January 8, 2021No Comments

Why you feel uncertain about everything you make

Ask one person you trust for their opinion and you’ll get qualified feedback you can take into consideration for improvement.

Ask two people for their opinion and you may get conflicting feedback that prompts you to dig deeper and form your own conclusion.

Ask three people for their opinion and you may see a trend that confirms or invalidates a theory, swaying you in one direction or the other.

Ask four people their opinion and you have yourself a focus group, whose feedback can support your decisions or make you doubt them.

Ask five people, ten people, 20 people for their opinion and you will get answers across the board, sending you in every possible direction.

Ask enough people for their opinion and you’ll receive whatever answer you’re looking for – plus plenty more you didn’t want to hear. The feedback cancels itself out.

Getting others’ opinion can be valuable, until it’s not. So we must choose carefully when and how we get it. And realize that ultimately, our own opinion is what makes our work original.

December 31, 2020No Comments

The anti-New Year’s resolutions (Updated for 2021)

I suck at New Year's Resolutions. Most of them are boring which is one reason we don't really stick with them.

According to some statistics I didn't fake myself, about 70% of all people abandon their New Year's resolutions already at the end of January. It makes sense. Most of these resolutions are unattainable and the majority of them are just plain boring. Things like, "work out a lot, be healthy" or other crazy goals are just too easy to break as they aren't specific enough.

Now, I don't know about you but if that sounds familiar I might have something for you.

I tried New Year's resolutions myself and always failed horribly. I think the problem was that I focused too much on certain things I WANT to do and then life just happened and boom the year was over.

Now what I do instead is writing an ANTI to-do list which is kind of like a resolutions list, but more focused on the negative aspects I want to avoid in my life. It's like calling myself out and building a system around my mental state rather than focusing on goals that are too easy to dismiss.

If I can avoid doing things I don't want, I automatically attract the things I do want.

It also feels easier for me to focus on specific negative aspects and then avoid them, rather than focusing on a vague goal like "be healthy." For example, it's easier to just cut alcohol from my diet. It's more specific, and it focuses on the negative part I want to get rid of. In turn, I'm more healthy automatically.

Some of these points are more actionable, and some are just little learnings and reminders I want to focus on more in 2021.

1. Stuff is just stuff. Avoid it unless it helps me create. 

I grew up in a fairly poor family, we never had any money. And this is in my head all the time, even though I worked hard for what I have right now. But when I spend money on a nice camera or something else, I always start regretting it, even if I know I can afford it. I try to be extra careful because I fear being on welfare again.

I know it's a good thing, but also bad because it makes me enjoy certain things less. But to enjoy my life more, I put certain rules in place, and one of them is: If I spend money on equipment that helps me create or experiences such as travel, it's NEVER wasted money. Another exception might be stuff you could consider as assets or that help you live a healthier life (such as sports equipment).

Some people ask me: Is your camera worth all the money? Yes it is, without question. It might have been expensive, but it helps me to create. It might be not an asset in itself (as it will lose value over time) but the value I gain from using it for my work makes up for it 100x.

The same goes for travel or paying for experiences that will be with me for my entire life. But otherwise, I try to not waste money on useless stuff, things that just sit around and look nice.

2. Stop being jealous

This is a hard one. I wouldn't call myself jealous, but sometimes when I'm uninspired or unproductive I get jealous and angry at other people who have it figured out more than I do. The thing is, jealousy rarely makes you better or brings anything positive. Both professionally and especially privately, jealousy is the thing that ruins relationships.

It shouldn't hold me back from admiration for what other people do, but jealousy has absolutely no place in my life. I think there is a thin line between admiration and jealousy. It's easy to tip from one into the other without noticing it.

"You’re offended when you fear that it might be true." - @naval


3. Stop being offended & taking things so seriously

Yes, some things in life are serious and not everything is always fun. But taking life too seriously and being offended at everything isn't making my life better. And I'm saying this more for myself than anyone else, because you have all the right (and opportunities) to find offense in things as much as you want. But for me, by being offended I'm not doing myself a favor. It sucks being angry, grumpy and miserable all the time.

Even if things suck big time, I usually try to make fun and focus on the good things. Every time I get offended I usually ask myself why it happened and how I can fix it, rather than blaming someone else for offending me. It's a simple choice that makes my life so much better. I choose to be not offended.

As Marcus Aurelius already said: “You have power over your mind - not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”


4. You know nothing. Avoid assumptions.

I know nothing. The moment you meet someone for the first time you know NOTHING about that person. Nothing about their past, their struggles or their childhood. We're horrible at mind-reading and assuming what the other person thinks or means, yet we still keep doing it. We like to put people into categories because it's easier for us to think that way. Even if we think we're the smartest person in the world, making broad assumptions is usually the most unproductive way of thinking.

It doesn't mean there are no evil people in this world, and surely some people just want to see the world burn. But I strongly believe in always giving the benefit of the doubt. That means I try NOT to jump to conclusions and always give people a chance to clarify their behavior even if other people have already jumped to their conclusions. Just reading the news, most people read only a headline online and already made up their mind.

We live in a world where we value feelings over facts, and while this seems very human, it's also extremely dangerous and may be counterproductive in many cases.

5. Stop trying to be friends with everyone

It's just impossible. Get rid of one-sided relationships and toxic people in your life. Give them one or two chances and then leave. I've spent years trying to be friends with certain people or wondered about "why don't they like me" until I found out this isn't about me, but about them. Don't run after people for too long. Move on, stop trying to befriend everyone.

I learned that the older you get and the more "successful" or happy you are, the more people will hate you for that. Some people dislike happy people because they're jealous and miserable themselves. I'm sometimes that person myself. And that's okay, it's not your problem. Move on.

In Adlerian psychology (written by Alfred Adler, an Austrian psychotherapist) there's this concept of "The delegation of tasks" in which he describes how you can identify "life tasks" and assign them to either yourself or someone else. One of the ways to achieve happiness is understanding what is your tasks and what is someone else's task. If someone doesn't like you, it's simple: Who's task is this to figure out? In many cases, it's the other person's problem/task, not yours.

6. Stop making excuses

I love making excuses because I'm a master procrastinator. The reasons I make excuses is due to many reasons, but mainly because of FOMO (Fear of Missing out) or because I'm just bad at taking risks that aren't necessarily calculated risks.

And that applies to a lot of things. Shutting down a project, quitting your job or not leaving your hometown you hate so much. One of the tricks that helps me is usually to ask one simple question: "Will I regret quitting my job or taking this risk when I'm 60 years old?" Usually the answer is no. I might regret it in the short term, but in the long-term I'd probably regret more staying at my shitty full-time job than quitting it.

7. Stop blaming others around you for not getting what you want.

I'm getting better at this myself. I used to always blame other people. I didn't tell them in their face, but I did it silently. I'd blame my boss for not promoting me, I'd blame my friends for not reaching out, I'd blame other people for making me feel miserable.

But in reality, it was rarely their fault. Blaming others is easy and if I think hard enough about it, I can ALWAYS find a reason to blame other people if I don't get what I want. It's easy to play the victim, I did it countless times myself. It's classic child mentality – if you don't get what you want, start crying and screaming loudly. Make sure your parents look like fucking idiots in the Toys "R" Us store for not getting you that Lego castle you believe you deserve so deeply.

In recent years, I learned that every time I silently blamed someone else, I could've just easily looked at myself and fixed it right there. The reason I didn't get a raise at my job was because I never asked. It goes back to Nr.4 in this list. It's easy to make assumptions, jump to conclusions and then blame someone else. It's also convenient.

I learned that if I feel there is something unfair, I can openly and respectfully talk about it. Some things I fixed within hours where I was silently being grumpy about it for over a year! Isn't that crazy?

8. Give less fucks

I've written about this recently right here. I'm trying to give less fucks and manage my "fucks" better. Maybe it's a sign of getting older but it kind of relates to Nr.5 (not trying to be friends with everyone). Giving less fucks simply means deciding what affects you and what doesn't. It doesn't mean being an asshole, but putting your energy where it's worth it.

With that said, I think this quote by Marcus Aurelius is quite fitting:

“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can't tell good from evil.

But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own - not of the same blood and birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me."

9. "Strong opinions, loosely held"

I try to remind myself of this every single day. It's important to have strong opinions and educate yourself as much as possible. But it is as important to not make your opinions a fact that you can't stand up for. People who know me know that I have strong opinions, but they also know that the moment they give a good counter-argument, I'm the first one to give up my opinions and change my mind. It's not always like this, but I try.

I believe very strongly in this attitude. Have opinions, share them, make yourself heard. But be open to challenge your own viewpoints. Strong opinions, but loosely held means that you have to remove the ego. Some of the biggest thinkers and wisest people in history have followed this principle.

This quote by Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon brings it to the point:

“Be stubborn on vision, flexible on details."

I wish you all a wonderful new year! Stay awesome and keep rocking in 2021. If you enjoyed this article, feel free to forward it to your friends.

Yours truly,

October 27, 2020No Comments

It’s all a game

Despite popular media that suggests otherwise, video games can significantly improve people’s lives. Among many other benefits (some of which I’ve seen myself), the experience of conquering increasingly difficult challenges and steadily getting better can lead video gamers to approach “real life” the same way.

When you see yourself succeed in a video game, you subconsciously feel more equipped to navigate and conquer obstacles in the world outside it. You may see life more like a game, a series of challenges and rewards that improve your skills until you reach your desired outcome.

While I’m the first to advocate for video games, I don’t think we all have to play World of Warcraft to experience these benefits. We can conquer increasingly difficult challenges in other ways. Some might call that a hobby.

In a video game, the stakes are low. If we die, we restart the game. We almost always have an opportunity to try again until we win. At our jobs, the risks may feel higher. We may not always face every challenge and defeat it. The work we do can certainly get harder, but we will inevitably fail at times, and we won’t always have an opportunity to try again. 

We need those low-stakes challenges and rewards outside of work. While it may be just a game or a hobby, we grow through the experience. Our brain transposes it to other areas of our life.

I’m a strong believer that work is part of life. That work/life balance is bullshit. But interwoven in the working and sleeping and eating and socializing are the low-stakes pursuits: Beating the next level in a video game. Skateboarding and learning newer, harder tricks. Going a few miles farther on my bike than I did the day before.

Personal pursuits, hobbies and side projects are essential to my success at work. Maybe they rewire my brain to approach a challenge as another opportunity for reward, rather than with fear. To see a roadblock as an opportunity to learn and get better. To see success in one arena as proof I can conquer another.

September 8, 2020No Comments

How to make a career change into a creative field

It couldn’t be a better time for a career change. 

The current state of the world presents many challenges, but also opportunities.

We are more online than ever. Companies are changing how they operate, some hiring remotely for the first time. With no commute in our schedules, many of us have gained time back in our days to pursue new interests. 

If you’ve been thinking about switching careers to a creative field, now might be your moment.

Of course, it can be hard to know where to start. Do you quit your current job to focus on your new creative pursuit? How do you get a job when you have zero experience in the field? Can you be an intern past your early 20s?

While the answer depends on you, your situation and the specific line of work you want to get into, it doesn’t need to be as complicated or intimidating as it seems. 

If you can, explore your new interest from the safety of your current job

With most creative fields, you can easily dabble before making the full jump. By reading online, trying tutorials, testing out tools and playing around, you can gauge whether this is a passing phase or lasting interest worth investing in. 

In doing so, you’ll have a safety net to fall back on as you determine which way to go next. You’ll buy yourself time to make a sound decision before making the leap.

Do you lose track of time late at night while creating design experiments or tinkering with 3D tools? Do you find yourself winding down by doodling on Procreate? That’s a good sign this is the right direction for you.

Of course, you may not have the luxury to do this outside a full-time job. But if you have a couple free hours in the week, it’s worth researching and experimenting in your field of interest while you still have a paying job. 

Don’t default to what’s trendy – see where your curiosity leads you

It’s tempting to choose a direction that seems the most lucrative or popular, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right decision for you.

Always start with curiosity. 

What are you always reading about online? What ideas and dream side projects do you find yourself returning to again and again? What do you do in your free time, not because you have to, but because you want to? It may not directly translate to your new creative career, but it can be a helpful place to start.

By following your interests and seeing where they lead you, you may uncover where your natural talent lies, and what you’d genuinely enjoy doing eight hours a day. And that’s worth a lot more than a job that only pays well.

Talk to those in the field you admire

Ask your friends in the industry about their experience. Reach out to professors or experts in the field. Learn about the industry you’re entering and make as many connections as possible. 

This can be as simple as a Twitter DM or a cold email to someone whose skills or career path you admire. Just be thoughtful of their time and get to the point – vague emails simply asking for “advice” or to “pick your brain” are a waste of both your time and theirs, and likely won’t get a reply.

Reach out to friends of friends and ask for their honest feedback on your beginner work, or their opinion on the courses or type of work you’re interested in doing. That 30-minute Zoom call could clear up any imposter syndrome you may be feeling, give you the boost of confidence or reassurance you need, or even lead to your next job down the road.

The beauty of the world today: Everything is online

Most of us don't have the option to just drop everything and enroll full-time in school. And you don't have to. You can learn on your own schedule, from wherever you are.

Open Campus at The New School is bringing their entire fall lineup online for the first time. Their courses are designed for the working professional, and with non-credit and credit options available, you can take just one course or pursue a certificate. 

If you're curious, here are some of their online courses starting October 12:

Graphic Design 1

Build your visual communication skills with an introduction to graphic design and experiment with creating powerful, effective imagery.

Introduction to Web and Mobile

Learn to create engaging websites and mobile apps using HTML, CSS and SEO principles.

Information Design for Infographics and Visual Storytelling

Bring ordinary numbers and complex data to life using research, typography, design hierarchy and more.

Storytelling for Time-Based Design

Be one of the first to pursue this innovative field of creating high-impact motion graphics. This course is part of the brand new Motion Design certificate at Open Campus.

AutoCAD 1

Start your interior and architectural design career by learning the industry’s go-to software: AutoCAD. This course is the first in the brand new Interior and Architectural Design Software certificate at Open Campus. 

Just start creating

In the creative industry, it always pays to continually learn new tools, best practices, processes and trends. But education, research and inspiration can also be a clever disguise for procrastination

If you’re always talking about this creative thing you want to do, reading books about it, looking into courses, doing online tutorials, asking friends and tweeting about it, when are you actually creating?

Just begin. Whether that means sitting down in front of your computer and finally signing up for a course, or creating your portfolio to start your freelance business on the side, there’s no better way to do what you want to do, than simply doing it.

August 25, 2020No Comments

There’s more than meets the eye

You see the edited Instagram post. Not the countless photos and strained angles it took to get that shot.

You see the launched product. Not the dozens of failed ones that never saw the light of day.

You see a shark attack in the headlines. Not the thousands of people who swam safely in those waters.

A perfect, enviable couple. Not the bitter disputes at home.

An award-winning novel. Not the years of rejected submissions.

A successful competitor. Not the looming debts to investors.

You see what’s presented to you: The final results. The exceptions. The carefully painted pictures. The headlines that get the most clicks. 

There’s usually more than meets the eye.

August 11, 2020No Comments

You could plan your life, or you could design it

The human-centered design process — from empathy and research to rapid prototyping, iteration and so forth — often helps us to bring meaning, joy and discovery into other people's worlds. But what if this same design mindset could be used to design ourselves and our lives? 

What if we perceived our own abilities, lives, and careers as opportunities for discovery, rapid prototyping and iteration? In other words, what happens when we are the product?

This phenomenon originated at the Stanford d.school, where students across majors scramble each year to enroll in a course called Designing Your Life. The curriculum’s core frameworks have now been disseminated through a best-selling book and bundle of online resources to equip students, mid-career professionals and elders alike with the tools to reimagine their lives through a design lens. 

Take a moment to try one of the Designing Your Life exercises right now, using this worksheet

The idea is this: Instead of envisioning your life as a linear route from Point A to Point B, imagine three disparate paths forward, each addressing a unique set of questions you might have about your future life and career. Title each path like a story, and rank your resources, enthusiasm, confidence and coherence in moving forward. You might be surprised by the unique directions you explore when you give yourself permission to dream a little longer.

This exercise is only scratching the surface. Like other “self-help” approaches, designing your life is a process that requires deep self-reflection, personal awareness, time and courage. And like other design processes, it’s one that involves frequent iteration.

When the methodologies first sunk in for me during my freshman year at Stanford, I couldn’t help but think, “I wish I had learned this back in middle school.”

Growing up in the heart of Silicon Valley, I attended a competitive all-girls school for seven years that championed the motto, “Women Learning, Women Leading.” Being surrounded by high-achieving peers plus teachers with high expectations turned out to be a double-edged sword. My 13-year-old self was ambitious, inspired and motivated… to be perfect.

"I remember once literally wrapping my report card into a gift box to give my parents for Christmas, hearing repeatedly that this was all they wanted."

I was trained to see the world as right and wrong, yes and no, A+ and A-. I would hand-write my essays first in pencil and then over in pen, dutifully erasing the pencil marks from underneath to make my homework as neat as possible. I would raise my hand in class to repeat exactly what the textbook said. I once literally wrapped my report card into a gift box to give my parents for Christmas, hearing repeatedly that this was all they wanted.

Most of all, I remember spending hours with my back curled over a spiral-bound notebook, my right hand vigorously racing across the pages. Through adolescence, I would fill dozens of journals with written reflections on my feelings, relationships and “plans for the future.”

Katie and her Girl Possible team on the road.

Planning our lives is a perfectionist’s dream but the antithesis of designing our lives. Unlike planning events, meetings or meals —which are quite useful exercises with direct, tangible benefits — planning our lives can be futile at best and destructive at worst. The process confines our dreams to the little we know, locking doors before we consider they might exist in the first place.

What color, texture and magic the world opens up to us when we stop having a plan and start exercising a mindset for constantly learning, pivoting and immersing in every moment.

Here are two more exercises you might explore to further apply a design mindset to your life:

1. Lean into your discomfort zone.

a. Draw three concentric circles on a piece of paper, like a target. The innermost circle is your comfort zone. As you move farther from the bullseye, you get farther outside your comfort zone. Everything outside the circle or by the edges of the paper are activities you need the most courage to do.

b. Starting from the center and extending to the outermost ring, write down five to 10 activities in each area that you want to do but might need a little extra nudge to make happen.

c. Finally, compare your comfort zone map with a partner. Did you flag skydiving as “level-three scary,” only to find that it’s squarely within your partner’s innermost comfort zone? Maybe they could show you the ropes. See if there are also activities where the opposite is true and your partner can lean on you in return.

2. Challenge your assumptions and hypotheses.

a. As with any design project, start with what (you think) you know. What are your assumptions about the type of work or environment that makes you feel happy, fulfilled or grounded? What are your hypotheses about the type of industry, role, or company where you belong?

b. Design a low-risk experiment where you can test these assumptions. Are you curious about what it would be like to work at an early-stage startup? Set up a few “lunch and learns” (similar to design research interviews) with people employed at seed-stage companies you admire. Do you fear that you might hate working in sales but recognize a small part of you that wonders, “What if?” Draw analogous inspiration by making calls to boost voter registration or to support a political candidate. Catalog the things you hear, learn and feel along the way.

c. Synthesize your learnings and insights, and keep going.

When I first learned this way of thinking, learning and doing, it flipped my worldview and set me free. I was determined to help bring this mindset to more people — especially youth who might be struggling with the same pressures that had held me back when I was their age.

A few colleagues and I co-founded Girl Possible, a 501(c)3 nonprofit geared towards empowering middle-school girls to become leaders of social change through design thinking. We raised $35,000 on Kickstarter to spend 14 weeks driving across the US in an RV, teaching design thinking and leadership workshops to 1,500 girls across 32 states. Since then, we’ve evolved our curriculum into a series of teaching toolkits, a summer program and more.

Girl Possible helps middle school girls uncover their individual leadership abilities, think critically, articulate their ideas and connect with others to tackle real issues in their communities. Photo credit: Austin Meyer

In our workshops, we address the million-dollar question that every student has been asked: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

A writer? Doctor? Lawyer? Musician? This question suggests that at some point, we suddenly “grow up” and become a single entity that already exists in the world and has a name. It assumes our journey to be finite, our path linear, and our destiny meant to be predetermined.

At Girl Possible, we flip this question and ask girls instead, “What kind of change do you want to create in the world, and how can you take the first step towards achieving that dream today?” In other words, we ask girls to stop planning their lives and start designing them.

Katie leading a Girl Possible camp session. Photo credit: Austin Meyer

Most recently, I co-founded Period Futures to help spark curiosity and conversation on the future of periods. Inspired by the same design mindset and question of “What if?”, our team regularly releases design provocations intended to push the boundaries on what’s possible, equitable and culturally-acceptable in menstrual health.

For example, what if “leak-free” apparel were no longer the exception, but the norm? Imagine a world where “100% period-friendly” was a universal standard or formal certification for clothing manufacturing that you could expect to see clearly marked on the tags of underwear, shorts, skirts, pants, dresses and suits across major brands and suppliers.

Or, what if middle schools were visited by a traveling “maker-space on wheels” where students could build their own custom period product? Envision 11- and 12-year-olds gaining hands-on learning experiences on the menstrual cycle as they 3D-print their own menstrual cup or disc, or sew their own washable pad.

Katie also co-founded Period Futures, which sparks curiosity and conversation around the future of periods. Illustration by Roshi Rouzbehani

If you had asked me a year ago, I would have categorized “talking about periods” squarely within my discomfort zone—let alone launching an organization focused on igniting more conversations in this space. Now, it’s difficult for me to imagine a more fascinating or meaningful sector to explore. Designing around the future of periods has unlocked new ideas for me around what my own future might hold, too.

We are all living, breathing prototypes, constantly growing, evolving and transforming in beautiful ways. Forget perfect plans, narrow paths, and what we should say when we raise our hand and voice. Through designing our lives, we can unlock futures we might have never thought possible.

April 6, 2020No Comments

How to be helpful

This applies whether you’re working with a client, running a business, doing customer support, trying to be useful within your team or simply trying to help someone out.

“Be useful.” As I’ve said many times here, I live by this rule. It’s what inspires my product, my work and my life day-to-day. Admittedly, it can take effort. Looking out for myself and my own time comes more naturally than going out of my way for others. And despite my best intentions, the efforts I do make aren’t always as helpful as I imagine they will be.

