Daily
Notes

This is a place for thinking out loud and sharing ideas. Notes are a window into my process, thoughts, inspiration, and experiments. Posted Monday through Friday.

I need a vacation.

I used to say this if I was feeling inundated with to-dos and responsibilities. It seemed like escaping for a while would give me the relief I needed.

The thing is that even after weeks away, it only took a moment for all of the weight to return. Commitments are still commitments. Issues are still issues. So, what was the point? Temporary peace?

These days, I do my best to stop saying I need a vacation and start asking, why? What needs to change? I'd rather live a life that I don't need to escape every now and then.

Vacation should be a time for re's. Relax, reset, reimagine, rejuvenate. Not running.

Today's newsletter is about the power of letting go as a manager and trusting the team to succeed with your guidance and support. As I made my final newsletter edits and prepared for the day, I learned about a hiccup on a recent project.

Every bone in my body was ready to put all of my other priorities aside to jump in and try to make it right. Luckily, with the topic of my newsletter top of mind, I paused and thought instead. How could I help the team get this on track without doing it myself?

By the end of the day, we had a plan in place. One that didn't involve me getting in the weeds. I lost some time in the day, but I know the time spent now will pay off in spades down the line.

"Through thick or thin, in spite of the hundreds of things calling for your attention every day, never forget what you’re ultimately here to do: help your team achieve great outcomes." (Julie Zhuo, The Making of a Manager)

It's one thing to write about and reflect on concepts. It's another to apply them. Today was a welcome reminder to take my own advice. Also, to never stop revisiting, questioning, and evolving old ideas.

I loved this Gretchen Rubin quote featured in James Clear's newsletter this week:

There's so much power in this simple shift in mindset. I can think of one too many times when something didn't go as planned, and I let it bring me down, shaping my mood for the rest of the day. A distraught client, a miscommunication between employees, you know the drill. The thing is that when I let these experiences have a negative impact, it makes it harder for me to show up fully and turn them around.

I've learned to remind myself that nothing is the end of the world, but I love the idea of replacing "I'm having a bad day" with "I had a bad quarter" and taking steps to make the next quarter incredible.

I don't get much natural light in my current apartment, so when we first started working from home last year, I joked that I was working in a dungeon. It was funny, but I didn't love looking like I was in the dark all the time, especially when interacting with clients or new acquaintances.

I eventually found a lighting kit that brightened things up, but the clarity was still awful. Side note: I'm still amazed that even the latest Macbook Pro camera looks like we're in the early 2000s.

Anyway, everything changed when fellow Barrel partner Peter told me about Camo Studio via a mutual friend, Hum. Camo Studio allows you to use your iPhone as a camera (I have an iPhone 11 Pro Max), and the results are insane.

Here's a before and after (with the same lighting):

Camo Studio allows you to add a watermark. Nice, fun touch for Zoom calls.

The comments after I started using Camo Studio ranged from "Whoa, your eyes are blue!?" to "Wait, why does it look like you're a YouTube influencer?" That was months ago now, but the comments haven't stopped.

To make it easier to use my phone, I revisited my setup. Here's a look at my desktop:

The more I meet new people (or catch up with friends and peers), the more I get asked about my setup, so I figured I'd list it here for easy reference. I figure that for every person who asks me, there's at least one other person out there looking to upgrade their video call appearance.

Below is a breakdown:

Happy video calls!

Dayton is an Art Director at a 25-person marketing agency. He's only a year in, but he loves his job. Great team, great clients. He's happy.

One day he happens to see a Slack message from a co-worker, Jessica, at 7:52 pm. He doesn't have much going on, so he responds. A few minutes later, Jessica writes back.

Now it's 9:43 pm... 11:57 pm... Dayton realizes that he hasn't eaten dinner yet, let alone shower, read... Midnight comes and goes. 12:31 am...

Now it's 1:27 am, six hours since his response to Jessica. "Okay, I agree. Any other ideas on how we could push it further?"

Dayton eats a bowl of corn flakes before his head hits the pillow. He grabs some mouthwash and thinks, I can brush my teeth tomorrow.

The sun comes up, and he is exhausted, staying in bed as long as possible, squeezing every bit of sleep out of the morning. He can still taste remnants of what used to be his favorite cereal. He brushes his teeth but skips the rest of his everyday morning ritual before jumping on Zoom for his 10 am.

By lunchtime, Dayon wonders how two hours could feel like two decades. Despite making it through the next two meetings, it's hard for Dayton to focus. He cancels the team meeting he'd been prepping for, afraid he won't be able to deliver as planned.

Dayton ends the day feeling bummed. He's supposed to meet a friend for dinner but can't imagine being social. He cancels that, too.

A week later, Dayton responds to another message. This time at 9:15 pm. The cycle repeats. He starts to question if this job is the right job for him. Dayton confides in his manager, Tamara.

Tamara asks Dayton about the reason for the urgent requests, confused why she wasn't aware. Dayton is silent, unable to answer.

The thing is that nothing was urgent. Just because you happen to see a message at 7:52 pm or 9:15 pm doesn't mean you have to respond.

Most things can wait until morning.

On Wednesday, February 24, I decided to start publishing here every Monday through Friday. I had all these ideas floating around in my head. I was looking for a way to explore them further and get feedback. I also wanted to continue strengthening my writing, and what better way to practice than getting reps in nearly every day?

What I've loved about the practice is that I never know where it will take me. I don't pre-plan topics. I have a Notion board of half-baked ideas, phrases, and stories. I add new ones whenever they come into focus - brushing my teeth, at the grocery store, out for a walk, doesn't matter.

When I sit down to write, I review the Notion hub of captured thoughts and dive into whichever resonates. If none do, I start from scratch. Some days, I end up piecing together fragments from my past. Other days, I write to spend more time with a topic or find clarity.

I named these daily writings "notes" to feel informal, almost like opening someone's notebook. Not precious. No pressure to get it perfect. A simple sentence or two, an 850-word story - whatever feels good. I give myself the evening to draft, edit, and publish. I'll admit, I've done the occasional morning edit while getting ready for the day, but it's rare.

This post marks 75 notes. There's no real milestone here, but the way I see it, that's 75 stories that I may have never told if I didn't embark on this project. Thoughts are fleeting, and if you don't capture them, who knows if you'll get another chance.

Every note includes a simple illustration. I wasn't sure if I was creating too much work for myself when I started, but I've enjoyed the play. It's also nice to keep my creative process in check. I take no more than 10-15 minutes to turn an often abstract concept into a vague visual idea, then quickly polish it into something worth sharing. It was never about the single illustrations, though. I was most excited to see what they would all look like together down the line. Here's all 75 so far:

It's cool to see how certain notes have resonated with friends, family, co-workers, peers, and strangers alike. Thanks to those who are following along.

Below are some of my favorite notes in common categories. Enjoy.

Management

Collaboration

Personal Growth

Company Culture / Agency Leadership

Stories

Okay, maybe there are dumb questions.

Questions asked because you were not paying attention.
Questions asked about topics your job requires you to know.
Questions asked because you are too lazy to look up the answer on your own.

But even then, are they really dumb?

Stupid is another word for dumb. Just as lovely as it is for you to read as it is to write, but it's true. The definition for stupid is having or showing a great lack of intelligence or common sense. I guess that means that a dumb question shows a lack of intelligence. But is that not the point of a question? To fill our gaps in knowledge, to be less dumb? Even if you should have listened, or you should know, the fact is, there's a gap.

Does that make all questions dumb questions?

As easy as it might be to give detailed instructions when reviewing an employee's work, I've learned to focus on the underlying concepts. Teaching concepts will always take more effort, but it's an investment. When they understand the concepts, they can apply them everywhere, feeling confident to own the work. When they merely follow instructions, they will always need them to keep going.

Try eating spaghetti without utensils. You can do it, but it will be messy and stressful.

There are tools and frameworks for every project. You don't need them to get the job done, but at the least, they'll keep the sauce off your hands and maybe even free you up to enjoy a glass of wine.

A couple of months ago, I caught up with a friend who has deep expertise doing branding and graphic design work for restaurants. I mentioned how shocked I was to see new restaurants popping up in my neighborhood last year while many were closing due to the pandemic and asked for her perspective.

She explained that restaurants don't pop up; there are months of planning, sometimes years, before opening their doors to the public. She went on to describe the typical restaurant development process. Of course, I thought, that makes sense, feeling a little silly for thinking otherwise.

It's okay to assume. Just assume there's more to the story, and you'll learn a whole lot more.

Today, we toast to 15 years.

It’s been a blast to spend the last 8 alongside these guys. I’m proud of how we’ve grown as a team and as individuals, but, most of all, I’m proud of our continued dedication to getting better every day and creating an agency that believes success starts with developing its people. Big thanks to our team, clients, friends, family, and alumni. We have come so far, but it feels like we’re just getting started! Happy 15, Barrel. Let’s do this.

To honor the occasion, we created a virtual trip back in time. Experience some of the websites that shaped who we are today: www.barrelny.com/15

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Related: 14 Lessons Learned in Agency Leadership

Always good to remember that we can make excuses to do or not do anything.

In 2015, my wife Dana and I ended our lease early, not by choice. Our apartment became infested with mice, and the landlord chose not to address the issue. Instead, informing us that we had until the end of our lease term to vacate.

We were new to Park Slope, Brooklyn, and fell in love with the area and our apartment. It was perfect. So perfect that we gave in and paid a fat broker fee to get it. To say this was a bummer is an understatement.

In the months that followed our landlord's notice, we tirelessly searched for an equivalent place to call home with the same rent. Brokers looked at us like we were crazy. They kindly suggested it was an impossible feat.

At one point, we were eating, sleeping, and breathing apartment listings. It was tough. Soon any time we came across a halfway decent apartment, Dana would look at me with this face that said, let's take this one. But as tired and beat down as we were, we didn't give in.

Weeks before our lease was up, Craiglist notified Dana about an apartment right down the street. Cheaper rent (stabilized!), backyard, garden box, what? Could this be it? We jumped on it.

Despite six other interested renters, we got the place. Funny enough, as we were signing the lease, we learned that our landlord went to school with Peter and Sei-Wook, Barrel's co-founders. Small world or fate? Who knows, but from then on, I had this renewed faith that the best things in life are possible; it just takes persistence, patience, and perseverance.

Years later, I got down on one knee at Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and Dana and I were engaged. After roughly three months, we came down off cloud nine and began wedding planning, then reality set in. My uncle-in-law, Father Fran, is a priest. For as long as my wife Dana can remember, she pictured him marrying her someday. The challenge was that Dana and I wanted to get married outside the church, a no-no for most Catholic dioceses.

Everyone kept telling me it was impossible, but I refused to accept that. I kept thinking of our sweet, brick-lined Park Slope apartment and the journey to finding it. In all of Fran's years as a priest, he had never seen or done what we were asking. I thought, hey, there's a first for everything.

After several phone calls and a letter to the chancellor, our wish came true. With hundreds of nearly identical weddings under his belt, Uncle Fran got a taste of something new, a non-church Catholic wedding ceremony. It was magical.

Dana and Lucas Ballasy Wedding
Here we are on our wedding day. Props to Sharyn Frenkel for the beautiful photos.

Since then, my belief and determination have only grown stronger, resisting the notion that anything is impossible, even if everyone around me is ready to give up. Among family, I often say, "If Fran can marry us outside the church, anything is possible."

If you believe something is impossible and you act like it, it will be. Once you decide that it's possible, the future is yours to create.

If there seems to be too much to do in too little time, it is time to slow down, especially when delegating work. When I have lost sight of this in the past, it has never felt good. 

Acting under unnecessary pressure, I would default to giving quick tactical feedback, thinking that was what I needed to do to keep my team going. The trouble was that I did not stop to articulate a vision for myself or the team. So, if the team hit a bump in the road, there was no north star to guide them, resulting in rework, delays, and tension.

Picture a person walking around in a new city, they do not know where they are going, but they have a list of directions. All is well until they hit a road closure, and in an instant, all progress comes to a halt. If only they had a destination, maybe they could find their way.

