Describe your path to what you’re doing now.
I didn’t have much when I was growing up, so I had to get creative with whatever I could find. Once, my family was so poor that we had to move in with my dad’s parents in North Carolina, where we all shared a 700-square-foot house. I remember being in church one time and having people donate toys to my sister and me. Other times, I went through people’s trash looking for trinkets and took them apart to see how they worked.
My dad went through a lot of different jobs when I was younger—about eight within three years. When he was a manager at Radio Shack, he tried to pay better wages to the salespeople who produced the most, even though it was against company policy. He was up for a huge promotion, but my dad has integrity, so he owned up to what he had done. As he was let go from his eighth job, he looked up and saw a bunch of Employee of the Month plaques on the wall and asked a co-worker how much they had paid for them. That’s what gave him the idea to start his own engraving business. His best friend’s mom lent him the money to buy an engraving machine, which he set up in the corner of my room. He traced out letters in plastic and metal and, pretty soon, he had a solid business growing out of our garage.
Around that time, I went to a Christian high school in Wilmington. High school was an interesting dichotomy for me: I was a popular kid who didn’t fit in; I was all-state in basketball and soccer, but I wasn’t part of any particular crowd; I was on the honor roll, but I was a terrible student. Even now, I find myself in that boat sometimes. It was also a very strict school, and I was constantly flirting with getting kicked out because I couldn’t stand formalized rules back then. Both of those tendencies helped set precedents for my adult life.
I completed my first two years of college at Liberty University in Virginia. I got in on a basketball scholarship, but started having the same problems with following rules. There was a 10pm curfew, so I would literally hide inside the trunks of cars to sneak off campus. (laughing) I was kicked out twice and got blacklisted by a few teachers for always questioning them. They taught creationism in science class, and I remember standing up and asking, “What is this based on, outside of the Bible?” It got to the point where teachers didn’t want to have me in their classes anymore.
That was when I realized that I was stuck in a dogmatic system with people who never asked themselves why they were in it. I started reading about existentialism in On Being and Time by Martin Heidegger, and it resonated with me. I would sit in a Waffle House near campus for hours, just writing in my notebook. I spent a lot of time being introspective; I drew mind maps of every part of my life to try and break it all down. It was a weird time because I’m an extroverted person by nature, but it was good for me.
I ended up leaving Liberty and moving back home to take some time off from school. I think I was battling with some kind of mid mid-life crisis. (laughing) I played music in local bars, did some traveling, dabbled in buying franchises, and flirted with real estate. During that time, I also worked in my family’s engraving business. They wanted me to help it grow, but I thought it was boring and not challenging enough, so I had a bit of a falling out with my dad. I got a job at my uncle’s transmission shop for a short period after that, and he taught me how to get my hands dirty. It was part of the whole process of trying to figure out who I was.
After that two-year break, I went back to college at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington to study philosophy. That time around, I really loved school: I aced every class because I was studying something I was really interested in. Everyone in my family fought me tooth and nail about it and asked, “Why would you get a degree in philosophy?” People still question it to this day, but it was one of the best things I ever did. I saw philosophy as a combination of strategy and creativity. It taught me how to think in systems. It was the kind of stimulation I needed, and it has served me so much ever since.
After graduating at 23, I moved out to LA to pursue music, but I kept working for my dad’s company remotely. I would make over 200 phone calls a day to sell plaque programs. It was the same thing every time: I would call a Wal-Mart manager and ask what they were doing for Employee of the Month recognition. If they were interested in plaques, we would send them a sample with their name and logo on it. We sold about one of every two plaques we sent, which was great, but it was very cutthroat. We didn’t have a web presence, so every bit of selling was done through cold-calling. Also, everything was commission-based and we burned through salespeople. It was pretty rough.
I lived in LA off and on for a little over a year, and it was an absolute blast. You know how some people regret getting too old without ever doing anything with their lives? I did enough living in that year to never have to worry about that. (laughing) I still didn’t have a ton of money back then, but I was lucky enough to hit it off with a married couple who let me rent from them. It almost felt like cheating: I paid about $300 a month to live in the Hollywood Hills! That experience taught me a lot about who I didn’t want to be. LA has the best and worst of everything: there’s lots of sunshine and cool things to see, but there were times when I’d have lunch with screenwriters or casting directors and waiters would drop a script or headshot in their laps while we were eating—it was gross. LA was fun, but I’d never live there again.
