There is only one success. To be able to spend your life in your own way.
– Christopher Morley
We are surrounded by success porn. From Facebook to Snapchat, the digital sphere is littered with quote cards spouting off generic success platitudes and motivation. You know the ones, the images of the suave guy in the impeccable suit and nice watch. Or the flawlessly shot Instagram gym model showing off her perfect abs and toned body.
I like to look at it as what I call ‘priming’. When I sit to design, one of the first things I do is to pull up my favourite sites and browse for inspiration. I spend time looking at beautiful things. It primes and stimulates my mind to think in the same vein as my inspiration and helps me know what my benchmark of quality should be.
That’s what success porn does, or should do. It is a burst of inspiration, a certain smug satisfaction, a ‘hell yeah! high five! let’s get it’ sort of moment. And it’s good. Sometimes you need that spark, that reminder.
The main problem with success porn is that you can get that hit of self righteous dopamine so many times that you begin to feel satisfied without actually doing any work.
It is easy to brainstorm, and research and learn. It makes us feel good, like we are taking actual steps. And granted, it is a first step in the process of getting what you want. But consuming content, no matter how good, whether it be Gary V or Tai Lopez or Grant Cardone or whoever your guru is, is not the same as doing the work.
The path to success is the steady consistent grind, the work, the fears, the tears. It is not as sexy as success porn, but it is the thing that actually produces results. And there are a lot of things unique to your circumstance that you would have to navigate with your own wits and common sense as well as all the tips and knowledge you have gained from your blogs, podcasts and videos.
The second subtler problem with success porn is the narrative that success looks a certain way. Success for millenials in general falls in the same boxes – a great job, a great startup, lots of money, gadgets, travel to exotic places, self care, romantic love and baecations. All of which are absolutely wonderful pleasures.
But the thing with life is…it is life. It is varied, it is complex and it is nuanced. Success has to be something you define for yourself. You don’t need to subscribe to an idea of success. You just have to find what you like, what you believe, what fulfills you and be committed in the pursuit of that. That is what success is.
“Be ruthless about protecting writing days, i.e., do not cave in to endless requests to have ‘essential’ and ‘long overdue’ meetings on those days.”
– J.K. Rowling
I believe there is nothing more important than being creative (after food, shelter, etc.), and being creative for you. There are ideas placed in you that need to be birth, because doing so will give you experiences and gifts you could not otherwise comprehend, and they will touch the world in ways you could never imagine.
But the business of life can be very distracting. In between all the chores, the jobs, the social obligations and the daily hum of life, it is incredibly easy to lose yourself and your true desires. You hum along doing things and then you wake up with decades later wondering where all that time went and beating yourself up for actually accomplishing very little of your true goals.
I’ve had many creative ideas over the years – podcasts, books, clothing lines, stores, events, blogs, and magazines. It’s a long list I know, but not a lot of them have come to fruition. I hated that I would kick off the year with all these ideas and projects I wanted to get done, and then six months in I would be completely lost in the sauce, entirely busy working on clients or friend’s latest schemes, chasing down opportunities to make a buck. I was so consumed with everything else that I never pushed my projects forward enough.
To be honest, I did not understand what it took to get things done. But after multiple dead ends you start to learn a thing or two. For the past 10 months, I have been working consistently on my creative projects and pushing them towards completion. I know this is a long road, and its still early days, but I thought I’d articulate the mindset and tools that are enabling me to finally actually do the work I have in my heart to do.
- Stay awake
It is so easy to fall asleep behind the wheel of life. Urgent and pressing issues can crowd the truly important to the dark recesses of your mind to be randomly stumbled upon one day. You have to stay awake. And by that I mean you have to always be focused on your actual personal creative goals. It has to be a priority and something that is on your mind daily. Never lose sight of it. Write it somewhere you can see it, and engage with it every day.
