10 lessons from the last 10 years

This post is inspired by and in response to a question sent in by Christine L. She wanted to know more about my career transitions, what it means to “make it big”, and how a career in design has shaped my life. There are a lot of layers to this question. So I’ll try to break it down. I’d say there has been 3 major transitions to my design career that has spanned the last 10 years. In the beginning, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life to be honest. I knew I liked being creative and I had vague ideas of what I wanted to do, but I never thought too hard about the future, I just took it as it came. A career in advertising, marketing, some sort of design path? I was more worried about drinking beers and having a good time. The future felt so far away and something I couldn’t control.

If you are feeling lost or still not sure what your passion is it’s ok. It’s important to try different things, because it will become clear to you what you don’t like and what you do like. This idea that you have to rush or there’s a limited window of opportunity is not true. Everyone has their own path. You have to zig and zag to find what it is that excites you everyday. There will always be grunt work or days where it sucks. But when you find something that truly draws you in, and that you can imagine doing day in and day out hold on to it. It’s important to have self awareness, to really know and listen to yourself. To pause and not listen to the noise around you. If you were going to die tomorrow how would you plan your day today? 

You have to find what sparks a light in you, so that you in your own way can illuminate the world

OPRAH WINFREY

Here’s a snapshot of my career so far and 10 key things I've learnt along the way. I hope it can spark a light in you and help you on your own journey to illuminate the world.

Junior - The developing years

1. So for the first 2 years of my career, I was a sponge. Literally just soaked up as much info as I could. About everything, design,development, business, life. It is important to be a curious soul and learn from the experience of others. I’ve always said that first year was when I learnt the most. Career wise everything was new to me. That opportunity and first year was the foundation to everything else that happened in the next 9 years. Thanks to Tony, Jim, James, Dan, Shane, Mel, Andy, Charmaine, Aron and everyone else at Igloo.

TIP: Actively learn and soak up as much wisdom as you can from those around you. This is the biggest boost in furthering your career but also being a better person.

2.You have to eat shit and pay your dues. Obstacles are blessings, they are like steroids for learning. When you have to eat so much shit, you think to yourself I can’t keep eating shit something has to change. So you do everything in your power to overcome the situation. This is important as it builds character and resilience. It teaches you profound things about yourself, to experience it first hand and to find YOUR way of overcoming it.

Think of it like a skater learning a new trick, you have to fall hundreds if not thousands of times, before being able to do a trick effortlessly. You are cut, bruised and broken. But as you get back on that skateboard the amount of falls you take allows you to adjust and know what to do and what not to do. You are becoming a bit wiser and better each time you get up. That’s called paying your dues. And learning and building upon 1 menial task at a time. Everyone in their careers has eaten shit and one point or another.  But that's how we grow. 

TIP: When it feels tough. Please don’t give up – do everything in your power to overcome the obstacle. Getting your work rejected sucks, I know I was there tons of times. Making mistakes sucks. But you learn hard from those mistakes.So embrace them and see them as opportunities and not obstacles. Opportunities for hyper growth.

3. Your career is not a fixed path.  I set out to do design work but I ended up doing 80% flash development work in the early years. I actually liked motion design and programming, and it was something I really enjoyed. Dealing with logic and making something tangible was interesting. But after 2 years though I listened to myself, and I decided I wanted to focus more on design again. So I pivoted and went all in with design. Because deep down I knew that’s what I really wanted to do, and not just what I was good at or paid to do at that point. 

TIP: Listen to your internal compass. Do what makes you happy, not what’s comfortable or easy. It’s ok to change your mind. Your career is not a fixed path. Go where the wind takes you and find whatever sparks that fire in your belly.

 

Midweight to Creative Director - Agency honcho

4. It takes consistency to build craft. There is no overnight success. I truly believe that anyone great has poured in tremendous work behind the scenes. I don’t think I’m a great designer yet. But one thing that has lead me to become decent at what I do and carve out a successful career along the way is that I always showed up, that I was passionate and that I just cared about creating good work. I learnt by constantly doing, absorbing, practicing and applying.  It’s through thousands of repetitions that you become better. Malcolm Gladwell 10, 000 hours shit. It’s real. Design is a competitive field, you need to take the time to learn the in’s and out of the craft if you want to reach some form of success. Keep working, keep grinding, keep hustling keep enjoying the journey.

TIP: Learn to love the work. It’s not always glamorous or fun, but if you show up like a fucking pro day in and day out the results will come. I promise you they will come.

5. Have a high ceiling for your work. In line with dedicating time to your craft, it’s important to evolve . I was never satisfied for these middle 6 years. I loved what I did, but my work never reached the heights of the people and companies I admired. Consistency and practice is important, but just as important is about practicing the right things and having a high ceiling. 2 people can evolve at different speeds depending on their environment and what their standard for great work is.  Pick the right environment and aim high! Expand your mindset.

The people I once admired have now become acquaintances and friends, I’ve managed to close the gap. But there is no end it is important to keep expanding your mind and having a high ceiling for your work. Find companies and people that you align with and get to know them, work for them, learn from them and reverse-engineer what they do.

TIP: Aim high, don’t aim to be middle of the pack. Or being the biggest fish in a small pond. Find the people/companies that inspire you and close that gap. 