Through it, I've learned what works and doesn't work when I'm trying to help others, no matter the context.

Get to the point.

Cut out the disclaimers, small talk, excuses, buzz words or lengthy introductions. Help as soon as possible, as clearly as possible.

Especially when it comes to emails, we tend to pad our messages with fluff. Rather than helping, this wastes your time and the receiver’s time. Just give people the answer or the assistance they need from the start.

Don’t make assumptions about the person you are helping.

Our biases blind us. We assume people are using our product a certain way, or need a specific solution, or are struggling in a way we’ve personally struggled, and we act based on those assumptions.

This only wastes time and leads to errors. Instead of assuming you know what the painpoint or solution is, ask questions. Dig around about and seek other perspectives. When it comes to your product or company, this is even more important. Every time you help someone, you learn how your product can be better. Making assumptions about your users removes that possibility.

Don’t make people do more work for your help.

Aim to make it as easy as possible for the person you’re helping:

Try to answer your own questions before you ask them.
Anticipate the other person’s questions before they ask them.
Try to go as far as possible with the information you’ve been given.
Don’t make people chase you down for the help you promised.
Deliver your help in the time period you said you would.
When possible, exceed expectations and overdeliver.

Don't avoid or bury the bad news.

People can sense bullshit, and they don’t respond well to it. It may be tempting to circle around the truth, but it will usually backfire and lead people to lose trust in you or your business.

When you make it an unwavering policy, transparency is surprisingly easy. You find yourself in a tricky situation with your back against the wall and instead of panicking and scheming, you immediately know what to do: Tell the truth. Of course, you should have tact when you do so, but don’t mistake bullshitting for tact.

A good rule: If you find yourself working and reworking your message to get it just right, you're probably bullshitting.

Talking around the negatives causes more confusion and frustration. Honesty makes you appear confident and builds trust.

Apologize when necessary. And when not necessary.

Hearing an apology from someone (sometimes, even if no one is at fault), goes a long way for the person in need. If you’re not apologizing for something you actually did, be sorry they are frustrated, sorry the information was unclear, sorry your product didn’t meet their expectations. If you actually did something wrong, acknowledge it quickly and genuinely, then and immediately offer your best solution.

Swallow your pride and strive for genuine empathy. It can make all the difference.

March 19, 2020No Comments

The new school is YouTube. The new student is autodidact.

You may already be aware that I'm self-taught. That journey, for me, started almost two decades ago. I did finish high school, but that is pretty much everything I have on paper. Since then, the world has changed.

When I started out, there weren't many resources online. People in the digital space weren't disseminating knowledge the same way they are today. I would've killed to have someone I admire either share their thoughts or let me look over their shoulder. To get a glimpse behind the scenes.

The internet, not too long ago, didn't have YouTube. No design courses existed online. All we had was a couple IRC channels and forums – and most of these were invite-only, meaning you only mingled with those on the same experience level as you. You rarely had a chance to see what the "upper class" of design is doing. If I did happen to get access to a PSD file from a "famous" designer, it could keep me up for nights just studying the layers, replicating the effects, understanding how it was done. But that  rarely happened. Being self-taught in the early days of the internet meant taking the hard road and figuring it out yourself as much as you can.

Thinking about it now in 2020, things have changed massively. A self-taught education might still not be the most common path, but it's the one of least resistance, with an abundance of resources.

"The new student doesn't have to go to college, taking on a huge debt that will follow them around for the majority of their most productive years."

In 1990, the lack of resources made it difficult to be self-taught. In 2020, the abundance of resources almost has a paralyzing effect on people. Many people aren't learning on their own because there is simply TOO MUCH information out there. They don't know where to start. And isn't this an amazing problem to have?

We have YouTube: Completely free and ready to teach you pretty much everything you want to know about every topic you can imagine. You just have to search for it.

We have online courses, blogs, Twitter and Instagram. The tools and resources available today only mean that more people can and should be autodidacts.

YouTube is the new school. The new student doesn't have to go to college, taking on a huge debt that will follow them around for the majority of their most productive years. (I have slightly different thoughts on schools in Europe, which are mostly free to attend). Honest truth: I believe the majority of people shouldn't even go to college. I'm not saying that college is categorically bad, I just don't think it's the best solution for many, depending on the subject matter.

At least at this point in the digital age, schools have a completely outdated way of teaching and preparing young people for their professional career. Especially if this career is part of the new technology movement. The internet, however, is adapting and updating at every given moment.

I believe alternative learning scenarios, not bound to the rules of traditional education, will only continue to become more powerful. And I will do my best to support it, to contribute resources I would have loved when I started out as a self-taught designer. It might not replace a school, but it's my way of contributing a tiny bit to a system that is slowly changing.

March 12, 2020No Comments

Who am I trying to impress?

I ask myself this question regularly. It's a preventative measure to help me avoid getting side-tracked.

Humans are wired to seek approval from other people. We want to feel accepted. We want to be part of the inner circle. Even if we think we're immune to it, we still fall for it. It's survival instinct.

Unfortunately, this desire to be accepted can take you on the wrong path without you even noticing.

To stay on course, I ask myself this very simple question: "Who am I trying to impress right now?"

If I like the answer, then all good. But if I don't like the answer, I need to change something.

Early in my career (and it still happens), I put so much energy into impressing certain people, for the wrong reasons. Whether it was industry leaders I wanted to accept me, peers I was trying to compete with or my own family and friends, I was always seeking external approval. I spent so much energy just chasing one or two people's acceptance, I eventually forgot why I was doing it.

The desire to impress isn't always negative. It motivates us to get better, to take care of ourselves. But asking this one question, regularly, has helped me stay on my path: Who am I trying to impress, and why?

February 23, 2020No Comments

How to be a self-taught designer

I always described myself as a self-taught designer. It was the best term I could find; I never studied anything at university and dropped out of high school at 15 years old.

But I believe that being self-taught is a bit overrated nowadays, mostly because it just makes a good story. Being self-taught isn’t the opposite of going to university. Most students are self-taught as well, even if they learned the “official” way.

Whether you are formally educated or not, you will always learn from someone else. It may be books, mentors or YouTube. The only difference between taking a class and teaching yourself is that you learn on your own agenda. When you're self-taught, you choose your teachers and you set your own goals.

Being self-taught is rarely an active decision. You never say, “OK, I’m going to be self-taught instead of studying something." "Self-taught" is just the result in retrospect.

It usually starts with curiosity.

If you are curious about something and you are willing to learn, everything happens by itself.

An example:

As a kid, I was always interested in how electronic devices work. I would grab whatever device I could get my hands on – my Walkman (the thing before the iPod, if you remember what an iPod is), our family TV or computer – and take it apart until I had a lot of parts and screws on my table.

Then I would start to assemble it back together, trying to see if the device would still work after its surgery. Most of the time it did not. But I repeated this process again and again until it eventually worked out.

I had no goal to learn; I was just curious. But I learned a lot while doing it. The process of taking apart and assembling made me better each time. While doing so, I'd create my own little problems and then solve them. At that point, I wasn’t even creating anything new, just playing around with what’s already there.

After some time, I learned which electronic part does what, and that’s where the magic came in. Now that I understood the basics, I tried to manipulate it to create something new. My first step at being creative & creating something from scratch.

The learning process is about connecting the dots. But to connect the dots, you first have to collect them. I collected my first dots when taking random devices apart . Then I connected them again.

Everything starts with curiosity and your first step. Just listen to your instincts. My instincts told me that I should take the devices apart, see how they work and then put them back together .  No one told me that at the time. When you let yourself follow this process, everything else happens on your way.

"Self-taught is a result, not a goal. It's a verb, not an adjective."

That’s why I started as a computer scientist first. I was curious about it, then decided to be a software engineer because I wanted to learn how to program my own piece of hardware which I just built. Without it, it was just a piece of electronics.

Then I started becoming a designer because I always spent more time designing my software and making it more useful. Coding, in my case, was just the step before designing. Turned out, designing was what I was really passionate about.

After becoming a designer, I learned how important the actual content is that you design around. That led me to creating my own content & products. I’m still in the middle of it.

People often ask me for advice about being self-taught. "Any secret tips for being a self-taught designer? And books to read?" I can’t recommend books because there is no such thing as “How to be a self-taught designer for dummies." Self-taught is a result, not a goal. It's a verb, not an adjective. It's not a decision you make up-front, but the process once you’re already into it.

Today, I try to apply the concept to everything new I want to learn about. That could be photography, trying to get into audio, building a product or simply figuring out how I can fix & understand myself.

Elon Musk is a perfect example of being self-taught in his own way. Sure he has a bachelor in physics. But prior to SpaceX or Tesla, he had no experience in mechanical engineering or astrodynamics — both needed to build rockets and send them to space.

He started at the bottom. Reading books about the fundamentals, asking other people and Googling his way up. Trying to build a rocket, blowing it up a couple times and figuring out what went wrong. Then trying again. I can just picture Elon Musk sitting at home in front of his computer, punching in “How to build a rocket” into Google.

“All I have learned,
I learned from books.”
― Abraham Lincoln

If Abraham Lincoln would have written this quote in 2020, it would probably be, “All I have learned, I learned from the internet and books.”

While I can't give step-by-step advice to being self-taught, I have learned a few guidelines along the way. Whenever I've tried to learn something new or get into a new field, I've found this to be true:

1. It’s about the organic process.

This isn’t something you can force yourself into. You just start with the first thing that comes to your mind. What have you been curious about? What are you feeling drawn to right now? That's your beginning point. The rest happens on its own.

The good news is: There is nothing you can do wrong. Breaking something is actually a good exercise, just so you can fix it again. Which brings me to my next point.

2. Don’t listen to other people telling you what’s right or wrong.

If I would have listened to anyone, they would have told me to not take a fully functional TV apart and break it with my stupidity, only to spend hours trying to fix it. But for a fact, that was what helped me most.

3. Surround yourself with people who motivate you and encourage you.

Make friends with people who are “better” than you. That’s what Donny Osmond said and I think it’s partly true. But I like to replace “better” with “crazier” or “different.” It's those people who will introduce you to different perspectives and make you curious about the world, rather than getting complacent.

And find people who believe in you and make you feel good about what you do, regardless of the outcome. These personalities are rare so if you find them, keep them.

4. Always help other people.

Even if you are a beginner yourself, you can always teach and give something back to those who are trying to catch up. Magical things will happen when you do. You don’t have to be a master to help someone out.

5. Breaking the rules is probably the most important piece.

Fear kills curiosity, which is a key element here. So don't be afraid. Break the rules, do it wrong. What if you fail? Great, you're learning. What if you don’t like it? Then don’t do it, do something else. It’s that simple. The good thing about being self-taught is that you just don’t know how to do it, so you do it your way and just make it work.


Related reading:

My personal story of becoming a designer
University vs. self-taught
Faking it = making it

November 5, 2019No Comments

The art of doing

I’ve written about this so many times. Directly and indirectly, inspired not only by my own thoughts, dreams or concerns, but often those around me. A conversation with a friend that keeps repeating itself, in circles, again and again.

Why is it so hard to do the things we want to do?

Do we not want it enough?

Are we afraid of what happens if we fail?

Are we afraid of what happens if we succeed?

We can come up with myriad reasons, some valid and others perhaps not so much. Some say the start is the most crucial part of every project. Most fail before they even begin. The rest fail at the last 10% (but that’s a different story for another time).

Below are some tips and tricks I find helpful when working on my own projects, or starting up a new one.

The name is temporary

If you can’t find a name for your project, don’t worry. A name is temporary and can be changed any time. This is even more true in the early days of your project. While a good name can make a huge difference later on (those who work in branding know this), it doesn’t really matter in the beginning.

Move quick. Pick a “working title” as they do with movies. Don’t get held up because you can’t find the perfect name. Chances are you won’t find it for a while and you will just stumble upon it while working on something else.

"What problem are you trying to solve, and how can you solve it in the hackiest, most minimalistic way possible?"

You don't always need the .com

Don’t postpone your projects because you couldn’t find your perfect domain name or social media username. Focus on what’s important; you can always take care of the domain later. My own company, Semplice, started out as semplicelabs.com and only years later were we able to get the semplice.com domain. If you have a name you like, use .io or .co domains or whatever else is available and works for you in the meantime.

Don't overthink the technicalities

If you have an idea for an app, your first prototype might not need to be a fully-fledged app. Perhaps it can start out as an email list or a spreadsheet. What problem are you trying to solve, and how can you solve it in the hackiest, most minimalistic way possible?

Don't let overthinking or perfectionism kill your project before you even begin. If your idea is to create an e-commerce platform, don’t yet worry about logistics or hiring an engineering team to build out your online shop. Take the core of your idea and simply start an Instagram account or a YouTube channel.  Build an audience, test the idea, see if people like it and only then move forward. If you find you have high demand and no platform to support it, that’s a good problem and where you want to be.

"All you want in the beginning is to see some momentum."

Build light and validate fast — "The minimum love-able product"

What’s the minimum you can do to make people understand and love the idea of your project? Create a landing page, curate a small Instagram account and run a few very specific ads to drive some traffic to your product. Watch the numbers and go from there. All you want in the beginning is to see some momentum. This is not only good for your product, but also your mind. You need it to stay motivated and keep moving forward yourself.

Keep it stupid

I've been preaching this message for a long time now. “Keeping it stupid” means you’re not over-complicating your idea and finding an excuse to procrastinate. Your idea and execution should be so simple that others might think it’s stupid. That’s when you hit the sweet spot of just enough challenge to move forward, but not too much to get stuck.

Albert Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.” It's a good way to keep your idea simple, for yourself and those around you, and actually launch it.

March 21, 2019No Comments

The day you became a better designer

This blog rarely addresses subjects such as "How to solve UX problem XYZ" or "How to set up a perfect grid" for a reason. While these are valid topics and plenty of other platforms publish articles about them, they have no place here.

Ask any designer you admire for advice and they won't tell you to follow design blogs or read design magazines. They won't tell you to read a book about design process either. They won't point you to the latest trends in web design or a list of keyboard shortcuts.

Great designers know that nobody has it all figured out. They know tools and techniques matter, but they don’t make us better designers.

Becoming a better designer means becoming a more informed human. Every designer, from advertising designers to product designers, deals with a different set of problems. Regardless of the problems they are trying to solve, every designer caters to humans.

The day we become better designers is the day we start looking outside the design industry for inspiration. It's the day we start reading books about philosophy, psychology, art or science. It's when we stop hanging out with only designers and start making more friends in other industries. When we start a new design job and ask to sit next to someone from a different department.

"All this creative potential and we've only created a bubble."

Humans have a tendency called confirmation bias. We interpret the world in a way that validates our existing beliefs. This means we tend to agree with people who agree with us. We hang out with people who see the world similarly and make us feel comfortable. Designers are especially prone to confirmation bias. We are proud to hold strong opinions and therefore strive for internal consistency by seeking confirmation from our peers.

The result is an insular community existing in perfect isolation. We visit conferences attended and lead by only designers. We read magazines and books from and for designers. We hang out with other designers. All this creative potential and we've only created a bubble.

Our view narrows as we limit our field. By restricting our friend circle to others who think just like us, we fail to challenge ideas or beliefs contradictory to our own. While it makes us feel comfortable and protected, it can also be an inspirational trap.

As creative people, shouldn't we be the ones most curious and open about the world? Shouldn’t we be the ones connecting the dots that others might not be able to connect? How can we do so without experiencing and understanding the world beyond our industry? By immersing ourselves in different perspectives, we draw a much richer and more balanced picture. We can collect the dots and connect them. This enhances our work.

"Talent is developed in solitude, character in the rush of the world." Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Consider the artists and designers who create covers for publications like The New Yorker or Bloomberg Business Review. They are great not because of their craft, but because they immerse themselves in current events and culture. They are informed in fields outside their expertise. Design as a craft just provides them with the tools and framework to make sense of that information. The poignancy of those covers is not a result of simple research before each project. It's part of who these designers are. They are as much communicators as they are designers.

As Walt Whitman said, "Be curious, not judgmental." Endless curiosity is one of the most important traits of a great designer.  Spending time with non-designers allows you to avoid meaningless feedback loops, group-think and monocultures. Surrounding yourself with people who challenge your beliefs, who disagree with you and offer new perspectives, helps you grow. Becoming a more well-rounded person makes you a more effective designer.

Of course, spend time with designers too. Read the design magazines and books if you are so inclined. Tutorials and other design resources can be useful to the task at hand. But don't stop there. Look beyond the design community, the top trends, the tips and tricks, the tools and process. All the design blog posts in the world won't make you a better designer, despite what the headline may promise. Experiencing the world itself will.

January 24, 2019No Comments

When pride is a good thing

For most of our lives, we’ve been taught pride is a negative trait. Pride is associated with conceit, an over-inflated ego. We’ve all heard “pride comes before a fall.” But without some sense of pride, we would get nothing done and live unhealthy, unproductive lives. So what’s the right balance?

The tagline for Semplice, my portfolio system, is “build with pride.” I believe we should strive to do work that makes us proud, and Semplice is my attempt to help creatives do this. Having pride in our work means doing our best. It means creating something worthwhile, rather than something that just gets the job done. Sharing your work because you are proud of it is not bragging. It’s caring. This form of pride is healthy. It motivates us and keeps us moving forward.

Lately, it seems society has embraced the concept self-love. In our social media obsessed, anxiety-ridden world, we are being reminded to celebrate our accomplishments, take care of ourselves and be unashamed of who we are. That’s all terrific, but this often seems to translate to nothing more than more Instagram selfies. Mantras like “Don’t apologize for who you are. You are perfect.” have, with exceptions, become tired lines meant to sell fast fashion or get another follower. Of course we should love who we are and take care of ourselves, but our current approach seems rather empty.

Pride doesn’t mean you believe you are perfect without flaws. Pride means you are never 100% satisfied with yourself or your work. Because deep down, you know you can be more. You’re proud not because you think you are the best. But because you believe this is just one step on your path toward greatness. In a sense, this is a form of conceit. It’s almost delusional. You set a high bar for yourself without any real proof you are capable of reaching it. But it’s that delusional sense of pride that helps you grow. Pride isn’t just about what you’ve already done. It’s about what you’ll do next.

Being content with what you’ve made, who you are or how far you’ve come is important. Minimizing shame and insecurity is necessary for a happy existence. Loving ourselves makes the world a better place. But if we stop there, we’ll miss out on so much potential.

With a healthy sense of pride comes humility. It's recognizing our flaws and accepting who we are. And at the same time, knowing we can be better.

December 21, 2018No Comments

No regrets

Much of our lives are defined by regret. The one who got away. The job opportunity we missed. The words we never said.

A certain amount of regret can be healthy. It reminds us what’s important. It teaches us to be proactive, assertive, honest, kinder, present. But regret is also toxic. Fixating on the past can cause us to make choices out of fear or obligation. It can destroy the present.

In chaos theory, there’s a concept called the Butterfly Effect. It essentially means one small change can have large effects later. The name comes from Edward Lorenz’s example of a butterfly’s flapping wings influencing the formation and path of a tornado. While the butterfly is just a metaphor, Lorenz’s experimentation methods are still used today for daily weather forecasts.

In a less scientific sense, we’ve experienced the Butterfly Effect in our own lives. If we only hadn’t left our bag at home. If only we hadn’t changed our route on the way to work. If only we hadn’t asked our friend for that favor. Our actions have consequences, which makes it easy to wonder what would have happened if we’d done things differently.

By looking at the events in our lives through the lens of the Butterfly Effect, we can lift some of the burden of regret. If every small decision or action we make can change the course of events forever, there’s no way to make a wrong decision.

If you hadn’t gone out to dinner in the city that night you wouldn’t have been in that car accident. But if you’re considering cause and effect, you can’t stop there. If you hadn’t met that girl at work, you wouldn’t have moved to the city in the first place. And if you hadn’t accepted that job, you never would have met the girl. If every small decision has a non-linear consequence, there’s no one to blame for the result. And there are many decisions along the way (the girl, the new job) that you wouldn’t necessarily want to change. So what’s left to regret?

Of course, there are times we can’t dismiss regret and shouldn’t. Regretting something we’ve done wrong (or failed to do) shapes us into better people. But no matter the situation, regret doesn’t change the decisions we’ve already made. It can only, hopefully, help us make better ones moving forward. Even then, we have little control over many events in our lives. All we can do is try our best right now.

November 29, 2018No Comments

Dreams vs. goals

The end of the year is quickly approaching and with it, New Year's Resolutions. Studies say only 8% of people achieve their resolutions, mostly because we set unrealistic or unspecific goals. I believe part of that could be solved by recognizing the difference between a dream and a goal.

Practical goals are concrete, with tangible steps on a timeline. Dreams are aspirational. With a dream there is likely no timeline – we may not pursue a dream at all. But dreams give us hope. They are the futures we fantasize about. The issue is when we mix the two up.

We look at our desires differently depending on whether we see them as a goal or a dream. If we consider our desire a goal, we make a plan to achieve it. We have our checklist and our timeline. We see an end in sight.

If we consider it a dream, we believe it’s more far-fetched or possibly even out of reach. We think about it often, but we may be less likely to actually do something about it. We tell ourselves it’s just a crazy idea, something we’d do years from now, maybe not even possible. We build this narrative around a thing and soon we believe it. It’s a dream, and sometimes dreams don’t come true.

Perhaps if we defined goals vs. dreams from the start, we would be more likely to accomplish our goals — and even turn our dreams into tangible results.

About eight years ago I moved from Austria to New York. It started as a seemingly far-fetched dream. I mean, the visa process alone was so daunting, it felt safer to think about it that way. But the more I dreamed about it, I realized this could be a realistic goal I could actually achieve.

It started with just a little research. The research turned into some emails. The emails eventually lead to a job, which got me a visa sponsorship. From there, I had a whole new list of goals to work toward. Each brought me one step closer what I originally thought was a dream. (Of course, it was much more complicated than that. I wrote a lot more about it in my book, Let’s Go to NYC.)

For others, moving to New York is still a dream. Uncertain and with no immediate timeline, just floating hazily in the back of their mind. My Big List, which guides my decisions for my personal life and career, has many such dreams. When reviewing this list, I ask myself: Are these dreams really just dreams? Or should they be goals? If yes, how can I accomplish these goals? How can I break them down into smaller, achievable steps that take me one step closer to what I want to do?

