BeMore Festival 2023 – How to build a breakthrough career
My keynote about how to build a breakthrough career from the 2023 BeMore festival which is an annual epic 24-hour super conference bringing 100+ legendary speakers in Design, AI, Product & Career Growth. Elevate your future with live keynotes, networking, and an experience that will empower and educate the community.
You what’s going on, everybody, and welcome into the 129th episode of The Crazy One podcast. As always, I’m your host, Stephen Gates, and this is the show where we talk about creativity, leadership, design, and everything else that helps to empower creative people. Now, remember, you can listen to the shows, get all the show notes, and a whole lot more. Just head over to thecrazyone.com that’s the words, the crazy and the number one. Also, do yourself a favor. Hit subscribe on your favorite podcast platform. And while you’re there doing that, do me a favor and leave a review. It lets people know the quality of the show, lets more people find out what we’re talking about, and lets me know that people are actually listening. And as always, too, if you have any questions, just want to keep up with my adventures or things like that, you can make sure you follow me on Instagram, or you can follow the show on LinkedIn or Facebook. Now, today I wanted to share a keynote that I did, what, two or three weeks ago for the Amazing Design People List, be More Festival. I did the keynote at both of the festivals, which is this is just the second annual one.
And if you listen to the show for any amount of time, you know how much I love the Amazing Design People List. I think I was lucky enough to be one of the very, very early supporters whenever Felix and James started to create this platform that honestly started out as just a Google sheet during the pandemic, trying to match people who were looking for jobs or who had lost their jobs with people who had jobs. And through that, we really sort of figured out that the bigger need there was for mentoring, that we had so many people that wanted to help. We had so many people that wanted to volunteer their time, and there were just so many people out there who really didn’t have a mentor, who couldn’t find the leadership that they were looking for. So I think that’s why, for me, I do about an hour and a half on average of free mentoring every single week. And again, you can just go to Adplist.com to be able to sign up for that. The sessions usually book up fast, I’ll warn you, but I do 330 minutes sessions a week. And so this talk in particular, I really wanted to think about those words, be More, what did they mean?
And I think, for me, I’ve been mentoring for, I think at this point, over 5000 minutes, and I think almost 200 sessions on the platform. So I’ve got a pretty good idea of the questions that get asked week after week after week. So in this keynote, I wanted to share sort of what those common questions are. I wanted to share what are the things that I’ve found in my journey that help you build a really good and breakthrough career. No matter where you are, if you’re just starting out or if you’re really senior or anywhere in between, what are the things that you could learn? What are the things that maybe you could help figure out and would help you keep things moving in your career? So this is my keynote called Exist Loudly from Be More 2023. Enjoy. But let’s talk about this, right? So let’s talk about be more. This is a phrase that I love, right? And so we’re talking about this a little bit. I’ve been lucky enough, I’ve been a part of ADP literally from the beginning, right? I think I met Felix back whenever this was literally just a spreadsheet.
I think he and I were the two that reviewed the first couple thousand mentors to bring them onto the platform. And I actually remember a conversation whenever we were talking about this phrase, right? Because he’d come to me and we were talking about he wanted to have a tagline. The team had come up with this sort of idea for how do we sum up what ADP list is? And I think for everybody, right know, you see Be More as the festival, be More sort of the call of action for ADP. But the interesting thing, and I think is kind of the grounding and such a strong theme for what I want to talk about today is that’s not what actually, the original name was. That whenever Felix first came to me, the line that he came to talk to me about was Be something More. And I found that so kind of like, fascinating. Right? Because and I think when we originally talked about it, I just don’t the something doesn’t make any sense to me, right? Like, on the one hand, I felt like it really spoke to why the platform was created. Because I think when we talk about mentorship, when we talk about people wanting to be more, and for me, I’ve done, I think I’m almost to 5000 minutes of mentoring on the platform and things like that.
So many of you are here for mentoring because you want to be something more. But what I had said when we talked about that was like, for me, that the something is so undefined, right? The something is, I think, for so many of us who are creative in whatever form that takes, we know that we want to be something more, but we aren’t entirely sure what that is or if we’re doing it right. So I just said, look, for me, we need to lose the something. Right? We want to be stronger and more definitive. We want to help people in a clearer way. We just want to be more. And so I guess that’s the theme that I really want to focus on, right? That’s the thing that I really want to think about. Because, look, I’ve been doing this a long time and I think the last twelve or 18 months have been some of the most amazing, difficult, stressful, thought provoking, transformational months of my career. Because a lot of it, for me, is, even for me, where I’m at now. It’s trying to figure out how could I be more? And what I’ve really come to discover is that there’s one moment for me that really told the tale, right, that really had me kind of reflect on my career and where I was at with what I was doing.
And it was not the moment that I ever really expected, right? It wasn’t a talent review. It wasn’t a portfolio review. It wasn’t presenting to a client. It was that moment in the morning when my alarm went off, right? If you’re like me, you have that love hate relationship with that alarm noise on your iPhone or whatever your phone is, to the point where even, like, you hear it in a movie or a TV show and you jump. But that’s not why this moment was important for me. Because what I had realized was for the past, I don’t know what, five or ten years or so, what happened in that moment was not good for me, right? Because what had happened in that moment was for too long, I would start to think about what I needed to do that day, right? What were the meetings that I had? What were the things that I needed to do? What was the work that I needed to review? And what I realized was that in that moment, what I was doing, if I was being really honest with myself, was I was trying to figure out how was I going to survive the day, right?
What were the meetings that I maybe didn’t have to go to, what were the meetings that I could be off camera for, what were the things that, again, I was going to be there for it, but it was just really I was more in a survival mentality. And that’s what’s amazing now, right? I fast forward twelve or 18 months, having asked myself a lot of hard questions and made a lot of hard changes. It this is a moment I live for, right? Because this moment for me now is instead of waking up in the morning and trying to figure out how am I going to survive the day, now I get to wake up in the morning and think about the amazing work that I get to do, the amazing clients that I get to do, the amazing talent that I get to work with. I am so excited and happy for what I’m about to go do during the day. And it isn’t just kind of like, okay, how do I find my way through this? And I think that’s one of the things that I’ve really it’s a theme that I’ve seen over, really, the last twelve or 18 months as well.
