I won’t get between you and your dreams. If you have a dream, I need to know what it is so we can figure out if this job gets you closer.
—How to Hire Good People Instead of Nice People
Imagine the freedom that comes from acknowledging what you dream about with potential employers up front. When you know what you want and you let everyone else know it, it helps potential bosses/supervisors/leaders lead you in the best way possible, even if that way is not into the job you’re applying for.
If your dream is going to become a reality, you need all the help you can get, not just to make it happen, but not to waste time doing things that don’t get you closer to your dream. Any hiring manager that wants to partner with you in that endeavor is an ally, job offer or not.
Why are you doing what you’re doing? What do you want to accomplish? What is the win?
Why are you moving forward if you can’t answer those questions?
There’s nothing more inefficient than doing something more efficiently that shouldn’t be done at all.—Michael Mullikin
You are limited. Time. Skill. Attention. Momentum. Money. All limited. But within your limits, you can choose to move forward with intention and vision.
Alternately, you can choose to waste your already limited life and work. That’s the thing about stewardship—the principle is relevant at every stage, every limit. It’s entirely in your hands how you steward the resources entrusted to you, whether they be limited or abundant.
Ask why. Always. Or wake up ten years from now when it’s too late to answer.
“Nature abhors a paradox,” they say.
I abhor a bad system. Or worse, a lack of system. But as a designer who frequently (or at least hopefully) veers into the artful, I’m working in the midst of a paradox. My desires and my roles produce—and sustain—inconsistencies. Artists and systems go to war with one another. I’m my own worst enemy, unable to escape self-inflicted tension.
I don’t like to design things in a vacuum; I believe everything affects everything. So I’m not designing one sign, I’m designing all of the signs, or it’s not a brand package. I’m not fixing the space between that 1 and 3, I’m fixing all the kerning pairs, or it’s not a usable typeface. Nothing stands on its own. No task is an island. There is always groundwork to lay before the journey can begin, because without a system, chaos and dissonance will form and inform the culture. Maybe you can relate. Or maybe you know a guy…
Processes are important, but processes without spirit are fundamentally useless.
There is a way in which we systems-minded folk systematically become no fun to work with. We’re so rigid, so dedicated, so passionate to erase outliers and metaphorical (or literal) squiggly lines, we let the system itself become our purpose, not the purpose we began building the system for.
In ancient Rome, the civic magistrate’s authority was visually represented by the Fasces1, a bundle of wooden rods tied around an axe, symbolizing “strength through unity.” A single rod is easily broken, but the bundle is difficult to overcome. The Fasces were carried by the magistrate’s bodyguards, and often used for dealing out punishment on command.
The Fasces are where we get the word “fascism.” Fascism is tricky to pin down and define, but it is foremost an authoritarian form of government. An indoctrination. An unforgiving discipline. And systems-minded people tend toward fascism in their respective mediums whenever we make the system more important than the mission.
I’m a systems fascist, and that’s not always a good thing.
I sometimes choose process over people. But normal people don’t notice design-centric subtleties like bad kerning or mismatched corner radiuses or off-brand fonts. They just live and move and have their interactions with what we help make. They want things that work. That make life more enjoyable. Or easier.
And they’re waiting on us, the makers of things, to make things. Not to talk about making things. Not to plan about making things. Not to create the perfect little world where our creations can exist, untarnished and under control. But to release them into a messy, complicated, rule-breaking world for people to use, and abuse. Henry Ford said, “You can’t build a reputation on what you’re going to do.” So it is with us.
The world is waiting. We are planning. And planning isn’t bad, so long as it doesn’t get in the way of actually doing…
Image credit: xkcd
Perfect systems are pretty graveyards if we let our perfectionist tendencies rule with an authoritarian fist. Goethe rightly believed “[The] things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.” If the system doesn’t serve the project, why bother? If it causes more work now than it will ever save you then, it’s a waste of time.
Your system, however perfect, isn’t precious—your time is. Your system is just a tool. But the tool isn’t the thing you’re building. The map is not the territory. If it doesn’t help accomplish the mission, it’s a distraction from the mission. And all your work to bring efficiency to a process is spent on the wrong stuff, at the expense of the right stuff.
Perfection ruins things. Perfection will stop you from starting projects. Perfection will stop you from finishing projects. Perfection is not interesting.
Be a human. Risk. Make some art. Open yourself up to the possibility of being surprised and delighted. Because you know what’s worse than a lack of good systems? A lack of finished projects. Or finished projects that no one cares about.
