There is a famous line in the 1999 cult classic Fight Club
The things you own end up owning you.
And I’m reminded of it every time I look at my phone. Now, it is one of the greatest tools we have ever created. At any point in time, I am connected to a vast network of human knowledge. I have the potential to reach out to almost anyone in the world or even to reach a large number of people at once. It is an incredibly useful tool.
But instead, most of the time I am held hostage by it. I pick up my phone up to 150 times a day. That’s an incredible amount of time. I’m a bit better, over the years I have slowed down my use of Twitter, Facebook…Instagram I’ve mostly hated for a long time, so I generally use that once a week. My attention now is consumed mostly by WhatsApp, I spend a lot of time chatting to my friends.
My eyes are almost always glued to my screen, and I’m not the only one, I look around and everyone is pressing, tapping or swiping. This is nothing new, many have been wailing about this phenomenon, the way technology hijacks our attention and exploits our evolutionary weaknesses and needs. We are hit with so many things every minute, it is much harder for us to sustain our attention on anything. Distraction is only a swipe and a tap away and we are forever fiending for a fix.
We think we use our phones, but really, they use us. They follow us, they stalk us, they market to us. All these apps and social networks take our attention, condition our behavior, generate and map out our data, they eventually end up knowing more about us than we do about ourselves. As Yuval Noah Harari highlights in his book ’21 Lessons for the 21stCentury’, we are now the ones being hacked by big corporates and technologies.
Before, we hacked technologies and networks, now humans are the ones being hacked. These technologies and algorithms understand us better and better, from our location, to our searches, to our health tracking data, it is becoming easier and easier to nudge us in directions without our conscious knowledge. In a world evolving faster and faster, we are increasingly vulnerable.
I was listening to a Gary Vee interview a few weeks back, and someone asked him who the best people in the social media game were, who was doing the marketing right. And for about 30 seconds, he couldn’t come up with one name, and he said the reason he could not actually point to anyone was because he actually consumes no one. Think about that, one of the biggest names right now in the world of entrepreneurship, famous for the sheer volume of content he puts out (100 pieces per day), and his insistence on the underpriced nature of most social platforms, does not consume social media. Mind blown.
What does he consume? He consumes the comment section of his content, he engages with his people and learns what they are thinking and feeling, or he consumes the comment sections of the biggest things in the world trying to place a finger on the pulse of the current zeitgeist.
That is a massive and powerful mental shift. And something I heard echoed again in The Order of Man podcast with Tyler Harris yesterday. Producers are usually too busy producing to consume content mindlessly. And that is something you can do to shift the control back to yourself. These tools are massively powerful. You have access to a potential audience, you have access to knowledge, you can create and build almost anything by reading the books, watching the tutorials, listening to the podcasts, it is an incredible time to be alive, if you actually take advantage of it. Become a producer, be active, build something, give value, make content, do things, and you will have less toleration for random consumption.
I have seen it happen in my life. I mentioned earlier how much I reach for my phone, I know people who reach for their phones even more. I’ve noticed my time reduce drastically on social media over the years the more I follow my path, the more I make content, the more I learn and execute around my business. The more I learn and create, the more I want to learn and create, and the less time or inclination I have to be swallowed up in the machine.
The sentiments have been echoed by many writers and thinkers. Cal Newport’s book ‘Deep Work’ advocates the ability to turn everything off and focus deeply on solving a meaningful problem. I wrote a post almost a year ago on why ‘Airplane Mode’ is one of the greatest productivity hacks.
In addition to this, you can practice more mindfulness. Don’t touch your phone for the first hour after you wake up. Do something else, read, meditate, exercise, eat, or just stare at the ceiling, you will be bored to tears, but you won’t die. Wean yourself off the addiction to your phone and reclaim your power and your attention. Then deploy it towards that which is truly important to you. It will transform your life.
When everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it. – Henry Ford
There are many true facts about life, but there is one that is particularly uncomfortable to look at and deal with – bad things happen. Sometimes they happen as consequences of our actions, sometimes they just happen. If this is a fact of life, is there a way to embrace and navigate it? Can we learn how to handle misfortune in our pursuit of our success and happiness?
It’s easy enough to look at the bad things that happen as a result of our actions, especially the actions that we are not too proud of. We understand the harm that comes from selfish actions that break trust or damage relationships. We understand the misfortune of failing an exam when we know we really didn’t put in the work required to succeed. There we have a clear set mandate. Stop doing stupid shit.
It’s trickier when bad things happen because of the good things we are trying to do. Embracing the philosophies of the One Thing and Deep Work comes with its own set of trade-offs. Every day, there are demands on our time, things we need to get done, people depending on us or needing us. Choosing to stay the course and go deep on the one thing can mean saying no to all those other things.
The trade-off, another fact of life is inevitable. Going down one path, means forgoing many others. It is never an easy decision choosing between two great things. We do not like disappointing or inconveniencing people. But if you have identified what you want, and have set your course, there is only one thing to really do. Sometimes you have to let bad things happen, so that you get the main thing done. It might mean delaying responding to the other things for a while or it may mean forgoing the other option completely. Many times, the fall-out isn’t so bad that it cannot be managed. A few hours or days delay won’t make the world stop spinning.
