Portfolio bootcamp

I had the amazing opportunity yesterday morning to sit alongside other professionals in the St. Louis creative industry in order to share we we’ve learned with design students from Maryville University.

As with many panel discussions geared toward design students, we covered standard topics like cleaning up your portfolio, using social media to promote yourself, and various interviewing tips.

However, this particular panel ended up being a little more real than I thought. A few traditional topics like recruiting agencies, resumés, and networking through events were brought up and, being the only panelist who was full-time freelance (until recently), I naturally decided to share my two cents.

In general, I emphasized that even though these topics are important, there are other equally important actions students could be taking right now in order to better prepare for the industry.

Actions like building real-world connections outside of the classroom by setting up coffee meetings with people in the industry. Actions like identifying your unique value proposition (who you are, what you do, the people with whom you want to work, and the value you will provide them). Actions like focusing on work that clearly addresses a specific business-related problem with a design-related solution, even as a student.

These are topics and actions that don’t get talked about nearly enough in classrooms even though they can mean the difference between finding a job/creating your own and letting the industry chew you up and spit you out.

Finding balance

I’ve had a full-time job for seven weeks now and I’m finally learning what it means to have balance in my life.

From finding more stability to spending quality time with the people I care about, I’m practicing being more present each day.

Some small part of me will always be looking towards the future, but in the meantime, I can start to tackle my priorities one at a time as opposed to letting them overwhelm me all at once.

With balance comes clarity. I don’t feel the urge to quickly solve all of my problems.

Instead, I can identify root causes that impact multiple parts of my life and focus my energy on solving them, one-by-one.

It’s hard to truly appreciate this sort of balance until it becomes a part of your life, but like most things worth pursuing, it takes patience to figure out what it looks like to you.

What it means to be a team

It’s been one week since I started my first onsite client project with a team from Slalom and I can already tell we kicked things off on the right foot.

Like many first days onsite with a client, we went out for a team lunch to discuss the project ahead of us.

Sure, we anticipated some amount of chaos coming into another company’s culture in order to accomplish a specific goal, but we wanted to make sure we were aligned as a team.

It helped to go around the table and share our initial impressions, but there was one question that made all of the difference:

“What do each of us need in order to feel like a successful member of this team?”

When you stop and think about it, how often do individual team members get to voice their answer to this question, especially in the beginning?

Some people might see this as “touchy-feely” or inconsequential, but after sharing my answer (feeling connected to other team members through honesty and humor), I instantly felt heard and more connected than when we sat down for lunch.

It was a fairly simple question, but it made all of the difference moving forward. It laid a solid foundation that has already helped as we’ve tackled challenges as a team.

Whether you’re leading a team of your own or part of a newly formed team, consider posing this question and truly listen to the answers.

You might even learn what it means to be a team.

Me versus we

I met someone new for coffee last night and, as we both agreed, it wasn’t weird.

This might be an unusual way to look at it, but even as an extrovert, I sometimes feel uncomfortable meeting new people.

In this case, I met with someone who has also been in the St. Louis design/marketing industry for a while. We shared our stories, talked shop, and touched on some of the problems St. Louis is trying to solve.

One of his biggest questions right now is, as an independent professional, should he brand himself as a one-many army or an agency. In his words, he was debating on “me versus we.”

For many independent creatives, this is one of the toughest hurdles to overcome in the beginning. The thought of a potential client not taking you seriously because you’re on your own can be paralyzing.

I dealt with this same question when I was first starting my full-time freelance career.

Since radical transparency has always been a core value of mine, I decided to brand myself as the individual I am instead of “hiding” behind a brand that seemed bigger.

When tackling this question, the most important question to ask yourself is what matters most to me?

Is your goal to scale and work with others from the get go? Then maybe a bigger brand is right for you. Do you want to communicate a more person, one-on-one relationship with your clients? Then create a personal brand that reflects what matters most to you.

