This is a place for thinking out loud, reflecting, and sharing ideas. Notes are a window into my process, thoughts, inspiration, and experiments. Explore visual gallery.
This is a place for thinking out loud, reflecting, and sharing ideas. Notes are a window into my process, thoughts, inspiration, and experiments. Explore visual gallery.
These days, I'm more involved in new business conversations with clients than I have been for a while. It's been fun to get back in action and work closely with Dan, our Director of Business Development.
After a call last week, I had a few observations to share with Dan that I thought might be helpful for him on future calls. While Dan and I have been through a lot together, I wasn't sure how to share this feedback without coming off the wrong way — despite them being short, specific points.
Upon further thought, I realized that Dan probably had observations that would be helpful for me. I've gotten feedback in the past, but it was often shared with his manager, our CEO Peter, and then shared with me. Sometimes, Dan and I would talk it through, but not always.
It was late Friday, so I decided to send Dan an email (and let him know ahead of time on Slack) with the notes. Here is an excerpt from my email:
It turns out that Dan did not only agree with my comments, but he had notes for me. He shared that he'd wanted to share them in the past but wasn't sure how to present them. All of Dan's notes were helpful for me to keep in mind for the future. After all, the best way to get feedback is from those who observe us. We can't always see what others can.
I'm excited to continue this practice with Dan and grateful for the feedback so far. I only wish I'd made this move sooner!
Progress on agency process enhancements can feel like an uphill battle when it seems like every moment of the day is consumed by client work and meetings.
We say, "if only there were more hours in the day." We work late. We try to shift the team's schedule to make time. It's taxing on ourselves and the team, but we keep trying anyway.
After going down a similar route one too many times, I've learned that having this kind of time is a luxury, and the chances are that if the core team has that much of it, the agency is likely on the wrong path.
So, what do we do? Never evolve our process?
There's a lot to gain through controlled experiments rather than trying to create time for the team to go into a corner and design the "perfect" process.
During my time leading the Design team, I used this approach to change our process several times. I'd take the time to get feedback from team members to identify the most critical opportunity for change. I'd point the team toward the vision and work with them on the next client project to give it a try. We'd take any learnings to our next client project and so on.
Sometimes, it only took us weeks to have a new, tested process that most folks understood and could now get documented for the rest of the team. Contrast that with months of trying to find time to "work on our process," only to come out on the other side with something that no one has experienced yet and may not deliver any value.
We're currently in the midst of many changes to how we work. I've been keeping this approach top of mind, taking our time to think through solutions but being bold about testing in the real world.
If I ever catch myself daydreaming about a world where all clients are happy and all projects are frictionless, I remind myself of the valuable lessons I've learned from client feedback and project setbacks. Call me crazy, but I'd rather grow through tough moments than become weak over time without any friction.
All that said, I'm happy to report that last week ended strong with a win on a project marked by a series of ups and downs. Without getting lost in the details, this project is a website for a new brand. Throughout the process, it has been easy to point at the client's growing team and evolving brand as reasons for delayed progress.
"Client feedback isn't consolidated."
"Client keeps changing their minds on requirements."
"Client is not aligned on the purpose of this website."
I commend the team on all we've done to support the client on these roadblocks. While we've made incremental progress, the design process has felt like climbing a mountain that grows steeper with every step.
About a month ago, I prompted a call with the client to get their take on our collaboration thus far. Though they acknowledged their internal challenges, it was clear that they were not yet happy with our work. I met with the team to discuss, and we came back with revised designs, but in the client's words, the list of feedback kept growing longer, not shorter.
A couple of weeks ago, a different stakeholder reached out to chat. I wasn't sure what to expect, so I mentally prepared for every scenario. On the call, the client asked if we'd be open to switching the designer on the project. I listened as they described the diminishing energy on client calls and the feeling that they were on the brink of trying to dictate the designs. The good news is that they believed in us and wanted to make it work.
I'll cut to the chase and say that we onboarded a new designer a week ago, scrapped the designs, and presented new concepts early last week. To quote the client, the designs "helped us to see how our brand can shine through, and they inspired us to see the possibilities of what we can build together."
While this project tale has a happy ending, I always find it helpful to take stock of the lessons. In this case, there's a bunch.
As a team, it's led to conversations about client communication, our design approach, and how to handle tough client and team conversations.
As for me, there are a few personal lessons I'll be taking with me.
In late February, we were in a difficult position and had to downsize the team to move the business forward. (Read Edition No. 077: Facing Tough Decisions) Over the last couple of months, we've received feedback about the team's perception of the layoffs, mostly in one-on-ones and through our Team Leads.
While we thought concerns were addressed in one-on-one conversations, the Team Leads recently shared that they felt there were still gaps worth addressing team-wide. A common theme was that the layoffs seemed sudden. There are aspects to these situations that will always come as a surprise to the team; however, the Partners and I were curious about what opportunities there might be to educate the team.
After chatting through the Team Lead's concerns, we agreed that outlining what led to the layoffs from a business perspective would be helpful. While we're transparent with the team about the agency's finances through quarterly updates, we hadn't explicitly connected the dots between the layoffs and our financial performance.
In our April Monthly Team Meeting on Thursday, we used a portion of our time to dig into what led to the layoffs through the numbers, showing how delayed projects, over-serviced accounts, and rising freelance costs are a recipe for disaster. It's always hard to tell how folks receive these conversations, but a few people shared appreciation as we closed out the meeting. I also sent out a feedback form today for any additional thoughts or questions.
Helping the team understand how our business operates continues to be important as we grow and evolve as an agency. Some folks may write off business concepts as unnecessary for those steeped in the day-to-day work; however, we believe it is valuable for everyone from the CEO to interns. Down the line, we hope that these efforts will help our team see how daily decisions can impact the agency's trajectory and growth.
We can't expect a single presentation to close the gaps, but it's a step in the right direction. I am eager to create more opportunities to discuss similar topics as a team down the line.
On Monday, I attended our Design Director Christine's first 2022 Upward Feedback session with her team: the Design team. We run this process twice per year. After a manager's direct reports submit feedback via Lattice, the manager runs a meeting to review the comments openly with the entire group. Since experimenting with this format last year (read: Conducting My First Upward Feedback Survey), these sessions have been a powerful tool for managers to capture feedback themes and identify opportunity areas for their performance.
One of the themes highlighted in Christine's session stood out to me. Her team shared that while she's great at creating space to provide feedback on the agency, they don't always feel in tune with company-wide initiatives and how or if their feedback has contributed.
This feedback got me thinking about my time leading the design team before Christine took over. As Creative Director and Partner, I would naturally share updates (from my conversations with the other partners) with Christine and the Design team. It didn't matter if these updates were ideas or future decisions; I would give everyone a heads up on whatever seemed important enough. Looking back, this channel of communication helped keep designers in the know.
While Christine's Upward Feedback session surfaced the topic, I take it as valuable for all the Team Leads and a good reminder for me as Chief Experience Officer, now managing the Team Leads of our executing teams. As a Partner team, we often focus on writing team-wide memos and touching upon updates in team-wide meetings. I still believe these are important, but I see an opportunity to mentor our Team Leads on their communication, closing the gap between conversations with leadership and conversations they have with their teams.
The Team Leads are the glue between the Partner and the executing teams. It is up to us to share a vision and invite them to take part in shaping where the agency is going, but it can't stop there. While the Partners may interface with the executing team, the Team Leads are the guide. Helping them communicate agency progress and vision will be critical for us to work as one, or as we say, one Barrel.
It's hard to believe it's only been six months since we created the Executive Sponsor role on accounts. In my October 2021 note, I described the role like this: "[Executive Sponsors] are a designated Barrel representative to periodically facilitate one-on-one conversations with the client's key stakeholder, typically C-Suite. In some ways, the Executive Sponsor can act as a third-party participant, offering a unique perspective without being caught in the details of the day-to-day. They are there to listen and offer up ideas on how to strengthen collaboration."
Establishing Executive Sponsors took some time, but at this point, it's hard to imagine our work without them. There are plenty of opportunities to evolve the role; however, I've been happy to hear positive feedback from the team and clients alike. Both sides share the same sentiment: it is helpful for someone to take the time to pull out of the work and look at the collaboration as a whole.
As an Executive Sponsor myself, one of the aspects I've valued most is getting real-time feedback from an array of clients. Rather than guessing what we can do to improve, I've enjoyed jumping into conversations head-first and asking the tough questions. From there, I've been to identify themes across clients and work with the team to make changes that can create a real impact. Many of these are currently in motion.
After weeks like last week, I'm especially grateful that we recognized the need for this new channel with clients. Unfortunately, one of our clients has been unhappy with a piece of our work, but luckily, they reached out to me, and we now have the chance to work through it. In another case, a client shared some of the challenges they're facing and ideas on how we can help them succeed.
Last year, we shifted our entire team to Asana, consolidating SmartSheets, Basecamp, and other tools. We saw the move as a way to streamline collaboration and create efficiency. While Asana has proven to be an effective tool for the team, there have been challenges in how we collaborate with clients. Some will say they understand it but then ask for information that already lives in Asana (deadlines, links, etc.). Others are allergic to even signing in.
In re-envisioning our ways of working, including how we use Asana, I keep coming back to the idea of a project plan. What does a client need to know? What do they care about most?
I remember the buzz when Domino's first introduced the pizza tracker in their app. Customers loved knowing the progress of their order and when it would be ready. As an agency, I don't see our client's needs that much differently. They want to know where their project stands at every step, when to get involved, and when it will be ready to launch.
When I look at our process today, we're expecting the client to follow along with the recipe, not track the status of their order.
I'm excited for the most recent developments on process changes. Overall, I see a huge opportunity to simplify, narrow our client's view, and deliver on what's important.
Since merging the Project Management and Client Services teams, there have been questions about how we're differentiating the Account Director, Account Manages, and Project Manager roles.
While I have ideas of how these roles can function, I worried that swooping in with a solution would be disruptive, and I may not be solving the real issues.
I've been very forward about my perspective with the team. I wasn't sure exactly what steps to take, but I felt that focusing on projects first was the right place to start. In essence, rather than making a team-wide change that impacts every project, I aimed to find success on every project, identify the common themes, and then crystalize a team-wide structure.
After several one-on-one discussions with the team, I decided to start facilitating 30-minute workshops to review roles and responsibilities with the Account Leads and PMs on their projects, one at a time. The first two workshops took place last week.
In the workshop, I started by creating a column for each role in FigJam. In the first session, I asked: In one or two sentences, describe what your main value-add is on this project? The answer proved difficult, so we moved on. As we listed each person's desired activities, I invited them to forget what they knew and share how they'd ideally like to be involved. Within 15 minutes, we had a solid list, uncovering opportunities for each person to collaborate in new ways.
At the end, I returned to my earlier question, and now, the answer came more naturally. Together, we synthesized each role in one sentence. I thought this piece would be a good way to give each person a clean statement to lean on for clarity if anything out of the ordinary popped up down the line.
I'm only two sessions in, but the feedback has been positive. One of the attendees even asked to set up a workshop for another project. I'm excited to continue these sessions with Kate, our Director of Client Services, for another couple of weeks before locking in a clear structure for the team.
About a week ago, our Design Director asked me for input on where I see their role end and begin. Over the past year, their involvement on the team has evolved with our growth as an agency. Without a job description, there are times when they feel unsure where to focus and pulled in different directions.
Our Design Director has been with us for years now, initially joining us as a Designer. It's interesting what happens when an employee grows along with the agency. As new roles are unlocked, current roles evolve. That often means distributing responsibilities and sharpening the scope of each role. That was the situation here. We both understood how the Design Director role fit in but hadn't zoomed out to articulate that and align on it.
Initially, I tried writing a formal job description, but it felt cold and detached for someone I've worked with for so long. I thought back to my motorcycle training course where we were asked to take a pledge after each lesson. Committing to the lesson learned hit much harder than a simple review. I wondered how this could apply to job descriptions.
Instead of "Oversee the team's work assignments. Your goal is to create an environment for your team to do their best work and drive results for our clients," I wrote:
This hit differently and once I got going, the rest of the list nearly created itself. On Friday, our Design Director and I reviewed the list. I asked them to read each statement aloud, ask questions, and give feedback. They commented on the feeling of ownership as we analyzed every word.
In the end, I am so glad this conversation took place. Our Design Director and I talk daily. If they hadn't brought this up, I would have continued helping them manage priorities and day-to-day experiences without seeing the big picture. This experience was a good reminder to create space to zoom out and make sure not to miss the forest for the trees.
I look forward to seeing how this approach might roll might fit in more places across the agency, likely starting with our Team Leads.
Funny story: I was deleting photos on my phone this weekend to create space and came across handwritten notes mapping out the future of the Design team (4 or so years ago) before the Design Director role existed.
Very cool to see where we are now and how closely this tracks with what I shared on Friday! I'm not sure why I never digitized this or made it a thing? Who knows, but I'll take it as a sign from the Universe that we're headed in a good direction.
Imagine seeking out a contractor to do work at your house. You're a new homeowner, so you have no idea what this work should cost.
You reach out to five contractors, chat with four of them, and receive three nice-looking proposals. One is way more than you can afford, one is skeptically low, and the other seems reasonable. You have all kinds of questions, wondering how they arrived at their estimates and why there's such a discrepancy.
