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Graduation Address to the class of 2021 by Julie Zhuo

Leah Pistorius
June 17, 2021

Julie Zhuo, co-founder of Sundial and author of the bestselling book The Making of a Manager, delivered the 2021 Graduation Address for the University of Washington's Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering. 

The HCDE Graduation & Awards Ceremony was held on June 9, 2021, and livestreamed over Zoom.

Find the transcript of Julie Zhuo's address below. View a recording of the full HCDE 2021 Graduation & Awards ceremony here.


“Your Definition of Success"

Congratulations, graduates of HCDE 2021 and the families, faculty, educators and friends that supported them!

As you stand on the cusp of the rest of your life, having undergone the last few years of learning and discovery, I can see you all radiant, just brimming with potential to solve the problems of the world.

And problems—or should we say opportunities?—exist galore. There is so much to be improved whether we're talking about climate change, infectious diseases, social justice, racism, improving physical and mental health, productivity, poverty—the list goes on and on. And you, you will design the future. You will apply the skills you've added to your toolbelt—whether it's user research, critique, or prototyping—to designing products, services, and experiences that improve lives.

But the most amazing thing about your design toolbelt is that it's all-purpose. These are not just "career" skills to help you earn a living. They're also there to help you discover what it means to live a successful and fulfilling life.

Why does this matter? Because since we were born, whether we realize it consciously or not, we've been presented many definitions for what 'success' means

You've just heard me list out many big problems in our world to solve. That is one definition of success—to be able to tackle such problems and effect a positive impact at scale. This definition finds inspiration in what Jeff Bezos did with Amazon, or what the The Gates' Foundation did for global health, poverty and women's rights.

But there are other definitions of success as well. One might be a lifelong pursuit of learning and teaching. This definition puts front and center the joy of honing a craft or uncovering new frontiers of knowledge in the world, from physics to ethics, from flash fiction to seaweed foraging, and being able to pass that joy along to others.

Yet another definition of success is about affording certain freedoms—the freedom to express yourself authentically, to live and love and travel however you please, to spend your days free from worrying about food or shelter or safety, or simply the freedom to live according to your values.

Or what about the definition of success as a measure of your mark on your community? You may hear that what really matters is the way you show up for your family and friends, or your neighborhood, team and town.

I can't tell you what the right definition for success is. Just like I can't tell you where the best place on Earth is, or what the absolute most delicious food is, or what the most beautiful feeling in the universe is. No one can, though many will try. But what they will actually be telling you is their own definition.

"How do I live a successful life?" is a deeply personal question. And you must discover the answer for yourself.

If you don't feel you have the answer right now, don't worry! Many of us are still figuring it out. We've just lived through a pandemic, where everything routine was upended. We couldn't go to school, or work, or see our friends and grandparents. We may have known people who have fallen ill or passed away. We've lived under a cloud of anxiety and uncertainty, and many parts of the world are going through it still.

Is it any wonder that this global shock is leading many people to reconsider what really matters, what "success" truly means? We see this in the number of moves that are happening out of big urban areas like San Francisco and New York, or in the number of people who have quit their old jobs to pursue their passions.

But you, graduates of HCDE 2021, you have in your design toolbelt everything you need to figure out what a successful life means to you. So what do I mean by that?

Well, the first thing we learn in design is that you can't solve something if you don't understand the problem, right? That's where research comes in. You talk to the customer. You observe their day-to-day. You ask questions to dive deep into what's working well for them and what isn't.

So turn that research and observation towards yourself, too. Take the time to observe and reflect who you are, and what you care about.

I learned this lesson during a particularly tough period at work. One of the best things I did for myself then was to work with a management coach. I remember showing up to my first session, ready with a giant list of problems I wanted my coach's advice on. Things like, "I don't have a great relationship with my colleague so tell me how to improve it." But the first thing my coach, Stacy, did for me was to ask me a bunch of questions. She asked me to imagine myself at 80 years old sitting on a beach, looking back on my life. What would make me feel like I had accomplished my dreams?

I was flabbergasted. Why would answering this question help me figure out how to have a better relationship with my colleague? But she persisted. And for the first couple of sessions, we went through all those personal questions. She asked me what moments of the day I felt most engaged, so I started to keep a journal. During which activities did I feel the most in flow? What moments made me feel annoyed? Anxious? Proud?

Little by little, I started to see patterns. I'd notice myself feeling calmer when I got a better night's sleep. I realized that I struggled with confrontation because I hated the idea of disappointing someone. I learned that I am hugely optimistic, which makes me effective when it comes to long-term visioning, but less great at managing pragmatic day-to-day execution. And I learned that I love learning, and that is the number one source of satisfaction for my work.

Just like insights about users and their problems inspire you to create better products and services, each of these personal insights helped me create a better environment and plan for myself. I focused on sleep. I worked with Stacy to reframe what confrontation is, which ultimately helped me develop a better relationship with that colleague. I surrounded myself with pragmatists to balance out my dreamer's optimism, and I actively sought out opportunities to learn and grow.

The process of asking yourself questions, of taking the time to reflect on what you love and what gives you energy, is critical in helping you define what success looks like for you.