In a lot of the mentoring sessions for a lot of people that I’ve talked to. So I think that’s really what I want to be able to focus on today, right, is like, are you surviving or are you thriving? Right? Like, whenever we talk about building a breakthrough career, how do we do that? Because I think that the problem is that social media has just screwed up so much, right? Because one of the problems is everybody always looks happy, everybody always looks like they’re doing great or those sort of things. But I don’t know that we have very many role models for what it looks like to really love your job, right? Especially in the times right now, with what’s going on in the economy and things like that, it can be really difficult to be able to do that. And so there was this one person that I was thinking about recently that I want to call out, who I think when I think about an exceptional creative, when I think about one of those things of somebody who really loves their job, right? And I think that probably doesn’t get enough credit is this guy.
And it’s interesting because I’ve shown this slide before and 99 point some percentage of the time, nobody has any idea who this is, right? Like, even if I put his name up for Shingatawa Karita, most people don’t know who this is. And I always find it so interesting because he designed probably what I think is one of the most interesting, most impactful, like one of the most talked about and used pieces of design in the digital space in the last I don’t know how long it was, right? And so what he designed is probably not what a lot of people think, which was what his contribution was. Was he’s actually the guy who designed the Poop emoji? And before you think that I’ve all lost my mind or why on earth am I talking about this? Let’s think about this, right? And I want to tell you why. I think he is somebody who I think is outstanding, who is one of my heroes, who is somebody that is worth celebrating, because let’s think about it, right? This is somebody who looked at a design system, who looked at the emoji system that was out there and then said, you know what?
You know what? This is missing. And I think for too many creatives and for too many things like that, if you’re not in an environment where you feel like you can take a risk, if you’re not in an environment where you feel like you can go do something and try something, that idea never sees a light of day. But he said, you know what? You know what? This is missing, and he went and designed it. But beyond that, what I think is even the bigger thing is that he then walked into a meeting with his team, with his bosses, with everybody else and said, you know what? I had this idea. You know what it’s missing, and then sold it. Right? I would have loved to be a fly on the wall on that meeting to see, because could you imagine being on the other side of that conversation of having one of the designers you work with, right? And again, I think they’d be able to think about that and be able to have somebody walk in and go, like, you know, what we need in our design system is a piece of poop, right?
Can you imagine what that reaction in the room would be? But I think that’s the thing, right, is that for me, as funny as that sort of design to be, I think it speaks to, in a lot of ways, what really does it take to be able to have that sort of breakthrough career and do something that really makes a difference, right? And I think that’s what I want to talk about today a little bit is how can we all be more? Because that’s what I want to reference, and that’s what I want to talk about today, is, like, I’ve done a lot of mentoring sessions. I’ve talked to a lot of people, and I want to talk about what, for me, are the most common questions, the most common barriers, the most common things, right? Because I think if you really want to have a breakthrough career and I’ve learned this the hard way more than once, there’s a couple of things that I think need to be true, right? I think the first and foremost one is to really figure out how do you make peace with yourself and your creativity, right? Because I think that for too many of us, there is a pressure to show up as who we think our company wants us to be.
Our boss wants us to be what we think the industry wants us to be, and that in many cases, there’s a pressure to try to be like everybody else or look like everybody else’s work or do a lot of those sort of things. And I think that’s such a tough position to be in. I think that you really have to be in a place where and have a confidence with yourself to understand how do you use your creative insights? How do you take those risks? How do you work beyond the brief? Right? Because I think that’s always one of the things that I’ve learned, right, is, like, if you really want to do an evadive work, if you really want to do creative work, you need to be able to take risks. And whenever you stop, whenever you end up doing the work, you don’t always know where you’re going to end up when you start. And I think for so many of us, we are challenged by we are often working with clients who give us solutions to be vetted and not problems to be solved. And that, again, that’s such a common problem with so many designers and design teams, is that they’re at the end of the process, right?
They’re left out of the thinking they aren’t core to what’s going on. But I think you also have to be in a place where you are supported to take those risks. I think whenever I look at the best work that I’ve done, it wasn’t just because we did a great design, right? It was because I had a great CEO, a great leader, a great team, all of these things that we felt comfortable to take risks, and that that can be a difficult thing to find. But I think the other part of what this is and I think this is one of the toughest themes in all the mentoring sessions that I go through, I think, is that for me, at the end of the day, when people will say, what’s the one piece of advice that you would give to anybody who’s out there? My biggest advice is that success is a choice. Because one of the things that I’ve definitely seen over the years is, look, everybody wants the big clients. They want to do the cool work. They want to get the compensation that comes with that. But not many people are kind of willing to put in the work.
I think one of the most common questions that I get from mentees is like, well, what’s the secret? And I always will tell people, right? The problem when you ask a question like that is that the problem is in your question because you think that there is a secret, you think that there is a shortcut, you think that there’s a way to be able to do this because a lot of this is difficult. And how do you put in the work to figure this stuff out? So that’s what I want to talk about today, right? I want to dig into what are some of the most common questions that I get all the time? What are the things that I find myself repeating the most? What are the things that I think I can share to try to help everybody figure out how to be more? And I think the first one is, is that a lot of people seem to think that there is a script when you go through this industry, right? Because a lot of people come to me and they’ll say, look, I don’t know if I’m building my career the right way.