The fourth contractor asks if they can come by your house to see the space and discuss the work in more detail before sending a proposal. They visit and ask you several questions, some you hadn't even considered. You learn a lot.
Before they leave, they share a few approaches, and you align on one that feels right, along with a timeline and budget range. The budget is higher than you hoped, but you feel informed and excited.
You review the other three proposals while waiting for the fourth in writing. Who will you choose?
I've enjoyed experimenting with the fourth contractor's approach in recent new business calls with our Director of Business Development, Dan. There's something freeing about this approach.
Many prospective clients are looking to get started "yesterday," so time is of the essence. While an extra phone call or two might make the process look slow on paper, I find that having an honest, open conversation upfront can save time down the line and maybe even increase your chances of winning the work.
There's a benefit to a formal, designed proposal, but I'm more interested in the timing than the artifact.
Three contractors thought they knew enough about the job to propose an approach after the first call, leaning on their reputation and a detailed estimate. The fourth contractor slowed down the process and got curious about the work with a visit, understanding there are nuances to every job. They used this as an opportunity to get to know you and the work more closely. Through the process, they educated you and co-created an approach.
It can feel uncomfortable to throw out potential project approaches on a call and start talking about the budget. However, this openness and willingness to collaborate can encourage the same from the client. Sometimes, this is the client's first time doing the work. They don't know what they don't know. By brainstorming together, you can dig into what they're really trying to accomplish, what they can spend, and where you can add value.
In the end, it's impossible to know whether or not you're going to win a new deal, even when you hit it off with the prospective client. So, I find it rewarding to continue trying new tactics. If the client chooses to go with another agency, but we helped them realize what they need, I still consider it a win in some sense. We made a good impression, helped them find the path forward, and gained a new contact to stay in touch with down the line.
Last week, we tried a new exercise called Growth Moments in Barrel Management Forum, a bi-weekly space for all managers to pull out of the day-to-day and connect on management-related topics.
I've noticed that many of my one-on-ones with managers cover topics and insights that would be helpful to the larger group. Growth Moments is an attempt to bridge the gap and create an opportunity for us to dig into shared experiences and learn together.
Inspired by an activity from the book An Everyone Culture called a **fishbowl (excerpt below), once a month, one of the managers take center stage and share:
Once they share the context, I kick off the conversation, and we dig in together. I was unsure how this would go, but I was excited to give it a try last week. It's been in the back of my mind since reading the book.
I loved seeing everyone engaged and supportive. Meetings are 30 minutes, which has proven to be the perfect amount of time to keep the energy up from start to finish with these sorts of conversations. We left the meeting with new insights on structuring one-on-ones and building trust with our direct reports.
Several years ago, my good friend Kyle introduced me to a friend of his brother Eric, Joe. Years later, Joe moved in with Kyle down the street when I lived in Brooklyn. During that time, I enjoyed getting to know Joe.
Joe and I share a love for music and a desire to spend time exploring ideas. It took me time to learn the latter, though. You wouldn't know it when you meet Joe, but he quietly works on all kinds of side projects in his downtime. I admire his passion and curiosity.
Last year, Joe asked me to contribute to his latest project, an online mixtape club called Green Bananas. I was pumped but admittedly a bit nervous — I hadn't curated a mixtape since the age of Winamp media players, LimeWire, and stacks of blank CDs.
It took me a while (read: months) to decide on a theme, but with winter in full swing, I noticed I was spending more time than usual curating music to set the right tone with the highs and lows of the season, often returning to songs I hadn't listened to in years.
My playlist, entitled "Den," hit Green Bananas last week. You can check it out here. Den is an eclectic collection of 15 songs that capture the essence of my Winter experience.
I had a lot of fun working with Joe over email and even more fun taking the time to find the right cadence of tracks. The experience brought me back to curating setlists when I was performing regularly.
Joe probably has no idea how grateful I am for this simple ask. It's brought me closer to music, while subconsciously, I think it also inspired me to start featuring tracks in this newsletter.
Thanks for the opportunity, Joe.
Late last week, I had a flashback to my morning routine just over a year ago. I'd wake up then lay in bed for a few more minutes. Then, I'd look at my phone, probably check my email or look at social media, opening the flood gates to everything I'd rested from. In seconds, my dialogue with the world would begin again.
Looking back, I see that I was missing out on the most critical dialogue — the one with me. The opportunity to reflect on and understand my experiences, relationships, and ambitions more deeply.
Over a year ago, I got into a good pattern of waking up, reading for 30 minutes, and writing in my journal. I also implemented what I call social fasting where I cut off social media from 9 am to 8 pm. Admittedly, my routine took a turn when we moved to PA, but I eventually got back on track.
This time in the morning has become a game-changer for me. There's something special about welcoming the day on my terms. We all wake up with thoughts on our minds, but they're ours, not triggered by the outside world. We're in control.
Some mornings, I read first. Other times, I journal first. When I wake up with a thought on a pressing issue, capturing it immediately can often lead me to a new place. Reading has a similar effect. Opening a book when my mind is most clear can spark fresh ideas or a different outlook on current life events.
With another action-packed week at work, I've been grateful that I've created this space for myself to re-energize and welcome the day. It's been a powerful way to live proactively, manage curveballs, and make progress on non-urgent initiatives when everything else is vying for my attention.
In March of last year, I designed a new activity for our Monthly Team Meetings called 3-2-1 Growth. The objective was to engage the team in personal growth topics regularly. More on the origin here if you're interested.
Since then, I've tried several different activities and experimented with a variety of topics. This week marked another new iteration in format and timing. Rather than a 10-15 minute exercise at the end of Monthly Team Meeting, it is now the focus of the last Tuesday Meetup of the month, a 30-minute weekly meeting for the team to come together.
Instead of focusing on a topic, I thought it would be fun to frame the exercise around a relatable situation. Rather than ask "how do you handle client requests that are out of scope," I led with this:
The Situation: We're excited to present our design concepts to a new client after receiving sign-off on wireframes. When we get on Zoom, we're surprised to see the CEO since they've never been in a meeting before. After we present, the CEO thanks us for the work before asking if we can add a "Subscribe" button to the PDP and allow customers to customize their subscription. This is the first time we're hearing about subscriptions...
Once everyone had a chance to digest the situation. We went into breakout rooms and talked through this prompt:
Prompt: What thoughts are going through your head? How do we respond to the CEO? What happens next?
With 10 minutes left, we all came back and talked through our key insights. I was pleasantly surprised by how engaged everyone was, sharing tons of ideas for managing the situation. In my interactions for the rest of the week, it was also cool to see team members taking action on what they had learned or hear them talking about similar topics.
I did receive some good feedback, though. A team member asked me what we do with these insights, expecting that there were next actions everyone could take. When I get a question like this, I like to assume that at least a few other folks are thinking the same thing and there's an opportunity to better articulate to the larger group. I plan to do that in the next session.
For now, I explained that the intent is not for these meetings to directly change or impact the process in a matter of days. They're an opportunity for the team to think and reflect together. If we can all leave these sessions more aligned and 1% better than when we entered, I consider it a success.
The more we do it, 1% becomes 2%, 2% becomes 3%, and so on. Before you know it, we're all that much further along.
One of my favorite concepts from Dana and I's puppy training research is how dogs pick up on our energy.
When we're concerned or frustrated, they mirror us, and we create the situation that we're trying to avoid. For example, when the puppy is excited and you use a loud voice to try asserting power, the puppy gets more energetic. It picks up on your heightened energy and matches it. Instead, if you remain calm and still, it will eventually settle. Cesar Millan, a famous and fairly controversial dog trainer, uses the term "calm confidence" to refer to this energy.
I appreciate the sense of ownership this concept inspires, not pointing at the dog critiquing its behavior, but looking at ourselves and what we can do to create change. It is a metaphor for so many things in life; however, it hit home for me recently as related to meeting engagement.
There are meetings during a stressful project or centered on an uncomfortable topic (like 3-2-1 Growth) where I'm inclined to enter the conversation assuming the worst, aka low-to-no engagement or tension. Taking a deep breath and leading the meeting with the energy I want to create while expecting the best has proven to pay off.
Dog or human, my gut tells me there's a lot to learn when we realize we're all mirrors.
I remember applying to a designer role at Barrel almost nine years ago. Of course, I was excited about the work and what seemed like a tight-knit team, but the ping pong table, happy hours, exposed brick office walls, beer on tap, and dog-friendly vibe screamed "cool." If you asked me what culture meant back then, I would have mentioned those perks.
As my role has evolved over the years, Barrel has, too. We've created new positions and introduced services. We've sunsetted some of those same positions and services. When the ping pong table started collecting dust, we used the space for a content studio. We expanded our office, and under a year later, we started working from our beds and kitchen tables.
At this point, Barrel is a team distributed all over the world. Day in and day out, I work closely with co-workers who have no idea if I'm 6' 5" or 5' 6" (spoiler: I'm just under 5'8"). While I can't wait to get our team in one room, company culture is about more than perks and evening drinks.
An employee recently shared feedback that they see an opportunity to boost morale and strengthen connections with their co-workers. When I first heard this, my mind wandered to visions of Barrel circa 2013 - ping pong lunch breaks and karaoke happy hours, trying to brainstorm what else we can do beyond half-day Fridays, game nights, and team workshops. We'll likely have an off-site sometime this year, but will that really make this person feel better long-term?
The reality is that perks and events may create deeper connections, but what carries the most weight? The work. An agency's company culture centers around the work. That's why we're all together in the first place — to deliver work we're proud of that drives results for our clients. When we can't achieve this and do it with a smile, that's a sign that the "culture" might need a boost.
In my essay "Conducting My First Upward Feedback Survey," I defined company culture as:
If I view our company culture through this lens, I couldn't agree more with the employee's feedback — there are clear opportunities to improve how we work. Right now, the blockers and communication gaps are making collaboration tough, and in the end, camaraderie suffers.
I'm not discounting the power of getting to know your co-workers through non-work activities. However, if we're feeling strained, uninspired, or unable to be effective at our jobs — happy hours, perks, and ping pong are not the solution.
I've enjoyed getting into the day-to-day projects over the last several months and am excited to continue working alongside the team to improve the way we collaborate. It's inspiring to see the team rallying around innovation and experimentation. In many ways, I think the challenges we're working through together now will make us that much stronger down the line.
With all of that said, I think it's important to remind the team that we're not performing heart surgery. Creating space to laugh together, take a deep breath, and sometimes, just hang out and talk can go a long way.
Speaking of my early days at Barrel, a developer who taught me a ton about development when I started is re-joined us today as Director of Technology. It's awesome to have Scott back at Barrel.
Several years ago, we developed a robust e-commerce audit offering. It is a lower bar to entry for clients who can't afford a website redesign and a great option for clients only looking to improve upon their current website. In the audit, we dig into website performance, UX, and tech, share our findings, and develop a roadmap to make optimizations and improve conversion.
What I find fascinating about a website audit project is the problem-solution mentality. We do our best to understand the client's business to be able to identify the website's issues and come out with actionable insights. Lately, I've been interested in the contrast of this approach alongside our process for website redesigns.
When working on a website redesign, the client's sentiment is often different than an audit. They're not concerned with fixing, so there's less focus on challenges and more focus on reinvention. "Our website doesn't represent our brand, don't look at it." We have to be careful of blindly throwing everything out. What works today? What doesn't? How will the new website tackle these challenges and bring added value?
I'm eager to experiment with different ways of bringing the spirit of website audits to website redesigns. I don't ever expect these two types of projects to be the same; however, I think there's a lot to be gained by anchoring ourselves on the same mindset.
When you think about the hierarchy within an agency, your mind probably goes right to titles and roles on a team. I know mine does or well... did. While team structure is critical, agency employees spend most of their time working on projects with co-workers from several other teams. When you look at it this way, one might argue that the structure of a project team should take precedence.
Several months ago, I started mapping out "org charts" for project teams but decided to de-prioritize it in favor of other initiatives. However, in light of our recent restructuring, it might be more important than I thought.
When you view project teams like mini-agencies, you start asking questions like:
As tempting as it is to answer these questions and roll them out among the team, my gut tells me that it will be more effective in the long run to work with the team to discover them.
I'm sharing this idea because it was top of mind as last week came to a close. Right now, I notice a narrative forming on our team: the development process feels like a "black box," meaning we finish design milestones and then enter a cloud-like abyss, hoping we come out on the other side with an effective end product.
Sometime in 2019, I worked with the team to document and re-name many of our design milestones to get more alignment on the team. While many of the activities remained the same, it was amazing to see how far a new naming approach and onboarding deck went.
Like the predictable cadence of the design process, I'm curious how we can better brand and outline the development process for our team and clients alike. While it may feel like a black box, it's not. There are a series of activities and milestones we do every time. However, many of these activities aren't client-facing until they're at a level of polish worth sharing.
But, why wait? What would it look like to deliver something every week or two? What might get a client just as excited as sharing wireframes or two unique design concepts?
One of our recent initiatives is rolling out more stringent hours reporting across our retainer contracts. The goal is to make sure the client understands where their time is going, and we can get ahead of potential overages. However, hours reporting doesn't matter if we don't set the right expectations on hours from the start.
When we're working with clients who have a lot going on, it can feel like we're constantly getting hit with last-minute requests. Under the pressure of time, we rush to get it done. If this results in overages or delays on other tasks, the conversation with the client is not easy because it's after the fact.
