What is your life’s purpose?
My life doesn’t have a succinct purpose or a noble end-game; I’m simply here to experience, to work, to produce, and to teach.
How are you living your purpose?
The human experience is one of emotion, achievement, failure, and—most importantly—production. Making things offers the most fulfilling and valuable path of contribution and self-discovery possible. I’m living that experience. I make things and I teach others to make things. These are physical things, like ceramic pots and wooden vessels. They are digital things, like mobile phone applications and websites. And, they are conceptual things, like design strategies and organizational structures.
How did you find your purpose?
I discovered the value of making things myself when I was young. I studied ceramics with a well-known potter in New York for 15 years, where I learned to make beautiful hand-thrown clay vessels. This was an experience of frustration and growth, and in addition to learning a craft, I found what it’s like to want something badly, and the long and hard path towards getting it. Some people have innate abilities in certain areas; I do not have that in ceramics. But my desire to become competent was so strong that I was able to persist through an arduous emotional rollercoaster of pride and shame.
I discovered the value of helping other people make things early in my professional career. I landed a job as a professor at an art school. An art school is probably one of the few places that will hire a 24-year-old who has no teaching experience. I slowly became a good teacher, and as I did, I realized how much making things is intertwined with self-worth. As students learned the skills to make things, they gained an understanding of their own value, and more importantly, their own agency. Their skills allowed them to manipulate the world, and that gave them voice, power, and identity.
What advice do you have for purpose seekers?
I don’t know how to find a purpose, and something about the idea rubs me the wrong way. Having A Purpose seems full of commitment and expectation: as if there’s a right and a wrong way to go about this experience of life, and if you don’t know your purpose, you are doing it wrong. I’ve seen how much this weighs on younger professionals and adds unnecessary pressure to their lives. Instead, I coach my students to learn a joy in shaping the world, and to learn to be autonomous. Gaining autonomy through knowledge and craft means that we have the ability to change the way things are, and to realize that the world is malleable. Everything around us, except nature, is human-made, and so it can be changed. As students realize a set of craft skills in making, they also realize their power and ability to shape things to be more closely aligned with their developing morals, values, and vision.
What resources do you recommend?
I find inspiration from a variety of other thought leaders with both similar and sometimes contradictory views. Academically, I follow the work of Carl DiSalvo, who focuses on citizenship and design. Additionally, I enjoy reading Alan Cooper’s perspectives on design. I think the work Aarron Walter is doing is impressive in its detail. And I’m always inspired by Jan Chipchase, who I worked with at frog, as he’s driving a very progressive view of design.
Many of the students I interact with want to both gain creative design skills, and do something to help the world. The school I founded, Austin Center for Design, teaches students to be social entrepreneurs through a lens of design. Students learn craft in making and power in changemaking.
Additionally, I published a free book that introduces the idea of “wicked problems” and offers a variety of ways to begin to tackle and think about those problems.
And, I’ve found that many people in a position of influence want to share their experiences and abilities with others, but don’t know how. I can empathize; I had no idea how to do this when I first started teaching. I published the free book How I Teach to offer the things I’ve learned over the last 15 years of teaching.
Jon Kolko is the author of Creative Clarity, Partner at Modernist Studio, and the Founder of Austin Center for Design. Previously the Vice President of Design at Blackboard, he has worked extensively with both startups and Fortune 500 companies. He has been a Professor of Interaction and Industrial Design at the Savannah College of Art and Design and has taught at the University of Texas at Austin, the Center for Design Studies of Monterrey, Mexico, and Malmö University, Sweden.