- Think long term
Rome was not built in a day, and neither will your project. You have to be in it for the long haul. If you are trying to build a creative life that sustains your soul and your pocket, understand that it is going to take a while. Make peace with that.
- Focus on the process
If you are going to get any worthwhile creative work done, you have to respect the process. This is going to mean working on your projects daily or at least weekly. You are going to need to take consistent action over a long period of time – creating, learning, tweaking, editing, fixing, scrapping, restarting, etc. It’s a process; learn to enjoy it.
- Be realistic
There is nothing like ambitious timelines to excite you then ultimately defeat you in the creative journey. Be realistic with the amount of time you think it will take to get your project done, and then add more time to it. Things always take much longer than you’d expect.
- Protect your creative time and space
You absolutely must block off a portion of time for you to work on your things. That means phones off, Internet off, put on headphones, close the door. Deep creative work demands nothing less than your full attention and energy. That means being inaccessible sometimes and turning a blind eye to the other thousand things vying for your attention.
- Just make
As creatives we tend to be both very egotistical and fragile. We have high hopes and standards for our work. We wonder if people will like it, we fear being judged. It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks about the work. Right now, your job is to make! Focus on that.
Everything I have just said can be summed up in one word – Commit. To get your personal work done, you must commit to getting it done. That means making a firm decision to get it done no matter how hard or tough the road may be. It means discipline. It means giving up excuses and doing whatever needs to be done.
I used to burnout a lot. I would work almost every waking hour for months at a stretch. In fact, I expected to flame out around June every year. I would start hating everything and everyone – my work, my clients, and my life. Then I would be basically incapacitated for a month and then bounce back. I completely disrespected my personal rhythms.
Interest and Energy are cyclical…Alternating periods of activity and rest is necessary to survive, let alone thrive. Capacity, interest, and mental endurance all wax and wane. Plan accordingly.
– Tim Ferris (The 4 hour work week)
Hard work and hustle are important. You do have to push hard. Like Bruce Mau’s incomplete manifesto for growth says –
Stay up late. Strange things happen when you’ve gone too far, been up too long, worked too hard, and you’re separated from the rest of the world.
But you also need to unplug. You need to allow yourself to recover. Which can be very hard if you are a type A personality. Or you are obsessed. I have found myself lost for hours longer than I intended working. And after a long stretch of days with my nose to the grindstone, I find that a little rest wont cut it. I need unplug completely. So I take some days off, hang with friends, and do nothing, read, catch up on all my favourite shows and then I get back to it.
Everyone’s rhythm is different. Some people can work months non-stop without needing a break. I max out after 3-4 days of intense work, then I need at least one day of light work or rest. Every couple weeks or so of this, I would need at least 3-5 days to do a full reset. I find that if I respect this rhythm I can stay very productive over a longer stretch of times. Goodbye to those burn outs that would wipe out for a month at a time.
But beyond banishing burnout, unplugging periodically allows you to gain perspective. Working long and hard keeps you firmly in the thick of the forest, hacking and slashing away. Hitting that reset button allows you to step back and see the forest for the trees. You rise up to the big picture view, analyse your actions and results and recalibrate your efforts when you get back in the game. It also helps you reconnect to your ‘why’. Some times you need to remind yourself why you do what you do to avoid becoming jaded.
Being in that calm space, observing and listening opens you up to receiving answers to problems that have been plaguing you. It is the incubation space that allows all subconscious to work out the kinks and issues you have been wrestling with in the hustle. Unplugging creates the conditions for the famous flash of inspiration that jolts into our mind when we are least expecting it. Suddenly the answer appears, the smart-cut and months of wasted effort are shaved off your journey.
Working hard is necessary, but remember to rest. An unsharpened saw no matter how productive will get blunt over time from overuse.
This is a slight rant on something I have been experiencing in the past few weeks.
