A vision quest* is a Native American rite of passage, an ancient means to find spiritual guidance and purpose in the seclusion of the wilderness. The Lakota Sioux called it “Crying for a Dream,” which, while maybe a tad melodramatic, gets straight to the point. They climbed up the mountain, hunting for revelation, and didn’t come down until they found it.
Photo credit: Mount Triglav in Slovenia by ivanmarn
Vision Quest is also what I’m doing right now. Mandy and I are staying in a quaint little $75/night Airbnb back house in the misty mountains of Western North Carolina, hammering away at spreadsheets, calendars, dreams, and practicalities, setting a course for 2013.
While I’m sure it’s entirely possible, I’ve never stumbled on a deep desire by accident.
Direction, not intention, determines destination.
And so we meet, we talk, we pray, we plan, we imagine, because we want our life to be intentional, not accidental. We want to steward well the limited time we have.
One of my Christmas presents for Mandy was a 100+ page book of Instagram photos, in chronological order, as a year-in-review of 2012. It’s sad, but ultimately understandable, how many things we almost forgot happened to us and around us in the last year. Those photos, collected, curated, bound, and gifted, help us remember milestones and markers of a difficult, wonderful, adventurous, tumultuous year. Without those touchpoints, I fear much of our experience would simply cease to be, and thus cease to inform our future. Without remembering, we naturally forget, and eventually entire seasons fade from memory.
January 2012 was the first time we drove up the mountain to quest for vision in an official capacity, and so it was a fascinating exercise to begin this year’s quest with a review of last year’s notes. All of the questions. All of the conclusions. Decisions made, desires voiced.
If you don’t measure something, you can’t truly make informed decisions about the thing. Having a list of the decisions we made at the beginning of last year, seeing what we actually followed through on and accomplished, what we were naive/uninformed about, what were just plain dumb things to even think about, it’s truly an amazing gift of retrospection. It’s just like the photo book, really. A different medium, maybe, but a similar message. Milestones and markers. Proof of forward momentum. Aspirations. Fulfillment. Longing. Growth.
You had your whole life to prepare for this moment. Why aren’t you ready?
—Bobby Scott, Spartan
This weekend we’ll cover hundreds of decisions under larger categories like rest, finances, our business, my business, our side projects, our fitness, gardening, community, home, health, etc. And we’ll make a roadmap. Budgets, constraints, goals, to-do lists, stuff to craft, stuff to code, bureaucracies to war with, partners to build with, new skills to acquire, dreams to pray into existence—these are the visions we go up the mountain in search of.
And we won’t come down until we have revelation.
*Vision Quest was also an 1985 coming of age Matthew Modine movie about wrestling, a worn VHS copy of which was passed from team captain to team captain on my high school wrestling team since, I presume, the 80s. But that is a story for another time…
I am seeking a sort of relentless commitment to the task at hand.
I’m aiming for discipline.
Discipline is remembering what you want.
In the past few months I’ve intentionally scuttled many of my own side projects and shunned outside opportunities in an effort to—quite simply—do what I say I’m going to do, when I say I’m going to do it, and, as my dear friend Lee so eloquently put it, to do the same thing every day even when I don’t feel like it.
Many of this generation cling at all costs to the belief that there is another way, one which satisfies their love of a quick fix. There is not.
—John Kellogg, How I Became A Guide
Disciplining my body not to get Coca-Cola Classic at every meal is not all that different than disciplining my mind not to visit Twitter at every mental break. And the outcome of not denying those desires is not all that different either—giving in makes me gain weight. After all, calories are just a measure of energy. How much energy can I obtain from the things that I’m taking in? Do I have enough fuel for the task(s) at hand?
The toll of empty calories, be they physical or pixel, limits what I can do, and for how long I can do it. Everything consumed is burned up or added on. There is no third option.
[People] at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.
—Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers
Gladwell was talking about musicians. The idea travels freely between areas of expertise…
Photo credit: Pumping Iron, by Charles Gaines and George Butler, 1974
The last three or four reps is what makes the muscle grow. This area of pain divides the champion from someone else who is not a champion. That’s what most people lack, having the guts to go on and just say they’ll go through the pain no matter what happens.
