Wednesday, August 20th, 2008

Running your own race

Running your own race
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In the past year we’ve been approached by six different agencies wishing to acquire smashLAB. Some were big players, two were regional firms, and the others were working as agents for other operations. Needless to say, we found all of this quite flattering, even if it wasn’t really on our agenda.

We toured a couple of the offices of those who contacted us. We found lovely spaces and met some nice people. In a way it looked pretty damned nice. We knew that if we’d agree to something like what was being discussed, we’d have better benefit packages, regular holidays, and we’d likely make more money. Nevertheless, we found that our interest dissolved rather quickly.

What happens when you get what you want

Over the past decade, Eric Shelkie, the smashLAB crew, and I, have worked a great number of hours. At times it has seemed a little ridiculous in fact (Eric and I didn’t take Christmas Day off until a couple of years ago), but it sure has been a hell of a lot of fun.

At the same time, we’ve often found ourselves chasing something “better”.

In recent years, some of those desires have been satiated. We’ve been lucky enough to have our work mentioned in a few magazines and we’ve won a couple of awards. We were really excited about these honors, but to be completely honest, the thrill didn’t last very long.

On occasion we’ve landed a really big job and as a result have entertained the notion of really growing the firm. This has also proved exciting, but ultimately we’ve shied away from this as well. Although the notion of a big firm is really exciting, many people who work in them seem to hate what they do.

Am I a lemming?

This morning I dropped Amea and Oscar off at the airport. They are off to see family in Ontario, and I’ll join them next week for some time at the Wilburs’ cottage.

On the return trip I turned onto Cambie Street. I hadn’t intended to, as it’s under construction; but, I was in the wrong lane and couldn’t switch to another fast enough. To my surprise, I found the route to be completely smooth sailing. As I reached the bridge, I noticed the few cars in front of me all turning onto the off-ramp.

I looked ahead to see that the Cambie Street Bridge didn’t have a single car on it. This immediately left me feeling as though I was making a mistake by proceeding, but I eventually did. I know… I know… You’re not all that interested in hearing a story about my drive to work; nevertheless, there’s a point here.

It’s that even with the road ahead of me as clear as could be, it seemed counter-intuitive to take it. I wanted to follow the others, even though it wouldn’t have been the direction I needed to take. The right road was before me all along, and if I wouldn’t have remained open to happy accidents and an alternate path, it wouldn’t have turned out as nicely.

What’s your game?

We’ve all heard the old parable about the “road less traveled”. As with most parables, this one sounds great, but remains difficult to put into practice in actuality.

I have a theory about award shows, colorful agency offices and great perks. I think they’re “golden handcuffs”. They keep us following a dream that none of us really had, but instead were told that we should have. Here we are, the most creative people, and still we find ourselves in the same trappings as most others. As Chekhov once noted, “The art of keeping slaves is being progressively refined.”

Have you ever traveled in October? It’s surprisingly enjoyable. The hotels are cheaper, the weather is more tolerable, and there aren’t any line-ups. So, why do so few do it? With as much freedom as most of us have, we’re enslaved by the creature comfort of knowing that we’re not on our own.

Many of us are on a track and that is difficult to break-free from. A lot of us use money as an excuse to keep from changing this.

I have to wonder what our lives might look like if we re-evaluated what we actually wanted. What would happen if we chose to live in a foreign place? Would we be happier if we started to work at less conventional times? Should we consider leaving behind what we’re used to and instead create only the things that we love? (BTW – Check out this little piece by Seth Godin that touches on this topic:

We might find something that suits us better. Or, maybe we’d find out that everything’s pretty good as it is, and that we can just enjoy how we have it.

The windows are open and the fans are running

Our office is small and on days like today, it’s really quite hot. There are no corner offices, and we do not have a staff lounge or anything of the sort. You probably make more money than I do. (If you don’t, just give it a few years… you will.)

That being said, we get to have a lot of fun around here. We get to work on whatever we want almost every day. There are still things that we’re not as happy to do, but hey… that’s life. Everyone in the studio gets along, and our clients are really nice to work with. And given our size, we’ve been able to say “thanks, but no thanks” to those few who have been overly difficult.

Additionally, we get to create our own projects (like MakeFive)–something that few traditional agencies would have much tolerance for. In fact, our feeling is that with time these projects may become our entire focus. This is just fine by me, as I quite love working on them. (BTW – We have a new one in the works. It will launch in early October.)

