Unpicking Problems, Making Waves, Being Hands On

Originally published at: A Day in the Why
Publication date: February 3, 2022
Topics: Interview

Donna Spencer is a talented designer, author, conference organizer & speaker based in Australia whom I had the pleasure of meeting first in 2013 at Midwest UX. She is incredibly gracious and smart as a whip, so I was thrilled she agreed to join me to chat about her experience navigating the world of design, tech and training.

Themes that surfaced again and again were FREEDOM and FLEXIBILITY. Remote vs onsite… 9-5 calendar days vs. choosing your own hours…and the idea that these days, high performance folks don’t want to prove their worth by ‘showing time in a seat’… rather, we want to do so by ‘delivering value’ in whatever form that takes.

We dive into the challenges of looking for good gigs in this weird time in history, take a look at the admittedly first world problem of ‘being a bit too famous in an industry’, and how hybrid approaches to gainful employment can work.

Transitions from one phase of your working life into another is something I’ve always been fascinated with, and it was a joy to learn about what’s around the corner for Donna, who is actively building the tracks as she steams toward her dream.

Unpicking Problems, Making Waves, Being Hands On

by A Day in the Why Podcast


Richard Lee 0:07
Welcome to A Day In The Why podcast, where I talk with fascinating folks about the jobs they’ve held, the things they’ve learned, and how well those line up with their values and goals. You may just learn something, but I hope you’ll at least laugh along with us as we dive into the mistakes we’ve made, the lessons we’ve learned, the secrets behind how we got where we are today, and where we’re going tomorrow.

Richard Lee 0:29
Today’s guest is Donna Spencer, a simply delightful design consultant I first met about nine years ago, in Michigan of all places. A friend of mine, Christian, had given me some wise counsel a couple of years prior, around 2011 sounds about right. Given my goal of getting back into design after a number of years in technical leadership roles, he suggested I immersed myself in user experience material, including some tried-and-true design conferences. So along with devouring books, jumping at chances to speak, and publishing short articles on design topics, it was on a journey to Grand Rapids in 2013 where I was fortunate enough to meet Donna and some other leading UX minds of the day.
Despite being a respected, published, and practicing designer with scads of experience, she was kind to me, a UX noob trying to get up to speed quickly by building on an old-school design background. We’ve kept in touch  sporadically over the years, and our interests and availability aligned for this episode of A Day In The Why. Welcome to the show, Donna!

Donna Spencer 1:29
Thank you. That was a really nice intro. I do try to be kind to everybody.

Richard Lee 1:36
I’m really happy we’re here today, together virtually, because we’ve both been thinking hard about topics like “finding meaning in one’s job” and “finding the right fit” and “creating a path for yourself.”

Richard Lee 1:48
Now, I know you’ve made some changes in your day to day somewhat recently. And that you ran into some perhaps unforeseen side effects of being a “famous UX author.” Maybe you can sketch a really quick background of who you are and what you’ve done in the design scene over the years. Does that feel like a good place to start?

Donna Spencer 2:07
That sounds great. So I’ve been working, you know, as a practicing designer. That isn’t what we’ve always called it – there were times when it was usability practitioner, there were times when we called an information architect. Right now, and in our context, designer is a good enough term. And I’ve been doing that for twenty-ish years. And through that process, I’m a fairly sharing person, which I think we’ll probably talk about a bit later as well.

I’ve always spoken at conferences, and I’ve written five books, some of them pretty skinny, but I’ve still written five books. Which means that I see myself as a kind of fairly regular person, but it means that because I have been on stage (I also ran a large conference here in Australia), so I’m fairly well known to people. This is really weird to think about. People think of me as something relatively special.

Donna Spencer 3:08
And I was at a point in my career where I changed cities. Although I had a fairly good network, the network wasn’t really there for people just to call me up for work, which is how I’d previously gotten work in a previous city, because people knew me there, and they knew to call me. And people would approach me to do a project. So I moved, and the projects didn’t come to me.

Donna Spencer 3:35
So I had to kind of learn, how do I get work? And I tried to apply for contract work. I got lots of, not even rejections. So I got lots of being completely ignored … 

Richard Lee 3:48
Being really ghosted …

Donna Spencer 3:49
Because I was really experienced, and it was just like, what the hell is happening? And so I’ve got some contract work, and then after a couple of months somebody approached me about a permanent position. I thought, okay, well, yeah, I’ll give that a go. Did it for a year or so – didn’t work that okay. Wasn’t perfect.

Donna Spencer 4:12
Then I picked up another piece of contract work that somebody approached me for a while through COVID. And got, again, to a point where I realized, okay, I need to find work. I applied for things and got no answers. What is going on?

Donna Spencer 4:31
I finally decided that I would kind of make a little bit of noise about it on LinkedIn. And I said, “Oh, it’s because somebody actually had said to me, ‘I didn’t want to approach you because I thought you’d be too busy and too famous.’” And I said, what’s going on?

