10 Pieces of advice I’d give myself 10 years ago

On a gloomy day in mid-March of 2010, I was in the thick of a life-altering moment. Well, a few moments. It was one of those moments you don’t realize right away because you’re in the middle of it and everything is moving so fast that you don’t get a chance to stop and look around. Yeah, that kind of moment.

Sorting through clothes, revised resumes, and polished portfolio pieces, I was packing whatever I could fit in the back of my blue Chevy Impala.

I had been on a life-changing mission and stopped at nothing to make it happen. Fresh out of school (So fresh the Ink was still drying on my Graphic Design diploma) I had my metaphorical scope pointed towards Toronto. A few phone interviews, a couple of road trips and many cover letters later, it happened! Someone decided to give me a shot (more on this amazing person later). My foot was in the door and I was going to stop at nothing to swing it wide open.

With enough money for about a month and a couple of air mattresses to sleep on, I was now set to gas up and take on the four-hour journey to Toronto.

Well, it wasn’t long before that incognizant moment I had mentioned above made its way from the subconscious to highly conscious. With nothing but my thoughts and a “pump-up” playlist, that four-hour physical journey felt more like an 8 or 10-hour emotional ride. I had fully realized what was happening — I was leaving my comfort zone, my home, my friends and mental footing for the unknown.

The reason I’m taking so long to set this up is that now, after 10 years, I’m just fully realizing and dissecting that moment and really appreciating it. Even as I write this, I’m having flashbacks of moments I’ve missed or forgot about.

Well, If I could step into a time-traveling DeLorean, set the date to March 10th, 2010, then land in the passenger’s seat of that blue Chevy Impala (RIP), I think I’d have a lot of advice I’d give myself. So, after many revisions and coffee chats with colleagues, friends, and mentors, here are the 10 pieces of advice I’d give to that 23-year-old Dan, embarking on his new life.

1. Class is over, now the real lessons start

I think this is a topic that has been beaten to death, buried, dug back up, resuscitated, beaten, etc…

But, I think that’s for good reason. As you grow older you realize the amount you’ve (hopefully) learned throughout your career heavily outweighs the basics you’ve picked up in school. You become part of a much bigger learning process. You’re at the fine edge of learning and building. The world is constantly evolving, and you need to learn to keep up, then build new things with that knowledge, and so on.

So, how can you throw gasoline on this process and accelerate it? Keep studying, learning and reading. If something happens to spark your curiosity, don’t ignore it, looking into it and explore it further. The more you take in the better prepared you’ll be and the more tools you’ll have to build!

You are now your own teacher. No one is holding you by the hand anymore. It’s up to you to keep learning. The amazing thing about this situation is that you can learn at your own pace and the way that works best for you. No need to read, memorize and regurgitate, if that doesn’t work for you. You can take online classes, watch endless YouTube videos, or learn by doing. Whatever and however you learn is great, as long as you can do something with that learning, then continue and contribute to this process of learning and building.

Keep that mind razor-sharp, and continue to live on that fine edge of learning and building!

2. Stay curious ponyboy

Do you know how you picked your classes in school? Or how you decided to pick up a guitar, or a paintbrush, or that novel with the cool cover? Those are the things that made you who you are today. Those little (what seemed to be insignificant at the time) moments are what got you to where you are today. For you, 23-year-old Dan, it’s sitting in the driver’s seat on the way to starting your professional career, for you dear reader, it’s what got you reading thus far 🙏.

It’s that constant curiosity that got you to where you are today. It’s also that curiosity that will get you to new and unexpected places. Really good unexpected places — I promise!

Listen, you have certain expectations — you think things should happen a certain way. But as you grow older you realize that simply isn’t the case. You need to have fewer expectations and more realizations. In those moments I mentioned above, chances are you had little if any expectations. And what happened? Once you took that first step after that initial curiosity, you had certain realizations, some good, some not so good, but the point here being is that you went in and learned something. That innocent curiosity pushed you to try something new. It got you doing something and growing from it. Then it led you to another curiosity, and another, and another, and so on.

So what I’m trying to say is that curiosity is very healthy and you should be conscious of that curiosity, because curiosity can lead you to some amazing and unexpected places. So don’t ignore your curiosity and ideas, explore them and see where they lead.

