Re: The Curse of Ambition

I recently read Brandon Rike’s blog post “The Curse of Ambition” and it struck a chord with me. Instead of commenting on his blog I wanted to write a follow-up blog entry.  He talks about getting older as a designer and what happens when you finally have something to lose that you never did when you were younger.  True, when we’re just starting out trying to make a name for ourselves we put in the extra hours because every small bit of success felt exhilarating and it was an addicting cycle. As designers approach their 10 year anniversary of being a professional, they’ve been there and done that. They’ve proven to themselves they can make a living doing design. But that feeling of “there’s got to be something more” creeps in.

I’ve had many conversations with creatives who are feeling this. They feel like they’ve gotten jaded working for clients or being relegated to the production lackey at their in-house design job when they have much bigger ideas brewing. Their ambition is oozing and they need to break out.

I surround myself with people who ooze ambition. When I read books harping on quitting your day job to pursue your passion, I kind of roll my eyes anymore because isn’t that what we’re all doing anyway?  Perhaps I have tunnel vision when most of the people I follow online are visionaries and inspirations that did this years ago. They don’t have a suffocating day job, so their problems aren’t about how to tell your boss to shove it so you can go full-time freelance or finally start your own company. (As a “boss” with employees, I also have a different opinion on this…) We’re already doing that and we know people 10 years younger than us who are doing that as well.  Kids are starting their own companies while they’re still in high school.

For the ambitious creative out there (probably you), we have different problems than most people. We’re starting to get bored and we fear getting stagnant. We fear getting complacent and losing all that we’ve built up.

Brandon has a unique perspective because he’s had extremely steady freelance work for years. Not everyone can say that. But I feel his “pain” when he wonders how to find time to do the other stuff he loves like music, writing, or even renovating his house. At Go Media, we’re cursed (or blessed?) with an overly ambitious staff where side projects are dreamed up almost daily. We struggled for years finishing internal projects because we kept launching new ones only to see them stagnate in development and die once the adrenaline of a new idea wore off and realized we needed to pay the bills.  This idea is common. We all know someone who has that great idea that will be the next big thing. I have been reading a lot of Zen Habits the past couple of years and really buying into the fact of having fewer goals and fewer projects. Your energy and time are a limited resource, so when you spread yourself thin over multiple ambitious projects, you’re going to see a few of them suffer and some of them die completely.  That’s actually ok, BUT I have found tricks to managing my own (and my team at Go Media) fiery ambition.

Is ambition a curse or a blessing?

Many outsiders probably think that I’m crazy to even debate this because we seem to do so many things. Of course it’s a blessing, without ambition we wouldn’t be able to work for clients, create and sell our own library of stock art, run a blog with 23,000+ subscribers, develop and use our own project management app, put on events like Weapons of Mass Creation Fest and On the Map.  That’s not counting other side projects like FAIL Sticker (which we sold to Merchline last year), Shirtmockup, and soon to launch MockupEverything.com.  We realized a long time ago that being a client-only design firm was just not for us. We realized that while many of us get our kicks and enjoy expressing our ideas through our clients, most of us have our own personal goals. My colleague and former bandmate Adam Wagner has a serious passion for music and sound engineering. Through our encouragement, he spends most of his after-hours time recording  and producing bands on the first floor of Go Media in his self-made studio he calls Bad Racket.  And designer Chris Comella has fed his appetite for wood working and product design with his woodshop 2nd Shift.

So this IS a lot of shit, don’t get me wrong. We are like the poster children for the overly ambitious and I’m not bragging here.  Being overly ambitious really IS kind of a curse. Because it’s like you are never truly happy with who you are, you are constantly trying to improve. There’s a constant sense of inadequacy that you feel you are trying to overcome.  I recently read an article about Quashing the Self Improvement Urge which focuses on that inadequacy that ironically plagues us fortunate Americans. Always trying to prove yourself to the outside world and feeling worthless unless you’re being productive on your goals. This feeling of guilt that happens when you realize you haven’t updated your blog in weeks or having posted a tweet in a few days. Am I falling behind?  Or when you’re happy doing client work while you watch your peers launch a new startup or side project that leaves us in awe.

But honestly, being overly ambitious isn’t the problem. The problem is the inability to harness that ambition.

