Shifting your mindset can make you a better designer

Catt Small
5 min readMay 26, 2024


The way you view the world impacts much of your life — including how you operate at work. In moments of struggle, a change of perspective can help. With a subtle shift, you might be able to reclaim agency and move from a defensive to proactive position.

I began thinking about the concept of agency early in my career. After meekly completing an internship where I only did what was asked of me, I received a LinkedIn recommendation that seemed to be about another person: it said I was the kind of person that “sits in meetings without being asked” and watched teammates “interact with clients”. While I certainly asked for additional work once I’d finished a task, I never did anything quite as bold as what they described!

Upon reflection, I realized my behavior was influenced by my education. Through my public schooling, I had learned not to speak unless permission was given and to never disagree with authority figures. I was not at all prepared for a world where people wanted (and expected) to hear my voice!

This window into what was expected of me as a design practitioner pushed me to take up more space. In future positions, I challenged myself to speak up and fight my prior conditioning. I shared my opinion more. I began my public speaking journey. I set qualitative career goals. I left jobs when they weren’t serving me.

After years of personal work and growth, I landed a Staff Product Design position at a software company. They sent me a book called The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership as part of my onboarding. It crystallized a lot of what I went through into a great set of ideas that I think everyone should consider in a work context…

  • While you can’t always control outcomes, you can control how you act in a situation.
  • The way you perceive the intentions of those around you affects the way you show up to them.
  • Openness and curiosity can be contagious.
  • Radical candor kills the need for gossip and can create a psychologically safe environment.

One year later, I attended an incredible series of workshops by the HmntyCntrd team. It helped me realize that while I was a much more proactive person, I still had moments where I gave up my agency. In these moments, I was triggered by fear of loss and rejection.

I spent the first 10 years of my career fighting for recognition and demanding the most of my managers. It was exhausting, and I always felt unsatisfied. The peace I’ve felt since I changed how I think about work has impacted me a ton.

How mindset shifts can help your…

Design work

When you reclaim your agency and operate from a perspective of abundance, you start to ask valuable questions. This can unlock the space you need to do your best work. I’ve written about the power of setting expectations as a product designer; that’s an example of shifting power into your favor. Never take on work without evaluating the goals behind what you’ve been assigned and the effort required to do it.

Worrying less about loss or the way others perceive you gives you more headspace to concentrate on delivering the best solution. Curiosity can unlock ideas you wouldn’t have considered if you took direction from others without forming your own perspective. And ownership of outcomes is a key part of leadership, so you might stumble on a promotion too!

Relationships with collaborators

Earlier in my career, I had the occasional situation where I absolutely assumed the worst about someone-malice, incompetence-without considering other potential stories. While there are absolutely times when coworkers can be jerks (political or abusive), many times people are just operating with their own goals in mind. By asking them to shake their story, you can build bridges instead of defensively burning them.

That designer who is overly critical of your work might be getting direction from someone else. The product manager who seems hard to work with might have been incentivized to be that way. The story goes on and on. What might happen if you ask them what’s on their mind lately?

Relationship with your manager

Lastly, your manager will sigh with relief when you take on a more active role in your career. I used to be the kind of report who raged about the way a company under-leveled me, and the pressure I applied to my managers (who can’t unilaterally make that decision) put an undue burden on my relationships. When I took control back into my hands and let go of my ego, everything got easier.

Instead of waiting for my manager to say good things about me to higher-ups, I built relationships around the company so it was impossible not to know me. Instead of taking on an unsustainable workload that made me feel resentful, I reduced my output to one that made me feel like I was paid appropriately. Instead of waiting for my manager to assign me to impactful projects, I proactively began to identify them and explain why they were important for the company.

Over time, my managers went from adversaries to co-conspirators. I have immense respect for most design managers; they’re usually squeezed from above and below. Shifting my expectations of them and building more empathy helped me see them as they actually are: humans doing their best to get through the day, just like me.

And I let go of anything out of my control. That includes promotion timing, re-orgs, ideas that I was super excited about but the company wasn’t, and anything else that added mental weight. After all, the work I do is ultimately in service of the company, and the company its customers. None of that is about me.

It’s not all sunshine and roses, but it’s worth it.

If this sounds like a lot of work, it is. Change doesn’t come easy! But every conscious step you make counts toward you being a better designer, coworker, and person.

Of course, I occasionally slip into old and familiar patterns and you will, too. You might escape environments you don’t like instead of running toward ones you do. You might gossip about what is happening to you without finding something you can do. You’ll definitely focus your energy on things you cannot control. What matters is recognizing when you are doing these things so you can reclaim your energy.

To be absolutely clear: none of this means you shouldn’t care about the quality of your work, defend yourself from malicious actors, or make an effort to be compensated fairly. In fact, it hopefully means you can free up energy and have the clarity to invest in what matters to you even more. That extra energy might also help you recognize when a job is no longer serving your interests — and when you can’t change the situation at hand.

I hope this encourages you to think about the ways you can step into more agency as a designer. Check out the following resources to get started:

Want to discuss this more? Hit me up for some mentorship time on Merit.

Originally published at on May 26, 2024.



Catt Small

Product Designer, Programmer, Game Developer, Artist, & karaoke ♥er. Bronx-born & raised. She.