3. Burnout

If you’re like me, you’ve had moments where you’ve questioned your career or life path in general. Why am I here? Is this the right life choice? Should I be looking elsewhere? Should I have eaten that burrito?

For me, it’s usually when I feel burned out. And don’t even think you won’t have periods of burnout, because you will, sometimes for longer periods. Everyone experiences burnout. You might not have yet, but trust me you will, and when you do, you’ll feel it hard. Spoiler alert, 23-year-old Dan, you’re going to experience this in about a year and a half or so 😟.

What I mean by burnout is that you feel constantly tired, or you feel like you don’t have that fire within you anymore, or you feel like you’re taking a lot of swings, but nothing seems to be hitting.

You feel like you’ve lost your drive.

It’s normal and I think it’s there for a good reason. It usually means you need a break, you need to stop, refuel then reassess things in your life. You’ve been moving, but you haven’t been conscious of what’s happening around you.

So much like this blue Chevy Impala, you need to STOP, refuel and take in the things moving around you. Then, reassess where you’re going and if it’s still the right place. And, if it is, then how else can you get there?

If you feel like you’re experiencing burnout. STOP, be aware of it, then look at other ways of doing things, reframe your daily routine, or just introduce new things into your life. As long as you’re aware it’s there, then you can do something about it, rather than ignoring it and potentially prolonging it.

4. Maintain the machine

Speaking of stopping and refueling — when’s the last time this car had an oil change? Have you checked the spark plugs? Does it need a tire rotation?

Some of the happiest people I’ve come across have one thing in common — they take care of the machine. I’m talking about mind, body, and soul. I can see how this sounds like a lot of…well, fluff, especially to you, 23-year-old Dan. I know because this is how I would have read it before I knew how important this stuff actually is.

Exercise and meditation, which can mean many things, are very important when it comes to maintaining your body and your mental state. You’ll realize this more and more as you grow older.

I’ve never been as mentally clear as I have been after a run, or meditation, which to me, happens hand in hand. I think this is true for many, not just myself, and, there are plenty of books and articles that will tell you the same — as well as the scientific reason behind it. To me, though, this is a chance to be alone with my thoughts and getting a chance to air them out a bit, instead of letting them stagnate. It’s a time I can reflect, on the day, or preparing for the day — depending on when you exercise or meditate. I find It also works well for problem-solving or even overcoming burnout, as mentioned above.

Whatever your reason or whatever you find beneficial about exercise and meditation, it’s important to realize that mind and body work hand-in-hand, and it is a balance that needs to be maintained and looked after in order for you to function at your best — much like this car that’s getting you to the next stage of your journey 🚙.

5. On time

Time is inconsistent — one day it can feel like it’s dragging on, then the next it can feel like you’ve barely had a second to stop and take a break.

The best thing you can do is learn about your relationship with time and master it. By that I mean learn your daily rhythm and know when you’re most effective, know when you need to take a break and know when you’re wasting time. Be conscious of when you may be stuck on something and move on to the next thing, and don’t spend time trying to fight with a mental block, instead, focus elsewhere.

Learn how to spend your time where it counts. When you’re at home, make sure you’re spending your time where it counts — with your family and friends. Try to maximize that time with them and put away your work. That goes the same for work — when you’re at work make sure you’re focusing your mental capacity where it counts — on the work, and the task at hand.

The big picture here is — be present and in the moment — don’t focus too far ahead or stray too far behind. It’s easy to get lost down memory lane, or think too far ahead that it will actually affect your mood, work and attitude at the moment. That’s why it’s very important to get out of your head a little bit and look around at what’s happening now and appreciate it.

6. Fewer reactions, more interactions

Speaking of being in the moment — this section falls in line with that same principle.

Number 6 was originally something else — but after a meeting I recently had where we discussed “Where it’s appropriate to lose your temper” I decided to touch on this one, as it is something that is very important. Now I’m sure you’re curious about what types of meetings I have, but let’s not lose focus on the topic here.

