I was reading an email that detailed the 9th round of changes to a 10-second Instagram video ad when I snapped.
“I can’t do this anymore,” I said to my wife, who had heard the exact complaint every night for the past year.
“Well, let’s do something about it. I can’t listen to this anymore.”
Fair enough, I thought.
I had been running my own advertising agency for almost a year — and I was about ready to burn it all to the ground.
A creative, project management, strategy, and accounting department of one, I had ditched my cushy advertising consulting gig, which included racking up air miles and staying in the Miami Ritz four nights a week, to sit in my 450 sq ft Brooklyn apartment in my pajamas, cranking out endless changes to a video no one would ever watch.
Still, I convinced myself on a daily basis it was a trade worth making.
“You own your time.” (I didn’t.) “You’re doing better work outside of a big corporate agency.” (I wasn’t.) “You can travel whenever you want.” (I couldn’t.)
Pretty much everything I had thought would happen, didn’t. I started with a huge amount of momentum, but now I’d lost my ability to focus and my work ethic was abysmal. I realized that the competitive nature of many of the places I’d worked in the past had been the motivation behind much of my growth and without it, I was stagnating.
I thought about finding a job but decided I would give some self-development a shot before throwing in the entrepreneurial towel.
Some background: I grew up in the UK and hadn’t encountered, let alone considered, anything that would be classified as “self-help” as a solution to any of my problems. “It could be worse,” was the extent of my intellectual toolbox for dealing with stress. And it had done the job, until now.
So, I picked up a few books that seemed to consistently reference great thinkers of the past. Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, Lao Tzu, Confucius, Seneca, Buddha (to name a few) and found many of the principles that had been outlined thousands of years ago had survived to this day — and were now being studied and implemented both professionally and personally by everyone from athletes and entrepreneurs, to investors and artists.
Words I’d written off as useless clichés in the past suddenly seemed to contain profound truth, giving me a new perspective on things I’d been struggling to see a way around. From short-tempered overreactions to unforeseen problems to neutral, considered responses, these books fundamentally altered the way I thought about the world — all in a couple of hundred pages written thousands of years earlier.
I’d scribbled down many of the ideas that stuck with me in an old notebook, adding visual components to some of them to represent the concept itself.
I settled on a simple set of rules to give myself some constraint, relying solely on monochromatic, simple visual forms to force clarity of thought. (I’d spent an immeasurable amount of time earlier in my advertising career making hundred-page pitch decks, so making the most abstract of ideas visual was something that came somewhat naturally, especially when the ideas actually made sense.)
One night I had the random idea to start a Twitter account to see if anyone else would find them interesting or useful.
“Visualize Value'' was the first name that popped into my head (and the username happened to be available) and I started posting, tagging a few people whose words had inspired the content in the first place. A few retweets later and the page was growing at a decent clip. In retrospect, this idea could be called “reverse influence." If you want a shot at more exposure: Make other people look good. Give yourself the job of a remote, unpaid design intern for anyone you admire.
I got into the rhythm of posting a couple of times a day, a positive feedback loop driven by an enthusiastic audience and a book full of notes.
This is not a skill that I learned overnight, nor was it a project I started with a particular concrete goal in mind. Before this, I had spent 10 years working in advertising agencies, design studios, technology startups and financial services firms. I now recognize that this idea bubbled up from a massive variety of experiences, industries and communication challenges, and was ultimately triggered by my failure to accurately predict the stress of building a business I wasn’t that interested in.
"All direction comes from doing. In my case, consistent, imperfect action led me to stumble upon an idea that hasn’t failed yet. The only plan is to keep going until it does."
The momentum came exclusively from the enjoyment I got out of the process. There was no grand strategy at play; I’d simply do the work every day and share it every day. There has not been a day I’ve not been thinking about how to improve this project since it got going a year ago. Much of it was imperfect. I look back at the work I was producing 12 months ago and wonder how it ever took off in the first place. The goal is to have that same feeling 12 months from now.
If there’s one thing I’d love for anyone inspired to start something by reading this, it’s that all direction comes from doing. In my case, consistent, imperfect action led me to stumble upon an idea that hasn’t failed yet. The only plan is to keep going until it does.
After a couple of months of consistently putting the work out there, some great opportunities came my way – offers to illustrate books written by brilliant people and requests to help complex businesses articulate their intellectual property visually. Being invited to contribute to DESK by writing this article is another great example. I’ve been an admirer of Tobias’ work for almost a decade, and there’s likely no way we would’ve connected otherwise.
The most gratifying part: The response from people who were moved enough to reach out about the effect this project had on them. From people trying to overcome chronic procrastination, imposter syndrome, anxiety and a general lack of direction, these images seemed to resonate with people at all stages of life, with vastly different backgrounds, all over the world.
Certainly more motivating than making ads.
In 2019, VV was exhibited at a gallery show in NYC. I took orders for books and posters from over 30 countries, and I’m growing a digital community around a product called the “Daily Manifest," a simple analog tool for planning your days.
In 2020, Visualize Value will continue to design the content and tools that facilitate the change in perspective that saved me from having to go back and take a job I didn’t want.
Before this project, I’d always believed social media to be a negative place, but as they say: “A bad workman always blames his tools.”