BL&T No. 028: Finding Inspiration in an Old Napkin

Personal Growth

This post originally appeared in my newsletter, Borrowed, Learned, & Thought. BL&T is sent weekly on Mondays. In every edition, I share lessons learned in agency leadership, life, and e-commerce. This post does not include all the details shared in the newsletter sent via email. Subscribe here.


"The statement “To travel is better than to arrive” comes back to mind again and stays. We have been traveling and now we will arrive. For me a period of depression comes on when I reach a temporary goal like this and have to reorient myself toward another one."

From "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" by Robert M. Pirsig


When we witness someone achieve success, we rarely see the journey that came before and can get the wrong impression. It's important to remember that success doesn't come overnight. The journey is full of stumbles and failures. Yet, in my life, I'm guilty of the same oversight.

When it feels like everything is going according to plan, I'm in my element. There's no trigger for reflection. When faced with a roadblock, I may look to look to the past, but for understanding, not recognition.

Last week, a napkin (yes, a napkin) unexpectedly prompted this recognition, giving me a renewed energy for the journey ahead.

In February, I gave Dana my copy of Radical Candor. I've been proud of her growth as a leader over the years and thought the book would provide helpful insights into team dynamics.

One morning while reading, Dana handed me a napkin that looked like it just returned from the dry cleaner, wrinkle-free, flattened by years tucked away between pages. "I found this in the book. Should I throw it out?" she asked. My eyes lit up. "No!" I said. What could it be?

As I read through the tiny notes inscribed on the napkin, I remembered sitting aboard an airplane, trying to turn my seat tray into a desk space. The humming of the airplane cabin was a perfect backdrop for focused reading and thinking.

In the days that followed the napkin discovery, I became a detective, piecing together the missing context surrounding this fragment of a memory.

The napkin was dated November with no year. After a quick search in Notion, I had my notes on Radical Candor in front of me. Luckily, they made the transfer from Evernote last year. The notes were from January 2018 which meant the airplane was en route to New Orleans for a trip to visit my sister-in-law in November 2017.

At the time, I was Associate Creative Director. I had become a partner in May and was still getting acquainted with the responsibility. Radical Candor was one of the first books I read with the partners. We read it in preparation for our quarterly/annual planning meeting. Judging by the napkin, it was clear that I was formulating a new approach to connecting with my team.

As I dug further into Notion, I found that my notes also included the prep work for the upcoming planning meeting. One of the prompts asked for each partner's greatest individual contribution/strength in 2017 and improvement areas for 2018.

Here are some highlights from my notes:

"Mentoring: An area that I feel has been a great contribution of mine this year has been my ability to provide the team with candid feedback and tips to help them get better. ... I've been observant of their unique working styles to give them better, more relatable feedback. ... I think this has made an impact on both the work and their personal growth."
"Team Growth/Structure: It’s been really exciting to see the design team grow over this past year. With the growth, it’s been important to evolve the way that I work with each of the designers and overall, manage the team. When the team was much smaller, it was easier to get hands on. With 9 designers now, I’m learning how to spend less time day to day but still make sure everyone feels like they’re getting the feedback they need while maintaining work quality. As I evolve our structure, I've been able to rely on the team to help each other out and educate each other on our process/deliverables.

I remember when we started growing, [a designer] asked me if I was concerned about losing the “culture” of our team. I told her I was confident that it would remain intact and get even stronger. I told her that I saw each of the designers as leaders in their own way and that’s what would help us scale."
"Time Management: I know there’s only so many hours in the day, but one area I’d like to work on is making more time during the day to work on my own work. Currently my day is spent working with the team and all of my own work happens out of work hours, for the most part."

I had no idea how pivotal 2017 was in the trajectory of my team and career. It is fascinating how aligned these notes are with topics I care about and am actively working on today. In fact, I've written about them all in some form over the last couple of months.

These notes were not just a reflection on the moment; they were a vision for the future. To think that I've stayed true to the path I set out on three years ago is inspiring. There's comfort in having real proof that the progress was deliberate.

I like to think that things happen for a reason, and truthfully, this investigation couldn't have come at a better time. Between transitioning our team to Asana, rolling out new processes, introducing new roles, and investing in team coaching, it feels like we're on the brink of an exciting new era in Barrel history.

With all of the momentum, the future for my team and role has been top of mind. Discovering this artifact from years past has given me a different appreciation for where we are today and the possibility of tomorrow. I can only imagine how I'll feel when I look back on this writing three years from now.

Maybe I should jot down some thoughts on a napkin...

Lesson? In good times and bad, looking back at our progression can transform our experience and outlook on the future. It's a bit like getting the last available reservation at your favorite restaurant on a Friday night. Nothing about the restaurant is different, but the food tastes better knowing that you were moments away from having to dine elsewhere. You feel lucky, grateful, and you enjoy the experience that much more.

Thought Starter

Where have I lost sight of all the progress I've made?

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