Am I doing it right? And I think this is an incredibly understandable question, because for a lot of us, we think that there is a way to go about this, right? That you sort of start as an apprentice, and you get your way up to a leader, and you kind of go through these steps to be able to do that. But the thing is that nobody’s career actually ever really looks like this, right? It’s never this linear because nobody’s education, nobody’s childhood, nobody’s talent, nobody’s creativity ever looks like somebody else’s. So it’s never this linear to be able to do this, right? And I think we have some better examples of what a career ladder could be. Like this, or this is an actual one that I found the other day, right? And this makes my head just absolutely want to explode. It’s no wonder that we all feel like we’re sort of doing it wrong or we aren’t sure if we’re going the right way. Because it’s like this looks like how you run a nuclear power plant, right? Like not how you draw for a living, right? So I think there’s a lot of this stuff out there that really just makes my brain itch.
Because here’s the thing, right? Here’s the thing that I want everybody to hear me on. There is not a right way to build your career, right? You don’t know what the right way to build your career is. Your right way is if you are doing what you love, then you are on the right path, right? If you are using your talent, if you are doing those sort of things to be able to do that, then you are on the right path. And here is how I know that with 100% certainty is because no one, I mean, no one would look at my career and tell you that it was a good idea, right? Nobody would say like, yeah, start at an advertising, then go to a hotel company, then go to a finance company, then a SaaS company, then wellness, then start your own studio. Nobody would look at that and be like, yeah, that’s a good idea, but that’s always the thing, right? And we’re going to talk about this a couple of times. Success is a concept that only exists in hindsight, right? After you do something, after you go somewhere, after you’re able to follow your gut and what that is and it works, then everybody knew it all along, right?
Because whenever I left the agency world to go work at a hotel company, everybody told me for years that I was going to end my career, that it was the dumbest move I could make. What was it that I was doing? Then our work showed up in the first Apple commercial and all those same people wanted to know if I was hiring, right? And I think whenever I started my own studio, everybody was either quiet or stayed well away whenever. Now all of a sudden we’re producing work and I’ve got clients people have heard of, then everybody knew it all along, right? Did they really know, right? But again, once it happened and once it was success, then everybody knew it all along. There have been so many points in my career where I spent months or even years going down a path that nobody understood because I believed that it was where I should be. I saw something that I wanted to follow, right? Again, I’m not the most creative, I’m not the best designer, right? I’m better than most, but I’m not the best. I think what has given me the success that I found is my ability to believe in if I think it and my gut tells me that that’s the right thing to do, that I will follow it.
And again, I think that this is something for me that is just a really important point to make because so many people think if you get to a certain point in your career, you will quote, unquote, make it right, that all of a sudden impostor syndrome or all this other stuff doesn’t apply. That’s all bullshit, right? Like, that is not the case. These sort of things apply to everybody all the time, which I think then goes to and this is something that I’ve struggled with mightily over my career is that I think for so many people, they will come to me and say, look, the way that you talk about creativity, the way that you sort of talk about those things, why am I not happy? Right? Or why am I not as happy as the way everybody else looks? And I think that this is one of the things for me is that I think for so many of us, we sort of feel like every single day and look, and I felt this way, right? I needed to show up, I needed to be happy. Especially if you’re in leadership, right? Like there is a pressure to sort of be almost like a mascot for your team.
But the reality is that there’s some very important things that are happening here and there’s really sort of two trends here that I want to call out. One of the ones is that one of the things that I think so many of us do that is so detrimental and the reason why that question is asked right. The reason why people feel like they are not good enough, the reason why they feel like they are trying to figure out how to be more is that what we are fundamentally doing is we are comparing our insides to everybody else’s outsides. Right. They all look so happy on social media. They all look so successful. Their teams are all so well funded. Even when I do, like leadership camps, like multi day leadership camps, huge leaders from big design companies, I’ll go in there and like, the first day happy and it’s amazing and all these sort of things and their teams are all well funded and they’re super happy and their bosses are amazing. And then on the second day I’m like, look, can we just cut the shit? And people are like, yeah, this place is driving me crazy.
I wish they just packaged me out, right? It has become something where honesty has become almost like a rare commodity, which is so depressing to me in some ways, when people are like, oh, you’re so honest. But this is the thing, right? When you’re comparing your inner thoughts, your inner emotions, your insecurities to the PR campaign that everybody else is running, that is a comparison you’re never going to win, right? It’s not something that you’re ever going to look at that and go, oh, that’s the way I feel. And I think that’s whenever it comes back to this, that’s why everybody feels like I always should be happy all the time. When the reality is, if you really look at the psychology of happiness, in many cases, for what we do, happiness is a target, right? If I get this job, if we launch this product, if I do this thing, oh, then I will be happy. And again, I think that was one of the things that I discovered in my career, was, like, even the best things I did, the most amazing things I would do, would only make me genuinely happy for, like, up.
To 48 hours max. Because what would happen is I would have achieved that goal, launched that thing, did whatever it was awesome. I did that made me happy. Well, then what happens is, in that anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of days, your brain recalibrates and goes, cool, we hit that target. Here’s a new one. And so then you hit the spike and you fall back down, because now it’s like, oh, when I hit that next target, what I realized was, for me, especially as a creative, because so much of my creativity is emotional, it is mental, it is how am I fueling myself and keeping myself inspired? I couldn’t keep living on these spikes, right? Like, the swings were too big. And so a lot of the times, what I want to talk to people about is, how do you actually find joy in what you do? And I think it really is the fact that it is understanding that, yes, there are times that you want goals, you want to be happy, but it’s living in that deficit all the time that becomes so hard, as opposed to, what are those things I do every day?
How do I show up? What are the things that I do that I love? What are the things that I want to celebrate about the people that I work with? Right? And the reason why this is often so hard is because, literally, mentally, hope and happiness is more work, right? If you want to know why the world is so cynical, why everybody loves to troll each other and do all that stuff, because, again, it’s just our brains are wired for it. We automatically think bad news is more important than good news. But I think this ability to be able to look at this sort of stuff and understand that it isn’t about I have to be happy all the time, but how do I celebrate what I’m doing every day? How do I really enjoy what that is? And I think this has been a big part of what I had to rewire my brain around to figure this out. But the number one by a mile, more than a mile, pete question that I kind of get from people and the answer that I give around this really is, like, why am I not getting more interviews?
