13 Human Qualities You Must Have to Succeed in Work and Life

September 2, 2014

This article was inspired by a discussion at last week’s Silicon Valley IxDA meeting, where Daniel Szuc and Josephine Wong spoke on the topic “Sleepwalking + Designing for a Healthy Future,” which got me thinking about what qualities one must have to be an effective UX professional. So much of success derives from mindset rather than skillsets, and mindset takes a lifetime to develop—or, for those of us who believe in reincarnation, multiple lifetimes. Your mindset derives from your life experiences and the way you respond to them, as well as what you learn from those who influence you greatly—such as your parents, mentors, and spiritual teachers.

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In their book Put Your Mindset to Work: The One Asset You Really Need to Win and Keep the Job You Love, James Reed and Paul G. Stoltz say:

“Your mindset is about what you see, think, and believe. … It is the internal lens through which you see and navigate life. Mindset influences everything you see, as well as everything you do.”

Mindset is who you really are at your core. It’s your habitual way of thinking. While it’s not easy to change, the purpose of life is to evolve and become better a human being. So you should think about these human qualities from time to time and always endeavor to do better. Your mindset is what really differentiates you from your peers. If you work hard at developing what Jo Wong likes to call your human qualities, you’ll set yourself up for success in work and in life.

“Men acquire a particular quality by constantly acting in a particular way.”—Aristotle

Having the right mindset can be a competitive advantage when you’re seeking employment or advancement. According to Reed and Stoltz:

“Given the choice between someone with the desired mindset who lacks the complete skillset for the job and someone with the complete skillset who lacks the desired mindset, a total of 96 percent of the employers surveyed picked mindset over skillset as the key element in those that they seek and retain.”

These employers also believe that it’s much more likely that a person with the right mindset will be able to develop the required skillset than that a person with all the hard skills would develop the right mindset. Plus, the tactical skills that jobs require change over time, while the desired mindset is a constant. This is especially true of user experience jobs. The tactical skills that it takes to be a UX professional are forever evolving.

Essential Qualities of UX Professionals

There are several qualities that it is especially important for UX professionals to have. These qualities are at the core of what makes UX professionals successful: empathy, intuition, creativity, passion, and the desire to learn throughout their career.

1. Be Empathetic

empathy—“The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”

Oxford Dictionaries

First and foremost, UX professionals must be empathetic. As a UX professional, the primary focus of your work is on the wants and needs of the people who use the products that you create. Empathy enables you to understand other people’s motivations, needs, and emotions more deeply, and you can use that understanding to create better products for them. Having empathy lets you accurately perceive people’s needs—without your own lens introducing any distortions or occlusions. Whether you’re a UX researcher, strategist, or designer, empathy is an essential quality for you to develop. Being empathetic lets you look at things from different people’s perspectives and internalize what you see.

Having empathy—whether for colleagues, family, or friends—comes from focusing on someone else’s needs, struggles, and feelings. It requires that you open your heart to them and put their needs before your own. That you be fully with them in the moment. That you look deeply into their eyes and really see them for who they are. You need to be open to many different types of people from many different cultures. But you can’t connect with people when you’re feeling worried, defensive, angry, frightened, or ashamed.

“Empathy is about standing in someone elses shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place.”—Daniel H. Pink

“If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other persons point of view and see things from that persons angle, as well as from your own.”—Henry Ford

2. Be Intuitive

intuition—“The ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning.”—Oxford Dictionaries

Having intuition is being open to the mysterious workings of your own mind—seeing what is or what might be clearly in your mind’s eye. Sometimes, through intuition, holistic solutions to problems may arise fully formed—or very nearly so—from your subconscious mind. At other times, your intuition may give you just the seed of a great idea. Intuition lets you draw connections between diverse inputs without conscious thought. The effort lies in gathering the relevant data for your subconscious mind to work on.

Intuition often plays a strong role in decision making. You rely on intuition when you must make decisions and take action on them very quickly, the problem or the solution is ambiguous, or there's no precedent to follow.

