Rachel Shadoan Muses

Ethnography and the Bleedy Edge: Living in the Gray (Coping with Uncertainty)

I’m sure you’ve heard the cliche that the world isn’t black and white. This is true. And if you want to be a design ethnographer, you’d best get accustomed to living in the gray.

Living in the gray is a balancing act, which involves, among many other things:

  • standing with one foot in the world of a social scientist and one in the world of a designer
  • balancing a client’s agenda while protecting the interests of participants
  • staying true to the richness and variety of ethnographic results while distilling actionable insights
  • switching from hyper-analytical meta-cognitive work to the hyper-aware meditative zen in-the-moment mindset of fieldwork
  • constantly convincing people that what you do is valuable
  • empathizing without becoming emotionally invested
  • distilling without oversimplifying or overgeneralizing

And that is completely outside of the very normal student worries such as

  • how to pay off student loans
  • where to find a job post-graduation in a sluggish economy
  • where to live once the lease ends
  • when to grab some sleep/food/exercise between class, project work, and actual work
  • whether the volcano in Iceland will ever stop erupting long enough to get home

How do you deal with that level of uncertainty? (Hint: Beer is not always the first answer).

Make a cup of tea.

Every problem seems more tractable when there is hot tea to be had. This is step 1 of the Scottish Beverage Problem Solving Process. We drink a lot of tea, in this course.

Make and keep a regular schedule.

If nothing else is certain, at least you know what time you’ll be going to bed, what time you’ll be getting up, and when you’ll be eating and exercising. If you choose only one thing to be strict about it, make it bedtime. Eight hours of sleep prevents uncertainty ulcers. I promise.

Make lists.

Write down everything that is worrying you, and cross out everything that is beyond your sphere of control. For things that are within your control, make lists of the things you can do to resolve some of the uncertainty. Additionally, write down everything that you need to do, order it by priority, and tackle it one item at a time. This makes large, uncertain, intractable-seeming projects much easier to tackle.

Make decisions.

Set a time limit on decisions that need to be made. Once you have made a decision, do not agonize over it. If it was the wrong decision, you will find out soon enough, and it will be a great learning experience that will allow you to make more informed decisions in the future. Revisit past decisions only if new information relevant to that decision comes to light.

Make plans.

Maintain several plans for the handful of most likely scenarios for something that is worrying you. The plans will almost always amount to nothing, but the planning will alleviate the worry.

Make mellow.

Recognize that basically nothing in this discipline will ever go according to the plans you made in the previous step; recognize also that it will often go better than you could have dreamed. However, in order for you to be open to something going better than you could have planned, in order for you to be open for serendipity to guide you, you must be willing to cede control. Be flexible. Lay back, loosen that death grip on the reigns, and let the universe direct the ride.

Make time.

Build buffer time into every schedule, to account for the unexpected. Also, block out time to relax. Yes, you do need to schedule that.

Make merry.

This is where the beer comes in. Nothing will banish the looming uncertainty better than a little living in the moment. Get your friends together and play and play and play until you forget that you still have no idea what you’ve gotten in to. Because really, it’ll all work out anyway.

One comment on “Ethnography and the Bleedy Edge: Living in the Gray (Coping with Uncertainty)

  1. Kate Saunderson
    September 27, 2010

    I sit here with a cup of coffee (nearly tea) in my hand, and I know your words are wise. I just hope that in the red mist I remember them!!

    Thanks again for being wise.

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This entry was posted on April 26, 2010 by in Uncategorized and tagged , , , .
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