On the sofa with…Nicole Michaelis

I spoke to Nicole about her ceramics hobby, and how a creative interest helps ignite her spark as a leader (and parent).

Rachel McConnell
Lead with Tempo
Published in
14 min readFeb 7, 2024

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Nicole Michaelis, smiling in front of a peace sign
Nicole Michaelis leads content design at Wolt

Hi Nicole, firstly I’d love to know how you got into pottery…and why.

I’ve always considered myself creative. But when I was young, although I loved art class and writing, I was never particularly good at anything crafty. My mom used to say it’s because I was such an impatient child and most crafts and things you do with your hands require a lot of patience!

Anyway a couple of years ago I actually started painting — it felt like a relatively low threshold hobby to get into. I tried to get into acrylic painting, and to figure out my style. I spent quite a few hours on it, but over a year or so I realised I was never going to be good enough to the point where my output actually satisfied me enough to want to keep up this hobby.

I follow a couple of ceramics and pottery artists and was intrigued specifically by the process of throwing at the wheel — because you just have to sit there and it takes quite a lot of time and patience to centre the clay. Very zen. There are different types of clay and you can do so much with them. You can add pigments, and you can add stones that you find outside and you mash up into the clay…there’s so much you can do with the material and that has always fascinated me.

Before I became a content designer, I studied material engineering. That’s actually something I was always quite intrigued by — the science of materials and different densities and how they feel, and also the feeling of cool and warm materials and how that changes structures all the way down to the atoms. So materials and working with them has always been something that has quite fascinated me.

And then, you know, life’s busy — I have a baby and a quite busy job. I’ve really struggled since having my daughter to find time for myself, time to decompress, to think — and to be honest, and it sounds very sad to say this, but to find time away from my devices. Even during my runs I sometimes struggle not to check my phone or not to quickly refresh my emails, which is just such a terrible habit to have and I’m working on it, but it’s there, you know.

Many people can probably relate to that! How does the pottery help?

The thing is with pottery, you sit down, your hands get really grimy and you just can’t touch your phone! And as soon as you throw a ball of clay on the wheel, you don’t know how long it’s going to take until you have something that represents something you’re happy with. It could take 20 minutes, but when you’re still relatively new to it or you’re trying to teach yourself different things and techniques, it can take hours before you have something you’re happy with. Hours without access to your phone. Heaven?

As wild as it sounds, the first time I sat down by the pottery wheel, I was instantly in there. My husband and I (we did it together) booked this session — it was in the middle of nowhere in Sweden with this old woman in her 90’s that has a pottery studio at home in her little wooden house. We booked a full day where she basically taught us pottery and ceramics. The first time I sat down, I was instantly into it. At the end of the day, my hands were all bloody because I tried so hard to learn all of the techniques. I really enjoyed it. I had one of the best sleeps of my life because it was just such a relaxing and satisfying feeling!

Sometimes the messiest work leads to the best outcomes

So how’s it going now?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m still not great even though I’m doing it regularly now. So there’s still a lot of ugly stuff or stuff I’m not happy with, but that doesn’t matter because it’s the process that I enjoy.

When I run, I still think about things, like that vacation I might want to go on, or I think about a book I read or I listen to a podcast, but whenever I sit down in the pottery studio, I only think about what I’m going to make and how to best do that. And that is just something that, for me at least, has been very difficult to achieve with other things and why I’ve really embraced it and found it very satisfying…it’s helpful to me in my work, not just as a way to decompress and relax, but also it kind of stimulates you creatively in a way that is just very satisfying.

What do you think it is about ceramics that gets you into that state of flow?

I think it’s a combination of things. First of all, there’s just so many things you need to remember and be mindful of when it comes to throwing. When you run, you put one step in front of the other and that’s pretty much it, right? But when you throw a pottery, you need to think about how much pressure you apply, how quickly the wheel goes, how much water you’re using, which finger you’re holding where,… from which direction you’re pressing down the clay or lifting it up. If you’re doing it at three o ‘clock on the wheel or at nine o ‘clock, it has totally different outcomes. There’s so many moving elements.

Even after doing it for a couple of months now, I’ll suddenly forget one thing and that will result in a totally different piece, even though it’s such a minor thing, like an angle at which I’ve held my finger differently or I used the wrong side of the tool. The other day I accidentally made my wheel spin in reverse direction. It took me quite some time to figure out why things were looking kind of wonky! So there’s so many elements of it that you need to remember and plan, that I think in my case at least, it just keeps me really occupied in my mind and also in a way that I want to focus on it.

If you forget just one thing, the whole mug you wanted to throw or the vase you wanted to make may just end up being trashed. And you really don’t want that to happen because you’ve already invested so much time at that point. So it kind of forces you to focus.

Because you’re learning something new, is there a kind of novelty and interest factor as well?

Definitely — I think “Oh what if I do this?” and “What if I do that?”…it’s so absorbing. And I think another aspect is also that it’s a great equalizer. You know, when you’re running, it’s often about racing and speeds — even when I talk to my colleagues, they’re like, “Oh, I run like 70km a week or I run a four-minute kilometre.” It’s about advancement, it’s about being good or being better. But with pottery, people have such different styles. And of course, some people are much, much better and faster at it and more developed. But still the process of throwing a mug is the same for everyone, it’s somewhat equal. And I really, really like that if I go to a community pottery studio, I know nothing about the people there and we’re all just sitting there and throwing our stuff.