Why am I not getting more jobs? And I think every single week so I do three mentoring sessions every single week. I do more if I can. But every single week, people come to me with this question. On the back of that, I’ll ask to see their resume, to their portfolio. I’ll look at their LinkedIn, and then the same piece of advice comes up time after time after time, and it’s driven by the fact. And, look, it’s understandable. And I think for so many people right now who have been affected by layoffs, for so many people who are looking for a new job, for so many people who are trying to break into the industry, there’s a part of your brain that says, to be able to do that, I need to appeal to everybody. I cannot miss out on an opportunity. I have to be able to take advantage of every single thing that is out there. But the reality is, whenever you do that, just like any design, just like when you build any brand, just like whenever you do anything, when you appeal to everyone, you basically end up appealing to no one.
Because whenever you go out there and it’s like, look, who do you want me to be? If that works, you usually end up with a job that you hate. And if it doesn’t, then again, then you’re coming and saying, look, why is more of this not working? Because the reality is, at the end of the day, look, companies don’t hire generic talent, right? They don’t hire people that just sort of do anything or everything. And even just as a society, think about who’s your favorite musician, who’s your favorite painter, artist, right? Whatever creative medium you want to do. Chef, like, whatever that is. Tattoo artist, street artist, whatever, right? Like, you can keep going. None of these people became famous. None of them became successful. None of them became distinct because they’re like, hey, let me go out and be like everybody else. And I think even in the past, in some of my studios, I’ve had a big poster that would hang out there that said, a cover band Never Changed the World. And I think that’s the thing, is that whenever you’re going out and trying to be like everybody else, so the problem is, then you blend in with everybody else.
And I think that’s the thing. And I think for so many of us, I don’t. Care if you have literally just started out and this is your first day in this profession. There is something about your upbringing, there is something about your skills, there’s something about your point of view that makes you unique. And the problem is that for too many of us, we are taught that those things that make us different, those things that give us a different perspective, are a weakness, right? Like, we need to be like everybody else. We need to fit in. We need to go along with all these sort of things. And again, the whole reason why I started the crazy one, which I literally have tattooed on my arm as a reminder to myself, is because I spent way too long in my damn career thinking that I needed to be like everybody else. And it was only in the moment when I realized that my difference was my superpower that my career exploded. And I think, again, for too many of us, we feel like we want to blend in. When the average job right now is getting between four and 500 resumes, blending in is not a good idea, right?
Standing out, being unique, understanding what your value is, those are the sort of things that, again, are always going to keep you in a really good place. And this is the way I always try to sum it up, right? Whenever I work with my clients to build a brand, whenever I work on my own personal brand, whenever I try to advise people, I know it sounds a little clickbaity and maybe even a little extreme, right? But my goal always is to build a brand that someone will hate. Because what that means is that I have built a brand that has a strong enough and clear enough expression that if people love it, they’re like, Damn it, I love that. I want that. And if it’s not, they’re like, look, not for me. Whenever I worked on W Hotels, for some people, W loved it, right? Like, it was cool. They had cool music. They felt like they were part of the cool club. For other people, it was Sodom and Gomorrah because there the Human Sunday option on the room service menu. That was all by design, right? And again, I think that’s always my thing.
And look, I am very specific. I am not for everyone. And that is exactly the way that I want it. Because the reason is the opportunities I’m missing out on are people where we would not have worked well together. These are not jobs that I would have been good at. These are not clients who would have appreciated my value and what I bring to the table, right? So the fact that I’m missing out on that is something for me. That is what I want. Like, am I missing out on something? Yes. Do I always have a little bit of anxiety around that? Yes. But the opportunities that I do get are so much better because I’m so much clearer, right? So, like I said, this is not licensed to go be an asshole or go do a bunch of things like that. But it is really just saying, like, look, you need to be clear and strong on who you are to set yourself apart. I think the other part of it that we get very caught up in, and this is something that I talk about with people a lot when they’re like, look, what’s the next app or technology or something that I should learn?
And the reality is, and this is probably just from the last couple of months, there is always an endless supply of new technology and new things to be able to work on and new things that come out. And this is not anything new, right? Like, since computers came into this industry, this is what’s been going on. Some of the leaps are undeniably bigger, right? Like, if we look at what is going on with AI, that’s more in the realm of like when desktop publishing came in and other things like that, where there are big leaps forward. But here’s the thing that I need people to remember, right, is that if you want to base your value, if you want to base what you do solely in a technology or solely in your ability to understand a program, you are making your career into a commodity. Because the problem is that people look at you just for your ability to execute with those things, which, again, whenever you are in that space, they will always find somebody younger, faster, cheaper. But also these things change. And I think that there are so many times when I’ve seen people who go through and to be able to mean like, look, going way back, I knew tons of people.
They invested in Macromedia Flash, then became Adobe Flash, and then Steve Jobs had a keynote, and then it became a real great dead end job, even recently, right? We all went from designing an Adobe and Photoshop and Illustrator, then we went to Sketch. Now we’re in Figment. Then it’ll be something else, probably, right? Like change is the constant. And here’s the thing, right? And I always come back to this. Technology is not an idea, right? I’m somebody who works in digital a lot. I do a lot of work in innovation for me. But my understanding is that technology is not an idea because my power is in my creativity. It’s in my ability to move somebody’s business. It’s my ability to leverage that. And that is never starting with saying, oh, we should, whatever, go make our own cryptocurrency or we should make an NFT. I mean, good God, how many companies just pointlessly made NFTs to follow everybody else? Didn’t provide any value, didn’t do anything. They made their own cryptocurrency. They did it just to do it. It wasn’t a good idea didn’t move their business. It was just so they could stick it on a slide for their board of directors and say like, oh, we’re still relevant, right?
