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2021 — a year of unexpected growth

January 2022

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2021 was a year of growth for me, as it was for many of us. We’ve managed to get through another year of the ongoing pandemic — some more fortunate than others.

For me, 2021 will always stand out because I did not work from March 24th to October 10th. I took 6.5 months of parental leave to be my son’s primary caregiver. This was an experience unlike any I’ve had so far, and I’m very fortunate that I’ve had some extraordinary experiences in my life.

To not work, to be a househusband, to take care of a child, to spend more time at playgrounds instead of in front of my computer, and to be reliant on my wife to run the household financially — I’ll be honest — put my identity into question. It was partly due to the stark gender roles that are the norm in middle-class Indian society that I’d grown up with and found hard to cleanse myself of, no matter how liberal I might come across as on the surface. The second reason was that I had attached so much of my identity to my work over the last decade that it was hard to answer the questions, “Who are you?” and “What do you do?” without a slight sense of loss. It was only for half a year — it shouldn’t have been this dramatic.

Luckily for me, those 6.5 months were beautiful. I got to form a strong bond with my son, who is almost just as close to me as he is to his mother. I got to watch him grow, pick up new skills, and be amazed at the most mundane things. I learned to be more responsible, more patient, and more resilient. I learned to truly care for someone beyond myself. Most of all, I learned to lean in further into making a life outside of work.

The reason I attach so much of my identity to my work is also that I enjoy it so much. Design is more than a day job. The act of creating in service of someone else, the practice of making connections between seemingly disconnected threads, the craft of repurposing something that exists to be used in a completely different context, the sense of joy and fulfillment derived from someone experiencing something I helped shape — it’s more than a day job.

In May of 2021, the second wave of COVID-19 was ravaging India. I felt helpless listening to friends and family members sharing tragedies. The news and social media made it worse. I remember feeling a natural inkling to do something — to help in any way I could. It was selfish. I process sadness and grief through action. I started to offer coaching sessions to designers and design consulting to startups in exchange for donations to covid relief efforts. I created a transparent record of the amounts I was able to raise and shared it on Twitter and Instagram regularly. A part of me felt like this was wrong to do and I didn’t want to move the attention to me. But I also realized the power of sharing openly because it kept me accountable and many people have told me that it inspired them to do the same.

During the same time, a friend’s relative asked her if she could find a doctor in Germany that they could speak with because they weren’t able to find a doctor to consult within India. Hospitals and doctors were overworked and under tremendous pressure. As we tried to help my friend’s family find a doctor, we realized that this could be something we can do for many families. We could connect doctors in Germany (and around the world) who want to volunteer their time and expertise with families in India that needed medical consultations. We leveraged my wife’s network as a starting point, who — as it happens — was just about to join a healthcare startup as their Head of Design (our unfair advantage and why we were uniquely positioned to pull this off). One thing led to another, and we ran this effort for a month and helped over 50 families get medical help. Read more about the mechanics of the effort here. I also had my first real conversation with a VC who wanted us to turn this effort into a paid product. I decided to go back to my parental leave instead.

The other thing those 6.5 months away from a day job gave me was time to be mighty curious about the world again. It snapped me out of the routine. I used moments of the day — my son’s late-night wakings that kept me awake, long walks with him in the pram, and grocery runs to listen to tons of podcasts on a range of subjects. I made a long list of my favorites and regulars here. It also naturally meant that I was consuming content outside of the design & tech bubble and was more in touch with real-life happening around me.

I like to think that this time off helped me in my career progression as well. I had already made the transition into formal design leadership at Babbel but the opportunity to be a student again meant that I had time to soak in lots of theory, think about what type of leader I can be, and get the fundamentals in place. My manager readme document is an articulation of some of this thinking. I also joined the Leading Design slack space and the second cohort of On Deck Design to learn from a community of folks who’ve been in design leadership for a while, and peers who’re on a similar journey. I probably would not have taken the plunge and invested energy into these communities that have given me so much, if I wasn’t in a pure learning mind space.

An impactful design leader requires a strong ability to make connections between disparate pieces of information, needs to be stay inspired so they can inspire others, and be mentally and emotionally resilient so they can lead others through uncertainty. Most importantly, they need to be able to communicate clearly — with their team, with other design leaders, with their cross-functional peers, with company leadership, and of course with their manager. This is a skill I know I have to work on the most. Both professionally and personally.

Being a working parent has put me in ample situations where difficult conversations are necessary, so I get enough practice but it’s one of the toughest things to get right. Whether it is to ask clearly for what you need, or learn to stay calm when the baby is screaming and the house is a mess, or communicate with compassion after a terrible night where nobody got any sleep — navigating these situations and finding ways to stay kind to one another has been a challenge and a work in progress.

It’s a skill that I’m going to need to work on to be successful professionally too. Towards the end of my parental leave, I decided to change jobs. I’m not going to go into detail about that in this post — may be another time. I joined Spotify as a design manager. It’s been 3 months now. I’m starting to feel onboarded, and starting to find my groove. After every 1-1 and team meeting, I catch myself thinking, oh I could have said that differently. So yeah, work to do.

Anyway, the really difficult part about the pandemic for me has been the fact that my parents who live in India have not been able to meet their grandson yet. It’s been over 20 months. We’ve tried multiple times, booked flights both ways, but have ended up canceling every time. It felt too risky to take an infant on an 8-hour flight, and then to potentially quarantine for a couple of weeks on arrival. And what if we were to catch the virus when we’re in India? Would we not be able to come back to Germany for another few weeks? How would we work then?

It was all getting a bit much for me and I realized I needed some help to sort through my thoughts and feelings. I chose to start seeing a therapist — online. I feel proud of that decision. The sessions have been difficult to get through sometimes but it’s helped me break down what felt like complex hairballs of issues into smaller isolated chunks that don’t feel so daunting. I don’t think I’ve solved any of those issues yet but this is step one, and I trust the process. Sometimes I go into the sessions thinking I don’t know what I’m going to talk about, and before I know it, it’s the end of the session. Anyway, I’m going to jump into a call with my therapist now.

So yeah, 2021 was a year of growth for me in unexpected ways. 2022 is about building on top of that, plus a little bit of travel, I hope :)