So let's talk about another tool in our toolbelt: Critique. You know it's power when it comes to design—the earlier you show your work and get input—whether from other designers, your teammates, or customers—the stronger it will be.

How often do you get feedback from your friends and mentors on how you might live a more successful life?

One of the most difficult times I've gone through is after I had my first baby. This low hit me unexpectedly because my labor, delivery, and first few months were wonderful. I was lucky to have a long maternity leave and great support, which sadly too many women still don't have today. But when I went back to work, I struggled. I couldn't sleep. My heart raced with anxiety all the time. I waffled on every decision. I didn't realize it then, but I was in the snatches of post-partum depression.

At my lowest and most desperate point, I sent emails to other women I admired who were parents. This was hard for me to do, since I've prided myself on being able to take care of myself and I didn't want to burden others. Some of these women I didn't know well, but they all agreed to spend time with me. There were many crying sessions where I admitted that I'd completely lost my confidence.

The support and perspective I received changed everything. Every single person I talked to opened up and shared her story with me. They told me that I wasn't crazy for feeling this way, that I was being too hard on myself. I had a picture in my head of what a successful working parent looked like, and I was punishing myself for not fulfilling it. They helped me see that there were many other ways to be a successful working parent, and that not knowing all the answers did not mean I was a failure.

Since then, whenever I find myself facing a fork in the road, a scary new challenge, or a time of uncertainty, my first instinct is to reach out to others who have faced something similar and can help me work through it.

It's an amazing feeling to know that you aren't alone, that you can tackle all the big rocks in front of you if you only open yourself up to feedback.

So what about prototyping and iteration? You've learned that ideas aren't worth much if they exist purely in the theoretical realm. The key is to get them into tangible form as quickly as you can, so you can start getting feedback. When something is real enough for your target audience to react to—for example, seeing an actual mocked-up screenshot, or tapping through a prototype they can experience—the insights become more valuable. And then what you learn then motivates the next round of iteration, which makes your design better and better.

In your own life, it's much the same. You don't need to figure out your definition of success today, or next year, or even next decade. You just need to take the next step into making what's theoretical tangible. Questions like "What kinds of problems do I love to work on?" and "What types of environments are most fulfilling for me?" can't be answered through watching videos, reading blogs, or even talking with others. You simply have to experience them. So prototype the things that call to you. Find the smallest, easiest way to get started.

In my life, writing is an example of that. I've always liked writing in high school and college, but it was hard for me to say things like "My goal is to become a writer and write a book." It seemed like such a massive undertaking. What if I hated being cooped up all day with just myself and a blank page? Plus, I couldn't tell if I had anything worthwhile to say.

One January, I made it a new year's resolution to start a blog. I did this because, at the time, I found it challenging to share my opinion with large groups of people. The fear of not looking like an idiot held me back from saying everything I felt. So I thought I'd get practice on it by publishing some opinion of mine on the Internet every week. For 52 weeks, I just had to hit the publish button once.

It was excruciating at the start, but the plan worked. Little by little, I found my voice. And I realized how much I was gaining from writing. Those blog posts were like little letters to myself every week. They helped me make tidy all the thoughts clanging around in my head. I discovered the joy of writing for myself. Even after that year was over, I kept writing. And I started to develop an audience that encouraged me. Eventually, a publisher read some of my articles and asked if I'd ever considered writing a book. By that point, I knew I could do it.

I'm still iterating on my writing. This year, my goal is to write a tweet thread every week. Given the character limits on Twitter, it's been helping me focus on succinctness and clarity.

My start-up journey came about in much the same way. I'd always been working on side projects. When I was 25, I built a social pets app called (fluff)Friends at a hackathon. You could adopt a cute turtle or dog or kangaroo on your Facebook profile, play games with your pet, and buy it a swanky shelter or other goodies. Within a few months, this project grew to millions of users. I was in no way ready to be a start-up founder at that time, so I eventually handed the project over to someone else to manage. But there were so many magical things about the experience that stayed with me—the creation and creativity, the ability to dream about the future, the sense of possibility. It cemented in me the idea that one day, I could do it again. And earlier this year, that's what I've done. Getting back into starting small, and building and dreaming.

If something strikes you as fun or interesting, you don't have to make it your full-time job. Just like when you design a solution, you don't go out and build it completely with all the bells and whistles. Find ways to test it first.

If you're considering moving to a new city, rent an Airbnb there for a few weeks and try it out. If you're interested in getting into a new field, find folks who do that and interview them. Then see if you can volunteer with them or shadow them.

Give space for your curiosity. Keep iterating on how you do things. There's so much life to live, and many of the great lessons you'll learn will only become real when it happens to you.

In closing, I want to remind you of this: don't get caught up in the cycle of what everyone else is doing. Rely on the tools you've developed over the past few years to discover the best path for yourself.

Treat yourself as your own research subject. Get input from others on your decisions and hurdles. And finally, prototype your interests.

Everyone out there is playing a different game. It's up to you to define yours—what success means to you, and how to design your life to achieve it.

Graduates of HCDE 2021, Congratulations! I wish you all the most amazing journey ahead.