I guess we could be bigger and make more money. (Heck, I really like the sound of the last part.) At the same time I find myself thinking about something Steve Wozniak said: “All the best things that I did at Apple came from (a) not having money and (b) not having done it before, ever.”

I’m not trying to tell you how to live your life

…in fact, far from it. I do, however, like to document what I’m thinking about from time to time, and I enjoy sharing these thoughts. Perhaps you’ll find some helpful or maybe not. Either way, the price is right, isn’t it?  ;-)

If you love working at a big agency, attending award shows, and seeing your name in Communication Arts, that’s terrific. All of those are fun things. I don’t blame you for liking them and frankly, they appeal to me in some part as well.

Every once in a while though, I ask myself if those are really the things that I aspire to; or, do they simply take my focus off of what I really want to do?

Maybe the problem with success is that we don’t take enough time to define it for ourselves.

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Comments & Trackbacks

  1. md says:

    Yet another reason why I think you are a great asset to the design community: this article and your thoughts within it.

    I've had the experience of being extremely jealous of a co-graduate of mine recently. Shes not a good designer, but she found a way to get a high paying job, and has interviews at a certain oddly named search engine company and really really doesn't deserve it.

    But then I realized that while shes chasing paychecks and salary grades, I'm able to selectively interview at places I want to work at, I'm able to work on my magazine with people who care about design, I'm able to pursue a graduate degree and gain more knowledge and in the end, I enjoy my work, and my career choice, instead of just 'enjoying the money I get from some place I go during the day.'

    This article along with your article about working too much, help reassure my own thoughts. But maybe you're preaching to the choir ;)

  2. Eric Smith says:

    Great read Eric! It really hit home with where my life is at right now. Perfect timing, thanks sir.

  3. Zinni says:

    Great article, I know exactly what you mean. I often wonder whether I should have joined a large agency or continue on my of path building a successful design firm. Its tough, but I think I realized what I ultimately want more than anything else is the freedom I currently have to do things the way I think they should be done.

  4. kadavy says:

    Good for you, recognizing what is really right for you. I once aspired to rack up CA awards, but after getting in once, I realized it wasn't what I ultimately wanted. When you follow your interests and are mindful of opportunities, you can find yourself in some good places. I wrote a post on this you might like, called "Goals Are Bananas"

  5. Thank you very sincerely for this article!

    -Bec (design student)

  6. Pingback: all said and done » Blog Archive » Post of the Day - Runnning your own race

  7. This article seems very peaceful to me. You sound like you've defined your success and are enjoying it. That's awesome!

    Now time for me to go think about how I define it. I think being free to spend time with friends and family when I want is important. Something I'm being poo-pooed for at my current job :(

    Fear of the unknown often keeps us on the (more destructive/limiting) path of the known, huh?

  8. Britt says:

    It's incredibly empowering when you recognize that your path doesn't have to follow the "standard" for you to achieve success that matters to you. Somewhere along the way, the definition of success has slowly morphed into a one-size-fits-all approach that's rarely comfortable for anyone who gains the most happiness from challenging the status quo. Then, if one gives into the pressure to make money the end-all-be-all for measuring success, it can be incredibly difficult to pursue your own dreams without that becoming the deciding factor in every decision you make. Your insights highlight many of issues that most people are aware of, but either choose to ignore or are scared of the possible answers. Excellent and timely post.

  9. An excellent post Eric! You've made some very interesting points and observations, articulating it all very well. A must read IMO for any creative, be it newbie or veteran. Thanks for sharing your thoughts (as always), it's much appreciated. Cheers!

  10. Pingback: Running your own race by Eric Karjaluoto. « Spirit of the blitz.

  11. shanti says:

    Great post. I agree with Britt that it's empowering to hear it even though I've know it myself. It's just reassuring to know that you are not necessarily doing things foolishly. Just being focused.

  12. Marga says:

    Hi Eric,

    Following what's true to YOU is what matters... that is the kind of lemming I want to be.

    As usual, your post always make me think/reflect/react/smile... thanks!

  13. Thanks for the lovely note Marga--glad to hear that you liked the post! :-)

  14. Fantastic read, and very inspiring for the little guys like me. I run a solo studio in Winnipeg, and even though I recognize stepping out on my own was life-changing and liberating, I can't help but find myself chasing the Holy Grail. I still lose track of why I do what I do and wish to be just like the big guys.

    You've reminded me that I have something special and that I should embrace my niche, my size and the freedoms that affords me. The focus needs to be on charting my own course and staying true to what makes my studio different than everybody else.

    Thanks Eric,

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