At the end of the day, there’s no silver bullet to any of this. You have to make your own decisions (and mistakes) and learn from them.

When it comes to solving the problems of others, it doesn’t matter if it’s “me” or “we.”

The focus should be on “us.”

MBA the hard way

There have already been so many opportunities for learning and growth at Slalom.

One of the newest is a series of talks called “MBA the Hard Way” where consultants share their entrepreneurial experience with other consultants.

Last night, we heard from someone who made the hard choice of leaving his start up in order to join Slalom. Like many of us who have worked for ourselves, he had to make a personal sacrifice in order to provide for his family.

I don’t have kids (except for a little fur baby), but I do know what it’s like to give up complete autonomy in hopes of a better life in the future.

Before I came to Slalom, I was a decade into a full-time freelance career and honestly, I wasn’t really sure why I was still doing what I was doing.

Thanks to a series of conversations, I realized I could still create my own path as a consultant, but I would be able do so in a more intentional way

This didn’t make the decision any easier.

As a freelancer or entrepreneur, it can be way too easy to attach your identity to your work or your company. When you have to give it up to do what’s best for you or your family, it can feel like a part of you is gone.

The hardest and probably most important realization is that you are not your work. You’re also not your company. These things are byproducts that come from your actions and efforts.

It’s important to remember things will always change and new opportunities will always come.

What one decision can you make now in order to impact your future the most?

Leadership and vulnerability

I went to a panel discussion based around design leadership this morning for St. Louis Design Week and I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised.

Most of the time, a panel discussion seems to devolve into each panelist sharing a prepped series of answers that may or may not be helpful to the audience.

If you ask me, most of the value of a panel discussion comes through during the Q&A.

At the end of today’s panel, I noticed none of the leaders addressed vulnerability as a leader. So, I decided to ask the following question:

“Since vulnerability is an important part of design leadership, or any leadership for that matter, can you share what single part of your specific business today will put you out of business in the future?”

It was pretty apparent the panelists weren’t prepared for this healthy dose of vulnerability before 9 AM this morning.

What followed were a range of answers, including:

“Not adapting to the future quickly enough.”

“Not capturing some of our processes better.”

“Being based in St. Louis.”

This last one created a collective gasp from the room.

Hey, when someone is vulnerable and honest, it isn’t always easy to hear what they have to say.

I just wish more leaders (from any industry) were more vulnerable, especially in public settings. Whether they realize it or not (and they should), leaders influence others even when they aren’t actively leading.

When vulnerability is shared from the top down, it becomes a strength for everyone else.

So, here’s to the next generation of vulnerable leaders.

Learn to Say "No"

Over the past few months, I’ve learned the importance of saying, “No.”

Growing up as a people-pleaser, this was one of the toughest things to wrap my head around. After all, how was I supposed to let someone down without them hating me?

As we get older, we learn how to not take things so personally. Saying, “No” has nothing to do with them and everything to do with us. We want to protect our time for the things that truly matter to us.

Since everyone has (or should have) their own set of priorities, it’s impossible to align ours with everyone else 100% of the time.

That’s why learning to say, “No” with finesse can be one of the most useful skills as an adult.

Whether it’s turning down another freelance project to make more time at home or passing on a volunteer opportunity to find the one that aligns with a cause you are more passionate about, there is always a way to pass on an opportunity without burning bridges.

I’ve realized the more I do say, “No” to the things that don’t align with my priorities, the happier I am when the right opportunity comes along.

As always, it’s hard to reach this point. It takes practice to unlearn past behaviors that don’t get us to where we want to go.

What matters most is deciding which opportunities wall into which categories.

Otherwise, you’ll find yourself saying, “Yes” to everything.

Priorities

My priorities have been out of whack recently.

In fact, they’ve been mismanaged for a while now.

About six months ago, I went through what I would call a “series of unfortunate events” that impacted pretty much every facet of my life. From my health to my finances to my relationships, not a single thing was left untouched.