As we continue to introduce hours reporting, there's an opportunity to better align with clients on their initiatives each month. We're currently experimenting with Asana to get that alignment, but we're open to seeing what format works best for clients.
No matter the tool, imagine a 50-hour retainer planned like this: 10 hours for product page updates, 20 hours for landing page, 15 hours for email designs, 5 hours for content population. Maybe I'm optimistic, but if the client knows this plan, I believe we can minimize last-minute, urgent requests. Clients won't blindly ask for something new without acknowledging how it will fit and how priorities need to change.
One of the challenges we see on accounts is the time it can take to get back to a client on a request, especially when it is technical. There are different reasons for the delays, but a common one is how long it takes to estimate work.
Here is an example interaction with a client, along with the inner dialogue of the team.
A client recently told me how often she and her team throw out ideas during our meetings. They do it to brainstorm, and when ideas seem worthy, they're curious to understand what's possible. In her words, "a gift message option seems cool, but not if it costs $10k."
When the above dialogue happens, it takes us days (hopefully not weeks) to come back with the $10k price tag. The client may decide to move forward or put it on hold. Sometimes, the client feels frustrated because they thought the work was in scope, having discussed it in a meeting. If I'm not closely involved in the work, this is where I end up getting involved.
Last week, this scenario came up. After chatting with the team, I realized that we're not estimating the work to figure out if it is in scope. We're estimating to get to an accurate number. However, from the start, the team knows whether the request is in scope and roughly what the effort may be. This is where the "gut check" comes in.
Rather than jump to estimation, there's an opportunity to dig deeper to understand the context of every request. Is it an idea or a business need? From there, we can use our gut to anchor the client if the request still makes sense.
In this exchange, the team and client know exactly where each other stands. By getting curious, the team understands the background of the request, so the scope discussion is that much easier. The team may not know the full effort needed to complete the task, but anchoring the client helps them align on what's important and what next steps make sense.
What started as a joke early in the week became a phrase I rallied the team around. Act Natural. Too often, we get caught up in our heads, worrying about how a client will react to a conversation or a co-worker to feedback. We enter the interaction full of anxiety. We stumble over our words, and in the end, we create the reality we hoped to avoid.
There were moments last week when I saw myself heading down this path. But it wasn't until I saw others in the same boat that I recognized the pattern. "Act natural" was a fun catchphrase to say lead with confidence, enter situations with poise. Offer recommendations, not options.
In one instance, we discovered that a client needed to upgrade one of their accounts to launch the work we completed for them. Without understanding all of the features yet, we didn't know this at project onset. The team was concerned that the client would be unhappy with the price of upgrading and started concocting a Plan B, which required compensating hours and rebuilding the work. In the end, we held off on sharing Plan B; instead, we recommended the upgrade and explained the long-term benefits. The client was understanding and agreed with our recommendation.
I look back on this situation and can't help but cringe when I think of what might have happened if we ran with our Plan A/B approach. We'd take responsibility for an issue that wasn't an issue. Not to mention, we would have overwhelmed the client with options. Sometimes, it's easy to forget that clients hire us to be their guide. We mean well when we give options, but options put the onus on the client. They often want to say yes or no and move on.
I'm not suggesting that we should not have a backup plan if a situation goes awry. However, there's a difference between having a backup plan and entering situations expecting the worst. Act natural. Remember that everything happening is happening. Act with current facts, not where we once were, to provide a path forward and shape the desired future.
This section title is probably no surprise for anyone who has been following my newsletter for a while. In a world of text messaging, Slack, and social DMs, I find the casual nature of everyday communication to be often more challenging than it is helpful, especially in a team setting.
There's no distinction between urgent and non-urgent messages. Important decisions get lost in threads and conversations that look more like a CVS receipt. In the end, people lose focus, consumed by a never-ending Slack exchange that goes nowhere. While at the same time, mission-critical questions get missed. They jump on Zoom to sort it out, and suddenly, the workday is over.
What I love about email is how it promotes slowing down and thinking.
But you don't.
You prepare what you want to say. You consider how you want your recipient to feel when reading it. You aim to strike the right tone. You try to deliver a clear message. You write, you re-write. Sometimes, you ask someone for a second opinion.
Getting involved in all kinds of moving parts on projects last week, I took to email to keep the team aligned and on track. I realized I'd been promoting the power of email among the team, noting how it would become contagious when people saw its power. It was time to practice what I preached.
After every meeting, I forced myself to write a follow-up within 1-2 hours, documenting key topics and decisions. I also captured follow-ups and delegated the next steps with deadlines. Sometimes these emails were long, but they were clear. They could also act as a reference for any future decisions or questions.
Throughout the week, key project team members who couldn't attend some meetings I was leading shared how helpful these emails were in keeping them aligned. In one case, a team member did research to prepare for our next meeting without talking to the team, not on Slack, not on Zoom, not even on email. By the end of the week, it was great to see others taking a similar approach, documenting decisions, and moving other follow-ups to email.
I ended up closing out the day at 9:45 pm on Wednesday. Writing an email was the last thing I felt like doing, but the alternative looked more painful. I knew that if I didn't take the time to capture my thoughts, the team would be ill-equipped to keep going. They'd end up reaching out on Slack, and if I didn't catch myself, my recap and follow-ups would end up spread across DMs. We may even get stuck in a back and forth for another hour!
Sending an email may seem simple, but it takes effort, and the lure of a sloppy, quick message on Slack is real. But once you get in the groove, the effort upfront is a game-changer, not only saving you time but everyone else time down the line.
It's been about five months since our move to Pennsylvania, and finally, we have a bed. No more sleeping on a mattress on the floor! The short story is that we found a bed we loved, but it arrived damaged. Twice. So, we gave up and looked elsewhere. We finally found a different bed, and it got delivered last Tuesday. We couldn't be happier. So, why am I sharing this? Let me explain.
When the delivery showed up, I asked if the guys would wait for me to unpack the items before they left. I didn't want to get stuck with a damaged bed for weeks again or make them come back.
Before I knew it, the delivery guys were unpacking the bed in the driveway, bringing in each piece one by one. It seemed like this might have been a common practice, but I couldn't help feeling like I was making things complicated.
As they left, I wondered, when else have I approached situations with the baggage of past negative experiences? Different bed. Different brand. Different delivery company. Yet, I didn't feel comfortable taking my chances with them.
The whole situation reminded me of a client who seems to question every suggestion we make. Or a stakeholder's request to print out websites designs and mail them to their office (true story). To us, these situations may seem odd, annoying, or crazy, but there's always more to the story.
In this case, I offered up my context, sharing why I made the original request and how much I appreciated their help. I didn't want the delivery guys feeling confused and thinking, what is up? Unfortunately, not everyone offers this context openly. Sometimes, we have to dig.
Once we do, we find the questioning client got burned by a past agency. Why are we sending websites in the mail? The client likes to be hands-on and finds it easier to give written feedback (and send pictures of mockups cut up and pasted back together).
I find there's freedom in this understanding. It helps us stay focused on the work, free of judgment, and opens the doors to new ways to create value. Maybe it's inviting the nervous client into a workshop where they can feel more involved or showing the print-loving client how to annotate on the web. These small actions can go a long way and set us on the path to a long, fruitful collaboration.
There's a saying among motorcyclists that goes something along the lines of "the bike goes where you look." It's a phenomenon that I wasn't on board with until I experienced it firsthand while learning to swerve. Luckily, I was going 10 mph in a parking lot.
When you're on the bike, making a turn, or just riding along, the path you follow will be the one you're looking down. On a beautiful day without many vehicles on the road, this concept may seem pretty straightforward and easy to master. However, the windier the road or more vehicles around you, the more surprises to encounter, the harder it gets.
Let's say a deer walks out in front of you, or you make a sharp turn and notice a giant tree close to the road. Often, in these moments of panic, our instinct is to look at the obstruction while we contemplate how to react to it. When this happens, our hands unconsciously steer the bike in the direction we're looking, and well, you can assume the rest. I don't have any scientific explanation to share but trust me — you go where you look.
Whether or not I'm riding a motorcycle, I've caught myself fixating on roadblocks, not the way forward. While it is helpful to get clear on the challenge, letting it dominate our focus gets us nowhere. When everything is calm and going our way, there's no way to look but ahead. Then, our plan doesn't work out, a client expresses concern with our work, or an employee is underperforming. In these moments, it's all about where we look. As a leader, I've learned the power of keeping myself and others centered on where we want to go, not what's getting in the way.
I recently had a conversation with a manager on my team about one of their employee's performance. The manager was in the process of writing this person's semi-annual review. They shared some concern that elements of the feedback were the same as the last two reviews. Here was an otherwise stellar employee who could not shake this one piece of feedback.
As the manager told me more about how past conversations about this feedback had gone, it became clear that the manager had become fixated on the deer, not the way around it. Rather than help the employee see what they were capable of, they continually reiterated what was getting in the way. This fixation created anxiety for the employee, constantly caught up on the roadblock, not seeing where they wanted to go. I worried that, at some point, this would become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and we'd lose a great talent.
The manager and I left our discussion with a commitment to change. Rather than attempting new ways to give the same feedback, they would align with the employee on their desired future. As the manager, this approach helped them be a better guide. As the employee, it showed them what was possible. They could breathe and focus on doing their best work, not trying to solve a problem.
"You go where you look" has become a bit of a mantra for me — on the bike, in my work, and in life. It's a pleasant reminder that there's always a brighter path ahead, it's just up to me to see it.
Since I started riding a motorcycle, the most popular comment among friends and family is: "I'm not worried about you; it's everyone else on the road." I remember hearing the same when I was learning to drive a car. Had I not gone through the motorcycle training course, I may have shared this sentiment. Now, it feels like a hopeless outlook.
I get it, though. It's another way of saying, "I trust your ability, but not the million other drivers out there." But at the same time, it suggests that I am the victim of my surroundings, and if something goes wrong, there's always someone else to blame.
I prefer to adopt a different perspective: I am in control. No matter what comes my way, the outcome will come down to what I did or didn't do.
When I flick the starter on my bike, I'm encouraged by this mindset. It invites me to do everything in my power to ensure a safe ride. Taking this level of ownership also provides an opportunity to learn and improve, rather than blaming conditions that are "out of my control" and repeating the same unwanted outcomes. It's the difference between blaming the driver ahead of me for stopping abruptly and admitting that I was following too closely behind. The former teaches me nothing. When it comes to leadership, I believe in the same approach.
Leadership means taking ownership over your decisions and actions, and as a manager, those of your team.
The other night, I took my wife, Dana, to try a local restaurant to celebrate her birthday. We ended up chatting with the rmaître d' who was filling four or five roles at once due to being short-staffed. He and just three other employees were serving 100-some guests on their own. He mentioned that they have had a tough time finding experienced help and went on to tell us a funny anecdote about a young kid they recently hired. Let's call him Sam.
On Sam's first day, the maître d' asked him to go around the restaurant with a pitcher of water. So, that's just what Sam did. No, not filling any cups — simply walking around with the pitcher.
It's no surprise that the maître d' was frustrated. He vented to his manager, who replied with this: what did you ask Sam to do? The maître d' realized it wasn't Sam's fault; it was his own. He hired Sam with little experience. Eager to do a good job, Sam loyally followed the maître d's instructions to a tee.
The maître d' sat in silence, regretting the harsh feedback he had already given Sam. By taking ownership over the impact of actions, the maître d' saw an opportunity to improve his communication with all the wait staff, chat with Sam and help him get better.
I can empathize with the maître d' on many levels. Whether it's an employee poorly handling a client situation or a project going off the rails, it's easy to place blame and analyze everyone else's behavior. However, when I stop and look at my involvement, I always find there's more to gain.
As a manager, I sometimes struggle with navigating conversations where a direct report shares their experience dealing with an issue that I know is an issue but is large enough that it will take weeks or months to feel progress. I don't want to leave them hanging or downplay the situation to try and make them feel better. So, I listen. But, at times, I feel helpless. It can feel as though bricks are piling on my back one at a time, then soon enough, it's hard to walk.
I shared this experience with Chris, my coach, earlier this month. He responded with this: the person who offers the most hope is the one with the most influence.
All month long, I've carried this statement with me. I've even shared it with some folks on my team. It's a reminder that I don't need to provide a quick-fix solution to be a leader for my team. Nor should I become consumed by seemingly urgent issues. Instead, I can acknowledge the current reality then anchor the conversation on the future vision and provide hope.
Hope helps us see that our challenges today are temporary, and frankly, the journey to overcome them is worthwhile. It means we'll achieve a brighter tomorrow. Without hope, we lay in bed at night, sleepless, asking ourselves: what's the point?
In keeping with the brick metaphor, Chris urged me to take the brick off my back, look to the future, and ask my direct report, "How can we lift this together?" It's no longer about me solving the problem alone or asking them to go figure it out. It's about working together to see what small steps we can take today to ensure long-term progress tomorrow.
Prior to hiring our Director of Client Services, Kate, our client relationships were managed by the Barrel partners or our Director of Business Development, Dan. In some cases, this worked well. In other cases, we missed opportunities to have meaningful conversations about our clients's businesses, ways of working together, and opportunities to better support them in achieving great outcomes.
When Kate joined, we officially introduced the Client Services team. Since then, Kate has been instrumental in bringing energy and momentum toward a future where account management and client service are unparalleled.
