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Insidious little voice

I’ve noticed that over the past few months, I’ve lost some steam when it comes to sharing my writing online.

After taking time for some good ‘ol fashioned introspection, I’ve realized that it’s probably because I’m afraid that I am no longer doing something worth hearing about.

I know deep down inside this isn’t necessarily true, but it’s still a valid concern nevertheless.

Back when I was freelancing full-time, I was doing something that was out of the ordinary.

Now that I’ve been working a 9-to-5 while also working for myself, I’m experiencing a relative amount of stability for the first time.

Because of this, a small part of my feels that my insight may not be as unique as it once was or that it’s not as valuable to others.

If I drown out all of the other noise, I know this is simply that insidious little voice inside my head.

Even though I’m no longer working for myself full-time, I’ve still created my own professional path and this is something I imagine others might find valuable.

The hardest part is breaking everything down in a way that makes sense and is interesting enough for others.

When it comes to creating something for someone else, quieting this voice is nearly impossible.

In fact, the more experience you gain, the quicker you realize it’s not about silencing this voice at all.

Being a professional means learning to ignore it while moving forward anyway.

Indecision is still decision

I’ve been hyper-focused making decisions.

From taking inventory of my current decisions to making better decisions for the future, I’ve been doing my best to become more mindful.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed something about myself that probably applies to many others:

I procrastinate with some decisions and immediately take action on others.

Can you guess which ones are which?

It’s probably pretty obvious - I tend to put off larger decisions that have long-term results and take action on those that are relatively easy and have immediate impact.

For example, I’ve set a goal to open a high-interest, online savings account in order to start a new emergency fund. This was almost a month ago.

Why haven’t I followed through yet?

Probably for the same reason most people use - I’m afraid of making the “wrong” choice.

It’s easy to forget that, in the grand scheme of things, indecision is still a decision. In fact, it’s the worst decision you can make because you aren’t owning the outcome.

Like most things, it’s a matter of simply making a decision and, if needed, tweaking it later.

Once you make one major decision, the momentum carries over to the next and, before you know it, each one becomes a little easier.

A harsh realization

Like most weekend mornings, I’m sitting here in the corner booth of a local coffeeshop, going through the paces of my morning routine.

While journaling this morning, I came to a pretty harsh (yet fairly obvious) realization:

I can’t do everything if I ever want to do anything extraordinary.

I know, I know. This isn’t anything revolutionary, but like most epiphanies, we come to them in our own time.

In today’s world, one of the hardest things to accomplish is focus.

I’m not talking about overcoming normal distractions like email and social media. I’m referring to identifying one long-term goal, breaking it down into short-term steps, and focusing on each one at a time.

Add the crippling, self-imposed pressure of mastering everything you try and it’s baffling that anyone gets anything finished.

Like many “creatives,” I’ve always prided myself on my ability to juggle several projects at the same time. From writing to illustrating to launching my own products and services, I’ve tried a little bit of everything.

If I’m being brutally honest, this is the very reason I’ve never reached a level of mastery with any of it.

At the end of the day, going all-in on any one thing scares the shit out of me thanks to one very real question:

What if I miss countless other opportunities simply because I chose to put all of my eggs in one basket?”

I’ve realized this is the wrong question to ask.

Instead, I should be asking myself, “How can I possibly carry all of these baskets anywhere without dropping them?”

I think I’d rather make extraordinary progress on one thing instead of making very little progress on many.

The one thing

As I’m reading The ONE Thing by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan, I’m starting to realize a hard truth.

Since starting my daily writing routine over three years ago, I’ve identified and written down one specific action for me to take each day. In my mind, this is one action that will make the biggest difference in working towards the future I want.

If I’m being honest with myself, I’ve realized that even though identifying one specific action is better than nothing, I haven’t really been identifying the right daily action.

Instead of looking ahead into the future, identifying a clear purpose, and reverse engineering it into a set of priorities (or dominoes as Keller describes), I’ve been going after low-hanging fruit.