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”—Albert Einstein

“You have to trust in something—your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”—Steve Jobs

“Sometimes making a decision is hard, not because it is unpopular, but because it comes from your gut and defies a technical rationale. Much has been written about the mystery of gut, but it’s really just pattern recognition, isn’t it? You’ve seen something so many times you just know what’s going on this time. The facts may be incomplete or the data limited, but the situation feels very, very familiar to you.”—Jack Welch

3. Be Creative

creativity—“The use of the imagination or original ideas, especially in the production of an artistic work.”—Oxford Dictionaries

Being creative is allowing your intuition to reveal possibilities to you and following them in the moment—in other words, it’s being in flow, which Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,as follows:

“The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something we make happen. … [Flow is] a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it. … [Flow lets people] achieve a joyous, self-forgetful involvement through concentration, which in turn is made possible by a discipline of the body.”

What prompted Csikszentmihalyi to do research on the flow state? According to Wikipedia:

“Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his fellow researchers began researching flow after Csikszentmihalyi became fascinated by artists who would essentially get lost in their work. Artists, especially painters, got so immersed in their work that they would disregard their need for food, water, and even sleep. Thus, the origin of research on the theory of flow came about when Csikszentmihalyi tried to understand this phenomenon experienced by these artists.”

Being in flow is a sort of meditative bliss state, in which your mind is more fully concentrated than at just about any other time. Great ideas come to you when you lose yourself in your work. Some of the best creative experiences come from working in collaboration with others—especially when you can achieve a flow state together. Flow brings joyfulness to your work.

Flow is all about focus, which is the antithesis of the monkey-mind nature of most people’s experience of the Web—with the mind jumping quickly from one thing to another. Just as with meditation, you can get better at calming your mind and connecting with your creativity through practice, practice, practice.

The source of creativity is your imagination. When creating, you synthesize all of the ideas that you’ve taken in from myriad sources and, magically, all of those inputs fall into place, forming a cohesive whole. This is your intuition at work.

All creativity involves improvisation—whether you’re designing user experiences, acting on a stage, jamming with a band, doing some form of creative writing, or making up a new recipe.

“To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle requires creative imagination.”—Albert Einstein

“Creativity is just connecting things. … Creative people … [are] able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”—Steve Jobs

“The organizations of the future will increasingly depend on the creativity of their members to survive. Great Groups offer a new model in which the leader is an equal among Titans. In a truly creative collaboration, work is pleasure, and the only rules and procedures are those that advance the common cause.”—Warren Bennis

“Creativity is contagious.”—Albert Einstein

4. Be Passionate

passion—“An intense desire or enthusiasm for something.”—Oxford Dictionaries

Being an effective UX professional requires great drive, enthusiasm, and focus. To sustain the level of effort and concentration that the work demands, you must have a passion for your work. With passion, your work ceases to feel like work. Your passion keeps you focused on your goals, enables you to get things done and take risks when necessary, and makes it possible for you to realize your vision. Always strive to do great work! Don’t settle for less. Don’t compromise on quality.

Love your work and you’ll have the motivation to continually hone your skills and expand your areas of competency, as you must forever do in this field. When you work with passion, you can reach your full potential.

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”—Steve Jobs

“Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.”—Aristotle

“You have to be burning with an idea, or a problem, or a wrong that you want to right. If you’re not passionate enough from the start, you’ll never stick it out.”—Steve Jobs

5. Be a Life-long Learner

learning—“The acquisition of knowledge or skills through experience, study, or by being taught.”—Oxford Dictionaries

Being a life-long learner is a quality of successful people. Having the motivation and the ability to learn and grow throughout your life is an essential quality in today’s fast-changing world—especially for UX professionals. You can learn through reading and deep reflection—but most of all you’ll learn through life experience. You can learn by questioning things—and asking the right questions enables you to solve problems. Often, you’ll learn from your mistakes, so life-long learning requires that you have the courage to keep taking risks.

In a field that is as broad and fast-changing as user experience, it’s important that you keep learning throughout your career. Sustaining your commitment to continuous learning takes curiosity about the world in which you live and a desire to improve your mind. The more you learn, the more you can contribute in the workplace and the more likely you’ll advance in your career.

“Learning is a life-long process of keeping abreast of change. And the most pressing task is to teach people how to learn.”—Peter Drucker

“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”—Albert Einstein

Qualities of Effective Team Members

Qualities that make you more effective when working with other people or on teams include being a good listener, being persuasive, being responsible, and being a leader.