As we onboarded Kate onto existing client accounts, the partners took a backseat. We thought that staying too involved would not only confuse the client on points of contact but might get in the way of Client Services' ability to own the relationship. We did our best to transition Dan's accounts to Kate.
Flash forward to the present day. Our Client Services team is growing and almost every client is represented by Kate or an Account Director. However, we're noticing a gap.
Every client has a different set of stakeholders with a range of titles. But if we generalize for a moment, it is simple. There's the day-to-day contact and the day-to-day contact's boss. Sometimes, the day-to-day contact's boss has a boss, too.
In a nutshell, an Account Director's job is to:
More often than not, an Account Director is working directly with the client's day-to-day contact. They may get face time with their boss, but these conversations often include other team members and focus on the work.
The gap is a missing dialogue around Barrel's performance as an agency and insight into the client's future trajectory. How is their team evolving? What is their top priority this year? Next year? What opportunities do they see? Where are they investing resources?
To make progress, we're experimenting with introducing an Executive Sponsor to every account. An Executive Sponsor can be a partner, Kate, or Dan. No matter who they are, they are a designated Barrel representative to periodically facilitate one-on-one conversations with the client's key stakeholder, typically C-Suite.
In some ways, the Executive Sponsor can act as a third-party participant, offering a unique perspective without being caught in the details of the day-to-day. They are there to listen and offer up ideas on how to strengthen collaboration.
For existing accounts, we will align on who will be the best rep. A number of clients already have an informal "executive sponsor" who acts mainly as an escalation point. This roll-out will simply confirm their role and open the door to additional conversations. For new accounts, leadership will look for opportunities to connect with key stakeholders early on to establish a relationship for future check-ins.
Prior to one-on-ones, it is critical that executive sponsors touch base with the internal Account Director for any recent developments of the account. The Executive Sponsor can use these points to solicit feedback during the conversation.
Some questions an Executive Sponsor might ask:
We're looking forward to kicking off this initiative with the team and seeing how it evolves in the coming months.
We talk a lot about outcomes at Barrel.
The outcomes our clients want to achieve as a business and as a brand.
The outcomes we want to achieve together as a team.
The outcomes we want to achieve as an agency.
In this context, an outcome is the desired result of our efforts. When we're scoping new business or kicking off new initiatives, it's easy to forget about outcomes as we attempt to map out the "perfect" process. We become consumed in WHAT we're doing without considering the WHY. An outcome is the WHY.
When we go down this path, we start making decisions based on personal preferences and risk missing our target. We become task-masters, thinking that if we can just get the task done right, we'll be good.
An outcome is:
An outcome is not:
There are a number of benefits to focusing on outcomes. Let's take a look at a few I've experienced.
Consider a person looking to get fit and healthy. If they choose to hire a personal trainer, they don’t do it because of the nuances of their programming. If during the sales process, that's all the trainer talks about, the potential trainee may appreciate the trainer's enthusiasm for fitness but wonder if they can actually help them. In contrast, if the trainer gets curious about the trainee's outcomes and shares how they've achieved similar results with others, the trainee is bound to hire them.
By focusing on the trainee's outcomes, the trainer may also find that their typical process may need to evolve. Perhaps the trainee has a background lifting weights and won't need the same basic training upfront. By re-thinking their process, they'll not only learn something new, but they'll get better results.
Outcomes push us to look beyond ourselves. When we take the time to understand an outcome, we're forced to seek out new perspectives and question what we know. The more we focus on outcomes, the more we re-think old beliefs, and the more we learn.
The beauty of outcomes is that they anchor us on a future result, not the path to get there. Outcomes give us the permission to experiment. Sure, we may have a proven process or set of best practices but if along the way, we face an unforeseen challenge, we'll be ready to pivot.
Let's take the example mentioned above. Let's say that as an agency, we're looking to amplify qualified leads coming in each week. We do our research and discover a landing page template that has generated results for other agencies. Within a week, we design and launch a new landing page that speaks to our positioning.
Over the next few weeks, we see some uptick in qualified leads but not at all what we were hoping for. We don't give up. We don't change the copy and hope for the best. We realign on our outcome. We dig into what it means to be "qualified" and discover that there's a gap in understanding where clients see the most value in our partnerships.
We decide that interviewing key clients and getting their take on the landing page may generate helpful feedback. These insights inspire us to test multiple landing pages and target new type of potential clients. In the process, we go deeper on the services that our clients find most valuable. We not only end up generating new qualified leads but grow existing accounts along the way.
There's an innate sense of ownership that comes with centering ourselves on outcomes. As a manager, I see this every day.
There have been times where I lay out a process that I think will achieve a result. I anchor the team on what needs to happen at every step and how to move the process along. The trouble with this approach is that the team is more concerned about doing WHAT I asked them to do, not WHY they're doing it. When they hit a roadblock, they're lost, looking for the user manual on how to troubleshoot the issue. Well, unfortunately, the manual doesn't exist!
By shifting the team's focus from the process to the outcome, the team can take ownership of the work. They're no longer trying to get it "right," they're working together to achieve results. They're not only encouraged to experiment and innovate, but they understand how their efforts align with a greater purpose. This ignites a hunger to find the opportunity in setbacks and a passion to see the project through, no matter how the journey unfolds.
One-on-one time with employees, especially direct reports, is precious. But what happens when it feels like there’s nothing to talk about? Do you end early and give them the time back?
I remember asking myself this question during a one-on-one a number of years ago. It helped me see that it was up to me to create value in my one-on-ones; I couldn’t rely on the employee I was meeting with. That meant that I needed to come prepared with questions and a clear idea of what I hoped to create during our time together. Not every employee is an open book, especially when they're new.
The aforementioned one-on-one was with a junior designer for their 3-month check-in, a ritual at the time to get a read on how new hires were settling into the team and role. For the purpose of this story, I'll refer to the employee as Melanie.
We were at the office meeting in a conference room known as The Cellar, a dimly lit, brick-walled room housing the stash of bourbon that we poured on Fridays to toast to the week. Since expanding our office's footprint a few years ago, we sadly said goodbye to The Cellar.
Melanie was a particularly positive person. Always smiling, even in the face of a new hurdle. Despite having just joined the team, her fellow team members were already remarking on how she brought a lightness to tense situations.
I kicked off our conversation with a simple question, how are things going? Eyes wide with optimism, Melanie responded, "Good." I'll admit, I was hoping for more… just good? Silence filled the room and my mind wandered to second grade. This must have been how my parents felt when I came home from school.
Melanie and I had an hour blocked off. There had to be more to discuss than "Good!" I reminded myself why Melanie and I were meeting in the first place. How is she feeling about her work? Her role? Working with the team?
Just days before, I chatted with the lead designer on Melanie's current project and heard that it got off to a shaky start. I used this as an opportunity to dig in and asked: How has your experience been working with [lead designer] on your current project? She went on to talk about how much she enjoyed the project, a positive take as expected.
As Melanie's described her enthusiasm toward the project, I wondered if she sensed the same shakiness that the lead designer had. I was upfront about my conversation with them and asked what Melanie felt contributed to the last-minute feedback and late nights.
The same hour that once seemed like it might be a long painful trek now felt like a sprint. We were moving fast and without any time constraint, probably would have gone for another hour.
By the end of our conversation, we had uncovered areas of opportunity for Melanie to grow as a collaborator and even identified a few pieces of feedback for the lead designer. Feedback that otherwise would not have been discovered and therefore, never shared.
I've carried this experience with me for some time now. That one hour with Melanie underscored a lesson that I was used to applying when working with clients but hadn't yet considered as a manager.
If I lead with ambiguity when talking to my direct report, client, colleague, friend, wife, family, or future child, I can only expect more ambiguity in return. To create engagement and value, I need to first know what I'm looking to achieve and then, be specific.
It's the difference between "How is your day going?" and "You had a big presentation this morning! How did the client react to our insights?" Both help get a sense of the employee's state of being, but the latter inspires detail and can be a great jumping-off point for a much deeper conversation.
A few weeks ago, I learned a valuable lesson after chatting with co-workers. Let's call them Jared and Joan. I meet with Jared and Joan weekly, so we are comfortable being open with each other and speaking freely. Jared was dealing with a situation I'd dealt with in the past, so I felt like I might be able to offer some helpful advice. After he talked through what was going on, I jumped in to provide insight.
One piece of advice I shared was to seek context from the other party involved before making assumptions. As the words left my mouth and lingered in the air, I realized I was doing just the opposite. Here I was offering advice without really understanding the nuances of Jared's situation. I assumed he was asking for guidance and hadn't tried the tactics that I thought might improve the situation.
Jared responded with more context and kindly shared how he tried a few similar tactics in the past. Our meeting was coming to a close, so we wrapped up and moved on.
After the meeting, Joan and I caught up. I was curious to hear her perspective on how I handled the discussion. Sure enough, she observed the same thing I did.
It didn't matter how good my intentions were. By not getting curious, my advice came off as if I knew better than Jared and implied that he was doing something wrong. Not the case! I could see that my approach was making Jared somewhat defensive and resistant.
Albeit a short interaction, it was a powerful reminder to lead with curiosity. When I think I can help someone navigate a situation, it doesn't matter how strong our relationship is. It is critical to ask questions and dig deeper before offering any insight. Gathering context will not only show a desire to learn and understand, but it will also make the conversation that much more productive by being better informed by the other person's reality.
My friend, Sara, reshared this post from Adam Grant on LinkedIn yesterday, and it resonated quite a bit. As I progress in different areas of my life, I find that growth is as much about learning as it is about unlearning.
When we enter the world as babies, we are a blank canvas. We soak in everything and can pick up just about anything over time. We are not afraid until we have an experience that scares us. We feel like we can conquer the world until someone tells us otherwise, or we suffer pain, or we hit a roadblock.
For better or worse, these experiences shape us, the way we see ourselves and the world.
Grant refers to unlearning as having the integrity to admit when you were wrong. While I agree, I think it goes deeper. To me, it's having the integrity to question your beliefs about yourself and the world.
I used to set goals, looking for answers on how to make progress. At work and home, I didn't realize how my own beliefs were holding me back. I had to unlearn to move forward.
Some examples that came to mind when I read Grant's post:
I'd imagine what it would like to be fit, but for years, I'd steer clear of exercise, thinking, "I'm the music and art kid. I'm not supposed to be fit. I don't play sports." Then, I went to college and met art kids who went to the gym. It took time to see myself differently, but I've enjoyed exploring fitness ever since. Getting up on stage to compete in powerlifting competitions meant so much to me because it was so far out of what I thought possible for myself. Funny enough, most of my powerlifting crew was in a creative field.
I think back to years of complaining about stomach aches, searching for answers. Meanwhile, I believed that a meal wasn't a meal without meat. Eating a plant-based diet seemed absurd, so I never entertained it. When I learned about the impact of constant meat consumption, I decided to experiment with cooking plant-based proteins like tofu and seitan. I found that I not only enjoy eating plant-based meals but guess what? No stomach aches.
This week, I started reading Grant's book Think Again which dives further into this concept. I'm enjoying it so far and look forward to continue practicing how to unlearn.
Proud to share Barrel's new reel (sound on):
Years ago, the idea of creating a reel seemed complex and arduous. We didn't have any well-versed "animators" on the team so we figured it would take 10x longer than necessary. At one point, we tried hiring a freelancer. However, we ended up pausing the project when they proposed a much longer timeline and heftier budget than expected.
I'm not sure how much time passed, but eventually, we revisited the project with our internal team. I realized that we spent more time over the years talking about how difficult it would be and trying to come up with the perfect approach than just giving it a shot and taking small steps.
I enlisted Nick, Designer - now Senior Designer, to help make it happen. We put our heads together and reviewed references before sketching out what we hoped to create. We set up regular check-ins, and within weeks, Nick had a working file. Before we knew it, we had a final reel.
I'm pretty sure I got goosebumps watching it through for the first time, thinking back on all the time spent questioning ourselves in the years prior.
It's been a while since we launched that reel. With some exciting recent launches, we knew it needed a refresh. For any motion nerds reading this, we built the first reel by treating each client project as a clip in After Effects, making it easy to add, remove, and re-arrange projects in the future.
With a tight system in place, the team was able to jump in and update the reel with confidence. Big props to Nate, Senior Designer, with help from Jennifer, Design Intern, and Eric, Junior Designer.
All of this is a good reminder of three important lessons:
Since relocating to PA from Brooklyn, my fitness routine has been all over the place. Well, that's actually true of the last year or so! While I still make it a point to exercise at least four times per week, I miss training in the gym on a program and competing!
I plan to join a local gym in the next few weeks and figure out my next fitness goal. However, for now, exercising with Peloton videos, repeating workouts from Park Slope Crossfit's Zoom days, and trying out various online programs are enough to keep me going.
No matter what I do, I like to keep in mind these suggestions from Todd Hargrove's book, Playing With Movement:
"If you want to 'play' with fitness as a way to improve general health, here are some 'rules of the game' to keep in mind. Have as much fun as possible within these basic constraints:
They're a great reminder that exercise can and should be fun, and sometimes, simply going for a long walk is better than not moving at all.
There are two approaches that I commonly seen taken to resourcing projects:
As much as I'd like to say that the former works well in a setting like a supermarket, I can't get on board. Having spent most of my teen years working at Wegmans, I find the latter approach has merit, no matter what the work entails.
