In the novel The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton the protagonist Ponyboy and Johnny are jumped and accidentally murder an opposing gang member. They seek refuge in a church in a small town outside of my hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. While in refuge Johnny gives Ponyboy a copy of this poem by Robert Frost.
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf,
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day
Nothing gold can stay.
When I left a small design firm in Oklahoma to pursue a masters degree in 2012 I thought I wanted to work at a greater scale. For nearly seven years, the majority of my youthful twenties I had produced content and design for all types of clients in Tulsa. Great clients! Albeit most were not behemoth corporations or tech companies, they were clients that loved and trusted us to do our best work for their small and often family run businesses. Businesses that were mostly so small they couldn’t take many risk.
Our studio was similarly small and family run; there were only two of us. Made up of just me and Toni, a woman who had thirty years more experience then me in design. And as if that wasn’t enough, this was her third successful business. She’s in her eighties now and still designing. Like the bad ass designer she is.
I started working for Toni when a freelance job she’d passed along to me turned into a signature portfolio piece for her small firm. It was a website she had designed that I then coded and worked with other vendors to create content and a management system on the backend. She offered to take me on board only under the condition that if we could bring on some new clientele I could potentially work my way to full time. At first I worked only ten hours a week— supplementing my income as a small business specialist at a newly opened Apple store in the local mall. But not for very long.
Over the next year Toni and I grew a strong small business in her garage and within a couple of years we moved into a beautiful art-deco gem in downtown Tulsa. The brass door nobs where molded with Waite Phillips initials as this was the office building of the oil mogul and his Phillip 66 petroleum company. The building is iconic art deco. An metropolis-esc twenty-five floor skyscraper built in 1924. Waite was deeply afraid of his wife or daughter being kidnapped, as it was a popular criminal activity at the time, so he had a tunnel built underneath the building that went to the building across the street, another slightly less tall art-deco gem, where he and his family lived.
In our new office for the next four years we built design materials, content, and digital and print products. We envisioned strategy and business with clients and built roadmaps for their brand and digital presence. We helped them identify their audiences and created marketing materials that gave their businesses as much personality as we knew them to already have. We adored our clients. They gave us inspiration to do things creatively and sometimes without much restraint. These small, family run businesses trusted us as if we were family and let us assume risk. We swung and missed sometimes but we never struck out.
I had a chalkboard in my office, my first analog design studio. We called upon it to build collages, map out wireframes, or simply sketch an early idea or prototype. We brainstormed, wireframed, and created flowcharts in a moments notice, day to day, week by week. In the room next to my office we had a large format printer for prototyping our various print projects and every once in a while a personal passion project.
All this, and only the two of us. I remember in the summer the light from the east would blast through our studio’s windows and onto the white halls. My coffee steam trickling off the edge of my monitor. Toni leaning in the doorway discussing the morning news. News we’d both consumed from the local NPR syndicate on our drive in. For years this was a golden land of opportunity— one where I grew up as a designer, a professional, and a person.
The past few years I have been doing a lot of thinking about what I will do next professionally. A few years ago I was thinking I wanted to go “big”; I wanted to work at scale. When I moved to NYC I immediately jumped on an opportunity to help New York Public Radio develop a digital content strategy for the Jerome L. Green Space. Working with a small multimedia team to format and create online streams of video, social media, and web copy. It was fun and exciting; I met Phillip Glass on accident one day just walking through the performance space. But my time with New York Public Radio was short lived. Though I was going “big”, Graduate School was beginning to suffocate my days and I had to turn away my work there and focus solely on my studies.
At the end of my first year of graduate school I again went looking for scale and took a job as the first user experience designer in the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority. You might know them as the folks who run the much beloved New York Subway. Over more than a year and a half I came to know them as a intimate group of train and bus operators, a blue collar workforce who got up early to keep the city they serve and love moving. Literally they were public stewards that come to work everyday to help seventeen million people transverse gotham. All the while tolerating the slowness and unaccountability of being saddled between nearly twenty unions and three government agencies (a city, a state, and the feds).