Basically, I’ve been taking action steps that seem productive day-to-day, but in the grand scheme of things, they are leading me into a very nebulous, unknown future.

This has been a great habit to practice, but without the long-term purpose or direction, it’s simply leading me towards more uncertainty.

Thanks to this book, I’m starting to focus on bringing the future into the present.

My argument for freelancing

After reviewing portfolios at a local design student conference, one of the students reached out to ask about how to price her first two freelance projects.

As we discussed charging per hour versus a flat project fee, including taxes, and other important considerations, she mentioned that one of her professors suggested staying away from freelancing right out of school.

I get it. What educator in their right mind would openly advise their students to take such a risky step straight out of the gate?

I’ll tell you who - someone who knows what is actually going on in the real world.

At this point, over 43% of the U.S. workforce is considered subcontracting or freelancing and that number is only going up.

Admittedly, many of these people essentially work full-time for companies that don’t want to give them the status of “employee” and others operate in the “gig economy,” but there are more and more creative professionals who are choosing to go their own direction.

Thanks to the democratization of software like Quickbooks, Stripe, Squarespace, and countless others, freelancers can fill in their gaps for little to no cost, which helps to take some of the risk out of the equation.

Sure, there is still an inherent risk that comes with working for yourself, but there is also inherent risk with relying solely on one source for your income.

Whether you’re gigging on the side or going all-in, laying the groundwork for a freelance career will never be a bad idea.

Clearing the mental queue

Whenever I feel stressed out or overwhelmed, I can usually narrow it down to one main reason:

My mental queue is jam packed.

Imagine your mind as an inbox that is overflowing with outstanding priorities, goals, calls, meetings, errands, and countless other distractions. I’m sure most of you don’t have to imagine - in today’s crazy, technology-driven world, this tends to be the default.

Honestly, this is how I feel a lot of the time, especially when I forget to check in with myself.

Whenever I forget to groom my mental queue, it quickly fills up with outstanding commitments.

How do I stop this from happening?

Like most things, it’s simple (I didn’t say easy).

As someone who regularly suffers from paralysis-by-analysis, I have to actively force myself to make decisions, pull triggers, and push stuff out of the door.

In other words, I have to clear my mental queue.

This involves actively mapping out all of my commitments, deciding next steps, and holding off from taking on anything new.

When I don’t do this, I tend to procrastinate and overthink things, which leads to even more stress and less mental bandwidth - it’s a vicious circle.

If you haven’t recently, make a quick list of every single commitment you have and ask yourself, “Does this belong in my mental queue?”

All-in is all wrong

As someone who was recently on a panel that gave feedback to entrepreneurs, I was asked, “Why are entrepreneurs taking advice from full-time employees?”

The first thing that comes to mind when I hear this is the “all-or-nothing” mindset that continues to permeate entrepreneurship.

Sure, there is no shortage of stories that tout a “rags-to-riches” rise to success for entrepreneurs all over the world, but that is exactly what they are - stories.

Over the past decade of full-time freelancing and entrepreneurship, I learned that living life in the extremes is usually a dangerous place to operate. If you’re not prepared, it can be lonely, stressful, and even lead to harmful thoughts of self-worthlessness.

I’ve always been a trial-by-fire kind of person who does better when there isn’t a safety net, but I’ve gone all-in before and honestly, it doesn’t always have to be this way.

I’ve come to terms with the fact that there are countless ways to create your own path.

Going back to the above question, I truly believe that you can always learn something from the person in front of you, no matter how different they may appear to be.

Why are entrepreneurs taking advice from full-time employees? Because many employees have experience with budgets, timelines, product validation, scalable (and unscalable) business models, bringing products to market, and simply talking to other people.

Just because they choose to work for someone else doesn’t mean that they don’t have relative experience to share. In fact, they may have the missing piece to the puzzle you’re trying to solve as an entrepreneur.

The sooner we can dial down the extremism of entrepreneurship, the better off we’ll all be.