I ended up getting a management contract that sent me to New Jersey and New York, where I continued making music and working for my dad remotely. I was layering tracks and living off of cigarettes, coffee, and beef jerky. (laughing) We’d have mid-level artists and bands that were just about to break come into the studio and I was able to lay down a bass or guitar track for them. That was absolutely amazing.
I still made sales calls for the family business, but my parents were mad that I was living in New York. They never wanted me to move away, and I was going through another bad spell with my dad. Eventually, I started talking to him again, and he convinced me to come back home to help take the family business to the next level. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t moved back home, but If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have met my wife or had my two beautiful daughters.
One thing my dad was good at was exposing me to well-known business minds. Throughout my 20s, he was able to surround me with multi-million-dollar business owners by taking me to Mastermind classes, which cost about $25,000 to get into. Whenever I met successful businesspeople at those events, I wouldn’t necessarily listen to what they were saying, but I listened to the underlying tones of how they were saying it. They always talked with fluff, and I discovered that I could use my philosophy degree to get to the heart of what they were saying. It was almost like the Matrix: when someone was talking, I’d visualize circles and lines over them; I could see their core offering, value proposition, and delivery mechanisms—I could see the whole system. Looking back on it, that’s what made me really good at business design: I could pick out the patterns in what people were doing.
“As much as I wanted to get away from entrepreneurship and business during points of my life, I’ve realized that it’s just who I am. People shouldn’t try to change who they are; they should try to make the best of what they have and put their own spin on it.”
Tina: When did you stop working for your dad’s business?
My dad travelled for months at a time, so I built a system for our company that made sure it worked, even while he was away. We grew an average of 33% every year, which is pretty unheard of for a small business making Employee of the Month plaques. Our little company was even featured in an American Express OPEN Forum blog post. People started asking me, “How is this business still growing with your dad gone?” I told them that it had everything to do with the systems that were in place; it grew with or without him. People began asking about how that worked and started hiring me as a consultant in my free time and on weekends. That’s how I got into business design.
For a long time, I hated the fact that I liked business; I hated that part of myself. As much as I wanted to get away from entrepreneurship and business during points of my life, I’ve realized that it’s just who I am. Luckily, I was able to combine it with my appetite for creativity and that turned out to be a good mix. People shouldn’t try to change who they are; they should try to make the best of what they have and put their own spin on it. Now that I look at it, it’s kind of a blessing to have a mind for business in a creative industry. Being weird sucked when I was younger, but now it’s great: I can help my friends sustain and support their art without necessarily being a “business guy” walking around with a briefcase and a tie. I’m figuring out that maybe this is what I’m on the planet to do.
I worked in the family business until I was about 30, right around the time I got married. Even though I had invested everything into that business, my dad and I just didn’t see eye-to-eye. So I quit. I had to make a lot of sacrifices in order to make the transition from the family business to entrepreneurship. I sold all of my guitars, and to this day my heart still bleeds for them. We even had to sell my wife’s wedding ring at one point—that was really tough, and my wife is a beautiful saint for going through that with me.
We had lost everything, but we survived. I worked hard and had a modest salary, and then I was able to get some good consulting clients. I started designing people’s businesses, which is a tough thing to sell if you think about it. Companies would tell me everything they did, then I’d analyze their internal and external communication to see what they were really offering and where their systems were breaking down. I’d take apart their businesses and then help put them back together. For a business owner, that is one of the most painful things to go through; they take it very personally. But I had a way of delivering it so that it wasn’t insulting because I wanted to help, and I think they knew that. Unfortunately, I sometimes wanted to help people more than they wanted to help themselves, which is one of the reasons I got out of client work. A lot of times when we figured something out, I wanted to do it more than they did. It’s so frustrating to want something for someone more than they want it for themselves.
Tina: That’s true. You can’t help people if they don’t want to help themselves.
