The work you take on can define you—it’s what you practice, what you get recognized for, and what you’ll be hired to do next.

I recently had a nice sum up the year chat with Frank Chimero. We talked about important things like tacos, paying bills, and how what we work on affects not only our bank accounts, but our careers and lives in general. I like to think about projects the same way I think about calories—they’re good for you unless you have too many, or they come in unhealthy packages, so you better make them count.

So what constitutes a healthy, well-rounded project? For me at least, it’s a few things. Rarely does every project max out every category. Hell, I’ve even been in positions where I’ve decided to take projects that fit only one.  Nevertheless, I always hope incoming work fits into many, if not all, of the following:

Graphic inspired by the USDA Food Guide Pyramid and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Less Like Rules, More Like Guidelines

Even with my needs/wants in order, I can still find good reasons to work on projects that only fit a few criteria. Passion & belief in a cause is easily a sufficiently motivating factor, as are bills that need to be paid. The way I see it—if you’re into it, do it. Just be sure the next gig offsets the previous one’s deficiencies. Do 10 consecutive jobs solely for the paycheck, and you very well may find yourself out of whack. After all, if you eat nothing but carrots, you’ll have amazing vision, but you’ll probably turn orange and feel like shit.

Considering Long-Term Effects

Eat one meal, then another, and over time that stuff becomes who we are. It’s used to heal skinned knees, grow fingernails, and rebuild tired muscles. I find that thinking of work in a similar fashion can be used to one’s advantage. When a job is done, we’re left with experience, new skills, and a sharpened perception. Do work that you enjoy so you can be good at what you love. Frank summed that up nicely by saying:

“Daft Punk got to record the Tron soundtrack because they’d already recorded the Tron soundtrack.”

If I want to get hired to do something, I should already be doing it. People can’t always see potential energy. Instead of allowing a current job description to stand in the way, turn off the Scrubs re-runs and start a side-project. Draw a picture, code a site, or write something and share it with the internet.

28,616 Breakfasts

Based on the estimated life expectancy, that’s how many morning meals the average US citizen has to look forward to. Initially, that sounded like a lot to me, but the more I think about it the more I’m inclined to make those meals great. How many projects do we have to look forward to? Can a well-balanced work life add to that number? I hope so, but even if it doesn’t, why not do everything you can to make that work count.

47 Responses

Leave a comment or contact me via Twitter @TrentWalton

  • Trent

    @Brian Hoff: I plead the 5th:) Glad you like the post buddy :)
    @Ed: I know it’s not easy. I find you can accomplish a lot in an hour or two each week. I do lots of project management work at Paravel and sometimes I just have to steal a few minutes during lunch—stuff like that.

  • Brian Hoff

    What about what you drink? :) Loving this color palette and the subtleties such as the selected text state in the headline. I think I love the selected state more than I love the unselected. Nicely done Trent!

  • Ed

    So what happens if you are hired as a young designer by a place that puts out not so great work for client and you have no room to make change or time to spend on trying to make it better?

    How would someone go about dealing with that kind of work, especially when it’s not something they want to be recognized for or do anymore?

  • David Cole

    Why is the “I believe in the project” chunk in the same spot as fats and oils that you should avoid? :(

  • Dan Higbie

    “If I want to get hired to do something, I should already be doing it.”

    Great words Trent. I think this is definitely something to remind ourselves of constantly. Our current efforts most certainly provide the greatest insight into our capabilities. What a simple and effective idea, do what you hope to do in the future in the present.

  • Trent

    @David Cole: This is all loose interpretation, but I’d say my placement was mostly inspired by Maslow.
    @Dan Higbie: Thanks, Dan :)

  • Justin Sternberg

    Beautiful! Love the art direction, and the principle. Good stuff. (Oh, and thanks to @behoff for pointing out how pretty the headline text is when selected. NICE!)

  • Frank Chimero

    I found this awesome guide for How to Get What You Want:
    1) Know what you want.
    2) Hustle.

  • David Cole

    Ahh makes more sense. :) The pyramid isn’t a great metaphor for the nutrition to begin with. Great work as always, Trent!

  • Rachel Nabors

    @Ed: I’m in that situation right now. I’ve spent several years like this. I’ve had side projects, but there’s never enough time it seems. Fit what you can in, but don’t make yourself miserable with too much work. Save your cash, keep an eye open for opportunity, and as soon as it is offered, act quickly, and decisively. You may find that your side projects blossom into side clients and that you can make the switch to full-time freelancing sometime down the road. Don’t underestimate the benefit of attending (or organizing) local meetups around the things you want to do.

