Written by Nguyen Le

No matter where you are in your career there is always room to grow and improve. That is not to say that you don’t appreciate where you are at currently. Or the importance to enjoy the here and now. But to me progress is what makes life interesting. Recently I thought about what I’d tell myself if I was starting out 5 years ago or 10 years ago or last year. What are some universal truths that can help us grow.

I try to think about what can help you find your own truth, what can help your career, what can help you make more money, $100,000 or $1,000,000+? What can bring us happiness. I believe the formula for achieving all of these things is actually quite simple. And whilst the formula and steps are simple, the execution is far from easy. And that’s why most people don’t proceed. Because it can be uncomfortable, difficult or inconvenient.

I don’t have time  ← the most common reason. It’s not that you don’t have time, but what you want to achieve and the small steps required to get there is not a priority. It is not prioritised. Or you try to use pure will power and make new years resolutions that you don’t commit to.

Instead focus and work on 1-2 small things, because trying to do too many things at once is not going to work out.

So focus on 1 or 2 main goals and build momentum, gradually. It’s a powerful asset. I’m actually seriously lazy, yet people wonder how I get so much stuff done. I prioritise and create habits. I never thought I’d consistently write every week and post to you, yet years later here I am still writing and enjoying it more and more.

If you asked me a few years ago if I thought I would be writing and building an audience, I’d tell you “nah fuck that I’m too lazy” or “I don’t have time”. So I set up little challenges for myself and in a way trick myself to get things done, cause when I look back and when I’m in the zone I really enjoy it and I am glad started and persevered. 

Enough self talk thought let's dig in.

Here are some things that have seriously helped me grow. And I truly believe they can help you step up as a designer and help you grow in 2022 as well. No matter what your goals are. This is more high level shit and not the tactical side of stepping up as a designer. Like use this font for 2022. This technology and trend is the latest craze. That stuff matters but I think these universal steps matter more. 

1. Read / Learn

Reading is something that I wish I did more of throughout my career. For a few years there I didn’t read much. Books were things I read in school and I would pick up the odd book here and there. Mainly biographies and visual stuff but nothing specific. When I started reading again 5 years ago, it lead to massive growth personally, creatively and financially. I was like fuck all this time so many nuggets of wisdom waiting to be picked up. It’s like there’s literally gold and treasure hidden in these books and many of us pass up on it. Me included.  

Author's gift you their experience and thoughts, they allow you to see different perspectives and results that would need another lifetime to experience and understand. From emperors 2000, to monks, to small business owners, to design legends. When it comes to ROI nothing beats a book, when it's the right one for you. It’s funny how powerful words can be.

Please get into the habit of reading – I’ve learnt so much and helped internalise so many great thoughts and process to grow as a person, designer and entrepreneur/maker.  I find that if you zone in on specific topics you can use them as building blocks for each other. Most people vaguely know that they should read, but that old reason creeps up on us. “I don’t have time”, or “I just want to unwind”. But 30 mins a day is all you need.

I think the most important habit for change is to just do it. Action is better than inaction. For example: some days I don’t feel like exercising but I know if I do just 10 minutes that’s enough. It keeps the momentum going and the next day I can do 1 hour etc. because of that momentum. You feel accountable, because you think I can’t stop today I’ve been going for 47 days already.  

Each year I hope to read a minimum of 12 books. If you extract that out it’s only 1 book per month. Here are some of my favourites from the last few years to get you started. Notice how the most influential books for your design career don't necessarily have to be books about design.

Shoe Dog - Phil Knight
Meditations - Marcus Aurelius
When Breath Becomes Air - Paul Kalanithi
Principles - Ray Dalio
Sprint - Jake Knapp from Google Ventures
Flow - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

The key is just to start with 1. 1 book, 1 page or 1 hour.  Blogs and articles are also great resources for SPECIFIC tidbits of knowledge too. I read posts and watch watch videos from people like Steven Bartlett, Seth Godin, Paul Jarvis and Bryan Harris and have learnt a ton from them. But find people and companies that inspire YOU and what you are about. Don’t have analysis paralysis and just get started. And if you are not the reading type you could try audio books which are great as well. 

Like I said earlier it’s all easier said than done. If I asked myself to read more a few years ago – I’d probably think ‘yeah I know books are great’ but I would never get around to it. Don’t make the mistake I did and brush it off. There’s a difference between knowing something can help versus doing something about it. Now I feel like shaking my old self and saying “FUCKING get on to it dude! You’re going to love it. Give it a chance just start reading a small amount first and go from there. You’ll learn so much and be a better person and designer for it.” 