Organizing the chaos

I’ve learned over the years that organizing the chaos of everyday life is one of the hardest parts of being a functioning adult.

Whether you work for yourself or within a larger company, distilling conversations, meetings, and opportunities down into tangible action steps is an art that, unfortunately, isn’t taught in school.

We’re taught how to “think critically” about writing and literature, but not about how we turn long-term priorities into short-term steps.

That’s why if I could create the curriculum for one course taught all over the country, it would be “Organizing the Chaos 101.”

It would be an intro course that presents frameworks, tools, and resources for creating your own accountability system. It might even explore various people and how they approach accountability.

I’m not usually a fan of looking backwards, but I can’t even imagine how much more I would have accomplished by now if I had created my own task management process sooner.

At this point, I’ve meshed my personal and professional lives together by mapping out long-term priorities like getting married or writing a book and breaking them down into smaller, more actionable goals, like booking a venue or finishing the first draft one chapter at a time (all using one Trello board).

As always, I’m constantly tweaking and updating as I come across other processes that work.

How do you manage your long-term priorities and short-term goals? How long did it take to get to this point?

Altruism and profit

Last night, I had the opportunity to be a panelist at a pitching event where local entrepreneurs present their businesses and ask for feedback around one specific question.

When it came to the final pitch, an interesting conversation popped up.

The entrepreneur mentioned they were including an altruistic component to their business model and one of the other panelists responded by saying, “You can focus on being altruistic once you scale up. As a startup, you need to focus on making mountains and mountains of big, ugly money.”

Maybe I’m just naive, but I couldn’t agree less.

Sure, if you want to eventually become a fully-sustainable company, you have to (eventually) have revenue coming in, but the idea that altruism and profit are mutually exclusive is ludicrous.

One of the smartest things you can do when starting a company is to focus on growing a community around your company.

Can you guess one thing people care about when it comes to the brands they support and the products/services they purchase?

A cause.

In today’s world, it’s becoming harder and harder to differentiate based on product alone. You have to plant your flag and stand for something when others may not.

If you ask me, doing good will always be good for business.

Living intentionally

We’re close to wrapping up 2018 and, like most Decembers, things are slowing down (at least when it comes to the business world).

This is usually when I start to think retrospectively about the year coming to an end.

In all honesty, this year hit me with the highest highs (traveling to Ireland, proposing to my fiancé, joining Slalom Consulting) and lowest lows (health issues, financial issues, the inability to deal with multiple points of stress) and everything in between.

The more I think about it, I can’t help but admit this was one of the most defining years for me as an adult.

Maybe it’s because I grew out of my twenties, but I felt a tangible shift from pretending to be an adult to actually becoming one.

Since reaching relatively stable ground towards the end of this year, I’ve discovered the privilege that comes from being able to think about life with intentionality.

Sure, I’m still putting out individual fires as they pop up, but now, I actually have the attention to look further ahead to see what’s actually causing the fires in the first place.

It’s not easy to live an intentional life. If it was, the self-help book industry would cease to exist.

People don’t always have the time to slow down and think about taking purposeful steps towards a life that would make them happy.

If you do happen to have a little time over the rest of the year, I can’t think of a better way to spend it.

Support and discovery

Last week, I had a client call that didn’t go so well.

We were in the middle of our discovery phase for the project and there were some concerns about where things were heading.

The thing is, I wasn’t worried because, deep down inside, I knew everything was going to be OK.

How exactly did I know this?

Simple - I had/have the support of a solid team behind me.

At Slalom, everyone really does look out for each other, especially while solving complex problems for our clients.

You better believe I went back and reviewed what happened in order to avoid making the same mistakes in the future, but overall, my team reminded me that this is part of almost any discovery process.

Organizing chaos and understanding uncertainty is never going to be neat and tidy, but as long as you can communicate learning and progress while trusting everyone around you, everything will be just fine.

Closed mouths don't get fed

As an adult, I think it’s obvious that you don’t get what you don’t ask for.