Because of this, I developed a series of habits that seem to creep in whenever someone is in “survival mode.” One of these is deprioritizing my relationships for the sake of taking more freelance work.

Now that I’ve finally reached a more stable place, I am taking a second look at my list of priorities and in hopes of recommitting to the things that truly matter.

For me, this means reinvesting in my relationships by carving out more quality time.

Time where I listen with the intention of understanding. Time where I cope with the inevitable stress that comes with living life. Time where I follow through, show up, and match my actions with the words I say.

This need to change is apparent now, but it won’t always be. Life will get in the way again and stress will inevitably come knocking.

That’s OK. Next time, I’ll be ready.

Space for creativity

It seems like the older we get, the less space we create for creativity.

That is, unless you work for a company like Pixar or IDEO.

These organizations not only promote creativity, they rely on its application in order make a living. They’ve learned what it takes in order to successfully apply creativity year after year, project after project.

If these select groups can embrace child-like curiosity and create the space needed to foster creativity, why can’t other lesser known companies? After all, the results speak for themselves.

Like most things in business, I think it all comes down to ego.

People are so focused on appearing professional or that they already have all of the answers that they’re afraid to acknowledge more abstract concepts like creativity or vulnerability.

If you ask me, these things make business even more human, They remind us that business isn’t just B2B or B2C - its P2P, or people to people.

Since most companies still don’t recognize this truth, the ones that do have a competitive advantage.

Which type of company sounds more appealing to you?

Investing in process

When you work for yourself, investing in processes is one of the most valuable ways in which you can spend your time.

Clients and users come and go. Results eventually fade. However, the processes you create for you and your business will stay with you over time.

Unfortunately, most don’t pay attention to processes that scale until it’s too late. You can file this under the “important” category that most people ignore because it doesn’t seem that urgent.

Do you know what else falls under this category? Health, fitness, financial saving, relationships, and other long-term considerations that we don’t think about until it’s too late.

We don’t pay attention to these until something catastrophic happens, like a heart attack or the death of a loved one. Only then do we stop and think about what we’re doing and where we’re going.

With entrepreneurship, it doesn’t have to be something this drastic - any number of smaller, less obvious issues can eventually sink your company.

When you focus on creating processes that scale, you’re ultimately giving you and your business the competitive advantage of time. This is why so many startups are able to “out-innovate” larger, more established companies with greater resources - they make the most of their time.

Your company doesn’t just create a product - it is a product. When you adopt this mindset, investing in processes just makes more sense. Both for your own sanity and for the long-term success of your business.

Drifting

Do you ever feel like you’re drifting?

As adults, we’re surrounded by this invisible pressure to have all of our shit together when, in reality, our lives resemble organized chaos more than anything else.

I’'ll be honest - in this moment, I feel a little lost.

Since making a pretty big shift from freelance to full-time employment, I’ve made a tough realization: I didn’t know what I was doing.

The more I think about it, I wasn’t being guided by anything concrete.

Like many freelancers, I was making enough to get by month-to-month while fumbling through the process. This uncertainty inevitably carried over into my new professional life, hence the feeling of drifting.

Now that I have a sense of stability, I need to shift focus to where I’m going and why I’m going there.

Otherwise, I will never feel grounded.

This goes for anyone. If you have the luxury of stability, you owe it to yourself to look forward and figure out how you can eventually help others in doing the same.

Safe and connected

A few days ago, I started reading The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle and I’m surprised to see elements of this book already in action.

Within the first few chapters, Coyle shares that in order to create an effective culture, members on a team need to feel safe and connected.

After working at Slalom for a month, I can understand why so many consultants here read this book. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so safe and connected around a new group within such a short amount of time.

People here tend to go out of their way to create experiences that promote safety and connection. From conversations to courses to dinners, I’ve had the chance to be vulnerable with so many people in a safe setting.

Not everyone is this lucky.

When it comes to a company with this many high performers, I imagine it would be easy to let friction and ego get in the way while delivering value to clients.