Yeah, it can keep me up at night. Learning to see life through design was one of the best and worst things that has ever happened to me. When I see a problem, whether it’s business or otherwise, I can’t sleep once I see what’s possible. People say not to take it personally, but I can’t help it. I get really fired up for other people, and I never understand why people don’t want to work through things the way that I do.
Tina: You’re very involved in the web community. How did that start?
I started doing some online marketing for the family business. I couldn’t code then like I can now, but I dabbled in the web back when sites like Geocities were around. Friends or family would ask me for websites or Wordpress blogs, so I started right-clicking on sites and looking at source code to figure out how things are built—again, looking at their systems. Then I read Jeffrey Zeldman’s Designing with Web Standards and learned a lot about people in the web community. I really got into the web community when I found Twitter and started using it to learn from and help other people. Even now, I’ll send out a tweet asking, “Who needs help?” I think I got to where I am now because I genuinely want to help people.
I got into the web over time, and now I’m one of the only people in my town who knows anything about the web industry. I fell in love with it because it was a group of people who made a lot of sense to me: they think about design, but in ways that are commerce-driven. The web community is full of smart people who execute and see projects through on their own, but who are also passionate about helping each other. For example, I have learned a lot about coding just by asking. In the business world, nobody wants to help you; nobody wants you to have a competitive advantage, but in the web world, there could be two designers in the same town who help each other try things. This is one of the only industries that does that: seriously. I’m in the web industry because I love the people who are in it, and I’ve never met cooler people in my life.
“I want to give someone’s art a sustainable engine so they can make more, and people can enjoy it more. I’m hoping that I find people with talent and give them a way to amplify it—not to mass-produce it, but support it in a sustainable way.”
Tina: And for those who don’t know, what are you doing now?
I’ve been writing a lot: I’ve written three books this year. I’m also about a year into doing the Happy Monday podcast with Sarah Parmenter. It’s been the strangest way for me to socialize since I don’t live around anyone else in the industry. (laughing) I was really lucky to meet Sarah; she also grew up in a family of entrepreneurs, and we’re two of the most optimistic people in the world—it’s almost gross. (laughing) Doing the podcast is effortless because we really care about the people we interview.
Of course, a couple months ago I started helping you guys out with The Great Discontent, and it’s still one of my favorite sites on the web. It’s the most beautiful thing to talk about creativity, risk, interesting people, and art—it just doesn’t get any better than that. It’s been a lot of fun to be even a small part of this.
Something else I’m doing now is starting my own business design school. It’s crazy—who has the right to start a school out of the blue? (laughing) It’s called Patterns, and it’s based on how everything I’ve learned in the past is coming together in my life now. Ironically, the things that used to make me weird have now given me a unique opportunity.
Tina: It’s interesting that your work has come full-circle from fighting the idea of being a “business person” to helping the creative community successfully launch ideas. When we interviewed Scott Belsky, he mentioned that it’s not that we don’t have enough ideas, but it’s that we need help to make those ideas happen. You do that by bringing a different dynamic that people need.
That’s exactly what I’m hoping will make Patterns successful. I feel like a missionary of sorts. The world is full of a lot of great artists, and I’m hoping my contribution to that is saying, “Your art is absolutely amazing. Let’s spend a little time dissecting it.” I want to work with artists to look at things that made others successful. I want to give someone’s art a sustainable engine so they can make more, and people can enjoy it more. I’m hoping that I find people with talent and give them a way to amplify it—not to mass-produce it, but support it in a sustainable way. This probably goes against every business rule in the world, but I’m actually hoping to make friends with people who come through who are extra special and willing to do the extra work.
That’s the thing that many artists are missing: sometimes their art is really good, but they’re not willing to do the work that’s needed to become successful. It’s about having conviction and consistently showing up every day to do your work. That’s what makes someone just as rare as the person lucky enough to build the next Instagram. There’s luck in the world, but most of the artists I know have worked for two decades or more before anyone knew who they were.
Tina: That’s the interesting thing about interviewing people: we learn about the years they spent in anonymity.
