Evolving Your Work like it’s Pikachu
My parents, the ever-optimistic legal guardian of the outcome of my life, kept repeating a message to me every time my career comes up over dinner.
“Think big — don’t do the small things.”
They have this idea of me as a pushover, that I say yes to everything and everyone, no matter how relevant I thought they were to my dreams. I saw opportunities as future moves to connect the dots backwards à la Steve Jobs (though I’m probably wrong); they thought I should care less and do my own thing.
I took offense at first (and maybe a little still), interpreted the comments to mean that all the things I’m doing is somehow insignificant, childish even. And then I started working more and meeting people who are doing “big things” in society. You know the type: they’re on lists, speaking on stages, raising big bucks, being invited to professional outings with hashtags and pretty posters, always having something to be grateful about on LinkedIn. My insecurities and social media use did not help reframe my parents’ words into something more positive.
It was only recently that I realized that “thinking big” can mean different things to different people. I wasn’t sure what triggered this thought. My dad, a seasoned industrialist with a capitalistic mindset and inexhaustible energy at work in his 60s, is still leading a company to go public. Bottom line, of course, is the ultimate measure of “big” in his book. An easy indicator, if not always directly or explicitly inclusive of things like what kind of legacy, impact or values I want to leave behind.
I’m arriving at year five of teaching innovation for social justice. I’ve run countless design workshops, conducted hundreds of user interviews for new products, created courses and programs for on all sorts of subjects around design and foresight, and guest lectured in rooms that aren’t always used to the term — let alone the concept of — human-centered design or innovation. I’ve always done the work for the challenge, the curiosity, the potential of some kind of social impact.
Apparently all these disparate experiences do not hold water. In hindsight, it did not feel like I accomplished something big. Although the projects I did are meaningful and good in and of itself, it is sometimes hard to identify a clearly linear progression that can be easily measured by money or status or size. And when there is no clear narrative, everything is just jigsaw pieces in a puzzle box.
So in some ways, my parents are right — I’ve only been thinking small and driving change in capillaric ways. My intention and efforts do not translate to impact at scale. At the time of this writing, I don’t necessarily agree with this conclusion, but I see the point. So after much sulking and crying inside, I wonder — how do i think big?
Let’s see. The easiest thing to do, I’ve learnt, as an independent consultant (that I’m about to quit), is to put more time into a work vehicle that’s repeatable. A process, for instance, like design thinking or strategic foresight. Making a unique application of said processes in the form of a program is a more defensible mote as a business. Start small, perfect the medium that delivers value proposition, sell up. This is what I’ve started doing — and I’m kind of tired.
No scratch that: I’m very tired.
Why? I’m not sure. Maybe because I’m not experienced enough to consistently do more of the same over and over again (e.g. repeating design thinking HR development workshops) or I couldn’t find a team to do it with me or, most likely, I was discouraged by a lack of tangible and applicable outcome. Sometimes, a poorly-scoped workshop starved of resources won’t allow for emergent, actionable insights, and my efforts are all for naught. It’s hard to think big when this happens.
In my emotional fatigue and under an expectation to think bigger, I thought about a hero’s journey in movies that I escape into and the games that I used to play. I thought about how most games drive the narrative to a logical conclusion while encouraging — nay, forcing — growth in the main character (you) who (usually) has a singular objective.
I thought about Pikachu, because it’s cute and I feel better already. Maybe Pikachu can offer up some lessons.
In Pokémon, one of my favourite childhood nostalgia, you — a trainer like Ash— choose one of three “pocket monsters” to be your buddy, who you train by fighting other unbearably cute monsters in the wild. You catch more Pokémons, build your all-star team, level them up, fight bosses with their own all-star teams, earn badges, fight the champions, and live a long and happy life with your buddies afterwards doing infinite games things like finding rare Pokémons or trading stones with your friends. In that life, you win some battles, you lose some, but you always grow to become a better trainer and friend to your Pokémon.