Soulless systems will strangle you, the people around you, and the people you want to reach. So have some spirit. Or don’t bother building a system at all.
1. Since the fall of the Roman Empire, the Fasces have come to symbolize power and authority in a more general cultural sense. Mussolini, Napoleon, the Nazis, Harvard, countries, currencies, fraternities—they’ve all co-opted the symbol on uniforms, hiding them in insignia, and decorating architecture. In fact, the next time you’re in Washington D.C., be sure to note the arms of the chair where Lincoln makes his home. ↩
I found two work-related goals scribbled in the page margins of a pocket notebook from the beginning of 2012. 1) I wanted to primarily focus my design time on getting the hazy-around-edges NewSpring identity system under control (via a thorough brand audit and re-templating project) and 2) I wanted to hire a few designers and developers to help shoulder the load and prepare for the growth we knew was on the way (we’ve practically doubled in attendance since then).
These two tasks would, in theory, enable me to focus much of 2013 on our website and copywriting, both of which were adequate, but suffering from a lack of proactive design and vision. In the absence of proactivity, reaction rules the land. And reactionary design is typically poor design in the longrun.
But Plans Change…
Halfway through 2012 we restructured the team, which restructured me to the bottom of the org chart. This was driven by multiple factors, the most pressing of which was my unreliability as a leader of people. By this point in the year, my new hire goal had been a successful one, and we’d added some fantastic team members to the mix. Two of those hires were appropriately promoted to lead design and web development, and I continued to work on the brand audit/re-templating project.
I don’t want to gloss over how difficult that transition was (and still can be)—I wrote about it in October—but I do want to highlight what time, patience, and a commitment to discipline can teach. Nothing is wasted, and this transition has been a healthy, educational one. Difficult, but good.
Don’t fight forces, use them.
Right now, I’m working on copy and code. My workday is almost wholly focused on the things I am best at, and, not too coincidentally, the areas where I can have the most possible impact at NewSpring. 2013 will be the year of wireframes, writing, and web. Just like I hoped it would be a year ago. The goal remains; the landscape’s changed.
Alter Your Perspective, Alter Your Outcome
Circumstances are, largely, beyond us. There are only a handful of things we can actually control. Beyond those things, success is a matter of managing the ebb and flow of those outside forces. Forces can be enemies, or they can be useful tools.
This is the philosophy of the Japanese martial art of Judo—the “Gentle Way”. Judo is not gentle because it isn’t violent, or effective, or powerful; it can be all of those things. Judo is gentle because it aims for maximum efficiency through minimal effort. It uses forces to achieve success. Judo is the gentle way for the practitioner.
[Resisting] a more powerful opponent will result in your defeat, whilst adjusting to and evading your opponent’s attack will cause him to lose his balance, his power will be reduced, and you will defeat him. This can apply whatever the relative values of power, thus making it possible for weaker opponents to beat significantly stronger ones.
Kano’s theory was called “jū yoku gō o seisu” or “gentleness controls hardness”. My friend Blaine once told me something similar, while gently reminding me not to be so mechanical…
Machines fight and then break in conflict. Humans flex and grow.
There is a way in which we can bow up to circumstance, fight against change, strive for our ideas of what should and should not be. And often it is necessary to stand your ground for deeply held beliefs. But in my case, had I bucked authority in mid-2012, or fled to another job, I would have failed to achieve the objectives I put to paper at the beginning of that year.
If I had adopted a rigid stance, sure of myself, angry at the world, I would have fought, broke, and, ultimately, lost. I would have sacrificed my mission because I was unwilling to alter my tactics. Focused on the moment, and forgotten the endgame.
But in adjusting, in stewarding the tension and forces confronting me, and in being willing to flex, change, pivot, and grow, there is much freedom.
And, it turns out, much victory.
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.
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?
If HR is simply a support function, interchangeable with something as inane as paying the water bill, you are not a cool place to work. You will not be a magnet for talent or maintain a motivated staff.
You’re just minding the store, putting out fires, and waving at people on their way in and out of the building.
Spend your time seeking knowledge instead of better equipment. It’s experimenting that’s going to help you develop your craft and develop your own personal style.
New ideas can alter the balance of power because they challenge the existing. Most of us are seeking some kind of equilibrium, so we tend toward resistance. If you don’t find the path of least resistance before you try to instigate disruption, prepare for a fight.
If you’re not willing to fight, why did you come to work today?
We must work on a scale proper to our limited abilities.