—Arnold Schwarzenegger, Pumping Iron
I’ve been in a season at work for the past few months where—because of my failures in discipline and leading myself—I’ve had less responsibility. More time to think. More time to do the kind of design task(s) that come relatively easily to me after ten years of designing. Maybe you’re in a season where less responsibility sounds pleasant. If so, we are in different seasons, and we are likely very different people.
I don’t like less. It hurts. It is painful not to be able to make certain calls. Painful not to be trusted with leadership. But even more painful to be bent in such an analytical way that I know precisely why things are as they are, and I wholeheartedly agree that it is a good and right and wise decision for me to be exactly where I am, doing exactly what I am (and am not) doing.
I like pain for a particular reason… [I like] the pain that is necessary to be a champion.
And so, it is here, in the “area of pain” as Arnold called it—that seemingly endless, unnavigable chasm between the bad fruit of your past actions and the future things you want with such vehement immediacy—where decisions are to be made, the only decisions I can actually control. The decisions of the daily. The decisions of discipline.
Plato said, “The first and the best victory is to conquer self.” Will I press through the pain? Do I want the thing bad enough to walk/climb/crawl the entirety of the chasm, with no guarantee I can make it, or that what I want is waiting on the other side? Can I escape the gravitational pull of entitlement and instant gratification that’s so engrained in my bones it often feels inescapable?
Because that’s the rub of discipline—there are no shortcuts. I can’t bend the calendar to skip the next however many weeks, months, years any more than I can wake up 30lbs lighter tomorrow. I can’t make anything happen, except to do what I say I’m going to do, when I say I’m going to do it, every time something hits my desk. I’ll do that tomorrow. And the next day. And the next. Until my actions produce different fruit than they have in the past.
One painful duty fulfilled makes the next plainer and easier.
—Helen Keller, The Story of My Life
I am tired of words. And I say that with the knowledge that they are integral to my daily life, not just for communicating but quite literally forming the foundation of my livelihood. But words are easy, and they come easy. And while sometimes they are true, words are just tools, means to ends. Sometimes they lie. Sometimes they cower in the gray in-between. And sometimes they die, full of intention and promise.
What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
I’m aiming for discipline. And aim is at least both word and action.
Thanks to the iPhone and Instagram, I’m trying to get back into the habit of documenting adventures. Not carrying a DSLR around is fantastic.
This weekend Mrs. Blankenship and I, along with friends, made the trek to Columbia, SC for the second-to-last day of the State Fair in search of giant corn dogs, overpriced rides, elephant ears, Star Trek Live, people watching, heifer judging, baby goats, and a stellar Grand Stand concert with The (Legendary, Hard Workin’) Roots.
This has been the best year of client work I’ve ever had. Which wasn’t all that difficult, really. I’ve had some abysmal experiences working with clients in the 8+ years I’ve been a designer. But before you amen me (or better yet, write me off) as one of those oh-so-superior young designers bemoaning idiot clients from hell, let’s get one thing straight…
Every single one of those bad client experiences was my fault.
You’re Supposed to be The Professional, Remember?
Most designers, at least when we’re starting out, think we’re much better at all this whole professionalism thing than we actually are. As an independent designer, I’m typically responsible for choosing the client, helping to determine their goals and the way(s) we can accomplish them, setting and enforcing boundaries, negotiating scope, timeline, and payment, and communicating with them throughout the project, for good or ill.
When I didn’t get paid for work, I likely failed to facilitate an environment that attached clear boundaries and real consequences to lack of payment. When the scope spiraled out of control, I reaped the extra labor I sowed through my lack of clear statements of work prior to beginning the project. When clients were unhappy with our working relationship, I could typically trace it back to my inconsistent or even M.I.A. communication. When clients were frustrating to work with despite my best efforts on my best days, hey, I picked them, right? I chose to enter into a business relationship with that client. In short, I was never a victim of anyone other than myself. And my clients paid for it.
It’s taken me 8 years to get a grip on the business side of things. And 2011 hasn’t just been good in comparison to my previous bad experiences—it’s been good, period. Amazing, really. Predominantly happy clients, better projects, timely payment and, most important of all, a contentedness for myself and my wife that had been absent from any previous adventures in client work.
So, what changed? A number of decisions, each building on the other and progressively improving the whole:
I Only Work 15 Hours a Week for Clients
15 hours might not sound like much, especially to you fulltime independents, but I work a fulltime job, too. And I love my job. But since I direct and lead other designers and developers as much as I design these days, doing work for other clients in the 5–9 is enjoyable and beneficial. If I take four weeks vacation and I actually do that much work, that’s 720 billable hours and +/-200% of my salary every year. Not too shabby. Goodbye, student loans.