Donna Spencer 4:47
So I said on LinkedIn, “I’m available. I’m not too famous. I’m not busy.” And a bunch of people responded to that and said, “Oh, yeah, we were thinking of you but we thought you’d be too busy.” And this is through a period where I’m wondering, how do I keep paying my bills? And so once I said it, it was also a good chance to throw my ego away and stop thinking that people needed to come to me. Because I was so special that people should approach me for work. You know what? The best way to find work is to say, “Hello, world, I am actually available. I would like to do these kinds of things. And actually, I’m not too busy, too famous, too anything to work with you.” And guess what? That actually worked.

Richard Lee 5:42
Well, that’s certainly what caught my attention. Now I hadn’t heard from Donna in a while. And then I saw that post. And at the time, I was deep in a job search myself. As an aside, how long would you say that you were in that period of looking and not getting any kind of traction because of this unnoticed effect?

Donna Spencer 6:04
Oh, a good couple of years. And so I wasn’t looking for work that whole time. I picked up some contracts, I then took a year in a job. But during that time that I was in a job, nobody was saying, “Hey, Donna, come do a project for us.” And I’m realizing, “Oh, this has really gone away.”

Richard Lee 6:22
And you were a consultant. I mean, it was your thing to pick up individual, temporary gigs and move from one to the other and apply your expertise and solve the problem and then move on.

Donna Spencer 6:31
Yeah, and I liked doing project-based consulting. I like starting something by delivering the thing that I needed to wrap it up. And going away, I didn’t actually love doing kind of in-house contract work. Where you’re just there for three months as a body. But this is what the work looks like. I like the flexibility of contracting and freelancing, as well. So I wasn’t quite ready to do the exceptional amount of research that’s needed to take a permanent job.

Richard Lee 7:12
Was it beginning to grow in the back of your mind that that might be the next step in the evolution with or without a contract?

Donna Spencer 7:21
No,I was fully intending on keeping contracting. This last time when I said, “Hey, I’m available,” somebody who I already knew had posted on LinkedIn that he was doing a new thing. I thought that sounded really interesting. So I said, “I’m available.” And he said, “Hey, Donna, let’s chat.” And we chatted, and I’m going, okay, this is something that I could do, that I could commit to, that I wouldn’t feel like I’m taking a risk by committing to it, that I can trust will be … I mean, you can’t tell the future.

Donna Spencer 7:57
But you can, you can hear that I’ve kind of had some bad experiences with work. I’m a little bit burned by some things where I can be nervous taking something on, which is also why contracting was fine. Because if it doesn’t work out, it’s fine. But these people who I’m now working with, I knew well enough. And I respected them like mad, so I thought, I could make a commitment to you.

Richard Lee 8:26

You had enough positive signals coming to you that it was overwhelming your natural reticence?

Donna Spencer 8:33
Yeah, enough positive signals. Okay. Let’s do this.

Richard Lee 8:40
But I think you made it clear that this wasn’t something you were locking yourself into, that you were still going to be able to have the freedom and flexibility to do whatever you wanted outside of the responsibilities of that particular role. Right?

Donna Spencer 8:53
Yeah. So first thing I said was, can I work four days (a week), because one of the things that I like doing and that I have done for the last couple of years is tutor for a couple of universities. So at some point during the year, I often go to undergraduate, an undergrad graduate UX capstone class. And other times of the year, I tutor some bootcamp-style programs. And I also like to do lots of crafty things, and I actually want to, I’m still aiming at my grown-up job, which is to set up a sewing school. I wanted the flexibility to be able to still take on those kinds of things that interest me. So I immediately asked, “Can I work four days?” And they’re agreeing, yeah, of course. So that still gives me – you’ve just heard me say it a ton of times – flexibility and variety. That still gives me that freedom.

Donna Spencer 10:02
I think a lot. I know, I was just reflecting on – I’m really not good at commitment. So I’ve committed to something. But I still have some … I don’t feel locked in. And I don’t feel tense about it.

Richard Lee 10:21
You’re using these “freedom” and “flexibility” words a lot. But these are words that are resonating across the last couple of years. And more and more people are raising their hand and saying, “No, this, this isn’t working for me anymore. If you want to keep me, you’re gonna have to parlay, we’re going to have to come to terms, maybe that’s working from home, maybe that’s four days a week, maybe that’s the understanding that, no, I’m not just going to work for you, I’m going to work for for them. And them and them. And, hey, you can call foul if my performance drops at all. But otherwise, we have to have that kind of arrangement.”

