field of design ethnography and how companies like OXO used this approach to better understand their users and create innovative human-centered products – that was kind of my big Aha-moment. I finally realized that this thing I had in my head actually existed as a career, as something that I could pursue, so I set up a google alert with the term “design ethnography.” And a week after Jim and I got married, I got the notification about the Master of Design Ethnography in Scotland and applied pretty much immediately…
Now I work in innovation consulting and I love that I get to collaborate with the brightest, quirkiest and most creative minds to help our clients work towards their goals with human needs in mind while looking ahead to understand the changing landscape of the world they will have to operate in in 5, 10, 15 years out…So in my day to day, that means as a Design Researcher / Design Ethnographer, I get to listen to and observe people in their contexts as well as co-create with them to generate insights and concepts for our clients. As a Design Strategist I get to then shepherd these insights through the innovation funnel from fuzzy frontend all the way through to realized products and services. I love that I get to collaborate with so many insanely talented people in their own rights – from PhD-trained Medical Anthropologists, Behavioral Economists, Project Managers, Designers, Strategists, Engineers, Developers and our clients from all walks of life.
“They stand up for what they believe in, they listen to their gut and they move through the world with empathy and push forward with pure grit.”
Who are the women you look up to, your role models?
Of course, there are famous women, throughout history, in the media or pop culture that come to mind. But honestly, the women that have had the biggest influence, most of the mentors and role models that I think back on, are women that I have met in my day to day life – they are women I have had the chance to call my friends, some I have admired from afar and many that I have had the fortune to walk, study, learn and work beside over the past decade or so. They celebrate the mundane and the big moments, they birth and raise humans, grow businesses and support their communities, they pursue their passions with such fierceness and get. shit. done. They stand up for what they believe in, they listen to their gut and they move through the world with empathy and push forward with pure grit.
Something that has come out of moving through different life phases for me personally, and into motherhood especially, is a focus on the need for continuous nurturing of what we put out into the world. I used to be someone with a lot of ideas and a lot of side projects. And now that I have kids, I feel like I am moving into a new phase. Of course coming up with new ideas is incredibly fun and fulfilling in its own way, but I am much more aware of the importance and the joy that comes from not just birthing something (ie. a new project, idea, thought…or a human) but also the nurturing, the teaching, shepherding and supporting of them. It’s not just about putting something out there, we have to also think about what comes after – that is when the hard work really starts – the responsibility to nurture, to continuously push it forward, to support and to help it to the next stage. And this is also where I am seeing the greatest sense of purpose and reward.
I think we are all naturally curious, it’s in all of us to want to relate to others, to want to make connections, to understand. Empathy is the ability to relate to others, being curious about other’s perspectives and experiences but moving beyond that and actually connecting those feelings and experiences of others to our own, even if painful and challenging. Dr Brené Brown talks about the power of empathy and dissects the difference between empathy and sympathy, sympathy being the ability to understand the feelings of another but not necessarily sharing them, whereas empathy means that you take the pain or the feelings of someone and project them backwards. She says “Empathy fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection” and that is why empathy is so important.
I also love the concept of the “scout vs the soldier mindset” by sociologist Julia Galef. The scout will approach a situation with empathy and curiosity, and is able to understand people’s perspective while being willing to test their own believes – which means their self worth as person isn’t tied to how right or wrong they are about something. Someone with a soldier mindset on the other hand will approach a situation with “motivated reasoning. “Motivated reasoning” is a phenomenon in which our unconscious motivations, desires and fears shape the way we interpret information. Some pieces of information feel like our allies — we want them to win; we want to defend them. And other pieces of information are the enemy, and we want to shoot them down. To me listening to our natural curiosity and the ability to truly empathize is now needed more than ever.
There is so much power in approaching things with curiosity and empathy, especially if they encourage inward reflection and true connection to the world around us. There is also a lot to be gained from approaching the world of business with more empathy, as true understanding will encourage clarity (which I still find to be the biggest issue in many of my consulting engagements) and empathy for others will support connection and business goals as well as encouraging the development of products, services and technologies that are rooted in a true understanding of human wants and needs (ah, those beautiful, chaotic, sometimes unreasonable and confusing human wants and needs).