We must not break things we cannot fix.
I’ve found that luck is quite predictable. If you want more luck, take more chances. Be more active. Show up more often.
The things that matter most must never be at the mercy of the things that matter least.
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
All execution is a matter of navigating priorities, people, and politics. If you can’t prioritize or if people aren’t your thing, you have no business being in business.
If you don’t “do politics” you don’t do Getting Stuff Done.
This could be about baseball. Or work.
Slumps are like soft beds. They’re easy to get into and hard to get out of.
Well, do we wanna build up this whole thing again and go chase business that we don’t want and get into pitches and win or not win business based on the whims of people who are stupider* than we are? Or is there another way?
—Jim Coudal, excerpted from Bootstrapped, Profitable, & Proud: Coudal
That question led to this insight:
If you have the skills to do client work, you have the skills to make your own product. You’re selling yourself short by selling that on a work for hire basis.
I’m currently trying to do both, client work and building a product (and holding down a fulltime job, and writing a book). We’ll see how it goes.
*Caveat: I don’t think my clients are stupider than I am.
If your personal vision doesn’t align with The Mission you’re on, it will meet resistance from The Powers That Be. They will view your vision as short-sighted and narrow. Because it is. In the context of The Mission, submit or exit. There is no middle ground for missionaries.
If you can’t kick your own nagging vision, go make it a reality. Elsewhere. Everyone will thank you for it. Eventually you will thank you for it, too. Don’t derail one train because you were too lazy to get on the right one.
More to come. Getting close.
Between his rant about modern conveniences and this quote, I think Louis CK has cemented the fact that he is Utterly Capable of Apt Cultural Commentary.
I think you should do your job. I think a lot of people don’t do their job, because they don’t like their job. I don’t get that. You know, if you go to a coffee place, and the kid looks at you like, “Uh.” I didn’t come to your house to ask you for coffee. This is a coffee place. Your clothes match the building, I had a right to expect—and you’re closer to the coffee machine.
I don’t know why someone wouldn’t want their job to go really well. And I think usually it’s because they’re twenty. Because they’re twenty-year-old douchebags. I’m prejudiced against twenty year olds. Because, nineteen you’re still your parents’ fault. Twenty, you’re technically an adult, but you still haven’t done anything.
Twenty year olds at their jobs are always like, “This job sucks.” Yes, that’s why we gave it to you! Because you’re twenty. You haven’t done anything. You’ve just been sucking up resources, you’ve just been taking food and love and education and iPods, and taking it and judging—“I like that,” and “Oh, that sucks.” You’re like a big orange on a tree that’s rotting, and the tree is like, “Get off!” and you’re hanging on, “I don’t want to go.” If you’re twenty, you definitely have never done a thing for anybody.
—Louis CK, on the Late Show With Jay Leno
My friend Matthew Smith organized a small gathering (conference? alt-conference? nonference?) in my proverbial backyard this past weekend. The first Greenville Grok was a blast for a handful of locals and out-of-towners.
So, what’s a grok anyway?
[grok] — verb
1. to intimately and completely share the same reality or line of thinking with another physical or conceptual entity
2. the intermingling of intelligence that necessarily affects both the observer and the observed
The weekend was equal parts 10 or 20-minute presentations/questions/thoughts (here’s a spreadsheet of topics), relaxed conversation, shared ideas, food and drink from local eateries, and good old fashioned camaraderie.
I’m an introvert by nature and I admit to not being much of a “conference guy,” so this format was very appealing to me. No fluff, no filler, no lines for the bathroom—just an onslaught of ideas and feedback with a stellar group of people. Here are a few highlights and orphaned thoughts from my notebook…
On Project Managers:
Project Managers without any subject matter expertise are glorified secretaries.
On free [journalism] content:
If it’s free, it’s dead. Either no one’s going to do it or everyone is going to do it and it will suck.
On side projects:
Getting stuff done isn’t the only thing.
On articulating the mission first:
Unless pixels help you hone it, iterate goals and your message before you begin development.
There was much more to chew on regarding business, clients, teams, side projects, language, trust, paywalls, journalism, apps, beer (oh, the way these gents love their beer…) and I was only there for one day of the three. I can get down with that kind of return.
Many thanks to Matthew for organizing and everyone else who attended—you filled Grok chock full of amazing content. Let’s do this again sometime soon.
If you want to be the boss, dress like the boss.
This has nothing to do with clothes.