Take the time to articulate your vision, especially when it feels like there is no time at all.

When I worked in an office, I used to carry a notebook around to take notes and sketch during meetings. Once I worked from home, I started taking notes on my computer, so I no longer needed a notebook. And so, no more doodles.

The other day, I grabbed a piece of paper to write down a phone number and ended up doodling on it throughout the day. I had forgotten how much it encouraged deep listening and focus for me.

Nowadays, it can be hard not to multi-task during Zoom calls with all your work right in front of you. To keep my hands occupied, I've been rotating between a hand grip strengthener and a fidget spinner from my younger brother, Justin. These have been helpful, but there's something about doodling that does the trick.

After an in-depth interview process, we recently extended an offer to an exciting candidate. Last night, I found out they decided to accept another offer. At first, it stung a little. I thought they would make a great addition to the team and play an integral part in our growth as an agency. Just yesterday morning, they seemed enthusiastic about what we could create together.

While they chose a different path, they shared how invigorating our conversations about the future were and wished they could "work for two companies at once." I'm still waiting for clarity on what led to their decision, but it felt good knowing that I put my best foot forward. I remembered past experiences where a situation like this would have left me feeling discouraged, but last night, I felt hopeful.

The truth is, this wasn't the first time this has happened, and it won't be the last. I've learned to accept that not everything can work out as planned, and anchoring our satisfaction on the win is a dark path to follow. Even if it feels like a done deal like it did with this candidate.

If you live for the win and you're not winning all the time, which is true of most humans, then you'd be living a pretty unhappy life. Winning isn't always what it's cracked up to be either. There's the bliss when it hits where it feels like you're floating, then moments later, you return to Earth and continue with the next steps.

You land a big project; then, you work on an approach to get it done with the new timeline. You hire an impressive new employee; then, you onboard them and start regular check-ins.

I'm not saying we shouldn't celebrate the wins, but we cannot control the game. So, it's not worth letting the outcome dictate your wellbeing. What we can control is how well we play.

Maybe it's cliché, but for me, it's about giving it your best shot. I aim to leave every outcome feeling like I've done everything in my power to get the best result. Then, win or lose, I take it as an opportunity to keep on raising the bar by learning why it went the way it did.

Even if the candidate did accept our offer, understanding why they did could help attract and land future candidates. In this case, they seemed excited, but in the end, something changed their mind. As I continue to interview candidates, it will be helpful to know if there's anything I can do better next time.

I look forward to hearing back from the candidate with more insight, but in the meantime, as the Barrel partners and I like to say, keep it going.

When a friend, family member, or colleague is looking for feedback or guidance, trade don't sweat the small stuff for curiosity. If something is weighing them down, turning a blind eye will not only be a challenge but can lead to future distress. The "small stuff" is often what matters most.

There are six steps I follow for every creative project. Sometimes, formally. Other times, I run through them in my mind or create quick sketches. Either way, if I try to cut corners, I always regret it later.

I liken the process to building a house.

  1. Imagine. Setting, location, architectural style, ambiance, inspiration.
  2. Specify. Rooms, bathrooms, storage, garage, etc.
  3. Plan. Blueprint! How it all fits together.
  4. Concept. Interior/exterior finishing options.
  5. Design. Lock in finishes. Finalize specs.
  6. Build.

It's not too different from building a website.

  1. Imagine. Experience, ambiance, inspiration.
  2. Specify. Number of pages, features, content types.
  3. Plan. Wireframes! How it all fits together.
  4. Concept. Look and feel options.
  5. Design. Lock in look and feel. Finalize specs.
  6. Build.

Whether it's houses, websites, or something else, once you master the steps, even the most complicated projects can feel within reach.

Disagreements can be frustrating. If I ever feel this way, I think about what it would be like if we agreed with each other all the time.

We would never see new points of view.
We would never improve our approach. 
We would never get better.

Life would be stagnant. Not a life that I want to live.

"Randall Stutman, who for decades has been the behind-the-scenes advisor for many of the biggest CEOs and leaders on Wall Street, once studied how several hundred senior executives of major corporations recharged in their downtime. The answers were things like sailing, long-distance cycling, listening quietly to classical music, scuba diving, riding motorcycles, and fly-fishing. All these activities, he noticed, had one thing in common: an absence of voices. These were people with busy, collaborative professions. People who made countless high-stakes decisions in the course of a day. But a couple hours without chatter, without other people in their ear, where they could simply think (or not think), they could recharge and find peace. They could be still—even if they were moving. They could finally hear, even if over the sounds of a roaring river or the music of Vivaldi." (Stillness is the Key, Ryan Holiday)

A few years ago, Dana and I took a trip to the Catskills with our friends to go snowboarding. It only was my second time on a board, so I couldn't wait to get out on the slopes. I grew up skateboarding, and to my delight, my experience translated. We had a blast.

I'll never forget the feeling of rejuvenation when I returned to work. At first, I couldn't figure it out. The trip was only three or four days, not a month. It was also physically taxing, and yet, I wasn't exhausted. I felt energized. I wondered what it would take to tap into this regularly since I wouldn't be snowboarding all year long.

All day I thought about the long weekend away, and it became clear. Snowboarding is not an activity for zoning out or getting distracted, especially for newbies like me. It required my full attention. Despite the fast-paced nature of the sport, everything around me became silent. In that way, it was more like meditation.

This trip forever changed my perspective on finding balance. Not long after, I took up powerlifting. Four or five times per week, I was able to find the same equilibrium. No matter what happened during the day, it helped me refocus, recharge, and start the next day at 100%. I'm not back in the gym yet, but I still follow a tight workout schedule to keep this practice alive.

It might sound counterproductive, but for me, throwing myself into something challenging, physically and mentally, is the best way to get lifted.

We say yes, yes, yes. To ourselves and others.

Once we get started, we view everything as one big task and think, "this is impossible." Each day, we jump in without focus, bouncing between our obligations. No matter how hard we work, it feels like nothing is getting done.

We can't sleep. We can't eat. Soon, we feel drained. Progress becomes physically impossible. We think, "I need a vacation."

We have no energy to plan a trip, so we stay home. All that matters is we escape our reality for a while.

A week later, our staycation is over. We start the day, read through emails, and check in on what needs to get done. We think, "this is impossible."

Most things can wait. Start with the few that can't.

I wrote the last entry in my first journal today. I started it on December 1 and have logged 167 consecutive entries.

For too long, I thought about journaling but never took the first step. I found every excuse to put it off. When will I write? What will I write? Is it worth the time? When you're writing to yourself, it's not about what you say or how you say it. My journal entry from December 1 is vastly different than the one I wrote today. Who cares?

There's nothing more valuable than the quiet time every morning organizing my thoughts and the fact that I now have a book that captures the last 167 days of my life. After I finished writing, I highlighted the key themes at the front of the book: COVID, meeting my newborn niece, getting vaccinated, looking for a new home, and becoming CXO. I'll enjoy reading these entries someday.

On to journal #2.

Before every session, Seth, my executive coach, asks me: what's your energy heading into our call today? I have come to appreciate the power of this simple energy check.

There are several reasons why we may not be ready to give a conversation our full attention. Sometimes, we're not aware of those reasons; other times, we're afraid of being judged, so we try to hide what's on our minds. When we're unable to engage like we know we should, people notice. Unfortunately, this is often left unsaid, and everyone leaves the situation with their interpretation of our commitment.

I can remember sessions where I felt drained from an intense meeting or tired from a poor night of sleep. Normally I'd power through and do my best to concentrate. Instead, by checking in on my energy, I can address these feelings. It is no longer a battle to stay focused. I can release the weight, creating space to be present. Then, tap into the energy needed to become who I want to be in that moment.

I end most days with so many tabs open in my browser window that all I can see are favicons. In the past, I'd avoid closing the ones that I might need to reference later. These would quickly add up, and eventually, I'd feel like I was back on my childhood Compaq Presario computer, nearly falling asleep as I waited for Photoshop to open.

A few years back, I discovered the OneTab extension. It has become essential to my workflow. In a click, it consolidates open tabs into one where it lists all links in a group with the date and time added. These tabs can later be restored individually or in groups.

Hoarding tabs doesn't have to slow you down!

Every morning in middle school, our principal, Mr. Hershman, would get on the loudspeaker to make announcements for the day. We had a school mascot, but I'd argue that he was the real symbol of school spirit. He had an unforgettable face, further accentuated by his oversized wire-framed glasses (this look was not back in style yet). His energy was admirable.

I am sure there were days where Mr. H woke up with a stomachache or spilled coffee on his desk, but that never got in the way. He always gave us 110%. My favorite part of his briefing was the closing statement, "HAVE A FANTASTIC DAY!" A catchphrase that you'd often hear through the halls of Tamanend Middle School among students and staff alike.

The whole repertoire was pretty brave. Announcements began when school started at 7:30 am. It had been less than an hour since most of us had gotten out of bed. We were nowhere near Mr. H's level, and yet, we couldn't help crack a smile. Whether we wanted to admit it or not, we looked forward to hearing his cheerful, cartoon-like voice as we started our day.

As a manager, I have learned that when the room is feeling dull, you have options. You can assume the energy of your crowd then later complain about how it felt. Or, you can bring your Mr. H game.

Pick an object around you. Look at it for 30 seconds. What do you notice?

Now, stand up and move to either side of the object. Look for 30 more seconds. What do you see now?

Go back to where you started. 30 more seconds. What do you see now that you did not before?

Whether or not you do this exercise, you might imagine that you will notice something new each time.

Changing perspective opens our eyes.

Sometimes, it can be hard to see new possibilities. We become hyper-focused on our view and never stand up to take a different look. Maybe we are feeling lazy or stubborn, convinced that we have it figured out. In either case, being told that we need to stand will only push us further in our seats. So, what happens when everyone is comfortable sitting down?

It is not worth our energy to try forcing anyone to stand up and sit beside us. Instead, we can get curious. Ask questions. Why are they so content? What do they see from their view?

The more we ask, the more everyone learns, the more engaged we become. Soon, we are all standing, looking around, and together, we can find a way forward.

Early on in the pandemic, I remember being nervous that exercising in my apartment would disturb the downstairs neighbors. Instead of simply texting them and asking, I stacked yoga mats, modified workouts, and did whatever I could to dampen the sound. Burpees are just not the same when you're worried about how hard your hitting the floor.

One day while heading out for a walk, we ran into each other. I mentioned my workouts and asked if it was bothering them. Their response:

"We rarely hear it, and when we do, we actually like it. It's a good reminder to be active. We end up working out or going out for a walk."

The discomfort created by assumptions outweighs any temporary discomfort felt when removing them. The sooner, the better.

"We did that before, and it failed."

So what?

When did you do it?
What were you hoping to achieve?
Were you working with the same people?
Had you done it once already?
Did you know what you know now?

One day, a manager notices a new employee excelling in a specific area of their work. They praise them privately. "Nice work! You're killing it."

For simplicity, let's call this employee Taylor. They turned their design into a motion prototype, and the work is outstanding.

Over the next few weeks, the manager notices a pattern. Taylor's motion prototypes seem to be getting better and better. At this point, they begin praising them in public. "Big props to Taylor! You are an absolute motion master."

Now, whenever there is a motion need, everyone goes to Taylor. Within a matter of months, Taylor spends most of their time working on motion projects.

Last quarter, Taylor watched a few motion tutorials on YouTube. She wanted to bring a design idea to life and thought motion could help. She enjoyed it, but her passion is in design, nor does she consider herself a motion expert.

The more people ask for help, the more complex the requests get. The pressure builds. Most weeks, Taylor puts in late nights to grow her motion skills.

She musters up the courage to let her manager know about the extra hours. Her manager revisits staffing and gets her help with her design projects, so she has more time to work on motion.

A year goes by.

Taylor is home visiting friends from design school. She took an entire week off. Lately, her workdays seem to go on forever. The only way she can think to recharge is to get away.