I started at Wegmans pushing carts and ringing up customers. Through my several years there, I did everything from stocking shelves to managing disgruntled customers at the customer service desk to making drinks in the coffee shop. Somewhere along the line, I became a Front End Coordinator, scheduling cashiers for the day and addressing any issues during a customer's checkout.
I was always learning, and that variety kept me going. If it wasn't for that, I don't know that I would have stayed as long. I still apply what I learned at Wegmans to my life and work today.
All in all, I believe that people tend to stick around longer when they feel challenged in their job and see their efforts moving them forward. In that way, I see no difference between shifting an employee from cashier to customer service and assigning a designer on their first e-commerce project.
I had a refreshing 1-1 today with our design director, Christine. I always look forward to our Friday meetings, but today was particularly special because we tried something new.
A few weeks ago, I introduced a new format to organize our conversations in Notion. In addition to keeping shared notes, there's now a place to track growth areas and capture wins. I also pitched the idea of distinguishing between day-to-day conversations and higher-level visioning, which could happen monthly. Christine welcomed the idea, and we decided that the last weekly 1-1 of the month would focus on taking a step back to see the big picture. Today was the first of these meetings.
It was energizing to invite Christine into some of the works-in-progress around vision and team rituals that I'm currently exploring. She had great insights and feedback, adding momentum and inspiring me to keep going. We also uncovered new areas of opportunity for our team that I'm excited to develop further.
I'm looking forward to continuing these higher-level visioning sessions alongside Christine's regular 1-1s while also experimenting with the other managers on my team. I see them morphing into conversations not only around our team's development but our personal development, specifically how we can continue to show up as stronger leaders.
When I see an employee working late or looking overwhelmed, it is my instinct to jump in with them, discuss the work causing the late nights, and help course-correct. At first, everything usually evens out, but too often, the cycle repeats months or even weeks later. If nothing changes, the employee eventually moves on, citing burnout as the cause.
Before we get too far, let's align on burnout. Burnout is when an employee feels mentally drained. They stop caring about the work and have no motivation to continue. You might think of burnout as being stuck in a dark hole. The way out feels unreachable, and the light is slowly dimming. The employee has lost all hope for change and only sees themselves falling deeper.
Not fun! In any way, shape, or form. While an unrealistic workload can be a contributing factor, I think there's more to the story.
Simply put, burnout is complex. It is not going away, especially in our increasing remote workforce, where our deskspace may be steps away from where we lay our head to rest. Combine this with care and love for our work, and it can be pretty hard to disconnect.
Looking back to the earliest days of my career, I'd think nothing of staying at the office past 6 pm. Was it because I said yes too much? Sometimes. Was that because I wanted to learn as much as I could? Always. Did I get burned out? No.
What kept me going through those exhausting moments was that I knew my contributions served the client's desired outcome. In addition, I saw these experiences were fueling my growth. I've been lucky to work with supportive leaders who supported me in finding my direction forward, personally and professionally.
When an employee cites burnout as they walk out the door, they may attribute their current emotional state solely to having too much on their plate, but deep down, it's likely they concluded that it was all for nothing.
In the book, An Everyone Culture, authors Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey state, "research shows that the single biggest cause of work burnout is not work overload, but working too long without experiencing your own personal development."
In a company setting, everyone may be aligned and fighting for the same outcomes, but there's no hiding that each of us wants to be getting better through the process. I don't necessarily mean getting promoted or changing titles, which doesn't always reflect growth; I mean feeling challenged, overcoming hurdles, and seeing positive change in yourself. If this is not true of our experience, chances are we'll start questioning whether our current position is the right fit.
Keeping this in mind, when I notice an employee looking swamped, I do my best to fight the instinct to intervene with assumptions. Even with the best intentions, I've learned the hard way that taking work off their shoulders can have unintended consequences, like robbing them of a growth opportunity, making them feel like they couldn't succeed on their own, or taking them away from work that they love. Each of these can create an impact that sticks.
Instead, I try to lead with curiosity and unpack what might be contributing to their anxiety.
From career ambitions to time management, these conversations can yield incredible insights. If one of the challenges is the amount of work, I can help them delegate it. The beauty is that we can decide together while also helping them stay on track with their personal development.
I love when people ask me questions that I've never answered before. In most cases, I can take a few moments to form an opinion and find my way to a response. In certain instances, it requires a follow-up.
Today, a potential candidate asked me: What type of personality does Barrel look for in a candidate? Who would be a good fit? This question was one of those questions.
In the moment, I'll be honest, I just started thinking out loud. Long after the call ended, my mind was still going. Hence why we're here now!
Anyway, my first thought was that we don't look for a personality type. What I love about our team is the mix of individuals that, together, make Barrel a special (virtual) place to come to work every day.
Second, what is a personality type anyway? When you think about it, it's kinda silly to label anyone as "outgoing" or "reserved." We all have our nuances, and as a proponent of personal growth, I believe we change a little bit with every passing day and experience.
As I continued with my stream of consciousness, I thought about each of our core values. We call them the Four C's:
I realized that the first three values are harder to achieve without the last, candor.
Collaboration. To collaborate and work toward a shared solution, we must be open, honest, and willing to give and receive feedback, judgment-free. Clients and employees alike.
Community. The communities that make us feel welcome and supported are those that accept us for who we are. It takes vulnerability to put our whole selves out there. To accept and be accepted. If we cannot be open and honest, there is a lack of trust. Without trust, a true sense of community may be out of reach.
Creativity. To me, being creative requires us to be in touch with ourselves, our fellow human beings, and our world. If we are unwilling to open our minds and listen to any of these three, we're missing out on what it means to be creative. To be inspired and learn from all that surrounds us, fueling our innovation.
So, what does this all mean?
It's not about personality types. It is about how we work together, treat one another, and discover new possibilities. At Barrel, candor is a priority. When I think about those who thrive in our company culture, it is those who openly share their ideas and accept others when they reciprocate. It is those who are unafraid to give feedback and receive feedback. They see props and criticism as the same: a tool for future growth.
Is Barrel some dreamland where everyone is honest and never leaving things unsaid? No. For everyone, including me, it is a neverending work-in-progress. However, when you make something a priority, that means you keep it top of mind in everything you do. From team meetings to debriefs to performance reviews, we look for opportunities to practice candor together every day, getting a little better and a little more open at every step.
Years ago, I learned a valuable lesson about communication when a client chose not to continue our relationship.
While we did some preliminary research when scoping out the project, we had an aggressive timeline to meet, so we moved forward with many stones left unturned.
Weeks into the project, we realized that the time buffer we had given ourselves was not enough. The client agreed to a launch date a few days later than planned. Little did we know, that was the beginning of the end.
It wasn't the delay that bothered them; it was all that happened leading up to launch. We knew we had our work cut out for us, so we put our heads down and got to work. What we didn't realize was the anxiety the client was feeling.
Our work was to update the website to support the launch of an exciting new collection of products. These products had been in the works for almost a year, so hitting the timeline was critical. We took this very seriously, but that didn't matter if it wasn't clear to the client.
There we were, doing everything we could to ship a quality product, on-time. Sometimes, putting in late nights. What did the client see? Nothing. We went into a hole, so the client had no idea what was going on.
By the time we resurfaced, days before launch, their imagination had run wild. It didn't matter how far along we were. They had lost trust. The anxiety of not knowing whether or not we were on track far outweighed any progress.
I did not know any of this, by the way, when we were in the thick of it. We could sense the client's discontent, but it wasn't until after launch, when I reached out to the client to chat, that I understood why. Luckily, we ended on good terms. About a year later, they actually came back willing to give us another chance, but the project fell through.
I've taken this experience to heart. It was one of the first accounts where I led the team, so it hit particularly hard. I felt like I let them down, but I'm grateful for what the experience taught me: bending over backward for a client doesn't strengthen trust in the relationship if they get left in the dark.
Since then, we've introduced rituals like recap documents and weekly status calls and established new ways to involve the client more in our process. As important as it is to err on over-communication, we've found that clients often feel most energized about the work when they feel like they have a hand in it.
We've come a long way, and I'm excited to continue working on our system for managing projects because when we're going at full steam, it's easy to forget to pop up and say, "Hey client, here's what's happening!" The goal is that we never have to remind ourselves; it's second nature.
When I first started hiring folks, I viewed reference calls as a chance to verify what I heard in the interview. Then, the more calls I got on, the more my mindset changed. I found that I learned so more about the candidate when I got curious.
What was it like collaborating with them?
What did they find most exciting about their work?
How did they handle feedback?
If we hired the candidate, it felt great. I learned more about their working style, strengths, and opportunities, creating a solid foundation for our relationship.
I realized that if verifying information was all I was after, there was no trust in the relationship, and they hadn't even joined the team! I started trusting what I heard and, instead of verifying, used it to guide what areas to go deeper on.
These days, I enjoy reference calls quite a bit. For me, they are just as important as the interview itself, and each delivers a unique value. In the interview, you get to learn about the candidate's background and what led them to apply to work with you. In the reference calls, you have an opportunity to get an inside look at what it might be like to work alongside them, from past managers, co-workers, and in some cases, direct reports.
Together, these can paint a full picture of the individual, giving you that much more background to set them up for success in their new role should you choose to hire them.
"The great philosopher Dolly Parton [once said], find out who you are and do it on purpose. ... And I would like to flip Dolly's phrase upside down, and I'd like to say: do it on purpose, and you'll find out who you are. Asking for a guarantee before you start isn't helpful. Instead, we need to look at a concept, an idea, and be willing to try it out with intent because if we do, if we try it on for size, we will figure out if it fits us. As opposed to the opposite, which is spending a lot of time figuring out who we are and then going and finding the things that fit us." (Seth Godin on The Knowledge Project: #105 Seth Godin: Failing On Our Way to Mastery)
Seth's concept goes beyond self-discovery. I see it as a statement on the power of acting with passion and, in the process, achieving clarity. On the flip side, many of us get stuck searching for clarity before ever getting started.
Defining a vision for what we want is critical when establishing our goals and aspirations. However, at a certain point, it can become an excuse for not diving in. We stall, claiming that there are too many unanswered questions to begin.
I remember feeling this way when I started my newsletter. At first, I kept questioning myself, wondering if I really had anything valuable to share. Once I got over that hump, I spent all this time debating the name of the newsletter. As if the name The Beatles had anything to do with their success. I hadn't written a word yet!
Yes, we need to know where we're going, but once we have a direction, we can learn the most not by laboring over the finer details but by doing. Why? Details change. It's inevitable.
Say that you want to start a YouTube channel reviewing music. You can spend the next six months, maybe even a year or more, talking about it, deliberating over what type of music you want to review and how long the videos should be. But, how can you ever claim to know until you try? Instead, you can make a video. Post it. Get feedback. Make another one with that feedback in mind. Post it. Continue.
Imagine if we redirected the energy we spent thinking and talking about what we want to getting to work. Then, where would we be?
Sometime in Middle School, I dated a girl who used to tell me that I lived in a fantasy world (or something along those lines). Essentially, I would talk about a future in stark contrast to current reality. To me, it was invigorating. It gave purpose to my priorities and a vision for where I wanted to be down the road, but when I heard this feedback, I'd be lying if I said it didn't make me wonder if I needed to get real instead of living in a dream state.
I'm not sure if my fantasy-speak was what ended that relationship, but it didn't last long.
I kept on dreaming.
I hadn't returned to this memory until reading The Path of Least Resistance last month. In it, author Robert Fritz underscores the importance of defining vision. Without it, we get stuck playing whack-a-mole, spending more time problem solving than thinking about what we really want.
Reading this book made me look back on my Middle School fling with gratitude. Gratitude for teaching me something about myself that, years later, I've come to view as a strength, personally and professionally.
I'm not suggesting that we fool ourselves by not acknowledging our current reality. But, once we're clear, we can start looking ahead at what reality we want to create.
Contrary to what my Middle School fling might say, I find that speaking about that future as fact, not as a possibility, helps drive even more momentum toward our vision.
In The Three Laws of Performance, authors Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan call this "future-based language."
"Future-based language, also called generative language, has the power to create new futures, to craft vision, and to eliminate the blinders that are preventing people from seeing possibilities. It doesn't describe how a situation occurs; it transforms how it occurs. It does this by rewriting the future." (Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan, The Three Laws of Performance)
As leadership within any organization, this is why future-based language is critical. By not only aligning the team on vision but making the vision a part of everyday discourse, we can help propel them toward a future that, on their own, they may never have imagined.
"In most organizations, the network of conversations is noisy, conflicted, filled up with gossip and chatter that makes new futures impossible because they project a probable and default future that people are living into. From the perspective of the Three Laws, leadership is empowering others to rewrite the already-existing default future and to realize goals that weren't going to happen. From this definition, 100 percent of leadership happens through conversations that pull people into the game, not through sitting back and creating visions that then need to be sold. Leaders who master using future-based language have power that others don't have." (Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan, The Three Laws of Performance)
At the end of the day, what employees want most from their manager is honesty. And if we expect honesty from our team, well, we should practice what we preach.
Sometimes, managers struggle with telling the real story, worried about what might happen if they disclose too much information. Well, here's the thing. You can choose to keep everything close to the vest and let your team create narratives about what they're experiencing, OR you can be open and let them know what's really going on. The way I look at it is this: the facts are the facts, no matter how you spin them.