Find a topic that you are interested in and passionate about and build knowledge around that. From there read on things that can be complementary to what you want to achieve. 

Want to start freelancing? What to learn how to make more money? Want to be a happier? Want to learn about type? Want to prototype? Read up on it.

2. Apply what you read / learn

I was watching an interview recently and a trait that many millionaires and billionaires have in common is, when they learn something new they execute it faster than the most people. Reading is great but if you don’t internalise it and take action, then progress is not going to happen or eventuate. Reading for the sake of reading is not going to help. The light bulb needs to go off and for you to have the “Aha moments” for it to be worthwhile. 

So if you only read 2 books this year, but executed and applied the shit out of what you’ve learnt then it’s better than reading 20 books and doing nothing at all. I like to join the dots between what I read and how it can be applied specifically to my situation.

If I read about Phil Knight I’m not going to start a shoe company, but I can understand about grit, determination and brand building for example. Connecting the dots is important. It also allows me to internalise certain values and truths rather than just plain tactics. The lessons I’ve learnt so far have given me perspective and confidence to pursue what I want to do. Every time I execute I can see what’s working and what isn’t working and adjust from there. Pretty simple stuff. But done many times over it and it really starts to have impact on your career and life. 

So don’t just hoard information for the sake of it. Internalise and use it or else it is wasted. Don’t delay to take action. Jump on it.

3. Model people who have done it

A great way to grow as a designer is to model someone.  Find someone who is doing what you want to do and learn from them. Directly or indirectly. Get on their radar. Or follow in their footsteps. Whether that’s the craft side of the work that you admire. Or they are running the kind of business you’d want to run one day. Learn to be able to connect and communicate with people.

Most people in our industry are friendlier than you think. Many years ago I emailed a designer I really admired and to be honest I never expected a response, because I kind of put him on pedestal. And then 30mins later I received a nice email from him. Don’t be afraid to chat and reach out to people. If you don’t have access to someone or they don’t respond – you can learn by modeling them.

What are the steps they took to do what they do and get to where they want to be? I used to do so much in isolation which was mistake. With social media now it is even easier to connect. I wish I reached out to more people and modeled what they did. Seeing someone achieve what you want to do shows you that it’s possible. You can be a pioneer, but if what you want to achieve has been done before leave your ego at the door, someone has carved a path – use it and follow them. Or follow them for a while and then carve your own path. 

4. Mindset

In line with reading and modeling is to have a growth mindset. Be open to grow the way you think. When I started $40/hr was stratospheric stuff. Of course you need to pay your dues, but reading, executing and modeling people can really give you dramatic mindset shifts.

Then you hit $30k in a week, and other people you respect are hitting $500,000 a week running ethical businesses that are providing a ton of value to others. And then your mindset shifts – commerce and making cool stuff can co-exist, you don’t have to sell your soul to the man. Or like me you look at companies like airbnb for inspiration. Normalise this – and use it as your benchmark.  Before any money hits the bank you are already wealthy because of the mindset that you have for yourself. 

A growth mindset shows you that opportunities are all around us. Hidden inside those books are pieces of gold that help us expand, think bigger and to do better work. There are also lessons for us to live a meaningful life. To think bigger and to act more purposefully. Purpose and growth for me = happiness. Money is the enabler but happiness is the true benchmark. When you challenge your current preconceived notions to doing other things, it feels scary and uncomfortable but sometimes that’s what it takes to step up. Choose to step up with your mindset. 

5. Respect the process and don’t just focus on the end result

And finally stop focusing on the destination, focus on the journey. Being a Creative Director sounds cool, running the most sought after design studio is cool, working for a top tech company is cool, working for yourself and not wearing pants is cool.

But before any of that focus on the process and not just the end result. It’s like running a marathon just keep thinking 1 foot after the next and move in the direction that you want to go. If you treat it like a sprint you’ll fizzle out and never get there. 42km seems daunting, but if you have patience and thrive in the hustle, enjoy it and put one foot in front of the other. Before you’ll know it you’ll hit your destination. 

I hope you start reading, start internalising and executing, model people who have done it, have the right mindset and respect the process. Start achieving your goals in 2022 and beyond. Remember to enjoy the ride!