I’m upfront with potential clients about my weekly allotment, and it helps me filter well before I ever take on a new project. Sometimes (often, actually) a client needs a 60 hour project done in the next two weeks, and I either politely decline and point them in another direction or I sometimes try to pitch only portions of the work they need, portions that can be completed in my 15 hours. Potential clients love the candor, and I don’t end up taking on work I can’t do, ruining my reputation and doing a disservice to paying clients.
There’s nothing magic about 15 hours; it’s just what made sense for the lifestyle we want to live in this season. We’ve all got 168 hours in a week. If I’m at the office ~45hrs a week, getting 8 hours of sleep every night and doing 15 hours of client work each week, that gives me 52 hours to spend with my family or by myself. Any more work and the cost/benefit ratio dips into unhealthy and unhappy for me and mine.
I Work for One Client at a Time
I can’t juggle. I definitely can’t juggle multiple clients and serve them well on the thin time margins I’m keeping. I’ve always failed when I tried. I know my limits. I don’t want my reputation and talent to take me where my integrity can’t sustain me (and it will, if left unchecked). It damages my rep and renders my talent meaningless in the grand scheme of client services. “He’s real talented, but he doesn’t do what he says” is a massive failure unless my goal is to be known as an unprofessional, out of work, real talented guy. I’d rather serve one client to the best of my abilities than multiple clients simultaneously, mediocrely.
My clients know up front they don’t have all my hours in a week, but they also know they have my full attention when it comes to my weekly scheduled client time. I feel equipped to serve one client for 15 hours a week, and that’s the maximum effort I have to put in. I can sustain that in this season.
When things come up (which they will) I only have one point person to talk to and sort it out. If a scheduling snafu happens, or there’s a content issue, or a direction change, it only affects the only project I have at any given time. I feel freedom to engage the client, fix the problems, and serve them well without pushing off or affecting other clients. Everyone wins.
I Work For Free or For Very Expensive
I have two price points: my hourly fee or nothing at all. Everything in the middle tends to be the most frustrating of experiences. There are plenty of designers who will make you a logo for $200. I’ve chosen not to be one of them.
Once you’ve accepted a low-paying job, it doesn’t matter that “you should be making more money” or “branding typically costs more than this so the client should be happy with what I give them.” You took the job for that fee, and now you have to deliver as agreed, or you suck at being a professional. Don’t take work you’re unwilling to do for the agreed upon price. Simple.
As for free work, most of that takes the form of work for friends—wedding invitations and collateral, show posters, album covers—or pro-bono work for churches and non-profits. Most of my friends can’t afford me, but I don’t want them to have ugly wedding invitations, either. So I help where I can, and I don’t charge them. The barter system is also an amazing option, but whatever the logistics of unpaid work, generosity always comes back around.
I Don’t Begin Paid Work Without a Contract and a Check
That seems like it should be a no-brainer, but the lack of both have chewed me up and spit me out in the past. No paperwork will bite you more than it blesses you.
Mike Monteiro’s excellent talk F*ck You, Pay Me was immensely helpful in making me realize this, along with asking a lot of my peers to see their contracts and office paperwork. If you want to be a professional, you need contracts. There is no other option.
I Over-Communicate Over-Communication
Every client is different, but in general I want clients to want me to stop bothering them. I’d much rather be the annoying one than the one they can’t get in touch with for a week. No one likes to be ignored, and, like it or not, when someone gives you money in exchange for services, they are entitled to know how you’re utilizing your time.
Boundaries Will Set You Free
I know a lot of folks who have fulltime jobs and do client work have struggled with finding a system that works. My boundaries won’t be your boundaries, but trust me, you need to figure out yours. Our industry doesn’t need anymore flighty designers cashing 50% upfront checks and then winging it for the rest of a project. That doesn’t serve anyone.
If you want to enjoy client work, decide what kind of lifestyle you want to have and set boundaries to pave the way. If you want the respect and trust of your clients, earn it.
You’re supposed to be the professional, remember?