I started out in this design/design business thing self taught. I learned to use the software and I’ve been sloughing away at it ever since. In the 7-8 years I’ve been doing this, I have probably designed up to thousands of pieces and artifacts – logos, mailers, flyers, websites, etc. Over time I have gotten good at delivering visually pleasing work quickly and within the chaotic constraints of the typical client service business.
For most creatives, the most exciting part of our work is the actual creative part, making the thing, the logo or the booklet or the poster. Many times I have fallen into the trap of becoming nothing more than a tool for the client, a pixel pusher. Do this, do that, move that there, without much regard for my opinion or ideas on what works. That was entirely my fault. I did not understand the value I brought to the table nor could I communicate that effectively.
In the chaotic landscape of client services, things tend to be frantic. Everything is always due yesterday. There is often not a good enough understanding of the connection between design output and business objectives. Design becomes a last minute exercise quickly producing pieces of communication without any form of strategy or intent.
This is a mistake.
Sure you can get a nice looking design out of a competent designer working this way. But creating design that actually works, design that clarifies your intentions and aims your efforts, design that sets u up for greater success beyond the project at hand, that is something else entirely. That is the love child of good process and talent.
The Design Method outlined by Eric Karjaluoto in his book goes as follows: Discovery – Planning – Creative – Application. Newbie designers and most clients are happy jumping right into the creative. However they miss out on the many benefits of engaging the first two steps.
Discovery allows you to fully understand the problem at hand, it gives you context. Ideally, the designer should be able to immerse himself/herself into the world of the client and understand how the business works, what the problems are and how the audience interacts with them. Discovery has the benefit of helping the client understand what’s really going on with the business. Are there gaps in the communications? Do you understand what you really do? Do you understand what you are selling? Do you have objectives, and do you know how you are going to achieve them?
Planning helps connect the insights from discovery to the nitty gritty of execution. It provides a plan of action of what needs to be done, targeted to whom and by when. It gives purpose to your efforts and ensures you don’t waste time going down rabbit holes.
Respecting the process transforms a simple brief for a website for a bus company to a holistic communication solution geared at increasing online sales. Instead of just a website, the client is steered towards adopting online marketing, referral campaigns and developing e-commerce solutions. A directive to design new labels for a budding craft beer brand now turns into the task of the defining and refreshing company brand in light of their new investment, offerings and aspirations. Instead of just labels, the brand is rewarded with a deeper understanding of itself and a roadmap for handling communications moving forward.
Rushing through the design process to the production bit might be satisfying in the short term, but you miss out on a ton of value left on the table in the long term.
Over the past few years, in my quest to become a better designer, I have been faced with two related ideas – the need for a good process, and consideration of the larger context.
A good process allows me as a designer to work in a way that is systematic. It helps me walk clients through the project from start to finish. I am also able to cover all the important points consistently, and the process allows me to build consequentially. Stage 1 provides a foundation of understanding around the project and goals, the next stage builds a framework to organize execution, and so on, until I get to designing outputs that are firmly rooted in insights and strategy.
As a designer, every design, every action taken sits within a larger context that will ultimately influence the success or failure of the project. If one jumps directly into design trying to make something cool and aesthetically dope, we end up with nothing more than superficial solutions. To have real impact, the work of the designer starts way before he puts pencil to paper or opens up that blank Photoshop canvas.
You have to ask yourself, ‘what is the client trying to achieve?’ – More sales? Increased awareness? Or are they simply trying to communicate to a specific audience? Considering the intent of the design project increases the chances of designing something appropriate and on target.
Engaging in this exercise can seem very time consuming. All you want to do is jump right in and do the fun stuff. But the step back is crucial. If you can define what the brand you working on is all about, who their audience is, what their key messaging is and their objectives are, you can set out a creative strategy framework that would allow the brand to be deployed beyond the specific output you are presently working on.
