Monday, February 6th, 2006

My friend Hans

My friend Hans
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There are two people who I consider to be my closest friends, and I share very different relationships with both of them. One is my business partner Eric Shelkie (there are two Eric’s here), and the other is a fellow named Hans Saefkow. They represent different aspects of my life, and in many ways couldn’t be more different. The one thing that both of them share however, is that both are naturally gifted, but sometimes seem to not know it.

Eric is the balance at smashLAB. He’s level, and always makes sure that we do as we have promised. I met Eric many years before we started working together. He smiles a lot, and most everyone likes him. I’ve been very lucky to work with such a talented developer and thinker. When I show other developers what he has built, they are floored; however, when I mention this to him, he’ll generally just shrug his shoulders and say, “I don’t know if it’s really built the way it should be. I just hacked it together.” (What Eric “just hacks together” would blow your hair back.)

A neat guy

When Hans and I met, I didn’t expect to become good friends with him. He and I joked around a fair amount, and shared the occasional chat over a coffee, but it wasn’t until we had a good long talk on the roof of a bookstore that we started to really connect.

As time went on, I learned that Hans and I really shared a lot of similarities. He’s really close to his Mom and Dad, studied at the Ontario College of Art, and seems silly but really thinks about things a great deal. We both noted that we felt too awkward to be creatives. Neither of us look the part of artists, but nevertheless enjoy making things.

Recently he moved back to Smithers. I think that he was tempted to move somewhere larger for work reasons, but it was important for him to be close to his parents. He and Joanne also felt it was good for their kids to live in a nice, quiet place, close to family.

Hans thinks differently from most people. He listens a lot, and really considers new ways of articulating thoughts. Many would find it hard to balance the more silly aspects of his behavior with how insightful and relevant his observations are.

You would find him neat too

If you saw him in the parking lot, trying to fix his van (which just lit on fire), wearing his jacket with a hole in the elbow, you would miss all of what makes him so interesting. You’d have to start a conversation to begin to understand. He might talk to you about politics, the CBC, pop culture, his kids, or something absolutely unrelated.

It would take a while, but you might even get him to talk about some of the neat things he’s working on. He might tell you about the song he’s creating illustrations to, just because he thinks it’s such a great piece of writing. Or, he might ask you what your thoughts are on how he could solve some seemingly strange challenge.

When he was working as the Artistic Associate at Theatre NorthWest in Prince George, he would often tell me that he had some problem that had to be solved by week’s end. For example, on one day he explained that he had to find a way to make a ball drop twelve feet, sit still for ten seconds, and then roll away. It all had to look absolutely natural, and be completed for something like twenty dollars.

What would also amaze you (if you are the sort of person to be amazed by stuff like this), is how well he draws. Hans can really draw, and I’m not talking about cute vector illustration, but rather, well constructed, elaborate and accurate illustrations, brought to life with just a pencil. There aren’t many people who can match what Hans can get down on a sheet of paper.

Hans drives me crazy

For all of his skill and intelligence, Hans still is highly unrewarded for what he does. This is the kind of thing that really frustrates me. While I have seen so many people with limited talent excel, I have also witnessed people like Hans do great things in relative obscurity.

This leaves me with the question, “Why do such talented people get so little credit?” I feel that part of this is that creative people need to be known in order to build awareness. Many creatives just aren’t very good at this. Hans is better with a pencil in his hand, than he would be with a martini at an opening or industry event.) This is an almost terminal challenge for many creatives.)

Another aspect of Hans’ challenge is one that comes right back to how he looks upon himself. Hans doesn’t go after the work he could do, because he’s too self conscious to just ask for it. He’s creating beautiful illustrations, but hardly charging anything for them, because he is just too nice.

Nosey, nosey me

Last Thursday I asked Hans to speak at my wedding. During that conversation, he told me that he was considering taking a web design course. I sort of choked and asked him to reconsider. We talked for a bit, and for the next two or three days, I thought about how he could realign himself to do what he had always seemed so naturally built for.

At about two in the morning on Saturday, it hit me. Hans was facing the same sort of problem many of our clients face. He started with a dream, and after years of doing things, he had lost his ability to see how he could follow through on it. For him, as with many of our clients, it seemed very difficult to sort out; however, for an outsider, the solution was quite clear.

I wrote an email to Hans on Saturday, and asked him to do a few things. First, I encouraged him to focus on what he loves. In my mind, web design was not his love, but rather a distraction. He would likely be competent at it, but it would never be something that he was truly passionate about.

Once he had chosen what he loved to do, namely: illustration, I urged him to “get narrow”. Instead of designing the occasional logo, or creating a t-shirt for a local interest, I felt that he would find it much more fruitful to direct all of his efforts on one skill, marketed to one clear sector. (i.e. Concept drawing for the film industry.) This level of focus would allow him to build one package to attract only the clients that his work best suits. It would also allow him to become an expert at one thing rather quickly.

Finally it seemed important for him to contact a few key individuals for work. I noted that as painful as it would at first feel, he simply had to pick up the phone and start to make contact with a limited number of key clients, who were really in a place to pay market value for his expertise.

Why am I telling you all of this?

I share this story, as I feel that it’s a problem that many of us face. We start out doing things we love, and then lose course along the way. Sometimes this is because we simply don’t have enough time in market to build the kind of connections we need to move us ahead. At other times, it’s just because it’s so hard to see things clearly and determine the right path.

We are often fearful of aspiring towards what we really care about. On numerous occasions, I have felt the urge to bow out of something, right at the moment where things seem to be about to take off. Part of me believes that this comes down to the fear of risking what we care about by really going for it. How many brilliant people are trapped in jobs they despise, only due to their own inability to step up to the plate and follow through on what appears to be the most logical direction?

Additionally, I believe that in a very competitive marketplace, not only companies, but also people have to position themselves. If we want to excel in a particular field, we cannot be all things; rather, we have to determine what we love, build our careers around that, and have the patience to persist, even when things seem slow to budge.

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