Donna Spencer 10:55
Yeah, and one of the things that’s been working out super well, over the last few weeks, as I’ve just moved house, I needed to do a bunch of emergency repairs to the house I’ve moved into. So I needed to be able to work around plumbers and electricians and not take time off. So I’ve been working flexibly around that – I can do some time in the morning, I can talk to the electrician, I can do some work while they’re here, I can do some stuff, and I can finish up things that I might need to do later. So I’ve also got some nice flexibility around work that needs to be achieved. But nobody’s saying, “Donna, please sit at your desk nine to five, and prove that you’re present.” I’d prefer to actually be proving that I’m delivering than proving that I’m present.

Richard Lee 11:45
Do you want a body in a seat? Or do you want valuable output?

Donna Spencer 11:50
Yeah. To deliver valuable output, and I don’t reckon we’re really suited to eight hours of a body in a seat. I mean, even if we get up and have a cup of tea, I reckon my brain hits about five hours, and I’m kind of done. There’s not much more here. If I’ve done five good, productive hours, it’s nice to be able to go okay, I’m feeling tired and low energy, I’ve done enough. Why don’t I go and go for a walk or pick up some groceries? And then I’ll come back and do some more when I’ve refreshed my brain.

Richard Lee 12:28
The ritual of being able to switch tracks is really refreshing. I know you said you recently moved from place to place but you also moved cities. We haven’t really addressed the fact that you’re not a local compared to most of my audience here. Right? Where are you broadcasting from?

Donna Spencer 12:50
Your audience will be able to tell that my accent is not the same as yours. So I live in Melbourne, Australia, and I’m Australian, I grew up Australian. Speak such good Australian.

Richard Lee 13:06
Speak good Australian … Yes. (laughter) No, I’ve always enjoyed talking to you, not just because of your accent, but because you’ve got a really good sense of humor. And then you laugh in Australian too. So that’s great.

Donna Spencer 13:18

Richard Lee 13:22
Well, that was helpful. For a little background. I like to ask this – and this kind of references your whole career in design leadership – but including all the writing years, and all the teaching years, and all the conference-management years, if you could minimize or surgically remove some aspect of that career, what would that be? If anything?

Donna Spencer 13:44
So I’ve been an at least half-time to full-time single parent for about fourteen years; my daughter’s now twenty-three, but I broke up with her dad when she was eight. And we shared care of her, but a lot of the time I had her half-time and that meant that I was the only person who was going to put food in our mouths. There was no, there’s no buffer there. So there were lots of times when, just because of necessity, I was also working in Canberra, which is a
government town. It’s not very large. There wasn’t a lot of high-quality UX work there through the late, late two-thousands. So a lot of times, I just took work that came my way. Just to pay the bills now.

So that meant that I didn’t have a really good focus on where I wanted my career to go, or what path I wanted to follow. I didn’t like structure or have set goals and to figure out what I wanted to do with myself. Which also kind of definitely led to that spot where I was in a spot where I’m going, oh, hang on, what do I – how do I, how do I do this thing. 

Donna Spencer 15:18
The reason though, that I wouldn’t surgically remove it, really, is because by taking work that was available, I learned a lot of really interesting things. So if I took a piece of work – a bit of information, architecture work, but also needed some content writing, then I could say, well, I can do that, too. And then I would spend some time content writing, which meant that I got a bit of a skill there. Usually, when I picked up a piece of work like that, it would present initially as one thing that needed to be done. And then the people I would work with would realize that I’m good to work with, enjoyable to work with, and produce quality. And they’d say “can you help us with this? Can you help us with this? Can you help us with this?”

Donna Spencer 16:03
So I learned a lot of things that you don’t necessarily get if you are set on a goal of I want to be going here and doing these things. And I’m going to be really strategic about the work I pick up. So I learned. There was one role where we were working in an Agile team. I’d worked Agile before our product manager, when during our holidays, the product had a big pivot, I had to pick up the product management, and also the Agile coaching at the same time. And lead a team. And I learned a lot from doing that. And I’m glad that I did it. But really, I was there to do some usability testing.

Richard Lee 16:45
And I guess if you’d had blinders on, or you were “too proud” to take that kind of work, too discriminating, etc., you wouldn’t have had the experience of learning those practices. And have, I think, a tangible increase in confidence from picking up new skills that spread across everything.

Donna Spencer 17:03
Yeah. And it means that when I do talk with people about the kind of work that I like doing, I always say, I like working in multidisciplinary teams, where we just dive in and get done what’s done, what needs doing. And I can do that, because I’ve got a really broad skill set. I don’t do programming, but I do loads and loads and loads of other things that a team needs. I don’t just do wireframes, don’t just do kind of strategic design. I will, I’ll do that bit. I’ll do that bit. I can help you out. I can do the testing.

Richard Lee 17:33
I can say I had trouble – I was just jotting down some notes a couple weeks ago, preparing for this. I started out with Donna, a designer, and then I kind of backspaced and said, an information architect, then I backspaced and said, a consultant and I backspaced … Okay, this is tough. This is tough.