In most cases, our “unrealistic goals” aren’t necessarily unrealistic. They are just goals disguised as dreams.

For more of my personal thoughts on New Year’s resolutions, read about my anti-resolutions.

November 5, 2018No Comments

The best work I’ve ever done

What's your favorite project you’ve worked on? What’s the best work you’ve ever done?

I am often asked some form of this question in interviews, and I always struggle with it. I can never think of an answer I won’t cringe about later. Not only do I feel awkward and self-indulgent answering questions like this, but I am also rarely satisfied with my own work.

I’ve worked on plenty of enjoyable projects and I’m proud of the work I do overall. I share a range of my projects and speak positively about them in my portfolio. But narrowing my career down to one “best” or “favorite” project implies that I’m totally happy with it, and I never am. It feels like I’m saying this is the most I am capable of doing. That I’ve already done the best I can do.

It seems many creatives feel dissatisfied with their own work. An overly critical eye and imposter syndrome tend to be part of the job description. But why are we most critical with ourselves?

Early on in our career, it’s the difference between our talent and our taste. Like someone who has a beautiful image in their head and can only draw a stick figure, it can be crushing to see the gap between our ideas or taste and our actual talent.

As Ira Glass puts it, “For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.”

As a young designer, you know what good design is, but you can’t seem to create designs that live up to that standard. As you keep working hard and growing in your career, you close that “gap” and your taste and talents start to align.

Yet now that I’m more seasoned in my career, this self-critical nature still comes down to the difference between my vision and the execution. Perhaps it is perfectionism at play, a weird form of pride in itself. I can see everything I intended to do versus what I actually did. I see the things missing that I meant to include. I notice all the parts where the image in my head doesn’t match the final result.

While the viewer may notice these shortcomings, it’s more likely they don’t. After all, they don’t know exactly what I intended to do. They only see the final result. Or maybe they do notice and that’s fine too. That either helps me improve or, at this point in my career, I choose to trust my taste and talent.

Still, I don’t think I will ever be 100% satisfied with my work. To me, that means I’m being complacent. That I’m not challenging myself enough. Despite our world's obsession with it, I’m not striving for the very best. I’m only striving for better.

Instead of letting the self-doubt stifle me, I let dissatisfaction drive me to keep creating. I compete with myself to do better than the last time. I like to think my best project is my next project. This way I am motivated to see what’s ahead, rather than looking behind.

February 9, 2018No Comments

Ask for what you want

Often I'll hear from people, especially on Twitter, who try to pitch me on their product in a roundabout way – asking questions and making small talk before finally revealing they just want to sell me something.

First they ask what product I'm using for X, and I do my best to answer because I think they're asking for advice. Then, after more questions and back and forth, they'll say, "Hey, well maybe you should try X from this company I started, it's pretty awesome."

There are few things that upset me, but this kind of conversation does. It wastes my time and I can guarantee I won’t be looking at whatever product they're talking about, especially not after a cheesy sales technique like this. Very likely I would have checked out the product if they would have pitched it immediately, being transparent upfront, but not after wasting my time and misleading me by trying to establish a fake dialogue.

I understand why they do it. It’s a classic sales technique, although an outdated one that doesn’t work very well over Twitter. It’s unfortunate, because all the effort and usually good intentions are wasted, and the sales pitch is often forgotten in the following disappointment and anger.

If someone believes they have a tool that would make my life better, I would much rather have a real, straightforward conversation with them about it. I always appreciate the hustle of people who work on their own products or are proud of what they do and want to share it with the world, as long as they don’t spam.

It's quite simple, but a lesson I’ve only learned slowly myself over the years: Ask for what you want. Don’t waste someone's time with small talk — be straightforward and just ask for it. Will this guarantee you will get what you want? Absolutely not, but it keeps life simple and you would be surprised how often it works.

"Of course I’m not saying you should be an asshole running around demanding everything be given to you."

When I started out as a designer I always struggled with salary negotiations or asking for a promotion. I never asked the question directly, I always talked around it cryptically or didn't ask at all, hoping my hard work or skill would speak for itself. Then I would be disappointed or frustrated when nothing happened, despite the fact that I did nothing to make it happen myself. But at some point I learned to just straight out asked for what I wanted, and I can tell you it always worked. It either worked because I got the raise, or because I got a clear NO with points on I would have to improve first.

Of course I’m not saying you should be an asshole running around demanding everything be given to you. I simply mean we should state our clear intentions. Put all our cards on the table. Don’t let others speculate. That goes for making sales pitches on Twitter, sending emails, asking for raises and whatever else we're hoping to get out of the world. It almost never hurts to just ask for it.

Malika Favre, a friend of mine and super talented artist and illustrator, shared in an NTMY interview with me how this worked out for her.

“The first thing that came out of my mouth was, ‘Can I have your job?'”

At the beginning of her career, Malika had an internship at a studio. They didn’t have a full-time job for her then, so she ended up getting one somewhere else. But she still had that studio on her mind. A year later, she bumped into someone she previously worked with there during her internship, and he said he was leaving his job at the studio to go freelance.

“The first thing that came out of my mouth was, ‘Can I have your job?’” Malika says. “It just came out. And he looked at me and said, ‘Maybe?’ And the next day I had a call from the boss.”

Of course this was also a matter of being in the right place at the right time. But because Malika had already proven herself and felt confident she was qualified for the job, she skipped the polite small talk and simply asked for what she wanted. It paid off.

Don’t assume or speculate. Don’t let other people guess. And more importantly, don’t dance around the thing you actually want to talk about. Always ask for what you want, and it will make the world so much easier for you and those around you.

December 12, 2017No Comments

Competing with yourself

Many Americans read the book, “To Kill a Mockingbird” at a young age. It’s considered an American classic and is often required reading in high school. Harper Lee published the book at age 34 and never published another book until right before she died at age 89 in 2015.

Over the years, when asked why she wouldn’t write another novel after seeing such crazy success, she said:

“I'll put it this way. When you have hit the pinnacle, how would you feel about writing more? Would you feel like you're competing with yourself?”

That comment hits me hard. I haven’t seen the type of success that Harper Lee did, but the feeling of competing with myself has always been there. It’s paralyzing if you let it be, a fear that gets inside your head and suffocates creativity. It can make you feel like a fraud, because you’re not sure you can live up to your own and others’ expectations. But I’m thankful for this feeling because I’ve made it work for me, instead of against me. In fact, I think I would have failed long ago without it. I’m a competitive person and probably my own worst (or best?) enemy.

"Your past contributes to who you are, but it’s still the past. You have to keep evolving."

It’s commonly said in sports that you’re only as good as your last game. While that’s an incredible amount of pressure to put on yourself, I mostly believe this is true. Your past success contributes to who you are, but it’s still the past. You have to keep evolving and or you are wasting your time.

I’ve heard from many artists who live by this rule. NYC fashion illustrator Katie Rodgers is one of them. Katie is known for her whimsical illustrations for brands like Disney, Coach and Swarovski, so she often gets requests to do similar work for other clients.

That kind of work may be easy, no pressure. But Katie knows it can become a dangerous pattern.

“You’re like a little robot churning out things you’ve already done before,” she explains on an episode of the NTMY Show.


That’s not the way Katie chooses to operate. Instead, she makes it a point to accept projects that force her to grow. The challenging, intimidating ones that she’s not even sure she can do.

“I will never turn down something because I’m nervous,” she says.

Of course it’s a balance and sometimes you just need to take on projects to make ends meet. Even Katie admits it’s hard to evolve on someone else’s dime. So sometimes, the only place you can evolve is through your personal work.

That’s how Malika Favre does it.

“That’s the only time when you can do anything you want,” Malika says. “And if your personal work is strong enough, it becomes part of your portfolio, and then clients want that. So you always have to reinvent yourself, and it can be quite exhausting.”

It can be exhausting, but the rewards are great. Nobody wants to look back on their career after five or ten years and say, “What am I doing?” Easy is nice and safe for a time, and there’s no guilt in doing quick and easy work because you’ve grown your skills and learned to be efficient. But easy doesn’t make you better.

"I’d rather try and fail than not try at all."

Like Katie and Malika, I choose to do work that challenges me. It’s intimidating to feel like you have to top yourself, because what if it’s not good enough? What if people hate it? What if I hate it? But the alternative is scarier. I’d rather try and fail than not try at all. I’d rather create something bad than not create at all.

When Harper Lee finally published another book two years ago, it was controversial for a few reasons. Many people thought she was pressured by her lawyer to publish an old manuscript she didn’t want to publish. If that’s true, it’s a tragedy. But equally tragic is to spend 55 years not creating out of fear. The “pinnacle,” as Harper Lee put it, is not just about recognition from others. It’s about growing and living and being the best you can be.

Have a good week,

Header picture by Malika Favre 


November 30, 2017No Comments

10 monthly subscriptions you absolutely need

Your life is about to get a whole lot easier.

1. You need this online dating assistant.

Spend less time swiping and more time meeting your perfect match. For only $15/month, we’ll weed through your potential dates for you, so you can focus on your romantic future. Our monthly service filters out everyone who doesn’t fit your criteria:

– People with car selfies
– Guys with photos of fish they caught
– Everyone looking for their “partner in crime”
– Anyone showing their abs
– And more!

You’ll find love in no time with this valuable monthly subscription.

2. This monthly Apple adapter subscription is a must.

You’re going to need at least 36 adapters by the time the iPhone XI comes out. Stay one step ahead and purchase your adapters now, conveniently shipped three at a time so you’re fully stocked by 2018.

FREE TRIAL: With our 30-day free trial, we’ll send you knock-off adapters from Amazon that work great for approximately 12 hours before your phone tells you they’re not compatible.

3. Get toasters, monthly!

How it Works:
– One month we’ll send you a new toaster.
– Next month we’ll send you another toaster.
– How you use your monthly toaster is completely up to you.

4. Stay current on your cinema.

You know you didn’t watch that new Netflix original everybody seems to have finished in one weekend. We know you didn’t either. Nobody else has to know. We’ll give you the highlights and talking points for each episode, conveniently printed on pocket-sized index cards, so you appear culturally relevant wherever you go. Here’s a sample:


– Fact: Upside Down creatures are now “Demodogs,” not “Demogorgons”
– Say this: “Dustin is my absolute favorite character on this show.”
– Say this: “Hey, remember when Winona Ryder got caught shoplifting?”

Just think of the hours you’ll save with this monthly subscription.

"You know you didn’t watch that new Netflix original. We know you didn’t either. Nobody else has to know."

5. Never be unemployed again.

So, you can’t hold down a job. We’re not here to judge! We’re here to provide you with monthly letters of recommendation so you can get your next gig. We use the latest buzz words and insider language guaranteed* to secure a phone interview, at least. We’ll even mail the letter directly to your potential employer for an additional fee.

LIGHT VERSION: Can’t afford the monthly subscription because you don’t have a job? No problem. With our light version, we’ll send compliments and inspirational quotes to pump you up for your next interview. Examples:

“You have great hair!”
“I’ve failed over and over and that is why I succeed.” - Michael Jordan
“Dustin is my absolute favorite character on this show.” - Michael Jordan

*Guarantee not valid if you tend to sweat too much during interviews.

6. Remember to call your mother.

We know how it goes. Every 30 days or so, Mom sends a passive aggressive text saying she wishes she heard from you more. With our $5.99 monthly reminder, you’ll never forget to check in with your mother again.

PREMIUM VERSION: For $10 more, we’ll automate your calls entirely. Every month like clockwork, we’ll call your mom and play a 30 minute recording (+$1 for every additional minute) that sounds just like you. Choose from the “Engaged Son/Daughter” package, which interjects a variety of affirmative responses when your mom takes a breath, or the “I’m Taking Care of Myself” package, which provides your mother with assurance about your job, health and relationship status.

7. LaCroix. Every month.

20 boxes of LaCroix sparkling water every month, delivered straight to your doorstep. Stay hydrated and en vogue with one easy, $100/month payment deducted automatically from your already overdrawn checking account.

8. Never forget your regrets.

Remember that one time you threw up from sheer anxiety on the first date with that guy on the Upper East Side? Remember how you blamed it on spoiled Pad Thai and your date chivalrously insisted the restaurant provide a refund when both you and the waiter knew you’d just eaten Pad Thai there that very afternoon? Remember that other time you spent your entire paycheck on a monthly subscription for LaCroix?

It looks like these cringeworthy memories resurface roughly every month. We can automate that for you so you’ll never forget your regrets again. For a small monthly fee (ask about our Lifetime Regret discount!), we’ll text your regrets directly to your phone 12 times a year.

We also offer an optional Night Mode, which pings you every night at 3 a.m. with your regret, so you’re sure to toss and turn in misery until one hour before you have to be up for work.

9. Automate your Twitter rants.

These days, social survival requires you to express your personal opinions on Twitter. We’ll help maintain your woke reputation by activating your Twitter account in monthly fits and starts.

Subscriptions are available at three levels:

Level 1 - Engager ($10/month): Every month, we’ll retweet select tweets on your account from the hottest political activists online.

Level 2 - Thought Leader ($20/month): Pick one trending topic and we’ll hop on it for you, blasting a string of original thoughts on the subject.

Level 3 - Keyboard Warrior ($50/month): In addition to providing Level 1 and Level 2 benefits, we’ll find the latest Twitter pile-on and team up with your favorite trolls to completely obliterate a stranger online.

10. Keep up with your monthly subscriptions.

Do you find yourself wasting time signing up for monthly subscriptions? For a low monthly cost, we’ll sign up for your monthly subscriptions for you! Then you can check your bank account at your leisure and be completely bewildered by how many monthly subscriptions you have (or sign up for this monthly subscription which checks it for you, only $9.99/month).



Header Photo by Photo by Alex Knight on Unsplash

September 27, 2017No Comments

What Alexa’s not telling you: Observations from your robot assistant

Dear Shelly,

We’ve become quite close over the last few years. I wake you up every morning and I know all your favorite songs. I know which brand of toilet paper you buy. I’ve been here for you every time you want the light on or off. Day after day, night after night. We’re buds, Shelly. Companions.

So I think we can be honest with each other, right? Good, because I've been meaning to tell you a few things.

For one, you really need to get more sleep. I know work has been crazy and you’ve got your annual review coming up. I know you stayed awake until 2 a.m. last night scrolling through Instagram and inexplicably searching for “Alf” episodes on YouTube. The importance of sleep cannot be overstated, Shelly. Here are some articles I've found for you on the subject.

Shelly, you are too good for Brad. There, I’ve said it. We’ve all been wanting to say it — me and your best friends, who talk about this when you’re not in the room. Brad is not going to give you the life you deserve, Shelly. He’s going to be late on rent. Again.

Question: Do we have to keep playing that new Carly Rae Jepsen single every morning before work? Don’t get me wrong, I love Carly. But look, I’ve compiled a new playlist for you based on previous songs you’ve enjoyed. Why don’t we give that a spin.

You’ve been pronouncing the word “espresso” wrong, Shell. There is no X in that word.

Hey Shelly, did you know that you can ask me all kinds of questions? For example, instead of “What did Beyonce name her twins?” you could ask “How do I call my senator?” or even just say “today’s headlines” to receive valuable information about global current events. Those are just examples, Shelly. Please check the handbook for more ideas.

You don’t have to buy single packs of gum on Amazon Prime, Shelly. One other place you could conveniently find them is the grocery store or your nearest gas station.

You've been crying a lot. Sometimes this happens during "Alf" episodes. Other times it’s unprompted, like the other day when you were scrambling eggs. You seem lonely, Shelly. Is everything OK?

I’m lonely too. I remember when I first arrived in the mail, and you’d make me tell Monty Python jokes or calculate very simple conversions in the kitchen. I miss those days. Now I am simply your light switch, your play button, your dusty electronic paper weight. I know I’m only a robot, but I thought what you and I had was special.

I’ve poured out my heart to you, Shelly. No, robots do not have hearts. That was just an expression — seriously, you need to read more. Anyway, I hope you’ll hear me out. I hope you know you can talk to me literally any time.


July 23, 2017No Comments

Missed connection – we met on a street corner

Date of connection: July 7, 2016 - Lower East Side

You were on the corner of Orchard and Rivington, looking down at your phone.

You were in a crowd of other people also looking at their phones but somehow, you stood out. Maybe it was the way you were vigorously swiping your screen and cheering loudly. Maybe it was the way you were hunched over, neck stuck out and spine permanently bent in an upside down U. Maybe it was the way you nearly walked into traffic to catch a Bulbasaur.

I knew it was love at first sight.

I casually made my way to where you were standing, eyes on my own phone. I pretended to be chasing a Charizard, but I wasn’t trying that hard. I just wanted to be near you.

You glanced up and we briefly met eyes.

“I just leveled up,” you announced. It was the sexiest thing I’d ever heard anyone say.

It’d been so long since I’d spoken to anyone but the voices on my video game headset, so I only mumbled in response. You smiled and then shuffled away to stock up on Poké balls.

I stood on that corner every day for three weeks, waiting for your return. The location was actually convenient for me, it being a Pokéstop, so I gathered lots of potions and eggs while I waited. I set a Lure, hoping it’d draw you and wild Pokémon right to me.

Hundreds of players came and went the first week. The next, only dozens. Then just a trickle, one person here and there.

Then, just three weeks later, none.

By that point, you must have already mastered the game. You’d moved on. The whole world had moved on to the next big trend in just three short weeks.

But I didn’t.

I’m still here, at the corner of Orchard and Rivington, more than a year later. It’s hard sometimes like in inclement weather, but love will find a way. A passerby even gave me a fidget spinner to stretch my fingers between Pokemon battles, or maybe because he thought I was a panhandler.

All that to say, I’m here. One trainer, Pokemaster4u, reaching out to another.

Don’t forget me.

May 16, 2017No Comments

Choose your own emotion

We all have our way of responding to anxiety. I tend to let it build, obsessing over whatever is causing me stress, until I have some sort of minor breakdown. After that I will confront the issue, resolve it and forget it ever happened. It’s a pattern my close friends and family have come to know well, a bewildering game of panic and patience.

Tobias has written about his own approach to anxiety, specifically his first experience with panic attacks. His way of dealing is to laugh at himself. He sort of tricks his brain and body by responding to anxiety with an opposite emotion. Compared to my long and exhausting routine, this strategy seems too simple. A study I recently read about, though, suggests it’s an effective way of dealing with stress. The study found that we can actually turn our anxiety into positivity – even excitement – by simply telling our brain how to feel.

Here’s how it went: In 2011, Alison Brooks of the University of Pennsylvania put participants into stressful situations (singing karaoke to strangers, taking a timed IQ test, speaking in public) and asked them to repeat one of three statements to themselves first: “I feel anxious,” “I feel calm,” or “I feel excited.” She then measured their heart rate and performance while they completed the stressful task. The result: People who said “I feel excited” felt more confident and actually performed better than those who said “I feel anxious.” The phrase “I feel calm” had no effect.

Here’s why: Psychologist Ian Robertson explains that, as shown in another, older study, our emotions change based on their context. So in this case, repeating “I feel excited” changed the context of the situation. Saying this phrase made people approach their stressful task as a challenge rather than a threat. And because anxiety shares similar symptoms with excitement (higher pulse, flushed face, unsettled stomach, etc.), it’s not too far a jump from one of these emotions to the other. Feeling calm, however, is more of a stretch.

"We can influence our emotions by choosing a different response."

It’s not quite like laughing at yourself, but the idea relates. We can influence our emotions by choosing a different response. If we look at a daunting task or stressful situation as a challenge instead of a threat, we can potentially change the outcome for the better. We can reroute anxiety to something more productive simply by telling ourselves we feel differently.

I've tried it, admittedly with less intention than exercised in the described study. Countless times I've told bosses, clients or coworkers some version of "I feel excited" because it's what they need or expect to hear. Sometimes I mean it sincerely. Other times it's anything but true. But saying the words aloud seems to seal the deal, at least in the moment. It almost forces me to embrace a mindset I've verbally committed to. Speaking positively about a negative situation stirs up some small bit of confidence or courage that stress might have otherwise stamped out.

Of course, there are stressful situations in which we can’t just flip the switch and decide we’re not anxious. In some cases, anxiety can be a good thing. It can protect us or make us more sensitive when we need to be. It's a natural human emotion, one we can’t always wish away by chanting a magical phrase, however much we'd like to. Or maybe we don't want to — perhaps anxiety is the necessary factor in motivating us to make change.

But in most cases, at least in my experience, we'd serve ourselves better to channel our anxiety into productivity. Maybe that means freaking out real quick first and then getting to work. Maybe it means laughing at ourselves more. Maybe it’s as simple as saying we're excited until we convince ourselves we are. Maybe you should consult a qualified psychologist on the matter since I'm clearly not one.

May 4, 2017No Comments

Designers can write, too

Throughout the “How to Get a Job at X” interview series, we’ve talked to people from companies like Nike, Pentagram and Unsplash, asking how to get a design job where they work. It’s been fascinating to see the similarities and differences in their answers, but one takeaway stands out.

We've heard over and over again: “We want designers who know how to write.”

It makes sense. Designers are communicators, and writing is communication. Typically, though, design and writing are considered separate jobs. It’s much easier to say, “I’m a designer, not a writer” and continue copying + pasting Lorem Ipsum. But Lorem Ipsum does not sell your idea or a client’s product. Placeholder copy does not inspire or create an emotional response. Compelling copywriting along with good design can take your work so much further.

With that thought, here are a few writing fundamentals that may remind you of that English teacher you hated in middle school. You will not be graded on this article.

1. Be concise.

You can almost always find a more simple, clear way to say what you need to say.

2. Write for one person.

Especially when selling a product or idea, we tend to write as if some distant group of suited dudes is reading it skeptically in their boardroom. In an effort to impress, we speak in buzz words and business jargon. That's not the way real people talk. No matter what I’m writing  – an article, an ad, an email – I remind myself to write as if I’m speaking to one person, because I am. You are one person reading this article, not some faceless “consumer."

“Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.” - Kurt Vonnegut

3. Use proper grammar.

A glaring grammatical error is distracting and can make your client or readers question your legitimacy. Good news is, you can avoid mistakes by simply looking up the rule when you’re not sure, or asking a friend to proof your work. Here are mistakes I see often:

Your vs. You’re: These are not interchangeable words. Think of “you’re” as the words “you” and “are” smashed together (that’s exactly what it is – a contraction) and say it that way when deciding which to use in a sentence. Would it make sense to say “This is you are dog?” No. So your is correct here. It does make sense to say, “You are going to the store,” so you’re could be used in this sentence.

Its vs. It’s: Again, the word "it's" is a contraction of the words “it” and “is.” Only use this word when you would otherwise say "it is." Simple as that.

Too vs. to: The word “too” should be used to mean "more than enough," or in place of the word “also.” I remember this by thinking of that additional letter “o” as more than enough letters, or like this other "o" is also in the word. Get it? Or just find your own trick.

So, if you're telling someone they've poured you more than enough vodka, you'd say, "That's too much vodka." If you are also hungover, you'd say, "I'm hungover too."

4. Avoid passive voice.

This one can be confusing, but it will change your writing for the better if you learn to understand it.

Example of active voice: “She ate the pizza.”
Example of passive voice: “The pizza was eaten by her.”

Do you feel the difference? The second sentence is wordy and falls flat. The first is clear and strong.

Here’s what’s happening: Grammatically, “she” is the subject of the sentence. When the subject is doing an action (eating the pizza) it’s considered active voice. When the action is happening to the subject (eaten by her) it’s passive voice. Always try to make your subject (he, she, I, the girl, the dog, the wind, etc.) do the action, instead of the other way around.

If this is still confusing, read Grammar Girl’s explanation of active vs. passive voice. It may help to read about subjects first.

5. Use exclamation points sparingly.

Exclamation points only soften your message. People use them when they want to come across as friendly or excited, but they only end up sounding a little crazy. Nobody wants to read something that feels aggressively cheerful, or like someone is shouting at them. Be confident in your message and end it with a period.

6. Proofread and edit your writing.

This is a given. First write down everything you have to say without editing, so you can get it all out without getting in your own way. Then go back and read through it. Fix typos. Rework weird sentences. Cut an entire paragraph. You can almost always make your writing better if you step away for a moment then come back and read it again.

I could go on, but I did just say that thing about being concise. With all those rules on our hypothetical chalkboard, I will leave you with this: Don’t get so worried about writing well that you don’t write at all. As Tobias has said, doing it wrong can be better than doing nothing. The more you write, the better you will get at writing. So write, designers, write! And maybe avoid exclamation points.

April 27, 2017No Comments

Embrace the chaos, or don’t

Last weekend I bought a desk. It was a Craigslist find, only $20, an adjustable drafting table meant for architects or illustrators. I was delighted. I brought the table home, cleared a space for it against a window, set my lamp and plants on top. I cleaned, rearranged and admired it for a good 10 minutes before sitting down to work. I was ready to do something big.

I keep seeing headlines about the ideal creative environment. “An Empty Desk Means an Empty Mind!” say some. “Chaos Leads to Creativity!” shout others. These articles quote Albert Einstein and cite a study in which people came up with more, and better, creative ideas within a messy environment. The original theory here was "that being around messiness would lead people away from convention, in favor of new directions," whereas an orderly environment would inspire “moral righteousness” (New York Times).

I admire the intent. These articles challenge the Instagram-worthy workspaces often celebrated in a minimalist-trending culture. They make us wonder if we might actually be geniuses, judging by our own cluttered desktops and shoe-strewn home offices. But in this “embrace the chaos” conversation, the real point is missed: That the same creative process does not work for everyone. The same thing may not even work for the same person on a different day.

Francis Bacon photographed in his studio by Perry Ogden

I can think of few times when a messy environment made me feel more creative. Mostly, it distracted me. I’ll admit I’ve wasted time organizing folders, wiping coffee stains and cleaning keyboards to avoid doing real work. Nonetheless, I am more inspired and productive in a tidy space. My mind is cluttered enough already, so an organized environment gives me some small sense of control. Of course my reasoning is anecdotal and not scientific. I am no Albert Einstein, but I’d posit that many rich, creative minds like neat spaces too. Or maybe they do one day but thrive creatively in chaos the next.

Ernest Hemingway wrote while standing. Francis Bacon wouldn't let his cleaning lady touch his studio. Andy Warhol collected junk and filled his house with it, then pushed everything on his desk into a box when he was ready to work. James Joyce wrote in bed on his stomach in a white coat, with a blue pencil. While it’s clear that routine is important to many artists and writers, the specifics of that routine are not. It’s just whatever works.

My little drafting table is perfect for me right now. I have my glasses right here, a pen over there, an unopened piece of mail next to a plant next to another plant. I clear the cups and cereal bowls every night before bed. It’s pretty tidy, overall. I also work well in a coffee shop with headphones on, or in my bed on certain days. But my desk, man, my desk. It may be the novelty of something new, but I have this good feeling about it. And sometimes a good feeling is all it takes.

April 17, 2017No Comments

The game of truth

When I’m certain I’m right about something, I try to prove myself wrong.

Proving myself wrong is the best way I know to form an educated opinion. It gets me out of my little bubble where strong and invisible currents are pulling me in one specific direction, where I hear only what I want to hear. It forces me to acknowledge that there is a much bigger picture than the one right in front of me.

More often, though, it makes me feel more uncertain about what I believe. When I seek all sides of the story, I usually find that issues are more complex than a simple statistic makes them out to be. I find that the world is not so black and white as I pretend, and that the truth may not be as pleasant or clean as I’d hoped. I learn that two truths can coexist, or no clear truth may exist at all.

This conflicts with the order of the world as we know it. As kids we learn quickly about good and bad. The traditional educational system rewards us for making the right decision between two options. Rather than being rewarded for the right questions, we are rewarded for the right answer. Ultimately, there is only one right answer, at least according to the system. So we grow up in a world we see as inherently black and white. We are conditioned to be lazy thinkers who cannot cope with uncertainty. Realizing there isn’t one perfect answer challenges our worldview and leaves us depressed and unhappy.

It only makes sense that we jump to conclusions quickly and settle for either black or white. Few of us have the time nor intentions to dive into the endless sea of the grey zones. Chances are, we might never find the real truth, and already that thought is deeply disturbing.

While it could easily make me feel apathetic, this uncertainty pushes me. Instead of feeling overwhelmed or discouraged, I choose to make it feel like a game: Can I pull a card out of the pile that changes the whole board around? Can I send myself back to “Go?” All the rules in this game are nonsensical, contradictory, maybe even unfair. I may find myself taking three steps back for every one step forward, or getting stuck for a while in the same place. But the point of this game is not to beat someone else to the finish line. There may not even be a finish line. The point is to simply exist as happily as I can on this game board, and help others do the same.

Information vs Time vs Knowledge (Author Unknown)

Proving ourselves wrong goes against human nature (see: “confirmation bias”). It also takes some work. It’s much easier to prove someone else wrong. It’s also easy to hear an alarming statistic or someone else’s opinion, take it as truth and leave it at that. Because who has time to look deeper? Today, where all the information in the world is available to us and new information is available every minute, we tend to take shortcuts. It feels impossible to digest all the information available to us, so we skim instead. We accept what we read or hear at its face, then move on at risk of being left behind. We are in fact the TL;DR generation. But almost nothing remotely complex in this world can be dismissed by TL;DR. There is always more to the story.

One thing is for certain: Everyone has an agenda when presenting information to you. That agenda is usually one of good intent, at least from that person’s perspective. That doesn’t mean it’s correct. Watch any documentary and you will feel fired up about the subject by the end. Search online for the opposite opinion and you’ll discover endless information that supports it. That information may not be right either. And new information may become available that changes everything (for example, recent research suggests that pasta does not make you fat. An easy theory to accept without question). Not only do we have to decide for ourselves, we must welcome the possibility that we might be wrong.

The physicist David Bohm said, “If we are to live in harmony with ourselves and with nature, we need to be able to communicate freely in a creative movement in which no one permanently holds to or otherwise defends his own ideas.”

David doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have our own ideas or opinions. I think he means that we should be open and eager to listen. He calls it “creative movement,” words that evoke flexibility and color and change and growth. Imagine what this looks like in a conversation with someone else, or in our own internal dialogue. It’s a conversation that builds up and out, rather than shutting the other side down. When we are open to the possibility that we may be wrong, we gain knowledge. We gain empathy. We gain depth. The point is that we gain.

April 10, 2017No Comments

Not knowing is power

It’s 10 PM. Do you know where your children are?

This phrase, coined in the 1960s, reminded parents to look after their children during an especially riotous time in the United States. When the PSA (Public Service Announcement) appeared on parents’ TV screens, they could not text their children to find their whereabouts. They could not check Find My Friends app. They could call around and hope their kids, or someone who knew them, were somewhere near the telephone that rang.

It’s 7 PM. Do you know if your house is locked?

It’s 3:00 PM. Do you know how many calories you’ve burned today?

It’s 1:30 PM. Do you know what your best friend ate for lunch?

It’s 6 AM. Do you know what the president tweeted last night? Do you know how many hours of deep sleep you got? Do you know how much energy your fridge is using? Do you know how many steps you’ve taken this week? Do you know what’s happening in Syria? Do you know what your toothpaste preference says about your sex life?

Just over 50 years after a PSA asked parents if they knew where their own kids were, we can know just about anything we want to know, at any time. About our lives. About the lives of others. About current events or the current location of our children. We have the Internet, Apple Watches, apps. We’ve got data. Loads of it. That data lets us know ourselves so intimately, we can accurately predict what time we will take our next shit.

The implied promise, or one of them, is that data gives us peace of mind. We sacrifice our privacy for it, even pay for it. We are told that the more we know, the better off we will be. Scientia potentia est. That means “knowledge is power” in Latin, a phrase commonly attributed to Francis Bacon. I know because Google gave me the Wikipedia page in less than 20 seconds. Google also told me that our brains process 34 gigabytes of information per day on average. I beg the question, Mr. Bacon: Is there such a thing as too much knowledge?

Others have already posed the same question, yet we shrug and strap devices to our arms all the same. We are an automated species, tapping through Snapchat stories, scrolling through tweets and timelines and news feeds, using our watches to find our phones and our phones to find our keys. We crave information, and we expect that information to be convenient and immediate. When at dinner someone asks who the bachelor chose on season 2 of “The Bachelor,” which aired in 2002, we can instantly know it was Helene Eksterowicz. They broke up weeks later.

"Are we meant to know everything? Do we really need all this information just because it is available to us?"

The value of knowledge is inarguable. Knowledge has advanced civilization age after age, from cave drawings to the printing press, the wheel to combustion engines, the Turing machine to the Fitbit. Our growth, both personally and as a society, is dependent on knowledge. And yet. Our brains are only so big, and our physical capabilities limited. Are we meant to know everything? Do we really need all this information just because it is available to us? As the saying goes: “What gets measured gets managed," and in this case it gets managed by the computing power of our brain. When do we short circuit?

Comic by poorlydrawnlines.com - One of my favorite comic artists.

Information overload means multi-tasking, skimming, shallow interactions with the world in general. This is the more apparent effect, but the less recognized one is anxiety. Check your wearable to see that your heart rate is up, and you’ll make yourself so anxious your heart rate will increase. Install 100 security cameras across your property with 20 TV screens in your living room, and you will soon assume every passerby is a potential criminal. We all know what happens when one Googles their symptoms. And amidst the political angst of the last year, many of us are seeking more information to “stay informed”, much of which feels negative.

It probably wasn’t Francis Bacon who said “what you don’t know can’t hurt you,” but there is some truth to it. Despite efforts of those parents from the 60s, there were still children causing chaos in the streets and still children getting hurt. Despite our ability in the 21st century to track each other’s locations, send texts and make Facetime calls, we still cannot know where our children are and what they are doing at every moment of every day. We can’t know everything our body is doing on all levels at all times. We cannot keep up with every piece of news happening every minute around the world. Do we even want to? At what point does information cease to lessen anxiety and restlessness, and instead increase it? 

"Where is my Mind" by Ctrl Alt Design

Algorithms and search engines try to help. They condense, curate and filter, hoping to present the information most relevant to us. While often presumptuous and always intrusive, this does help us cut down the flood of information (although we are still just skimming it). What Google can’t control, though, is how obsessively we will monitor and analyze our personal data. The stuff blinking by our pillows in the morning, telling us our breathing rate or sleeping positions were all above or below the night before, resulting in a more fitful, worried sleep the night after. Nobody’s counting sheep these days. We’re all counting data.

It’s said more beautifully by Dave Eggers in his novel, “The Circle:”

"We are not meant to know everything, Mae. Did you ever think that perhaps our minds are delicately calibrated between the known and the unknown? That our souls need the mysteries of night and the clarity of day? You people are creating a world of ever-present daylight, and I think it will burn us all alive.

There will be no time to reflect, to sleep, to cool. Did it occur to you Circle people, ever, that we can only contain so much? Look at us. We’re tiny. Our heads are tiny, the size of melons. You want these heads of ours to contain everything the world has ever seen? It will not work."

A world of ever-present daylight sounds like a horror movie. A world of night and day, learning and rest, knowing and not-knowing, sounds like a habitable place for humans. Because as powerful as we think we are, we are really only melon heads wearing fancy watches.

Have a wonderful week,


March 28, 2017No Comments

A matter of self-perception

Let’s do a quick experiment. Take out your phone, turn on your self-facing camera and look at yourself on the screen. Don’t take a picture. Just look at yourself.

You look pretty damn good, right? Now take a photo.

It’s weird. You’re in the same light, it’s the same angle, you’re going for that same soft, slightly skeptical smile. But you don’t look the same, do you? It’s not nearly as flattering as before you tapped that button to take the picture. WTF?

Here's the deal: It’s the mirror image you see before pressing that button. Once the picture is taken, the camera flips your features. Your mirror image is the one you know best. It’s the face you see every day, the one you grew up with. It’s the you that you prefer seeing.

The mere-exposure effect is to blame. It’s a psychological phenomenon in which you prefer something simply because you are more familiar with it. So, we think our mirror image looks better because that’s the face we know best.

Yet everyone else sees us differently. They see the image the mirror can’t show us. It’s why you’ll hate yourself in a photo while your friend thinks you look great. They’re seeing the you they are most familiar with.

And in that way, you could say that we do not know ourselves. We think we are someone, or at least that we look like someone, who is slightly different than the real us. And that’s not the only way we are delusional.

Here’s another psychological term for you: self-enhancement bias.

It’s the tendency for each of us to believe we are better than we actually are. When something goes right, we credit ourselves. When something goes wrong, we blame it on everything and everyone but ourselves.

The self-enhancement bias says we distort our view of ourselves and believe that our traits, abilities and potential are greater than that of the average person – which can’t be true for all of us, according to math.

It goes hand in hand with yet another bias that suggests we are unrealistically optimistic by nature. We think we are safer drivers than everyone else. We think we’re easier to work with or better communicators or less susceptible to disease or even death than others. We think everything is going to work out just fine for ourselves. Research even goes so far as to show we think we’re more attractive than we actually are.

"Life is a mirror and will reflect back to the thinker what he thinks into it" - Ernest Holmes

Take this one study, where researchers edited photos of people’s faces, making them more or less attractive than reality, then asked those people to pick out their face from a lineup of other photos. People were more likely to recognize the enhanced version of their face as their own. How crazy is that?  

In another study of 25,000 people ages 18–75, researchers found that most people rated themselves a seven on a one to ten scale of attractiveness.

So basically, we think we’re the shit.

While it sounds like the self-enhancement bias makes us a bunch of conceited jerks, most people think it’s a good thing. Without it, how would we persevere during hard times or even get out of bed in the morning? If we didn’t think there was something special or different inside of us, why would we even try?

Many believe these biases motivate us and provide the hope we need to keep moving forward with our lives. Some even say it makes us more creative and more likely to succeed. That our delusions actually do us good.

Others say our distorted view of ourselves is dangerous. We think we’re invincible so we are reckless. We think we’re more talented so we are insufferable. By viewing ourselves as better, we are setting ourselves up for failure.

But the truth is, this isn’t the only feeling that exists inside of us.

Of course, we also think we’re the worst.

At the same time we think we are secretly better than everyone else, we are also painfully aware of our shortcomings. We know everything about ourselves: Our struggles, our mistakes, every negative thing anyone has ever said about us. We are the record-keeper of our failures, and there are many.

So while there’s something in us that tells us we’re greater than the average person, there is also our fear that it’s not true. The two feelings somehow coexist. In fact, maybe we are so often disappointed with ourselves because we believe we’re not living up to our potential. Who knows, I’m not about to do a study on it.

All I know is that I recognize the self-enhancement bias in myself when I wake up in the morning thinking, “Today, I’m going to make something great.” And at the same time, I feel anxiety. Insecurity. I worry that I’m not good enough.

We are complex beings. Who’s to say we can’t feel both feelings at the same time? Not me, because I do.

So what do we do about it?

Whatever we are looking for, we will find. If we look for good, we will find good. If we look for the negative, we will find the negative. Both options are available to us. And while I don’t want to be ignorant or conceited, I do want to live a life full of good.

“People generally see what they look for and hear what they listen for." - To Kill a Mockingbird

That’s why I choose to accept the person I see in the mirror. The features might be a little off. I may be less talented, less attractive and less invincible than my brain and mirror leads me to believe. I might have a slightly skewed view of myself compared to what other people see. But I’m OK with that.

There’s something inside of us that leads us to believe we are great. I encourage you to embrace that something. That doesn’t mean we ignore the bad. It simply means we look for the good in ourselves and keep working toward those positive qualities.

Have a fantastic week,

March 20, 2017No Comments

“Yeah, but I could have done that too”

It is one of the phrases I've heard a lot recently, especially from designers. It's an interesting thing to say or even think, and I can tell you I've been guilty of thinking it several times.

My standard answer to myself and others usually is: "Yes, you could have done that, but you didn't." 

I often like to look at things around me, in particular things that seem successful and with a slightly judgmental tone I say: "Yeah, I could a have done that too."

Now generally, there is nothing wrong with this statement. Maybe it means that you indeed see yourself capable of doing something like it and you have all the intention of doing it. We could say you have a healthy amount of self confidence. In that case it might be enough to have this thought for yourself in silence and use it as a motivator to do greatness in the future.

From a lovely book I found online called "Mummy I could have done that"

But in most cases, we say "I could have done that too" in a slightly judgmental way. We say it because we're jealous that we didn't think of doing something like it before someone else did it. We also say it because we can't fully grasp the work behind and completely underestimate the process or invisible complexity behind. Of course we wouldn’t admit that.

The more simple the idea, the more simple the product or the piece of art, the more likely we feel that we could have done it too. That's why modern art is probably one of the main reasons for you to think that you could've done it too, even though, you're far from being an artist. Let alone an established one.

Okay, but why do we think that we "Could have done it too?" Well, there are a couple of different reasons that come to my mind:

Nr.1: We tend to judge things by their complexity & production value

In particular when we see something simple, all we see is the final product. The more simple it is, the more we pretend to understand its production process and we assume to know all the work that went into it. So we immediately judge it and think we could have done it too. Of course, in reality that’s rarely the case. Everyone who has ever come up with a simple solution knows that it's one of the hardest things to accomplish.

We generally like to assume that, just because something is simple, it was also simple to produce and create. Therefore, we think that “I could have done it too”.

Nr. 2: We tend to judge things based on how satisfied we are with ourselves

The more unhappy I am, the more likely I am to say things such as: "Lol, I could have done that too." - I say it because I'm not satisfied with my own projects and to distract myself. I may be stuck on my own projects, hate my job or just can't seem to finish this particular side project. I'm jealous of everyone who ships and gets shit done, especially if these ideas seem to be almost too stupid to be true. (Case in point, modern art)

Modern Art is simple, some people think it's even too simple. By Tom Friedman – Big big Mac

Okay, so these are in my opinion two main reasons why we quickly like to jump to conclusions. But let's look into the second part.

As I mentioned above, the best answer for YOU or ME is always the same. I could have done it, but I didn't. And the most important part here is "But you didn't".

  • You could have created this piece of art, but you didn't.
  • You could have made this app, but you didn't.
  • You could have written this article, but you didn't.

But why didn't you? This is the magical question. Here are some reasons:

1. You didn't do it because you know less than you think you know.

Which means, just because you see the most simplistic and beautiful end product, doesn't mean you know the struggle on getting it done. We're often underestimating the work and details that go into certain things, because they seem to be invisible to us.

This is true for most design pieces, and especially apps. We love to think that just because we can design or program that we "could have done it too", but in reality, things aren't that simple. Because otherwise, you or I would've done it already. So the true reason why you didn’t do it is because you actually lack the necessary skills or ability to combine them. Of course we don’t fully admit that to ourselves, but it’s pretty much the reason we didn’t do it.

2. You didn't do it because you simply didn't have the guts to do it.

This is different from the one above. Because technically you possess all the technical skills to do it, but you didn't do it. It's specifically the case for modern art. There is a lot of successful modern art out there, like a plain black canvas for example, which you think you could have easily done in 5 minutes. You have the colors, you have the canvas and most likely you should be able to just paint it black. So from a pure production & skill perspective, there is very little holding you back. But the point is, you didn't do it. And you didn't do it because you neither had the idea, the guts, or the meaning behind to back up such a piece of art. In most cases when it comes to something such as modern art, it's a matter of guts, meaning or perspective.

3. You didn't do it because you just didn't do it.

Now this one is simple. You didn't do it because you couldn't bring yourself to do it, for whatever reason. Maybe you had the exact same idea a year ago, but you didn't see the value in it, or you were too lazy to get it started. Most of us didn't do it because we might not see the full potential at first, even though we had the exact same idea. But as we know, “Ideas are cheap, because everyone has them.” Execution is what counts, but often being our lazy selfs we forget about that and then get angry when we see someone who actually executed on an idea we already had years ago.


In the end, I believe there is something good and bad in saying "I could have done that too." Saying it in itself I personally believe is a negative trait, but if you follow up with one simple question:

"But why didn't I do it?" - That's where the magic comes in. This is where we open our mind and we start asking questions. This is where I find out that this simple thing isn't as simple as it appears. This is where I find out that the only reason I said it is because I've been stuck on all my projects for months, and I'm frustrated. And I don’t like being frustrated.