Like I said before, we don’t lack ideas. We don’t lack inspiration. We have so much of both that it feels deflating not being able to make something of it. If there is one thing we lack, it’s the capacity to do it all.  Scott Belsky of Behance wrote a book called Making Ideas Happen, which I highly recommend and it helped me launch the first ever WMC Fest in 2010. How to harness this ambition is something I have spent a lot of time thinking about. I’ve recently spoke at an event about Side Projects, Synergy, and Self Promotion where you must strategically plan out your hobbies and side projects to benefit each other.  In my band Parachute Journalists, I satisfied my urge to play drums and write music. But it was also an excuse to design “cool shit” that I couldn’t otherwise do.  Writing my book and starting WMC Fest weren’t completely unrelated to what I do every day at Go Media. In order to make them worthwhile, I need to make it work with my other projects. Every new project helps push other projects forward.

However, I must also disagree with that last statement. Every new idea or side project doesn’t have to have synergy with each other. It’s ok to indulge in hobbies that are outside of “work.” Last summer I revisted my obsession for playing Magic: The Gathering.  I honestly felt guilty because it wasn’t a “productive” hobby.  I actually had this thought, “I could spend time and become a famous and successful Magic player, would it help my personal brand? How can I make playing Magic productive? Should I start a blog about it?”

Ugh, why couldn’t I just play Magic without thinking like an entrepreneur?  

I had to slap myself and actually give myself permission to enjoy myself.  Once I let go, it was the perfect antidote for my burnout after WMC Fest ended. It was entirely outside of the design circle and I didn’t have to think about “being productive” or “making a difference.”  Sometimes you just gotta let go.

But now we’re nearing the new year and my desire for productivity and doing bigger and better things has resurfaced and it’s refreshing.  My ambition is ramping back up and I’m excited about it.

Some Advice For Brandon

I want to close with some advice for Brandon specifically. Start building a team!  I cannot stress enough how fortunate I have been to have other people around me helping push things forward while I focus on other stuff. I would never have been able to write my book without the backbone of my staff at Go Media holding down the fort while I spent several non-paying months writing the book.  You have told me about a few people you know who you could consider an ally or trusted collaborator that you could take under your wing in this regard. I am all for that. Do it!

Don’t feel like you have to do all this yourself. You have to let go of the reins a bit and start thinking of building team. If you’re on your own, you literally have to accept a dip in freelance income while you focus on a new idea and it definitely gives you anxiety and fear. If you fail, you have a lot to lose. But getting others involved greatly reduces that fear.  And also, be efficient. Don’t waste time. It’s better to launch and fix things later than it is to stagnate in tweaking all the details before you launch. Sometimes launch day never comes. I know from experience!

I hope this blog has helped some of you and gets a conversation started. If you feel the need to reply, try writing your own blog post, comment here with a link back to your entry.

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3 Responses to “Re: The Curse of Ambition”

  1. Derek Kimball (DesignBuddy) December 28, 2011 at 7:05 pm #

    Jeff, great read. I’ve been a follower of yours for some time, mainly because I like your darker style of design, and your ability to do a wide variety of things.

    I too feel like I fall into the trap of wanting to do too many things, only to find that these desired ventures are either not doable with my working as only a part time graphic designer, or financially feasible.

    Your mention of teaming up with other creatives may be where I am going wrong. I have tried to find others to work with in the past, but it seemed quite difficult to find people who were wanting the same thing and were willing to take that risk. Can you offer any advice on how to find like-minded creatives and where to go from there? Hey, maybe another book idea for you :)

    • Jeff Finley December 28, 2011 at 10:59 pm #

      Hey Derek, some ways we’ve collaborated with other artists at Go Media are hiring or subcontracting them for freelance projects, blog posts and tutorials, vector packs or products to sell on the Arsenal, etc. If you can afford to pay another designer in this way, it’s all good. Another way is like Dan Cassaro did with the State Mottos Project, or Evan Stremke did with the Momentus project. They did something fresh and unique and convinced lots of designers to partake in the project. If you have a good idea, share it on social media, Dribbble, etc and see if anyone might be interested in going along with it. Promote other designers and actively look for ways to team up. If you have a unified cause, it becomes easier.

      • Derek Kimball (DesignBuddy) December 29, 2011 at 5:13 pm #

        Thanks for the suggestions Jeff; appreciate your time. I’ve never heard of those projects you mentioned, they’re interesting for sure..just learned a thing or two about the civil war. Nice job on your site re-design.

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