Donna Spencer 17:53
And also is why when I was applying for jobs, people would look at my … I don’t know what’s happening there. But I think people would look at my CV and go, oh, she doesn’t fit into a box. She doesn’t fit into this box. Too bad. It’s too hard to find somebody who fits into the box easily.

Richard Lee 18:11
So we’ve talked about broad strokes. What do you think about early on? What would you say the most influential stepping stones were in your life that led to this path? You didn’t just spring fully formed into this design consultant able to do all these things. Was that the influence of family or friends or a first job that you held over the summer? What does that look like?

Donna Spencer 18:34
I came into it in an eclectic way, as well. So I was just working in a government job. And this opportunity popped up in a team and I learned about usability testing and information architecture, back in the day in probably 2000. And I think that I, what really is kind of fundamental, is that I’ve always been good at figuring out stuff from first principles. And I don’t know whether this is just my brain, but I can’t trace it back to anything that put me on a path. But the thing that I know about myself is that instead of going, okay, well, how does everybody else do it? What’s the best practice? I go, okay, what are we trying to do here? And I can unpick and start somebody from scratch.

Donna Spencer 19:23
And that meant that I’ve been able to pick up a lot of skills as I’ve gone. But I think that kind of relates to your question, how my family are all our hands-on practical, creative family. My mum’s a dressmaker. My dad is an electrician, but he also did extensions on our house and I watched him build and he was good. He’s really good with cars. So we’re all really hands on. We’re all really good at making things and we’re all good. We’re all good at that kind of problem solving or “do I have a need to get a thing working in some way? How do I do it?” So I think those skills come from my family. My sister and brother are exactly the same. We’re all kind of good at just figuring out how to make something that needs to be made. And that certainly fits really nicely into a design career of being able to unpick a problem and figure out how to solve the problem, but not in a way of “oh, yeah, that website looks like that website, so I’m going to make wireframes.” You know, what are we really doing here?

Richard Lee 20:36
Well, yeah, problem solving. And then by definition, to do that, you have to define the problem. Right? You have to understand the problem.

Donna Spencer 20:42
And I think that’s something I’ve always just easily been able to do.

Richard Lee 20:49
What was the government job that you were in? It wasn’t design related at all, I’m guessing.

Donna Spencer 20:53
No, no, it seemed like when I went to university, I don’t come from a well-off family at all; I put myself through university. In Australia, at the time, I got my first year of university paid for by the government. But in my second year, the government brought in fees, and they’re not anywhere near the kind of volume that tuition is in the U.S. But I didn’t have any help. I had to put myself through university; I worked three jobs, I had to pay my own way. I just didn’t have any support. Nor did I expect to. So I got out of the end of university, without a good-quality degree. My economics degree is full of passes, because I was working three jobs to put myself through uni, which meant that I got out without job offers, and I joined the government, but I topped the way to get into the government at the time as you’d sit a test. And I topped the test.

Donna Spencer 22:00
I’m pretty smart. I just didn’t do very well in my degree, because I had to work three jobs. So I just joined the government, I was living in Canberra, and I started in a filing part of an organization, running around, doing files, eventually moved a couple of departments. And I ended up working at the Bureau of Statistics, which was really great, because I have a natural affinity for math and statistics anyway. And so when I was working there, I used to publish our labor force survey. So kind of just routine government work.

Donna Spencer 22:37
And that’s where I found the web, because somebody on the web team said, “Hey, we need a person who can help us with this implementation, where our website’s going from about ten-thousand pages to about a couple hundred thousand.” Because they put their statistical catalog behind that. This is early, early information architecture as well. Okay, that seems pretty good. And that’s where I learned about usability and information architecture, with the timing being kind of perfect.

Richard Lee 23:09
Man, that is perfect. You said something about having to put together statistical reports. And weirdly, I died a little bit because that description would not have made me want to join. I would not have signed up for that. (laughter) And I would not have learned all the things that you learned.

Richard Lee 23:28
So I want to switch gears for a little bit and talk about values and goals. And you mentioned goals earlier, not really having clear goals in mind. I’ve come to believe that many of us don’t actively reflect on our values and goals very often. But I found that stepping through that exercise can be really valuable, especially when you’ve gone through life changes, or lots of time has passed, since you’ve last sat down and kind of run through that kind of exercise. You
get to see if your values have changed. And whether you’re using your time in a way that’s in alignment with your current values and goals, whether or not you know what those are. Once you know what they are, you can make that check.

So could you sum up the values you hold most dear and be as general or specific as you like?

Donna Spencer 24:17
I’m glad you gave me some warning about this. But I also listened to the episode where you were interviewed on your podcast. You were interviewed by a colleague friend. And I’m glad you gave me some heads up because I’m not… I don’t think about my values very much. I don’t have them articulated.