Early on, I used to take a more reserved approach to management. Then one day, I found myself spending more time deliberating about how to say the "right" thing vs. getting to the point and taking action. Yeah, silly.
Since then, I've found freedom in doing my best to leave nothing unsaid. It was uncomfortable at first, but every chance I got, I practiced. I soon learned that honesty inspires honesty. These days, I'm a big believer in that. Sometimes, my team comes to me with things that I can't believe they're sharing, but I'm so glad they did.
Here's an example: In a 1-1, an employee once told me they took an interview elsewhere and why they did. Barrel is their first job, and they were curious to hear how other agencies operate. We went on to talk about how they could become more connected to their peers and learn from the community. Note: They're still here! And continue to be a valuable contributor to the team.
When you put it all out there, sure, folks may still interpret information in different ways, but at least they're working with all of the facts. You can work with them to clarify without worrying about what version of the story you told or beating around the bush. Phew, trust me - it feels good.
I've always respected Amazon's willingness to experiment with ideas in market. From the Fire Phone to the Amazon Tap (which I happen to own and love), Amazon has launched numerous products and initiatives that didn't work out as planned. But, they put their best foot forward, gave it a go, and most importantly, knew when to fold their hand to focus elsewhere.
"Another lesson my father taught me, and without question, this is one to commit to memory: Life is only partly about how you hold and handle your cards. Don’t ever be so goddamn sure of anything, because nothing in life is a given. No matter how good the odds, no matter who's the favorite, no one but no one wins every race. Even when we pay attention, when we hope and pray and prepare and double- and triple-check, things go sideways. People lose their health and hard-earned businesses and the loves of their lives, and no one sees it coming. That's the hardscrabble of life. Sometimes, you have to know when to fold your cards and call it a draw." (Paul Van Doren, Authentic)
As a manager, embracing this mindset over the years has been liberating. Looking back, I'd say that this simple shift has had the most profound impact on my ability to generate results as a leader.
Instead of going into a hole and attempting to craft a bulletproof solution on my own, I engaged others in the process, sharing ideas and gathering insights. I realized that "perfection" was a never-ending pursuit, so I focused on what I could do more immediately in the short term to move closer to the long-term vision, even if it wasn't flawless.
For example, when I saw that the team was struggling with presentations, I conducted a workshop on what made a presentation successful. I took those findings and developed a Designer Preparation Prep Checklist that each designer would fill out for review before presenting their work. From vision realization to implementation, this took all about two weeks.
At first, the doc got heavy use. Then, it started fizzling out. My instinct would have been to resurface it and require its use, but then I noticed something, presentations were improving. The doc was no longer relevant.
So, did it fail?
Some might say yes, no one uses it. While that may be true, I'd say no - it was never about a doc or process; it was about creating a tool to help mentor designers to lead better presentations. As these discussions became part of our everyday, the doc was irrelevant. I'm just glad I gave it a go instead of losing precious time trying to craft the perfect vision.
Funny enough, I found out recently that our Design Director still shares the doc with Junior folks from time to time. I guess it's a bit like me and my discontinued Amazon Tap.
Alright, so the moral of the story is this...
When looking to create change within an organization, we, of course, want to get it right. However, we have to resist the urge to perfect for too long. Why? Well, time waits for no one, and truthfully, most things are a constant work-in-progress.
What matters most is that we try. Put the time in to define a path forward, get feedback, and go for it. The worst thing that happens is that it doesn't work out, but the beauty is that you'll have more information to make the next step forward that much more impactful.
I remember taking trips to NYC with my family as a kid. My younger brother is a tap dancer, and at a young age, danced in clubs throughout the city, so we were there regularly.
On some days more than others, Manhattan traffic was rough. My Dad used to call particularly painful intersections the "white knuckle zone," meaning your hands are gripping the steering wheel so tightly that your knuckles turn white. He also used to say, "you have to commit" before driving fearlessly into a sea of yellow cabs determined to get to their destination.
Spending a decade living in the city, I thought of these phrases often, especially while driving in Manhattan, Dana in the passenger seat, wincing at every turn.
What I've discovered, though, is that these concepts go beyond navigating Manhattan. If my Dad didn't commit; instead, stuck debating the perfect time to go, we would have never gotten anywhere.
In life, indecision is the enemy of progress. It's worthwhile to think things through, but at a certain point, you have to commit.
"When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that last blow that did it—but all that had gone before.” (Jacob A. Riis)
I'm not sure there's a better way to describe the power of perseverance. Whether it's exercising, learning an instrument, or any other endeavor, it is way too easy to give up early on. You can't see the crack forming, but every strike is a strike closer to the split. The tough part is that you never know when it's coming. Before you throw in the towel, remember that you could be giving up one or two strikes away from something big.
My approach? Find joy in the hammering, not the final crack.
You can't rewrite history, or can you? It depends on how you look at it, I guess. You can remember an event one way or another and even document it how you choose. You can try to "fix" any mistakes and remedy any mishaps. However, neither of these options change what transpired.
This thought crosses my mind, now and again, regarding my habits. For example, I try to read every day for 30 minutes. I track this habit, along with others, in a simple little app called Done.
If I miss a day of reading, can I read for an hour the next day and count it as two sessions? Well, of course, there are no rules, but there is integrity. I have a hard time feeling good pretending that I read one day when I didn't. But then again, is it about the tracking or the value of practicing healthy habits?
Taking a step back reminds me that it's the latter. Tracking is just a tool to keep going and check in on progress. That's the risk in gamifying anything. When the game becomes more important than the purpose, it may be time to re-calibrate.
"It all comes down to getting the right people in the right seats." (Gino Wickman, Traction)
Before deciding whether or not you have the right people, take a closer look at the seats.
You hired them because you saw something special. Are they able to flex their unique ability in their current position?
You were excited for them to join because you saw their potential. Are you giving them the opportunities and support needed to reach it?
The hardest part is getting started.
The hardest part is navigating curveballs.
The hardest part is pushing through plateaus.
The hardest part is knowing when you're finished.
The hardest part is acknowledging the fruits of your labor.
The hardest part is seeing the win, even when you've lost.
The hardest part only grows harder when I label it that way. In moments of defeat, I think that life would be better if I could only get through to the other side. Then, if I do, the other side has a new set of challenges.
I'm always practicing how not to get hung up on "the hardest part" because I know it will change with every step forward. In that way, the hardest part is just another part of the process.
If you're like me, and catch yourself labeling challenges, try to resist the urge. Focus on finding your groove. Understand the process. Practice. Show up. Show up again and again.
The hardest parts are no match for perseverance and consistency.
"This week flew by."
"Wow. It felt like this week lasted a lifetime."
"Was that Monday? That seems like ages ago."
"I can't believe it's already been a year."
Time is constant, yet it always feels like it's moving fast or slow. Our commitments, hopes, and fears shape our perceptions.
We cannot control time; but we can control our relationship with it. We can recognize its rhythm and design our world to get in sync. Or we can ride the wave, always falling behind or racing to catch up.
"You should be far more concerned with your current trajectory than with your current results." (James Clear, Atomic Habits)
For the last week, I've been visiting with family in a suburb outside of London. At times, it's been a challenge to keep up with my daily habits, but I've been able to stick with many of them, like reading, writing, and journaling. That said, my exercise regimen, diet, and alcohol consumption have gone by the wayside, by choice.
I've opted to maximize the time to play with my nieces and nephews rather than find time to exercise. I've opted to indulge in one or two sticky toffee puddings with family instead of prioritizing my diet. (It's delicious, by the way.) I've opted to toast with a classic gin and tonic instead of sticking with water. What feels good, though, is that I feel in control. I'm not concerned with how these decisions might impact my life in the near term because I know I'm still on track; my current trajectory is looking good long-term.
I'm excited to continue enjoying what's left of this trip and then hitting the ground running when I return home.
While it's good to be future-oriented and set big goals, we can't forget to be present. When we become obsessed with achieving an outcome, we risk missing what's right in front of us.
"We think we need more and don’t realize we already have so much. We work so hard “for our families” that we don’t notice the contradiction—that it’s because of work that we never see them." (Ryan Holiday, Stillness Is the Key)
Always a welcome reminder; for now, and the future.
While your client may be one of many, to them, you're the only one. Embrace the latter; never give them a reason to be reminded of the former.
"If your shoulder starts to hurt while doing a push-up, the first thing you will do is start making some adjustments to your form. This happens spontaneously and unconsciously. You might slow your speed, move your hands a little bit further apart, or adjust your trunk angle. After a few repetitions of playing around, the shoulder now feels comfortable. Now imagine you are in a class with an instructor telling you exactly how you need to be moving, prescribing the “correct” hand placement, technique, sets and reps. Or worse yet, telling you that you need to stop moving right away and go to the doc. This might inhibit the natural tinkering process that would have solved the problem." (Todd Hargrove, Playing With Movement)
As a manager, it’s natural to want to step in when we see an employee struggling. We know we can leverage our experience to make their lives easier. The trouble is what happens later when we’re not there to provide a step-by-step. They freeze, worrying about remembering the steps instead of feeling out the situation, asking questions, and making their way. The best thing we can do as managers is to teach the fundamentals, leaving enough room for employees to tinker and figure out their version of solving the problem.
The other day, I inflated a balancing disc my mother-in-law got me to keep my feet occupied while sitting at my desk. It's also fun to use for practice balance during a workout. Anyway, as I was nearing the end of inflating it, I noticed it became difficult to see progress in how inflated it was and determine if it was complete.
I'm not sure what it is was about this simple experience, but it made me think about growth in various parts of my life. It was a reminder to keep working toward my goals, even during periods that feel stagnant. Often, you're on the brink of something special, and all you need to do is keep pushing through.
I wonder if we don't ask for feedback more frequently because we don't want the burden of addressing it, not because we're afraid to hear it. When we receive critical feedback, it is natural to feel pressure; pressure to make abrupt changes and find solutions immediately. Rarely does this work or lead to lasting change. Meaningful growth takes time, patience, and discipline.
One of our maxims at Barrel is "all feedback is information." When you look at feedback through this lens, it seems silly for us not to crave feedback daily if we're serious about our growth.
Whether positive or critical, feedback is information that we do not have access to on our own about our work, way of being, and performance. It helps us better understand ourselves and how we interact with the world around us. We can choose to resist it, but the fact is that the feedback, or the way others perceive us, is not reliant on whether or not we are willing to face it.
I like to think of feedback as fuel for new ideas about how I can be better. Even when it's regarding a positive trait or behavior, how can I do this more? What is it about this that I can bring to other areas of my performance?
When receiving feedback, listen closely and take notes. Maybe you disagree with the feedback and feel you need to speak up. Or, there's missing context, and you need to fill in the gaps. If you do either, the chances are that the feedback giver will shut down, and you will lose access to the precious information that they are offering you. That sounds likes a loss to me.
If we agree that feedback is nothing more than information, the best thing we can do is be curious when we receive it, hungry to understand. As you listen to the feedback, ask questions to gain more context. Try to put yourself in the feedback giver's shoes and understand their perspective fully. You said that you feel like you're unable to make your own decisions; do you feel like I trust you? If not, what about our relationship makes you feel that way?
Equipped with notes, take time to reflect. What are the few things you can do today, tomorrow, this week to show even 1% improvement in the key areas? Remember, meaningful change doesn't happen overnight. Sort through the details, prioritize, and keep on keeping on!
In my newsletter this week, I explored the benefits of inviting a reset to routine. Barrel CEO and fellow partner Peter Kang responded to the email with a response that I think captures it perfectly: "Love the reset mindset!! Turning curveball into a home run!" Watching Peter become a father two times over and manage to keep up with his routine has been inspiring to witness. A practice I aim to embody as a father someday.
There have certainly been curveballs with my recent relocation. Rather than force my old routine or dwell on the fact that I'm off track, I have come to welcome these curveballs with open arms and see what opportunities they present.
Since Monday, I've adopted a 9 am to 5 pm work schedule, fully embracing the new work hours options we rolled out this week to give the team more flexibility across time zones. This structural adjustment to my day has opened the doors for me to redesign my routine.
What I've loved the most so far is the quiet time in the morning to think and explore ideas, an activity I used to embark on toward the end of the day. There's clarity of mind in the morning that is hard to capture at the end of the workday.
I start my day by writing in my journal before checking my phone or engaging with the world. Then, I get ready, completing my Readwise Daily Review while brushing my teeth. Then, I head up to my office to read for 30 minutes.
Over the last couple of months, I stopped reading in the morning and transitioned to getting it done just before bed. While I enjoyed how reading provided a calming moment before sleep, I find that reading paired with the other morning rituals is powerful for generating ideas and easing into the day.
After reading, the goal is to write and think. If I'm lucky, I'll get my daily note completed. For the last two days, this has not been the case; instead, I ended up drafting two longer pieces that I'm eager to continue exploring. One of which will likely become next week's newsletter!
By 10 am (when I used to begin working), I feel a sense of accomplishment heading into the day. My vision for the future is for the morning to continue to be a sacred time for deep thinking and long-term planning.
“Without great solitude, no serious work is possible.” (Pablo Picasso)
When the day ends at 5 pm, I try to jump right into a workout and get the body moving. Someday I may try to exercise in the morning, but for now, I still find early evening workouts to be an effective way to release the body and mind from the events of the day and enter the evening with renewed energy.