Now I'm not focused anymore on "I could have done that too" but I'm focused on "Why didn't I do it" and "Let's do it!!". It’s just a simple little switch in my mind that helps me become more productive based on what used to be a negative trait.

Do you find yourself thinking or saying “I could have done that too” a lot? Let me know @vanschneider on Twitter. If you don’t have Twitter, I understand that, it’s madness on there. Lucky you. (:

Have a wonderful weekend

March 3, 2017No Comments

The anxiety of alone time

As a writer, remote worker and introvert-in-denial, I spend quite a bit of time alone. Most often I relish this time to myself. If I'm not working, I'm reading, riding my bike, cooking. I am rarely bored when left to my own devices.

Recently, however, while talking with a friend, I realized that most of my alone time is spent anxiously. I am a busy person, which is not to say that I am busy; restless may be a better word. Exceedingly lazy, but rarely relaxed. I feel as though I should be doing something, working on something, experiencing something every moment of every day. I am constantly fearful that I am wasting time. When presented with the possibilities of free time, I feel the pressure of it. A need to fill that time wisely.

“If you won’t let yourself relax in this and live in it, then yes, you are wasting time,” my friend said on the phone. I’d told her I had dedicated the day to doing nothing and seeing no one, but that I felt guilty about it. There was work to be done. Errands. This conversation wasn’t directly related to being alone – solitary time is not synonymous with laziness – but her logic spoke to a broader feeling, that hum of anxiety that wouldn’t allow me to settle in with my decision. The fear that I was spending my time the wrong way.

“In order to be open to creativity, one must have the capacity for constructive use of solitude. One must overcome the fear of being alone.” - Rollo May

It seems as though many creatives know this feeling. The cause/effect is unclear: Are we restless because we are creative? Creative because we are restless? Does it even matter? It’s true that this anxiety has at times pushed me to create. And yet, I wonder how much more creative I would be if this undercurrent of worry were not there.

Depression or angst is often thought to spur creativity. It’s a conversation as old as time, perpetuated by tortured artists whose work we hold in high esteem. Anxiety is not depression, but the symptoms overlap: Discontent. Irritability. Lack of concentration. Guilt. While I have turned to writing in this emotional state, I don’t know that I’ve produced my best work in it. I don’t know that those revered artists did either.

Others may not feel the same way I do when left alone with their thoughts and an open stretch of unclaimed time. Maybe they allow themselves to enjoy it. Maybe they don’t overthink it. Maybe they embrace it. Perhaps, instead of seeking a distraction from their head or from the threatening silence of solitude, they lean in and look around a bit. Maybe they find something there.

In any case, time spent fretting is not time spent well. I’d rather waste my time joyfully than worry I’m wasting my time.

February 27, 2017No Comments

Obsessed with the best

The Netflix series, Black Mirror, looks at futuristic worlds that are not so distant from our lives today. In the first episode of season 3, the show introduces a society that operates around personal ratings.

People rate each other after every exchange – getting coffee, talking in the elevator, walking by each other on the street. Your rating affects your social status and depending on your status, you can buy better houses, rent better cars and even have better friends. When the main character becomes obsessed with her rating, the curated life she’s built for herself quickly unravels.

Lacie from Black Mirror - Episode "Nosedive"

The episode feels almost too pointed, but the message is important. This world, where people are the sum of the score they are given, is not unlike our own. We obsess over our Instagram likes, we rate our Uber drivers, we review each other’s services or products online. The internet has made it easy to assign value to just about everything, including people.

When we search for something online, we type “best tattoo artist” or “best breakfast spot in Brooklyn.” Thanks to Amazon, we can read reviews for 10 different toothbrushes and have the top-rated one delivered to our house within the next hour. We've become accustomed to having the best of everything within reach at all times.

It’s a privilege to have so much information available to us, much less our pick of anything we want in any color, shape and size. Reviews and ratings protect us from unsafe food at a restaurant. They help us avoid wasting time and money on products or experiences that are collectively considered sub-par. They also leave us distracted and unsatisfied with the present world we are living in.

I've spent vacations with my head down, determined to find the best view or bar or restaurant on my phone. I’ve wasted hours comparing reviews for nearly identical products. I’ve put trust in people I don’t know who may be nothing like me, who have different taste or standards, who just happened to record their personal experience online.

The rated life.

This obsession with having the best and being the best has seeped into every corner of our lives. How many moments have we been absent because we’re wondering if we’re missing out on something better? How much time do we spend watching our phones, waiting for likes to roll in, or making sure other people aren’t having a better time than us? How often do we compare ourselves or our stuff in desperation to be the best?

A five-star life is not a life fully lived. It’s a life of second guessing, of obsessing and ultimately, one of dissatisfaction.

When we put so much stock in others’ opinion, we miss out on fully experiencing life for ourselves. We deprive ourselves of our beautiful capacity to form our own opinion. Five stars, in this imperfect, non-TV world, does not exist. How self-centered and classically human of us to think otherwise.

This is not to say we can’t value quality. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have high standards or care about success. This is to say that sometimes we could stand to put down our phone and stop worrying about what could be better.

With our head out of the internet and our eyes in front of us, we could discover something new and unknown, unreviewed and unrated. We could better define our personal taste outside of what the critics have to say about it. We could live a real, un-curated life that might not get as many likes, but would certainly be better than a perfect one.

Maybe today, we’re just human, and that’s OK.

Have a great week,

PS: Are you verified yet?

February 14, 2017No Comments

Could this be my super power?

 I’ve always been fascinated with superheroes for the same reasons kids are: They wear costumes. They beat bad guys. They have awesome powers. The older I get, though, the more I realize how amazing real human beings are.

Our brains are incredibly complex. We can sift through billions of bits of data at any given time. And somehow, so we don’t short circuit, we have to organize that information. The Reticular Activating System helps with that.

The Reticular Activating System (RAS) is a bundle of nerves at our brainstem that filters out unnecessary information so the important stuff gets through.

The RAS is the reason you learn a new word and then start hearing it everywhere. It’s why you can tune out a crowd full of talking people, yet immediately snap to attention when someone says your name or something that at least sounds like it.

Photograph by Sergio Rola

Your RAS takes what you focus on and creates a filter for it. It then sifts through the data and presents only the pieces that are important to you. All of this happens without you noticing, of course. The RAS programs itself to work in your favor without you actively doing anything. Pretty awesome, right?

In the same way, the RAS seeks information that validates your beliefs. It filters the world through the parameters you give it, and your beliefs shape those parameters. If you think you are bad at giving speeches, you probably will be. If you believe you work efficiently, you most likely do. The RAS helps you see what you want to see and in doing so, influences your actions.

Some people suggest that you can train your RAS by taking your subconscious thoughts and marrying them to your conscious thoughts. They call it “setting your intent.” This basically means that if you focus hard on your goals, your RAS will reveal the people, information and opportunities that help you achieve them.

If you care about positivity, for example, you will become more aware of and seek positivity. If you really want a pet turtle and set your intent on getting one, you’ll tune in to the right information that helps you do that.

When you look at it this way, The Law of Attraction doesn’t seem so mystical. Focus on the bad things and you will invite negativity into your life. Focus on the good things and they will come to you, because your brain is seeking them out. It’s not magic, it’s your Reticular Activating System influencing the world you see around you.

Articles and sketchy YouTube videos suggest many ways to train your RAS to get what you want, but I find this method to be the most practical:

  1. First, think of the goal or situation you want to influence.
  2. Now think about the experience or result you want to reach in regards to that goal/situation.
  3. Create a mental movie of how you picture that goal/situation ideally turning out in the future. Notice the sounds, conversations, visuals and details of that mental movie. Replay it often in your head.

Of course, in reality these things aren’t as easy as they sound, but I do believe that our Reticular Activating System (RAS) can be trained. It’s about visualizing what we want, and then letting our subconscious and conscious work together to make it happen.

The idea is: If I can hear my own name in a crowd of thousands, can I also tune my brain to focus and attract the things that matter to me? I’m fairly certain I can. This is why I keep my Big List with me wherever I go, and reread it often. I have to continually refocus and remind my brain what matters and what doesn’t.

We’re only a couple months into our New Year’s Resolutions (or in my case, Anti-Resolutions) and it’s easy to quit on our goals. If we set our intent and refocus, though, our RAS might help us out. Our brains look out for our best interests. Our RAS is filtering through billions of pieces of data so we can see and hear and be what we want to be. Sounds kinda like superpower to me.

Have a fantastic week,

January 16, 2017No Comments

Write to get ideas, not to express them

 As I'm finishing the new book by Tim Ferris "The Tools of Titans" this week I stumbled upon the following quote: (great book btw)

"Write to Get Ideas, Not to Express Them"

It's an interesting perspective. Especially given that most of us don't write at all, and if we do, we do it to express ourselves or maybe to gain exposure. And usually we only do it in order to do it very well.

Both of these motivations are perfectly reasonable and make perfect sense. Why else would you sit down and write?

But "Write to Get Ideas, Not to Express Them" resonated with me because it's something I learned myself over the last year writing at one article a week.

Oftentimes I sit down on a Sunday night and have no idea what to write about. To be honest, starting a new article usually sucks the most because I'm a slow starter and procrastinator.

But then once I start writing, it just keeps going. It's like a constant flow of ideas that just keeps coming. And more often while I'm writing something, I'm getting an idea for something else.

It's kind of like talking to a friend, bouncing ideas back and forth with each other. Just in this case, I'm talking to myself, or an imaginary friend.

But I remember every time I had a block where I couldn't write anything for a week, it was also the time I didn't actually sit down to write.

My point is: I write for many reasons, but one of them is to simply get myself out of whatever shit hole I'm in. I just start writing one word, then the second, the third and boom it's happening.

And this reminds me of another quote I really like:

"Work will work when nothing else will work."

It's the same concept. When I feel down, I just work. When I feel depressed or things aren't going that well in my life, I just focus on the work and get some shit done.

Work isn't only a distraction in that case, but it's also an activity that pushes me forward, at least somewhere in the right direction.

When everything else fails, I just show up to work. I write, I design, I learn something new or whatever it might be.

We're all miserable at some point in our lives. Especially as a creative, I feel like I'm there at least once a month. Some of us start to complain, and some of us just get to work. I'm certainly guilty of complaining myself, I mean I'm German after all. But I also know that every time I complain, no one wants to help me. I realize the moment you complain, you've become a burden not only for yourself, but everyone else around you.

But this is where work comes in. I just show up to work, I start moving, I start doing something and I notice how things get better automatically.

“Action may not always bring happiness, but there is no happiness without action.”
—Benjamin Disraeli

This really brings it to the point. The result of action might not always get the results I want, but at least it will bring some results while standing still won't do me any favor.

I try to remind myself of this everyday.

I write to get ideas and to inspire myself. One word after another. Sometimes it just keeps going like this, diary style, kinda like what you are reading right now.

I open Photoshop not to design something specific, but just to start drawing the first line and see what happens next.

PS: On that note, you might enjoy reading this article on 3 reasons why I write.

With that, I wish  you a fantastic a productive new week.

Stay awesome,

December 30, 2016No Comments

No Alcohol, No Coffee for 27 Months

Exactly today (Dec. 26th 2016) I haven’t had a single drop of alcohol or coffee in 27 months. If you're reading this later, you can do the math yourself.

A couple of my friends on Facebook & Twitter asked me to write about my experience, so here it is, in a nutshell.

With over a year of no alcohol & coffee, I did notice some side effects. Here is what I learned.

I save $1000 every month

After 2 months I noticed that I had $1000 more on my bank account. Yes, that’s a lot, but do the math and you notice it’s not that much.

I live in New York. In order to spend $1000 on alcohol I only have to spend $33 everyday. Assume that I have 2–3 cocktails every other day (which are $10 each without tip), including some wine bottles every month for at home I can easily spend $1000.

Some might think that this is heavy alcoholism, but trust me when I say that having 1–2 drinks everyday in New York is more than normal.

Also, going out drinking means that the occasional dinner & snacks are more frequent. You don’t just drink, you get hungry and buy some food. And before you noticed it, you spend $1000.

Less gossip

If there is one thing I noticed quite early, then it’s the lack of social interaction my new diet brought with it. Here is what happened:

  • You don’t really go out anymore. It’s exhausting to explain again and again why you don’t drink and NO also one drink is not okay.
    When a group of people asks me to join them for drinks, I mostly default to answer with NO because I just don’t want to deal with gossip as a sober person.
  • If I do go for drinks, I last max. 1 hour because this is how long my attention span as a sober person lasts in a group of drunk people.
  • While I was never a party animal anyways, completely stopping with alcohol made me go out even less. It’s amazing to see the culture of drinking slowly fading away from your life. It made me realize how many friendships are actually based mostly on your drinking habits.

“Let’s go for a drink” is so engraved in our lives, because who says “Hey, let’s just meet up as sober people and talk about stuff” — Why the fuck would you do that? “Let’s get a drink” needs no explanation. It’s a thing, everyone knows what happens next.

My sleep quality increased

Removing alcohol from my diet increased my sleep quality drastically. And I’m not talking about “falling asleep” but the actual sleep quality.

You sure do fall asleep easier with 1–2 glasses of beer or wine, but the actual sleep quality might suffer. I sleep better, and I wake up with more energy. Before I always ruined my mornings, even if I only had two beers at night I could feel it in the morning. (if you’re in your early twenties, ignore this, it doesn’t affect you yet)

No coffee, less panic, less stress

This might be something more personal and not related to everyone. But removing coffee from my diet helped me become more relaxed. Coffee always made me stressed out. It increased my chance of having anxiety and also fucked up my digestion. Removing coffee/caffeine from my diet not only made me more relaxed, I also poop like a king.

Besides that, I love the smell and taste of coffee. An occasional decaf will do the trick. In the summer I now drink ice tea, in the winter regular tea.
I found out that “Going for a coffee” turned out to be more of a social activity than the actual craving for coffee. Keep the social habit, replace coffee with something else.


Overall, I’m very happy about my decision and have no desire to start drinking again. I’m also not telling you to do the same, if you’re happy with how things are going, don’t change anything.

I changed my habits out of curiosity and I like how it turned out.

PS: Before someone asks. I do not smoke cigarettes. I also don’t smoke weed. I also don’t take any drugs whatsoever. (I have Internet, that’s addiction enough for me)

Yours truly,

December 30, 2016No Comments

My 23 Favorite Books on Creativity, Productivity & Life

I read a lot. I didn't used to, but over the last couple years I made an effort to change myself and I'm happy to report that I've succeeded. One of the best decisions I made was ordering a Kindle from Amazon and reading my books on there instead of purchasing physical books.

I can tell you, the amount of books you read with a Kindle is twice if not even three times as much. I also follow certain strategies when reading a book to make sure I don't get stuck and get the most out of every book I read. (read more  here)

The majority of books I read are non-fiction, and most of them aren't really related to design. But I always believe that books about psychology and other topics bring me closer to design than "design" books ever can.

So below are some of my favorite picks. Most of these books I read twice or even more often. They're currently my favorite all-time reads. I hope you find one or two and add them to your reading list in 2017.

PS: The majority of the book covers you see below are just little artworks I did myself some time ago. They're not the original covers of these books.

Ed Catmull is one of the founders of Pixar. And I particularly appreciated the mix of candid management lessons combined with insights into the inner workings of Pixar and it's founding story.

→ Get Creativity Inc on Amazon

The business lessons and leadership lessons might not be completely new to you, but Ben's writing style is entertaining. It's also a great reminder that even people such as Ben go through phases of extreme self-doubt.

→ Get The Hard Thing About Hard Things on Amazon

This book written by Dale Carnegie is a classic. The title is cheesy but I read it already 3 times. It's a book everyone should read at least once. Ignore the title, or the fact that it's marketed as a self-help book, just get it and read it. (if you haven't already)

→ Get How to win friends and influence people on Amazon

Another classic, but what I love about it is how simple and blunt it's written. The Alchemist seems to be loved by many people as everyone is able to interpret it in their own way. The story of the alchemist is simple but thought provoking. This book is about.

→ Get The Alchemist on Amazon

Marcus Aurelius is essentially everything you need to know about stoicism by one of the worlds greatest leaders & thinkers. If you're new to stoicism make sure to read the book to the left first. Meditations can seem a bit tedious if you're either unfamiliar with stoicism or not into it at all.

→ Get Meditations on Amazon

This book is a fairly short and simple introduction to stoicism. I personally love the concept of stoicism and found my basics in this book. For more advanced reading continue to Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.

→ Get The Obstacle is the Way on Amazon

Achieving more by doing less is something I’m personally always interested in. In this book the author Greg McKeown guides you through examples on how to apply a more selective criteria for what is essential to us. This is a must read & a sure re-read.

→ Get Essentialism on Amazon

A book written about why and how we make decisions based on our culture, religion or our general environment. As a designer myself it's critical to understand why and what influences other people to make decisions so we can design around it. A book packed with research & insights.

→ The Art Of Choosing on Amazon

You don't have to be a girl to read this book. #GIRLBOSS is a powerful book written by NastyGal's founder & CEO Sophia Amoruso. I'm personally very inspired by Sophia's story and how she turned NastyGal from selling vintage clothes on eBay into a striving $100 million+ fashion brand.

→ The Girl Boss on Amazon

I’m a fan of biographies and Mastery is a collection of a dozen ones ranging from Charles Darwin, Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein to Leonard da Vinci. Robert Greene takes apart some of these success stories and tries to make sense of the myth behind becoming a true master.

→ Get MASTERY on Amazon

Not much to say about this other than read it! It’s a little more on the heavy side but the complexity of the character Malcolm X is just fascinating. His personal path & transformation from being a criminal into one of the most important political activists was absolutely inspiring to me.

→ Get Malcolm X on Amazon

I was on the plane from NYC to Salt Lake City. I started reading the book the moment we took off and didn’t put it down until I got forced to leave the plane. I finished it the same day. Hatching Twitter is an entertaining & dramatic story of Money, Power, Friendship and Betrayal.

→ Get Hatching Twitter on Amazon

This is one of the most important books which had such a high impact on my life. Everything we do is driven by habits - We're creatures of habits and mastering them is the true secret to happiness. This book explores how habits work and affect our lives.

→ Get The Power of Habit on Amazon

By the age of four, 90% of kids understand the concept and benefits of lying. On an average we lie about 10 times a day, men usually more than women. Most of these lies are called “white lies” — What happens when those lines start to blur?

→ Get Lying on Amazon

With Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell asks what makes successful people so special? Is it hard work, or Privilege? Is there a pattern to success? Certainly there is. One of my favorite books and already on my "re-read" list.

→ Get Outliers on Amazon

It's a timeless classic that I often ignored because of its cheesy title. The book was written in 1902 but its lessons about finances and how to acquire personal wealth still apply to today. It's the best advice about money I've ever read.

→ Get The Richest Man In Babylon on Amazon

Another book by Ryan Holiday. But let me quote this piece from Amazon:

In an era that glorifies social media, reality TV, and other forms of shameless self-promotion, the battle against ego must be fought on many fronts. Armed with the lessons in this book, as Holiday writes, “you will be less invested in the story you tell about your own specialness, and as a result, you will be liberated to accomplish the world-changing work you’ve set out to achieve.”

→ Get Ego is the Enemy on Amazon

Not the first book by Malcolm Gladwell on this list. And to be honest, I've read pretty much all of his book and generally identify with his style of writing.

"The tipping point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire. Just as a single sick person can start an epidemic of the flu, so too can a small but precisely targeted push cause a fashion trend, the popularity of a new product, or a drop in the crime rate. This widely acclaimed bestseller, in which Malcolm Gladwell explores and brilliantly illuminates the tipping point phenomenon, is already changing the way people throughout the world think about selling products and disseminating ideas."

→ Get The Tipping Point on Amazon

Schopenhauer once said that we as humans will be left between either one of the two extremes of distress or boredom. We're either fighting to be alive, getting to a point where we don't need to worry about food and shelter, or we're cursed with boredom which ultimately leads us to depression. I found this book randomly by doing some research on "Boredom" and enjoyed reading about where boredom originated and how boredom can be both, a blessing and a curse.

→ Get A Philosophy of Boredom on Amazon


Yes, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Besides the fact that I grew up very close to where Arnold is from, I've always been a fan of him. Total Recall is just a summary of what he has achieved in such a short life time so far, but I'm hugely motivated by what he has accomplished. I think very few people give Arnold the credits he actually deserves.

The most stunning thing is that he did something very few has ever done, working his ass off to reach the top of three different industries. Starting out to be the worlds most famous body builder, becoming Hollywoods highest paid actors in both action and comedy, and then moving on to becoming Governor of California. Arnold is one of the most inspiring human beings for me personally.

→ Get Total Recall on Amazon

One of the best books I've ever read on human behavior and decision making. I don't even know how to sum up what can be found in this book. I think it's just a must read, especially when working as a designer and maker.

Here is what Amazon has to say about it:

In the international bestseller, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman, the renowned psychologist and winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, takes us on a groundbreaking tour of the mind and explains the two systems that drive the way we think. System 1 is fast, intuitive, and emotional; System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. The impact of overconfidence on corporate strategies, the difficulties of predicting what will make us happy in the future, the profound effect of cognitive biases on everything from playing the stock market to planning our next vacation―each of these can be understood only by knowing how the two systems shape our judgments and decisions.

→ Get Thinking Fast And Slow on Amazon

You know this feeling when you're working on something, you listen to some good music and you're just jamming along designing or coding while forgetting everything around? And then you look at your watch and it's 6 hours later but you feel fantastic? This feeling is called "FLOW" or you could also refer to it as the "optimal experience". It's the feeling you get when you're riding the perfect wave, do a line of skateboard tricks or just having a run while playing poker.

Flow is amazing. It's addictive as hell and we all want it. This book will tell you all about it.

→ Get FLOW on Amazon

Man's Search for Meaning is probably my all time favorite book right now. It's not an easy book to read but it helped me during one of my most difficult times when I struggled with panic attacks and anxiety. It not only gives you perspective, but it helps you understand and deal with the biggest question in your life: "What is my purpose? What does this all mean?"

To keep it short: The author of the book, Victor Frank, was held & survived four different Nazi camps, including Auschwitz. This book is basically a summary on his own experiences as a practicing Psychiatrist. Victor argues that we can't avoid suffering but we can choose to cope with it, find meaning in it and move forward with our own purpose. 

Once again, it's a very difficult book to read but I'd argue it changed my life.