    Tenacity and patience pay off in dividends. The trick is to keep calm and not paralyze yourself with too much work--or too little inspiration.

  • Jason Gross

    Great post Trent. I wrote an article a few weeks back about opening up and allowing yourself to break bad cycles of similar work. I was surprised in the number of comments from people who missed the point that these practices were for self improvement, not client sites.

    I think a lot of designers who are fortunate enough to have consistent client work neglect having fun with side projects. As you mentioned, it only takes a few hours a week to spend some time shaping what kind of professional you are.

  • jonathan bowden

    great thoughts and questions here trent. this also reminds me of andrew wilkinson’s post, where he challenges us to stop waiting / wishing / dreaming for things to happen, and instead to start making them happen on our own. thanks for your example, and your challenge!

  • Chris Meeks

    Oh man, I’ve been missing these sweet posts of yours. I guess they are my candied yams.

    I’ve noticed that most clients want, more than anything else, a designer that has already done what they are asking you to do. I’ve been kind of surprised by this, because most industries aren’t all that different. So not only will doing work that you want to do in the future be good for your personally, it will likely make clients that HAVE that kind of work pick you more often for their projects.

  • Alan Houser

    And the Lettering.js is to die for!!! :)

  • Matt Everson

    Jim Coudal summed it up best for me when he said every job you take on should meet at least 2 of these 3 criteria:

    1. Will I get paid fairly?
    2. Will I be proud of the work?
    3. Will I learn something new?

    Every time I find myself disappointed in a project I’m working on, I realize that it only meets 1 of the 3 criteria. Also, quitting your job helps.

  • Shane

    @David Cole: My guess would be that it’s the hardest to find. So if you look at it in comparison to “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs” it makes more sense. Some lucky people are able to make it to a point where thats ALL they do. But most of the time the “I believe in it” doesn’t always pay money upfront or ever.

  • Shane

    @Matt Everson: I think you also have to consider that it took Jim Coudal a few years to get to that point. I’m overly positive he had to suffer through a period of time where he did some work that didn’t meet ALL three of those criteria.

    Luckily now he is at a point where the work he does meets ALL 3 of the criteria.

  • Trent

    @Rachel Nabors: This is such good advice. Every little bit helps:)

    Tenacity and patience pay off in dividends. The trick is to keep calm and not paralyze yourself with too much work–or too little inspiration.

  • Ryan Mickle

    Trent, this is great. It reminds me of Chip Conley’s book Peak, which applies Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to customer, employee, and even investors’ experiences in a business. You may have already read it, but just I’d recommend it, if you haven’t.

  • Trent

    @Ryan Mickle: Nice tip... I’m going to have to check it out.

  • Aaron Weyenberg

    Loved Frank’s bit about Daft Punk!

  • Hunter Hastings

    I really like how you portray “28,616 Breakfasts”. It really causes the reader to sit back a minute and consider every element of what goes into enjoying something and doing it well - and the analogy allows the subject to exist in an abstract manner, from food to business. Really cool stuff man.

  • Josh Long

    Great article! Thanks for the insight & the pyramid is a great “one-glance” check for understanding the reasons behind picking certain projects. (Thanks for the advice about the carrots too. Eyes like eagle, skin like pokey.)

  • Zach

    This is great! Extremely good advice. With projects that wouldn’t fit all these criteria, I try and throw something into it that I don’t know yet, so I can at least have fun learning something new. Which usually helps even the shittiest projects go by a lot smoother.

    And I love the header! Reminded me of Schoen’s pronunciation site I saw from your twitter post the other day, made me lol

  • Luke Connolly

    Thanks so much for this post. It’s something I’ve learned the hard way ( do something you don’t like one-too-many times and you end up getting more work like that. )

    I think the most valuable and least-common block in your pyramid is the “time is budgeted for ideas and thought.” That is the missing link that can take something from being “pretty” to truly powerful and holistic design. Great stuff and thanks again.

  • noel Razon Miciano

    It would be great if you have choices in your work options or if you have early on figured out what direction to take to get into how you want your work to evolve. I am from the Philippines and there is not much choices around to really figure out how best to develop your career. But, in the end, I believe that it is your innate character that will influence you most in making your career choices. For even if you get it all whacked out, as long as you can still figure things out, you can make the changes in your choices to get to where and what you really want to become. You live each day, learn form your mistakes and keep defining what is your passion.