When I freelanced full-time, my survival depended upon whether or not I spoke up and shared how I could be of value to someone else.

Now that I work with Slalom, this idea means something a little different to me.

It means that, even though I consider myself to be fairly proactive, I still need to ask for help when I need something.

In this type of setting, I don’t always know if there is a mechanism already in place in order to accomplish the thing I want to do.

I would assume this is pretty common with a lot of companies in hyper-growth mode, but the thing about Slalom St. Louis is that I have the ability to help create those mechanisms.

Basically, if I need to accomplish something and I don’t see a good process or system in place, I have the autonomy to help create one.

I’m learning to speak up when I see room for improvement and connect the dots when the opportunity arises.

Emerging strategy

It blows my mind that I get to be a part of a company that is actively involving everyone while creating an emerging strategy for the future.

Yesterday, I participated in one of the many small group discussions meant to gather insight from all of the consultants here at Slalom.

We explored questions like:

• What might the future landscape look like?
• What do we want to preserve and grow?
• What do we want to modify?
• What do we want to eliminate?
• What do we want to prioritize?

Think about this for a moment.

How often does management ask you to give feedback on questions like these at your company? How often do you feel as if you have any say in the direction your company is heading?

The beautiful thing was that Slalom’s management didn’t mandate this initiative from the top-down. A group of consultants got together, used our “Request for Comments” forum, and started sharing this from the bottom-up.

Since everyone is encouraged to participate, we have insight from people who have been here for a few days all the way to a few years.

Is this process perfect? Of course not. But the fact that we’re being intentional about it speaks volumes about where we’re heading in the future.

And that is a future I want to be a part of.

Problems with success

For the first time in my life, I’m working with a company that is facing the right kind of problems, the kind of problems that naturally come with success.

For the most part, successful growth means more revenue, more people, and more impact thanks to more audacious goals.

Much like when a child hits a growth spurt, a successful company experiences growing pains when this growth happens a little too quickly.

What do these growing pains look like day-to-day?

When a company grows too quickly, there can be overall ambiguity for people, both at the management level and for those with boots planted firmly on the ground.

Where does this ambiguity come from? During this period of hyper-growth, key processes and systems fall by the wayside which, ironically, are needed for future scaling.

No matter how hard people try to avoid these growing pains, it’s almost inevitable. That is, unless intentional growth is made a priority from the beginning.

I haven’t been at Slalom from the beginning, but I have had the pleasure of seeing what hyper growth looks like firsthand and I can confidently say, this team is different.

It’s exciting to be part of team of people that is willing to slow down and put people first while turning hyper growth into intentional growth.

Bringing people together

This past Friday, I had the chance to come together with all of the other experience design consultants from Slalom for an all-day offsite get together.

We reviewed where we’ve been, what we’re doing now, and where we want to head in 2019.

Not only was it productive in the sense that we all got to express and align our ideas together, but we also got to know each other a little better.

With many jobs, you work in the same office with the same people and the culture organically grows around you.

With consulting, many people are offsite with clients, which means you may not get to meet everyone until an all-hands meeting or a quarterly get together.

Because of this, it’s much more important to spend the time we have together intentionally because, whether we realize it or not, we’re setting the tone for how things will be in the future.

I am truly grateful for a company like Slalom that invests not only in their people but in the time those people spend together.

Screw my ego

Something strange happened a few days ago: I felt a little twinge of resentment.

In the moment, I was frustrated with my own inability to take ownership over a new project.

However, after taking a few moments to look inward, I realized I was projecting my own insecurity onto someone else.

As someone who worked for myself for almost a decade, I got used to taking 100% ownership over any project I started.

As great as this may sound, this isn’t how things happen in corporate America.

People work in teams and those team members are collectively responsible for the overall success of the project.

Unfortunately, people tend to forget (like I did) that everyone on that team has something to learn from everyone else, whether it’s directly related to the project or not.

Like most people in a professional setting, I feel a need to prove my value.

However, I care way more about creating successful outcomes than I do about stroking my own ego.