So I started thinking, what are the things where I react in a way that’s probably a way of figuring out what my values really areI would say that I have strong values in sharing and educating and teaching. That is certainly a really core part of me. I started as a trainer at McDonald’s when I was fourteen. I’ve always ended up in roles where I’ve mentored. I’ve always thought about how to assemble things that I know and be able to teach it. So that’s what part of my conference involvement is, teaching and sharing what I’ve learned. That’s why I put time aside to do tutoring at university.

I was talking to somebody the other day about these things as well. And I like being able to share what I know – it’s super important. I also have – I don’t know how to phrase this kind of value – but I know that the times that I’ve reacted to situations are often when I see people who aren’t able to not kind of stand up for themselves, but who were in a situation that’s hurting them, but they don’t have the power to do something about it. So I’ve certainly been in organizations where I’m perceived as a troublemaker, because I’m defending or acting on behalf of other people.

Richard Lee 26:36
So, making waves, but not for yourself, for someone else who isn’t able to engineer any kind of a change.

Donna Spencer 26:42
And that’s not always obvious to the people who are seeing me make waves. It’s rarely obvious to the people who have seen me make waves. But clearly, I don’t just go to be a troublemaker. I only make trouble when I see something that is really bothering me or I see something that is really hurting people. So I don’t know what you would call that. But that’s certainly part of my value set.

Richard Lee 27:18
I guess you’re protective. You like to defend or protect or guide. I think there’s an alignment there with teaching as well. Right?

Donna Spencer 27:27
I’d say so. Because teaching is all about seeing where somebody is now and figuring out ways of getting them where they want to go. This is a really good insight, like seeing somebody in a position where they can’t be the best or can’t do what they need to do, because something’s happening. And being in a position to make some waves and get things resolved so that you can get out of that situation. There’s some kind of care for people going on there. 

Richard Lee 28:01
I guess in teaching, perhaps they’re kind of in a neutral spot, and you’re looking to help them into a more advantageous spot, whereas on the flip side, they’re in a negative spot, a dangerous spot, and you’re helping them get to safety. And in those cases, you’re looking to apply your expertise, your abilities, your insights, your fortune in life and helping them change theirs.

Donna Spencer 28:27
And then the situations where I kind of feel it in my gut, where I want to go do something about this. I think they’re my kind of core values. It’s an interesting thing about being creative as well. And making things – I don’t know if it’s a value – but I literally couldn’t live if I couldn’t make things with my hands.

Richard Lee 28:48
I don’t know, I’d phrase it that you value exploring your potential or exploring the unknown. But I get it – you feel you’re driven to make.

Donna Spencer 28:59

Richard Lee 28:59
Are there any goals that you’ve got that are kind of in line with these values? And by the way, I really like how you kind of described eliciting your values by listening to that quiet current, like you’re watching a river and you see where the river kind of bubbles up. You think, “oh, there must be a rock there. I can’t see the rock, but I can see the presence of the rock”, right? I can’t see the value, but I can see the presence of the value. So there must be something there that lines up with these underwater values.

Donna Spencer 29:29
We started talking about that “finding employment” journey and a couple years ago, I thought, “okay, tech is becoming difficult for me, because I’m getting older.” I felt like I was seeing some ageism in this process. I was starting to worry that I wasn’t going to get work in my field as I got older. I thought “okay, what am I going to do?” The thing that I really, really, really, really want to do is teach people how to sew, teach people how to make things as well. Those just things come together.

Richard Lee 31:12
You giggled so much at that. Why is that so funny?

Donna Spencer 31:16
It’s funny but it actually goes back to those values, like wanting to teach people to sew or wanting to teach them to make something. It seems small to me when I say it out loud. But I really want to teach people to be able to make things so they can feel amazing about themselves. Because being able to sew means that you can create what you want to and express how you want to express yourself no matter what kind of body you’re in; being able to teach people how to make their own clothing is actually quite amazing. There’s just something in my head that went, teaching people how to sew seems small.

I started thinking about what I might need to set up and what kinds of things I would need physically; clearly I was going to need to have a space where I could have sewing machines and tables and things like that. And then I stumbled across this property that I’ve now bought – an old shop. So there’s a big store in the front and then a house on the back of it. So now I’m on this path, I’m still working in tech, I’m still doing great work, designing interesting products. But I know that I’m on a path of setting up to spend a really big chunk of my time teaching people how to make things and really teaching people how to feel good about themselves. Because clothing is such an expression of who we are.

Richard Lee 33:12
Do you think you’re going to be limited to physically present students? Or is there any way you could remotely teach this type of thing? Or is it just too tactile, too analog, to really be efficient? 