It’s like how everyone talks about having to be young in order to make it in the pop music industry. The web has democratized music to the point where older artists are now popping back up, making people say, “Where were you all my life?” When I hear that young people who were listening to Britney Spears just a couple years ago are now falling in love with Tom Waits, I think, “I love the Internet!”
Was there an “aha” moment when you knew what you wanted to do?
There were a couple different moments along the way. One was when I met a guy named Jay Abraham, who turned out to be the first marketing person I actually liked. It was expensive just to be around him—getting into a conference he spoke at could be between $5,000 and $25,000—but he was the first person I experienced in marketing who was an intellectual and a systems thinker. You could throw any business at him, and in three to four statements, he’d tell you something that’d make your pants fall off. (laughing) I have watched people who have been in business for 25 years spend a few seconds with this guy, and he’d recommend something they had never thought of. He was a very well-spoken, strategic thinker: he could talk straight through someone, but still care about them at the same time. Up until that point, I had wondered, “Why do I love business? These people are gross.” Jay was the first glimpse into the idea that business wasn’t bad for everybody.
Another was when I came across IDEO. They were the first people who showed me that design and business could work together. I felt like the heavens had opened up—which is a weird thing to say, because who gets excited about that? (laughing)
And then reading The Great Discontent was a big “aha” moment for me, too.
Tina: We’re not paying him to say this! (laughing)
To me, TGD was one of the first times when people opened up and were honest about how art is a struggle and things aren’t perfect. It’s interesting to hear cathartic music and then learn about the kind of pain someone was in when they wrote it. You talk about risk, creativity, and the down spots. You guys have a beautiful way of talking about the real life behind the art. I’m like a lot of other artists and designers who have moments of insecurity. For example, starting this school is a crazy, stupid idea—but that’s exactly why it might work. (laughing) I think that insecurity is something that’s really worth getting out in the open and talking about.
Tina: Right. We all have insecurities, but if someone like Jessica Hische can be critical of her work when we think it’s beautiful, then it’s important to realize that everyone struggles with liking the work they put out. Everyone is self-critical and has doubts from time to time.
Marrying my wife and seeing my two daughters born really taught me something about self-doubt. All of a sudden, I realized how small everything is. If you’re only thinking about the problems when you’re trying to do something, then you get overwhelmed and start to believe it’s never going to happen. I try to think about the universe and be completely in awe so that my problems and the challenges don’t seem so big.
One of my biggest “aha” moments came after reading Seth Godin’s books for the first time. He’s very artist-driven, and he acknowledges the shift that we’re going through, from having to work in factories to having the opportunity to do what we love as a job and way of life. He’s one of the smartest people we have in our industry, and we need to study everything he does. I worked with him recently, and it was an an amazing experience for me. You can pose something to him and then watch as he sits back in his chair to think about it, looking up at the sky with his hands behind his head. It was like he was running through worldviews and business patterns he’s seen before and then imagining the different possible outcomes. It’s like he has an internal formula of patterns that he puts every business idea through. That was partly the inspiration to name my school Patterns—because I saw Seth thinking in a similar way that I do. That “aha” moment convinced me that I could help people see these patterns—like artists who would have taken ten years of consistent day-to-day working to get to a certain point—and perhaps help cut five years off of that time without compromising their art.
Tina: It’ll never happen overnight or with a quick fix, but if you have a plan, it can be 5 years of strategic planning instead of 10 years of trial and error.
Yeah. I think artists have a problem with waiting to be picked. Musicians are always saying, “If I could only get a record deal,” and writers say, “If I could only get a book deal.” With the right tools, artists can pick themselves instead. With a little bit of elbow grease and the right map, they can get it done themselves.
“…one thing I’ve learned is that we have to stop putting our heroes on such big pedestals. Most of the time they’re real people, just like us, but they happen to have done important things at the right time, and that is what changed the course of their lives.”
Have you had any important mentors along the way?
Seth Godin has been a mentor of mine since about 1999. I started reading his books back then, and now I’m able to call him up on the phone and have an hour-long conversation—it’s pretty rad. Seth is a hero of mine, but one thing I’ve learned is that we have to stop putting our heroes on such big pedestals. Most of the time they’re real people, just like us, but they happen to have done important things at the right time, and that is what changed the course of their lives. To meet Seth both validated and humanized him.