I stayed with the transit authority for a little more than a year and half. There I helped build a requirements document for the largest asset management overhaul in the agencies history. As the first UX designer within a group that was stealthily located in the office of the president. I commuted in and out of the monumental valleys of lower manhattan, or as we lovingly called it “the boot”. Slanted between the golden palaces of moguls like the Trump, Barney’s, and Goldman Sachs of the world. I found out that the pinstripes are real; they actually wear them. And the streets smell like cigars and neck sweat.
I wore the attire; a tie most days, khakis, Cole Haan’s, sometimes suspenders (because they’re cool and I could). I spoke the cryptic language of enterprise asset management, KPI’s, budget requirements, blah. I temporarily reduced my vocabulary with an unforgivable amount of acronyms. I worked with PHDs from Wharton and Tufts. My boss Mike, his claim to fame was no small feat: he’d been the executive coordinator of the rebuilding of the Fulton Street Station that was destroyed in the 9/11 attacks. The person I spent the majority of my time with though was Roberto. A multi-generation New Yorker who’d worked his way over thirteen years from being a maintenance of way laborer to a business analysis in the office of the president. And was dedicated as anyone to helping New York City stay on top of the millions of commuters that made up it’s busy blossom.
Roberto shared so much with me. I knew nothing about the extreme linking and diversity of the United States largest transit agency. Nor was I prepared professionally to deal with the gravity of some of the decisions we’d be asked for our input on. Like 50 years plans in-companying systems analysis that involved tens of thousands of assets worth billions. But I often wasn’t scared because I knew that I had a great team to back me up and I knew the guy I worked with the closest understood and shared the same ambition. Without Roberto I would have never been able to swim through the bureaucracy and help discover the invaluable insight that we would later provide in the requirements document.
This was “big”, we were working at a massive scale. But in reality we were updating processes that were still being documented on butcher books and typed into terminals manually. The work wasn’t sexy— and it wasn’t going to show any proof of concept or validation for many many years. But that said even I found something generous and golden in the process. I found a group of super smart people plugging away at a decades long problem while holding each of us to our highest standard. I found a friend and a colleague that pushed me to do my best while also protecting my amateurism and need to have the experience and be able to learn from that experience. At the MTA there was a reciprocity among our team and I do my best to keep in touch with them. Because you never know when we’ll have our next chance to collaborate. I’m looking forward to it.
Upon graduating school in 2014 I took on more work at scale. I worked for a professor of mine who had recently left IDEO. I helped with a team that ran a small suite of design services. We operated out of a startup office in Soho full to the brim of fifty other startups. The realization that this party was a little blown out was on my mind. Later that summer I took on a information architect role for the site of the newly opened Meyer Cornell Cancer Research Center in Manhattan. Interweaving building diagrams and holding interviews with body surfing and eating copious amounts of fish tacos in the Rockaways. Needless to say, it was a good summer.
Toward the end of the summer a previous graduate of my school contacted me about coming on as a product/content designer at the National Football League (more specifically, NFL Media) in Los Angeles. At the time, my wife and I were more or less looking for an excuse to leave the grime and grit of Brooklyn and live in sunny California. So we lept at the opportunity.
While at the NFL I worked with Carmen, the Director of Digital Content. We had a wonderful working partnership. She has since been someone I call on when things are tough and she does the same. We’ve also established a quite fun and engaging postcard exchange; spurred from our conversations about the oncoming of an analog renaissance in design. More to come on this someday.
I worked for the NFL from September to January that year. It was a quick huddle but Carmen and I built many things. For the first time in my professional career I learned what being iterative and agile actually meant. I also learned that most of us saying we are iterative and agile are far from it. We never meandered over a detail for longer than a few hours on a whiteboard before we were out in the field sketching the prototype or talking to a group of fans at a bar about their experience with the game and how our cherished digital content might delight them further. We were thirsty to take on the medium; a game that had garnished a following of a billion people. We wrapped our designer thinking caps around it like it was one of the worlds most pressing issues like global warming or the presidential election.