The thing, the way that you need to think about this is that with your career and with your success, invest in the things that are timeless, right? Creativity, the ability to move the business, to do things like that. I look at technology that is just like a pencil, right? At the end of the day, if you just like a pencil, it is about the mark you make the word, you write, the impact that that has. That’s the thing, right? I’m so happy. Like, great. I can use Mid Journey too, right? I can use Firefly, I can use all that sort of stuff. If it is not creating something that moves somebody’s business, if it is not creating something that moves somebody, if it is not solving a need, who cares? And that’s the biggest part of it, right, is at the end of the day, all of these big, very fancy pencils are to make a mark. And I think too many of us get caught up in the executional piece of this. We turn our careers into commodities and then all of a sudden, when the industry shifts, we just keep chasing the latest technology, right?
So look, let me be clear. Yes, you need to understand this stuff. Yes, you need to stay up on it. But like I said, it is a pencil that is in your arsenal. It is not the thing that you need to be known for. Here’s the thing you need to do. Go out, try it all, learn it all. Like, look, I made a huge shift in my studio where we’ve stopped doing big expensive photo shoots. Instead, we do everything through much. I shoot stuff downstairs. We use mid journey. We use firefly. Like, yes, I’ve learned all of that sort of stuff, right? But it is going at that thing. It is looking at it, is investing it, it is understanding it and then deciding, is that something that I see value you? Is this something I want to recommend for my clients? Is it something that I want to be able to do? Because again, too many of us do it just because everybody else is doing it, right? The biggest thing I can tell you, for God’s sake, stop being sheep and think for yourself, right? All the times, whenever I have gone through and had big leaps in my career, I was one of the first people that worked on the Apple Watch, right?
Like, I worked on it months before it was announced to the public. The reason why I did that was because I’d worked on Google Glass. I never looked at Google Glass and thought that was a good idea, right? Never looked at that and was like, yeah, that’s going to be the next big thing with people having a camera in the middle of their face, that’s going to go, well, that wasn’t what I did it for, right? We did it because I wanted to learn how to actually design on a wearable, because I could see that that was the direction things were going, right? Everybody else was like, wow, that’s really stupid. Why would you design for that platform? Again, they couldn’t see the bigger picture. But again, if you can think for yourself and see understand the trend line from the headline, understand what really works. But I think the other big thing that people kind of come to me about, and I think this is very core to what my journey has been over the last couple of months is really whenever people come to me and they’re like, look, why won’t my boss tell me what I should do with my career?
Why won’t somebody tell me what I should do next? So to all the leaders out there, the thing that I would say is if people come and ask you that question, don’t answer it. Help them figure it out, but don’t answer it right? Because on the one hand, as a leader, you cannot be responsible for everybody else’s happiness. And the reality is, if you’re going to try and figure that out for everybody else, you’re going to get it wrong way more than you get it right. And they’re probably going to quit before you figure it out. But this was a question that I had stopped asking myself for way too long. What do I need? Right? And I think that for me, this is something that for so many of us, there is a profound difference in how you move through this industry. There is a profound difference going through this industry, knowing what it is you want, being focused on where you are going versus just taking what the industry or your job or things like that will give you. I can’t tell you the number of leaders who come to me for coaching or to be able to talk or for advice, and at the end I’ll say, well, look what’s going on?
They’re like, yeah, I don’t know if I like doing this anymore, right? I don’t know if I love design. I don’t know if I love leadership. I don’t know, it’s like, okay, well, let’s take a step back from that. I’m like, Tell me about your career path. And they’ll tell me about their last couple of career advancements. I’m like, Why did you take those jobs? It was more money. Okay? Money is important, right? We’re not going to discount that’s. Important. But I’m like, but what about the work? What about what you’re doing? And they’re like, yeah, I didn’t really think about that. And look, this is always a bit of a negotiation between what you can get out of the industry versus what it is you want. But for too many of us, whenever we are almost grateful to be able to get a job. I mean, one of the most sobering things that I always do when I give this talk in person and I could see everybody’s hand is I even just ask people how many of you actually even negotiated your last job right before you said yes? How many of you negotiated the terms, negotiated the terms of coming on board, negotiating the terms of your severance?
How many of you negotiated your salary or anything else like that? Or did you just go, oh, you know what? I’m just grateful for what they are giving me. And a lot of companies are definitely into that, right? Like they want to make you feel like you should be grateful because if you ask any questions, you’re going to screw it up. But that’s the thing, right? And I think I’ve landed. So whenever I founded the agency, the entire way that I started this agency was me sitting down and saying what do I need and how have I been able to think this through? Right? One of the things that I had to recognize that I needed is I need to live with the problems. Right. My agency is very deliberately anti scale. I don’t want to work with 20 companies. I want to partner with two or three. I want to be able to really understand that the best work comes out of trust. It comes out a lot of those sort of things. So for me, it really is one of those things where smaller is better that I want to actually be engaged in the work.
Right. I had gotten to a point in my career where I felt like I was more of a politician, an interventionist, a lawyer. I wasn’t a designer and a strategist. I was more of like a politician. So what I need is I want to actually do the work again, right? I love working on diverse problems. My skill set is very problematic for a lot of companies and for a lot of recruiters because I’ve worked in a ton of different mediums and done a ton of different things. And even in my last round of all my job interviews, it felt like that was this weird liability that I could be able to do all these sort of things well. Okay, I know that that’s whenever I am the happiest is whenever I’m able to work across all these different things. I think one of the biggest things for me was that again, I did not set up my agency to be somebody’s vendor. I set up an agency to be their partner and everything that that entails. Because for me, it is very important for me in the way that I like to work, that I am respected, I am listened to.
