My Grandmother was dying. She was in the hospital, being monitored before she was sent home with hospice care. Everyone in the room knew the end was not far away. My wife and I had driven to be there when we were told that she could pass at any time. Not long after we showed up, my Grandmother politely asked to be left alone so she could sleep. I knew that once I left the room, it would be the last time I saw her alive.
Everyone had left the room except for myself. I leaned over to her, told her I loved her, I knew she was dying and I would never see her again. I needed to have a honest, real, true moment with her. For us to share even a couple seconds where we acknowledged the finality of what the moment held and try to make sense of it. This would have been difficult and awkward. But it would have been worth it. Unfortunately, that moment never came. She said she’d be better tomorrow and that we’d talk soon.
We never spoke again. My best guess is that my Grandmother was trying to make me feel better by redirecting the conversation. She probably thought it would have been uncomfortable and unsettling, not to mention emotionally tough. Who knows. What I do know is that to this day I carry a deep regret that I was unable to have that exchange with her.
Meaningful human moments are born from pushing through challenges. Like most others, I all too often avoid these difficult moments. But for reasons I still don’t fully understand, I sought out that opportunity with my Grandmother. I look back at my life and the most meaningful, important moments had something to do with forcing myself through situations like these. At the end of that push is accomplishment, failure, realization, clarity. Big, weighty, impactful things.
The path of least resistance is not always the best for us. Our bodies and psyches thrive on the right amount of friction. In the drive to remove all friction from peoples’ lives, I question how much good we are ultimately doing. Rather, I think we need to be creating healthy friction for people – the right amount in the right ways at the right times.
I look back at taking photographs in 2001 with a Nikkormat FT2. No auto-focus, no auto aperture, and about as basic of a light meter as you’ll find. It was friction embodied. It also ended up being one of the most formative presences in my creative life. I appreciate what the point-and-shoot and the iPhone have done to expand the popularity of photography by lowering (or debatably removing) its learning curve. Still, I wonder how much joy is lost by taking a great shot without the hand holding.
To that end, I think we need to focus less on making people’s lives easier and more on making people’s lives fuller. People thrive on challenge and accomplishment. This doesn’t happen without friction. Instead of removing all friction, we need to isolate meaningful opportunities for growth and guide them through it. This is not as easy of a sell as “we’ll do it for you”. There needs to be a clear understanding of why the friction is worth it and what’s in it for them in the end. The difference between a challenge and a hassle is that a challenge has a perceived promise of growth whereas a hassle seems difficult for no reason.
Looking back at the last moments with my Grandmother, it would have been easier for me to simply tell her that I was looking forward to recovery and that everything would be back to normal soon. But it would have been an hollow ending to our 34 years together. As designers, we have the opportunity to smooth out the rough edges of life. We also have the opportunity to create a path through them. It can be difficult to discern which is appropriate, but getting it right can mean everything.