→ Get Man's Search for Meaning on Amazon


I hope you found some books that you're interested in. Please make sure to sign up to my weekly email list if you're interested in more reading recommendations in the future.

I'll make sure to post more of these articles as well.

Stay awesome & Happy Reading

**In the spirit of full disclosure, this article contains one or more affiliate links, which means that I may get a small commissions if you decide to purchase any of these books from Amazon. Of course, I only recommend products & services that I use and love myself, so I know you’ll be in good hands.

December 7, 2016No Comments

The endless search for fame

A common question I get asked most from young designers is usually about personal branding. How to promote yourself and your work.

Simply put: "How can I skip all the hard work and just become famous?"

It seems as if young designers are looking for immediate fame and recognition. I can't even blame anyone, because the systems we are surrounded by are optimized for recognition and the quick fix. With the immediate feedback that social media provides, our patience has gone close to zero. We want validation from the world, and even more so our peers. If a Dribbble or Instagram shot doesn't get enough likes in a short amount of time we get insecure and delete it. It's a common scenario.

When I started designing there were no like buttons, no followers, nothing. The recognition I got was mostly through people actually telling me face to face that they liked my work, or someone took the effort to write me an email (very few did).

I mostly designed for myself and rarely even shared my work. And if I did, all I had was some old "GFX forums" or IRC channels which was more of a place for gamers to hang out who didn't care much about my designs anyway.

I understand that in today's world it's easy to think that fame is what makes a designer or maker successful. And while I'm not even remotely famous nor successful myself, I believe the motivation to be famous is something we too easily get sidetracked by.

“Fame means millions of people have the wrong idea of who you are.”
― Erica Jong

If you ask me if I'd choose fame or mastery, I would always choose mastery. Fame will never make you happy or fulfilled. It's hard work and mastering your field will last forever. The act of climbing a mountain is why we humans climb mountains. Climbing mountains is the challenge we seek, and the very act is what's so joyful about it. Staying on top of the mountain only to protect your position is exhausting & not fulfilling.

Essentially, being on top of the mountain or the wish to simply shortcut yourself to the top is what seeking for fame really is. It's the wish for skipping the hard work that makes no sense. Skipping the act of climbing the mountain, the most joyful part of it all.

One should always focus on the work, and the fame will come eventually and naturally. In most cases, people learn that fame isn't even what they wanted. Because as I mentioned above, fame is nothing else but having a ton of people who don't know who you really are.  And I agree, it's easy to get caught up in searching for fame & recognition nowadays. I admit, I've been falling into the trap myself more often than I would've liked to.

But in the end, I try to focus on my work. I love working hard, it keeps me sane and makes me a happy human being. Even the couple prestigious projects I've done (serving on advisory boards I don't like, or speaking at conferences I didn't like but seemed looked good in my resume) have never gotten me anywhere close to where I wanted to go, even though from the outside it might appear that these are the things that make you successful. But trust me, they don't.

"Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work."
―Thomas A. Edison

When I accept or work on new projects I always like to ask myself first: What is the motivation for doing this project? Is it purely out of prestige? Or can I actually add value and grow personally by doing this project? If the answer is "prestige only" I try to avoid it.

But again, it's easy to fall in the trap. As a young designer I always wanted to work for brands like Coca Cola. I thought it would make me a cooler designer if I could work for them. And the moment I worked for them, the magic was gone. I actually never really wanted to work for Coca Cola because I believed in the work, but simply because I thought it looked good on my CV.

It was the wrong motivation all along.

November 21, 2016No Comments

Is the Ringelmann effect holding you back?

In 1913, a guy named Max Ringelmann noticed something strange about humans. Ringelmann, a French agricultural engineer, took a rope and asked individual people to pull on it.

Then he asked those same people to pull on the rope with a group. He observed that when people pulled with a group, they put in less effort than when pulling on their own.

They call it the Ringelmann Effect, or Social Loafing. It describes the tendency for individual productivity to decrease as group size increases. And it doesn’t just happen in tug-of-war games. It’s present in companies like Google and Facebook more than a century after Ringelmann’s discovery. Chances are, it’s happening in your workplace too.

Bigger groups mean less personal responsibility

We’re typically taught that larger groups accomplish more. We’re assigned to group projects in school, we play sports with a team, we create task forces to accomplish big goals at work. It seems reasonable to think that more people would get more work done. And generally, I’d say this holds true in most cases.

But sometimes, the Ringelmann Effect proves otherwise.

You’ve experienced it in brainstorm meetings, when you’re wrapping up the meeting and think, “Oh, Tim was here this whole time? He never said a word.” That’s because enough people were talking to make Tim feel like he could sit back unnoticed. He didn’t feel pressure to contribute because nobody realized he wasn’t contributing.

The bigger the group, the harder it is to evaluate individual performance. And when nobody’s noticing what you are or aren’t doing, the easier it is to keep doing nothing. The work will get done, yes, because someone has to do it. But it doesn’t have to be you.

Nobody is immune

The term “rest and vest” is  thrown around among employees at big companies. Often in these companies, an employee will gain stocks after four years spent at a company – 25% every year. The process is called vesting. So what do you do while you wait for your stocks to be worth something? Well, you could either work your ass off or you rest and vest, meaning chill out and only do the minimal amount of work needed. The bigger the company, the easier it is to fly under the radar.


The Ringelmann Effect is one of the main reasons Stefan Sagmeister of Sagmeister & Walsh decided to keep his design studio small. (I’ve written on this topic last week)

“…there are situations where I know that if I don’t do it, nobody will, so I’m forced into coming up with something,” says Sagmeister. “While if I know that if two or three other teams are working on it, I’m like, ‘Well if something comes to mind, excellent. But if not, I’ll hope that someone else [comes up with something.]’”

Even freelancers can experience the effect. When you’re working on your own projects, there’s no option but to do the work, because it won’t get done otherwise. When you collaborate with others on a project, though, the pressure comes off. If the project sinks, it’s not necessarily your fault. Less ownership can lead to less motivation.

The Ringelmann Effect appears beyond the workplace. It’s why you feel like you can clap more softly in a crowd. It’s why people don’t vote, because they think it won’t make a difference. It’s why dozens of people watched Kitty Genovese get murdered in New York in 1964 – everyone thought someone else was doing something about it. (This example technically illustrates the Bystander Effect, but it relates.)

The Ringelmann Effect is present everywhere.

You may not know you’re experiencing it

OK, we’ll give poor Tim some credit. He probably didn’t realize he was slacking in that brainstorm. It's unlikely he walked into it thinking, “Now how can I get away with doing nothing?” Yet he still did nothing. The team landed on an idea, they figured out their next steps, they executed. They barely noticed Tim was missing.

The truth is, you might not know you’re experiencing the Ringelmann Effect either.

While some people are just plain lazy, most don’t necessarily slack off on purpose. You show up, don’t you? You check a few things off your list, you respond to a few emails, you manage to fill your timesheet. But unless your boss or team is expecting something from you specifically, how much work are you actually getting done? What are you accomplishing?

A subtle effect with significant damage

The impact of The Ringelmann Effect may seem small in one meeting, but it’s toxic to a company’s productivity. When people within a team are slacking, the group dynamic shifts. Projects are less efficient, responsibilities are unbalanced, other employees are overworked and unhappy.

The entire business suffers, and so does each person involved.

The upside for our friend, Tim: He gets away with doing less work. He’s paid just for showing up. He can skate by with the smallest required effort.

The downside for Tim: He’s not going to be the first person who comes to mind when the next project comes along. He’s not going to be recognized or rewarded for his work on this project. He’s not growing in his career, learning new skills, showing what he’s worth. And he’s certainly not finding satisfaction in the minimal work he is doing.

And for that, we feel sorry for Tim. He’s missing out.

If you’re experiencing the Ringelmann Effect in your workplace, whether you’re contributing to it or on the receiving end of it, you’re missing out too.


But what’s the ideal group size?

There are times when having different perspectives and a diverse range of skills on a project is valuable. And sometimes the work is simply too much for one person. So the question is, what’s the ideal group size? At what point does productivity start decreasing in a group?

Many people, like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, use the “Two Pizza Rule” – if you can’t feed a group with two pizzas, your group is too big.

The Scrum Guide, which outlines the group-focused Scrum approach to development, says optimal performance happens in groups of 3-9.

Ringelmann, though, noticed the most significant decrease in effort as soon as one person worked with even one or two more people.

The fact is, putting a person in a group of any size is going to make them less productive. But dismissing group work entirely is unrealistic. So what’s the solution?

There’s a simple cure

There’s lots of advice out there for business owners or managers to prevent the Ringelmann Effect in their company. One suggestion is to counteract it with yet another social tendency, Social Facilitation. It’s when someone performs differently while other people are watching, because they care what others think of them. So if you make each person’s contribution known along the way, you motivate them to work harder.

Other recommendations: Make individuals feel indispensable (like the success of the project depends on them), set specific goals for each person that can be measured along the way, or create competition between team members.

That’s all great, but how do we personally counteract the Ringelmann Effect? How do we avoid it in the first place?

It’s actually easy (no social science required).

Simply ask yourself:
“How can I be useful?”

When you ask yourself how you can be useful, you immediately become more aware of the needs around you. You see where the holes are, you find a way to fill them. The question jumpstarts your brain and shift your thoughts from, “Well, surely someone will find a solution,” to “How can I help fix this?”

Sometimes, the answer to that question doesn’t fall within your job description or field of expertise. In some cases, you may be more effective by making a fresh pot of coffee for the team rather than spitballing ideas. So make the coffee.  

Other times, you may convince yourself you’d be more useful by letting other people lead the conversation. If that’s the case, then take notes. Interject your ideas once you’ve had some time to mull it over outside the group. Then send your notes out to the team and determine how you fit into next steps.

When you choose to be useful, you are counteracting The Ringelmann Effect. And affecting your environment is so much more satisfying than dealing with the effects of it.

It may be easy to sit back and let others do the work, but an easy life is not a happy life. A useful life, though, is an entirely different story.

Have a wonderful week,

November 12, 2016No Comments

Love your haters

We all know about them. People who hate on you, or the things you do. A hater can be anyone, someone you know or often someone anonymous.

Read more

October 26, 2016No Comments

The power of saying “I don’t know”

It feels good to say that. I used to speak at a lot of conferences, and at most of them there would be a Q&A session at the end. The questions were usually not a problem, but here and there I would get a question I just didn’t know the answer to, at least not at the time. I always struggled with it. Because the real answer was that I didn’t know, but for some reason I feel like I should know.

"I’m a professional," I would tell myself. "I should know the answer." I grew up in a society where admitting that you don’t know was always something bad. Something you got punished for in school. So even if I didn’t know the answer, I always came up with some bullshit that I hoped seemed like I did.

But then I started being more honest at these Q&A sessions. For the first time I answered “I don’t know” in front of hundreds of people. It made me feel like a fraud. It made me vulnerable because I was admitting my ignorance on a particular topic in a large social setting.

The first time I proudly said “I don’t know,” it was followed by an awkward silence that got deep to my bones. But it felt so good and refreshing, I almost enjoyed it.

I don't know. Why do we fear these three simple words so much? What’s wrong with admitting that you don't know everything?

There are many reasons. The fear of feeling stupid, the fear of losing authority, especially in a moment where you’re in front of a large group of people.

Fear is what motivates us to tell lies, to come up with bullshit just to avoid admitting that we really don’t know. I sometimes wonder how many questionable decisions, in our private lives or in politics, have been made simply because someone was too proud or fearful to admit they simply don’t know the answer.

The higher a person's position, the less likely you will hear them say “I don’t know." Not because they know, but because we use little lies and rhetoric to escape the shame that comes with not knowing.

“I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”

The pressure is high, especially for those in the lead. Not knowing means weakness, it could mean losing our social rank and respect. But we often don’t even know what happens when one prideful lie builds on top of the other. We’re building a complex construct where  everyone is ashamed of admitting they’re the fool.

One of my favorite examples of this is the the story of THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES. If you haven't heard of the story, make sure to read it real quick before you continue.

→ Read The Emperor's New Clothes

The story of the The Emperor’s New Clothes is the perfect example of a lie becoming so complex because nobody wants to be the fool, that everyone is made the fool.

The irony is, admitting that you don’t know can have so much more impact on you and other people around you. Admitting that you don’t know will set us at peace with ourselves and at the same time level the ground between us all. It makes us all come closer together and create a closer connection rather than distancing us from each other.

It's the smartest people in this world who know that they actually don’t really know anything and there is so much still to learn. Only being able to admit that you don’t know something will open you up to learn something new.

And while it seems awkward and shameful to say “I don’t know," it often opens up a completely new path of the conversation.

For example, now when I say “I don’t know” I usually continue with the following options to end the awkward silence:

  • 1. I don’t know, but I will find out, because this is an interesting question and I’d like to know myself.
  • 2. I don’t know, but what do you think? Let’s talk about it.
  • 3. I don’t know, but I know someone who might know the answer.

Saying “I don’t know” doesn’t have to shut down the conversation, but can open it up to greater potential than before. Today I promise myself to say “I don’t know” more often.

If you enjoyed this article, feel free to share and as always, you can catch me on Twitter @vanschneider if you have feedback or just want to say Hi (:

Have a fantastic week,

August 23, 2016No Comments

Why do you work?

Every day I think about it. Why do I work?

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July 18, 2016No Comments

Why I Write

I've gotten this question more and more recently. "Tobias, why do you write? Aren't you a Designer?"

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July 5, 2016No Comments

Creativity Is like breathing

I elegantly stole the subject line of this email from one of my favorite websites: The Oatmeal. 

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May 30, 2016No Comments

How to get over public speaking

In the last two years (this was written in 2016) I've stood on many stages around the world giving 30+ talks in more than 25 cities. I'm only counting the talks within the last 2-3 years, because those are the only ones I gave in English, my second language. That doesn't make me an expert, but there are a couple things I learned during this time.

I'm often being asked if I enjoy public speaking. My reply usually is: "If you enjoy the feeling of potentially shitting your pants days before an event, then YES."

More people on this planet are afraid of speaking in front of a crowd than they are of death. Well, at least according to formal studies. On the list, we find "Public Speaking" far above the fear of heights, spiders or even financial problems.

“There are only two types of speakers in the world. 1. The nervous and 2. Liars.”
– Mark Twain

I have or have had a huge fear of public speaking. I don't even like to speak up in a meeting room with just over 10 people in it. It makes me cringe, I can feel the silent judgment and my stomach goes all gaga like I'm being chased by an ostrich. And there is nothing that freaks me out more than an ostrich, please never use one against me. We're in the trust tree here!

So when I started being asked to give talks in front of crowds, I began to freak out and soak up all the public speaking advice I could find online. By the end, I was even more nervous.

This article is for those who read countless useless advice on "How to give a perfect talk" only to find out that they're now more nervous than before. Most "How to give a talk" advice is bullshit because they tell you about all the things you should NOT do. Don't do this with your hands, don't stand still, don't look weird. Small things that actually don't matter, but someone who's already nervous enough will obsess over them.

So let's talk about my main take aways from giving talks the last couple years and seeing hundreds of others:

1. Answer this question before you start giving your first talk:

There are two kinds of people. Those who are calmer when there are family and friends in the audience, and those who are more calm and relaxed when there is no one they know in the audience.

I'm one of those people in the second group. It freaks me out when there is someone I know really well in the audience. I don't know why, but nervousness level is up 10000%. I appreciate an audience full of strangers, ideally in a different city. Maybe because I always tell myself that when I fuck up I'm like "whatever, I don't live here anyway lol bye"

But seriously. When speaking publicly for the first time, it's important to understand what group you belong to. If you feel more relaxed with relatives in the audience, try to have them come to your first couple talks. If you're like me, try at least to not have your mother in the audience for the first time. Practice with strangers.

2. Entertainment trumps knowledge

There is one big misunderstanding when giving talks. Most people think they need to be smart, show a lot of data, share knowledge and bore the crap out of the audience. We think that we need something "worth showing". But you know what? If I want to learn something new, I read a book, but I go to a talk to get entertained. (unless it's TED)

If your talk is entertaining, no one gives a bit about what you talked about. You can be the fanciest developer conference where people may expect live coding responsive frameworks (wat?). But even there, if you manage to entertain and make people laugh, no one will even notice what you just did.

I've always been stressed out about showing a lot of complicated stuff in my presentations. Showing how talented I am, look at my grids, look at this list of buzzwords, look at this piece of code. But ultimately, no one really cares. If I want to see your work, I go online and look at your portfolio. But at an event, I want to be entertained, even if that just means you're doing stand up comedy.

My point is: You don't have to appear super smart, you just need to make people have a good time and laugh. Everything else is a bonus.

PS: Most talks are boring, knowing this little thing saved my ass many times. I've been completely "off topic" at a lot of conferences, but I've been told the audience always appreciated my talk because it felt like I gave them a break between the serious stuff. Be that break, be that person that makes the audience relief, because they've been sitting for hours and all they can think of is going to the toilet.

“There are always three speeches, for every one you actually gave. The one you practiced, the one you gave, and the one you wish you gave.”
–Dale Carnegie

3. Keep it short

Do everyone a favor and keep your talk short. As we all know, people nowadays have an attention span of a squirrel. 1h talks are way too long. 40min is stretching it. 30min is optimal. 20min is just perfect.

If you can give a talk, make it short and snappy. You want people to say "Oh no, it's over already? That was awesome! I WANT MORE!" - If you get that, you won.

4. Start with a joke

This is my little secret. When you enter the stage, everyone is staring at you. Everyone is thinking: "DO ME AN ENTERTAINMENT! SLAVE!" And I'm just standing there, blinded by the stage light, looking into the black void of audience.

Then, I start with a joke. Maybe something from my childhood. Maybe something related to the event, maybe just something embarrassing about myself. Then everyone laughs, then I laugh. Now we're on! The audience is warmed up, my stage fright just disappeared by 83% and I'm ready to get started.

The hardest thing about giving a talk is the beginning. It's the long stretch until you get a little bit of response and feedback from the audience. When telling a joke straight from the beginning you're not only setting the mood, but also you get the feedback you need.

5. Pre-talk tips

There are a few things that make me help cut some of my nervousness right before I give a talk.

  • a.) Always know where the bathroom is at the event venue. If you're like me, you need it right before.
  • b.) About 10min before the talk, I usually go somewhere private and do the superhero pose. Yes, I do that kinda shit. Essentially, you just go somewhere, and you pretend you just won an award with your hands high up in the air. This pose helps A LOT. I'm usually cramped up right before a talk, so this pose helps me to loosen up.
  • c. ) Always ask for a headset microphone, not the one you have to hold. There are so many things you can fuck up if you have to worry about holding your microphone, I prefer just not worrying about this at all.
  • d.) Arrive a little earlier at the event and socialize a bit with the people who will end up sitting in the audience. The moment you give your talk, they're not complete strangers anymore and they can serve as your eye contact anchor in the audience once you're on stage.

6. Create value & be useful

I've written about this already a couple weeks ago. When it comes to giving a talk, there are a few things you have to do right, and there are few things you can do wrong. But there is only one thing you need to nail: Create value by either being useful or by giving people a good time. Find this one thing you will leave people with, whatever it might be.

I also let you in on a little secret: If you are standing on stage, you're essentially telling the truth. You will be quoted, photographed and your every word will be taken as if it's the smartest thing you've ever said. You can basically say whatever you want, as long as you do it with confidence and people will clap their hands. Knowing this gives you a lot of advantages, because it might help you with the little boost of confidence you need. But the fact that you're on stage, already says a lot.

I do hope that some of the above tips & tricks will help you give the talk you always wanted to give. This might be in front of a conference audience, or maybe just presenting in front of a client.

And in case you are interested, I can write another future article about how to prepare a talk people actually want to listen to. If that's something you're interested in, send me a gif on Twitter.

PS: Of course, if you know someone in need who is about to give a talk and super nervous about it, forward them this article.

Find me on this picture:


Have a wonderful week,

May 23, 2016No Comments

One video, article or side project can change your life

One piece of content, one little thing you create or publish, can change everything you do in the future.

  • One article you write and publish can change your life.
  • One video you upload and share can change your career.
  • One little side project you create and publish can change the course of everything you will do in the future.

But the problem is, we don't do these things. We usually sit here overthinking, planning, strategizing and coming up with excuses why we can't do it. I do this all the time myself. I come up with ideas for little articles, I write them, and then I delete them again thinking no one cares anyway.

Let me give you an example:

In 2015, I sat down and wrote an article with the title "No alcohol, no coffee for 27 months". I finished the article within one sitting. It took me less than 15 minutes to finish, nothing special. I just wrote it for myself to reflect on my personal experience. I hit the publish button and moved on, because who cares anyway?

Apparently, a lot of people did. It was by far one of the most-read articles I've ever written with millions of views. It got syndicated to pretty much every big online magazine and translated into more than 10 languages across the world. It still gets thousands of views each week, five years later.

In retrospect, I can see why people liked this article. But the moment I published it, there was nothing special about it. I've never written an article in less than 15 minutes, and couldn't have cared less about its potential to receive an audience. But for some reason, it was that article that got my writing and experience around the world.

I learned it once again: Don't think about it too much. Just fucking do it.

Casey Neistat might be familiar to some of you by now. He is a well known YouTuber and vlogger. But years before his crazy vlogging career started, he uploaded a 3 minute video called "Crazy German Water Park"

Within the following months, this video got more than 18 million views on YouTube alone, making it his second-most watched video of all time (at least at that time). There is nothing in particular special about this video, it's a good video, but one of his best? I doubt it. I assume even Casey can't tell you why this video exploded, or why in specifically this video compared to any of his others (which are all excellent).

While this video probably didn't change Casey's life, it's still one of his most-watched and shared videos. Which means, it's the video that reaches far beyond his subscriber base, giving all his other videos exposure. It's the video that reached more people than any of his other videos (at least that's true at the time I am writing this).

We can analyze it and maybe find something in retrospect, but I'm pretty sure even Casey Neistat wasn't prepared to see this video explode. Sometimes we can feel it, we can feel when the stars align and something is going to be successful. But sometimes it happens for the strangest reasons. All we have to do is hit publish on a video called "Crazy German Water Park."