It doesn’t mean that I’m certainly not looking to be right. But I just wanted to know, show up as somebody where we can have a conversation, and people value what I do. But I think this was the biggest thing, right? And this was the part where I had fallen down, and I think in a lot of ways, it’s why I was drawn to what Felix was doing way back in the day when it was just a spreadsheet, right. Because I had stopped prioritizing my creativity, my skills, my mental health, and most of all, my happiness. I was not a fun person to be married to. I was not a fun friend to be around. And again, I think that I had started to trade away too many other things, and I had gotten to a point in my career, honest to God, I went kicking and screaming into starting my own studio because all I could see is what I could lose, not what I could gain. And that was a really hard thing for me. Right. Again, at this point in December, I left New York City after 16 years there, to move back home to my hometown of Pittsburgh, which is what I loved and where I’m happy.
I wanted to start my own studio. These were all things that I was extremely afraid of, right? Like this idea that if I don’t live in New York City, I’m not relevant, I’m not doing good work. This idea that if I start my own agency, I’m going to lose everything I have, right. My head was just on really backwards, right? And so this is the final thought I want to leave you with, and then I really want to jump into Q and A with everybody is I had a conversation along that journey, and it’s something that I literally come back to every single day. I’m incredibly lucky to know this woman, and I hope you know her or know of her. Sylvia Baffour is really an emotional intelligence expert. She’s somebody who we actually had met through instagram, through sort of a mutual admiration society. She has an incredible book called I Dare You to Care. She was actually mentored by Maya Angelou for over 14 years. She’s one of the smartest people that I know, and at one point, because, look, I had gone out, I’d been laid off for the third time, and I was just dead set on, like, I needed to find another in house job, even though I wasn’t happy, I couldn’t admit it and those sort of things.
And she had kind of reached out, and we sat down and had a talk, and I was going through, I’d been talking to all these companies. I’m not finding what I want. I see that there’s this shift coming, but I’m stuck, right? Like, I don’t know what to know. She has this magical way of sort of cutting right to the heart of everything. And she gave me this quote, right, when she just said, stephen, look, if you ever want to be more, if you ever want to evolve. If you want to get to all those things that you want to talk about, you need to remember, right? Like, discomfort is the cost of fulfillment. That somewhere along the right, that ability to be uncomfortable, to take a risk, to bet on yourself, to leave New York to do those things, right. You’ve gotten a little bit too comfortable. And the funny part is, for so long again, I used to have this quote that said, comfort is the enemy of greatness. I was going to say, you want to talk about atomic imposter syndrome? Have a podcast for seven years talking about this stuff. And then I think then go through it incredibly publicly, right?
But I think this is the cost of being more, right? The cost of being more is that how do you go through and try something different? And I think for me, sitting here twelve or 18 months later, damn it, I get up every single day uncomfortable, and I am so happy about it, right? Because right now I’m designing augmented reality installations, I’m designing restaurants, I’m doing brands, I’m doing packaging a lot of stuff that is not maybe in my wheelhouse, is not stuff that but I’ve got clients that trust me to be able to figure out. To figure it out. I trust myself to be able to figure it out. And I think that for me, it’s such a great way for me to really get back to a place. Like, if I’m not uncomfortable, then I know I’m not going to be happy. And so I think this has been my truth. And I think the thing that’s had the biggest impact on me getting towards that concept of being more, that I just wanted to share with everybody so much, like everybody’s doing in the chat and stuff like that, right. I just think this is it, right.
And this is a phrase that I’ve come back to for so long, and it’s one that I try to live up to every day, right. Of just how do you exist loudly? Because I think being creative is just such a gift. It’s such an incredible thing to be able to go out and to do what it is we do and to have so much fun and to be able to engage in what this stuff is and to be able to do these sort of things. I think ADP is such a gift as a platform to be able to connect with other people around the world and learn from them and do those sort of things right. But don’t do do it quietly, don’t do it generically. Lean into what makes you different. Right. I think that’s why, like I said, for me, that is what the crazy one is, right? That’s why I tell everybody to stay crazy, is because I think that quote is so right. Like, it’s the ones who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones that do. But it is so hard. I know that believing in yourself at times can almost be an act of will, right?
Like doing something that not everybody else can see can be hard. But I think again, if you lean into that discomfort and do that, I think there is so much on the other side of that that makes that journey so freaking worth it. Everybody’s been doing this a ton in chat and stuff like that. So again, you can hit that QR code that’ll take you a little bit of page where you can connect with me, you can find the podcast, you can talk to me about any sort of stuff. I have at least three new ADP sessions that come up every single week. If those are booked up, feel free to jump on the waiting list because every once in a while I like to do like a Super Tuesday or something where I’ll literally do like 8 hours straight of mentoring to try to catch up on everything that’s going on there. But with that I’m actually going to stop sharing and I know Catherine and see just on queue, Catherine back on and do some Q A. Yeah, awesome.
Thank you so much for all of your wisdom, sharing so much about your saw. I was reading the chat, so many people are resonating with what you’re saying and a lot of people were saying that they really needed this pep talk. So thank you. We have a ton of questions, so I’ll just kick us off with the top voted one. So our first question is how do you identify your strengths versus what you think are your strengths?
It’s a really good question, right? Because I think this is really difficult to figure out. I’m not going to lie because I think for me and for so many other people, whenever you say like, I am good at blank, right? The answer to that often feels like either ego or BS or something like that, right. How do I actually know? Am I good at it or not? How do I know it’s actually different? Because I often recognize whenever even I’m doing this work, I am always my own biggest blind spot. There are some places where I give myself too much credit, other places where I give myself not nearly enough credit. There’s really sort of two big exercises that I give people to do to try to figure this out. The first thing that I’ll do is to go out to current coworkers, ex coworkers, significant others, parents, things like that. Ask them to describe you in just three words, right? And no explanation, no big war and peace. Just three individual words. And wherever you start to get those back, just like a design thinking exercise, put them up on a virtual whiteboard, an actual whiteboard, sticky notes, whatever.
