May 6, 2020

Stay Small

I think I’ve read this article three times already. It really struck a chord with me when thinking about my own work/life journey.

I left the design and development world because I felt like I needed something more stable”. My then wife and I had our first child on the way and I was looking for a regular paycheque and benefits. I left work that I loved for something a little more stable, a little more bland.

One constant theme I’ve noticed since then is I tend to find companies and people I love working with/for until I don’t. I need to explain: I love working for small to medium sized businesses. Companies that are moving fast and looking for creative ways to do more with less. Companies like this tend to attract creative and driven people, the kind of people I like to surround myself with. Small organizations give you the freedom to throw things against the wall to see what sticks. They let you take risks. However, the other constant is that these companies are usually swallowed up by one of two things; another larger company, or their own success.

They just care about whether work = growth. I love writing, and I love designing and I love making stuff, and yeah I derive a lot of value and meaning in my life from doing that and doing it well. But when growth is all that matters, that work doesn’t have innate value just because it’s great work. It only has value if it makes the graph point up and to the right.

Let’s start with being swallowed up. I was doing technical training and development for a small satellite TV company. We were owned by a larger cable TV/internet company, but still allowed to operate independently. To this day that team is probably one of the smartest, most creative, and fun group of people I’ve ever had the privilege to work with. Eventually, our parent company took us over completely and we were forced to join their HR team in their building. Over the ensuing years, one by one, each of us either moved to a different department or left the company entirely. The culture was entirely different, we didn’t have the creative freedom we once enjoyed, we felt like cogs in a much bigger machine.

There is a difference between being, and doing. The difference between caring about what you do, and caring about what you’ll be. The hardest part of accomplishing anything is always getting through what must be gotten through. Doing the work that sits on your list for weeks on end, and ticking off the jobs that you hated doing, but still finding a way to do them with care and with focus. The work of an artisan. The work of a chef, who must prepare and cut each ingredient before the art that is truly great cooking can come together. The work of an apprentice, whose work matters in its tedium, because it enables the beauty of the finished design.

This leads me to the second, which is being a victim of your own success. Every job has shit that you don’t want to do but needs to be done. The tipping point is when the shit takes over and it feels like it’s all you do. This tends to happen when companies turn into the 800 pound gorilla they used to be fighting against. This is exactly what happened over ten years with the last company I worked for.

You can still be a dreamer, but you can’t let those dreams depend on a point of success and happiness. You have to let them be dreams about doing things, not being.

I was so focused on being” that I lost sight of what I was actually doing. I was focused on my title, on getting promoted, on moving up the ladder. The thing is, there is no final destination. No point in our life or careers where we can say I’ve made it”. If you take that approach you’ll always want more, nothing will ever be enough.

Getting back to creating has been hard for me. I can feel my anxiety rising just thinking about it. It’s been so long, I have so many doubts. My anxiety lives in the what ifs” and it’s been doing cartwheels during this pandemic. It tells me it’s been too long, you’re too old, it’s too late. What drives me past these thoughts is I know I can’t keep living my life the way I have been. It will eventually kill me, or at least kill my soul. That’s worth a little discomfort and anxiety for the moment.

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