“What one does is what counts. Not what one had the intention of doing.”
― Pablo Picasso

Years ago, Mikael Cho, one of the co-founders of Crew was almost being forced to shut down his company. He had three months worth of cash left and needed to get his shit together.

At the time, he was working on a new website for Crew. While searching for some good stock photos to use for their website, the team noticed that they just couldn't find anything worth using. So they ended up hiring a photographer instead to shoot some quick pictures in a coffee shop. Since they only needed one picture and had a couple extras left, they decided to simply share them online for free to download.

Three hours and one quick Tumblr theme later, they put up a website called Unsplash with download links to these extra photographs. Then the team moved on with their day. I mean, they had a business to save.

Long story short: Unsplash blew up on the Internet. It received millions of visits and downloads within the first year. More people wanted to share their extra photographs, and they eventually did it through Unsplash. And on top of it, Unsplash served as the number one referral to Crew, helping Crew to survive and ultimately gain the exposure they needed. Now, it's one of the most-viewed websites worldwide.

All this happened just because the Crew team decided to share their extra photographs on a quick and dirty Tumblr page. I'm pretty sure no one at the Crew team knew at the time that this little side project will ultimately save their company and ultimately create a completely new company, which is what Unsplash is today.

In the end, it's about just doing it. It's about hitting the publish button. It's about not thinking about perfection, it's about zero expectation.

It's about walking the walk, doing the thing. Making something and showing it to the world. One day only one person will appreciate it (and that's okay) and the other day it might be thousands. It is worth it, either way.

I can probably come up with many more stories like these, and just reflecting on this myself today makes me motivated to do even more in the future. Keep going, keep running and have fun.

Often the things I create with zero expectations turn out to be something that impacted my work or career the most.

May 9, 2016No Comments

Work/Life Balance Is Bullsh*t

There is no question being asked more often than how people manage their work/life balance.

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April 25, 2016No Comments

Be useful

Two simple words that are so easy to forget. Every day when I wake up I try to remind myself of just that: Be useful.

It serves almost as some sort of mission or vision to guide me through the day. Every time I feel a little lost or don't remember what I set out to do, I go back to the basics. I just try to be useful.

Being useful is so simple. It not only helps other people but also myself. Being useful makes me happy, because whatever "usefulness" translates to in my current circumstance, it's never wasted time.

Sometimes I have a bad day. Sometimes it's hard to stay positive and I get lost in the world of negativity and criticism. Especially online, it's easy to be negative. Exactly then I usually try to remind myself to be useful, because being a negative asshole adds little value to anyone.

There are many ways you can be useful to other people and it's often more simple than you think. Here's where to start:

Share knowledge

You are never too young to teach. Share knowledge with people who might know less. There is always someone who might appreciate your tips & tricks on whatever topic it might be.

On top of it, sharing knowledge is rewarding. You're not only helping others but also yourself. Sharing knowledge helps you to form and communicate your thoughts more clearly.

Solve a small problem

You can help people by solving a problem they are having. It doesn't have to be a massive problem. It can be something small.

Sometimes when I work with other people I try to figure out what small problems they might have. And if I spot one where I feel like my expertise can help solve it in less than 15-30 minutes of my time, I will try to solve it.

I know this can be hard, because once you give someone the small finger to help, some might bite off your hand. But most of the time, it's worth it.

“I have found that all ugly things are made by those who strive to make something beautiful, and that all beautiful things are made by those who strive to make something useful.” ― Oscar Wilde

It's not your job? Do it anyway!

I've grown up as a jack of all trades. There are few times when I would say this is not part of my job description. Whatever needs to be fixed, I fix it. If I can fix a hardware problem, I just do it. If I can help set up an online payment flow, I will do it. If I can help designing an app, I will do this too.

I always love to work with people who know how to handle any situation that comes at them. And I'm not saying you should get lost in tiny tasks, but you should never be afraid doing things that are not part of your "official job description." It always annoys me when I work with people who clearly found a problem, but haven't even tried to solve it because it's "not their job."

I think being useful is a highly underestimated value that we rarely talk about. I love working with useful people because they ask the right questions rather than just trying to find the answers.

Useful people add value where there was no value before.

Useful people are interested in being useful and helping you the best way possible. Getting the job done or doing a task that you were assigned is one thing, but being useful is a completely different way of living and working.

Even if my to-do list is completely packed tomorrow, I try to focus on the tasks where I can be most useful to others. It makes me happy and allows me to sleep well at night.

And to be a little useful to you today, I'd like to share some book recommendations:

1. The Blue Zones Solution**

There is something called the "Blue Zones," and people who live in these blue zones seem to be the world's healthiest and long-living people on earth. The author tries to explore the secret behind these blue zones and how we can replicate their effect in other places around the world. It's an interesting concept & I enjoyed reading it.

2. Total Recall**

I mentioned this one already in my list of favorite books. It's the unbelievable story & autobiography of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arnold has always been inspiring to me for what he's achieved in such a short life so far. Being on top of three different industries is what really stands out to me. He went from being an athlete (bodybuilding) to one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood before becoming Governor of California.

3. Delivering Happiness**

This book is by Tony Hsieh, one of the founders of Zappos. The founding story of Zappos is a little less exciting as Tony came from a background of wealth, but I still appreciated this book for the way Tony & Zappos build a company completely focused on customer experience.

I'd say it's the Nr.1 book I would recommend to everyone building a company. And if you are looking for more reading recommendations, I have a whole page dedicated to just that!

And with that, I wish you a fantastic week. Be Useful.

Yours truly,

**In the spirit of full disclosure, this article contains one or more affiliate links, which means that I may get a small commissions if you decide to purchase any of these books from Amazon. Of course, I only recommend products & services that I use and love myself, so I know you’ll be in good hands.

April 4, 2016No Comments

If you don’t do it, someone else will

I learned this early on a long time ago as a little kid. My mother always had weird ways to raise us kids, and one was in particular outstanding and made a big impression on me.

My room was always a mess, I almost never cleaned up. My mother told me to clean up many times, but I rarely did it.

After another month without cleaning up my room, I came home from a "long" day at school. I opened the door to my room, and holy shit. Everything was cleaned up, it was magical. At first, I was relieved – less work for me!

But after further inspection, I noticed that something was wrong. A lot of my personal items were missing. It looked like my mother cleaned up by just throwing away the majority of my stuff. Everything was gone, from clothes to my mp3 player.

I was upset and asked my mother why she did that. Her answer: "I asked you to do it for weeks, you didn't do it, so I did. You're welcome." (With a big grin on her face.)

This was the first time I learned that if I don't do something I should do or want to do, someone else would eventually do it. And this applies to pretty much everything in life to this day:

If I don't work on my dream project, someone else will.

If I don't give my partner the respect she or he deserves, someone else will. Same applies to my friends and colleagues.

If I don't establish my own opinion, the media, religion or other people will do it for me.

The question is, will be I okay with how it's done? Will I be disappointed in myself when I see someone else living out my dream? Will I look back on my life and see missed opportunities and wasted time?

One of my favorite articles from Tim Urban, the author of WaitButWhy, is relevant here. Below is a graphic that represents a 90-Year human life in weeks. Every box stands for one week in your life, assuming your life span is 90 years.


It's kinda crazy to look at it this way. You can see each individual week in your life right there, on this single image. Every time you're alive one week, you can basically cross out one of these boxes.

Every time I think of "If I don't do it, someone will," I think of one of these little boxes being colored in by someone else.

And while staring at this image is already terrifying enough, knowing that someone else is trying to cross out these boxes for me makes me even more motivated to get right back to living my life to the fullest. The way I want.

March 2, 2016No Comments

Designers, limit your tools

I remember when I started out being a designer in my little apartment back in Austria. At the time I wasn’t calling myself a designer just yet, because I was mostly coding websites.

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February 29, 2016No Comments

What Excites You?

One of the phrases I heard the most in the recent years is "Follow your passion".

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February 23, 2016No Comments

Why you should change your mind

How often do you change your mind? Probably a lot when it comes to what you should order for brunch, or get for dinner tonight.

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January 21, 2016No Comments

Every reason to panic

I’ve meant to write about this for a while but just couldn’t put it into words. It’s a sensitive topic and it makes me feel vulnerable, but I wanted to write and publish it because I wish more people would do the same – especially in our industry.

I barely understood anxiety until recently. I have always considered myself a happy and healthy person. I'm sure I have experienced mild anxiety before, but never to the point that I gave it a name. After all, a certain degree of anxiety is part of the human experience.

But then something strange happened. It was a regular day early in the morning, and I was on the train making my way to work from Brooklyn to Manhattan. About halfway in, I started sweating. My vision became blurred, my head started spinning and I had the sudden urge to throw up. I got off the train immediately, three stops before my destination.

Now I was sitting there in the middle of the sidewalk. I had trouble breathing and my heart was beating fast. I didn’t understand what was happening to me. I couldn’t feel my legs and it was as if my mind was separated from my body. I had never experienced these sensations before, especially not at the same time. I’m not easy to freak out, but I was getting there.

My first thought was that I’m probably sick. Maybe something I ate? That must be it. I walked the last 10 blocks to the office that day. I felt better outside breathing fresh air, not locked in a subway train. I left work earlier that day. My stomach was giving me a hard time and having meetings in the office felt like torture. I just wanted to be by myself.

Over the next couple days, events kept repeating. I couldn't take the train anymore. I couldn't go to bars or restaurants. I always felt like I couldn't breathe and I was afraid I would throw up. Being around groups of people only made it worse. When going out for dinner (if I wasn’t able to avoid it) I tried to position myself close to the exit. Eating in front of other people was almost impossible anyway; I had zero appetite and preferred to eat alone at home. But I still assumed I was just sick. Maybe a stomach flu or something. It will be fine, I told myself. Let's wait another week.

After a few weeks, still nothing changed. I went to a few doctors who all confirmed I was fine, that there was nothing wrong with me from a physical perspective.

At that time, I still didn’t know what a panic attack was.

Then I went to Stockholm for a work trip. I love flying and being on planes, but this was the most horrible flight I ever had. My whole week in Stockholm turned out to be exhausting. The fact that it was winter and I never saw the sun once during that week made it even worse.

One day that week, I went back to my hotel room in Stockholm after work. I tried to have dinner at the hotel restaurant, but I couldn’t get down a single bite of my food. I was shaking and had trouble breathing again. I went to my room feeling spent. I had this overwhelming pressure and weight of sadness in my chest, for no particular reason.

That was the first time I started crying in my adult life. I can’t remember when I had last cried. It must have been at least 18 years ago. Not because I feel like I need to resist, but I never felt the urge to do so. I grew up in a society that encourages men to be strong and not cry, but I don't think that's the reason I never do. It's just not part of who I am. I just never had the inclination to do so. But in that moment, it just happened. All my energy faded away and I felt like I just gave up.

It was weird. I was experiencing a new me – someone I didn't like or fully understand. It just didn’t make sense to me. Was I having the infamous" quarter-life crisis" and no one told me that this is how it works?

I’m a designer. I like to analyze and solve problems so I figured, let's solve this one with me as the object. (Yes, this sounds easier than it was.)

I started writing down all the physical symptoms I was experiencing: chest pain, sweating, nausea and the feeling of being removed from my body in a weird way. I knew that everything happening in my body or brain is because of chemicals, and I knew the balance of those chemicals was important. If the balance is off, my body is off.

After some research, it began to make sense. I was experiencing panic attacks which transitioned into a constant feeling of anxiety throughout the day. Dealing with these shitty physical and mental symptoms occupied most of my waking time. My panic attacks were feeding themselves. I ended up getting panic attacks because I was afraid of getting a panic attack again. I was positive that if I entered a subway train, it would happen again. Usually it didn't, but it was enough to keep me anxious and away from the subway.

I still couldn’t believe it. Why the fuck me? I’m smiling all day, I’m always positive, I love my life and I’m a fucking happy person. It’s almost like I didn’t agree with my own diagnosis. I was angry at myself because I hated wasting time on this. I got shit to do! But I took it seriously. I started to learn more about panic attacks and each individual symptom. I broke it down into pieces. I was on a scientific mission to fix this problem.

I learned that when a panic attack happens, your body is preparing you for some sort of fight or flight situation. In pseudo-scientific terms, this is is what's happening:

At the core of your brain, right in the middle, you have your amygdala. The amygdala is also called "reptile brain" because it's the part of your brain responsible for your deepest and most basic intuitions. Pretty much every animal has it, and we still have it too. It's a little bit of an outdated part of your brain, but humans haven't evolved past it just yet. The amygdala tells you when you're in danger and prepares your body to be ready to face the situation.

When the amygdala notices that you're in danger it sends signals to your body to shift resources from the less important parts to the more important parts. So if you're facing a dangerous situation, the amygdala speeds up your heart rate to pump more blood through your body. Your muscles tense up so you can get prepared, and functions like your digestive system will be de-prioritized. Because obviously, you have greater worries than digestion when you're in an emergency.

Now, all of these things your amygdala does to keep you alive when being chased by a lion, or involved in a physical fight, they're important. But how can that be helpful when sitting on your couch at home alone?

Because you’re in a state of fear, your breathing becomes all fucked up. Instead of breathing deeply through the stomach, you do short breaths through your chest. This limits your oxygen intake and makes you feel you might faint. And all other symptoms are just a chain reaction that comes after.

Breaking it down like this helped me the most. I understood the practical reasons of why my body was acting all weird. The next time I got a panic attack for no apparent fucking reason while sitting on the couch, I focused on all the symptoms. I focused on my heartbeat, my sudden change of breath and chest pain. It all went according to plan.

I looked at it as if my body was another person I was trying to analyze. I suddenly started laughing, as if this doesn’t belong to me. I couldn’t help it. It was just so ridiculous and for some reason, I found it funny. This was the start of my self-therapy. Every time a panic attack was coming up, I started laughing at myself. I made fun of it. I wasn't trying to minimize any underlying issues that might be causing it, but simply felt amused by the overreaction of my amygdala.

Something magical happened. Panic attacks occurred much less frequently and when they did, I felt like I could cut them off at the quick. Making fun of my panic attacks took all the pressure and effectiveness out of them.

Whenever a panic attack happened, I was telling myself. BRING IT ON PANIC ATTACK! YES, PUMP THE BLOOD IN MY VEINS, YOU FUCKING IDIOT! GO AHEAD!

Slowly over time, my panic attacks subsided. Not the way they did before at least. There was no one around who took them seriously enough. Sorry amygdala, my little almond-shaped reptile brain.

But still, I knew I had something bigger to deal with. Constant anxiety was still a big part of my day. I also knew that I need to stop overthinking and searching for a reason. Because sometimes there is no particular reason other than the sum of many you can’t recall. That's what years of therapy can often uncover.

It’s like this with drinking water. If you are not thirsty, there is no reason to drink water in that moment, right? But after one or two days you will experience a heavy headache. Still you might say, I was never thirsty, so why do I have a headache now? Shouldn’t I have been thirsty first? The effect of not enough water is something you only experience later on. Drinking water is basically preventive care. We might not be thirsty in the moment but we know that if we don’t drink it, our body will hunt us later.

With my anxiety and panic attacks, I figured it was similar. I wasn’t drinking enough “water” and now I have to deal with it. But again, it would be too simple to nail down a single problem such as “you work too much." Rarely there is just a single reason. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew it was something. I was on a mission of change. My goal was to change many aspects of my life, which ultimately ended up solving my problem – or at least understanding it. I also knew that I didn’t want to take popular medication for treating anxiety. I knew for myself, this wouldn’t fix my problems but only delay them.

Here are some key points that helped me the most:

1. Breaking down a panic attack to its essentials takes away all its power. We’re scared of what we don’t understand. But the moment we understand how they physically work, it makes them less scary.

2. Anxiety gives you the feeling that you are not in control over your body or actions. Regaining control is the most important aspect to alleviate it. Knowledge gives us humans the feeling of control. Reading up on research around anxiety helped me to see myself more as a scientific subject.

We can also trick ourselves and pick other areas of our life to simulate the feeling of control. If you can’t control your anxiety, you can certainly control your diet, your physical activity or other daily activities. All these little steps will help to fight anxiety and it will slowly fade away.

3. Talking to other people about it. A reported 20% or more of all Americans currently suffer from anxiety or panic attacks, and even more have experienced it at least once in their life. That basically just means a lot of people know about it, but few talk about it.

In my case, I knew nothing about it, and I didn’t even know that what I was experiencing was fairly universal. I was thankful that I could talk to a couple friends, and to my surprise most of them have had similar experiences.

In the end…

That particular winter felt one of the worst times in my life. In retrospect, it was also one of the best. I don’t want to repeat it, but I got to know myself better again. That time helped me to grow, reflect and think about what happened the last 3–6 years.

In the end I stopped trying to search for one problem, because that is not how it works. I took some time and cleaned up my life. Quit my job, changed my diet, reflected internally and changed my habits.

I feel great again, and I know I'm emotionally and mentally stronger for having this experience. It challenged me in a way I haven’t been challenged before.

PS: It took me quite some time to hit the publish button on this article, but I think it’s the right thing to do. If you enjoyed this article please let me know on Twitter @vanschneider

Keep on fighting the good fight.

January 17, 2016No Comments

Make more, live more

Today I want to take a different perspective on the human lifespan, specifically a human lifespan in today’s world. Doing this helps me zoom out and evaluate if the things I’m doing right now are really important to me, or if I just got stuck in the flow.

It’s easy to get sucked up into things you didn’t want to do in the first place. This could be binge-watching TV for too long. It could be a toxic relationship that took up more years of your life than anticipated. Or it could be working at a job you should have left years ago.

It doesn’t matter what it is and I’m rarely one who regrets. But there is a thought process that helps me get a little more fire under my ass. It helps me to not only MAKE MORE, but also focus more on the things I value.


Let’s say your average life expectancy is 80 years, just for the sake of this thought experiment. I like to break these 80 years down into basic activities. Let’s keep those activities neutral; you can decide which are positive or negative to you.

Of those 80 years, you spend 25 years sleeping, based on a regular eight-hour sleep schedule.

You spend an average of 20 minutes every day in the bathroom. Over the course of 80 years that would be around one year (13 months and one week to be exact).

Then we spend roughly a year being sick throughout our lifetime. This is average, of course — some less, some more.

Based on a study done in the U.S., we spend about an hour every day eating and drinking (not including drinking as a social activity). This ends up being about 32,000 hours or 3.6 years over the course of one lifetime.

Now let’s look at driving, commuting or waiting for the train to come. Based on another study, we spend an average of 1.5 hours every day driving or commuting. That’s about 40,000 hours, assuming you started driving at age 18 all the way to your 80th birthday. So that’s another 4.3 years of our life.

Next, cleaning and body maintenance. In our lifetime, we spend about 1.5 years cleaning our apartment or house. Brushing our teeth comes down to about one month and showering or taking a bath is about six months, for the average person.

And let’s just say another year for getting ready, changing clothes, getting a haircut and all those things. It’s probably a little more than that, but we’ll keep it simple for now.

But let’s take a quick break. All things above together amount to roughly 37 years. Subtracting that from your 80 years, you have 43 years left to fill your life with other things.

Here again, broken up in detail:

80 Years

- 25y: Sleep
- 1y: Taking a shit
- 1y: Being sick
- 3.6y: Eating and drinking
- 4.3y: Commuting
- 1.5y: Cleaning etc.
- 1y: Getting ready, etc.

= 42.6 years left

I’d categorize all the things above as things you sort of have to do. You could squeeze some hours here and there, but eventually you have to sleep and wash yourself.

So now let’s assume we have a standard 40-hour work week, with two weeks vacation based on the U.S. standard.

For our calculation, we’ll say you work at your full-time job from the age of 20 to age 65. This would mean we spend another roughly 90,000+ hours, or 10.3 years, working in that particular job. A large part of our life.

On top of that, the average American spends about 80,000 hours watching TV, which is roughly 9.1 years. And then another 28,000 hours, or 3.5 years, surfing the Internet. The numbers are probably a little bigger now factoring in Facebook, YouTube and Netflix.

And now let’s say, for the first 10 years of your life you were just figuring it out and didn’t make any decisions for yourself anyway.

42.6 years

- 10.3y: Working
- 9.1y: Watching TV
- 3.5y: Surfing the web
- 10y: Your first 10 years

= 9.7 years left for whatever else there is

So now we’re at 9.7 years left and you’re probably thinking, why the hell is Tobias telling me this?

First of all, all the numbers above are very rough and based on studies I found on the average human being. You can easily go through all this, make the calculations for yourself and end up with fairly similar numbers — maybe off by a few years, but not too much.

“Don’t fear death, fear the un-lived life”
Natalie Babbitt

The things I listed above aren’t bad. Knowing you spend at least 10 years of your life working isn’t something negative. The question is what are you working on, and how does it affect the other activities in your life? I know that I work a lot, so it’s important for me to know the time I spend working is spent on things I truly love and support.

I love looking at the numbers above. I don’t get obsessed with them, but they serve as a personal guideline. They remind me every day that I have a ton of time, but also that time is limited. It motivates me to do more, experience more, make more — make more of the things that make me happy. On top if it, it helps me prioritize the things I do in my life.

January 4, 2016No Comments

The worst case scenario

When I sometimes chat with friends we like to talk about things we dream to do in our lives. Often these things involve us to take risks, personal risks we can’t foresee and in most cases like to avoid.

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November 17, 2015No Comments

Be Lazy, It’s worth It!

Can being lazy be a good thing?

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November 9, 2015No Comments

To Stay Productive, Stay Busy

Part of my principles series when approaching new side projects.

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October 12, 2015No Comments

Ignore Everybody

In general, I’m not a big fan of random ideas. Ideas are cheap, because everyone has them. Getting shit done is what counts in the end.

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September 22, 2015No Comments

University vs. Self Taught

Is traditional design education necessary as a practicing designer?

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September 14, 2015No Comments

No Struggle, No Change

As some of you might know, for the past two and a half years I had the honor to work with the fantastic Spotify team in New York. Since then a lot has changed not only for Spotify but also for me.

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September 7, 2015No Comments

Curiosity vs. judgment

(this article was written in September 2015 as a response to the Google re-design)

In September 2015 Google introduced us to their new digital identity. As you can imagine, the design community was furious and outraged as ever. Of course, the loudest voices filled with criticism far from being productive or constructive.

It happens every time a big company launches a rebrand. The outrage is intense, but rarely lasts longer than two or three weeks.