And I think what you want to be able to do is you’ll start to be able to see things start to group together. What that’s going to be able to do is to probably either reinforce what you think you are good at, it maybe is going to show you areas where you should give yourself more credit, but it gives you a really good foundation to start to look at what makes me different? Right? Because just go to people and say, hey, when you think about me, where do I have my biggest impact? What makes me different? What do you love about me? So that’s a good place to be able to start from there. What I usually then do is to do that as a foundation, to really start to take an inventory of those things. Where are actual examples that I have done that? Where are areas that I have been able to do that? Do I really like doing those things? Because then whenever I build my portfolio, my LinkedIn, my resume, all of those things need to be in service of those things that I think make me different. Because saying it is one thing, but I think whenever I’m able to show it through case studies right now, even on my resume and my portfolio, I’ve started to bring in like my Myers Briggs or my Clifton Strength Finder or my 16 personalities to have data to support that.
Whenever I say the way I am as a leader, the data in the personality test will actually support that that’s the case. But I think that that’s the thing is just blend that external and internal perspective. Because if it’s all external, you may end up having a brand that you don’t actually love it. So if it’s all internal, you may have a blind spot. But usually I’ve seen people get the best results when they’re able to kind of mix it like that.
Amazing. Thank you. Our next question is how do you navigate an environment that has micromanagement and limits the design decisions you can make?
Again, a really common question. This almost made the deck for me. There’s two outcomes to this, I think. One is to make sure whenever you’re in those sort of environments, it really is starting to look at what do people know you for? And this is really like design versus creativity. Design meaning do they just know you for your ability to execute a design, put something together like a visual solution. This goes into that commodity bucket. Because if they do that, then oftentimes when they see you as a commodity, as somebody that just produces, it is hard to get into the decision making process. Also because we are dealing in a medium that is often endlessly debatable, right. You can give everybody the same problem. You come back with 50 solutions and none of them are wrong. So again, I think one is looking at to make sure that what you are basing, what you are doing is talking about the thinking, the logic, the reasoning. This is why I tend to love things like design thinking or design Sprints, because what that allows me to be able to do is to then start to put work in front of customers, right?
So it’s not what do I like or what do you like? It’s what are the customers? Right? Like how do you realign that source of truth? And again, I’ve had this at big companies that I’ve gone in and worked for that it was this opinion war. Well, again, like I said, the reason why I love design thinking is one, it’s really good at taking titles from executives and stripping those off. It puts it in front of customers and makes it customer centric and gives you data to be able to work from it lets you iterate quickly. But I think those are the two biggest things, right, is that the more you can deal in data and facts and not opinion and again, the more that then whenever you do that, you can make it about your thinking and not just about your execution. Because over 90% of the time, whenever I’m brought in to work with a design team, because they aren’t getting the budget they want, they’re not getting new heads, they’re being overlooked at the end of the process. Over 90% of the time it starts with the fact that their product and the way the company sees them is they see them as that commodity who is just producing.
And as a result of that, they don’t necessarily see the value in their strategic asset.
That’s great. I have a really interesting question for you next. This one is love for you to speak more about your instinct or gut feeling when it comes to your career. Are you spiritual mindful? What do you do to tap into your gut?
That’s a great question. Out of all the times I’ve done this, I don’t know anybody’s ever asked that. Whenever I talk about my gut, it isn’t spiritual, right? I think what I try to really do is I try to live the problem, right? I try to go out and experience those sort of things. I try to really look at what is working and what’s not working. I try to take stock of what do I think is going on and what is not. And I think, again, like I said, to try to ignore the headline and look for the trend line. This was why, like I said, I left agencies. I was one of the first people that went in house years before everybody else did it. That’s why I’ve been able to do a lot of innovation work. Because for me it’s going out. And even now I think that there’s a shift going on looking at all the layoffs and everything else. I’m not convinced. I think there will still be pockets of it. I think in house design is not having. A great moment, right? I think that was part of the reason why I wanted to start my own studio.
Because I’m seeing a lot of people who are quitting to nothing. I’m seeing a lot of friends who are frustrated. I’m seeing mass layoffs. Many companies are interested in leaders that want to have an opinion and want to change things, right? Those are all the things that I’m looking at and saying, okay, there’s a shift coming in the industry, right? Like there’s a shift to probably a different model. So I think that’s a lot of what it is for me, right, is to be able to go through, experience those things, look at those things, pay attention to those things. Like anything that just kind of makes my brain itch or anything that’s like why are people quitting to nothing? Why are there so many layoffs? Why are so many people unhappy? Why are so many people seeking mentorship? Whenever there are those sort of things I just tend to write those questions down and just start to pay attention to them a little bit more. And like I said, in a lot of cases it’s led me to make different decisions or invest in other things or those sort of things because it was just I’m not sort of watching kind of like what the big things that everybody’s talking about.
It’s more just trying to look at what’s powering or what do I think is about to move, what’s going on with technology or culture or things like that. It’s hard to describe, but that’s why I said I think that’s the best way I know to be able to do it is I just whenever and again I try to do it, I think I do it my creativity and things like that, right? Anytime something seems different or anytime something seems off, I just really focus in on why.
Got you. Do you feel like you are someone who takes action on your gut as soon as you feel something? Or do you kind of wait to examine, really look into the why and then make a decision?
Look, it’s not right away, right? But look, what I will say is I think one of my superpowers is my ability to jump and to try it. Because like I said, look, I think I’m decently creative, I’m decently, innovative and stuff like that. But I think a lot of the times it’s my willingness to spend enough time with it where I feel like with a reasonable amount of certainty that I’ve seen enough data or enough evidence or enough something that I will jump and go in that direction. Because if I would have stopped and thought it through, the world didn’t need another podcast from another white guy, right? Wearables didn’t look like it was going to be the next thing, right? We did mobile entry or keyless check in or a lot of the stuff that I’ve been a part of it wasn’t like, oh, that’s going to be. But it was just that thing of just taking the risk or trying it. And I think that’s in a lot of ways, kind of what my superpower is, just kind of in that moment telling the impostor syndrome to shut up and jump. I think partially I do it just to scare myself and force myself into moving forward.