Knowing what you are all about and what is most important allows you to make the tough choices and go all-in on the things that will move you forward to your intended destination.
But what happens when bad things happen for seemingly no reason. Sometimes suffering exists and there is nothing you can do about it. The deal falls through, you are involved in a freak accident, other people disappoint you. Shit just happens. It is easy enough when it happens every now and again, it is much harder when it happens regularly or in a long stretch. Life can start to feel like a long series of unfortunate events.
It is tempting then to fold, to cross your arms and sit back. Especially when you have been trying really hard. It is very possible to do everything right and still fail. Sometimes it’s just bad luck, other times it is things completely outside your control. What do you do?
These times call for an exercise in character. Will you fold, or will you hold on? Will you let the emotion, the frustration, the anger, the despair, will you let it all sweep you away? Or will you pause, catch your breath, grit your teeth and continue?
Adversity causes some men to break; others to break records. – William Arthur Ward
You may need to take a step back to reconsider things. Are things going bad because a wrong assumption, or a mistake? Or is this just the equivalent of bad weather? Something completely outside your control? If it is just a bad time, and you are on the right path, doing the things you know you should be doing and investing in, keep pressing on.
It’s hard. I’ve blogged earlier about suffering. Writing about it is one thing, going through it is another. The past two months have sometimes felt like a real-life exercise in eating shit. I don’t have any answers on how to fix it. You just endure it and keep doing your job as best as you can. At first, it’s easy-ish to do it. Wake up every day and press on. After a while, it gets harder to stay upbeat. Eventually it just feels easier to not even try and slip into depression.
So, then you just lay down on the floor and try numbing yourself with your drug of choice. But then you have to get back up and try again. We rest, catch our breath, do some self-care, bandage ourselves up and get back in the ring.
It is easy to freak out, but in the midst of the storm, keep the one thing in mind, keep the prize front and center. Focus on the most important thing and get that done, then move your attention to the next pressing crises and do what you can to fix it. It is never easy, but you get better at it. You get stronger at remaining calm under pressure, you better at coming up with creative solutions on the clutch. You learn how to plan better and anticipate the bumps. You become more resilient.
And then you start to invert and turn the problems on themselves.
There is a book called ‘The Obstacle is the Way’ by Ryan Holiday that gives some insight on how to handle adversity. It goes beyond just dealing with the crises to using the problem as a stepping stone. Is there any way you can turn this shit show into something useful? Can you turn this turd into fertilizer? Maybe you use this problem as a cautionary tale on how to prepare better. Maybe it becomes the chip on your shoulder that you harness as energy to fuel and drive you forward. Maybe you use the time to train some more, to get better. Perhaps you just use it to grow more grit, to become mentally tough. Find the gain in your pain. Find your diamond in the dirt.
It all boils down to a three-part approach to dealing with adversity. Have the discipline of perception. It is easy to get emotional about shit when it goes down. It rips away from our routine and safe bubble. It gives us something new and unexpected to deal with. Fight the urge to react, settle back return to your calm. There is only one thing you can really control, and that is how you react to the things that happen. Strip away the emotion and look at the situation clearly. What is really happening? What caused it? Can I prepare better? Can I handle this, so it never comes up again?
Cultivate the discipline of action. You have steadied your nerves, you have observed the situation clearly and gained your insight. Now take strong consistent action. Do what you must do, keep moving forward. In the midst of this storm, until the sun breaks through the clouds and until the next storm, keep on moving.
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.
One of the most dangerous things that can happen to you as a child is to be fawned upon and told that you have great potential. Or to come into the awareness that you are ‘special’, ‘gifted’, ‘intelligent’, etc.
For some people, such attributes cause them to work hard to pull out that potential. For others, it creates ‘unrealistic’ expectations of achievements. Once you are branded with the idea that you are ‘gifted’, you begin to think that you are naturally smart and if something is difficult, you get disappointed. If you make a mistake, it crushes you, makes you feel like more of a failure…the great YOU made a mistake. It’s a very destructive idea; I’ve fallen to this trap.
The universe balances shit out. If you are not blessed with a lot of obvious talent at the beginning, you learn to compensate by simply thrashing it out and working your ass off to survive…and surprise surprise, you actually get better and get some shit done. If you are blessed with talent, you tend to fall into the trap of being lazy and not pushing yourself.
The thing to do…if you think you are ‘gifted’ is to stop thinking you are. Believe the fact that you are no better than the average man, and you are not exempt from the grind and hustle of making something happen. Sit your ass down and do the work, just like everyone else…hell even more than everyone else.
There are no natural geniuses…okay fine, perhaps there are, but the only ones we remember – Edison, Da Vinci, Ali, etc., are the ones who put in a mean grind, working hard for years, day in, day out, making shit happen.
