A Commencement Address in Eight Posts

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On June 17th I was granted the privilege of addressing the 2011 Graduating Class at The Art Institute in Portland. This afforded me the opportunity to collate thoughts about how we glean personal satisfaction from our work.

The practice of Design Thinking can be a grueling drudge without principles setting intention and boundaries. I set out to share experiences that have taught us how to sustain a viable business model while remaining true to our values – thus allowing us to enjoy work even in the most demanding circumstances.

The address will be installed in eight posts:
1. Living in Flow
2. Mortality is My Mentor
3. I Never Work with a Client with Whom I Wouldn’t Enjoy a Meal
4. I Never Do a Project for The Money
5. Recognition Doesn’t Make Me Happy
6. The Creative Process is Intrinsically Optimistic
7. Failure is an Option. In Fact, it is a Requirement
8. Closing

I did not write this address entirely on my own. My partner Nicole pulled the plucked the uncut gem from the mud of my rambling notes that became the narrative line. My daughter Claire was a superb editor, adding svelte grace to my often trundling gait.


1. Living in Flow

2088 Hours.
This is the generally accepted tally typical of one years work in America.

I landed my first legitimate design position at age 25. If I work until I am 65 I will clock in at 83,520 hours of work. Add to this that I actually work about 48 hours per week. And let’s face it – I doubt I will want to stop at 65. If I manage to fish for three weeks a year during that same span, it will add up to only 4800 hours. The contrast is sobering, but enlightening.

83,520 hours of my life. It occurs to me – this is so obvious, the gravity of the fact is difficult to appreciate – I will be living through each one of those hours, entirely present and fully alert. I prefer to enjoy my work rather than mark time on my computer screen like a prisoner scratching marks on my cell walls, waiting for the ideal project that will allow me to finally do some good work.

So – questions arise:
How does one create work consisting of as many hours of happiness as possible?

What does it mean to be living richly and happily in those hours?

If each hour is mine only once, how do I make the most of each?

Where will personal satisfaction come in the most demanding hours of my career?

Having logged approximately 56,376 hours, I have a few ideas:

Living in Flow

A couple of nights back I was discussing the struggle of art with my eighteen year old daughter Claire (is a gifted writer in her own right ). ‘Creativity is a fickle bitch’, she remarked, ‘but she is potent.’ Claire is writing through the first few thousand hours of her life in art. Like me when I was in college, Claire has not yet learned to negotiate her relationship with Creativity. She seems fickle indeed.

The comment illuminates both the frustration of finding the elixir that nourishes our art, and our reasons for doing so in the first place. Then in turn, the importance to pursue it on terms providing optimal experience. Otherwise, it is hardly worth the trouble.

There is a physical, emotional, and spiritual glow in the creative process. It is profound. Researchers refer to this as being in a state of ‘Flow’. In this state, energy streams, one loses track of time, shuts out all external distractions. Everything clicks. This is magic time. It is beautiful.

In this state we recognize time purely as a phenomenon of the mind. Each familiar distraction thins and drains from our gutters, carried away by the swift flow of creativity. It oils our rusty joints leaving us, then, alive and vital.

When in it, one feels powerful and without need of external validation. For me personally, these are moments in which I feel essential. I know my position, my purpose in the universe. It can be so joyous it feels like a con to charge money for the experience. But that is the trick; convincing someone to pay for the most profound experiences I can conjure. A trick I encourage you to learn.

Living in the creative process day to day is intense, beautiful and altogether challenging. There are periods when I cheat myself of the experience because of fear, ego, distractions. Fortunately, such intervals are followed by equally powerful periods of reconciliation, guiding me back to the comfort of intention. I furnish my existence with creative pursuits, in the hope that they shall service others as they have me.

To work in a state of Flow is to work happily and ecstatically. It is difficult to maintain. Distractions are infinite. Therefore, in the name of happiness, I focus incessantly toward elimination of conditions which deprive me of the experience.

Next installment posted Monday, June 20:
Mortality is my Mentor