6. The people that you work with matter

Collaboration and a great team that you believe in is so important. When you believe in a company's culture you are willing to put in 100%, and it is like hanging out with your family and friends. People have this work life balance, that is a clear distinction. But for me personally, it’s more like work life integration which is a term I poached from Mitchell Harper. I know that this may not be for everyone and that I may have lucked out, for a few years. But there was not much of a distinction, life is everything and work was a part of it, something that I enjoyed and not necessarily something I needed to carve a line in the sand with and say well when I clock out that’s it I’m done. I can’t say if this is the right way or wrong way for you but to me that all came down to the amazing people that I worked with. Sharing a vision, culture with people you work with both colleagues and clients. There was a time we all pushed each other to be better. To put the company on the map. And for a while we achieved that goal.

TIP: Work with people who empower you, who motivate you, who you can consider friends and family. Then coming into work will be a joy and not something you have to put a clear distinction on or to balance. It’s hard to find, but if you need to be that beacon to create change in your companies culture try to do it. And if you haven’t found it yet try not to settle.

7. Becoming a leader How do you become a great leader? You empower others to do their best work. You give autonomy and freedom for them to deliver on results. You don’t micromanage. Eventually I reached the role of Creative Director, with a roster of impressive clients. It was great for a while until I realised the potential for great work doesn’t arise when you have big name clients or huge budgets. It starts nimbly with people and a vision to do work that has impact. To do work that can affect change. That can affect people. That can be beautiful. To work on something that matters, you just need a vision that people can invest in. And a willingness to sweat and execute on that vision. Sometimes large brands can have too much red tape, too many meetings about meetings. I learnt a lot during this period about interacting with people and how to provide value to others. As well as how to earn trust and how to put trust in people.

TIP: Authority doesn’t automatically make you a great leader. Being someone empathetic and allowing others to do their fucking jobs and be the best that they can be is. It’s about sharing a vision and providing direction that people can believe in and rally behind.

8. Pivot again as comfort creeps up on you

One day I woke up and realised I wasn’t excited about work anymore. The passion was fading and I’d almost lost sight of why I loved what I did.  I’d stopped learning and became complacent for a pay check. To me I wasn’t creating great work anymore and pushing my comfort zone. Make no mistake it’s a privilege to do what we do. I never forget that. I don’t forget how incredibly lucky I am to have opportunities to work in this industry. My dad did hard labour jobs for many years, he didn’t love it but he was a hard worker who did it for his family. I think about others who don’t have the opportunity for choice. So I try not to waste opportunities. After 5 years, a fancy title, a good pay check a group of people I enjoyed working with – it was time to reset. My internal compass told me it was time to move on and challenge myself again. To get excited and become a sponge again like those junior years. 

TIP: Sometimes we have to pause and take notice, the moment we stop caring is the moment we are wasting time just going through the motions and doing what’s comfortable. Time is the most valuable asset we have. You can never get it back once it’s gone. So don’t waste it. Challenge yourself and invest in yourself even if it means turning on your back on what’s familiar and comfortable. 

Independent maker – Pants are optional

9. Make things that align with your values

These past 2 years have been incredible. After leaving the agency world behind I became a sponge again and found a freedom I’ve never felt before in my career. I got to invest in myself again and learnt a bunch of new things. How to create and launch a product. How to build an audience. How to do work for clients that I could help but also get excited about. More time to just make things and not sitting in meetings talking about how to make them. I get scared, nervous, inspired, pumped, motivated a whole range of emotions. But most of all it is rewarding because I can make things that align with my values. To watch the steady growth is exciting. 

TIP: The most rewarding thing is to make things that can align with your values. Find out what you believe, stand for, get excited about and want to share with the world and go out and give it your best shot. 

10. Choosing my own destiny

I think the journey is more interesting than the wad of cash at the end. I like the process of designing, the process of growing, the process of making money, the process of being able to choose. The journey is the fun part. One thing I realised is when you work for yourself either as a freelancer, or running your own business. You are investing in yourself and choosing your own destiny. When you are working for someone else you are working with in the confines of what someone has set out for you. 9-5 work hours. Which clients you have to work with. And if this aligns with your values and what you want to do there is nothing wrong with that. I LOVED my job for many years.

But now as an independent maker I love being able to choose my own destiny. To make things and give it a shot. To wake up and say today I’m not going to wear proper pants, but I’m going to design the shit out of this piece of work. I’m going to help as many people as I can with this blog post. Or help this 1 person on their journey with this email. Even if it’s not billable. I’m going to play tennis today and not work, be with my son and wife, go see a friend...it doesn’t matter that it’s Wednesday. I can choose my own destiny and that is powerful. That freedom to me feels like success, even if there isn’t millions in the bank. I do ok, and I make enough. If you choose your own destiny and help enough people, provide enough value and impact enough lives that time will come. And because you did it the way that meant the most to you, that’s much more fulfilling and interesting. To me that’s what it means to make it big.

TIP: When you are ready, choose your own destiny. Invest in yourself and back yourself in the decisions you make. 

How has design shaped my life? It has had a profound effect on my life. It has given me a wonderful livelihood that supports my family, satiates my desire to create and make things in the world, and allows me to connect and bring joy to other people. It has shown me that you can DESIGN a life worth living. You can design your life, fill it with things that move you and inspire you. As you are on your own journey I wish you all the best, and hope you find your own truths, and that you can share your best work with the world one day.