With three technical degrees and a successful career in technology, Beant Dhillon found a new way to connect to the world through art. Having lived in four different countries, Beant talks about culture shock, creativity, vulnerability, and the importance of embracing failure as an essential part of life.
I was born in India, where I grew up and did my bachelor's in engineering. Then I lived in the US for two years for a master's in human factors. After that, I came to Norway for a summer internship. That's when I thought: "Europe is interesting. I'd like to come here to study or to work." Soon I found a great professional doctorate program (PDEng) at TU/e in user-system interaction. I tend to get restless after a while, so I thought I would leave the Netherlands after a few years. But then I got an interesting job at Philips. Despite the stress, I liked it. I worked there for eight years, and then I started my own business two years ago.
After coming to Europe, I realized that I had lived in culture shock while studying in the US. You think that when you understand the language, you comprehend each other. But in the US, I understood the language, but not the culture. And at the time, I was not aware of that. All I felt was this nagging sense that, while I could not understand the words, I was missing what someone meant to say to me. This made it difficult to connect with the world around me. It was different when I went back to the US later: I felt that I could connect better with people since I had more experience and some thought put into it.
In Norway, there weren't many people on the streets because of the low population. And I was one of the few brown people in the small town there. I felt like a foreigner because people would turn to look at me. It was such a new and funny experience as an Indian.
In the Netherlands, my program at TU/e was international and very social, so we had a closely-knit group to hang out with. This helped a lot in the beginning. Now I have been here for a decade, and I feel that making a home anywhere is a lifelong process. We slowly learn what kind of life we want to lead and how to build it within the context we live in.
I feel we are starting to talk more about it. Brené Brown, for example, is doing great work on making vulnerability a part of the mainstream conversation. About creativity, I often saw my colleagues applying creative problem-solving skills to their tasks, but hardly anybody had been taught how to do it. People seem to use creativity as if it is a gift or a matter of luck, while it's a skill: you learn it, you nurture it, and it grows. And our tech jobs often focus on efficiency and analytical skills. So, creative thinking may not be actively encouraged in many places, even though innovation is talked about a lot.
I was at one of the Female Tech Heroes events, and most of the talks were about success, how to do it right. Well, one version of my story is about all these degrees and doing well at my job. But another interpretation is that I was stressed and unhealthy while doing well at work. And slowly, I learned that life is not just about achieving or getting somewhere; instead, it's a process of designing the life you want.
We often talk about how to be successful and how success works. But we should also talk about the fact that, sometimes, things don't work out so well, especially when we try new things. And that's okay. Failing is a part of learning, living, and creating. What next, then? For example, I'm reading a book, The Biggest Bluff, by a behavioral scientist who learned poker and became an international poker champion. She talks about how she had to develop the art of 'calm thinking' even when she lost or failed. This is such a valuable thing to learn.
When I started working, I experienced a very steep learning curve. It was exciting but very stressful because I set very high standards for myself and felt that I couldn't make mistakes. I was afraid of being criticized for being wrong.
Then, about two years into my job, I started missing playfulness in life and a place where success didn't matter. So, I started making art as I like it, and I had no ambitions for it at all. I barely passed the drawing classes at school, so there were zero expectations. I could just try things out and enjoy. It brought lightness to life. It's been nine years already, and I've made 600 or more artworks. It still surprises me!
Art gave me a new way of interacting with the world by showing me the unique points of view of artists from all over. I could connect with fields beyond science and engineering.
I'm a user researcher, working between people and tech products. I conduct studies to collect the needs of users for new products. Later, I test those products with people to see if they can use them. Being a consultant gives me the flexibility to explore new ways of employing my knowledge, such as creating courses and workshops to teach others. Last year I started a Creative Thinking workshop for user researchers.
Also, I conduct workshops, and I write altUXR emails for companies and user researchers. They focus on a certain topic for a period. For example, the last issue was Level up your listening skills: hands-on techniques on listening well from different angles. I also tackle psychology, FBI negotiation techniques, parenting, and others. Getting to read, write, and make art for all these workshops and emails is very rewarding.
If you're interested in something, follow it. Don't spend too much time doubting yourself. I learned this Can/If Thinking technique from a book called A Beautiful Constraint, where you use your constraints to find creative solutions. So, for every restriction, you change 'I can't do this because...' into 'I can if...' (except for illegal things, haha).
Secondly, compound learning is powerful: you just learn a little bit every day, consistently. You don't need to do intense, big things in one go. With tiny steps, before you know it, you will be way ahead of where you were, say five years ago. The book Atomic Habits articulates this very well.