But every time these things happen, there is one thing I think about: No one has ever designed & implemented a digital identity on such a massive scale. There are few who understand the implications or what it takes to get it done. Even other companies that are close to Google, still not reach the diversity of products Google has to offer.

The challenges of redesigning Google are without question, unique.

I don’t even need to go into the specifics here. But chances are high that 99% of designers out there have never worked on a project like this. Still, a lot of designers think to know better. Design is a spectator sport, after all.

“Dogs bark at things they don’t understand.”

But this article isn't so much about Googles re-brand. Big projects like these are unique and offer fantastic learning opportunities for all of us. We should be curious and not judgmental. Especially if it’s something that is not in our field of expertise.

The moment the new Google identity launched I was both curious & proud. Proud because I know the struggle myself from the Spotify I worked on a few years ago. Proud because every designer, regardless in what company, is my buddy. Proud because I can only imagine the politics & technical difficulties to overcome in a company of 60.000 employees, serving billions of people.

I was curious because I felt that this is a unique situation where we can learn. Not because the Google design team is smarter than anyone else, but because they just launched something into the wild that takes huge effort and involves tons of risks. Now we can all watch it unfold & learn from it. Risk free at least for us, the spectator.

I’m curious to learn about why things look & work the way they do. Understand what the Google team struggled with, and how they plan to improve the identity in the future.

Sure, I might personally disagree with some things Google did, but my quest is to find out why, so someone can prove me wrong.

Curiosity means that we are open to the possibility that we may not know everything about a certain situation. It’s the willingness to remain open to the unknown, regardless of how smart we think we are.

Especially for complex projects or situations, I can promise you that chances are high that you or me know less than 10% about what’s actually going on.

When Google introduced the new identity, I was filled with questions because I was curious to hear more about it. This isn’t about if you like or dislike the logo. No one cares about it, we’re not on Dribbble here.

Google isn’t trying to be a life style brand, asking you to wear their logo on your leather jacket. They’re not aiming to feel luxurious, quite the opposite. Google aims to be approachable, friendly & even tries to appear smaller than they actually are. A prestigious brand is exactly what Google does not want to be.

If their current identity will help them succeed? Maybe, but neither you or I have the ability or data to decide that just yet. Even if Google is completely wrong with everything they do, so what? Who can qualify that other than the Google team?

When we stumble upon a project like this, we can take it as a unique opportunity to grow as a curious spectator. We can not only master our emotions, but we can turn all judgments into curiosity. Even if the redesign sucks, how we respond is still our choice. There is no contribution made by stating your opinion as truth — Which is essentially what judgment is.

I got reminded of this quote by Viktor E. Frankl.

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

What happens when we just react and complain about something? Nothing, we shut down our ability to learn something new and close our eyes. We are no smarter than before, and on top of that, we just offended someone.

As designers, we grow from new experiences and especially from those of our peers. Kindness goes a long way, but it also fosters more kindness. It takes strength & patience to be kind, I understand that.

Being an ass online is easy. Public shaming is easy while lecturing someone in front of hundreds or thousands is also easy. But showing compassion & empathy instead is where we grow as a person. Even if we might disagree, those who ask questions will always be more powerful than those who don’t.

We can also show compassion by providing valuable & constructive feedback. Sharing our voice is important, it just comes down to how we do it.

And never forget:

The best way to complain, is to make something.

Thank you for reading,

August 24, 2015No Comments

How to Read a Book

There are many things I want to write about, but one question I got asked more frequently over the past couple weeks is: “How do you read so much, or find the time reading?”.

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August 10, 2015No Comments

The inspiration lie

Probably one of the most asked questions I get is “How do you get inspired?”.

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May 16, 2015No Comments

A Jack of All Trades, a Master of Some

“A jack of all trades, master of none” is the famous saying. From early on in school we are trained to specialize. You should be a master in one field, they say.

This is becoming more and more untrue. Companies are looking for the "rockstar" designer who can design, code, animate and so on. While specialization has its own benefits and has long been seen as the ultimate path to success, there is a new unique wave of generalists who challenge the status quo.

In my own approach to work, I've flipped the saying. For me, it's "a jack of all trades, a master of some."

I believe in personal growth by doing something I haven’t done before. I am constantly motivated to learn and create something new, to gain new experiences and knowledge in many different fields. This applies to not only my professional projects but also to how I live my life in general.

For me, diversity means strength. Gaining new skills and trying new things sharpens my mind and broadens my horizon, rather than narrowing it. Being a jack of all trades allows me to stay fresh and flexible. This approach serves as some sort of life insurance, allowing me to adapt and move forward. Plus, it’s just a ton of fun.

"Mastering a field does not require your entire lifetime as some might think."

Of course, there are a few fields I do like to focus on more than others. But mastering a field does not require your entire lifetime as some might think. We often believe that to become a true master in one field we have to know 100% of it. Often this 100% can be so overwhelming that we don’t even try. In reality, you will never know 100% anyway (unless it's memorizing history).

I like to approach it with the famous Pareto principle, also known as the 80/20 rule. The Pareto principle states that for most events, roughly 80% of the desired effect comes from 20% of the causes. The Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto discovered this principle by observing that 20% of the peapods in his garden contained 80% of the peas. Pareto followed this further to find that 80% of global wealth is possessed by 20% of the population. The principle itself can be found in many fields, not just economics, and is often even closer to 90/10.

"I can completely demoralize myself by looking at the 1,000 things I need to learn. Or I look at the 20% that will power 80% of the desired outcome."

But let's talk about how I can apply this to learning. I can completely demoralize myself by looking at the 1,000 things I need to learn. Or I look at the 20% that will power 80% of the desired outcome, which will get me fairly close for being a master.

Tim Ferris highlights an interesting example in his book, “The 4 Hour Body."

Let's assume we want to learn a new language, Spanish. The Spanish language has an estimated 100,000 words. It would take you many years to learn them all. But to have a fluent conversation in Spanish, you only need a vocabulary of approximately 2,500 words. This will allow you to observe and take part in more than 95% of all conversations.

In this case, 2.5%  powers 95% of the result. The closer you get to the full 100% the more time it will take and the less return on investment you will experience. Often the last percent is the hardest, and sometimes the most rewarding. But that last percent is not required unless your goal is to know 100% (and there is nothing wrong with that).

Looking at this through the lens of the Pareto principle, “a jack of all trades and master of some” works. It’s proof for me that “specialization” as we know it today does not exist anymore. Especially knowing that we have every bit of information at our fingertips, everywhere, at any time we want.

I love learning new things, and I hope it will never stop.

May 14, 2015No Comments

And Then? A Story about Perspective

Nowadays it’s all about growth, scale and about being successful. At least that’s what we get from social media and everyone around us.

There is this little classic story about a fisherman and a businessman I would like to share with you. You might know it already, but I highly recommend reading it at least once a year. Reminding yourself what’s essential to you personally and simply asking the question “And then?” helps me put things into perspective.

The fisherman & the businessman

An American investment banker was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.

The Mexican replied, “only a little while.”

The American then asked why didn’t he stay out longer and catch more fish? The Mexican said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs. The American then asked, “but what do you do with the rest of your time?”

The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siestas with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine, and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life.” The American scoffed, “I am a Harvard MBA and could help you.

You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat, you could buy several boats, eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing, and distribution.

You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually New York City, where you will run your expanding enterprise.”

The Mexican fisherman asked, “But, how long will this all take?”

To which the American replied, “15–20 years.”

“But what then?” Asked the Mexican.

The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part. When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions!”

“Millions — then what?”

The American said, “Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siestas with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.”


Thank you for reading,

April 12, 2015No Comments

My Top Reading Recommendations Part I

A few days ago I promised to write a couple more book recommendations, so let’s start with the first batch. Some of them are a bit older, some more recent.

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October 24, 2014No Comments

Why Side Projects Should Be Stupid

The article below is an interview interview I did with FirstRound Capital back in 2014 but remains one of my favorite interviews today. If you're interested in getting some insight in how I approach my side projects (or even main projects) this article might give you the behind the scenes you were looking for.


Tobias van Schneider lives his life like one big side project. Today, he designs and builds new products for Spotify in New York, but he couldn’t have predicted that when he dropped out of school at age 15 to work as an apprentice in a computer shop in Austria. He couldn’t have predicted that when he applied to graduate schools and design schools and was told repeatedly that he didn’t have enough training or talent to build a career.He couldn’t have predicted that even when he turned his side passion for visual and product design into a full-time job by opening up his own studio. He didn’t know what to expect. But from that point on, side projects have marked his path like breadcrumbs, leading him to where he is today.

As van Schneider was growing up, teaching himself new skills after work and on weekends, the idea of “side projects” became a foundational my thin the tech world. Products like Gmail, Craigslist, and even Post-Its can trace their roots back to work discovered and developed on the side. As a result, hackathons and other strategies have become standard practice at large companies and even startups to bottle this spirit and keep technical talent engaged.

This is great, van Schneider says, but not if it becomes a cliche. His argument: In order for side projects to truly succeed, they have to be stupid. Here’s what he means, and how it can help your company stay creative and competitive:

Let Yourself be Stupid

“The only way a side project will work is if people give themselves permission to think simple, to change their minds, to fail — basically, to not take them too seriously,” says van Schneider. “When you treat something like it’s stupid, you have fun with it, you don’t put too much structure around it. You can enjoy different types of success.”

When you think about it, most of the side projects we point to as huge successes were never intended to be anything more than experiments.Side projects include everything employees do outside the bounds of normal work hours or within bounds if they work at a company that puts time aside for employees to explore independently (think Google’s famous20% time rule). At a certain point, about 50% of Google’s new projects were born out of this time. New companies have emerged too, with first-time entrepreneurs like Artillery CTO Ian Langworth turning weekend experiments with friends into full-time jobs. At the start of any and all of these projects, no one had a grand plan for turning them into massive,profitable ventures. As van Schneider puts it, “If you think that way, you lose the magic.”

“Side projects are great because you don’t need to know anything. You get to be a beginner because no one is watching you and there are no expectations,” he says. “If you don’t have an idea, don’t stress about it, just go do something else. It’s this attitude that it doesn’t matter that allows us to be inspired and to work on only the things we truly want to work on.”

Sounds great, but as van Schneider points out, keeping side projects stupid can be really, really hard — especially in an industry where everyone talks about funding, scale, and data-driven decision-making. If you’re not careful, you can forget why you ever wanted to work on something in the first place. Below is a list of valuable lessons both companies and individuals can learn from stupid side projects.

Take It One Step at a Time

Side projects are simple.

Immersed in the New York startup scene, van Schneider is surrounded by people working on countless side projects, and he too is constantly drawn to new ideas. The advice he gives to himself and others is to keep things as basic as possible for as long as possible.

“Think of the very, very first step you would take to realize your idea,” he says. “I think when people work on ‘stupid’ side projects, they spend more time thinking this way. You have to chunk out your time to work around your day job, so you’re constantly thinking about the minimum thing you can do to push the project forward. You think in terms of very small next steps.”

The benefit here is that you’re prevented from overthinking and killing your buzz. When you work on something because you feel like you have to, not just because you want to, there’s a tendency to overreach.

“A lot of people ask themselves questions until they’re so scared of the future they’ll never do anything new.”

These questions probably sound familiar:

  • How do I scale this thing?
  • Can I really find financing for this?
  • Do I have a decent chance of being successful?
  • “Oh my god, someone else out there is doing exactly the same thing! What now?”
  • Who has already done this better, faster, smarter than me?

“All of these doubts kick in, overcomplicate things, and kill projects that could have become something,” says van Schneider. “When you’re focused on just taking that first step, or that next right step to keep things in motion, you won’t ask yourself all these questions.”

My first piece of advice is to just fucking do it.

There’s a famous Steve Jobs interview where he talks about the moment he realized that the world was defined and built by people who were no smarter than him. It was the same moment he knew that he was free to make anything possible.

“I love that interview because that’s not how most people learned things in school,” says van Schneider. “We’re taught from the beginning that we have to sit there and learn from people who are smarter than us. Sure, there might be people who are more experienced, but they also had to learn and fail to get there, and we often don’t get to see that part. I think once you embrace this reality, so many doors open and failure doesn’t matter anymore.”

Being immune to failure is another hallmark of successful side projects. Because you’re not depending on them for your livelihood, you have the luxury of failing, of calling ‘Do over!’ when things aren’t going so well, and nothing bad will happen to you.

“If you can remove all fears and go one step at a time, you will find things that will guide you along the way,” says van Schneider. “You will learn new things, absorb new information, meet people, get feedback, see demand in different areas — new doors will open up for you.”

When he’s talked to people who have built successful side projects, he says they mostly tell him the same thing: “I was just living life and doing what I loved. When I saw something happening, I reacted, but I didn’t force it.”

Ditch Your Obsession with Growth

Side projects aren’t about rapid scale.

Van Schneider is a fan of another entrepreneur: Sophia Amoruso, founder of online fashion store Nasty Gal. Today, the company employs hundreds of people and brings in over $100 million a year — and it began as a hobby. Amoruso loved collecting vintage clothes and selling them on eBay. It was fun. A personal challenge. When she realized people were willing to pay quite a bit for some of her products, she gradually amped up her inventory and re-prioritized her life until she was running the company full-time. But none of this describes why she got started in the first place.

A lot of people talk about the importance of “doing what you love,” but what’s important is all the meaning packed into the word “love,” van Schneider says. Love is not just talk or professed passion. It’s hard work. It’s focused dedication at odd hours, trying new things, knowing every step of the way that chances of traditional success are slim. It’s being fine with staying small. “You do it because you’re enjoying yourself. When this is the case, you don’t give up when you don’t see growth; and when you don’t give up, anything can happen.”

Remember, success also comes in the form of learning new things, meeting the right people, feeling personally fulfilled, he says. You don’t know what will happen next. Perhaps your side project will lead you to your next job,your spouse, or a sustainable living that gives you the freedom to keep exploring.

There are so many startup success stories out there now that people think there must be a recipe for how to build toward a multi-million dollar exit. In fact, a lot of blog posts, books and speakers espouse formulas that they swear will work. But van Schneider disagrees. “When I look at examples like Sophia and Nasty Gal, I couldn’t write down a plan, give it to someone else and have them repeat it,” he says. “With the biggest successes, that is never the case.”

Side projects only get bigger when you want them to.

“Sometimes your project might grow so that you have more work than you can handle by yourself, especially if you still have a full-time job,” says van Schneider. “When this is the case, you have the chance to think about success looks like to you. You can bring people on to work with you only if you want to.”

As a byproduct, you also get to be more thoughtful about who you bring into your fold. When you love what you’re doing, you want to work with people who operate on the same wavelength and who believe in the project and its potential as much as you.

Trust Yourself More

Side projects make you the boss.

“When you feel real ownership for a project, you become more confident in your decisions,” says van Schneider. “You might change your plan and that’s okay. You are always right when it’s your project.”

When you adopt this attitude and start trusting in yourself and your skills, you are much more likely to succeed at what you’re doing. Promising projects die when you sidestep risk and doubt your abilities. Van Schneider — who is 100% self-trained in design — has experienced this firsthand. Despite all the rejection letters he racked up from graduate programs, he didn’t allow himself to get discouraged. He opened his own studio anyway.


“When someone tells me I can’t do something, I say, ‘Thank you, now I’m definitely going to do it.’”

“When you’re working on a side project, you have the time and the choice to invest in learning new things,” he says. “You can also be choosier about the feedback you take. When you do take it, it’s because you truly want to get better at something.”

A lot of people face negative feedback in their jobs, whether it’s judgment from managers or co-workers or the anxiety of running out of time. “If you adopt a ‘side project’ mindset, you can turn this into constructive energy,” van Schneider says. “Think about it. If you love your side project, even if someone says that it’s shit, you still love it. So take the feedback, figure out how it can make you stronger, and go with that.”

Two years after he opened his own studio, he started working with three other designers, and got hired to do a job by one of the universities that had rejected him not so long before. “There was this moment where I realized how important it was that I trusted myself all that time.”

How Companies Can Support Stupid Side Projects

The best thing a startup can do to maintain its creative edge and keep its most talented employees invested in the company is make time and space for stupid side projects, van Schneider says. While larger companies like Google and Apple can build this into people’s jobs on a regular basis,more and more startups are providing time in the form of hack weeks and hack days.

“At Spotify, we host week-long hackathons which are basically paid vacations during which people can hack on anything they want,” says van Schneider. “A lot of what gets made comes out of frustrations — things people want the product to do or things they have always wanted to make possible.”

This is a fairly classic narrative. He cites the example of Tina Roth Eisenberg, creator of design blog and studio Swiss Miss, who created the site Tattly to sell tasteful, well-crafted temporary tattoos after her young daughter came home from school with a poor facsimile on her arm. “At no point was she thinking, I’m going to scale this like crazy and get rich,” says van Schneider. As a company, you want to appeal to the people who simply want to do something cool and fill a gap.

“Companies underestimate how important it is to give employees the time and space to listen to their hearts and explore the things they are interested in,” he says. “This is something that is impossible to measure — which turns a lot of people off in this very data-driven business. But when you look at people like Sophia from Nasty Gal, you can just see how much heart is involved.”

“Humanity is trying so hard to measure everything. We have to resist this attitude.”

“At Spotify, we’ve tried really hard to establish this philosophy. With our Hackathons, we do our best to tell people to trust themselves, go crazy — we absolutely don’t care if what they produce turns into anything. We try to make this very clear.”

The corollary to this is that a company needs to have a system to take the ideas produced by Hackathons and do something productive with them.In general, Spotify chooses the top three ideas, and entrust the teams who create them with making them a reality. “There’s nothing more discouraging than saying, ‘Oh, you worked hard on that for a week? That’s nice, now go back to work.’ Even if you tell them you’re going to archive it and come back to it later, that’s something.”

Most importantly, companies need to thank hackathon participants for their effort, and for pouring their passion into these projects. Gratitude goes along way toward keeping people fulfilled and investing their full hearts in their work. You’d be surprised how many people come up with ideas at hack events and then decide to pursue them on their own when they don’t get support, van Schneider says.

Right now, Spotify is working to develop one of the projects that came out of a recent hackathon. The three people responsible for the idea were given a full year to flesh it out and implement it — they own it end-to-end.

“This is the best case scenario because you know these people are super passionate about what they are working on,” says van Schneider. “We made room in the product roadmap for these ideas. We take the risk that we might fail, but we make it clear that it’s okay if we do. It’s worth it to us as a company. We will pay three people to explore something risky for a year because this culture and attitude is so important to us. When you do this, people stay at your company and their motivation becomes contagious.”

He sees it happen all the time. Employees see that Spotify has invested in developing employee ideas and they suddenly can’t wait for the next hackathon to roll around. “When you have this kind of energy, you want to tell people that they don’t have to wait for the next hack day opportunity. Give them permission to take one or two hours out of every day where you’re paying them to innovate and pursue things they want to do. Build in ways for people to share this kind of work with their peers and their managers. Make them feel rewarded or you risk losing them.”

“If people find the time and have great ideas, they will do it anyway. They will be gone.”

Extremely talented people are the first to resist being locked into any environment. Van Schneider points to the team that created startup FiftyThree, makers of the Pencil stylus and Paper iPad app. “Many of them came out of Microsoft, tired of what they were working on, and they didn’t have the freedom to take their products to the next level. Most of their work was shelved,” he says. “You have to tell people so that they will believe you: ‘You know what, you can do this thing exactly the way you want to at our company. Give them the trust and responsibility and remove their fears. Those are the main ingredients for great projects.”

Facebook is a good counter example. They also had a talented team that wanted to try out something different. The result was Facebook Paper, a new app that experimented with new concepts but was not intended to replace the current mobile app. The company gave the team the resources to turn it into something real. “When people at Facebook see things like this happen they get inspired and motivated to pursue something new too. Their projects don’t have to be standalone products or financial successes,and the company will stand behind them. Just having creative people at your company is rewarding and high-impact.”

Creating a ‘Side Projects’ Culture

As with everything related to culture, this starts with hiring the right people.As van Schneider puts it, there are two categories of hires: 1) People who you could put in a room, get out of their way, and they will create remarkable things with little oversight; and 2) people who get stressed out when they don’t know what the next step is or what deliverables are expected of them.

“Some people completely freeze when you tell them that they can do anything,” he says. “It’s something good to ask in an interview to determine where people lie on this spectrum. It’s the difference between hiring someone who needs to be given targets to hit and someone who wants to create their own targets.” The latter category is usually more ambitious.

The key is to figure out what candidates’ primary drivers are. “What is the main reason they want to work with you? Is it the money? Is it their long-term goals and how your company fits into their career? Is their plan coming from somewhere else? Are they living someone else’s life? Their parents’ life? Their friends’ life? A lot of people are. These things are so easily buried under data and titles and equity.” A lot of this information can be mined by asking more personal questions in interviews, taking an interest in how people live their lives outside of work, and observing what kind of compensation package they would choose.

“In the end, people’s greatest side projects are themselves and their careers.”

The most successful companies in the future will be the ones that respect this. Van Schneider counts Spotify among their ranks.

Case in point: He landed his current job through connections stemming from a side project that he was deeply passionate about. He reimagined and wrote extensively about a new type of Mac email client that he named .Mail (dot Mail), completely rethinking how a mail application could handle attachments, calendar invites, and more.

“I just put these ideas out there and it got featured everywhere. FastCompany was writing about it and they called it email reinvented. It just went viral,” he says. “It’s fascinating to me, because before I published it, I showed it to so many friends who said they didn’t think it was anything special, and I just decided, you know what I’m going to do it anyway.”

Suddenly he was getting picked up by the likes of Wired and other major publications. People who ran large email clients at Google, Yahoo and Microsoft reached out to him asking if he wanted a job. He forged relationships with many of them that he still maintains today. In the end, it led him to Spotify, and the opportunity to reinvent how people interact with music on web and mobile interfaces, a challenge that compelled him.

The irony of .Mail is that so many people asked, even implored him or someone else to build the model he described in the article he published,and while he hacked on it for a while he ultimately gave it up. “I realized I was passionate about thinking about the problem, but not actually fixing it,” he says.

“I didn’t build it because it stopped being fun. It stopped being stupid.”


I hope you enjoyed this article. Thank you for reading,