On knowing what freedom you have.
This is difficult at first.
Early on I had a full cycling range to design for Berghaus. I expected to be given the art direction or some source of inspiration. But this wasn’t the case. I didn’t feel like I should choose something myself and nor did I know where to start. It’s one thing to invent your own concepts at university, it’s another to craft them brand-aligned.
Yet, you realise in the working world it’s not an order-taking environment. Initiative is appreciated and seldom is being directive a problem. Usually, the worst case is wasted effort so you need only protect yourself from an overdose there to avoid losing heart. As you rise in the ranks you get more of that freedom to set the agenda. It is good practice to start early.
Lesson: Test what freedom you have. Do more than you're asked. See how much is used vs ignored.
Sometimes you’ll need to just take direction. The trick is knowing when and just sucking it up. This is worthwhile experience. Flexibility, humility, patience and all skills towards working for the good of a team are valuable to hone. If pure direction becomes the pattern or it becomes heavy-handed don’t stay in that environment long - it stunts your growth. Be clear with yourself - what do you want from a job?
I have stayed longer than professionally optimal because a) I liked my colleagues and b) it served personal life with stability to get married and buy a house. This is ok. A time for everything. Only don’t drift. Passivity later had me need to work hard to compensate for the comfort I had for a time allowed myself. Don’t copy this. Stay on the front foot.
Lesson: Humility pays. Humility isn’t passivity. Be clear with yourself on why you’re where you are and act accordingly.
In time - possibly quite quickly depending on your character - you’ll see business opportunities for the companies you work for. Suggest them. You’ll likely not get very far, but occasionally you will pique interest. At this point, go hard. This is where initiative comes into its own.
But so does experience, so don’t be disheartened if this chance doesn't come early on. Time doing the work gains you both maturity and trust from senior figures (as it does junior ones) that cannot be bought or shortcut. Whatever small value adds you can give in the day-to-day really earns that trust and goodwill comes as a bonus. I did this by building digital training for my team at FILA unprompted. When it came to pitching bolder web3 ventures I had the ear of leadership. Go above and beyond ahead of big asks and you will find a positive reception much easier.
Lesson: Build trust through small things to have a foundation for big suggestions. Got interest in the big? Go ham.
Remember: people are busy. This means you need to communicate ideas simply. But do so and good management appreciates being given an opportunity they wouldn’t have found themselves. And bad management isn’t a lost cause either. It might only mean more effort, such as building it as though it was their idea. Of course, this comes at the risk of limited credit, which speaks to the fact that bad management is not something you want to be under for long.
But, as I’ve said before, consider the wider factors. Sitting tight at a respected brand for the CV is generally valuable regardless of the manager. Above all, every circumstance demands unique discernment. Think for yourself and ask for advice.
Lesson: Busy requires simplicity. Read the room and tailor your approach to both your communications and your career.
Don’t be married to a career plan. Plan, yes, but watch the wider movements. The biggest upside is in the unknown because diamonds in the dirt are oft-overlooked and your peers want predictability. Blessed with high risk tolerance? That’s rarer than you might realise. Don’t be daft now, but weigh up opportunities and put it to use.
The general idea is to increase your exposure to opportunities. Look up from the catwalk reports and observe the trends shaping the industry: the economy, environment, changing views, new tech… Read, talk to people, spot the pain points. How can you solve them? That’s real design, the career you’ve chosen. Have a go. Do us proud. I’m cheering you on and will help if I can.
Lesson: Look beyond your role and trajectory. Design to solve problems beyond those of the treadmill.
Sucks, right? Wrong. Find a growing niche and it’s instant camaraderie for ‘being early’, ‘the poor relation’ or just plain underground. Learn stuff to share and you’ll make yourself a key part of that world. It’s all that adding value lark. (Yes yes, do a bit of the boring industry stuff too.)
If you’re lucky, things blow up and you’re in the middle. If not, you’ve got a great bunch of professional pals and I promise that’s a form of crafted luck. And it compounds.
Keep a doc to track everyone - names, firms, roles, contact info, personal notes - and use it to check in periodically. Cross-pollinate by connecting folks as much as you can. This works especially well as you establish yourself and build links across niches. For me, major fun’s been had crunching branded fashion, fashion-tech, web3 and art & design academia. It’s only time before Christianity somehow gets thrown in there, being the prime other part of me. But, yes, less obvious, that one. You’ll have something weird, too. Find how it fits and you’re a novel mediator - a fine USP.
Lesson: Network niche with knowledge. (Ok, also: read about Jesus. No? Eternity warrants maximum due diligence. Be sure.)
Move around early and prioritise building relationships in each role. Being known, liked and respected in a proven professional capacity is the most natural and authentic networking there is. It lays great foundations for consulting or founding a firm later because you’ll have a wealth of contacts predisposed to help you. By the time you’re asking for that help, they’ll not only be spread across the industry but in positions of influence too. The moment you first reflect and realise your Tesco meal deal buddies are now the movers and shakers is a good one. Look forward to it. The best bit? You’ll have something to offer too.
A note on imposter syndrome, here. Yes, it’s a thing, but it’s also a silly thing. We’re all just making things up as we go along and if you’re confident you know what you’re doing you might just have outgrown where you are. Enjoy it a while and move on. Remember: the biggest upside is in the unknown - and this applies to personal growth too. The more you can embrace your discomfort zone, the broader your experience inevitably is. Experience is gold. Maybe write a diary and document it. Reading it later to recall the joys, struggles and lessons is waaay heartening and refreshes your memory of the journey. Refining that USP. Pass this on.
You’ll have looked up to your seniors and now you are that senior to others. We may live in an ageist society but there’s a reason the industry captains are usually elder folks. Experience is (g)old. Mine and refine it.
Lesson: Invest in professional relationships from the off. Keep moving. Do, reflect, iterate, share.
✌️ Tom // @_slow_crypto
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