6. Be a Good Listener

listening—“[Taking] notice of and [acting] on what someone says; [responding] to advice or a request.”—Oxford Dictionaries

Listening well is the key to effective communication. Focusing on both what people say and how they say it ensures that you accurately receive the messages people communicate to you. Paying attention to their use of language, tone of voice, body language, gestures, and emotional affect increases the probability that you will be able to correctly interpret their meaning and understand what you hear. Listen for people’s ideas, not just to their words. When you listen well, you’ll experience fewer misunderstandings and make fewer mistakes.

Effective listening is especially important when doing user research. Having empathy, being a good listener, and using your intuition will together make you a superior researcher. Everyone opens up when someone listens to them attentively and shows avid interest in what they’re saying. When you really connect with research participants, you’ll learn more from them and understand what they’re saying better. Once you’ve listened well, following up with good questions demonstrates both that you’ve really heard someone and your interest in what they’ve said.

All too often, people are so eager to speak themselves that they don’t really listen to what others are saying. When people end up talking all at once, you can’t hear what anyone is saying. So being a good listener will set you above your peers who don’t listen well.

When you’re collaborating with a product team, you never know who will contribute the best ideas. So you must draw out all of your teammates and pay careful attention to what everyone says, listening with a laser-like focus to be sure that you take in everyone’s inputs.

“If we were supposed to talk more than we listen, we would have two tongues and one ear.”—Mark Twain

7. Be Persuasive

persuasive—“Good at persuading someone to do or believe something through reasoning or the use of temptation.”—Oxford Dictionaries

As a UX professional, you must persuade others to embrace your ideas and follow your plans to get anything done. You have to persuade stakeholders to adopt your strategies and fund your projects, sell your design ideas to your design team and product team, and get developers to faithfully execute your designs and, thus, bring all of your hard work to fruition.

Your confidence in yourself and your ideas will help you to persuade others, as will your ability to make your case logically and use storytelling to provide supporting evidence. But always remain open to the ideas of others, too, and support the best ideas whatever their source. It doesn’t really matter who has the best ideas. To achieve success, what matters most is incorporating all of the best ideas into the design and, ultimately, the product.

There’s really only one way to get people to do what you want them to do, and that’s to persuade them that it’s what they want to do it. It’s a lot easier to do this when your design direction has grown out of other’s ideas, as well as your own; everyone on the team was part of the creative process; and the entire team has a sense of ownership of what you’ve created together.

“If you wish to win a man over to your ideas, first make him your friend.”—Abraham Lincoln

“If you would persuade, you must appeal to interest rather than intellect.”—Benjamin Franklin

“To be persuasive, we must be believable; to be believable, we must be credible; to be credible, we must be truthful.”—Edward R. Morrow

“Questions are often more effective than statements in moving others. … Since the research shows that, when the facts are on your side, questions are more effective than statements, don’t you think you should be pitching more with questions?”—Daniel H. Pink

8. Be Responsible and Kind

responsible—“Capable of being trusted.”—Oxford Dictionaries

kindness—“The quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate.”—Oxford Dictionaries

It’s essential that you do your best to meet your obligations to your colleagues. If you promise to do something, you should try very hard to fulfill that promise. Yes, sometimes things change—so it’s no longer desirable to move forward with something—or circumstances may prevent your doing something exactly when you said you’d do it. But in either of these cases, it’s your responsibility to discuss the problem with your colleagues and, together, determine the best way forward. There’s nothing quite as disappointing as relying on someone to do something and having them go incommunicado or disappear on you.

Don’t overcommit yourself. If you have a hard time saying no to people, you’re likely to set yourself up for failure. To prevent your disappointing people, avoid over-promising and under-delivering. If anything, you should do the opposite—that is, under-promise and overdeliver—but never deliberately under-promise in an attempt to make yourself look like a hero. That would just be dishonest. Nor should you make yourself look like a slacker by committing to doing too little work.

It’s important to be respectful of the people with whom you work. Treat your colleagues as you would like them to treat you. Being kind to one another makes the workplace a happy place to be, smooths the team’s interactions, and helps everyone to be highly productive. When your teammates are struggling, show them compassion and help them to get through tough times.

Demonstrating generosity toward the people with whom you work will set you apart from peers who are overly competitive or focused on self-advantage. Always share ideas and information freely with your teammates to enable them to do the best job they can do.

“Acting responsibly is not a matter of strengthening our reason, but of deepening our feelings for the welfare of others.”—Jostein Gaarder

“A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depend on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving.”—Albert Einstein

9. Be a Leader

leadership—“The action of leading a group of people or an organization.”

