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Writing

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?

Adopting a "one less" mindset

Like many people who struggle with bad habits, I’ve developed a “one more” mindset over the years.

Without even thinking twice, I’ll have “one more” drink, stay out “one more” hour, or try to squeeze in “one more” task while I’m working.

What’s the harm in this?

Like most things, it wouldn’t be that bad if it was just once in a while.

Unfortunately, it isn’t just once. These moments of “one more” compound on each other and end up biting me in the ass. One more drink + one more hour out with friends = one less productive morning.

Instead, what would things look like if I focused on developing a “one less” mindset?

I would probably feel a little better if I had one less drink, I wouldn’t be as grumpy if I spent one less hour out, and I definitely wouldn’t be as stressed out if I took on one less obligation - I would have way more mental bandwidth for the things that matter most to me.

The question is: how does someone adopt this “one less” mindset when they’ve built up a series of unhealthy habits that make it easier to say, “I’ll have one more…”?

I’m not exactly sure yet, but this is a question that deserves at least one more minute of my time.

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.

Customer service no-nos

I don’t care what industry you work in. If it involves working with people, you’re in customer service.

When meeting or talking with a potential customer or client:

  • Stop asking leading questions simply for the sake of appearing smart as you reveal your answers. They trap your potential client and make them feel dumb. If they knew the answers, they probably wouldn’t be talking to you.

  • Stop waiting for your turn to speak and start listening with the intent to understand the person in front of you. They’re talking to you because they have a problem and you (might) have the solution. Let them tell you what they think the problem is.

  • Stop using industry jargon and buzzwords that confuse people. If you truly understand what you’re talking about, you will be able to break it down and make it accessible to anyone. Even your grandmother.

  • Stop making assumptions even if they are only your mind. You may think you know the person you’re talking to, but in reality, you don’t. They are different from every other potential client you’ve met in the past. Treat them as such.

  • Stop focusing on short-term results during the conversation. If you do your job right, they’ll come back, even after talking to others. When you’re narrow-minded, it shows.

The 85 Percent Solution

I recently finished reading I Will Teach You to Be Rich by Ramit Sethi.

I know what you’re thinking, “Wow, you got suckered into buying and reading a book with that title?!”

First of all, it was gifted to me after accepting my first full-time position and second, I honestly wish I would’ve read it a decade ago.

After moving past the seemingly shallow title, I learned so much about:

  1. Optimizing credit cards

  2. Setting up no-fee, high-interest bank accounts

  3. Opening investment accounts

  4. Creating a conscious spending plan

  5. Automating the entire process

  6. Learning how to pick the right investments

Outside of these six steps, one of the most helpful insights I learned was “The 85 Percent Solution.”

In Ramit’s words, it’s basically the idea that “getting started is more important than becoming an expert.”

After reading this, I realized that this not only applies to finance, it can be used in any area of life.

Whether you’re a writer, a freelancer, or a new entrepreneur, putting something in place that works is much more important than getting it “right.”

Your idea doesn’t have to be fully fleshed out in order for it to be valuable to someone else.

In fact, I bet there are plenty of people out there who need an imperfect solution now instead of a perfect solution later.

85 percent isn’t 100, but it’s better than zero.

Clear and concise

When it comes to the ability to be clear and concise, some people are born with it and some people are me.

I’ve never been the most straightforward.

Instead of getting to the point, my point usually arrives within the last 5% of any conversation, which means I (usually) have to fumble my way through logic and reasoning until I, after thinking out loud, can put two and two together.

I’m not exactly sure why I’ve always been this way, but it’s something I actively try to improve upon.

Speaking of improving, I can confidently say that writing has made the single greatest difference in becoming more clear and concise.

I’ve been writing (almost) every day for over three years now, and I’ve realized something interesting - Communicating with others has become easier because I’ve already had many of the conversations beforehand with myself.

Thanks to this unexpected side effect, I’ve already thought about many of the responses I give. It doesn’t mean they’re polished and contrived - they’re just a little more clear and thought out.

This is one of the biggest reasons why I urge other people to consider writing, even if no one else will ever read the words they write in a journal.

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.