At the end of the day, I’m part of team which means sometimes taking a back seat and learning from others.

Make less commitments

At this age, I take commitments very seriously.

When I give someone my word, I try to do whatever it takes to back up that word with action.

Sure, there are times when things get in the way. After all, part of being human is being imperfect, which means we take on too many commitments, set unrealistic expectations for ourselves and others, and we let our optimism get the best of us.

As long as this is the exception and not the rule, I’d say this is just fine. We should strive to either keep all of our promises or focus on the quality of our commitments instead of the quantity while knowing full well that we will sometimes fail.

No matter how much we learn, no one actually enjoys failing. It’s messy, uncomfortable, and it forces us to admit we were wrong.

The thing is, it’s OK to make mistakes because that’s when we learn the most.

Most people would probably agree that the one thing we shouldn’t do is to continue making the same mistakes. Not only is this disappointing, it means we aren’t learning.

Moving forward, I’m doing my best to make fewer promises while also making new mistakes. This way, I can devote my time and attention to fewer commitments and learn from the past.

Taking a break

I’m sitting at my kitchen counter, thinking about this long Thanksgiving weekend, and I can’t help but notice a huge difference.

In the past, each day of this break has felt the same. When I was freelancing full-time, I was never able to fully appreciate each of these days with loved ones - I always felt as if I should be working or making progress towards something bigger.

This year, I’m thankful for stability. It has always been an abstract idea that I strived towards, but I never really knew what it looked like until now.

It means the peace of mind to spend quality time with the people you care about. It means not letting stress infect every part of your life. It even means being able to show the people you love how much you care about them.

I will always strive for something greater, but during this long weekend, I am able to pause and give thanks for the fact that the people I care about are safe, happy, and healthy.

I can’t think of a better way to take a break.

A significant shift

There has been a tangible shift over the past few years.

As I catch up with friends who live in different cities, I’m noticing that more and more of them are dipping their toes into the worlds of freelancing and entrepreneurship.

I’m hearing origin stories that include turning a previous employer into a first client, partnering with a significant other, and even catching a big break after sharing some work online.

I don’t really believe in blanket statements, but if you think this is simply a fad, you’re dead wrong.

At this point, over 43% of the U.S. workforce is subcontracting and that number is only getting larger.

Sure, the gig economy plays a large part in all of this, but there is also a huge shift in mindset.

People are tired of working their asses off for companies that don’t appreciate the value they bring to the table.

I’ll admit - I was extremely lucky to find a progressive company like Slalom Consulting that embraces everyone’s individuality while working towards a collective goal.

I feel like this sort of progressive mindset is rare, especially in the Midwest.

Whether you’re working for yourself or looking to align with a company, think about the things that matter most to you in the long-run.

Otherwise, you’ll probably remain unsatisfied and uninspired, no matter where you work.

Coffee and consulting

Whenever I get stuck in a rut with my online writing, I sometimes ask myself:

“Why the hell am I still doing this?”

I was reminded why earlier this week over coffee.

I sat down with an independent creative director who came across some of my writing on LinkedIn and she wanted to hear more about my transition from full-time freelance to joining Slalom Consulting.

She was curious to hear more about my background and why this was my first full-time opportunity.

What started as a review of my first three months at Slalom turned into a full-blown conversation around working for yourself as an independent creative professional in St. Louis.

We covered everything from self-awareness to strategically positioning yourself and everything in-between. We even addressed how St. Louis-based businesses can balance outside opportunities while using the competitive advantages this city has to offer.

This was the kind of conversation that spanned over two and a half hours and two coffeeshops.

It was clear we both walked away feeling energized and ready to get to work on our own priorities.

I couldn’t help but feel validated in becoming a consultant because I realized a significant part of consulting is having these types of conversations, listening to understand, and then asking thoughtful questions that provide objective perspective.

It doesn’t matter if you’re talking to an individual or team from a multi-million dollar company - listening and asking the right question is valuable in any setting.