Her former classmates share all the projects they have been working on at their respective jobs. Taylor scrolls through endless MP4s of motion studies.

Taylor realizes she is now a motion expert.

She returns to work the following Monday and puts in her notice.

No one asked Taylor if she enjoyed working with motion.

Ten years ago today, it was a Thursday.

It had been a week or so since I wrapped my first semester as a TA (Teaching Assistant) at Tyler School of Art, my soon-to-be alma mater.

As the evening set in, I got prepared to celebrate Cinco de Mayo at one of "my" student's apartments. I did not know this night would live on for years to come.

Months prior, this student had requested me on Facebook. I let it linger. See, from day one, I knew that there was positive energy between us. I remember walking in the classroom on my first day as TA. There she was with short blonde hair, wearing a Temple U sweatshirt. I couldn't place what it was about her, but our eyes were like magnets.

I was serious about my new TA position, so I chose to ignore our connection for the entire semester. This evening's festivities would be a big step.

I got on my bike and made my way to a nearby bodega for refreshments. 40 oz beers were the budget-friendly drink of choice. I sprung for Miller High Life, one for me, one for her, and set out for the party.

I'll never forget the bottles in their bags swinging from my handlebars. I did my best to stay balanced while dodging potholes in the dark on the neglected North Philly streets. I wondered if this was what it was like to audition for an act at Ringling Bros.

When I arrived, the look on her face was priceless. What I didn't know was that nearly all of her friends were awaiting my arrival. She had been telling them about our apparent connection for months. No one fully believed her, but they all had some expectation of who this TA character might be. Now, there I was, standing on her doorstep. No longer a TA, just a guy, eager to see a girl, refreshments in hand.

You may have caught on by now, but that student is now my wife, Dana. We made some great memories that night.

I chose to share this story today because, for about a decade now, I return to it every year on May 5, and I laugh. I hope it brought a smile to your face, even just the slightest.

"What we need in life, in the arts, in sports, is to loosen up, to become flexible, to get to a place where there is nothing in our way—including our own obsession with certain outcomes." (Stillness is the Key, Ryan Holiday)

During childhood and young adulthood, I had a vision for my future. There were outcomes I was after, and each step was part of a plan to get there. According to my mother, at about age five or six, I hoped to own a station wagon and have seven kids. Don't ask. I have no idea. As I grew up, my vision evolved; touring full-time as a musician, teaching high school art, owning a design studio with my wife, Dana.

Here I am, years later, and in terms of a career, none of these have come true. Am I any less happy with my path? No.

In May 2017, just four years ago, I was offered the partner role at Barrel. It was a pivotal moment in my career. In my mind, I had a choice. Either I seize the opportunity in front of me. Or, I give it all up to go after my vision of opening a design studio purely because it had always been my plan. I knew that if I went after the former while aspiring to do the latter, I'd give neither the attention they deserved.

As I deliberated over my decision, I realized that I was no longer chasing an outcome. I was enjoying the ride. My path at Barrel was not one I would have predicted. I came in every day focused on doing my best and welcomed every new opportunity with open arms. It was invigorating, and the challenge of becoming a partner was no different. Why walk away?

This experience forever changed my outlook. We cannot predict what life will throw our way. If we get too attached to our plan or outcomes, we risk missing the possibilities right in front of us.

My future is no longer about a specific outcome or plan. Instead, I'm focused on creating a future I want to live in, at work and at home. I have learned to be flexible in how I get there, and what I value most is feeling good along the way.

We love to say we have no time, myself included. We act as if everyone else is working with a 24+ hour day.

Then, out of nowhere...

  • a meeting goes longer than expected,
  • or there’s an emergency at home,
  • or we get sick and have to rest,
  • or an urgent request requires our attention.

All of these situations throw off our day, but we make it work.

We...

  • sleep a little less,
  • or delegate the work to someone else,
  • or simplify the task,
  • or create a more efficient approach.

In truth, we know that we are all working with a 24-hour day. The difference is in how we use it. When we say we have no time, what we are really saying is that we have decided that another commitment is more important.

Emergencies help us see where our real priorities lie.

Every morning I wake up, grab my journal from under the bed, turn to one side, and begin writing. I always wonder if my wife Dana is curious about what I am writing. I know I would be.

Out of the blue last Saturday morning, with 144 consecutive journal entries logged, Dana asked me if I would read one for her. My suspicion was correct, but it still caught me off guard. Initially, I was hesitant to oblige. The writing in my journal was not for an audience, but hey, I had nothing to hide.

I read Dana an entry from March. It was the first time since I began journaling that I turned back the pages. It was fascinating to read aloud what was on my mind even just a month ago. In the end, I am grateful for Dana's interest; it was a welcome reminder of why I started journaling in the first place.

While I write in my journal to reflect on the previous day and acknowledge how I feel heading into the next one, I see it as a long-term initiative. Years from now, I love the idea that I can tap into my former thoughts, motivations, and challenges. What was going on in my life? What has changed? In what ways have I grown?

Today, when I stumble upon old photos, I wonder what was on my mind. On any ordinary day, and during pivotal high and low moments in my life. Some good memories that come to mind are performing original music for the first time at my 8th grade talent show, winning Amateur Night at the Apollo, landing my first job in New York City, my first date with Dana then proposing/getting married.

Although I may not be able to revisit these past moments in the way that I would like, I look forward to capturing all that the future has to offer.

I have adjusted the structure of my journal entries a few times since I started. At the moment, here is what it looks like:

Day, Date, Time, Location

Yesterday was [sum up the day in a few words].

  1. Three thoughts, ideas, or events
  2. that stand out
  3. from the day before.

Today: TFWEG

I created TFWEG as an easy, repeatable way to recognize my general sentiment going into the new day.

  • Thinking: Any thought circling about.
  • Feeling: What is my current state of mind?
  • Wondering: Any question or future I am currently pondering.
  • Excited for or about: What has me smiling?
  • Grateful for: Anything goes, from a pleasant experience to a gesture from a loved one to a good meal.

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Related: BL&T No. 033: Engaging With Our Inner Voice

Time blocking up front is actually easy. Just go to your calendar and do it. The real challenge is to honor the system by protecting the time you’ve set aside and utilizing it with absolute focus in the face of the inevitable barrage of false priorities and interruptions that appear each day. (The Millionaire Real Estate Agent, Gary Keller, Jay Papasan, Dave Jenks)

I vaguely remember when I first started time blocking my calendar. I was transitioning from solely designing to overseeing other projects. More projects meant more meetings. At times, it was challenging to make progress on my work.

In theory, scheduling work blocks on my calendar provided the space I needed in my day. In practice, it was not that simple.

Interruptions, double-booking, questions - you name it. There were all sorts of reasons why it became a challenge to honor the time blocks I put in place. I had fooled myself into thinking that time blocking was a turnkey solution to improving productivity.

While I continued time blocking my calendar, I shifted my focus to creating a more robust system for task management and started questioning where I could be most valuable. As I continued on the path from designer to director, this shift proved to be invaluable.

I have been on a productivity optimization quest for years, and in my mind, it is a lifelong pursuit. Here are a few of the lessons I have learned along the way.

Question every meeting. Why were you invited? What is the team expecting from you? If you are unsure, ask. Will you provide anything to the discussion that will not otherwise get covered? Note: If you are attending because you do not trust your team to handle it on their own, closing that gap is a priority.

Stop repeating yourself. What topics require repetitive training among the team? Some examples: presentation prep, the structure of deliverables, how to recap a meeting. Take the time to document the fundamentals. Onboard the team, but more importantly, closely train a few employees. In time, they will train other employees, who will train more employees down the line.

Find your value. What unique value do you bring in your role? The answer to this question is where you should spend your time. From time to time, you may need to jump in and help with other tasks. That said, your focus should be on letting go. You do not need to be in the weeds on every single project. Yes. You will always have good insight, but that does not mean the team will fail without it. Give your team the tools to succeed and let them do their thing. The best managers go unseen.

There are two common ways to unclog a drain.

Option 1. Use a snake.
Option 2. Pour in a bottle of Drano.

Both will achieve the desired result. The difference is that while snaking the drain may require more effort, it will expose whatever is causing the blockage.

The quick and easy solution is always tempting, but when you haven't addressed the source of the issue, there's no guarantee it'll stick.

A friend once shared a tip from a dietitian he worked with as a child. They said: don't take another bite until you've finished chewing the last.

Overeating is often associated with eating too fast. Our body can't keep up to let us know we're feeling full.

Ever bite off more than you can chew?

Work and food are the same. There's a certain amount we need to stay energized. When we discover what we enjoy, we crave it. We want more. And more. And more. Until suddenly, we've had too much. Then, the reverse happens, we get tired, sick, unmotivated. We want nothing to do with the work or food that once brought us joy.

Slow down. Experience every moment before taking another bite.

It's been about 14 months since I posted this tweet. I remember writing it just after finishing my routine Saturday workout. Little did I know, I'd start working out at home, in my bare feet, a week later.

I haven't worked out with shoes on since.

We can’t always control changes to our environment.

We can always control how we respond to them.

This evening, Dana and I met up with our friend Andres for dinner at a semi-new pasta joint in our neighborhood. We hadn't seen Andres for over a year.

Despite the increasingly frigid air, we decided to round out our meal with ice cream. It seemed like everyone around us was ordering it, so we joined in. As we took our final spoonfuls, an older man appeared at our table. He announced: "Come see the moon when you finish! I'm right over there." He pointed across the street. We smiled. He nodded, then continued his message down the other tables lining the sidewalk.

I'll admit, my first thoughts were I am freezing, I want to go home and be warm, why is this guy talking to us? Dana, on the other hand, was curious. Her thoughts? "He's a nice man. We should go."

While we waited for the check, we assessed the situation. Across the street was a serious-looking telescope. We watched as the man brought over a waitress, then a couple, then another couple. Maybe there was something to see?

After paying the bill, Dana, Andres, and I stood up from the table, looked at each other over our face masks, and together, declared: "Let's go see what's going on."

The telescope operator's name was Joe. When we walked over, he was chatting with a local couple who, like Joe, lives nearby. He sets his telescope up in spots throughout the neighborhood from time to time and likes to share the experience with others.

Dana, Andres, and I each took turns looking at the moon. With the city sky remarkably clear tonight, the view was incredible. To quote the guy who had a look before me, "It's like I'm staring at the set of Star Wars, except it's real." As I gazed upon the moon's craters, I immediately understood why Joe was out on the street. Seeing the moon with this level of detail is not an experience you want to keep to yourself.

We briefly chatted with Joe and found out that he was collecting emails to let any locals know when he'd be out again. Well, yeah - I wanted to know! I "joined his mailing list" via pen and scrap paper.

It's times like these that remind me why you can't always trust your gut. I'm glad I have Dana to make me think twice sometimes, so I don't miss out on the joy of little moments like tonight.

Cheers to Joe, the moon guy, and the characters of Park Slope.

It only takes a moment to win.

It's the second that your first to cross the finish line. It's the second that you find out you lifted the most weight. It's the second that a client accepts your proposal.

It takes days, months, years to practice.

It's all the work that came before you approach the finish line, pick up the weight, send your proposal.

If we're only happy when we win, we'd have to win constantly to live a happy life. What happens if we don't?

When there's joy in the practice, winning is just a bonus.

When is the best time to promote an employee? 

I like to think that there's a sweet spot. The employee has outgrown their current position, but their next role will challenge them in new ways. In the book Atomic Habits, author James Clear highlights a similar concept:

"The Goldilocks Rule states that humans experience peak motivation when working on tasks that are right on the edge of their current abilities. Not too hard. Not too easy. Just right."

It's a manager's job to guide their employees from role to role by giving them the right opportunities and coaching them along the way. 

In that way, the employee needs to have enough exposure to some of the new role's responsibilities and shown they're ready and capable for the challenge. For instance, before promoting a Junior Designer to Designer, they should have opportunities to present their work if that's an expectation of the new role. I'm not suggesting they lead a high-stakes presentation. Instead, maybe they walk through design revisions or take on a portion of a meeting.