We pushed the boundaries and when we hit walls we found paths around them. For example, one project was just too much for the development team and we knew it. Instead of making the team in question look bad because they didn’t have the resources to support our idea we brought them on board early. Before we had pitched the project. We told them what we wanted to do and hinted at the fact that we didn’t want to overload them and we knew how much they had on their plate for next season. Then sought their approval first to use an external vendor. A few weeks later when we pitched it to the CDO, the hook was set easily because the sinker was we’d already done the preliminary work of ironing it out with engineering teams. We got a green light and the project prototype was deployed the next season.
We got a few more green lights, and a few holding patterns. One project called Journeys won us a Telly Award. All together working with Carmen was a charm, not just because of the four pound statue sitting on my bookshelf. But because it made me feel like my eight year old self playing football in the fields behind my Oklahoma home was proud, glowing gold. My dad even told me that his barbershop was clamoring with guys wanting to know what I did for them. What was most important is that Carmen and I cemented a friendship and working relationship that will influence and shape my thinking for years to come.
My wife said to me the other day, “you probably look at accountability differently.” As someone who spent my salad days in the depths of running a small design business in a medium market city like Tulsa I’d experienced what a fear of loosing a client felt like. And then how actually loosing a client felt even worse. I’d messed up presentations, delayed deliverables, and showed up late on conference calls I was supposed to lead. I had fallen asleep few times wondering if I’d have an office door to unlock the next day and a chair to sit in. I once took down a orange juice factory in North Carolina by changing their hosting settings on an email server. I never asked, and it just so happened to be that the entire production line was based on an outlook email server configuration! I apologized profusely, did free work, and we kept the client somehow. I was stupid and amateur like most of us when we’re just starting out. I had help staying golden, though. Mentorship from those ahead of me like Toni, Roberto, and Carmen.
I got the opportunity to be amateur and I learned some of my most valuable lessons from it. And my wife is completely right, the one that resonates the most is accountability. It doesn’t matter if you can do something well if you can’t admit when you can’t do something. Or can’t admit having not ever done that thing before. Accountability is asking for help. Accountability is being asked for help and jumping to the opportunity. It’s trusting to help those and be helped when it’s necessary. You have to be willing to work and think without being inhibited by the fear of making mistakes. It’s not a question of being tough or grinding your teeth until you magically burst with talent. This misguided mindset is the valley of shadows. And the road around it, I believe to be paved with accountability. You learn this pretty quickly in a small business. But you can also learn this in a big business, even in a football business. But most of all you learn this from people you share work and critique with. People who become mentors and keep us golden.
Gold is being true to yourself — golden is true to those that have come before and will come after you. Golden is staying true to yourself while looking to grow. Golden is asking for help because you never know when the person you ask will take you under their wing and teach you through experience. Golden is admitting when you are wrong or unsure and owning the amateurism that comes with any profession. Being golden is all of us in the first light and the last light, whether we’ve just begun or we’re winding down. Those who mentored me even if they didn’t mean to be mentoring me. To Toni, Roberto, and Carmen, Stay Gold.
The Outsiders story ends with Johnny passing away. His last words to Ponyboy are “Stay Gold”.
What is gold can’t last according the Robert Frost poem. But, being true to yourself and helping those who will come after you can and will. That’s why I’m asking us all to stay gold. For me it’s the antidote to the human conditions of amateurism, accountability, and failure. The drive we have to build great things is filled with the best intentions. But the road we are on, we are all traveling together, and it’s our choice for it to have purpose. It’s our duty to give it meaning. Much much more than just a merit or a LinkedIn update, it should resonate further than a blink on our collective social media seismograph.
Find that colleague, co-worker, barista that gave you a glow. Give them a call or a text. Tell them how they kept you golden. And pass it along.