You work in a highly collaborative environment. What do you like so much about collaboration?
To be totally honest, I am a pretty hardcore introvert – in the sense that I recharge by being by myself. And sometimes in work I need quiet and the space and time to focus on deep work. Especially when you come back from fieldwork which is immersing yourself in other people’s contexts so it can be really draining (exhilarating and wonderful, but exhausting all the same). But when it comes to synthesis there is so much value in getting together in the same physical space to collaborate. I missed that when I worked as a freelancer and remote, and it is one of the main reasons why I was drawn to a company like Idea Couture – everyday I have the ability to get in a room and work with so many interesting and talented people. Sometimes you just have to get in the same room together to hash it out. And when you inevitably get stuck on a project, there is a lot of value in serendipitous conversations and being able to get an outsider perspective from a colleague walking down the hall…
You are a mother of two: How did motherhood change you, change your sense of belonging?
Motherhood is a strange experience. For me, accepting the shifts in identity as you go through the phases was challenging to adjust to. You kind of are forced to lose yourself and then rebuild your identity with parts of what you have been and all the new pieces that are now part of you – you have to figure out how to piece it all together into a new you….and even then there is the constant evolution – I think it taught me how transient even something like “identity” can be…
I also went “all in” when it came to motherhood – I got pregnant, then I nursed for a year, became pregnant again, and nursed for another year. In my case it was 3 or 4 years that my body wasn’t my own. Your mind isn’t really your own either. This is where so many of the shifts happen, the constant undulation, the tearing down and re-building of the selves.
As I evolve and grow in my identity as a mother, I’ve realized that when it comes down to it, the most important thing is making sure I prioritize some time for me, and I haven’t really done a great job taking care of myself. But my focus is to figure out a way to bring self-care up higher on the list. I can’t be a good friend, a good mother, or a good wife if I’m not happy with who I am, if I don’t practice self-care. I love yoga for instance, because I can be with myself, with my own thoughts and body and process it all, so my goal is to make more time for that again. The struggle is that now I spend a lot of the week at work, so when I come home it is hard to take 2 hours away from spending quality time with my children to go to yoga, but I am working on it…
Randi Zuckerberg talked about the concept of the top 3, the idea is that out of these 5 priorities: work, family, friends, fitness, sleep – you can really only realistically ever only fully focus on 3. And so I think instead of trying to “have it all” we need to think about our expectations and understanding that “having it all” also works in phases, so as we go through life’s undulations we may be in a peak for family and sleep time but some of the other areas will inevitably suffer and vice versa – there will be troughs for family time and other areas such as work and friends may be at the forefront. Currently, my priorities are family, work and yes, trying to incorporate more self-care again.
I like this idea of a succession of phases, how do you relate to this?
As a parent, the biggest challenge is to realize that everything is a phase. There are phases when they are sick and not sleeping and it is incredibly hard and when you first go through it, you think it’s going to be like that forever, it’s miserable. And actually, the same goes for relationships. My husband and I have gone through amazing phases where we travel and come up with ideas and projects and then there are others where we fight, and are stressed and worried…You have to have the bigger picture in mind, once you see it, you see it gets easier as you go through phases. You also have to accept that there’s only so much energy and time in a day. Again, it goes back to adjusting our expectations – I relate strongly to Alain De Botton’s concept of “the glass of life being half empty”.
Can you tell us of a time you took a chance and failed? What did you learn?