“I’m bored” is a useless thing to say. I mean, you live in a great, big, vast world that you’ve seen none percent of. Even the inside of your own mind is endless; it goes on forever, inwardly, do you understand? The fact that you’re alive is amazing, so you don’t get to say “I’m bored.”
I believe that the BP oil spill could have even bigger ramifications on our country than we already realize.
If this disaster exits the public consciousess without there being a 1:1 ratio of fault to accountability, then we as a nation will have demonstrated to our government (and the corporations whose interests they protect) that there is nothing we won’t tolerate—that under any circumstances of wrongdoing, even one without moral or religious debate, we can be manipulated and made to forget. And if we allow that precedent to be set, there will be no turning back. They will know something no democratic government ever should: that no matter the circumstances, they can always fall back on the people losing interest if they can be distracted long enough.
Think what you will about the source, but this is some apt social commentary.
People used to mock my theory that Disney romances are as detrimental to future relationships as pornography. But I believe it now more than ever.
Adversity makes men, and prosperity makes monsters.
If you have talent, there will always be someone telling you how to use it. Talent is in short supply, and smart people always have a vision for how you should use yours. It’s not enough to be good at what you do—you need to know where you want to take it (and more importantly where you don’t want to go).
Don’t mindlessly offer up your talent on the altar of the wrong vision. Be intentional with your talent, or someone else will do it for you.
Show me your friends, and I’ll show you your future.
1. a disposition or tendency to look on the more favorable side of events or conditions and to expect the most favorable outcome.
2. the belief that good ultimately predominates over evil in the world.
3. the belief that goodness pervades reality.
4. the doctrine that the existing world is the best of all possible worlds.
1. the tendency to see, anticipate, or emphasize only bad or undesirable outcomes, results, conditions, problems, etc.
2. the doctrine that the existing world is the worst of all possible worlds, or that all things naturally tend to evil.
3. the belief that the evil and pain in the world are not compensated for by goodness and happiness.
After some research and good old fashioned introspection, I’ve determined I’m both. Firmly. And neither. At least not wholly.
As with most things, there is a great tension at play that shapes my work and interaction with people. These are the environments where I spend most of my time, and as such they’re the proving ground for which side of world view I’m operating from. It’s a tricky line to walk—much of optimism in the above definitions seems overly naive and downright delusional to me, but I also don’t want to be known as the guy who only sees and comments on the worst the world has to offer. I’m looking for some middle ground here.
I think that balance as a general principle is a waste of time. To balance you have to be completely aware of the two extremes, the ‘weight’ of each, and of the absolute center on any issue. I find continuously that I am just not that smart.
Trying to find balance between optimism and pessimism is a seemingly attainable goal (given that we have two rigidly defined extremes), but it still feels like a waste of mental energy, energy that could be better spent on greater things. In the moment, I want to be more concerned with what I need to perceive about a situation in order to accomplish a task or finish a project. If that requires adopting a stance that others might label pessimistic, I need to be OK with that, even if that perception isn’t in keeping with what I see my world view as.
I’m guessing this will all be more difficult that I imagine.
I never saw a wild thing
sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself.
I wish people used better language to describe things they don’t understand, or things that are simply not to their taste. Especially in public.
Write whatever you want (and by all means be wildly successful at it!) but when you earn your paycheck penning love stories for the masses it rings a little desperate and hollow to talk smack about authors outside your genre—especially a widely critically acclaimed author like McCarthy.
As Whiskerino 2009 winds down with 12ish days of beard growing, photo showing online community remaining, I can’t help thinking, “wow, I didn’t really participate fully this year, other than the obvious gigantic hair on my face.” It’s amazing what marriage, a high-capacity-demanding job you love, and just plain life in general will do to eat all the time you used to have for such things. Onward and upward. Life is better now.
Mesquite trees are swaying
crooked, still dancing in time.
We’re just here waiting
watching you crawl towards the light…
—Saturday afternoon, 1/16/10
My wife’s grandfather passed away Sunday evening, peacefully in his sleep, surrounded by his children and grandchildren. He was celebrated on Wednesday by way of words, songs, photographs and prayers. And during the last few days we spent in Texas with the family, most of my thinking was occupied with two related thoughts.
The first is a Steinbeck quote from East of Eden — “When a man comes to die, no matter what his talents and influence and genius, if he dies unloved his life must be a failure to him and his dying a cold horror.” L.V. died loved, and I know of no other way to say it than this: dying loved is something special, important, and to be envied. This is a good way to go.