Donna Spencer 33:24
If I have the ability to choose how I will do this, I will start with students physically. Doing it remotely is actually quite a different activity. I could teach people how to sort remotely, I could set up classes, I could create videos, I could create content, but that turns into a marketing activity, because then I have to get it to people. If I teach people how to sew in my studio, I only need six to eight people at a time who are interested in doing it. I don’t have to make the whole thing about a big marketing activity. But putting a lot of effort into creating online content needs a bigger audience to make it worthwhile.

So yes, I could do it at a distance. But no, it’s not my preference. The marketing of it isn’t where my heart is. There really is a tactile element, especially for fitting – like just being able to help people understand “if you go like if you pinched here”… I shouldn’t gesture like this because we’re on audio. “And you change that seam” and we do a little thing here with our hands. 

Richard Lee 34:34
For my listeners, she’s being very pinchy. (laughter) I asked about that because my daughter just got a sewing machine for Christmas. And she’s very much a maker, a creator, a designer in her own right. She’s looking forward to that and it’s been interesting how few local instructors there are for that sort of thing anymore. If I find someone local, then they’ll be more of a treasure than just about any other person who would teach you a trade or a craft, just because there’s a scarcity.

Donna Spencer 35:11
When we’re doing something remotely, that means you have to do everything with language instead of by showing. If she’s got something that she’s working on, I have to then say, “Okay, pick up the left-hand piece and fold it over so it sits neatly on the right-hand piece, and line this up and pin the pins horizontally.”

Richard Lee 35:35
The barriers of translation that you have to go through are really clunky.

Donna Spencer 35:39
Yeah, if she were here, I could show her one time. I could unpin it, I could get her to do it herself so she could learn with her hands. Teaching with words is hard, as well. All achievable. But if I can teach physical humans in person, it’ll be way more fun.

Richard Lee 35:58
I get the sense that you’ve done so much in terms of marketing, in terms of producing content for sale, in terms of more the commercial end of creation, that it feels like this is maybe a little bit of a rebound – a reaction back to the more analog, the more personable, the more touchable, the more “no strings attached” – none of this other stuff, the cruft of modern civilization that you don’t really get anything out of. And it doesn’t get to the heart of what you’re really looking to do here.

Donna Spencer 36:28
Yeah, that’s the way I can just have people to talk to in my studio, and I can show them how to do some things and we can have a chat. What I really want is a connection with people. And a chat.

Richard Lee 36:44
Yeah, I totally get that. I mean, that was one of the main reasons I wanted to do a podcast So I can have conversations with real people in real time. That’s a big win.

Donna Spencer 36:55
It really is.

Richard Lee 36:57
So you have been pretty productive across your career. How do you get stuff done? What works for you? Are there any tips, tricks, rituals, habits, or practices that you feel influenced your success in working and remaining aligned with what you’ve discovered are your core values?

Donna Spencer 37:17
You can probably tell I’m naturally a fairly organized person, or else I certainly wouldn’t have gone into work like information architecture and arranging and structuring content. I also wouldn’t work through large amounts of things and organize them if I wasn’t kind of fairly organized anyway. I always have to-do lists; I don’t carry around things in my head. A long, long time ago, I read Dave Allen’s Getting Things Done, and it really clicked with me. In the book he talks a lot about how the worst thing for you to do is be carrying around in your head a list of things that need to be done. So you externalize that and make sure it’s in a place where you will be reminded to do the thing when you need to do the thing. So you know, getting stuff out of your head and writing things down.

Richard Lee
Really? knowledge in the world.

Donna Spencer
Yeah. So I quit writing down a shopping list for groceries, because I have a Google Home. Now when I’m in the kitchen and I’ve run out of coffee, I can tell Google Home “Hey, add this to my shopping list.” Which means that when I’m at the store, I can ask myself, “What did I need?” And it’s all there already. I’m not carrying around a list in my head, or chanting that “I need coffee, I need coffee, I need coffee.” Just being that level of organized, and making sure I externalize things, is a great life trick.

For bigger projects, I actually sit down and plan them and I write everything down and I get it out there. You already know I’m doing this big renovation project. I’m renovating a whole house, and there is a lot of “I can’t paint the walls unless I’ve bought the paint. I can’t buy the paint unless I figure out what color it needs to be. I can’t figure out what color it needs to be unless I’ve already done some kind of design work.” So I track back a lot of those activities. And again, in Getting Things Done, he asks, “What is the next thing you can actually do on this?” What’s the next task you can do? The task isn’t “paint the walls”, the task is “figure out what the room design is” so
you can buy the right paint in the right color, so that you can paint the walls.

Richard Lee 39:44
It’s the next possible thing, or the adjacent possible.

Donna Spencer 39:47
That level of being organized is a good life hack. Some people start projects and don’t actually finish them – actually finished, right through the end. I get them done, and I feel a lot of pride and achievement in finishing something, tidying it up, wrapping it up, and saying “this is completely done.” It’s not just that I finished painting, but I finished painting, I’ve cleaned up the mess, I’ve swept the floor, whatever I needed to do to make sure that the job is done. A job isn’t finished when it just looks like it’s finished.