My dad exposed me to some business stuff early on, which was great, but I’ve never had a formal mentor. In a lot of ways, the most mentorship I’ve had has been through conversations with strangers, usually with people who are completely out of my element.
Books were mentors for me. I had a philosophy professor in college named Dr. Altrichter, and I’ll never forget him. He was from Hungary, and he would say, “Now class, how do we read a philosophy text? We don’t read it like a Danielle Steel novel.” We were taught to read something, then re-read it and dissect everything with a pencil. That’s how you learn. It’s the same as when you watch a movie over and over again: the more times you watch it, the more undertones and patterns you’ll catch; you’ll start to see things you didn’t see before. That is how books have been for me, and my mentor was that reading process.
Has there been a point when you’ve taken a big risk to move forward?
Yes, many times: quitting college after two years and taking another two off was a big risk, especially when I look at it in the light of my family and society itself. Moving to LA with nothing besides what was in my car was a risk, and so was moving to New York.
Leaving the family business was a big one. Most people wouldn’t see the opportunity to become a multi-millionaire and leave it to be a designer. That business wasn’t something I was born with: it was something I had helped build, and I walked away from more than a decade worth of hard work with nothing. It was a huge risk because I was newly married and my wife was pregnant, but it ended up being the best decision I ever made.
I’m taking another big risk right now by starting my school. There’s a chance that I’ll open the doors and no one will come. If I do a good job of communicating how much I want to help people, though, I don’t think that will be the case. I’m 34 years old and at an age when most people are pretty settled into what they’re doing, but I don’t want to be settled. I want to dance on the edge—that’s how you feel alive. For a creative person, complacency is the ugliest thing ever. Being complacent takes away your grit and drive. Some of your life can be okay, but you don’t want everything to be okay. So here I am again, taking another risk. (laughing) I hope the rest of my life is taken up with bold risks.
Are your family and friends supportive of what you do?
Except for my wife, my family and friends were never supportive, actually. At times, I think they wanted the best for me, but no one knew what to do. (laughing) They just didn’t understand me.
I’m kind of an anomaly because of my weird interests. My friends in bands always asked me, “Why do you like business? You’re covered in tattoos and your hair is down to your shoulders.” And then my business friends would ask, “Why are you playing music?” I never fit into either world. No one was ever supportive, but I realize that it wasn’t necessarily because they had bad intentions—they just didn’t understand what I was trying to do. We don’t need people to understand us, because our industry is in a bubble outside of the norm. We’re working in a future world for most people, and it’s the torch that we carry.
Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger than yourself?
I hope I can contribute to something bigger than myself. I hope to meet artists young and old, musicians, budding entrepreneurs, and help them get fired up and find their path. Seth would call that “making a ruckus,” but I want to start fires in people. I hate seeing talented artists who are unable to sustain themselves, or who forget about their talent in the name of security. I don’t have to leave a dent in the universe, but if I can help one person do something great later on, then that’s all that matters.
After I wrote Execute, people sent me links to things they had built, things they’d been putting off for years. That’s the coolest thing that’s happened to me so far: getting thank-you messages from people. When I’m an old man, I hope I get letters from people who I had an impact on.
Are you creatively satisfied?
I’m not, and I don’t think we ever should be. I like the idea of being creatively satisfied in the moment, but then being dissatisfied afterwards so I can keep rolling. You have to breathe in and out of being satisfied or else you can become complacent. It’s a hard thing to do, especially for artists with security issues. Even if we’re not 100% satisfied with what we’ve made, sometimes it’s nice to say, “Let me appreciate the fact that I built something and put it out in the world.” You don’t have to talk about it, but internally, be proud of what you’ve done. Then move on and get hungry again.
Most people don’t really ship anything artistic. The creative community gets to be part of a small percentage of people who actually make something for a living. It’s sad when people leave the world without ever getting their art out of their heads. I picture older people on their deathbed with all of their art still in them; I think that’s a big tragedy. That’s the part we shouldn’t take for granted: our grandparents didn’t have the opportunity we have to freely share art. They had to work and build our country for survival. Let’s not disrespect our elders by not appreciating the time we have to create, because we’re not going to have this window of opportunity forever. I think about how great we have it, and how we could be one bad political decision away from another war that dries up all the good opportunities. A lot of what we do is a nicety, not a necessity.