Promotions are most successful when the employee feels equipped for the next step, their manager is confident in their ability to take it on, and their co-workers are beginning to see them in the new role.

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Related: Building Teams with TLC

During the summer before my senior year of college, I interned at MOCEAN in LA, designing posters and DVD covers for movies and TV shows. While I was there, I took the opportunity to perform anywhere I could and connect with the local music scene, from a lounge on Hollywood Blvd to a company picnic.

While attending my friend Brittany's birthday party, I met Jeffree Star (pre-Jeffree Star Cosmetics). At the time, Jeffree was focused on music.

Weeks later, I ended up performing for a few friends, along with Jeffree. We got to talking about the music industry and my pursuits as a singer/songwriter. Jeffree asked me what I was doing in LA. After hearing about the internship, he offered me advice: "If you want to do music, don’t have a plan B." In other words, no safety net.

In the moment, this was tough to hear. Now, I look back fondly at this memory because of what it taught me. If I wanted to turn music into a viable career option, I'd have to go all in. That meant de-prioritizing my other passion, design. I could continue writing and performing, but I couldn't expect to "make it" without making it a priority. From then on, I decided that if I can't give a pursuit the energy it deserves, I can't expect to make the progress I desire.

In the end, I chose an alternate path. I returned from LA, continued performing and making music, graduated, moved to NYC for a design job, and as they say, the rest is history. Music is still a part of my life, but for now, it's a side project.

Jeffree's advice still resonates today. While a safety net will always be safer, nothing can replace the drive of going after your vision with everything you've got.

At age 95, we’ll have spent 34,675 days on this earth. Of that, roughly 9,880 will have been Saturdays and Sundays. Living for the weekend is no way to live.

Imagine life without a mirror. Or selfie mode. Or a webcam. Etc.

While we might go about our day just fine, we would feel uneasy, having no insight into our appearance. Mirrors give us information about ourselves that we cannot see on our own.

To get more insight, we would have to rely on those around us, asking a spouse, family member, or roommate for their perspective. Hoping to remove as much subjectivity as possible, we would ask pointed questions and provide clear context.

"Is my hair sticking up? I have a cowlick that is so hard to control."

"Does my face look red? Sometimes my face lotion irritates my skin."

"Should I iron this shirt or think I can get away with the wrinkles on Zoom?"

There is no mirror for our interactions at home, at work, and in life. Short of hiring a 24/7 camera crew, we cannot simply look at a mirror and get insight into whether or not we were a good listener when our friend was going through a tough time or if we sounded confident in our team presentation.

Without a mirror, we need feedback.

If we are lucky, we will receive feedback openly from our peers, family, and friends. However, we often have to seek it out.

Like life without a mirror, it is up to us to ask questions. To uncover the perspective that is impossible for us to get on our own.

Sure, we can live without a mirror. And we can live without feedback. But how can we ever expect to be better without seeing the full picture?

Why do we ask our family and friends to text us when they're home?

When we're not with them, they go about their lives freely. We don't know when they're out or when they'll return. Yet, when we're together, we want to know.

Does it weigh on us to wonder if they got home safely?
Do we ask so we can relieve ourselves of this burden?

When we become aware of something, we get involved. It doesn't matter if we were blind to it before, and it was working just fine. Suddenly, it feels within our purview.

Would our family and friends get home whether we knew or not? Most likely. Our awareness doesn't change the probability.

Maybe, sometimes, it's okay to be simply aware.
Maybe, sometimes, it's okay to wonder.

Maybe, sometimes, we don't need to get involved.

If I had to choose, I'd prefer to succeed in achieving the wrong outcome for a client than to fail in achieving the right outcome.

Wrong outcome success: Designing a landing page focused on the wrong target audience.

Ideal client response: "We appreciate all the thinking that went into this but it's not exactly what we're looking for. Maybe we weren't clear on that, let's make sure we re-calibrate so we're on the same page going forward. Once we're aligned, we're excited to see what you come back with."

Right outcome success: Designing a landing page that poorly represents the brand for the right audience.

Ideal client response: "We're beginning to worry about your ability to do this work for us. While you clearly understand our goals, you really missed the mark. We'll need to discuss feedback and get back to you on next steps."

Wrong outcome success can be turned around with a simple conversation.

With right outcome failure, we have to regain the client's trust while figuring out how to improve the work. Even with feedback, this can be a challenge, especially if we thought we hit it out of the park.

Of course, neither are desirable but we can't always count on right outcome success. We can, however, choose to put our best foot forward. If it doesn't work out, look for the lesson and apply it next time.

Every day, we instinctively brush our teeth, get dressed, eat, use the bathroom, and sleep.

These are our non-negotiables. Our training began at birth, and now every day, we make sure our practice continues. It's essential.

Then, there are the activities that align with our goals: exercise, meditation, reading, eating healthy. We try to build the habit, but when it doesn't stick, we get discouraged. We forget that every habit takes practice.

Imagine who we'd be if we treated our non-negotiables this way. Actually, don't. It's scary.

Instead, imagine who we'd be if our non-negotiables included the habits we know would do us good.

Much better.

In January, I established a new habit around my social media consumption with my iPhone's Downtime setting. Downtime allows you to "restrict" access to specific apps by time limit or time window. While it is easy to bypass the restriction, all notifications get hidden, and the app icons fade on the home screen.

I attempted using Downtime once a couple of years ago. The first time, I restricted access by a time limit. I was unsuccessful. As my time on social media varied each day, the restriction became unpredictable, making it hard to build behavior around.

Drawing on my success with intermittent fasting, I wondered if I'd have more luck setting up a daily "social media fast." Using Downtime, I applied a restriction to any social app from 8 pm to 9:30 am.

I was deliberate about the time window I selected. For one, I knew that I might want to browse Twitter after work at 6 pm. Between working out and getting dinner ready, 2 hours seemed like plenty of time to take a look. I didn't want any distractions in the morning, so I only made room for 15 minutes before the workday gets going around 9:45 am. These days, I wake up, journal, read, get dressed, make coffee, and by the time I sit down to begin my work, I haven't even thought of scrolling through social.

Today marks 99 days of practicing this new habit. It's made me see just how much social used to fill my time. I don't miss it at all, but I do enjoy the balance. It's nice to remain connected without being consumed. When I started on this pursuit, I had a slight fear that I'd miss out on something important. Months later, I've learned that if it's important enough, it finds its way to me.

I recently incorporated a series of questions in my weekly one-on-ones to generate conversation when there's not much on the agenda. A couple of weeks ago, two senior designers chose to answer the question: What is your favorite part of your role? Why is that?

Both designers gave answers along the lines of:

“Autonomy. I love having control over my work and day while also having your support. I know that if I need help, you’ll be there, but otherwise, I can hold my own. I feel like I’ve earned it, and that feels good.”

It felt great to hear this. This sense of autonomy is not a result of me suddenly handing over the keys. It is the culmination of continually working toward a culture where the team has space to make their own decisions while also having the support of their manager or mentor when they need it.

Reflecting on this topic reminded of an excerpt from one of my favorite books, Turn the Ship Around:

"SHORT, EARLY CONVERSATIONS is a mechanism for CONTROL. It is a mechanism for control because the conversations did not consist of me telling them what to do. They were opportunities for the crew to get early feedback on how they were tackling problems. This allowed them to retain control of the solution. These early, quick discussions also provided clarity to the crew about what we wanted to accomplish. Many lasted only thirty seconds, but they saved hours of time."

Autonomy

Confidence = Control

As managers, sometimes we think we create space for "autonomy" by assigning tasks to our team and expecting them to tackle the work independently. This approach does not give the team control if they are merely taking orders. The issue is that the minute they hit a roadblock, they'll return to receive new orders rather than actively working toward a solution on their own.

People feel good working autonomously when they feel in control, and they believe in and understand the work as much as their manager. What contributes to feeling in control? Control is a product of confidence in decision-making.

Knowledge + Feedback = Confidence

We're most confident when we have the knowledge we need and can count on consistent feedback along the way. Without feedback, there's no sure way to know if what we're doing is working or not. When there's a void in feedback, we tend to create narratives about our performance and start to doubt our decisions. That doubt chips away at our confidence, and eventually, the thought of working autonomously can be pretty intimidating.

I always try to give feedback in real-time. For example, I'll make sure to take a few minutes to review feedback right after a big presentation, regardless if it went well or not. Positive feedback reinforces good decisions. Critical feedback teaches us how to make better decisions next time. When feedback about a situation comes after too much time has passed, details get lost, and we may forget why the feedback was even important.

Trust

I know my team will never feel like they have control unless we trust each other. I have to trust that they'll make thoughtful decisions; they have to trust that I'll be there to support them, no matter what happens. Support means giving them constructive feedback, helping them see a situation from different perspectives, and coaching them in their craft.

Below are three methods I've found effective in building a foundation for trust with my team.

  1. Continuous coaching. Ongoing one-on-ones are helpful in checking in how on each team member is feeling and maintain a clear line of communication. It's important to go beyond "things are good" and dig deeper to uncover more insights, especially early on. Over time, trust builds and these insights will likely come through more freely. One-on-ones do not replace real-time feedback; they exist to eliminate blind spots and make sure there's always an open channel for support.
  2. Responsibilities alignment. I've learned that simply clarifying and re-clarifying responsibilities with team members can go a long way. What are they responsible for, and how do you expect to work with them? Who is in charge of presenting the work? Alignment can even get into more micro-level tasks. Who will be making the final decision on the website's animation? Once there's alignment, it's important not to change course without a conversation. Jumping in to take over a task can quickly erode trust.
  3. Vision-setting. Establishing a vision for every project (this does not need to be a formal, lofty statement) helps give the team a guiding light and understand what they're trying to accomplish together. Not only does a vision help make feedback more productive, but it also allows for more thoughtful decision-making and helps everyone feel more in control.

Here are a few posts related to the topics covered in this note:

Through my experience mentoring designers, I've noticed a tendency to oversimplify a meeting's purpose. We stop at "present website concepts" then focus our preparation on explaining what we've designed as clearly and confidently as we can.

Some meetings go well; others don't. When they don’t, we feel bad. When we don’t know how to improve for next time, we feel even worse. It can be challenging to surface these insights when our only focus was what we were planning to say, missing who we were saying it to or why.

A simple practice I enjoy is taking a few minutes to collect my thoughts on what I expect from a meeting before it takes place. After the meeting, I can revisit my notes, reflecting on how it went and what I’ve learned.

This habit is a powerful tool for not only leading meetings more effectively but feeling better doing so. Below are ten questions to use as a guide:

Pre-Meeting

  1. How do I feel heading into the meeting? Do I have the energy to participate fully?
  2. What information do I hope to gain today?
  3. What questions might the client (or my peers) ask? How will I respond?
  4. How do I want the client (or my peers) to feel by the end of our meeting? Me?
  5. How will I know this meeting was a success?

Post-Meeting

  1. How do I feel right now?
  2. What did not go as planned? Why?
  3. What went well? Why?
  4. Do I have what I need to move forward? If not, how will I capture what I need?
  5. On a scale from 1 to 5, rate the success of this meeting. Why this rating?

In Playing With Movement, author Todd Hargrove shares how worry can lead to the exact outcome we're trying to avoid:

"In many situations, worrying about a bad outcome will make it more likely. Fear is the enemy, and playing with risk is a way to learn to master it."

In Stillness is the Key, author Ryan Holiday explores a similar idea:

"Whatever you face, whatever you’re doing will require, first and foremost, that you don’t defeat yourself. That you don’t make it harder by overthinking, by needless doubts, or by second-guessing."

When I was actively performing music, I could relate with this concept when playing new songs or revisiting old ones. I'd get anxious about forgetting the lyrics, so I'd do everything I could to embed them in my mind. I refused to stand on stage with my own lyrics written on a piece of paper as a guide. It felt inauthentic as a songwriter and performer. I wanted the audience to feel my relationship with the words I sang, and I thought this would get in the way.

