This is for you folks who create for a living. For you, compartmentalizing life into nicely organized boxes — work life here, personal life there — is next to impossible. And for good reason. If you can’t bring true human experience into creative work, it probably won’t make any real impact. So I propose we trash the idea. I came to this conclusion the hard way so I’m going to take a stab at telling you about it.
In my mid 20’s, after growing up in Texas wholeheartedly pursuing sports and occasionally scratching creative itches when it rained, I found myself cut from the Philadelphia Phillies Minor League baseball system. Wounded and out of options, it was time to hang ‘em up and find a new identity. I finished grad school and found myself working as a runner on a documentary film project on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Came across the American Bison there who, I was told, are the givers of life; symbols of endurance, sacrifice, and survival. They remind us of the abundance we are given, and the gratitude we should have for it. On this trip, I saw how the loss of heritage and identity could cause people to lose connection to their spirit. Losing your ways is serious business. Visiting this place marked a new starting point for me. I had a sense there was a creative world out there for me to explore and be grateful for, and that I should leave sports behind. Back in college, my painting teacher had gently thrown me out of his class and into a graphic design class, where he said I could most usefully apply my obsession with rearranging things. I was thankful to have a undeveloped talent for something that I could pursue again, wholeheartedly. After months of job searching, I took a contract job retouching decorative collectible plate designs emblazoned with kittens, puppies, baby angels, pink unicorns and all sorts of manly subject matter. About lost my mind doing that, so I left Chicago and headed back to Texas because I missed the smell of the Southwest. Back home, I was gifted a few freelance projects from friends and family, eventually stringing more jobs together to make what is now my 17 year-old design company, Onefastbuffalo.
OFB had a very spiritual, creative beginning for me. As are many new ventures started by young people, there was pure instinct, good intention, and honest aspirations. Everything was self taught. Onefastbuffalo represented the freedom to roam, to explore, and to create. We would see the true nature of things, make new stuff, and give it to people. During OFB’s first 10 years, we experienced the typical ups and downs of growing a business. I cut my teeth in that decade. I got my "time in the water" as my surfing or fly fishing buddies might say today. We got bigger and did some good work over that time, but nothing great. But, year after year, it became less about the joy of making art and more about accumulating jobs, simply executing our client’s instructions, and trying to win awards for validation. Personally, I got good at being a person working in the creative industry, not at living creatively. I ended up a good 40 pounds heavier than my playing days, was only a semblance of the athlete I used to be, and was mentally exhausted, and burned out. The most unsettling thing about that decade is that for the most part I don't remember most of it.
I think the founder of the brand Patagonia, sums my decade long journey up best.
The whole purpose of planning something like Everest is to effect some sort of spiritual and physical gain and if you compromise the process, you're an asshole when you start out and you're an asshole when you get back. - Yvan Chouinard
One day I came home from a busy day at work and my 5-year-old son handed me a drawing. It was of me working at my computer with a caption that read: "My Dad is a Grafik Disiner." In the drawing,on the screen, was a hawk. Kids can see through all your B.S. They see your true heart. My son knew who I really was... a graphic designer. Not the boss or creative director. A designer…who is fascinated with Red-tailed Hawks whenever they fly by. I always notice them. Hawks, I was told, are messengers, guides. They are symbols of clear vision, awareness, intuition, wisdom, and insight. When the hawk shows up, the message is to evaluate the self created illusions of our identity, and to become who we really are. I never saw the point in being self destructive as some kind of artist. Scorched earth of relationships, and eventual early demise. It’s sexy and all, but it ain’t me. So I took this hawk seriously. I had lost my ways. I realized I had become a manager not a maker. I decided to deconstruct both myself and OFB, and rebuild a work life where I could live a truly creative life…and hopefully still make a living.
"How we spend our days is, how we spend our lives" - Annie Dillard'
Here is the roadmap I sketched out for myself that helps keep me in check. It’s not about shortcuts, life hacks, or time-management. It’s not about work/life balance. Rather, It is about aligning work with life in a way that nurtures your creative engine and supports longevity of creative output. Time is really the key stock material of creation, and of meaningful experience. Real mastery takes real time. But we can’t make more time — we can only improve how we use the time we’re given.
