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9 Inspiring Lessons From Justin Ahrens

It’s finally here! Today, the virtual HOW Design Creative Freelance summit kicks off, offering a medley of inspiring sessions chock-full of practical takeaways for freelancers, solopreneurs, small agency owners and designers of all stripes.

As we’ve been gearing up for the slate of top-shelf programming, we’ve been thinking about the vital notion of balance in our careers and lives, which the speakers will no doubt touch upon over the next two days—and which Justin Ahrens powerfully addressed during his HOW Design Live 2020 talk, “How to Build a Career of Balance, Collaboration and Good.”

Here are some essential wisdoms on balance and beyond from that very session. Don’t miss HOW Design Live 2021, Oct. 19–21 in Nashville, where Ahrens will be there live to drop even more!

2020 was supposed to be a banner year for Ahrens—he was celebrating 20 years of his creative agency, Rule29, and was prepped to deliver an in-person talk at HOW Design Live about the many lessons he had accrued over the years. And then, well, 2020 happened.

But if anything, when he took to the virtual stage, the past year only seemed to have strengthened his resolve.

“No matter what life is throwing at us in our career, in our homes, we have the opportunity to be intentional,” he said. “And intentionality is incredibly important when it comes to experiencing the joy that we want to have in our career, and decisions that we need to make every day.”

And that’s just the first of many such insights Ahrens shared with attendees in a powerfully packed session. From among our other favorite takeaways and life action items:

  • Do what Ahrens does, and ask yourself, every day: How can I have gratitude? Ahrens ponders what he is grateful for, what is working, and so on. “If you don’t do that, something really incredible can take root—and that’s fear. We know as creatives, when we’re fearful, it’s like writer’s block.”
  • But don’t stop the questions there. “Constantly ask yourself: What really matters to you?” It’s especially important, because when life throws you curve balls, “The beautiful thing about that is that we have the opportunity to change.” No matter what’s happening, we have a decision to make about how we’re going to approach the day and the challenges ahead.
  • Realize that balance is a state of mind. Find and figure out what motivates you, what matters to you. Be honest with yourself, and be disciplined in your pursuit of those things. “Our brain is quick to make decisions based on the things around it. So to have the intentional discipline to sit back and really try to understand what you’re looking at is so, so valuable in making decisions.”
  • Remember the tale of the eagle and the chickens. In a nutshell (eggshell?): A farmer came across an egg one day, and put it in his chicken coop. When it hatched, it was an eagle. But the eagle grew up as a chicken, and one day saw an eagle flying above and asked a chicken in the coop what it was. The other chicken advised that it was an eagle, and it majestically dominated the skies—but chickens live on the ground. Ahrens perpetually challenges himself: Is he living as a chicken or an eagle?
  • Remember “Safari as a Way of Life,” the mission statement of the late photographer and artist Dan Eldon: “To explore the unknown and the familiar, distant and near, and to record in detail with the eyes of a child, any beauty. … Select your team with care, but when in doubt, take on some new crew and give them a chance. But avoid at all costs fluctuations of sincerity with your best people.”
  • Remember this African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
  • Take a step: Join or build a community. Serve the community. And then lean on the community when you inevitably have to at some point.

And Ahrens’ last bit of advice was perhaps his most powerful:

“In closing, I just want to say, don’t stop—no matter what’s happening right now. … Be honest. Be vulnerable with the things that really matter to you. … Be brave. … And just keep doing it. Be intentional. Keep looking at yourself and the things around you and figure out: What are the things that are really giving you an opportunity to be your most authentic self?”

It’s a key question—and one that we and many attendees have been strategically pondering ever since.

For more of those big questions from Ahrens and so many other brilliant speakers, register now to attend HOW Design Live 2021!