Oh, so many times… I struggle with that term “failure” still a little bit even though it is a favorite in my industry. To me, it’s more about taking risks to push yourself into unknown situations and unfamiliar territory. If we know things happen in phases, and you have the knowledge that there will be failure, then that becomes part of the undulations and it’s ok. We expect life to be this beautiful perfect thing, but in reality, it’s not. There are going to be a lot of failures. But if you go in with that expectation, it makes it easier to take these crazy chances. In my life, I did crazy things, but it helped me to push myself up the hill, it was always a chance to learn, to gather new experiences. At 19, I moved to the US. My parents and friends thought I was insane, and maybe it was, but it was what my guts were telling me. It was the biggest life-changing experience I have ever had. My life would be completely different had I not taken this chance.
I think there’s a great value in planning (I am German and a planner through and through) but with the understanding that things change and we have to be open to changing course and taking direction from life as it happens. I am all for hoping and dreaming, and I love the saying “luck is when preparation meets opportunity” (Seneca) as I think that is what happens if you have a plan and a goal but you have your eyes open and are able to see opportunities as they arise and take risks. When you look at things from that perspective, failure becomes an accelerator. It’s cheesy, but it’s true. That is where true growth happens and that is when “luck” strikes…as long as you are open and willing to see the opportunities.
“As long as you have a broader vision of what you want out of life, and you are open to detours and alternate paths you can avoid a lot of unnecessary struggles with those changes.”
What is the best piece of advice you ever received?
I remember going through difficult times, and my dad telling me “In life, things don’t happen as planned.” I’m a very type-A person, always planning, looking ahead. But again, I think through many “failures” and chances I have taken in my life I have come to understand the value of disruption and constant change – and I have found ways to become comfortable in constant shifts and changes. And that has made me stronger and more adaptable…and then looking at the work I have stumbled into, I mean, innovation work is based on helping our clients see and consider possible disruptions and to be agile and adaptable as they navigate an ever-changing world – so looking back, my hippy dad’s advice has served me very well – in my personal life and in my work…
As long as you have a broader vision of what you want out of life, and you are open to detours and alternate paths you can avoid a lot of unnecessary struggles with those changes. You kind of have to readjust as you come along, and that’s a good thing. It’s better to go full in, knowing that things might not go as planned, but it’s okay because it will ultimately give you an opportunity to grow. If you’re flexible, you’ll be able to navigate.
Moving to Canada right after we kind of settled again in Nashville was a big decision, but to me, looking at my daughter, who is very much like me – introverted, thoughtful and very much a lover of routines – I wanted her to have the chance to experience a change like this, to take risks, and learn how to build new friendships, but while still with us, with her family around her as her safety net and frame of reference. I hope that providing her opportunities of change now will hopefully build a foundation for future changes and unexpected turns and shifts in her life.
What are your sets of values right now?
I think it’s approaching things with this openness I mentioned earlier, with curiosity and empathy. I’d like to say that I try to live in the now, but again, I have to be honest and admit that I’m not really all that good at it. I’m not a person who gets stuck on the past too much, but I do tend to look ahead too much, so I’m also trying to work on that.
Self-care resonates with many of us in the Impromptue community. What do you do on a daily basis to work on that?
I think we’re still in a phase of adjustment – still getting settled from the big move, still trying to find a reliable babysitter, I’m still looking for a yoga studio, etc. The one thing that I am trying to actively do, is getting some time alone and time away from those damn screens. I commute to and from work and I love that time – to have this time for myself. It is easy to get sucked into the world of social media, to check work emails etc but lately, I have been trying to be more purposeful about using some of that time to recharge – where that is by listening to music or podcasts or just sitting and looking out the window and be “bored”….
What is your favorite streetcar reading/podcast of the moment?
Currently I am actually finding my way back into music. I feel like I went through kind of a dry spell with new music and fall is always when I find my way back – the melancholy sets in and to me it’s a season of change. So I ride the streetcar to work and I love it so in the mornings, after the chaos of mornings with kids, it is my time to sit in peace and be quiet. On the way home I tend to play music and make space for some daydreaming and reflecting – that is actually my main method of self-care currently and it helps.
Thank you so much Lena! If you want to know more about Lena’s latest project for curated inspiration at Idea Couture, the “IC/ brief”, a bi-weekly newsletter, click here.