I’ve never felt like this. In my entire 24 years and 28 days on earth, I have never had this feeling. For the first time since I started designing, I don’t want to design. I’m actually avoiding clients, avoiding their payments too. I don’t want to be in that system, I don’t want to be enslaved. I don’t want to HAVE TO design.
I don’t mind designing, I just don’t want to have to do it. I want to play again. I want to have fun again. Its crazy, I’ve avoided so many calls, I’m actually having clients rock up at my door to see if I’m okay. Usually I can sit down and bear it and get the work done. Now though, it feels like death. The only way I can work is if the client is there with me physically and I’m under the influence. That way I don’t feel the pain.
I’ve been thinking about it a lot, talking to people as well, trying to figure out what’s happening with me. Most people say ‘take a holiday’, and that option sounds great…I proceed to daydream about chilling on some secluded beach, or roaming the streets of a sleepy small village town talking to craftsmen and artisans. A month to do nothing would be great. Because that is what I would love to do…nothing. Wake up, eat, do nothing, sleep. This never-ending torrent of productivity is breaking me. Why are we so busy?
A lecturer of mine once remarked’ “the human race is far too productive”. I agree with him, we create a lot of worthless things. But I guess that’s the process to eventually making great things. Last night I read a line by Hugh Macleod, ‘Success is much more complex than failure’. To succeed, you actually need to try, you need to make calls, schedule meetings, move up and down, create something, sell something, work long hours, and so on and so forth. On one level, it feels like madness, put in all this effort, get to the top and then what? Why not just chill and enjoy life, do the minimum required to get tokens (money) and just enjoy the simple pleasures. I envy the bum on the street sometimes, that guy has no care in the world (well, except for deteriorating health and possible death from exposure to the elements). But, beyond his next meal or his next drink, he seems to have no care in the world. That’s pretty legit.
We are not wired that way though, or at least we are not programed that way. We need to succeed, we need to do more, be more., We need to be moguls, juggling 15 different projects at a time to feel successful, to feel like we are keeping up with Kanye and the Kardashian. It’s a delusion, a disease, admittedly one that is useful, one that has gifted us with so much as a race.
I don’t know, I don’t know what my point is writing all this. I am just ranting. In conclusion, I would remind myself that success is relative, and it is best to prescribe my own definition for my life. A definition that makes sure I strive as hard as I possibly can to tap into my potential, and also makes sure that I truly I’m happy from the depths of my soul.
Last night, I took a critical look at my life and my efforts and realized something very important. I had inadvertently given all my energy, creativity and time to furthering other people’s dreams. Everyday, people come up to me wanting my help in furthering their vision, a magazine, an ad agency, a club, a clothing line, and so on. I don’t mind, I have a gift; I can use it to move people’s dreams forward. It’s a problem where I begin to neglect my own dreams, my own ideas, and the things I want to create because others are more urgent or more convenient or more quickly profitable than mine. The fault is completely mine, and somewhere inside me, a part of me has rebelled and won’t let me design anymore until I create the things I’m supposed to create.
“I have learnt that even when you are have found and are living your so-called passion, it is still a struggle to live the life you were meant to live and do the things you were meant to do in a world that doesn’t understand what it means to live inspired.”
The problem with being a designer, well at least for me, arises from the fact that I chose design as a path as an expression of my self. I am a creator; I spend most of my time in my headspace, a place of ideas, concepts, and possibilities, things that could be birth on our actual physical plane. When I design, like most people who create, I am drawing from a plane higher than our reality. This takes energy, it takes time, and it takes trial and error. It is usually an exhilarating and enriching experience. It’s best done when you create for yourself or at least you create as true as you can to yourself.
Creating is like living with an exposed heart or nerve. Most people can do work in things that have no connection to who they are fundamentally and successfully compartmentalize. Designers and artists don’t have that luxury. Sure there is the reward of being constantly connected with your true self and feeling like you are doing something that matters, something you are passionate about. But the problem arises when you have to create in ways that violate who you are.
You work on projects that hold no excitement for you, you work on things that are ethically questionable, you are sucked into using your skills in service of the military-industrial-socio-economic-machine and by so doing neglect to create the inspired things that would benefit mankind and move us forward. The thing you loved becomes the thing you dread.
You are forced into being hyper productive, churning out design after design after design everyday. Eventually, your quality suffers, or worse, you stagnate, rehashing the same ideas, same techniques until creating becomes one dull, life sucking process. The thing you couldn’t wait to do in the morning becomes the thing you now run away from.
It’s a perpetual struggle to strike the balance between the work you do for money and the work you do as an expression of your soul. It’s a perpetual struggle balancing the expectations of the many people who rely and demand of your skill and your expectations of your work quality and content. Even when you fight for and acquire your dream, you still have to fight to protect it against the forces that would derail it.
The problem with being a designer (or any creative profession) is the fact that we inadvertently invest of ourselves in every project. There are strands of our DNA scattered all over our work, our process, our spaces. If those are violated, so are we. If we disrespect the gift, we disrespect ourselves.