The Dolphin Model

A model for pacing your journey as a creative.

As creatives, we’ve dedicated our lives to solving problems and exploring new possibilities in our respective fields whether it be business, academic research, or art. It’s a thrilling albeit sometimes exhausting pursuit, but we wouldn’t have it any other way. The freedom of this vocational choice, however, comes along with a fair dose of risk that if handled poorly can lead to burnout and in the worst case, abandoning our work.

I find it helpful to think of myself as a dolphin, not only because they’re incredibly intelligent, friendly, cute, and powerful but because a dolphin’s jumping pattern sheds insight on how to pace our careers as creatives. Marine biologists currently believe there are multiple reasons why dolphins jump, including for communication, fighting, and entertainment, but I’ve chosen to interpret their awe-inspiring acrobatics in a more poetic fashion.

Leap of Faith by Christian Riese Lassen

When dolphins jump out of the water, they leave the comfort of the ocean for a moment of suspended animation above the waves during which they’re entirely in their element despite being outside of their natural habitat. These jumps are akin to the moments of creative, financial, and professional risk we take that are career-defining but unsustainable. We’re somehow at our best and most vulnerable, carving into the unknown in pursuit of new knowledge, artistic possibilities, and business opportunities. For entrepreneurs, this could mean working non-stop for six months without pay to hack out a minimum viable product to validate their idea. Often with nothing guiding them but warm feedback from a few friends and potential costumers, and a faint intuition that they’re meant to channel their experience and abilities in this way at this moment in time. Every vault provides a new vantage point of the islands of possibility that lay ahead and a chance to adjust our course.

Figure 1. An illustration of the dolphin model

When dolphins dive back into the big blue, they build momentum, readjust their trajectory, and prepare for the next jump. Some also slow down to rest their muscles and head in for a good night’s sleep. These dives draw parallels to the moments in between risky and innovative projects where we need to build up our reserves and potentially adjust our strategy. Odds are we’ve neglected at least one fundamental aspect in fostering our happiness, whether it’s time with our loved ones or the health of our bodies and bank accounts. This is a time to refuel and reflect and should be taken just as seriously as the time we spend soaring above the water. Ideally, our projects take off and push us into a new stratosphere of professional success where our risks are of a categorically different and hopefully less visceral nature. But statistically speaking, we’re likely to require several attempts before we make that breakthrough and need to prepare for a few more deep dives before the definitive jump that lands us on the shores of prosperity and accomplishment. See figure 1 for an illustration of the dolphin model.

Leap of Faith II by Christian Riese Lassen

The key takeaway from the dolphin model is that there’s no shame in refueling, and letting the splash of our latest tactical push settle so we can reflect clearly on the broader strategic vision we have for our careers and personal lives. In fact, given the sinusoidal nature of the dolphin model, this time for reflection and refueling is a necessary part of finding success. There may be a few people who hit a home-run on their first try, but progress as a creative is largely a function of persistence and time.

Fledgling startups in Silicon Valley are rife with an unhealthy and unsustainable culture of burning the midnight oil till the lamp is charred and needs to be thrown out. And while there’s a time for sprints, they should be accomplished within the context of an overarching strategic goal. There’s no honor in a pernicious culture of unnecessary all-nighters and RedBull adulation that slowly eats away at your productivity and happiness till you’re a walking husk of your former vibrant self. Worse yet are cultures that pit colleagues against each other to drive an arbitrary bottom line till no one is left standing.

One last related point is that dolphins are highly social creatures and are most often found soaring above the waves in groups. Social pressure is an incredibly motivating force and should be used to our advantage by engaging with a guild of like-minded creatives with whom we can collectively share our learnings, failures, and successes. As they say, two heads are better than one.

So did your last venture go bust? Be a dolphin and take that day job with pride. Save up, travel, reflect, and rejuvenate before entering the ring for another round. You’ll be ready to pick up where you left off with a renewed vigor and wealth of wisdom. And if it’s hard to keep jumping, then maybe it’s time to find a vocation that’s worth breaking the water for.

If you enjoyed this then check out my website for more reflections and music. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.