I’m good at actually completing and finishing work. I’ve always got a backlog of things that I want to do, and I’ve got that list written down. I’ve got a huge backlog of sewing patterns that I want to try and things I want to do. When I feel like doing some sewing, I can look up my inspiration and go, “Oh, that’d be cool. Why don’t I go do that?”

Richard Lee 41:00

I’m laughing because I literally have as part of my next question here, “What are some areas that you think can stand some improvement?” And I give the example of “For me that’s staying organized and finishing projects,” verbatim.

Donna Spencer 41:19
I think this is just easy for me and is not easy for everybody. A lot of times, it’s easy to start and not easy to maintain the momentum through the “boring” bit – painting walls can be boring. I also make sure I’ve got some audiobooks that I really want to listen to, so I can make sure that I make the work fun as well. With all my craft projects, there’s always something else going on. I’m always listening to podcasts or an audio book, something that elevates repetitive work. I’m not just going, “Oh, this is boring.”

Richard Lee 41:57
You’ve got to deal with the passage of time to get the thing done. But you can make the passage of time more pleasant.

Donna Spencer 42:02
Some people do it with music. When my daughter’s here and we’re painting together, we choose a year and find a playlist and listen to the music for that year, and it’s super fun. It makes the painting of walls a really great activity. Another thing I have done in the past, something I probably need to do again over the next couple of weeks again, just to get a bit more work organized is time-block stuff. I go over the week, identify the things that need to be achieved, and determine that I need to put forty percent into this thing, twenty percent into that thing, ten percent into this other thing so I know what my priorities are. I don’t think I’ve been doing that great over the last couple of weeks just because of a bit of distraction, but I know what my priorities are. So I don’t kind of just react to somebody asking me to do a thing to go ”these are where I need to focus.”

And I’ve done that before with time-blocking my calendar. So I’m going to spend two hours on that thing, then I’m gonna have some lunch, and then I’ll spend two hours on a different thing. Then I’ll do some admin. I’ve done that at times when I feel like I’m getting a little bit scattered; it works for a while, and then I’m less scattered and I don’t need to structure anymore.

Richard Lee 43:19
You mentioned people like to start things, and I’ve definitely been guilty of that, but it’s not so much that I like to start things as that I’m confident that I can do things. For a while I thought, “well, if I can do it, I should do it.” I’ve gotten better at saying “no”, or saying “not right now.”
Brewing beer, for example. That’s something that I would love to do at some point. I don’t have time for it. I don’t have any new equipment. And I know if I went down that rabbit hole, there are a lot of other things I wouldn’t be able to do. So I’m just saying not right now.

Donna Spencer 43:53
Not right now – yeah. Stick it in your backlog. You can read about it in between, you can be aware of it so you can see inspiring things.

Richard Lee 44:04
I’ve learned a little bit by doing some adjacent stuff. I fly a drone commercially – videography and still shots and whatnot. I met a local brewer, a master brewer, who’s been doing this for thirty or forty years, and I said, “Hey, look, teach me a little bit about what you do. Just give me a layman’s explanation. I’ll come in, I’ll do some filming. And anything that I do, you can have for free, if you need promos or whatever. If it’s something that I can use my time and allows, I’ll put a promo together for you for free.” In the process, I got to see a big microbrewery and learn a lot about how beer is made from a master brewer. I got a lot of interesting stories and some great footage.

Donna Spencer 44:47
That’s it. And then you can figure out how you scale it for yourself. Do you just go out and buy a kit? Have you make a first batch at home from a kit? That’s what my ex did. And then that turned into a kit plus hops, which turned into actually making the stuff from the grain. You can start easy and then scale up. Yeah. Or start easy and stay easy, right?

Richard Lee 45:14
So what kind of link do you think exists between hobbies and careers? Because you’ve kind of ventured into that “hobbies into things” as a connection.

Donna Spencer 45:21
Absolutely, hobbies as the things that use your core skills that really give you joy, that then stretch you. You shouldn’t be trying to do hobbies that you’re terrible at. I think mostly our hobbies are things that we know we’re good at. Certainly for me, my hobbies and my career use a lot of the same skills, kind of at that foundational level, like problem-solving, being creative. I need to actually do all the work to get to the end result. But I think you’ve got to be careful that your hobbies don’t use so much of the same skill set as your work that you end up burning yourself out. You want them to be different enough that you really shouldn’t need a relief from work. They’re okay, I’ve done my work. I’ve used the energy that I had for that. Now I’m going to use a different style of energy; you don’t want them so similar. I certainly see this in people. They work as a programmer, and then their hobbies are programming, as well. The same energy source. I think they need to be different enough.

