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How Not to Be an Instructional Design Professional

Reading Time: 2 minutes

I just started reading Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work book and I decided I would share my insights along the way. And the first thing I thought of, have read the first section, was the desire to become an expert. While superlatives haven’t made their way to everything in our industry (unlike the software engineering field), we do still grab at the titles “guru,” “ninja,” “rockstar.” Partly because these are whimsical, but partly because these titles signal a measure of expertise and badassery. I have often found myself as striving to be seen as an expert, because the world, the business world, the world of hiring managers, the world of being discovered values expertise. But Austin’s book has got me thinking, what if I backtrack and fully embrace being an amateur?

Perhaps you think this is a false dichotomy, professional/expert and amateur. I think you’re mostly right. The professional should always keep learning, keep trying new things. Still, I think that there is something important in mentally and verbally embracing your status as a lifelong learner, an amateur. As an amateur, you don’t make pronouncements about best and worst. You value feedback and critique and debate. You continue to listen and discover and change your mind about things. You still see several possibilities. There is no way “things have always been.” You challenge and you are challenged. That’s incredibly valuable stuff.

As an actual, real life amateur (!), I’ve seen that play out. I’ve come a long way from my first pretty text-and-next course. I’ve learned a ton from taking apart examples and reading articles. I’ve learned even more from taking time to make stuff every month. I ask a ton of questions and try as many different experiments as I can. But, while I think I’ve embraced the work methods of an amateur, I’ve still been bogged down by the desire to be recognized as someone who, while admittedly new, knew what she was doing. I’ve been reticent to join conversations or to speak, not thinking that I had anything important or different to share. But why? Because I wanted to feel important and heard. But the best way to be heard, as I am continuing to realize, is to continue to speak, work, make things and share them, even if they’re bad. The importance of embracing work as a amateur is to focus on the work, the love of the work and not your professional reputation, or your constructed self. It’s okay for the amateur to make a mistake or make something that doesn’t quite work. The professional avoids these pitfalls.

As I wrote previously, there are many benefits to ignorance. By admittedly not knowing what I’m doing, I’m open to discovery, to different ways of doing and working, to trying and sometimes failing. I’m also open to doing the work to become better. I practice consistently. I know that I don’t know and I’m working all the time to try and fill the gaps. But it can also feel like I’m lacking. Lacking valuable insight, lacking a voice, lacking reach. To my fears and the fears of any creative, Austin shares the antidote:

Forget about being an expert or a professional, and wear your amateurism (your heart, your love) on your sleeve.

Austin Kleon


  1. September 7, 2015 - Reply

    […] As I continued reading Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work, I was struck by his suggestion to document all of your work in progress, even if you don’t share it, just to get better insight into yourself. While I definitely have begun to pay more attention to my process as I articulate it here, I hadn’t thought to take more screenshots so I’m going to give that a go. It also made me think about my current work project. I’m currently working on a face-to-face project, a manual creation process, which is not normally the type of stuff I talk about. But this one was a bit different for a lot of reasons, actually, but importantly because I’m in the process of translating some scenario based information I worked on with the SMEs into stories. And then that got be me thinking, one of the important skills I have to continue to develop as a designer is crafting stories. […]

  2. September 10, 2015 - Reply

    […] recently finished Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work. I thoroughly enjoyed this short read and I’d highly recommend it for instructional designers […]

  3. Sam
    February 27, 2018 - Reply

    What is your personal learning process? I feel scattered trying to keep up with all the new technologies.

    • February 27, 2018

      It’s still difficult, but I use Trello quite a lot to plan out what I want to learn. Using a sprint methodology is also really helpful (assuming that you keep up with them) – that is, take a time period, one week or two weeks, and make a tiny goal. For example, if you’ve found a course you’re interested in, then break that course up into parts and complete it in weeklong sprints (how much can you complete this week?). Similarly, I’ve done the same sort of thing with audio books, tutorials, and other learning materials outside of courses. I think making tiny plans is key.

      The other thing is being okay with not learning ALL THE THINGS. I hang my hat on development, so that’s where I focus my learning efforts. I don’t jump on trying to learn more about new video tools or new platforms for this and that. I focus on trying to be a better developer. It’s the tradeoff of breadth vs depth. Once you’ve figured out what you love about this work, once you’ve tried a bunch of different things, then you can figure out where you want to go deep and be okay with letting the other stuff go.

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