Career trajectories aren’t a straight line - and that’s ok
I've been feeling tired of work lately - well, kind of. The work itself is challenging to say the least as there many problems to solve - which for any type of designer, should be absolutely thrilling. But, you see, I've been feeling uninspired. At first, I thought it was because I haven't really had any time off since August. I've been working many Saturdays and took hardly any time off during Christmas. Then I thought it could be the global pandemic and its haunting effects over all of us for the past year. Sweden is certainly looser in terms of restrictions, but it IS affecting all of us. As vaccinations are starting to roll out here and we can finally get a glimpse of hope which can also lead to weariness. But after deep self-reflection this weekend, I believe it might also just be a case of... grinding. Let's back up.
Most people's career trajectories follow a path where it's gradually progressing but it's not a straight line. This line plateaus every now and then. For someone that has been consulting for as long as I have, the goal is to always be chasing that next step, that next level. Looking back, I think I've had a great career experience (and hopefully just as long to go). I've lead the design of an IKEA.com redesign. I've worked for brands like Volvo, Spotify and tens, as well as hundreds of brands that you've never heard of. (I wanted to highlight that because it's actually what most people's careers look like while looking at other designer's portfolios it's easy to think they only work for well-established brands).
When I did my first project with SuperFriendly, I was so excited to get to work with people that I looked up to. I remember boarding the plane thinking that this was me moving from a good but not as good league, say the Dutch Eredivisie to the Premier League (apologies to my American readers, there will be more football references in this post). This was the next level. And it turned out to be. It was thrilling and at a pace that was refreshing. I found that I was able to quickly to adapt to it.
Side note: The branding work that DesignStudio did for the Premier League is, in my mind, really great. Realizing this just now, but it's fitting to compare SuperFriendly to the Premier League, seeing how they both work so actively against racial injustices.
Then I started working with Ueno, an agency I've admired for so long and with people that seemed so genuine and nice. My encounters with them always lived up to it. Is this like competing in the Champions League? It sure seemed like it. Then Ueno got acquired by Twitter and at first I wasn't really sure what to do. I considered continuing with the new team - many of us were freelancers on my Ueno project, a lot of us continued to work together and, sticking to football references, I LOVE these team mates.
So work was fun and challenging, I loved the people I worked with and I felt like I was competing on a very high level. What was wrong? It wasn't until this weekend when I saw a documentary about one of my football heroes, Steven Gerrard, that I was able to put the pieces together. Playing in a top league might look glamorous and fantastic to a kid, but you know what most of their days are spent doing? Practice. Day in, day out. Practice over and over again. Grind. Until all the details/skills are there. Refine to perfection. It's not always fun. In fact, most of the time it's not fun at all. There are times when everything seems to go your way and there are times when you feel like you're playing against the odds.
"Football isn't about what team I'm playing. It's about dealing with whatever that comes with it."
- Steven Gerrard
I think this is worth highlighting. It doesn't matter if you're at the beginning of your career, or whatever league you play in, most of your time is spent practicing for the big game. This is not the same as actually playing the big game.
I've been trying to get back into reading more (and watching less) and really enjoyed this piece from Rands on career progression.
My wife wrote a very nice birthday card where she listed things she liked about me. Item number four on that list read, “How you are always on a quest.
She’s right. At any point in my life, you could ask me, “What quest are you on?” and I’d instantly have an answer:
• Growing an American Chestnut.
• Making sure I don’t miss out on this Internet thing.
• Figuring out how humans make decisions.
• Explaining leadership to engineers in a helpful way.
• Getting the hell out of a no-win job scenario.
• Writing and publishing a book.
- You are Going on a Quest
Reading this, and watching the Gerrard documentary, didn't necessarily give me an answer, but it did give me something more - relief. I know what my quests are and what I'm doing right now will ultimately help me fulfil those quests.
A title is a sign-post. It tells you where you are. A title is a comforting reminder of where you are, but what is more interesting is where you are going next and how you will get there. This will involve a quest.- You are Going on a Quest
What quest are you on?