  • Rob Boerman

    Hi Trent,

    Excelent piece! I realy agree with you especially the part about the number of breakfasts. I see too manu people around me saying ‘the next project will be exciting’ over and over again instead of making each one count. How many times do you hear people working their ass off all of their life without having fun and then dying the first day of pension (Alanis Morisette already sang about that in 1996) ?

    Like Gary Vaynerchuck said ( “Do what you like, then find a way to monetize that!”

    Keep up the great articles,

  • Carina

    The thing is, this is exactly what I needed to hear. (Or, read, I guess.) Thank you so much for this post! And yes, I agree, this color scheme is rather beautiful. :)

  • Julian

    Beautiful, couldn’t agree more!

  • Melissa Washin

    What an awesome kick in the ass.

    Get to it!!

  • Akira

    Great analogy, and a well-captured graphic! Really nice way to get the message across. A friend sent the link to me and I will sure to come back to see more.

  • Rasmus Kalms

    I love you! And I mean that in the gayest sense possible. Awesome post!

  • Dave

    I liked this post. I’ve been moving away from productivity lately, and you’re exactly right about turning off the reruns and getting shit done.

  • Gustavo

    It was a nice analogy you used. Every now and then we need swift kick in the A** to remind you to be confident and stick to what you love most.

  • Damien

    What an excellent comparative blog post to the food chain and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. I really enjoyed this, Trent.

  • Julian

    I think you’re on the money with what you’re saying here. Even if what you want to do is weird and unlike anything out there (that’s probably even better), the most important thing after all is that you want to do it. And if you do it well, the Internet is the tool to spread your stuff and maybe even make some money off the back of it...

    You’ve always been pretty good, but still your writing gets better and better!
    Well done Trent!

  • Daniel

    Very good advice. Thank you. The diet metaphor is perfect, and it can be used in another are of our lives -- information consumption. :)

  • Sasha Baksht

    Nice post. It forced me to imagine hungry beginner chasing any project and picky well-established agency.

  • Elias

    This is an apt metaphor, and an inspiring post. Now to apply it to real life...

  • Jian Adornado

    Great post Trent! Powerful title. I definitely like the mashup of the food chain pyramid and the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Well put! :)

  • Eli

    I have been re-watching Scrubs these last few weeks. But I like to think I am not that lazy. I do constantly have ideas and begin to build those ideas with some successful outcomes. I have this feeling that I have never been running at full capacity, but whatever I have been running at has always been enough. I am changing my ways.

  • Josh Layson

    Interesting and captivating article!

  • Aman Anderson

    I love the “turn of the re-runs” part, lol.

  • John zhao

    If I want to get hired to do something, I should already be doing it. People can’t always see potential energy. Instead of allowing a current job description to stand in the way, turn off the Scrubs re-runs and start a side-project. Draw a picture, code a site, or write something and share it with the internet.

    Very suggestive... Thanks!

  • Teuvo

    Bro I’m definitely very inspired and in tune with your writing. Thank you for sharing your life with such passion.

  • Paul Armstrong

    Sadly, it can take quite a long time to figure out “who you are” (and thus develop a plan to get there).

    I’ve been in the design world for about 18 years, and it’s only been since I’ve turned 40 that I think I might know what I want to be when I grow up.

    It’s easy to say “build it that people will come” (and that you’ll get noticed and that you’ll get work). It might take 20 years. It make take a year. Or it might never happen at all.

    The most important thing is fulfillment (and not merely fulfillment from work). And that takes a lifetime.

  • Richard

    The re-run comment hits home with me. I’ve found that its helped to look at my career in terms of versions. I’m currently on 3.0.

    About 8 years ago (during version 2.0) I as a grown man sat at my desk in a multimillion dollar agency and wept because I was missing many of the virtues in this triangle. I debated waking away from it.

    But 8 years ago I had to decide that I didn’t hate what I was doing. I hated how I was doing it. I hated the big agency life. It was like working with a lot of people who wanted to be like the guys on Mad Men but really had no clue how to do it right or enjoy it.

    So I actually quit my cool agency position (I had just gotten my first fancy window office). I took a boring but cushy job in an internal marketing department so I could then start over doing the work I loved on the side and on my own terms (this was before I had kids and would not work for me now).

    I’m currently working on version 4.0 which is a very specific twist on my current career. But at least I don’t feel rushed to get there.

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