The second is the simple fact that when I die, whether that finish line be distant or fast-approaching, no one will likely say, “That Joshua Blankenship, what an amazing designer he was. His contributions to the visual landscape of the world will be missed.” These are not the legacies that most of us leave. I will not be remembered for teaching someone how to properly kern type*, I will be remembered if I treated them with dignity while I did it. I will not be remembered for having an amazing website, I will be remembered if I was an ass about it when I talked to others in similar environments. I will be remembered (or forgotten) by people, for how I interacted with people. I will not be remembered for pixels, no matter how meticulously I craft and place them on your screen.
This thing that I invest so much time and effort and hard work into is short-lived. The occupation/hobby monster that devours up half of most days in action and thought is fleeting at best (much to the unwelcome and necessary whittling away of my ego) and all-consuming at worst (much to the detriment of the people and relationships that will be my legacy.)
All that to say, I am and will always be passionate about design and writing and creating. I want to become a better version of myself in all these areas, for the rest of my life. But more than that, I want to live in such a way that I am missed when I go. I want to continually, wisely invest my time where I can have the missed-when-I’m-gone kind of return.
*Assuming I ever learn that lesson myself, of course.
Believe me, I understand and embrace the inherent hypocrisy of writing about this on a website with my name in the URL, but here we go anyway:
I am all for everyone having a voice, I just don’t think everyone has earned the microphone. And that’s what the Internet has done.
I fear that most contemporary people are answering questions not because they’re flattered by the attention; they’re answering questions because they feel as though they deserve to be asked. About everything. Their opinions are special, so they are entitled to a public forum. Their voice is supposed to be heard, lest their life become empty…this in one paragraph (minus technology), explains the rise of New Media.
—Chuck Klosterman, Eating the Dinosaur
To piggyback on Klosterman’s quote, I think most of us in Western culture feel owed attention. If you were born in the developed world after, say, 1985, and have access to the internet, chances are you’ve always had a platform of some variety—even if it’s “just a Facebook page.” You can communicate to more people from your cellphone in one instant than most people might have interacted with in their entire life 100 years ago. And you’ve been able to do so for a large part of your life. But to what end?
no one is responding to my tweet is something wrong with my beloved twitter [at] this moment [or] have you all forsaken me?
Even celebrities aren’t immune. “Listen to me! I am a unique and beautiful snowflake!” Sharing often becomes something akin to seeking identity in the act of being heard—as if the things we write and make and share have no worth until someone places worth on them by responding. But if no one listens, or at least we perceive a lack of attention, we often angrily shake our metaphorical fists at the sky, robbed of the attention that we are due. We deserve to be known, right? We must be validated by being heard. We are special. We are snowflakes.
The problem is, no one owes me anything. No one owes me a microphone or a platform. No one owes me their ears, their eyes, their time. Those things are valuable, each assaulted on a daily basis by an almost inescapable culture clamoring for our attention. They’re not automatic. Not owed. Not entitled. Not easy. You might have a microphone, but that doesn’t mean you have anything to say, or that anyone will listen.
And even if what we do grabs someone’s attention for a season, we have to understand how fickle modern audiences are. If I base my identity on having and holding your attention, I forget who I am as soon as you forget to pay attention to me. Being heard can’t be our motivation for speaking. Being responded to can’t be our motivation for sharing. Being discovered can’t be our motivation for creating.
I prefer the term “New Year’s Aspirations” to the more common “New Year’s Resolutions”. Simply put, if I make a New Year’s Resolution and fail to follow through, that thing is, by definition, unresolved. And the only people who like unresolved things are jazz musicians.
Resolving to accomplish something has such a bold finality to it. This is likely a wholly semantical argument, but for some reason, aspirations sit better with me than resolutions. I have no idea what 2010 holds, but I’m aspiring to do a few things—to read more, to learn to fly fish, to lose 30lbs. I don’t know if I’ll write to you a year from now as a well-read, physically fit fly fisherman, but I want to give it a try. To rise up. Seek ambitiously. Aim. Aspire.
So, faithful readers, I hope your 2010 is full of aspiration. And, if things go well for us all, some eventual resolution, too.
I do not know they key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.
A little vacation infographic on Flickr.
3. High School Wrestling Coach
4. River Guide