Instead, people go out of their way to help even if it means a few lost minutes.

Thanks to this book and this company, I’ve learned that a rising tide really does lift all boats.

Asking for permission

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been somewhat of a people pleaser.

Growing up, I would do whatever it took not to make people like me. I couldn’t stand it if someone had even a tiny issue with something I was doing. Sometimes, I would even refrain from sharing my ideas just to avoid stepping on the toes of others.

As an adult (some would argue this), I can confidently say this is no way to live your life.

In fact, I respect others more when they aren’t afraid to share who they truly are with me.

Part of shedding this unhelpful mindset is giving up the need to ask permission.

Luckily, Slalom (my new job) is helping me with this. When someone has an idea or suggestion here, they don’t ask for permission. They ask for feedback.

There is a huge difference between the two. When you ask someone for permission, there is a good chance you’re asking the wrong person. Sure, maybe you need some funding and your boss is the gatekeeper, but ultimately, you are the only person getting in your own way.

Instead, when you develop a comprehensive plan and ask for feedback, you’re taking action. You are showing instead of telling, which communicates that you’re serious.

This isn’t easy. When you share your ideas, there will always be naysayers who jump at the chance to shoot down the ideas of others. That’s usually because they’re too afraid or insecure to share their own.

The more I think about this, the more I’m reminded by a small piece of advice my dad gave me a long time ago:

“It’s always easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to ask for permission.”

My role model

My dad has always been my role model.

Not just for his intelligence or sense of humor, but for his uncanny ability to combine both in order to make things more accessible to others.

I could not have been more proud to see him demonstrate this last night as he accepted the Washington University in St. Louis 2018 Chancellor’s Award for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

Watching him recap his past 40 years of research (with a hilarious violin accompaniment) really did put things in perspective.

Creating a lasting, positive impact takes patience and help from others who are willing to be in it for the long haul. It also takes a seemingly impossible skill of balancing uncertainty while focusing on a single, clear goal.

Cheers to him and everyone else who has helped build and grow Arch Oncology and YourBevCo from the beginning!

A list of good questions

I’ve always prided myself on asking good questions.

If I had to guess, I would attribute this to my natural curiosity and drive to understand others.

This is probably one of the reasons I recently took a consulting job with Slalom.

At the end of the day, a good consultant has the ability learn about their client and their client’s problems and needs by asking good questions.

A good question isn’t hard simply for the sake of stumping others.

It does one thing above all else: it forces the person answering to think differently.

Here is a list of good questions I’ve been pondering recently:

• What does my future look like in five years?
• What is one action I can take today to live a more intentional life?
• When was the last time I applied critical thinking to my life?
• What are my core values and how am I living them day-to-day?
• What does success mean to me today? Tomorrow? A year from now?
• Why do I still practice unhealthy habits? How can I reprogram them?
• If I had an ∞ in my bank account, what would I do differently? The same?
• How can I help others with my unique skills and abilities?
• How can I make the world a little smaller?

What does my future look like?

I came to a pretty tough realization this morning:

As much as I think about the future, I don’t turn those thoughts into concrete plans nearly enough.

It’s not that I’m oblivious - I have an (almost) daily reminder in my journal to answer the same, elusive question:

What does my future look like?

This question has become a little more complicated since I started my new job at Slalom.

Not only does a full-time job force you to make the most of your extra time, a job with this company means you also get to play an active role in piecing together your own career.

As amazing as this is, it doesn’t make clarifying my future an easier.

If I had to guess, I’m suffering from the same problem a lot of people do. Planning for the future is hard, time-consuming, and doesn’t provide any instant gratification.

In other words, it goes again human nature. Most of us are hyper-focused on the here and now and don’t prioritize actions that have delayed results.

Unfortunately, it usually takes something extreme or jarring to drive the point home.

I don’t want to wait for something to make me change my ways. I want to play an active role in creating my own path and shaping my future.

