Commencement Part 2: Mortality is My Mentor

Mortality is my Mentor

Facing mortality has become one filter for planning ways to be happy in my work.

My own store of creativity is limited by the undeniable promise of mortality. In other words, the hours I have left to contribute are finite.

This acknowledgement is powerful motivation. I now choose to expend this finite resource in situations where I know I can make a difference. Because – speaking only for myself – making a difference is a prerequisite to happiness.

While losing myself in the creative process is a reward unto itself, and being able to make a living doing so is even better, true fulfillment occurs when the final product of that work have a notable effect on the world at large.

This awareness, paired with my perennial desire for happiness clarifies my decision to leave certain clients or unacceptable work behind. If making a difference means more to me than a paycheck, why bang my addled head against the wall of ignorance until I acquiesce only from sheer exhaustion. Frankly, I would rather work for free. Believe me – I do. Why work for free? It is simple: When I see my work bring delight or positive change – it makes me happy.

When I have failed to heed this rule, I always (without exception) end up awake nights chewing on the tough gristle of resentment. These are hours I do not enjoy living through.

Thus I choose to do otherwise.

Next installment posted Tuesday, June 21:
I Never Work with a Client with Whom I Wouldn’t Enjoy a Meal


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A Commencement Address in Eight Posts

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


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If you have never sat facing a 6-foot-5-inch obelisk while you work, I hadn’t either so I can’t begin to know how to start to think about what a normal reaction is. Most agencies have some painting hanging in the lobby or standout piece of decor that sets a specific mood and defines an intended meme. Your first day on the job you notice it, but as time passes it blends into the background – not at The Felt Hat. Every time I look up from my computer, there it is…

The obelisk was the creation of Paul Mort, Randy Higgins (of Vizwerks) and Don Rood –  commissioned for an evening gala at the Portland Art Museum in 2010. Based on the cover of Led Zeppelin’s Presence album, it stands six-and-a-half times of the size of the original and is constructed from over 600 album covers.

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Liquor Store

This was the old all-in-one General Store, Mercantile, Hardware Store, Video Store and Liquor Store in the tiny community of Wamic Oregon. Sadly, this Liquor Store sign is long gone now. Glad I snapped a pic when I did (this is a not-so-good scan from a 35mm slide). Check out the grid-like precision the unknown craftsperson adhered to, and then filled the negative space with, what else? A bottle!

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