Richard Lee 46:37
I think that’s why you – recoiled is too strong of a word. But you kind of recoiled at the idea of doing remote tutelage for sewin

Probably, yeah, I think that’s probably why, because it’s – too much of it overlaps too closely.

Whereas sitting down with somebody and laying your hands on theirs and showing them how to do a fold and having that one-on-one relationship, that is far enough away that it doesn’t feel like
you have the overlap. And it doesn’t use the same energy.

Donna Spencer 47:01
If I was spending the majority of my time teaching face to face, then putting effort into creating online content for teaching sewing probably wouldn’t feel like something I didn’t want to do, because it would be different enough. I think I said a few times I like both flexibility and variety. 

That matters a lot to me. If I was already teaching sewing most days, then my hobby could be doing that online. When I’m working online and doing video calls all day, the idea of doing more of them … I don’t want to sit in this same chair any longer. It’s hard on your body to do the same thing over and over. I want to get out of my chair and not sit in front of this damn computer.

Richard Lee 47:46
I think flexibility is one thing. But variety is also another really, really important thing for folks like us. We’re just about out of time, so I want to zoom out just a little bit and ask two questions before I kind of pass it over to you. You’ve kind of addressed this already, so it can be the same answer. But if you could go back, what major decision would you change, if anything?

Donna Spencer 48:05
You gave me a heads up on this. I actually was thinking about it. I’m going to go right back to secondary school. When I was in secondary school, I was really good at mathematics, physics, chemistry, the sciences. This is the eighties – there was no way of finding out on the internet what the world of work looked like. So you kind of relied on career advisors and teachers; they really just kind of pushed me toward doing stuff like accounting. So I went to uni and did accounting.

I wish that I knew then that there was something like art restoration or costume restoration, or something in historical costuming or historical fashion. I wish I knew that there was anything like that there that could have been done, because I would have done something like that. Who knows where I would have ended up? I wish I hadn’t just been pushed along a line. Everybody’s saying I’m good at math, I should do these things. I pushed back on that when I was in year 10, a couple of years before you finish schooling. We had work experience and everybody thought I should go and work in an accountant’s office or a bank or something.

Richard Lee 49:18
Sounds like maybe an internship?

Donna Spencer 49:21 
No, it was only within school and you did it for three or four weeks to get an idea for what a job might be. We call it work experience. Anyway, I decided I wasn’t going to do any of those things. I’m gonna go work at a florist. And everybody was horrified. Like, why would you go work at a florist? You’re the smartest kid in school!

Because you’re telling me that I should do something else.

Richard Lee 49:42
And did you love it?

Donna Spencer 49:44
I did quite like it. I still went to university and studied accounting. Because as I said, I needed to put groceries on the table. I followed what people said that I should probably do. That’s what I would undo. I would do something from scratch in the creative industries.

Richard Lee 50:09
I would argue you probably could learn the same types of or apply problem-solving skills regardless of where you ended up.

It probably would have.

What is next for you? Maybe it’s continuing to remodel and moving slowly toward that goal of having an actual facility with in-person students and slowly weaning off of all the tech?

Donna Spencer 50:32
Yep, we’ve pretty much covered it. Honestly, I think this is the first time in my life where I’ve actually set a goal that feels right, that doesn’t feel like I’m just doing it out of necessity. I think about it all the time. It gives me tons of energy, and I’m really driving toward it. I think it’s the first time I’ve really had this in my whole life. I’m going to work toward teaching sewing.

Richard Lee 51:02
I will follow you avidly to see where this ends up. Before we sign off, if you’d like, could you please tell us how we can find out more about you, if there’s anything you’d like to share with our listeners, any words of wisdom or causes that you’d like to make us aware of?

Donna Spencer 51:17
To find me, for folks who are listening who use LinkedIn professionally, I’m easy to find on
LinkedIn. But do please tell me that you “met” me here, because it’d be really nice to know that that’s how you heard about me. You just look up Donna Spencer. That’s my main kind of social media. That’s the main place you can connect with me and follow me. I do play on Twitter a little bit. I’ve got an Instagram, but I don’t do very much there and I can’t remember my username. I can give it to you later, though. My Twitter is “maadonna” with two
A’s at the beginning. So Madonna with two A’s. It’s a place to find me. I don’t really have any causes at the moment.

Richard Lee 52:01
Well, thank you so much, Donna. I hope you’ve enjoyed this as much as I have. I hope this episode finds somebody out there at just the right time in their own life, and that this message really resonates. Maybe you’re thinking of switching careers, or reading a book, or maybe you just need to architect yourself out of a terrific mess of information. Speaking of listeners, to you fine folks out there, the only thing I ask is if you enjoyed this episode, if this chatter around the unique ways people end up in the roles is interesting to you,  please leave a review on whatever platform you’re listening to this on. And if you feel so inclined, like us on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram.
Until next time, stay focused on your why!