What I find fascinating is that while these activities are all slight adjustments from my old routine, the change in timing has already proven to make a profound difference. In the past, there were many days where I felt trapped by my daily rituals. I'd stay up late to get my reading in or have to skip working out so I could make dinner. Now, by 6 pm, my goal is to have all my daily rituals completed, leaving ample time to do whatever I want until my head hits the pillow. This feeling is freeing, and the joy it brings is priceless.
"To some, routine can sound like where creativity and innovation go to die—the ultimate exercise in boredom. We even use the word as a synonym for pallid and bland, as in “It has just become routine for me.” And routines can indeed become this—the wrong routines. But the right routines can actually enhance innovation and creativity by giving us the equivalent of an energy rebate. Instead of spending our limited supply of discipline on making the same decisions again and again, embedding our decisions into our routine allows us to channel that discipline toward some other essential activity." (Greg McKeown, Essentialism)
Easier said than done.
However, if you can describe the steps and imagine the outcome, how hard can it be? Are you passionate enough to take the first step? Courageous enough to see where it leads us?
If the answer is no, who cares how easy it is to say? It must not be worthwhile pursuing.
I have this theory that many of the perceived challenges of remote work are gaps that have always existed but have become illuminated now that we can't run over to a coworker's desk in the middle of the day.
Last week, we hosted our quarterly town hall and monthly team meeting. For these team-wide meetings, we enjoy experimenting with new formats regularly. Our focus is on hosting meetings that feel more like a team-wide dialogue than a formal presentation.
Back in the office days, we didn't talk about team meeting engagement nearly as much as we do as a remote-first company. Now, we're hard on ourselves when less than a few people participate. We use this as fuel by asking for feedback and identifying areas to improve the next time around.
From that perspective, I think our team-wide meetings have only gotten better since going remote. We used to rely on non-verbals and laughter to gauge engagement. These days, with Zoom and the need for muting, this can be a challenge.
This constraint has forced us to think more deeply about our time together. Here are a few changes from the last several months:
My brother, Nick, had a friend growing up who could never hang out when he had one “big” event going on that day, a family dinner, going to the DMV, decorating the Christmas tree, etc. It frustrated Nick. He wondered what happened to the other 13 or so hours of the day.
I find myself guilty of this mindset now and then, despite knowing how silly it is. When there is something "big" I need to get done, my instinct can be to clear the day to make room for it. Otherwise, I worry that I will not have the time to reach completion.
The truth, though, is that I do this when I have no plan. I want to clear my day because I cannot see the path to completion. Without that clarity, I let the one "big" task takes precedence over everything else.
In these moments, I remind myself to pause, thinking through how to spend my time. Then, getting clear on what completion looks like at every stage of the process. Rather than losing a whole day to write my newsletter, I focus on when I want to have a concept, first draft, and final edit. This simple step puts my mind at ease and frees up space to focus on other important areas of life.
I wonder if Nick's friend was a poor planner or just needed clarity on a few details for his "big" event to make better use of his day.
Inspired by The Path of Least Resistance by Robert Fritz, I've enjoyed thinking about this question lately: If all of your problems disappeared tomorrow, what would you want?
When your problems frame your vision, you create imaginary barriers around your future.
What do you really want?
We've all met someone who "thought of that" invention before it hit the market and became wildly successful. I'm not that person, but I do have a story.
When I was in first, maybe second grade, I was crazy about skateboarding. So much so that my sixth-grade assessment topic was "the history of skateboarding." I can still remember the poster board of painted red bricks. Anyway, I digress. I wanted to keep skating while at school, and I couldn't, so I decided to create a mini version of my skateboard.
I cut index cards into the shape of a skateboard, filled the bottom layer with glue, and folded up the sides so my fingers could stay attached. Then, I waited for the glue to dry and become firm before adding artwork to the bottom. The final touch was wrapping the entire thing in tape, my version of waterproofing.
These glue-filled boards were all the rage among my friends. I started making them for kids on the playground, custom artwork included. I can't remember if I charged them or not, but I want to say that a "skateboard" was 25 cents.
In 2008, Tech Deck hit the scene, and I was out of business. If you ask my Dad today, he'll tell you that he still gets sick thinking about this.
If you can't beat them, join them. I joined the Tech Deck movement and pivoted my "business." If you're not familiar with Tech Deck, their skateboards are identical, miniature copies of real skateboards, wheels, trucks, hardware, and all. I'll admit, I still find them super cool.
Tech Deck boards were so realistic, I dreamed of having a mini version of my skateboard. Turns out, so did all the other kids, but naturally, Tech Deck didn't have every skateboard you could buy in real life (especially the more budget-friendly boards I owned).
Fairly new to the power of the internet, I logged on to CCS.com, learned how to resize the image of my board (in MS Paint?), and printed it. With some glue stick action and fancy scissor work, I had a personalized Tech Deck. After I had a few boards under my belt, I began offering this service to my fellow skateboard enthusiasts.
I look back on these memories fondly. I don't think what if? I think about how they were early signs of my love for invention, design, and entrepreneurship.
All said, it is a good reminder that ideas are nothing without action, no matter how big or small. Everyone has ideas. Few of us are passionate enough to go after them with the belief and perseverance to make them a reality. On a second-grade scale, I'd like to think I did. For my seven-year-old self, that was a success.
A couple of years before, my startup did fail, though. I decided to open a bank (I don't know why), photocopying dollar bills onto neon green paper. When my Pop-Pop got wind of it, he shut down the whole operation, sternly filling me in on the illegal nature of what I was doing. That's a story for next time.
"If the quiet moments are the best moments, and if so many wise, virtuous people have sung their praises, why are they so rare? Well, the answer is that while we may naturally possess stillness, accessing it is not easy." (Ryan Holiday, Stillness Is the Key)
We love to be productive.
"Being productive is about occupying your time—filling your schedule to the brim and getting as much done as you can. Being effective is about finding more of your time unoccupied and open for other things besides work. Time for leisure, time for family and friends. Or time for doing absolutely nothing." (Jason Fried, David Heinemeier Hansson, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work)
Are we afraid to be effective? To have nothing to check off our to-do list? To discover the power in sitting alone with our thoughts?
"While the magnitude and urgency of our struggle is modern, it is rooted in a timeless problem. Indeed, history shows that the ability to cultivate quiet and quell the turmoil inside us, to slow the mind down, to understand our emotions, and to conquer our bodies has always been extremely difficult. “All of humanity’s problems,” Blaise Pascal said in 1654, “stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”" (Ryan Holiday, Stillness Is the Key)
My Pop-Pop once told my brothers and me that he couldn’t see the difference between the colors of the traffic lights while driving. At a few decibels higher than necessary, he shared his approach with passion, “I know the top is the red one, the middle is yellow, and the bottom one is green. What else do I need to know!?”
I was old enough to be a bit alarmed, but the only driving he did was back and forth to his job at Wendy’s, so we let it go. We didn’t have much choice in the matter anyway; we knew there was no way he'd give up driving.
That night, I remember thinking about how I never paid much attention to the order of lights on a traffic light. Now, when I get stuck at a red light, I often think of Pops.
Maybe it's a stretch, but when I think about Pops's seemingly hazardous approach to driving now, I see it more like a parable on life. We all make our way through the world differently. My path may not be the one for you and yours for me, but who are we to judge? If we trade that judgment for curiosity, we may just learn a thing or two.
I wasn't sure why I returned to this story last night, but it came to mind after designing the artwork for yesterday's note on going after what you want, an abstracted greenlight. I love these unconscious links in thought.
People like to say some variation of, "do it now because you never know if you'll get the chance again," but I don't know...that seems like a pretty gloomy outlook on life. I prefer to take a more positive spin.
If there is something you want now, make it happen. Not because you won't have the chance, but because life happens, things change.
Whether you're seeking the feeling of wearing funky shoes or your hair flowing in the wind doesn't matter. Either way, you'll always wonder what it would have felt like to make that choice.
Sometimes, it won't be what you expect, but living without the weight of wonder and regret is priceless. Other times, it will exceed your expectations. In either case, it may even inadvertently lead to somewhere new. There are few examples of this in my life that immediately come to mind.
Wanted to make a new friend: If I hadn't mustered up the courage to talk to the kid at the bus stop wearing the same shoes as me in fourth grade, I wouldn't have met Kyle. We've been best friends ever since. By the way, we were born nine days apart. Weird.
Wanted to try teaching: If I hadn't decided to inquire about starting a Teaching Assistant program within the Graphic and Interactive Design program in college, I wouldn't have met my wife, Dana, in my first class. I loved teaching. I feel lucky to know that and that somehow it will fit into my future.
Wanted to experience a new city: If I hadn't chosen to move to NYC, I wouldn't have landed at Barrel. I'd probably still be wondering what it would be like to live here, but at this point, less interested in the pace. Oh, and the job that got me to the city? Not what I expected, but hey, it got me here.
Why wonder when you can find out now?
In our pursuit of efficiency, we look for every opportunity to remove the manual part of the process. The more we automate, the more we standardize, the faster we can create. But at what point does our race toward efficiency go too far?
Whether we're redesigning a client's website or launching a marketing campaign, the objective of efficiency during the creative process is about more than speed. Building efficiency creates more space to be creative. By reducing repetitive work, we gain time to focus on thinking big.
When we become obsessed with efficiency, focusing solely on speed, we risk losing our creative firepower. We go beyond the repetitive work and start standardize what made projects special: our ideas. We remove the brainstorm session, and instead, every project begins with a set of boilerplate concepts based on the client.
We slowly become less connected to our work as it becomes formulaic. We start wondering if we're even needed at all.
When you're looking for opportunities to be more efficient, look for the mindless work that happens every time, not the work that requires creativity and thought, even if sometimes that's what takes the longest.
Why do we crave recognition?
Why do we want our work to be acknowledged?
For me, these are signs of progress when I'm doing work that impacts others. I feel good when I achieve a goal, but I often don't feel a true sense of accomplishment until relevant parties notice the step forward.
"Love that document you put together! Super helpful for future projects."
"Great workshop! I enjoyed the new format. Thanks for running that!"
While there is often an audience for the work I do, expecting behavior from them is no way to build momentum because, for one, what if it never comes? Do you stop and give up?
The more that I explore the source of this mindset, I notice there's more to the story: getting clear on what I set out to do in the first place. I seek recognition or acknowledgment when I am not clear with myself on what I wanted to create.
For example, it's not about completing the deck; it's about the team having the autonomy to repeat a process without guidance or clients getting more hands-on during a design presentation.
Recognition is different than feedback. While being recognized may feel good and lift our spirits, it's temporary and rarely actionable enough to move an idea forward. To create results, what we want is information. Information we can get when we ask for specific feedback.
Vision: The team has the autonomy to repeat the process without guidance.
Vision: The client can engage and give more real-time feedback during the design process.
Once we get clear on what we want to create, feedback can anchor us to the results. From there, we may decide we can move on to discover a new vision or decide there's more work to be done. Either way, we can breathe knowing that we're in control of getting what we need to make our vision a reality.
We love to tell everyone about the singer/songwriter who can't sell out a show but whose records we play on repeat.
We love to tell everyone about the family-owned restaurant that is always empty on a Saturday night but has the most incredible homemade pasta.
We love to tell everyone until everyone knows.
That band? They're sell-outs. Have you heard of this new artist?
That restaurant? The pasta is not the same. Have you tried this new restaurant?
On to the next best-kept secret...
If something feels off, "flagging it" is hardly enough. Flags without suggestions simply create a mark; they don't heal.
If something goes wrong, "I flagged it" gets us nowhere; it turns our heads backward when we should be looking forward.
To most, "I flagged it" sounds like "I told someone there was an issue, but they did nothing. It's not my fault." We waste time and energy pointing fingers.
Sure, maybe someone is accountable, but if we’re a team and we made decisions together, chances are we all played our part in the outcome.
Flag it, and find a way.
I once attended a design conference where a surprising number of the notable designers giving talks mentioned how terrible their experience following a management track was and why designers should steer clear of it.
Okay, I agree that management isn't the right fit for everyone. But, there I was, a designer with a passion for management and so far, loving it.
I sat among the crowd of wide-eyed conference-goers and wondered, what happens if everyone takes their advice? Who will coach, support, and mentor the next generation of designers?
I returned to New York with an intensified desire to continue on my path and share lessons learned along the way, with the hope that those with a passion for creative management may benefit, or simply, stay inspired to keep going.
"As a general, Napoleon made it his habit to delay responding to the mail. His secretary was instructed to wait three weeks before opening any correspondence. When he finally did hear what was in a letter, Napoleon loved to note how many supposedly “important” issues had simply resolved themselves and no longer required a reply." (Ryan Holiday, Stillness Is the Key)
I wonder how Napoleon would have handled instant access to his mail every second of every day. Regardless, he was on to something with snail mail.
It is way too easy these days, and I guess two centuries ago too, to prioritize everything. Sometimes I think we do it because we want to be the hero. We want to come in and resolve every problem. The thing is that when we do that, there is no priority, and no one learns.
Not long ago, a client was emailing a member of our team late at night. The person did not see the back-to-back emails until it was just about bedtime. Unsure how to respond at that hour, they waited until morning.
At the start of the next day, they got in touch with the client for a call. The client immediately apologized for the late-night messages, embarrassed by their behavior. The issue turned out to be a misunderstanding.