Oxford Dictionaries

You don’t have to have any particular title to be a leader. Teammates typically share the responsibility for leading a team, and whoever has the necessary information and know-how to handle a particular situation takes the lead in handling it. If you have leadership qualities, you can function as a leader whenever a situation arises that requires that you take the lead, set the team’s direction, or make decisions. Those who are actually working in leadership roles must always take responsibility for leadership in their area of purview.

Great leaders set forth a vision and live up to it. They communicate their vision and goals with clarity and inspire their teams to meet them. There is always alignment between what they say and what they do. The best leaders are forward-looking, competent, intelligent, and broad-minded. Effective leaders model good human qualities for the people who work for them, including honesty, fairness, straightforwardness, dependability, cooperativeness, determination, imagination, ambition, courage, caring, maturity, loyalty, self-control, and independence. They care for the people who work for them, delegate responsibility to them, and support them in what they do. They praise publicly and, when necessary, criticize or reprimand in private.

“It’s not the absence of leadership potential that inhibits the development of more leaders; it’s the persistence of the myth that leadership can’t be learned. This haunting myth is a far more powerful deterrent to leadership development than is the nature of the person or the basics of the leadership process.”—James Kouzes and Barry Posner

"Good leaders make people feel that they’re at the very heart of things, not at the periphery. Everyone feels that he or she makes a difference to the success of the organization. When that happens people feel centered and that gives their work meaning.”—Warren G. Bennis

“Leadership is lifting a person’s vision to high sights, the raising of a person’s performance to a higher standard, the building of a personality beyond its normal limitations.”—Peter F. Drucker

“The leaders who work most effectively … understand their job to be to make the team function. They accept responsibility and don’t sidestep it, but ‘we’ gets the credit…. This is what creates trust, what enables you to get the task done.”—Peter F. Drucker

“Leadership comes from integrity—that you do whatever you ask others to do.”—Scott Berkun

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”

—Peter F. Drucker

Foundational Human Qualities

Qualities that form the foundation of all other human qualities include honesty, integrity, courage, self-awareness, and wholeheartedness. These qualities define who we are as human beings.

10. Be Honest and Have Integrity

honesty—“The quality of being honest,” or “free of deceit and untruthfulness; sincere.”—Oxford Dictionaries

integrity—“The quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; moral uprightness.”—Oxford Dictionaries

Being honest means telling the truth and being straightforward and open with people. A very wise man once said, “Tell the truth, but never a harsh truth.” People with personal integrity always try to do the right thing, regardless of whether anyone would ever know what they’ve done. They have a strong moral compass. It takes courage to do the right thing whatever the consequences. Integrity is a valuable quality in everyone, but it’s vital in leaders. Your honesty and integrity will engender trust in others.

“In looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if they don’t have the first, the other two will kill you.”—Warren Buffet

11. Be Courageous

courageous—“Not deterred by danger or pain; brave.”—Oxford Dictionaries

Having courage gives you the tenacity to work through issues and disagreements without compromising your principles. Don’t be afraid to speak out and make your opinions known—particularly if you’re the lone voice representing user experience. Master your fears and insecurities and take a stand. Live up to your values. Do the right thing. Often, you’ll derive courage from the need to stand up for others—whether users, colleagues, or the people who work for you.

You must have the courage of your convictions. For example, if you truly believe that you’ve made the right decision, don’t be dissuaded from following through on it—unless someone makes salient arguments against that course of action that truly persuade you that you should change your decision.

In their “Sleepwalking…” presentation, Dan Szuc and Jo Wong included this wonderful quotation on courage from Maya Angelou:

“Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency.”

“The mediocre mind is incapable of understanding the man who refuses to bow blindly to conventional prejudices and chooses instead to express his opinions courageously and honestly.”—Albert Einstein

“Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”—Steve Jobs

12. Be Self-Aware

self-aware—“[Having] conscious knowledge of one’s own character, feelings, motives, and desires.”—Oxford Dictionaries

Self-awareness—knowing what your strengths and weaknesses are and acknowledging what you have yet to learn—requires mindfulness and deep reflection on your thoughts, your emotions, your motives in your interactions with others, and what is happening in your life. It is a valuable quality that everyone should cultivate, but it’s an especially valuable quality in leaders.