What advice would you give to a young person starting out in businesses or creative field?
As much as I talk, I don’t really like to give advice, but I would say consistency and hard work are a good 70% of success. You also need to learn as much as you can and read as much as you can.
I also think people should share their work—the process and the mistakes, too. All of it is art. We look at interfaces, paintings, and music, but we don’t know what went on during creation. When we know what went into it, we can really appreciate it. We buy a lot of things because of the stories behind them, so show your scars. Those imperfections are what will stand out now in a world of digital perfection.
How does where you live impact your work and creativity?
There aren’t a lot of distractions in Wilmington, and it highly impacts my work. A lot of people ask me how I get so much done, and I tell them that it’s because I live in a place where there’s nothing else to do. (laughing)
Wilmington is really laid back, which can be a good thing, but I don’t have creative influences around me anymore. I get inspiration online and from the small things I appreciate, but I’m not around it like I was in New York or LA. In the city, you can walk down the street and see a thousand points of inspiration. You see creativity everywhere: fashion, art, struggle, happiness—you have all these extremes in the space of one block. You can get really inspired that way. As an artist, and even as a designer, the only way to really understand things is through their extremes. You never really know who you are as a person until you’ve taken yourself to your extreme highs and lows: that’s how you really find out who you are. There aren’t any of those extremes here, but there is a nice pace of life. Everyone else works so slow that it feels like I have 48 hours in a day as opposed to 24.
Is it important to you to be part of a creative community of people?
Online, it’s been very important. Part of the reason that I’m excited about starting my school is because I’ll be able to bring people to me. Sometimes I feel like there are so many people who are complacent with life, who just don’t care. I wouldn’t be as optimistic about humanity if it wasn’t for the creative community around me. That’s essentially what the web community has done: it has given us all a small place to find each other. We’re supportive of each other, too. Most of what I buy are things that my friends have made. There are apps that I don’t even really use, but I pay for them to support my friends. I love that about our community: we genuinely want each other to be successful.
What does a typical day look like for you?
A typical day for me starts by getting up at 5am.
Ryan: (long whistle)
Tina: Every day?
Yep. I read something by someone who said their life changed when they started getting up at 5am. I used to go to bed at 5am. (laughing) I use that time to study, or get lots of editing and writing out of the way. Between 5am and 8am, I get more done than most people do in an entire workday. Seriously. If you’ve ever worked late at night, you know that feeling: it’s quiet and you’re focused. It’s tough at first, though. I remember the first few times I tried getting up that early, and I was a mess. (laughing)
By 8am, I get my girls up, make them a snack, and take a shower. I get into the office around 9:15. From then until lunch is another block of time where I don’t really do a whole lot of minutiae: it’s just another block to really work. By the time lunch hits, I’ve worked on four different things and my to-do list is already done. The second part of the afternoon is when I do the lighter stuff, like make calls for sponsors or find people to interview for Happy Monday. Most people wouldn’t think that’s fun, but I do. I get home around 5:30pm, and it’s like walking into a sweet version of a zoo. (laughing) It’s my daughters’ playtime until they go to bed, and then my wife and I have some time together. It’s a good life.
My typical day is not very sexy, you guys. I’m sorry. (laughing) It sounds boring, but it beats the hell out of most people’s lives. I get to go home every day, excited about the next day. Most people wake up and think, “Dammit, another day of work,” but I wake up at 5am and think, “Sweet, another day to do stuff!” That’s a big part of why I started doing the Happy Monday podcast: I’m disgustingly happy about things. (laughing)
“…people should share their work—the process and the mistakes, too. All of it is art. We look at interfaces, paintings, and music, but we don’t know what went on during creation. When we know what went into it, we can really appreciate it. We buy a lot of things because of the stories behind them, so show your scars.”
Do you have any favorite music you’re listening to right now?