But like I said, I think that’s what it is. And I think the way that I’ve always tried to sum it up is I think if you ever talk to anybody who works with me, they’ll always describe me as crazy but not stupid. And I think it’s such that fine line, right? Like, when people are like, I don’t see what he sees, but he’s usually right enough that I’ll trust him again, which comes back to the trust thing. And so I think that’s really what I work for, right, is that people kind of know that I’m going to do something maybe a little off center, but that there’s a real reason and thinking behind why I’m doing it. So yeah, I’m not rash and emotional.
Got you. Okay, cool. We probably only have time for two more questions. Sure. So this one is what questions have you asked in interviews? I guess going back to in house positions that truly gave you the insight that the role would not excite you, what you want for joy, et cetera. Sorry, I kind of butchered that.
Yeah, I’ll answer that from both sides. Right. So whenever I’m interviewing people, when I’m interviewing somebody, the two questions that I always ask that give me the most insight one is that I’ll ask people if they can tell me how they have an idea. There’s not a right answer to what that is. I’m just looking at, again, how aware of they their are, creative process. I’ll also ask people if they can tell me what they need to be happy. Because again, I think for too many people, happiness is like happenstance. I’ve wrecked a couple of people who have come back like 48 hours or 72 hours later saying they couldn’t sleep because they didn’t have the answers to that. Look, a lot of it for me is whenever I go into a job, one of the things that I’m very aware of is that I can get a little opportunity drunk. Meaning look, sometimes because what I like to do is I like to sit down and say, okay, look, what do I need to be happy? Those needs that I say, right? Like outline what those are. Because there’s been more than enough times whenever I’ve gone and talked to a person or a company or things like that, I’m like, wow, this could be amazing.
This could be great. And I’ll come back and I’ll look at that list of needs and be like, wow, there’s like five things on this list and this one gives me, like, half of one of them. Well, I’ve over indexed on the brand. I’ve over indexed on the person that I’m talking to, something where I’ve gone a little drunk and blind on kind of what that is. So I think first and foremost, it is looking at what are those things that I need, how to align with that. The other big thing that I honestly really look at as a designer, sometimes it takes people a little sideways is show me the money. Because for me, money is the truth. Like, if you say you’re investing in career development, great. Show me, what are you spending on it? Are you growing the design team? Great. Show me. Or let’s open those heads before I say yes. Because again, I think I’m very aware for me that I also never have more leverage than in between that moment when a company decides that they want to work with me and when I say yes. Right. I think a lot of my success has been built in that moment because too many people take the job and they’re like, oh, now I’m going to change things.
Like, awesome, you waited for the moment where you have no leverage. Way to go. But I think that’s a lot of what it is for me, right, is it a combination of really looking at that, really asking the hard questions. And usually I want to ask around, like, how did they deal with a problem? How did they deal with, can I talk to the last person that was in this job? Right. Why did they quit? Yes, these can be very uncomfortable questions, right. But I think this is a company on its best behavior, and if they find these kind of questions uncomfortable, if they don’t like what they are, holy crap, wait till you work with me all the time. Right? So I just think, again, I want to show enough that I continue to move through the process, but there are times whenever I will deliberately ask even slightly provocative questions because I want to see how they handle it. Because if you’re bringing me in to be creative and to change things, this is not about us being comfortable all the time.
Amazing. So we have time for one last question. This one should be fun, too. What does Be More look like for you currently? What’s the next big thing on the horizon for you? Personally or professionally?
I just went through such a big evolution. Right. I think that for me, Be More right now is really leaning into my studio. I think I have an amazing bullpen of clients that I’m working with that we’ve started to release some work. There’s a ton more that’s out there. I think there’s such an incredible diversity of stuff that we are working on. I think, again, I’m loving mentoring, I’m loving doing talks. I’m continuing to lean into that. I think a lot of it for me is just really for me right now, being more is just caring about what I want to care about. Right. And I think really running a small agency, working with and so many of the people who I work with now, I found through ADP and things like that. So it’s really focusing in on just doing work that I just love, right. And I know is going to make a difference and that I’m proud of to be able to do that. I think for me personally, I just went through that. It was after 16 years of kind of getting ground down by New York City, came back home, of seeing old friends, engaging in what that stuff is, remembering what it’s like to not have to commute 2 hours to an airport.
Right. So again, I think a lot of it for me was just continuing to lean into and to look at how do I keep myself uncomfortable, how do I keep this going? Like, yeah, it’s a great moment right now, but not getting complacent because of that.
Amazing. Always pushing boundaries, always challenging yourself. Good things for us all to keep in mind. Well, thank you so much for joining us today, for kicking us off with Be More. Thank you everyone else for joining us as well. Hope to see you in some more sessions today. And that’s it for today. Awesome. Thank you so much, Stephen.
Sure thing. See everybody soon. Well, that was my keynote. Hope you enjoyed it. Hope that maybe there’s some things that you learned along the way. I think it’s one of those things I know I keep recycling that exists loudly title for a lot of talks. But I think the content keeps changing because while I think the sentiment and the need remains the same, how that comes to life is always sort of different. So remember, if you want to check out more around the podcast, if you want to get other articles, if you want to get the show notes for this show or any other ones, just head over to thecrazyone.com that’s the words of the crazy and the number one. Again, make sure you remember to subscribe to the podcast, leave a review, and as always, as everybody down in legal wants me to remind you that again, the views that expressed here are not of any of my current or former clients or employers. These are just my own thoughts. And finally, I say it every time because I mean it every time, but I’m always incredibly humbled and appreciative for your time. I know that time is truly the only real luxury any of us have.
I was incredibly humbled you and spend any of it listening to this show. So hopefully you learned a little bit. Hopefully you can figure out how to take your career up to the next level and while you’re doing it and as always, stay crazy. Bye.
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