On the flip side of being in the moment — sometimes being in that moment may lead to horse blinders. What I mean by that is, it’s very easy to get caught up in an interaction that you lose track of your emotions and it could lead to a reaction. Reactions, especially emotional, are generally not the best outcome when it comes to a work, or professional environment. And the best thing you can do is; become aware of your emotions and how others may perceive you within a given interaction.

I find that for myself, the best way to look at every scenario is to step outside of yourself and try to view it from the third person. Pay careful attention to your words, body language and mental state, and try to be constantly aware of them. What are you saying? How are you saying it? What is your posture like? Are you crossing your arms, or laid back and in a more open position?

The best way I can describe this is by using a Matrix reference. Remember how Neo dodged all those bullets by slowing downtime? Yeah. Do that! At least that’s the best way I can describe the feeling. You have to almost stop and assess yourself while in conversation.

This is easier around people you’re more comfortable with — and that’s the best place to start. But, the more you practice becoming aware of all the subtle nuances of yourself within an interaction, the easier it becomes and you’ll have a much easier time steering a conversation or even de-escalating a potential emotional reaction.

So, you’re in a conversation which is escalating into an argument, you feel you’re losing your better words… STOP and reassess the situation. Why are you feeling what you are feeling? Where are these emotions coming from? Take a pulse on yourself and look at the bigger picture of the interaction itself.

Have an interaction — not a reaction.

7. Learn to listen, listen to learn

So, you can now see yourself within each moment and have a better grasp on your emotions. Now to add to that — make sure you know how to listen. I mean really listen, engage and pick up on the details of a conversation.

This is becoming a lot harder to do these days, with the countless number of distractions around us — from the buzzing of our smartphones to the meeting reminders and the endless number of notifications. It seems that you can’t go anywhere without something trying to steal your attention. This is precisely why breaking away from those distractions and focusing on the interaction happening in front of you is more important than ever.

Now, to go one step further past that initial barrier of distractions - it’s equally as important to get past the distractions within your mind.

Listening with an open mind is listening to learn. Once you get past your preconceived notions on how something should be and listen to how something actually is, you can fully appreciate each and every conversation you have. Listen without letting your own thoughts get in the way. Let go of your ideas for a minute or two and put full attention on what’s happening in front.

We all have lots going on and things move fast, but learning to fully invest yourself in a conversation, and picking up on everything from body language to tone is one important skill that needs to be developed and worked on. With all the external and internal distractions, we need to learn to pick up on the important things, and not focus too much on the wrong things.

8. You’re wrong because you’re human

Something I was scared of at about this time was being wrong. Not a place I was comfortable with at all! I think it’s common for a lot of people to feel very uncomfortable with being wrong, so this is nothing new, but it’s something that should be brought up to reinforce the fact that at the end of the day, we are human. And to be human is to be wrong from time to time. And to be wrong is to learn and grow.

It goes against every instinct in a person’s mind to admit we are wrong. We fight it and, in the end, we just end up losing and coming to grips with the fact that we were indeed wrong. Now we have to backtrack and possibly even fix some stuff that may have broken.

I think, in a professional sense, we are hired to do a job, and people will look up to you for answers. So having that weight on your shoulder is already enough to make sure that in your mind you can’t be wrong, ever, particularly when it comes to your job. So now you have this perception you have to live up to, to make sure what your image is perfect and people can come to you for all of the answers.

On the flip side of that is the brutal fact that most people are pretty good at detecting bullshit. More to the point — people can sense when you’re struggling to fight for or deny your wrongdoing. I know after 10 years, I’ve gotten better at it, so I can only imagine what another 10 years would do.

So, instead of fighting, and probably breaking more things along the way, why not take that weight off your own shoulders, and admit you don’t know the answer, or that you may have been wrong. Here’s the good news — you get to learn something from the whole experience. So, the main thing to take away from this is; to be wrong puts you in a place to learn and grow.

9. When all else fails, revert to common sense

One of the things I’ve noticed I’ve been leaning on more and more are sanity checks and making sure I’m using common sense. This might sound like an obvious thing, and I may risk sounding like a complete idiot, but hear me out for a second.