Once I got on stage, the show would go in one of two ways:

  • If I let myself become immersed in the music, I'd enter a flow state. The words would come to me, almost unconsciously, like I'd been singing them for years.
  • If while singing, I let my mind wander to my doubt for even a second, I'd forget the words almost immediately. It was as if my determination to remember the lyrics was what made me forget them.

It didn't matter how I prepared or how much time I put in; mindset was everything.

Beyond Music

I've come to apply this concept to so many aspects of life; building new habits, acquiring skills, presenting my ideas, and truthfully, experiencing life. I remember feeling nervous when going to get my motorcycle license until realizing that there was nothing more I could do to prepare. When it came time to take the test, I took a deep breath and drove like I would any other day. I passed.

I believe that when we overthink what we're doing, it's hard to give it our best shot. We can't get in the flow because we're too focused on getting it "right." As a result, we get it wrong.

While it's unrealistic for me to think that I'll never get nervous about anything again, I've decided to trade my doubts and concerns for commitment to myself and my growth. Once I decide to go after something, I've learned it's best to go all in.

I was excited to catch up with one of my former professors today, Christine; it had been over a decade since we last spoke. Once we got on Zoom, it felt like no time had passed.

We got to talking about the books we've found valuable over the years and how we're often inspired by stories from outside our field. As we ended the discussion, Christine added: "We're all just people after all."

Regardless of our profession or industry, we're all just people working with other people. Framed this way, we're acknowledging our nature and inherent commonalities as humans. We're opening the door to learning from one another.

We all have times where we think our experience is unique and that no one else has ever dealt with the same problems in this way. Not only have countless others experienced the same problems but many are experiencing them right now and many others have overcome them.

We resist help because we can't imagine our friend who works in finance could ever understand what it's like to work in a creative agency. They may not be designing for a living but they have clients relying on them. They also have to earn their trust. They have deadlines. They want their manager to let them know how they're doing. They want to be recognized for doing good work. You get the idea.

We're much more alike than we think. When we remember that, the world suddenly becomes an open book and if we dive in, we just might learn a thing or two.

How do you describe an agency?

A group of people with unique perspectives and backgrounds working with other groups of people with unique perspectives and backgrounds toward a common goal.

What could go wrong?

I'm actually encouraged by this definition. It's the reason why misunderstandings and challenges are inevitable, but it's also the reason that I enjoy coming to work each day.

In moments of conflict, I like to remind my team of this reality. Like most things in life, collaboration takes patience and practice. When a situation gets tense, it can be easy to let our emotions take the wheel and quickly lead us off track. We forget that we all want the same thing.

We all want the same thing. Time and time again, I'm amazed at how powerful this statement can be. Even when we don't see eye-to-eye, it's a reminder that we have the same intent.

When we accept this statement as fact, conversations immediately become more productive, and resolution soon feels within reach. If we discover a disconnect in what we want, we can take appropriate action, but we're not acting on assumptions.

I was a resilient little kid and sometimes, a little reckless. I once "escaped" home, just after learning to walk, and was promptly found meandering far down the street in my diaper. As a kindergartener, I pulled the fire alarm on the school bus, and all the kids had to evacuate. When asked why I did it, I responded: "I just wanted to see what would happen."

I look back on my childhood and admire my curiosity and determination. When I wanted to achieve something, there wasn't much I would let get in my way.

One day, I decided I was ready to ride my bike without training wheels. My Dad wasn't home so, I got help from a neighbor after unsuccessfully trying to remove the training wheels myself. I then proceeded to go full speed down the hill next to our house off a skate ramp. Luckily, I landed. From then on, I was confident I could ride on two wheels. Little did I know, the momentum of riding down a hill is non-existent on flat ground.

Not long after the training wheel operation, I distinctly remember falling on the sidewalk right outside my house. I didn't cry until I looked at my elbow and saw the blood. By this point, my older brother, Nick, had already run inside to get help from my parents.

I'm not sure why this memory of falling off my bike comes to mind now and again, but it does. It's fascinating to me that while the impact of falling didn't bother me much, the sight of blood was alarming.

As an adult, I may not be as reckless as I once was, but I still relate to my perseverance as a child. I've come to embrace the fall and take the long game when it comes to success. That said, what does the blood represent in my life today?

I began writing this note to find an answer to this question. I think the blood represents a truth we tell ourselves about how failure looks. Even when the fall doesn't hurt us; we feel hurt when we see the blood. It makes our failure feel real and can be discouraging.

Similar to the saying, if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? I wonder if I fell off my bike and my elbow didn't bleed, would I have immediately stood up and returned to riding, not a tear in my eye? Would I have acknowledged the fall?

When we fail an exam, what if we never saw the grade? When we lose a race, what if no one was declared a winner?

I'm not suggesting that we stop giving grades or declaring winners. I'm more interested in what would happen if we didn't.

This trip down memory lane has taught me is that it's not worth crying over the blood. Whether it's there or not doesn't change the situation; it only serves as a distraction. All that's important is we pick up, move on, and keep trying.

I'm currently reading The Millionaire Real Estate Agent, and in it, the author, Gary Keller, shares his thoughts on failure. I'll leave you with a relevant excerpt from my reading today:

"You can’t know what you’re really capable of doing until you try and never give up. In fact, many people have said that they believe that failure is not the worst thing in the world. They believe the very worst is not to try at all. It’s been observed that many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up."

Back in September, I wrote my first-ever newsletter about adopting Webflow at Barrel. At the time, I had recently learned the platform through the design and launch of this website. I thoroughly enjoyed the simplicity and control of the experience. I ended up doing the bulk of the design work right in Webflow after some initial light concept work in Figma.

Less than a year later, Barrel has launched 16 websites on Webflow, including our own, with a few currently in the works. The previous iteration of the Barrel website was on WordPress. One of the constant challenges we faced was making design updates and adding new pages on the fly. Now, I can wake up with an idea for the website and have it done by the time I finish my morning coffee. Yes, this has happened, and it's a beautiful thing.

There's a lot to love about Webflow. We're excited to continue our work exploring all it has to offer. Personally, it's been a pleasure to see our team embrace it and push what's possible.

I recently "sat down" with the folks at Webflow and shared more insight into how we use the platform and why we find it valuable for our process and clients.

Read the case study here: https://webflow.com/customers/barrel

In team workshops centered around sharing personal experiences and challenges, I've been experimenting with establishing norms. I introduced the idea in a team-wide coaching workshop weeks ago, and it seemed to open the group up to more honest conversation.

For many, speaking openly in front of a room or Zoom full of people is not easy. Even if there's trust among the group, it's hard to be vulnerable.

Establishing norms means that the group accepts each norm as fact. It means that the space they occupy is safe and free of judgment.

Here are the norms I've experimented with so far:

  • We all can be better collaborators.
  • We believe feedback is information.
  • We trade all judgment for curiosity.
  • We communicate openly and honestly.

The times I've done this, I've displayed them at the start of the meeting and asked for volunteers to read each one. To me, this is a special moment. It's inspiring to hear your peers commit to these statements out loud. In our first workshop, I asked everyone to follow up in the chat with "yes" or "agreed." I love seeing the responses flow in as each norm is read.

I'm looking forward to evolving this idea further in future workshops. The hope is that, down the line, these will become commonplace. Even if we continue to recite them together, they'll be an integral part of our team's DNA.

Even with the best intentions, we are not always aware of how others interpret what we say or do. In last Tuesday's note, I wrote about how a simple question made an employee feel that a co-worker was dismissing them.

Since then, I've been interested in uncovering what other responses may inadvertently elicit a similar feeling. Through my interactions over the week, I've compiled a list.

  1. Acknowledgment of what was said followed by "but..."
  2. Abruptly moving the conversation to a new topic
  3. Revisiting an earlier point without acknowledging the one just stated
  4. Sighing or laughing in response to an idea or question
  5. Telling someone they are wrong without explanation
  6. Saying "don't worry" when someone is expressing worry
  7. Explaining how the "new" idea has been done before and didn't work out 
  8. Belittling impact with phrases like "oh, that's not a big deal" when someone is stating concern
  9. Jumping to feedback when someone asks to talk through a tense situation
  10. Suggesting a solution without digging into the problem first

This list does not mean that we should walk on eggshells whenever we communicate with others. For me, it's simply about awareness. When I have a better idea of how I might come off, I can more proactively share context and ask questions to ensure what I'm saying is not misinterpreted.

When someone feels dismissed, they eventually feel afraid or insignificant. When someone feels this way, they either become scared to share their ideas or don't think anyone wants to hear them, so they stop providing input. When they shut down in this way, they get by on taking orders. When this happens, their heart isn't it, and that's the beginning of the end.

This morning, I re-discovered this excerpt from Tell to Win by Peter Guber (via Readwise):

“The best stories lead from the heart, not the mind.”

Initially, it resonated with me because it's an idea I revisit constantly when I write. But as I sat with the statement longer, it began to take on new meaning.

Look at what happens when you omit the best stories:

"Lead from the heart, not the mind."

Notice the word lead. It is not about acting emotionally. It is about pursuing our instincts, not second-guessing ourselves or overthinking what we feel.

Our mind is what holds us back. It worries about what others will think. It fears the discomfort of telling the truth. It sidesteps momentary pain for short-term pleasure. All along, our heart knows we are making the wrong choice, but when we lead with our mind, our heart takes a back seat.

When it comes to communication, collaboration, and just purely interacting with other humans, I cannot think of a better mantra. At home, at work, in life.

Last Friday, I shared a new essay, Building Teams with TLC. I can't tell you how good it felt to hit the publish button! The framework has been a work-in-progress throughout my time building out the design team at Barrel. Until last year, these concepts only existed in my head. While the team was living them every day, it became challenging to chart the future without visualizing the current reality.

In October 2020, I wrote about visualizing project staffing models and how powerful it was to align with the team. This exercise was the beginning of the framework.

From there, I continued my work codifying other core concepts as I planned for the next stage of my team. Through the process, I found that their application was universal, which led me to document and share them with you.

Since publishing the framework, it has been fun to get feedback from within the team and peers beyond Barrel. Just yesterday, I enjoyed hearing how one of our team members used the Best Fit Activities Diagram to help delineate roles when conducting a website audit at the start of a project. See below.

Best Fit Activities Diagram from TLC framework applied to project
Workshop conducted in Whimsical.

Whether you’re in the process of building a team, scaling an existing one, or even an individual contributor on a team today, I hope the TLC framework brings you new insights on the power of creating a clear team structure.

If you decide to give TLC a try or have questions/feedback, I'd love to hear! Feel free to shoot me an email.

Interested in a TLC template? I'm planning to create templates for each of the framework's components. Sign up here and you'll be the first to receive them when they're ready.

Sometimes, we miss the mark. It happens.

Unfortunately, we missed the mark with one of our clients this week. While I'm not intimately involved with the project or on calls, talking it through with the designer reminded me of a powerful lesson.

Let's take a look at the situation.

The Situation

Round 1

We present the designs via Zoom. We're super excited about what we've done. Luckily, the client loves the look and interactivity of the work. Check. The issue? They feel like we failed to capture the unique selling points of the product. They admit that they have some work to do in gathering the content, but at the same time, we know it's our job to guide them.

The client does not provide additional feedback. They say, "we provided all we have to say during the call."

We regroup and make revisions, focused on creating a page that clearly outlines what the product offers and why it's unique.

Round 2

We present the revised designs, once again via Zoom. Within minutes of the call, the client lets us know this is not what they're looking for; it's feeling very sales-y and off-brand. We finish walking through the designs and end the call.

The internal team does not feel great, and we assume the client does not either. The team sleeps on it (some lose sleep over it) then regroup the next day.

Round 3

In round 1, we nailed the visual but missed the why. In round 2, we nailed the why but missed the visual. In round 3, all we have to do is find the perfect combination of both. Right? We take a step back and revisit the structure with a wireframe. We send it to the client and ask for feedback.