I cannot help but think that had the team member seen the emails earlier and responded, the heat of the moment would have been explosive, dominating the evening and making a mountain out of a molehill.
Some issues do require our immediate attention, but more often than not, it pays to be selective.
I remember inviting a classmate to my house to "jam" with me in middle school. He'd play piano while I sang and played guitar. I was looking for more people to perform music with and heard that he was quite good.
Despite being a talented pianist, classically trained through childhood, he could not keep up. There I was, self-taught, jamming away, not even sure what key I was playing in while he sat there trying to make sense of every note. Unfortunately, I had no sheet music to guide him.
On paper, he was brilliant. In practice, it was not a good fit. As he packed up to head home that day, I remember thinking that I should have talked to him about what I imagined our session to be like rather than making assumptions about his background.
Whether it's adding a new member to your band or a new project manager to your team, who is the right hire?
Someone with the perfect skillset?
Someone with the right experience?
The right hire for you may not be the right hire for me, but does that make the candidate any less qualified for the job?
Imagine choosing a spouse or friend based on the skills you think they'll bring to the table or their track record with past relationships. While these areas may get surfaced early on in one way or another, they are not enough, on their own, to determine the future of the relationship.
You know you've found the right hire because you can feel it in your gut.
Maybe they don't have the perfect skillset.
Maybe their experience isn't what you'd expect.
Portfolios, resumes, tests, and personality assessments may help you feel better about that feeling, but when you know, you know. And more often than not, when you don't know, but let what's on paper tell you otherwise, you end up wishing you hadn't.
Tonight, I embarked on a piece that took me on a several-hour journey, much longer than expected. It has been some time since I've gotten lost like that. I can remember writing music in my dorm room until the wee hours of the morning, sitting on the bathroom floor strumming my sunburst acoustic guitar, singing softly to myself. You always wonder if what you're creating will be as exciting to you in the morning.
Part of me loves those moments of discovery, while the other part of me loves my sleep.
This weekend, I was out with family for a bike ride and decided to turn a leisurely ride into a workout using the Tabata training method.
Tabata training is a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workout program invented by scientist Dr. Izumi Tabata in the 1990s. It is one of my favorite ways to get in a workout while traveling or when I'm looking for an efficient method for getting my heart rate up. Tabata training is simple:
You can make any workout longer by stacking Tabatas with different movements. For example, a simple and tough 20-minute bodyweight workout could look like this:
Note: You can add optional rest time but only between Tabatas. Try to keep it under 30 seconds!
If you don't have 20 minutes to spare, keep scaling it down. I know we all have four. Regardless of how long you workout, don't forget to get a stretch in before you get started.
Wondering how to track the time? There's plenty of options that don't require you to count in your head or doing "math." My favorite Tabata timer so far is this one. There are apps, too, but I love the simplicity of this timer on desktop and mobile. Yes, it was loudly screaming 3-2-1 from pant pocket while biking this weekend. Tested and approved.
Call it a healthy habit, a daily/weekly/monthly ritual, or a routine; whatever it may be, structure it with enough flexibility to keep it going without ever losing the joy of the practice. Too rigid of a structure can add pressure or stress, and practicing is anything but joyful. If that happens, you start questioning whether or not it's worth it. Then suddenly, you're not practicing at all.
The first sign that a conversation is necessary is when you realize that it will be difficult. Difficult conversations surface the uncomfortable truth we'd rather avoid; otherwise, we'd welcome them. And yet, delaying doesn't serve us. Delays not only delay progress but will only make the conversation more difficult in the future.
The art of lasting change is not about willpower or one heroic effort. It all starts with habits.
"A habit is a behavior that has been repeated enough times to become automatic." (James Clear, Atomic Habits)
Habits only become habits when there is a shift in lifestyle that allows for that activity to exist. Every time you practice a habit, consider yourself taking one step closer toward a larger outcome, whether it's desirable or not.
Eating sweets before bed every night will lead to unwanted weight gain over time. Eating an entire cake in one sitting won't lead to anything other than an upset stomach and maybe some temporary extra pounds.
Doing ten push-ups every morning will lead to a stronger upper body down the line. Suffering through 300 push-ups at once won't do much but make you tired.
"Any good coach will tell you that more is gained practicing a short time each day than doing it all at once. Living with it day by day keeps writing on your mind and in your muscles." (Pat Pattison, Writing Better Lyrics)
Dana and I enjoy watching interior design and home renovation TV shows together. Unfortunately, we have no more seasons left of Grand Designs, so we have been making our way through the latest season of Save My House.
In the episode last night, designers Nate and Jeremiah help an older couple who have been living without floors (plywood subfloor), literally, for 16 years. They were cooking on a cooktop and cleaning dishes in a hallway bathroom sink. The story goes like this: the couple embarked on a renovation almost two decades ago, the contractor was not reliable, then they "could not find anyone" with a good sense of design, so they tolerated this. They had the money, but they gave up. I wish I could show you the shape of this home. I am all for compact living, but this was like living in a construction zone. For 16 years...
At first, I was in disbelief. How could anyone let this go for that long? The couple had become grandparents a few years prior and did not feel safe having their grandson visit, so they never had him over. It was heartwarming to see them smile as he ran around their newly installed floors and kitchen at the end of the episode.
The more I thought about it, the more I could empathize. No, I have never tolerated anything this intense for that long, but I believe we all create obstacles in our lives, sometimes without even knowing, and we go about our days tolerating them.
I think of the suitcase I neglect to unpack on a busy Sunday night after visiting family. The action of the week ensues, so I leave it there, stepping over it night after night as I get into bed.
I think of the clothes that sat in the trunk of my car for months when I said I'd donate them. Whenever we'd need trunk space, I'd have to shift everything around to make room or make it all fit in the backseat.
I let myself become immune to these self-imposed obstacles, taking more energy to work around them than to remove them. When I finally take action, I feel liberated, free. There's a weight that I never even realized was there, only noticing it when it's gone.
The scary reality is that these seemingly small obstacles can have a compounding effect. At first, it's an unpacked suitcase, then a useless trunk. Add a few more, and suddenly, every day starts to look like an episode of American Ninja Warrior.
While we're stepping over suitcases as we try to relax and spending extra time packing when heading out of town is already stressful, our mood deteriorates. Happiness and joy become a thing of the past. All we can think to do is take any drastic measure to turn our situation around and get out of the mess. We hit our breaking point and rely on one giant heroic effort to save ourselves.
We rearrange our room because it no longer feels like a resting place.
We buy a new car because we think we need the space.
Sure, change is good, but not if it's the outcome of sacrificing our well-being. I am still unsure how the couple last night made it work in that environment for so long, but they did. I'm happy to see them happy, but I'm sure there's a big part of them that wishes they unpacked that suitcase 16 years ago, or in this case, committed to finishing the job.
"Youth has no age." (Pablo Picasso)
Today is my birthday. One of those days every year that you feel connected to while to everyone else, it's just another day. I don't know about you, but lately, it's creeped up on me.
I spent this past Sunday at Jacob Riis Park beach with Dana and a friend. We spent a good deal of time talking about our grandparents, but more specifically, getting older. Uplifting, I know.
I drove home thinking about my Mom-Mom & Pop-Pop. For as long as I can remember, they never acted their age. Despite their bodies growing older, their minds remained sharp and full of wonder. At 92 years old, my Mom-Mom is an avid texter, sending me messages like this one I received today:
Not to mention that she can still hang, even if that means roasting marshmallows until the wee hours of the morning.
Looking ahead to my future, it's this youthful spirit I hope to embody at 92 and beyond.
I'll leave you with this video of Dick Van Dyke doing crunches at age 95. I'll take his youthful mind and body, too.
Both of my parents recently replied to one of my newsletters with thoughts and feedback. It may sound odd, but it's a small gesture that goes a long way. Here's why:
Newsletters & Engagement: Having spent many years performing, I'm still getting used to the feeling of developing an idea and putting it out there without ever knowing if you'll receive feedback. You learn to let it go because otherwise, you'd drive yourself crazy thinking about what others think. There may be a mailing list full of people, but there's no obligation for them to engage. When you're on stage, there's an energy in the room you can feel. Not with newsletters. You have no idea how you're doing. Any engagement means the world, especially when it comes from my parents.
Connecting with Parents: A few years ago, I would have told you that I wasn't sure my parents understood what I did for a living. Pretty sure I'm not alone on this! Writing about my personal and professional journey has allowed me to connect with my parents in new ways. Not only do they better understand what I do, but now, we can engage in deeper conversations around topics that interest us both, whether in person or over email.
Making the time to prepare my newsletter on a busy weekend like this past one can be challenging, but once I hit send, I never regret it. Thanks, Mom & Dad, for the increased momentum this week.
"The more you ritualize the beginning of a process, the more likely it becomes that you can slip into the state of deep focus that is required to do great things." (James Clear, Atomic Habits)
We love to go at full speed, flying through life, switching from one thing to the next. When we get stuck, we get frustrated with ourselves. We call it a creative block. We may even give up for a while or seek out new sources of inspiration. The harder we push, the less enjoyable it is to create.
Maybe it's as simple as slowing down and taking those familiar steps, much like getting a good night's sleep. "Sleep is a quiet, relaxing activity, so it doesn't make much sense to try to transition to that directly from something that is quite the opposite. Our bodies don't do well with abrupt changes. Quiet sleep rituals help ease this transition, preparing us mentally and physically for sleep." (Bedtime Routines and Sleep Rituals for Restful Sleep)
When it comes to the creative process, a ritual can be defined however you see fit. Maybe it's a desk only used for one activity, a lighting setup, a type of music, or all of the above. For author Seth Godin, it's all about getting into uniform.
"There's a whole bunch of obligations that go with being a professional that put you on the hook. And for years I've had uniforms at work. I don't usually wear them in public. They change from time to time. The beginning was a lab coat. Lately, I've just been trying the Japanese volunteer fireman hoppy coat because when you put on the uniform, you've just sent yourself a message to your work at your workspace. Do it at the appointed hours. Never, ever miss a deadline." (The Knowledge Project #105: Failing On Our Way to Mastery)
While I have yet to define any distinct rituals for my creative endeavors, I am curious to give it a try, especially after a hectic week where writing hasn't come easy.
"Anxiety is caused by a lack of control, organization, preparation, and action." (David Allen, Getting Things Done)
Complaints are caused by a lack of clarity, empathy, communication, and context.
Anxiety enjoys a good complaint's company.
Ever hear an unfamiliar term come up in conversation? Instead of asking for clarification, you ignore it. Naturally, everyone around you assumes you know. Weeks later, you are in a meeting with a client when they ask you a question. You panic - that unfamiliar term is coming back to haunt you. You respond, but you stumble. You have no idea what they are asking you. What comes out might as well be gibberish. Your words hang in the room for what feels like hours when suddenly, a colleague breaks the silence.
I am no believer in fake it till you make it. Even if you think you made it (whatever that means), at some point, you run out of steam, with no bank of knowledge to draw on and keep going.
You might be thinking, Lucas - sometimes you need to fake it to learn. Sure - we have to explore the unknown to fill in the gaps, uncover new ideas. That is not faking it. Faking it means you are pretending to know when you have no idea. Faking it means you are afraid to look dumb, so you shy away from asking questions.
Here is the thing - no matter how much we know, there will always be something we have yet to discover. When we fake it, we stop being curious. We stop learning. We stop getting better. We plateau.
"If you wish to improve, be content to appear clueless or stupid in extraneous matters — don’t wish to seem knowledgeable." (Epictetus)
A teammate once gave me feedback that when I say "to [insert name]'s point" in group settings, they feel validated. So, when I don't say this, they worry that I'm not on board with their approach or idea.
I had never thought about my use of this phrase or how it might impact others. Our words carry weight, sometimes more than we realize.
We'll likely say something today that we'll disagree with years from now and may have never considered years ago.
I used to worry about this when I first started writing publicly. I thought that if I contradicted myself somewhere along the line, people might call me a hypocrite.
I no longer let myself get hung up on this train of thought. If we are hungry for knowledge and information, our beliefs are bound to change. From that perspective, contradiction can actually be a symbol of growth.
Sharing our ideas and engaging others in them is one way to put our growth in hyperdrive. It not only requires us to articulate our thoughts, but it invites feedback, helping us see the world from a new vantage point.
It's better to have an idea, shape it, share it, learn from it, and evolve it than to never let it out of your mind.
Starting to see that our ability to make progress and build momentum has less to do with time management or prioritization and more to do with how connected we feel to our vision and how courageous we feel to take the first step, no matter how imperfect it may be.
If you walked one mile per day for one year, you could walk the entire length of Pennsylvania (~170 miles) and back. Then, spend the last 25 days or so walking a marathon (26.2 miles).
Just another way of saying that small steps add up, but taking no steps gets you nowhere.
What good is a lamp without power?
It doesn't matter how bright it can shine if it can't shine.
Like a lamp, we all need an outlet for power, an outlet to light us up.
An outlet to experiment.
An outlet to share ideas.
An outlet to learn from others.
An outlet to express ourselves.
An outlet to think.
Unlike a lamp, our outlets can come in many forms.
A group of peers.
We'll never know just how bright we can shine if we can't shine.
We all need a power outlet.
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):
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.
Company Culture / Agency Leadership
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 the employee 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