LIVE SLOW. THE HAWK’S MIND
The hawk’s mind is designed to fly, to live with clear vision, have wisdom, and refuel the spirit. Artists have the ability — if they stop long enough to observe with their own eyes — to see things in the world and make connection when others cannot.
Trade excess for simplicity.
OFB’s first ten years can be summarized into one word...excess. I owned too much stuff, had too much office space, held too many meetings, had too many people offering too many services to too many clients. Accumulation and excess are the American way, and I was American as hell. So during the next year, I worked to remove clutter and excess from my life in every way I could control. Either I needed it, loved it, or got rid of it. I believe too much of work/life balance in the today’s business world is about employers tactically bringing a “personal” feel into the workplace. Things like beer taps in the office, TV’s, chef's kitchens, lounges, pool tables, gyms, skateboards, basketball courts, on and on. But these things don’t balance work and life, they just making work feel more like home. I was a pro at creating these distractions. So to stop the behavior, I got rid of our office space and all the stuff in them. Working remotely from wherever we chose, instantly gave us more time for the work. It reduced the number of wasteful meetings. It cut out commutes entirely. And of course it greatly reduced hard costs so we could choose the clients we took on more thoughtfully. Next, we stripped our service offerings down to one thing…call it Branding if you like. We realized that we truly loved, and still do, is for people to hand us a portion of a product or business idea, ask us to flush it into a full thought, craft an identity for it to exist in, and help bring it to life. All other services where abandoned. Last, other than having a website to show our work, we even we stopped spending time marketing ourselves. No biz cards, no leave behinds, no over-the-top holiday promotional, no more entering award shows, no outbound sales calls, no office parties, no networking events. We even stopped writing custom proposals. The new marketing plan was to live experience-rich creative lives, bring those experiences back to the studio, get deeply involved in our clients' dreams, and make stuff people would talk about. Getting rid of things unneeded or unloved simplified everything and created space in my life. You can create more time by no longer working more than you need to to pay for things you don’t need or want.
Rest, maintain, and play.
Many in our industry wear long hours as a badge of honor — late nights, weekend work, little vacation time. And I was one of them. But the new OFB changed that. We now have a work season and an off season. We work from September 1 to June 1 — and during the summer months we are closed for business. I got this idea from my time in athletics. In professional sports, it would be absurd to ask athletes to play year round. As the season goes on, the athlete gradually wears down physically and mentally. The same can be said for creative minds. For that reason we also focus on physical and mental wellbeing. We get sleep, We eat healthy, We get outside and play. All animals play. We need it. Play usually involves physical activity but it’s also a form of mind-rest because it’s meditative. We stop thinking. We engage in the activity. It recharges our physical and mental batteries. The play I’m interested in these days is surfing and fly fishing — two activities that are hard to master. They keep me in a present state of mind and engage me in the physical world. Understand that a healthy body leads to a clear mind and improved creativity. It is not about how much you can work, its about how much quality work you can make.
Explore, see and collect.
Once we got rid of our office space, I started getting comfortable with the idea that I could work from anywhere. Pursuing play got me traveling. But I wanted to cheap way to travel for longer periods of time. With savings from getting rid of things, I bought a vintage 1958 Airstream trailer that we redesigned and rebuilt into something functionally new. This gave me and my family an office and a home we could take on the road — to work and live with long stretches of time for playing and exploring. More time for journeys, not just vacations. This changed everything for me and probably will greatly shape how my kids see the world. These journeys fuel my life and work. What I observe, see and collect during travel serve as my creative fuel later.
Find the essential and the purpose.
At OFB, our process includes time to learn, study and immerse ourselves into the world of our clients. First, we clear our heads and then sort through the research and data to find what is essential. We audit preconceived ideas and expectations. We study the territory. We let go of projects and ideas that are reactionary or developed out of fear. Then we keep the ones that are fearless and can create the most impact. It’s important to not get caught up in the rush of the projects you see other people doing, just to do them. Have the guts to say no. I struggle with this more than anything else. Not every project is worth doing. And not every idea should be pursued.
MAKE FAST. THE BUFFALO’S HEART
The buffalo’s heart is meant to run fast, endure, give its spirit, and provide for the world. As an artist with a buffalo’s heart, you’re not here to be a spectator. You have an opportunity to contribute and provide abundance to others’ experience of the world.
Move to make.