As I write this note, we're still waiting to hear what they have to say before we take it back into design.

So, besides the client being unhappy, what's the issue here?

The Challenge

The client's feedback was reactive on our calls because that's what we asked of them. We did make room for follow-up but from their perspective, they said all they needed to say. Our process did not create space for the client to spend time with the work. Caught up in finding a way forward, we did not re-align with the client on exactly what they're hoping to see. Outcome? We're shooting in the dark.

As demonstrated in this situation, clients often see our work for the first time on calls. When they love it, this can work out fine. When they have feedback, which is inevitable, it's hard for them to give meaningful insights after spending just ~30 minutes with the work.

Many times, this means they regroup offline and send written feedback a couple of days later. In situations like this, we may not get anything more. From there, we have to jump on a second call to make sure we understand the feedback or share revised designs.

Have the Second Meeting, First

If we could do this all over again, I'd suggest we have the second meeting, first. A topic I wrote about in my newsletter in February.

Send the designs the day before the first call, outline the key ideas, and ask for initial thoughts. Give the client time to sit with it and gather their thoughts.

When they provide feedback, we may even have time to address it before the first call. Now we're that much further along. If the client is unhappy with the direction, we can cancel the meeting to revisit the work or get on a call to talk it through.

Either way, the meeting we'd typically have second is the one we have first. Not only do we save everyone's time, but we also invite more thoughtful feedback, and in the end, we're more likely to hit the mark by the first meeting.

I'm confident we'll get this project back on track. In the meantime, I'm excited to apply this thinking more actively across all current and upcoming projects.

Yesterday, I ended the workday feeling off like I might be getting sick. Dana suggested we take a walk outside and take advantage of the warm weather. After a short walk and an impromptu Pomegranate Recharge shake from Juice Press, I started coming back to life.

Whenever I'm not feeling well, I'm on the fence about working out. Unless I'm clearly ill, I usually push myself to do it anyway and feel glad I did afterward. Sunday and Monday were rest days, so I was anxious to get my heart rate up.

I decided to repeat a workout from September 15, 2020, ironically a Tuesday.

Part A, 4 Rounds of:

  • 10/arm x DB Single-Arm Kneeling Press
  • 12/arm x DB Row
  • 15 x Leg Lift with Pulse

Part B, 4 Rounds for Time:

  • 30 x Sumo DB Deadlifts
  • 20 x Goblet Lunges
  • 10 x Push Ups

I increased the weight for a few of the movements. From 35# to 40# for the DB Single-Arm Kneeling Press and DB Rows. From 40# to 52.5# for the Sumo DB Deadlift.

I'll admit, there was a second there on Part B where I wondered if I should have stuck with the original weight! In the end, I powered through, and it was well worthwhile. I was feeling good until I noticed my time for Part B in September...

In September, I completed Part B in 7 minutes, 55 seconds. Last night, my time was 13 minutes, 23 seconds. What... the...? For one, I should have looked at the time ahead of the workout. I love trying to beat an old time. But more importantly, why was I so slow?

In these moments, I find it hard not to be frustrated. Annoyed, I immediately dismissed how I felt pre-workout and the increase in weight. In a group workout setting, my coach or friends would remind me of these circumstances. Without that, I needed some other way to understand the discrepancy.

So what did I do?

  • Flip back to September 15 in my camera roll. I record every workout in time-lapse. A habit I picked up last year. How did I look? Was I home or visiting family?
  • Open the Withings app. I weigh myself daily. What was my weight on September 15? Body composition?
  • Open the Whoop app. What was my strain on September 14? What was my recovery score for September 15?

Here's what I gathered:

  • Shorter hair seven months ago. Not a big deal, but it is hotter these days.
  • Body composition is nearly identical.
  • My recovery was ~20% higher on September 15 and trending higher in the days prior.

For me, tracking like this is how I know I'm staying on the right path and making progress. In a situation like this, it makes all of the difference.

Discovering that my stats in September were close and slightly better than now, I could more confidently deduce that my DB weight increase and overall physical state were the factors driving the increase in my Part B time.

One question that I wish I could answer is: what did I eat that day? I'd love to understand if my diet had any impact on my time. I used to track my diet in MyFitnessPal. Since learning what I need to maintain my weight, I've stopped. Maybe I'll pick that up again soon. More data = more insights.

Today, I repeated a workout from August and beat my time by 26 seconds. No increase in weight, but I'll take it.

I was chatting with an employee recently who shared a challenge they often face when giving feedback to others. They mentioned that when the response is "Can you be more specific about an example where this took place?" when they give feedback, they feel like their feedback is being dismissed or questioned. It's as though they have to prove that their feedback is worthy of discussion or "correct," leaving them feeling unmotivated.

I never thought about this perspective. It makes a lot of sense. I'm guilty of it myself, and since surfacing it, I've noticed it happening in conversations daily.

What's interesting about this interaction is that, most times, both people want the same thing; to work better together. However, when they communicate, their unique context gets in the way of the message.

It reminds me of a classic rom-com where the couple breaks up because of a misunderstanding, only to later realize they made a mistake. As the viewer, you know that neither of them wants the relationship to end; they just have no idea how the other is feeling. You wish you could step through the TV into their unrealistic, picturesque NYC apartment and scream, "Hey!!! She DOES want to be with you. She didn't answer your text because she thought you had feelings for your ex."

Exploring Context

I took this experience as an opportunity to explore the possible context that surrounds each person during the exchange. In this example, the feedback is between a junior designer and an account director.

The feedback: "I find it hard to get a word in when you're in meetings. Over time, this has made me feel like my opinion doesn't matter." 

Junior Designer: Giver

  • They are doing everything they can to deliver quality work and show their capabilities.
  • They're eager to grow in the role and learn new things every day.
  • Feedback is uncomfortable to them, but their manager has shown them how important it is to give feedback and do it directly.
  • They spent the night practicing how to deliver the feedback with their roommate.
  • They're feeling nervous and apprehensive about the conversation.

Account Director: Receiver

  • They want to support the team as much as possible.
  • They're still learning the ropes and trying to figure out how they fit into projects.
  • They often feel like they're talking to themselves in team meetings. They wonder if anyone cares about the work. They try to fix this by being louder and more enthusiastic.
  • They haven't had a lot of feedback from the team and wonder how they're doing.
  • They're excited to have a feedback conversation and are hungry for growth areas.

After the Junior Designer gives the feedback, the Account Director says: "I had no idea. Can you be more specific about an example where you felt this way?"

Imagine how this might go if neither shares what they're thinking? If they do?

Going Forward

When it comes to feedback, I find it liberating to put all of my relevant context on the table; so the other person has a chance to get inside my head. It can be hard to be this vulnerable, but the relief afterward is always worthwhile.

In terms of asking for examples, I don't think it's unreasonable when receiving feedback; it's just good to consider how the question may be received. 

When giving feedback, this insight has been a welcome reminder to be as specific as possible. Come prepared with the examples before ever being asked. It's natural to want to give high-level, vague feedback in fear of discomfort, but that can be hard for others to take action on. 

Here are some related posts on feedback:

Every Wednesday, I meet one-on-one with our three senior designers for one hour. 

Until recently, the format has been open-ended. Sometimes, we spend most of the time reviewing designs. Other times, we go deep on themes such as role definition on projects or how to distill client feedback.

In recent weeks, I noticed a trend. If there wasn't much activity on their projects, they wouldn't prepare much to discuss. Early Wednesday, I'd receive a message: Hey, I don't have much to discuss. We can probably end early. 

While we'd always end up using the full hour anyway, it was clear that the meeting structure was worth revisiting. Last week, I rolled out a new format. Here's a look:

Highlight of the Week (5-10 min)

Project Review (30 min)

Open Discussion (remaining time)

  • Anything that’s come up lately that you think I should know about?
  • Are there any ways I could better support you?
  • Have there been any recent situations where you’d like my advice on how to handle it now or next time?
  • How much time are you spending on executing work? Overseeing? Anything you'd change?
  • How much time do you spend in meetings? Are there any you don’t feel you need to attend?
  • What do you think are the biggest blockers right now for the team?
  • What is your favorite part of your role? Why is that?
  • What is your least favorite part of your role? How do you handle that?

The new format is meant to uncover thoughts and ideas that may not otherwise get surfaced. While we still have time to review designs, the goal is to make sure we leave time for open discussion. If there's nothing pressing on the designer's mind, the list of questions can be used as a guide. Whichever question feels most relevant is where we start.

We're only one week in, but the questions have already proven to be incredibly insightful. With shared notes in place, I'm excited to see how their answers to the same question evolve.

Every Friday, I make time to review my notes and tie up any loose ends as I close out the workweek. A helpful tool for making sure this is not a big lift is the two-minute rule, one of my favorite productivity tips from David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done.

The rule is simple. For any new tasks that can be done in less than two minutes, complete them immediately. I practice this habit all week long, making it easy to welcome the weekend with open arms.

Here’s what I learned when I adopted it:

  • I unconsciously put off simple tasks like replying to emails, saving down files, and e-signing documents.
  • When I delayed these tasks, it took me longer to document them than to get them done.
  • Over time, these tasks piled up. They added weight to my day that took energy away from more pressing initiatives.
  • In the end, a bunch of small tasks had turned into one giant one. I had to rely on a heroic effort to get them all done.
  • Two minutes is a long time! It’s surprising how much you can accomplish with a focused two minutes.

In the words of David Allen, “the two-minute rule is magic.”

In my teenage years, it was rare to find me without a guitar. If I wasn't in school or working, I was in my room writing new songs or practicing in the unfinished basement of my best friend turned drummer turned best man, Kyle, or performing for a room of people. We played everywhere; the local bookstore, Sweet Sixteens, the neighborhood cafe, a pottery studio, an old record store, restaurants, fundraisers, you name it.

I'm grateful to have had a supportive family who attended just about every concert. Even to this day, they'll gladly make the trip to NYC to see me perform. Before I could drive, my dad would typically accompany me on his own for performances on weeknights. Many of these were open mic nights, aka a lot of fun and a lot of waiting.

As an adult, I look back fondly on these memories with my dad. We found ways to pass the time together, and in the process, I think we formed an unsaid bond. After performing, he'd give me feedback. I'd make mental notes. Most nights, he'd also record the performance, so I'd review it when I got home. More notes. Rinse and repeat.

The more that I performed, the more comfortable I got, the more I wanted to perform for more people.

As recollections of past performances pass through my mind, there is one that always stands out. It wasn't because it was our best performance or we had the largest audience. It was quite the opposite. I can't place the venue, but the turnout was much smaller than we had expected. I had high hopes, and regretfully, I let my disappointment show on stage.

Seeing my frustration, my dad came over to talk to me after a few songs. I don't remember him saying much except this: Always perform like you're in an arena.

It was a reminder that I was performing for myself, just as much, if not more, than my audience. It didn't matter if there were two or 2,000 people in the audience; what mattered was that I gave it my all. For those who did choose to support me, why give them any less than my best?

This statement stuck with me. I still find power in its application today. Over the years, I've come to view life as one big performance. Every day, we perform for our significant other, friends, family, co-workers, clients, etc.

Performance is about being true to yourself and consistently striving for growth. For this to be true, we have to perform for ourselves before we perform for others. We have to want to get up and make a special breakfast for our family because we enjoy seeing them smile. We have to want to design an incredible website experience because we know it will take the client's business to the next level, and that excites us. The minute we stop performing for ourselves and start performing for others, we begin losing sight of why we ever got up on stage.

As I write this, I don't know who will take the time to read it. When I let that get in my way, I find that I rarely make it this far. I become focused on the stories that I think others want to read, not the stories I want to tell. The stories that I know best and make me, me.

Teams are special because collectively, they can produce work that no team member could create alone. Teams represent a range of skills, expertise, passions, and perspective. 

When working on a project with a team, it is natural to get caught up in the details without ever surfacing relevant background about ourselves and our teammates. Yes, our job is to create an impact for the client or customer; we must focus on them and learn as much as possible. That said, imagine the value we could make by uncovering the connections that our teammates have with the work and we have with each other.