As an entrepreneur or business person, you may find yourself in need of a design output – a logo, a profile, a brochure, a website, or a full CI (Corporate Identity). It would do a world of good to clearly define your brand first. Your company or product sits in an ecosystem with multiple competitors, multiple audiences and numerous external forces. It is important to define clearly who you are, what you do, why you do it, who you do it for and who should care. It is important to know what is unique about you and the value you bring so you can consistently speak to that and with every subsequent release of communication you can reinforce your brand and build equity over time.
Understanding your brand and intent has the powerful effect of helping to direct your efforts in the day to day running of your business and its development. With a clear sense of who you are and what you do, you know how to focus your operations and work in line with your brand and maximize your returns. You won’t split your energy into pursuing things that seem interesting or opportunistic but are out of brand character. It will help you build a stronger more focused business over time.
Lessons from re-launching my business site
A little over a month ago, my new business site went live. This was after 3 years of having nothing on that domain name, and this was one step in a long journey of a thousand steps. I had been freelancing and consulting for a while and being so busy, having my website up was one of those tasks you file under important but not urgent. It was also a task that would demand many hours of my time and require a firm foundation of strategy and intent behind it. It took a while but I finally completed it. I did it! A person like me who is prone to being very productive getting everything else done but what’s actually important to move me forward towards my goals. These are the principles and lessons I learned from this process.
- Long Term Intent
Before I started work on the website, I had to take several steps back to evaluate my business, what I was strong at, what trends I had discovered and what my goals were. I even defined what I want my business to look like in 50 years. This allowed me to work backwards and sketch out the stages I would probably go through to eventually get there. Understanding the bigger picture provides context to the initial goal of getting the website up and helps drive a sense of urgency towards accomplishing this goal.
- Relevance for today
I did not just understand what my big picture goal was and how my initial goal of setting up the website sets me up for that, I also understood what it would do for me today. Getting this done would crystalize my messaging and be an important step in the sales and onboarding function of my business.
There are many things that compete for my attention and time everyday, from client requests, projects and social functions. I ended up committing about 6 months (I thought it would be 2 at first) to getting this done. This meant forgoing 99% of social functions and limiting the amount of client work I took on. I was now my first and most important client. I spent free weekends doing the necessary groundwork for the website.
- Break it up to parts
Because defining my brand and creating the website was going to be quite a long process, I had to break it up to chunks and work through it systematically. I worked on my brand definition and key messaging, then I created the site structure, found a theme I liked, designed the interface using the theme as a framework and my brand definition as a guide, then eventually setting up the site itself. Chunking helped because I always knew where I was and what to do next to move the project forward.
- Stealing time
Like I said earlier, I get busy, and even though I was able to set aside hours at a time or half days or full weekends to really digging into the project, sometimes I would get really busy. But because I had broken the work into chunks and was working systematically, even being able to steal 30 minutes here, an hour there was vital to getting this done. I would take a spare 30 minutes to quickly hash out the content for a section I was working on, or to reevaluate some design decisions. One time, feeling a bit burnt out and vegging out on the couch, I grabbed my notepad and quickly brainstormed ideas for blog posts. If you know what you are doing, chunks of 25-30mins can eventually go a long way. When I eventually sat down to put in a days work on the website, I had ironed out many of the kinks in those time chunks and things went smoother
Working on one thing for months is not easy. There are many temptations to give up and distractions to derail you. You have to persevere.
- The last stretch is the hardest
The final month working on the site to get it live was tough. There was some design fatigue and it just seemed like the work would never end. 90% of the work was done, but the last 10%, fixing errors, putting in the details, seemed to take just as much time. I just had to push. In the first week of 2017, I set a deadline to go live by the end of the week and that’s all I did everyday, sat down and worked on the site until it was done and I hit publish.
Once the website was live and I made final tweaks, sent off the link to a few friends and colleagues to have a look, I went out and grabbed a bottle of champagne and celebrated with my friends. I finally got some real shit done.
So those are the lessons I learned working on this, and I look forward to getting many more crucial things done as I move forward on this journey, creating the company of my dreams. I hope it helps and inspires you to get your important things done too.