At some point in the game, as you level up, your Pokémon will evolve into a stronger version of itself, with new attack moves and better strength. Pikachu, for instance, is in a standard family of 3 evolutions under specific conditions; Pichu evolves into Pikachu with a high level of friendship who then evovles into Raichu when given the Thunder Stone.
This evolutionary progression of Pikachu, oddly, helps me process the idea of scaling my work. There are 3 key elements. First, the evolution is not a continuous spectrum but rather a quantum leap that changes both form and function (Pikachu may be cuter, but Raichu is faster). For another, it takes a specific condition like level, friendship, or a Stone to make that leap happen. Finally, throughout the process, the objective stays the same for the main character—to be the best Pokemon trainer in the world.
So I’m Ash, and my work is Pikachu (who famously refused to evolve in the cartoon). How does this mental image help me navigate my professional growth?
When I came back to Thailand in 2019, I became an accidental educator. I was lured back to teach innovation for undergraduate entrepreneurship students and began creating educational tools to teach human-centered design for social justice. I put my head down and just did the work in front of me, year after year.
With the help of my sometimes boss and all-time friend Amp at the Thailand Institute of Justice (TIJ), I got to reflect on how we have grown our educational projects over the years into something tangible, institutional even. If I were to summarize my 4+ year work history with TIJ, it would go something like this:
- An afternoon of workshops with a student club to test out how design thinking can be used for student activities around social justice
- A supporting facilitation role at a corporate hackathon that exposed me to the larger world of design innovation for governance issues
- A train-the-trainer session for the TIJ team around using design thinking in their own projects
- An (ongoing) semester-long undergraduate class on design for social justice aimed at first-year entrepreneurs at Chulalongkorn University
- A strategic foresight curriculum for social justice intended for educators and changemakers
- An educational framework and toolkit for incorporate social justice into higher education settings outside of the study of law
- A foresight workshop program for private and public sector stakeholders around vulnerable groups of the future
- An impact evaluation methodology for educators to measure social justice literacy, which we are currently developing.
- A futures game for teaching strategic foresight to beginners, both at the university-level and justice-adjacent officers in the network of TIJ
These are not in strict chronological order — I have done things out of order and repeated works. But like a good Pokémon trainer, I needed to fight certain battles again and learn by leveling up in the wildnerness of implementation. The progression of work is towards higher stakes and bigger challenges; whether it’s the audience (from students to executives), the size of the audience (from 10 to 50 to an unknown number for the game), or the type of work (from an afternoon workshop to a semester-long class to a educational tools). Each stage builds on the one before in many aspects but from year to year, the evolutions are an unmistakable series of leaps.
At the end of the day, even though my work is reaching more and more people, I have learnt to define my success through more dimensions than just scale. Think big in the linear sense doesn’t always apply to a career growth in education.
I had a champion on my client’s side who not only supported the work, but also crystalized the specific conditions that I needed to evolve such as human resources, access to a target audience, recognition, and brainstorming power. My friend Amp and the team at TIJ is the Thunder stone to our Pikachu. Through it all, my goal while working with the institute hasn’t really changed: to be the best design innovation educator for social impact.
If thinking about work as Pikachu means growing stronger and finding ever more challenging challenges, a natural question to pose would be — where does the evolution of my work end? Does it have to?
If we measure our success through the capabilities and impact that we can have, I believe that there are always a way to evolve. For example, a university educator can become a capacity-builder with different target audiences, or an innovator who takes a risk to productise an idea for new ways of learning, or an anthropologist who decided to help a single community. Especially in the field of social justice and education, there are always more people that you can help.
“Big” can happen in more ways than one and this mental model of a Pokémon adventure helps relieve expectations of scaling linearly or growing along a single metric like profits (which has no end). I love this idea of growing in jumps and of finding the right conditions for learning and helping others to achieve a singular purpose. All, hopefully, while meeting people who shares your path in work and in life. Just like the singer-songwriter KT Tunstall once said, “Everybody sails alone, oh, but we can travel side by side.”