How helpful would it be to know that your teammate spent 15 years as a personal trainer when working with a fitness client; or that the developer on the project is studying animation?

Here are some questions to consider when starting work with a new team. Not only can these questions help uncover important context about the team, but through those discoveries, they can also create a deeper understanding of the work itself and make for more productive collaboration.

  1. Share a positive experience from a recent project. Why did it make you feel good?
  2. What is most exciting to you about this project? Intimidating?
  3. What unique perspective or skillset do you think you bring to this project?
  4. How do you relate most with our target audience or customer?
  5. Are there any relevant lessons from past projects that you think might apply to this one?
  6. What do you hope to learn by the end of this project?

A few weeks ago, I discovered Michael Chernow's podcast, Born or Made. Michael is best known for founding NYC restaurant, The Meatball Shop. In a recent episode with guest Will Ahmed (founder/CEO, Whoop), Michael shared a ritual for handling stressful moments:

"I do something called the 'S.T.O.P. Smile' ... If I'm feeling overwhelmed, which happens often, I literally stop, close my eyes, and smile from ear to ear for 15 seconds."

S.T.O.P. stands for:

  • Smile, pause, and breathe.
  • Transition from an overwhelmed state to patience.
  • Observe this new reality.
  • Proceed.

As I listened to the podcast, I couldn't help giving Michael's theory a try. He was right; smiling is transformative.

Michael describes the ritual as tapping into his serotonin. Out of curiosity, I turned to Google to learn more. According to this article (among many others), there's science behind every smile:

"When you smile, your brain releases tiny molecules called neuropeptides to help fight off stress. Then other neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin and endorphins come into play too. The endorphins act as a mild pain reliever, whereas the serotonin is an antidepressant. One study even suggests that smiling can help us recover faster from stress and reduce our heart rate."

I always remind myself to take a deep breathe when a situation gets tense but I never thought to smile. I've enjoyed putting this simple ritual into practice.

Feedback has been on my mind a lot lately. It was a theme in my performance reviews at the start of the year, I just completed reading An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization, and last week, we kicked off a six-month coaching program centered on building a culture around feedback and personal growth (featured in my newsletter today).

A common complaint I hear from employees is: I don't get enough direct feedback from my peers. While I'm grateful to see employees crave feedback, feedback is no one's responsibility but our own.

I love to reframe this complaint into a question: what can I do to get the type of feedback I'm looking for? If we all actively seek out feedback, they'll be plenty of feedback to go around.

We often confuse "How did that go?" after a meeting with asking for feedback. We're vague, so what do we get? More vagueness in return. The team mutters:

  • Jake: "Pretty good!"
  • Jasmine: "Not bad."
  • Jessica: "Client seemed happy."

We leave the meeting with some interpretation of how it went and go about our day.

In the future, Jasmine is asked to do a peer review of our performance. She mentions how she wishes we took more of a lead in meetings. We get frustrated. Why didn't Jasmine share this when I asked?

The trouble is that we never asked...

Getting constructive feedback requires specificity. Specificity is taking How do you think that meeting went? and going deeper. What do you really want to know? Try: Do you think I was effective in explaining how the client's vision informed our approach?

Specificity can be challenging in more ways than one. It requires focus and vulnerability. But once you get in the swing of it, the benefits greatly exceed any temporary discomfort.

I was chatting with a freelance designer recently, and we got to talking about the creative process. I shared an exercise we do with our clients to kick off the design phase of any project. We call it the Creative Alignment Workshop. I was surprised at how interested they were in giving it a try and realized, hey - maybe I should share it with others?

The Origin

Before I explain what it is and how it works, let's start from the beginning. Several years ago, we had a client who kept telling us to make the website feel warmer. After maybe... ten iterations of the homepage, we realized that we must be missing something. We jumped on a call and asked them to show us what warm looked like to them. They showed us a bunch of websites with images of people. Here we were experimenting with one warm tone after another in our designs. Wrong warm!

You may be wondering: Why hadn't we asked them this sooner? Why didn't the client ask for people earlier? That, unfortunately, we'll never know, but what I do know is that we were clearly not creatively aligned.

I learned two lessons through this experience:

  1. Everyone has their own words to describe what they see.
  2. Everyone has tastes and preferences. They will remain the same before and after ten homepage iterations.

The Creative Alignment Workshop was born out of these lessons. The objective is to align on a shared design vocabulary among Barrel and the client team. It is simple, effective, and clients love it.

How it Works

Step 1: Gather references.

As early as possible, before any design has begun, we take what we know so far about the client (brand book, existing website, website references) to start gathering imagery that we feel could be a good fit for the new direction. While we may have early ideas of the directions we want to explore, the goal is to gather a range of creative samples that demonstrate color, typography, imagery, illustration, and any other relevant design elements out in the world. These creative samples can include everything from websites to posters. Aim for a minimum of 30.

Step 2: Create the deck.

We add everything we gathered into a presentation deck. Don't labor over the order. Keep it random. Only include one creative sample on each slide.

Step 3: Conduct the workshop!

When it comes to the workshop, we like to make it feel like a conversation, so the format is casual. Typically it lasts one hour. The designer on the project clicks through each slide and briefly describes what they see in their language. The ask of the client? Talk about what you see, what you like, and what you don't like. Slide by slide, the client opens up more and more. It's like some sort of creative truth serum. Everyone vigorously takes notes on what they hear.

Here's an example of an exchange:

  • Designer: "On this slide, you'll see bright, bold colors juxtaposed with a formal serif typeface. We're interested in this tension."
  • Client: "I find those colors pretty distracting. I don't love the color yellow; my first car was yellow, and it broke down on me in the middle of the night. It brings back bad memories. The 'Times New Roman' typeface is nice, but I think it might be boring for us."

Do you see how differently the Designer and Client talk about the same image?

Why is this effective?

As you can see in the example dialogue, it is pretty amazing what you can learn with a simple conversation. In one hour, you get a sense of where the client sees the project going creatively, any visual motifs they love or hate, and hopefully a few different areas to explore.

To be clear, the idea here is not for the client to create the directions for you. The objective is to set you up with as much information as possible before you get to designing. Maybe you decide that, conceptually, yellow is a must-explore color, and that's fine - at least you know that the client may not be so open to it.

What is the follow-up?

We have done this several ways over the years, and sometimes, we change it with the client. Overall, we have had success by following up with two or three mood boards that bring together the creative samples into unique themes. We include notes from the discussion and give the client a chance to add any final remarks before we get to work.

If you decide to give this a try, I'd love to hear about it: lucasjballasy@gmail.com.

When I can't find what I deem to be the right words, I default to prefacing my thoughts with statements like:

  • "I don't want this to come off the wrong way..."
  • "I'm not sure how to put this, but..."
  • "I hope you find this valuable..."

At its core, this is a defense mechanism.

The pro is that I'm not holding my thoughts captive; I'm sharing them. An idea can be world-changing, but it is worth nothing if no one hears it.

The con? I'm getting in my own way.

  • I'm inviting the listener to form a perception about my idea before I even share it.
  • I'm expressing doubt while trying to instill confidence.
  • I'm creating distractions while looking for engagement.

Looking back, I see that these statements add no value. While they may create relief for me temporarily, they serve no purpose in delivering my message. 

Looking ahead, I am making an effort to catch myself and pause. Those few seconds in silence, while brief, are powerful. It is just enough to take a breath, collect myself, and speak with poise and clarity.

In my first-ever yoga class, I remember the instructor referring to the session as our practice. I now realize that this is common, but at the time, it stood out to me. As a beginner, it made me feel welcome. So much power in the subtly of those words. I wasn't coming to the class and expecting to leave as an expert. I wanted to give yoga a try and leave equipped with more experience than when I entered.

As a participant and spectator of growth, I find it all too easy to fall into the trap of framing our growth areas as a skill we must master in a finite amount of time.

We declare that we need to:

  • Be confident
  • Be a better listener
  • Trust others
  • Let go of past mistakes
  • Be honest

Maybe Amazon's influence on our culture plays a role? We know we can order a pack of Gatorade today and have it in time for our workout tomorrow. We get what we want when we want it. If I recognize that I need this skill, I can attain it soon, right? 

We end up working on our weaknesses focused only the outcome. We forget about the journey. We get frustrated when our package doesn't come as quickly as we hoped. Pressure builds. This mindset leads to anxiety and inaction.

Growth suddenly looks impossible. Becoming a better listener now feels like climbing El Capitan with no equipment. We can see the top, but we can't make out the trail. We get anxious at the thought of exploring unknown territory. It feels better not to worry, so we choose not to act.

The truth is that we can't expect change overnight. Alex Honnold didn't decide to climb El Capitan on Monday and get it done on Tuesday. He put in the preparation. He put in the practice.

"I talk about how much preparation goes into it, and how you take something that starts out totally crazy and impossible and turn it into something that is not only possible and likely but inevitable.” (Alex Honnold)

Our growth areas will always be a work-in-progress. Even when we progress, there will be days when we regress. Weeks. Months. Years. We have to stumble to get up again. Fail to learn, learn to grow. Even when we reach the top, we set our sights on the next climb.

Much like my yoga experience, we are all beginners in one way or another. I know I can't be perfect every day. I know that I can't expect to order a new strength for next-day delivery. However, I do know that I can practice.

By reframing our ambitions, we remind ourselves of what is important, showing up daily and giving them our best shot. We can declare to:

  • Practice confidence
  • Practice active listening
  • Practice trusting others
  • Practice letting go
  • Practice honesty

Our growth areas become our practice. What doesn't get better with practice?

You can be the one to speak up

...when a topic feels uncomfortable...

...when it feels like you have an unpopular opinion...

...when there's an elephant in the room...

...when you feel like context is missing...

...when someone is left out...

...when you don't understand...

...when the direction doesn't feel right...

...when the next step is unclear...

because chances are you're not the only one.

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Note: In those moments when I feel like I'm on my own in a room (or Zoom) full of people, I find this to be a comforting reminder.

When we feel at our best, we immerse ourselves in the activities that make us feel good. We are on top of the world. This mightx mean cooking our favorite dish, entertaining friends, going for a bike ride, or sketching in our notebook.

When we feel down, it can feel like the world is crumbling around us. We turn to our vices. We feel bad for ourselves and think we deserve this. This might mean drinking a couple of bottles of wine, binge-watching TV into the wee hours of the morning, or eating poorly.

The truth is that if we are feeling down, our vices are the last place to turn. While we may feel some initial satisfaction, they will only bring us down, likely leaving us in a more troubled state than where we started. Our health declines, we start feeling bad about ourselves, and soon, we regret our decisions. Why not focus on the activities that make us feel good? In these low moments, I think we face two challenges: motivation to take the first step and clarity on what that step is.

While I haven't yet read Matthew McConaughey's new book Greenlights, he talks about journaling as a pathway for happiness in interviews promoting it. He believes we spend too much time analyzing our failures and neglect to understand what life looks like when we are happiest. Through journaling, McConaughey can go back in time to peel back the layers of the happiest moments in his life. How was he using his time? What was his mindset? Equipped with these insights, he can use them to get back on track.

This outlook is inspiring. I have applied it to my own life by taking stock of what a baseline of happiness looks like for me each week. What activities make me feel like I am moving ahead? What do I need to do to go to bed each night feeling accomplished? The answers to these questions are the foundation for my habits.

No matter what is happening around me, good or bad, I make it my duty to maintain these healthy habits. When I feel on top of the world, they bring me added joy. When I am feeling down, they give me fuel to push ahead.

To take this a step further, I have also applied it to the way my team operates. I believe that every team has a collective energy that can be maintained with their own set of healthy habits or rituals. Over the years, I have created of number of them. Some have evolved, others remain the same. Regardless of how busy we are or how hectic the week feels, we stick to what energizes us. Some examples:

  • Daily Stand Up
  • Creative Juice (inspiration share)
  • One Minute Wednesdays
  • Weekly Discipline Meeting
  • Monthly Design Dialogue (leadership workshop with my direct reports)

We have a motto among the Barrel partners: no good days, no bad days, just days. Prioritizing healthy habits has helped bring some truth to this motto every day, at home and at work.

