year of the champion
In high school, I was a scrawny little dude with a big mouth, and it got me in trouble all the time. I talked a lot of smack to class mates, friends, and some teachers too, and got my ass kicked a few times because of it. Even though I usually was able to talk my way out of most confrontations, I became more and more concerned that I wouldn’t be able to defend myself the next time I stepped over the line. So one day I told my parents I wanted to learn how to play ice hockey.
It must have seemed like a joke, me being the scrawniest, skinniest kid ever, but I did all I could to press on in earnest. In contrast to my paper-thin frame, my dad was over six feet tall, grew up in northern Michigan, working in factories and playing hockey on frozen lakes, probably fighting wolverines bare-handed. At least that’s how I imagined him growing up.
My dad (actual Wolverine) was wary of my ambitions but loved me dearly and couldn’t say no to a challenge, so, maybe somewhat reluctantly, he promised to help get me on the ice. Being the protective and wise father that he was, he taught me how to take a punch before he taught me how to shoot a puck. My dad showed me the most effective ways to defend myself against a variety of attacks, and even fight dirty when cornered. He taught me how to repurpose my big mouth to rally my teammates with war cries and energetic whoops and hollers, and when to keep my mouth shut around referees and unruly parents in the bleachers.
He taught me to take care of my team mates before myself, watch the players and not just the puck, when to recognize the time to fight and when to hold back, to anticipate obstacles and seek opportunities to deal out damage with a well-timed shoulder or hip check instead of just swinging my hockey stick around like a lunatic. To a kid like me, these were war tactics — a very different strategy than the other kids learning how to shoot better and skate faster.
I began to play competitively in middle school, and it was clear that I was not a “good” player, but I could do enough damage being a physical player, neutralizing opponents so other “good players” could roam free and score points. Early on, I had a chip on my shoulder and needed to prove myself, that I could hang with the shooters and goal scorers and reap some of the glory if I tried hard enough. Of course, no matter how many chicken wings and pizzas I tucked away, I was still pretty scrawny throughout high school. But because I had learned early on how to use my hips and shoulders as weapons, I was laying waste to my enemies like something out of an epic Lord of the Rings battle. I was becoming a warrior on the ice.
My dad knew I would eventually gain shooting and skating skills over time, but to keep me engaged and motivated in the beginning, he taught me how to be an enforcer first instead of a finesse player. This way I could actively contribute and support the team, play a unique role and own it, and get satisfaction from a totally different aspect of the game so that I didn’t get down on myself for not racking up goals like the other kids who were better players. The effects of this training have carried on in literally every aspect of my career.
My path to becoming a designer was extremely long and twisted, punctuated with epic fails and some modest successes to balance it all out. I didn’t go to school for design, I studied business, management and entrepreneurship instead, then went into the military as a project manager on massive defense research programs. This series of choices used to be a sore spot for me, and I often succumbed to massive imposter syndrome going into agencies and creative teams. I would always try and work harder than everyone else because I saw myself at a disadvantage, comparing myself directly to peers with design school backgrounds and traditional training. I needed to prove myself capable of hanging with the top dogs; again a chip was back on my shoulder, but this time, for design.
Just like in hockey, I wasn’t a “good” designer, but I could do enough damage by listening closely to what clients and stakeholders wanted, bouncing back after taking the toughest hits on feedback, and constantly iterating and refining, doing whatever it took to get to the right solution. I was a workhorse. More of a machine than a genuinely thoughtful designer, but I did what I had to do to survive. I had to be a warrior to keep my seat at the table.
For the most part, this strategy worked. Throughout many years as a junior designer and then growing into senior, I could get away with just being the warrior in the trenches; a fierce combatant destroying everything in sight. But it wasn’t until a year ago that I was elevated to be in charge of design teams, and quickly realized it was less about my individual toughness, as it was harnessing the energy and resilience of my own warriors.
Over a year later, I’ve learned some incredibly valuable lessons about what it takes to transition from the warrior to the chieftain role, now responsible for people and fighting battles on a whole new level. Taking a few steps back from the work was difficult, and I became frustrated that I wasn’t contributing more directly. I realized that I would need to get satisfaction from a totally different aspect of the game. I circled back and recalled my experience on the ice, stealing a few pages from my old hockey playbook: using my big mouth to rally designers with war cries and energetic whoops and hollers, taking care of my people before myself, watching the other players and not just the puck, recognizing the time to fight and when to hold back and wait, and to seek opportunities to deal out the most damage with a well-crafted story instead of shot-gunning ideas around like a lunatic. Just like I was taught.
I learned that being a good chieftain takes so much more than just showing up and getting your hands dirty with the warriors. You have to be a good partner as well. You have to be present and involved, not just phoning it in from the backseat. You have to look out for your team, not just react to whatever is coming at you in the moment. As I was trained, it’s about watching the players, not just the puck. Anticipating obstacles. Knowing when to fight and when to recover. These were difficult lessons over the last year — they did not come easily, and I have to thank my peers and counterparts for putting up with all my “learning opportunities” with grace and endless patience.
I had a conversation recently about what makes good relationships and partners, romantic or professional — as they are very similar. My friend had a really great way of putting it, that partnership isn’t about just “being there” for someone. Anyone can just show up… it’s something more than that.
The truest expression of partnership is actually being the champion for another person’s cause. It’s not sideline support and gentle encouragement, but actively fighting for them and their goals. Putting on the gloves, sharpening the steel, and going to war beside them.
When we are engaged in their struggle, focused on clearing obstacles together, stumbling on loose footholds or destroying our shared enemies, insecurity and fears — it becomes a significant shift in your relationship. With a common purpose… we are transformed, resilient to adversity. It makes us invincible.
My dad understood that relationship long before I did. The hard work and energy required to not just show up but to dig in and clear obstacles so others can succeed, to rally people to a cause with inspiration and purpose, to listen and pick your battles, and how to harness all of these aspects of a warrior spirit and turn them into something more. I didn’t realize it at the time, but he was not just training this scrawny, loud mouth teenager to become a warrior on the ice, he was actually giving me the tools I needed to become a truly successful partner one day beyond the context of the game, and a champion of the people for which I am responsible.
Last year was full of huge challenges, a mix of struggle and success, learning opportunities and growing pains for me. I have an amazing team and supportive leaders and peers. With their help, I can only hope that I charge into the rest this year with even more energy and momentum, firing on all cylinders, leading talented designers to tackle bigger, more complex problems, and maybe even come a little bit closer to becoming the partner, team mate, peer, captain, husband and friend that my dad was training me to be all along.
This is the year of the champion.