When you don’t know the answer to a question or the right solution for a problem, or you’ve made a mistake, don’t be afraid to admit it. Other people are usually aware of your ignorance, weakness, or mistake anyway, so trying to hide your deficiencies just shows a lack of integrity and inevitably results in the loss of their trust and respect. In contrast, admitting your weaknesses increases your credibility and engenders trust. Plus, by acknowledging that you need help, you’ll receive the help that you need and achieve a successful outcome.

As Chris Musselwhite, CEO and Head Product Designer of Discovery Learning Inc. wrote in his article “Self-Awareness and the Effective Leader,” for

“When you acknowledge what you have yet to learn, you’re modeling that, in your organization, it’s okay to admit you don’t have all the answers, to make mistakes, and most importantly, to ask for help. These are all characteristics of an organization that is constantly learning and springboards to innovation and agility—two hallmarks of high-performing organizations.”

13. Be Wholehearted

wholehearted—“Showing or characterized by complete sincerity and commitment.”—Oxford Dictionaries

Being wholehearted is the quality that allows you to embrace all of the other virtuous human qualities that I’ve described in this article.

In her book Daring Greatly, Brené Brown writes about having the courage to form deep connections with other people and live a more wholehearted life. She says:

“Wholehearted living is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. … The main concern of Wholehearted men and women is living a life defined by courage, compassion, and connection. The Wholehearted identify vulnerability as the catalyst for courage, compassion, and connection. … Vulnerability is the core, the heart, the center, of meaningful human experiences.”

Brené Brown has defined ten “guideposts for Wholehearted living…:

  1. Cultivating Authenticity: Letting Go of What People Think
  2. Cultivating Self-Compassion: Letting Go of Perfectionism
  3. Cultivating Resilient Spirit: Letting Go of Numbing and Powerlessness
  4. Cultivating Gratitude and Joy: Letting Go of Scarcity and Fear of the Dark
  5. Cultivating Intuition and Trusting Faith: Letting Go of the Need for Certainty
  6. Cultivating Creativity: Letting Go of Comparison
  7. Cultivating Play and Rest: Letting Go of Exhaustion as a Status Symbol and Productivity as Self-Worth
  8. Cultivating Calm and Stillness: Letting Go of Anxiety as a Lifestyle
  9. Cultivating Meaningful Work: Letting Go of Self-Doubt and ‘Supposed To’
  10. Cultivating Laughter, Song, and Dance: Letting Go of Being Cool and ‘Always in Control’”

If you’ve never watched any of Brené Brown’s TED talks, check out “The Power of Vulnerability on YouTube. It’s truly inspiring stuff!

In Conclusion

In this article, I’ve described some human qualities that all UX professionals should embrace if they want to be effective in their jobs. By manifesting these qualities in your work, you’ll ensure your success. Jo Wong is very right in saying that much of this foundation comes from our parents, but we also learn these qualities from our mentors, spiritual teachers, and, ideally, from the leaders for whom we work. That’s one reason why being a leader is such a huge responsibility. 

Principal Consultant at Strategic UX

Founder, Publisher, and Editor in Chief of UXmatters

Silicon Valley, California, USA

Pabini Gabriel-PetitWith more than 20 years working in User Experience at companies such as Google, Cisco, WebEx, Apple, and many startups, Pabini now provides UX strategy and design consulting services through her Silicon Valley company, Strategic UX. Her past UX leadership roles include Head of UX for Sales & Marketing IT at Intel, Senior Director of UX and Design at Apttus, Principal UX Architect at BMC Software, VP of User Experience at scanR, and Manager of User Experience at WebEx. Pabini has led UX strategy, design, and user research for Web, mobile, and desktop applications for consumers, small businesses, and enterprises, in diverse product domains. Working collaboratively with business executives, multidisciplinary product teams, and UX teams, she has envisioned and realized holistic UX design solutions for innovative, award-winning products that delighted users, achieved success in the marketplace, and delivered business value. As a UX leader, she has facilitated conceptual modeling and ideation sessions; written user stories; prioritized product and usability requirements; established corporate design frameworks, standards, and guidelines; and integrated lean UX activities into agile development processes. Pabini is a strategic thinker, and the diversity of her experience enables her to synthesize innovative solutions for challenging strategy and design problems. She is passionate about creating great user experiences that meet users’ needs and get business results. A thought leader in the UX community, Pabini was a Founding Director of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA).  Read More

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