If an employee comes to me with feedback about another employee, we first unpack it together. We then discuss how to address it directly with the other person. There was a time when I would act as a middleman, taking the feedback to the person or their manager. While this approach may feel like progress at the time, it rarely leads to long-term growth.

The employees need to find common ground on their own. A candid feedback conversation is a start to doing just that. It is an opportunity to get everything out in the air. Both sides can dig deeper, understanding each other's context to improve future collaboration.

In some situations, I will mediate the conversation. I offer to do this if the feedback is particularly challenging, or I sense that there is some level of discomfort between the employees (rarely work together, junior <> director relationship). With trust from both sides, a third-party can be powerful in addressing the elephant in the room and making sure that all truths are brought to the surface. 

Understanding Feedback

When an outcome does not meet our expectations, it is not uncommon to generalize what went wrong, blending feedback on people with feedback on the process.

I like to look at feedback as a deck of cards. As the giver of feedback, we are the dealer. It is our job to address our feedback deck one card at a time, sorthing them out on the table.

  • Card 1: Is this feedback on the performance of an employee?
  • Card 2: Is this feedback the result of a past decision?
  • Card 3: Is this feedback on the presentation?
  • Card 4: Is this feedback for me? Could I have done a better job providing direction?

By unloading the deck, we can get to the core of what went wrong and better understand how to address each of our cards. With all the cards arranged on the table, the next step is to deal them, to deliver the feedback to the right people.

Finding Clarity

In tense situations, we often make the mistake of dealing all of our feedback cards to one person. When we do so, that person may come off as defensive. From our perspective, it feels like they're not listening to what we have to say or making excuses.

Maybe this person is not good at taking feedback, but maybe it's on us. We haven't sorted through the deck before dealing out the cards.

This exercise helps bring calm to what can feel like chaos. It creates clarity. Without it, we risk our feedback getting lost on the receiver, overshadowed by cards that weren't meant for them.

Ad·vice: guidance or recommendations offered with regard to prudent future action.

Some people ask for advice because they think they're supposed to.

Some people don't ask for advice because they don't think they can.

Some people ask for advice without ever planning to take it.

Some people need advice but are afraid to ask.

Some people need advice but don’t know where to go.

Some people get advice they don’t need.

Some people don’t think they have advice to give so they stay quiet.

Some people have advice to give but are afraid to give it.

Some people have advice to give but no one to give it to.

Some people take advice they shouldn’t take.

Some people are afraid of the advice they know they should take.

Some people interpret information as advice.

Some people interpret advice as information.

We all know some people.

We're all some people at some point.

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Note: I wrote this after a conversation with a friend who told me about a workshop they attended. The purpose of the workshop was to share and learn from the experiences of like-minded individuals. One attendee seemed to come with no intention of taking advice, dismissing any feedback from their peers. Why were they there?

With every passing year, I see my relationships with friends and family evolve. We're all dealing with different challenges. Love. Finance. Career. Etc. Life will always have its ups and downs. I wish we were more forward with asking for and offering advice. Sometimes, I think pride gets in the way. I know, in the past, it has for me. In these situations, pride will not get us very far. These days, I'm making more of a deliberate effort to break down these walls and be mindful not to put up my own.

Note-taking is known to improve writing skills, subject matter comprehension, and recall of core concepts.

Note-taking is beneficial when we read.

Note-taking is beneficial when we listen.

Note-taking is beneficial when we think.

While working in a group setting, it is key to take your own notes. It doesn't matter if the presenter will be sharing their deck or if there is a designated note-taker. We all process information differently. Thoughts are constantly racing through our heads. If we don't capture them, they are lost.

Shared notes is a recent initiative to build more of a culture around writing and note-taking at Barrel.

We centralize shared notes in Notion. We have a dashboard for the agency and every discipline. Each dashboard includes resources, references, and shared notes. Shared notes are written collaboratively or autonomously. Anyone can contribute through edits or comments.

Initially, shared notes was an effort among the partners to promote deeper thinking, share ideas, and make our "in-person" (aka Zoom) interactions more productive.

After moving the team to Notion, we started experimenting with shared notes beyond the partners. It has been just over a month and has already proven to be invaluable.

Here are some of the benefits we've experienced so far:

  • Aligning teams: When there is a single source of truth for an idea, it is much easier to get everyone on the same page.
  • Looking back on our decisions: Conversations no longer get lost in the abyss. Shared notes make it easy to reflect on past conversations and better understand how they've informed our current position.
  • Making ideas accessible: It can be hard to find the right time to share ideas that aren't a high priority. Shared notes are a valuable channel for sharing ideas asynchronously. They also help make ideas more accessible to the larger team.
  • Cutting through the noise: The challenge with chat tools like Slack is how quickly ideas can get lost as a conversation unfolds. Shared notes create a space to unpack topics easy future reference.
  • Creating space for deeper thinking: Shared notes have been helpful in our efforts to reduce the number of meetings. It's amazing how often a shared note can replace a meeting. If not, they provide a place to share information for pre-review, making discussions more productive.

If you're interested in giving shared notes a try, I've created a Notion template here to get started. Enjoy.

We have all heard some version of:

“Treat others the way you want to be treated.”

I don’t agree.

The phrase suggests that we act on our assumptions, making no effort to understand each other or gain a new perspective. This is not the way for kindness or collaboration.

I'd like to propose a rewrite:

“Treat others the way they want to be treated. Ask, listen, learn, understand.

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Related: BL&T No. 025: Practicing Vulnerability

Ray Lamontagne's songwriting has inspired me for years now. There's a specificity in every song that draws you in and leaves you searching for meaning.

Over the weekend, I was pleased to discover that Ray released a new album called Monovision last summer. This one is particularly special. Ray wrote, produced, and performed every song at his home studio. Moved by this new batch of songs, I went searching for more background and was surprised to find a rare interview with the notably low-profile songwriter.

Listening to Ray speak is as soothing as hearing him sing. In the interview, Ray likens his process to catching fireflies.

"I don't like to think about music all the time. I wait til it comes to me and asks for my attention. The other side of that is that when it does ask for your attention, you have to give it. I could be in the middle of the grocery store and a melody will come knocking ... [these melodies are] like fireflies, you see them for a second then they're gone. If you don't catch it, you won't give another chance."

When asked how Ray develops a song, he replies "I try to just get out of the way." He speaks as though the songs are in control, guiding him where to go.

As a songwriter, I cherish those moments where I sit down with a guitar and the words flow through me. Lately, as a writer, I find myself struggling to find my flow. I've had a hard time letting an idea come to life, too focused on writing and re-writing "to get it right."

Ray goes on to share his past struggles with songwriting, almost leaving it all behind years ago.

"In life in general, I was driving myself with a negative, self-critical voice. ... At a certain point, it became clear that it was not healthy. It was taking all the joy out of everything. It took me a couple of years to figure that out. No music, just being home trying to figure out what was going on. ... [It's the playfulness] that I was really quashing in the early years of songwriting. I would just crush any playfulness out of tunes because of my self-criticism."

Sometimes we look at our idols as gods. We forget that they, too, are human. I find comfort in Ray's story and a renewed energy to find the playfulness in my writing.

For more insight into Ray and his process, I highly recommend listening to the entire interview here. Also be sure to check out his new album "Monovision." Currently on repeat.

I curate a song, playlist, podcast, or... vibe for just about every moment of my life.

When I brush my teeth, go for a drive, step out for a walk, cook, exercise, play a board game, write... I always seek out the perfect soundtrack. Am I in the mood to relax? Am I in need of a lift? Am I in the mood to learn? Am I in the mood to think?

What I've noticed is that I'm not always aware of my mood. I've enjoyed using this as an opportunity to pause and acknowledge how I'm feeling.  If Dana is with me, I do my best to capture her vibe as well. It's a fun challenge.

I hadn't thought much about this tendency until I noticed how I've subconsciously applied it to reading.

For some time, I carried the belief that I could only read one book at a time. I don't know where I got this idea from... I guess I couldn't imagine following more than one storyline and enjoying it.

After buying a Kindle Paperwhite (big fan of the easy highlights and waterproof body) at the suggestion of my friend, Max, my view changed entirely. I purchased a few eBooks to get started, and suddenly, I was reading three at once.

What happened?

To make a better habit of reading, I started reading every morning for 30 minutes after waking up. Since the act of reading was non-negotiable, I found myself tapping into my mood. What story do I feel like getting into this morning? Am I in the mood to think about my role as a manager? Would I prefer to join a father and son for a ride on their motorcycle?

Looking back, I was reading less because if I wasn't in the mood to read the ONE book I had chosen, I wouldn't read. Now, I'm leveraging my DJ tendencies and loving every minute of it. Books are just another part of my soundtrack.

Today I ran our Monthly Team Meeting with the Barrel team. Each month, we use this meeting to share team changes, celebrate wins, discuss recent launches, and catch up on important announcements.

Since going remote, it's been a challenge to replicate the energy of being in-person but I've come to realize that's the wrong mindset. It's not about once was, it's about what can be.

With this mindset, I started experimenting with a few adjustments (read here for more insight on the driver of these changes). Today it paid off. Engagement was at all time high and the Zoom chat was on fire.

Below are some of the recent updates:

  • Moving from Google Slides to Pitch: From the Giphy / YouTube / Vimeo integration to the overall user experience, Pitch has helped amplify the interactivity and look of the deck.
  • Co-creation & delegation: Instead of one meeting host, sections are delegated across the team. For example, our Director of Business Development, Dan, leads the "BD Report" sharing new wins, clients in talks, and account activity. This has turned what used to be more like a keynote presentation into a festival of speakers. Not only is it nice to hear from different team members but it gives people an opportunity to present in front of the group.
  • Pre-recorded site walkthroughs & details: To showcase recent launches, team members used to scroll through the website and provide background. The transition between the deck and the browser was always distracting and the presentations were often inconsistent. Now, each launch has a slide in the deck with pre-recorded video walkthroughs. The slide also includes the project name, services, team, a fun fact, and platform. Much smoother and insightful.
  • Project kickoff highlights: This was a suggestion from a team member after our last meeting. The intent was to celebrate the projects kicking off each month. After doing it today, I realized that it actually addresses another topic that we've always struggled with: how teams are tackling similar challenges. In addition to celebrating the kickoff, this is a great way to talk about how each team is approaching the project and what new steps that might be trying out.
  • Barrel Trivia: Every presentation now ends with one trivia question about a client and another about the team. This has been a fun way to educate the team on Barrel history while making the meeting more interactive.
  • Background music: We recently had a guest speaker who had music on while people were entering the Zoom meeting. This reminded me of how I used to play music during weekly design meetings at the office. In today's meeting, I had music playing as everyone joined and kept it going the entire meeting. Not only did people dig the playlist but it was a nice touch during any quiet transitions. If you're looking for some upbeat background music, I highlight recommend Spotify's Lo-Fi Beats playlist.

Here's to getting 1% better every step of the way!

Powerful excerpt from a favorite, “Getting Things Done” by David Allen. Thanks to Peter for resurfacing it for me today.

"Often the only way to make a hard decision is to come back to the purpose of what you’re doing."

This concept been on my mind a lot lately. The past year has brought on a number of changes to the way we operate as a team. As we solicit feedback from the team, this is a good reminder to take a step back. It is easy to react and quickly implement changes that feel good in the moment but may not have the intended impact down the line.

I've recently found writing to help provide clarity. This means making the time to capture the purpose of every initiative in writing from the start. What do we hope to accomplish? Why are we doing it?

Later, when faced with feedback, the writing acts as a guide. Instead of acting impulsively, we can recalibrate and decide how to address next steps. Have we lost sight of our original purpose? Has that purpose changed? What will get us closer to where we want to go?