Now all I have to do is sit down, shut up, and answer this question…

Biting off more than I can chew

I’ve always had a hard time saying, “No” to new opportunities.

You could say I’m addicted to the rush that comes with a new project or idea.

However, as many of us learn (the hard way), saying, “Yes” to everything is one of the quickest ways to welcome disappointment.

Personally, I thought I could handle my new job, freelance work, new projects with my company Viabl, and writing while somehow still balancing my relationship with my fiancé.

As I’ve quickly found out, I’m not doing as well as I thought.

I received my first email from a client mentioning the timeframe built into our contract.

As someone who prides myself one helping others take their ideas from zero to one quicker than anyone else, reading this was both a gut punch and a reality check.

I’ve always focused on successfully managing the expectations of the people I help. When I fail to meet a certain expectation I set, it communicates a lack of professionalism.

Now that I have less time each day, I have to be even more realistic with my commitments.

That’s why, once I finish my outstanding freelance work, I’ll be taking a small break to reevaluate where I want to go and, more importantly, how much I can take.

For all of you who have never worked with your own clients, I can’t stress enough the importance of managing expectations (and clear communication).

It can make or break your career.

First day of October

It’s the first day of October.

That means sweater weather, pumpkin ale, and bonfires with friends.

For those of you in the corporate world, it also means the beginning of the fourth quarter.

You know, the time of year when, thanks to the holidays, your office is either in total chaos or a barren ghost town.

Usually around this time, I find myself revisiting my final goals for the year.

When you work for yourself, this is one of the most important things you can do in order to ensure a smooth transition into the next year.

The thing is, with my new job comes a newfound sense of calmness.

For the first time in my life, I don’t have to necessarily worry about where my next paycheck is coming from.

Instead, I can focus on growing my relationships, both inside and outside of the office.

This means more quality time with friends and family - the kind where you lose track of the hours thanks to sharing stories and laughing so hard your stomach hurts.

At the same time, I’m nowhere near finished creating my own path. In fact, thanks to this peace of mind, I’ll be able to make the most of my time instead of spinning my wheels.

I’ll finally have the mental bandwidth to set clear, realistic goals instead of living with the constant pressure of exceeding my own unrealistic expectations.

What does the first day of October mean for you?

Not another lazy Sunday

I’m sitting in a coffee shop with a much clearer mind than usual.

During a “normal” Sunday morning, there’s a good chance I would still be in bed, avoiding the constant nagging of my phone alarm.

I would probably feel groggy from a late night of drinking with friends, unmotivated to do anything but curb a stubborn hangover.

My morning routine would be in shambles as I haphazardly figure out what to make for breakfast.

Instead, I’m almost finished with my routine, checking things off my to-do list as I make my way to freelance work that I’ve been neglecting over the past few weeks.

Today, I truly understand why I don’t always need that extra drink or just one more hour out with friends. Sure, it might feel good in the moment, but it’s almost never worth it in the long run.

It’s morning like these that remind me what it means to set yourself up for success.

I’m grateful for a Sunday morning that isn’t so lazy.

The people around me

I’ve been at Slalom for two weeks now and I’ve already found something that I felt like was missing.

Each day, I’ve had engaging, thoughtful conversations with other consultants, and they weren’t even during meetings. From passing by someone in the kitchen to intentionally setting aside time for lunch, I’m really getting to know the people around me.

We’re not talking about water cooler chit chat.

We’ve gone from high-level topics like sharing our hopes, dreams, passions to actionable ways in which we can make the world a better place.

I hoped this would be a part of my everyday life in this new job, but I didn’t anticipate it happening so fast.

Since one of Slalom’s core values is being your authentic self, people where seem much more willing to share who they really are instead of the outer facade we’re taught to cultivate.

Sure, I’m eager to solve interesting problems for various clients, but if I’m being honest, I’m much more excited to share stories, form deep bonds, and get to know the people around me.

After all, each and every single one of us is here for a reason.

I can’t wait to figure out what that is.