Interview with Liz Fosslien

Interview with Liz Fosslien

November 25, 2019

In their new book No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotion at Work, co-authors Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy share advice on how to cope with workplace scenarios through expressing our emotions, rather than suppressing them. We are thrilled to have caught up with Liz, co-author and illustrator of No Hard Feelings and Head of Content at Humu, to hear more about her new book, and how drawing has long been a way for her to process her thoughts and feelings.

Interview: Matilda Barratt in conversation with Liz Fosslien.

MB: Hi Liz! Thanks so much for chatting with us today. Could you start by telling us a little bit about you? How did you come to do what you do today?

LF: Hello, excited to be here! I’m the co-author and illustrator of No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work and the Head of Content at Humu, an organization that makes work better by making change easier. I studied economics in college but have always been an avid doodler. While working as a consultant in my early twenties, I started putting my feelings into charts and illustrations. One of the earliest projects that I put online was “14 Ways an Economist Says I Love You” (super nerdy!) but economists seemed to like it, which gave me the motivation to continue drawing in a more serious way.

MB: We believe that drawing is a universal language, and one which stretches far beyond the realm of visual arts. Drawing is a vital tool in so many professions: From mathematicians, to surgeons, therapists to engineers. Given your background in economics, combined with your passion for all things creative, do you agree that drawing plays a significant role in all walks of life?

LF: Absolutely. Illustration is a lovely way to make any topics more engaging and accessible, especially if you can also inject them with humor. XKCD is my favorite example. I find some of the cartoons so funny that when I come across one where I don’t understand the underlying concept, I’ll actually go and look up the physics or math so I can laugh at that cartoon, too. I received similar emails about my economist Valentine’s: people told me they researched economics to better understand and laugh at eac Valentine. That makes me so happy! I so strongly believe that what we consider stodgy and boring can suddenly become delightful when presented anew.

[Image from No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotion at Work, published by Portfolio, 2019. Courtesy of Liz Fosslien.]

MB: Expressing our emotions in the workplace remains a reasonably alien concept to most people, despite work-related stress being so incredibly common. This is an issue that you and Mollie West Duffy tackle head-on in your new book ‘No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotion at Work’. Could you tell us a bit about the book, and what inspired you both to address this topic?

LF: Mollie and I wrote No Hard Feelings to spread a simple message: it’s okay to feel feelings. Early in our careers, we both thought that emotions at work were “taboo” or “unprofessional.” And so every time we were anxious or excited or frustrated, we frantically tried to suppress those same emotions. We now know that trying to check your feelings at the door is counterproductive. Humans are emotional creatures! By ignoring our feelings at work, we send emails that cause unnecessary anxiety, we fail to make work meaningful, and we are more likely to burn out. If we can learn to harness our emotions, we can make better decisions, increase our motivation, and improve our teamwork and leadership. And that’s where our book comes in.

MB: Your illustrations are so effective and relatable. Could you share with us a bit about your creative process?

LF: I am a constant note-taker. I found it too cumbersome to carry a notebook with me wherever I go, so I usually just send myself texts as ideas pop into my head or if I have a particularly funny conversation that could lend itself well to an illustration. Here are a bunch of these kind of texts I recently sent to myself: “weather forecast,” “coffee and garbage can,” “sharing and oversharing firehose.” They’re semi nonsensical, but contain enough info to jog my memory and help me ensure I don’t forget a fun idea.

When it comes to actually putting pen to paper, I’ve found you can get a lot done if you take an hour or two to just sit and think of ideas. No phones, no computers, no other people. My favorite strategy is to tell myself: “I only have to do this for five minutes, and then I can stop.” After five minutes, I almost always find myself having fun and wanting to continue.

[Image from No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotion at Work, published by Portfolio, 2019. Courtesy of Liz Fosslien.]

MB: I understand that drawing has long been a way for you to process your thoughts and feelings; why do you think that it is such a great tool for expression, and outlet for emotion? Moreover, why do you think it is important to encourage people to embrace the many benefits of drawing?

LF: Drawing is the closest thing I have to a meditative practice. The lying-down or sitting-still type of meditation makes me too existential. I don’t like scanning my body for sensations or observing my thoughts. Creating art is a beautiful way to calm down while still doing something active with your body and mind. And it’s easy to do alone! When I feel gloomy, I’ve learned to embrace my desire to rest or retreat. This quiet time gives me space to reflect and come up with ideas—and to then turn those ideas into art. There’s a cool economics paper (stay with me!) that shows that the composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Franz Liszt were more likely to create important works during the years when they experienced a lot of negative emotions.

Drawing is also lovely because if you’re doing it for yourself, you don’t need years of training or expertise to get started. If you can’t draw a perfect human figure, then just make some abstract scribbles! Or start with simple shapes and turn them into characters that have doodled adventures. I started with extremely basic cartoon figures but still had a lot of fun with it.

MB: Do you believe in such a thing as a ‘happy accident’, and the power to learn or develop from our mistakes? If so, are there any experiences you can point to from your own life that would support this?

LF: I think whether or not an accident is “happy” is largely within our own control. Reframing your thoughts (e.g. by moving from “I always mess things up” to “What can I change so I’m better next time?”) is such a powerful way to both improve your mood and see mistakes as learning opportunities. I was so unhappy in an early consulting job that I quit and took a job serving coffee at Starbucks. I initially saw that Barista job as a boring, temporary way to make a little money, but I ended up learning so much about design. Starbucks changes the lighting and music based on the time of day to create different emotional experiences for its customers. Once I learned that, I kept asking questions and found myself fascinated by how small tweaks can have large effects on how we feel about a brand or space. Figuring out what small behavioural changes have a big impact on our feelings at work is now part of my full-time job!

[Image from No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotion at Work, published by Portfolio, 2019. Courtesy of Liz Fosslien.]

MB: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

LF: “The worst thing we do is bravely step out of the mold but then stupidly use someone else’s rubric to judge our own lives every day. If you're going to forge your own path, then do so without judgment. It is a beautiful thing to want something for yourself that originates from you.”

MB: Is it ever too late to unlock your creativity? What advice would you give to someone who would like to give drawing a go, but doesn’t feel they have the skills or the confidence?

LF: It is never too late! The renowned chef Julia Child began taking cooking lessons in her mid-thirties—one of her early attempts at preparing a meal ended with an exploded duck—and didn’t publish her first cookbook until she was fifty-one.

If you don’t know what you want to do, then just do something. Pinpointing what kind of work you’ll love without working is like trying to choose a spouse based only on their Tinder profile. Paul Graham said it best -- 'Always produce' will discover your life’s work the way water, with the aid of gravity, finds the hole in your roof.

Recreate something you find cool to learn new skills. When I wanted to pick up basic CSS, I built a website. I had no idea what to put on it, but I wanted the homepage to look like this French ad agency’s beautifully designed portfolio. Having a clear end goal in mind helped me focus and stay motivated as I slogged through code.

Make something everyday. The most creative people tend to be regimented about their work. Ernest Hemingway started writing every morning as soon as he woke up; Kanye West has attributed his success to 'doing five beats a day for three summers'. Daily Rituals: How Artists Work is a great book if you want more of these fun facts. And it’s fine to mix your media. Write 250 words about an octopus, lie on the floor and take the most interesting photograph you can, or try a new recipe, as long as you’re making something regularly.