Good strategy happens best in an active, moving state. So instead of jumping onto the computer, grab a pencil and note pad, maybe a recording device, a bottle of water, and step outside and start walking. Walking frees you from the clutter of data so you can simply focus on what you have learned. Search for THE idea using movement as a trigger. The challenge is to find the idea in your mind, then only use the computer as an excavation tool.
Mine in solitude.
“Without great solitude, so serious work is possible.”~ Picasso
The best of an idea is many, many feet underground. That's why we call bringing that idea to life the mining process. Mining is typically done best in complete solitude. Why do it alone? Because you have less distractions and more time to focus. You can also be yourself in solitude. You have the freedom to explore ideas without judgment. Being alone in solitude is a bit scary. It’s uncomfortable. Trust your instinct. Have the confidence that you will uncover your idea.
Build in discomfort.
“What good could come from comfort? It’s certainly not art.” - Jack White.
As creative types, we tend to keep comforts around us in the form of inspiration: cool art, old projects, design magazines. But those can act as a crutch. I prefer to keep my work area as sparse as possible. It promotes a feeling that something needs to be created there. And it helps me avoid retread or falling back on past successes. I like to build in some discomfort when creating. I like designing while hungry... on an empty stomach. Another is designing while standing up versus sitting. I like to be cold. And I like it noisy. Figure out what works for you.
Create like a river.
As a designer, it's important to work fast — to create in a fluid, flexible and fearless manner and to trust your intuition and natural instinct. Think of creativity like the flow of a river. Water flows up to obstructions but it doesn’t stop. Instead it flows over, around and under them, always moving downstream. During the creative process, we actually need the obstructions, the struggle, the boulders in the river to make it interesting. To guide us. To push us. That’s actually what shapes our ideas. I reiterate to work fast. Find flow by being fully immersed, fully focused, fully locked in, and fully living in the moment. I remember this feeling from sports. It’s what I loved about playing, not just winning. Don’t hold back. Yes, use that creative fuel you found while exploring. But be inspired by the past, don’t repeat it. Don’t just decorate, express new meaning. Make a big freaking mess. Then remember it is crucial to strip the new work back down to reveal the most powerful message with the fewest pixels. I look to nature for guidance here. God makes unbelievably complex things. Nothing seems to be in excess but nothing is missing. These works are simply beautiful. I keep a pocket knife on my desk as reminder to strip down, cut out, be sharp and keep the work clutter free. I think that it's best to give clients one completely flushed out concept rather than multiple had don’e ideas. Give them your one best shot.
For me, Live Slow Make fast is not a roadmap to a particular destination, but instead a cyclical system for the generation of many new ideas over a lifetime. If I get outside of it, I fall back into a slothful form of lazy behavior we call busyness. But If I play inside this cycle, I’m contributing, I’m living, and i’m getting better at the things I want to get better at. True Mastery is a journey and a gift. So align your work with your personal interests — the things you’re passionate about — and your work will express more true human emotion. Burnout is absolutely avoidable if you fill your days with experiences that matter to you and fuel your work. Don’t separate life and art. If you're feeling overwhelmed remember 888. Twenty four hours in a day divided into three parts — eight hours of rest, eight hours of work, eight hours of play. Meditate 15 minutes a day. If you don’t have 15 minutes, you need to meditate 30 minutes. And my own personal favorite burnout check: If I don’t have time to cook my own meals in a day, I’m too busy. Inspiration is not your privilege. I’m always hearing about creative people wanting to get inspired. We are responsible for finding our own inspiration. If you’re bored with the work you are doing, you are likely bored... period. Maybe you just need something to overcome. Find some struggle. Go hungry even, figuratively or literally. Find some discomfort and you’ll find inspiration without asking others for it. Let go and put a little risk into things. If you’re lucky enough to live a creative life and make a living doing it, be grateful. Wake up tomorrow and realize you have 100% freedom to make anything you want. Do beautiful things, make beautiful things.
Following my own advice, I had extra work time to give. This led me to creating my own art in the form of ONEFASTco. This offshoot of OFB focuses on the creation and manufacturing of our own products — the first brand to emerge was Warstic. My baseball bat and gear brand is thriving and has brought all kinds of great experiences.
**NOTE** This article was written for Refueled Magazine by Ben Jenkins. First published November 2015. View here >>