Going back to something I’ve mentioned before — horse blinders and being too in the moment. It’s very easy to fall down the rabbit hole of being involved in something for too long and losing sight of the bigger picture. You start focusing too much on the small details to a point where you forget how they’re all supposed to fit together, and then you’re left in a bit of a rut.

I’ve gone through this so many times it’s embarrassing. It’s also super frustrating. But, as a designer, it’s something very easy to fall into. You focus on something for so long that you start nitpicking the details, then once you think you’re happy with one of those details, you zoom back out and notice the bigger picture doesn’t fit together as you’ve intended. Then you get frustrated at the whole situation.

This scenario is easier to picture in some industries more than others — like design — but I think it applies to almost everything. For example, think of a time where you planned a trip down to the very last detail. Then you are on said trip. How many of those small details actually happened to a tee? How many of those details didn’t happen and you got frustrated? It’s because you’re too focused on each individual detail and not making sure to reassess the bigger picture.

This is where it’s good to do a pulse check or zoom out if you will. Whatever you want to call it, it’s essentially a break where you recalibrate and look at the bigger picture of whatever it is you are working on. It’s good to do these more often than not, even if you have to force yourself.

It’s often so easy to overwork something to the point that it only makes sense in your own brain, and no one else’s. This is exactly why you want to make sure that as you’re working through something, you stop, and make sure you’re still using common sense as you’re putting together all of the pieces. This way you don’t stray too far down the wrong path.

10. Your network is your garden

Last one, and quite possibly the best piece of advice I’d give myself, or anyone in any professional environment. This one should not come as a surprise.

Your network of colleagues, friends, and acquaintances should be like a garden. Treat it well and maintain it, and it will grow and serve you for a lifetime.

I can honestly say that I would not have such a fulfilling career and life in general without the amazing people I’ve met throughout these 10 years. Sure, the beginning was a lot of going out and meeting new people on my own. But through that, I’ve met more and more people, who have introduced me to other people, and so on. I could not have been more fortunate.

I’ve met and made life-long friends, mentors, and professionals who have taught me a number of skills that most would pay a ton of money to study in school. I got to work alongside these people, go on vacation with some, be inspired by some, and even got life-changing advice from some. I have been very lucky to have met these people, and I would not trade that for anything.

If I could give some advice around this, it would be that everyone you come across has something to teach you. And you should view everyone in that way — even if at first it’s someone you may not necessarily get along with — listen to what they have to say, and learn from it. At the surface level, you may or may not learn something, but once you dig a bit deeper, you’ll notice you learn more about yourself than anything else.

I can’t count the number of interactions I’ve walked away from to then realize a day or two, or even a week later how I’m still thinking about that one interaction, and why I’m thinking about it or dissecting it. It then becomes a bit of a look into my own perception and why I may have perceived something a certain way, or why I reacted a certain way. The deeper I dig, the more and more I get to learn about myself and my interaction with people and the world.

To leave this off on a quote that has been said many times, by many people across the world (that I can’t seem to find the original source to); “You have no friends, or enemies, just teachers”.

Lastly, I want to end this off by giving a very special shoutout and thank you to my first boss, and mentor, Joel, who took a big chance on me 10 years ago. Looking back now, I can see that it’s not easy, and very risky bringing in someone fresh out of school to a big organization where they get to potentially have an impact on the business itself, as well as the people within that organization. I am so thankful he gave me that chance, and I will forever be indebted to him.

If you have someone like this, I encourage you, reach out and thank them, you would not be where you are without them.

👋🍻Cheers!

-Dan.

p.s. throughout the past 10 years, I’ve read some great books, here are 10 in no particular order that come to mind and which have inspired this post in one way or another.

  1. Doubt: Unconventional Wisdom from the World’s Greatest Shit Disturber By: TAXI
  2. The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work by: Shawn Achor (also any of this other books)
  3. When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by: Daniel H. Pink
  4. Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by: James Clear
  5. The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success: A Practical Guide to the Fulfillment of Your Dreams by: Deepak Chopra
  6. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life by: Mark Manson
  7. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
  8. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable by: Patrick Lencioni
  9. Feck Perfuction: Dangerous Ideas on the Business of Life by: James Victore
  10. Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by: Christopher McDougall

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