I’m a huge Interpol fan; I listen to them a lot. Their music really strikes a chord with me, and it’s comforting. A lot of their songs are ones that I can listen to over and over again, like sitting in a favorite chair. I like Spoon a lot, too. They’re another band that I’ve grown up listening to over the years.
I have my go-to’s like that, but then I like to listen to stuff I’ve never heard of and probably will never hear again. I can’t listen to a lot of music coming out now because everything sounds so perfect. It’s nice to hear the crackling of a record; I love hearing the air between notes and the swing that old music has. Drum tracks don’t have swing: they don’t have anything human in them. That’s why I love listening to a newly-discovered B-side, or something that sounds like it was recorded by an old Southern African-American Baptist singer who pulled off to the side of the road near someone who just happened to have a microphone. I sit back and think, “Where was this person when they were singing this? What were they going through?” They were obviously in a time of real struggle.
Any favorite movies or TV shows?
The documentary Objectified is one of my favorite movies. I feel like I might have been an industrial designer in another life. I’ve worked in the digital world so long that it’s nice to really interact with something—to push a real button, not a skeuomorphic one.
I liked Drive, too. A lot of people said it was so slow, but I loved the tension and the relationship that was built, and how raw it gets all of a sudden.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is another really good documentary. I like watching films about people who have mastered something, like toolmakers or old blacksmiths. That’s one of the things I miss about my younger self sometimes: I didn’t take the time to master something. For instance, Cameron Moll took two years to make a letterpress poster. I really appreciate people like that. Part of me is jealous because I’d like to take the time to be masterful, but I’m so impatient.
Any favorite books?
Oh, yeah. I started reading constantly when I got to college because I didn’t grow up with it—I hadn’t read a book until I was 20! Nobody had ever taught me the beauty of reading a book, so I’ve read three books a week since then to catch up. (laughing) I love Catcher in the Rye: that one is big for me because, outside of the obvious metaphors, it was the first book I ever read cover-to-cover.
I really liked Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees by Lawrence Weschler. Josh Brewer told me to buy it, but then Frank Chimero actually sent me one. It’s a beautiful book. The Laws of Simplicity by John Maeda is another great one.
You guys have The Great Discontent, but The Winter of Our Discontent was actually one of my favorite Steinbeck books. I really enjoyed Grapes of Wrath, too. I need to read more fiction; I usually only read nonfiction or the classics.
Tina: It’s not fiction, but if you enjoy writing, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott is really good.
I just bought that! I got it along with On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. I have a few nerdy books sitting in the back of my car right now, too: Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, and Surfaces and Essences by Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander. They’re both about where good ideas come from. Obviously, anything from Seth Godin is good—everyone I know should read all of his books.
I read Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, Turning Pro, and Do the Work: that series taught me a lot. Those books showed me how to be okay with having a boring life as a professional. I don’t mean to say boring—it’s still way more exciting than what most people do—but saying to yourself, “I’m going to sit down every day and do the same thing. I’m going to show up every day and just do the work.” Those books made that seem okay. If you get into that habit, being alright with the same space and the same thing, you know your work is eventually going to get done. Then you can do something crazy outside of that to recharge your battery. It’s important to have a routine. A lot of people like to glorify artists, but a lot of it is just sitting down and consistently doing the work every day.
Definitely. So, what’s your favorite food?
You give me a good cheeseburger or steak, and I’ll be a happy man. I also like good, traditional breakfasts like the kind from The Dixie Grill here in Wilmington.
What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?
I don’t want to leave a legacy: I want to leave behind fulfilled people. I wanted two daughters while a lot of my friends were dying to have a son because they wanted some kind of name legacy. I don’t want to leave anything with my name on it. I just want my girls to grow up in an environment that I maybe made a little bit better. My goal is for them to grow up and eventually die very happy people. My daughters are going to want to do something someday, and I want them to have confidence in being bold, because people are going to tell them they can’t do things. I’m hoping that somehow I’ll get to leave them a world where people believe in them when they say, “I’m going to do this.”
“My typical day is not very sexy…but it beats the hell out of most people’s…I get to go home every day, excited about the next day. Most people wake up and think, ‘Dammit, another day of work,’ but I wake up at 5am and think, ‘Sweet, another day to do stuff!’”