Some variation of this statement happens in almost every conversation we have with potential vendors, “Wow… you guys really care about design.” And while statement is deadly true, what they typically mean is, “Wow… you guys really care about the way things look.” Veneer. Window dressing. Aesthetics.
But we mean what Steve means:
Design is the fundamental soul of a human-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service.
Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.
Because we know that:
Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.
The dumbest mistake is viewing design as something you do at the end of the process to ‘tidy up’ the mess, as opposed to understanding it’s a ‘day one’ issue and part of everything.
And we believe:
Before you can execute the design, you’ve got to live the design problem.
People ignore design that ignores people.
And then we try to live all that out in such a way that:
Good design is obvious. Great design is transparent.
I hope we’re succeeding. Miles to go before we sleep.
Talent doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Within a team context, employees add or subtract value. You have to determine how much value each employee adds, and what idiosyncrasies are worth tolerating for the good of the mission.
A company is a team effort and, no matter how high an employee’s potential, you cannot get value from him unless he does his work in a manner in which he can be relied upon.
—Ben Horowitz, When Smart People are Bad Employees
If I’m the most brilliant and talented developer or designer (or assistant or strategist) on the team, but I’m unreliable, I’m subtracting value. I’m a minus. I sabotage the group effort. Sometimes shining accomplishments can outweigh (or at least outshine) unreliability in other areas, at least for a season. But eventually I put the mission in debt. Longterm there’s no correlation between value to the team and an inability to meet deadlines.
I’ve learned this the hard way. I’m 31 and I have two severance packages under my belt, so these thoughts are as much for me as anyone else. I’ve often put my teams (and my clients) into debt due to my own unreliability. It throws shrapnel. It hurts everyone—the mission, teammates, the relationships represented, and my own reputation. It costs.
There are any number of reasons why it happens. Taking on too much work. Lack of interest. Laziness. Mishandled time estimates. Ignorance. Naiveté. Poor habits. Procrastination. Chuck Close talks about the amateurness of delaying work while waiting for inspiration:
If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lighting to strike you in the brain, you’re not going to make an awful lot of work.
Sometimes you can get away with waiting on the perfect storm. Sometimes waiting is part of making. But only sometimes. Only occasionally. Because talent and unreliability can’t coexist in the same employee without eventually putting a team in the red. There’s simply too much to do. If there wasn’t, you wouldn’t need a team.
There’s no overlap. At least not for the long haul. Highly talented reliable employees are highly valuable team members. They keep the team in the black. But a less-talented reliable employee can often add more long-term value to a team environment than a flaky hero. (No matter how many super powers they have).
At some point in my erstwhile post-college semi-career as a musician I had an epiphany: the people I was opening for, the good ones, weren’t filling their headphones with the songs of their peers. They weren’t listening to us. They were devouring Bill Withers melodies, Motown arrangements, Lindsey Buckingham guitar wizardry and any number of decidedly non-current sources of inspiration. They were archeologists. Alchemists.
Guys like me were listening to whatever was in fashion. We were getting our inspiration thirdhand, riffing off the riffers, skimming the top. And it was evident in our output because we could only dispense what we knew, and what we knew was a shadow of what was.
Benny, “King” to many jazz musicians, had been a professional sideman, bandleader, and composer for 20 years before Miles moved to New York, beginning his ascent to household notoriety. For all of Miles’ innovation (and there was plenty) he still looked back for inspiration. The good ones always do.
The revelation continued to have ripple effects for me in all manner of creative endeavors. It followed me into graphic and web design where I saw world-class designers drawing inspiration from the pioneers of the field—Bauhaus typographers, Swiss grid masters, iconic 1960s corporate identities—and using what they excavated from the vaults, using secondhand inspiration, to build something new and innovative.
Take typography: I could spend a day browsing the web for modern takes on vintage lettering and type treatments. I’d end up with hundreds of browser tabs full of clever letterforms, oddly-endearing ligatures, interesting logo lockups, font pairings and pixel perfection. A wealth of inspiration.
Or I could go outside and find the real thing:
Originality is occasional. Secondhand inspiration can do wonders in the hands of craftsmen. But thirdhand inspiration is always slightly blurry around the edges. It lacks focus. Young muses rarely deliver what they promise. Energy gets lost in every creative exchange, like a game of Telephone. The universe favors entropy.
As poet Saul Williams says about modern hiphop MCs:
Perhaps we should not have encouraged them to use cordless microphones for they have walked too far from the source and are emitting a lesser frequency.
Go back, further, to the source. Then go forward.