We’re just making things. And that also is just nice — I don’t tell people what I do for a living, you know, and they don’t know that about me. I just do my thing. Sometimes we chat, sometimes we just listen to music or sit in silence.

A table of ceramics with a small mirror, reflected in the mirror is Nicole Michaelis wearing a blue beanie hat
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Do you have a sense that in content design, a lot of our creativity gets a little lost because we have to strip back everything to get the crux of what we’re trying to do? Did you have a desire to get back into something creative?

I always want to go back to doing creative things…I’m such an anti-capitalist the older I get I’m just like “Why are we wasting all this time at work or thinking about work?!” It pisses me off, honestly.

I’m lucky in my current role as I get to do a lot of the more creative aspects of the content design job, but of course over the last 10 -12 years that I worked in content design, I would definitely argue it’s a job where being creative with the actual copy is not necessarily one of the skills that gets you respected as a content designer.

That’s definitely something that’s a downside with the job for me, because I like creative thinking and writing. That’s what got me into it. A lot of copywriters and creative writers want to get into content design because it pays better and they think it’s going to be easier to do and it’s a more respected career. But if I could make a living from copywriting, I probably would. It’s really nice to have a more creative job. I know the back and forth with clients can also be very exhausting, but definitely the creative aspect is something that attracted me to content.

I suppose there’s also an element of going back to something? You talked about about being creative and artistic at school. Are you also going back to something that you haven’t had time and capacity for along the way?

Yeah. And I think one of the things that also kept me from doing it is that it’s an expensive hobby. Even if you just want to try it out, a tryout session around here is at least $300. You might not produce anything in that session. So I think that can be frustrating.

And then if you go to drop-in studios, it’s usually also around $30 or $40 per session. You don’t get that much done and you have to come several times because there’s so many steps — first you throw and then you trim and decorate and then you glaze, and stuff has to dry between that for weeks. So it’s a very long-term hobby and you need to have several projects going at the same time because you have to anticipate drying time. And then the worst part of it, I think for most people, is that in the end when it goes into the kiln, it might just explode!

Oh, that’s so sad.

Yeah, and you’ve put in hours and hours, and in most cases also money and then you maybe don’t get anything material out of it. Just this weekend I did another pottery course to advance my skills and try a different teacher, and I looked around and I realized this must be a quite privileged hobby.

It’s not just the materials and the sessions you pay for, but also the time because you need to plan in at least three hours…getting the clay ready, throwing some clay, and cleaning up — it just takes a lot of time and not a lot of people have that available.

It’s also about energy — after a busy work week and maybe having a family, do you have energy to sit down for three hours, ideally several times a week to do something with your hands? And I think a lot about the fact we have a young baby and every hour I spend away from home to do pottery, my husband has to spend with the baby.

But the creative reset that you have when you do it — because you’re so focused and that resets your brain I assume — must mean that when you do go back to work or go back to parenting, actually you feel that you’re a better person for it?

Yeah, I definitely think so. When I get to work with clay for a couple of hours, for example on Saturday morning, I come home and I take my kid to the playground, or on a play date, and I just feel like I can give it more of me. And maybe that’s sad, because as a mother, I should always feel like I want to give parenting my all, but I think we need to talk more about the reality here, which is that there are limits to that in a world where both parents are working and we don’t live with many generations in one household.

But parenting totally depletes you, you need a way to replenish that energy. If you were just doing that 24/7 without any time to go and be Nicole, that’s just not going to make you a better parent or a better boss — you need that break and that refresh, for sure.

What would you say to someone who’s thought about doing something creative, whether it’s painting or ceramics or something like that, and thinks “but I’m not a creative person” or “I’m not artistic”?

Yeah. I mean, my husband and I did the first pottery course together and he’s definitely one of those. He’s like, “I’m not creative. I’m not artistic. I don’t necessarily enjoy doing these kinds of things”. But even he had a good time and ended up making some cool stuff and he said it was definitely relaxing and something that he would be interested in trying out if he didn’t already have other hobbies.

And the other thing is maybe what I said in the beginning — in school, when we had arts and crafts classes, I never felt particularly good at that either. I didn’t feel like I particularly enjoyed that. That’s definitely a thought that has stopped me from exploring other creative hobbies for the majority of my life.

I would argue that a lot of people have these thoughts about themselves from something like that — maybe from something your parents said or from something you experienced in school and not necessarily from trying out creative hobbies.

You can be pretty shit at painting and still be great at pottery or whatever else you set your mind to. So I definitely always think it’s worth it, even if it’s just therapeutic. You know, if you look at the pottery market and other artists, so much of the art that is popular today isn’t even necessarily something that’s aesthetic or super-symmetrical or super-beautiful.

You can make things that you like and maybe that even other people like without having what a lot of people would refer to as a creative talent.

That’s really interesting as well, because I think in our jobs in tech, there’s always this slightly competitive edge. It always feels like someone’s doing more or someone’s a better designer or this other company’s doing better things. There’s always something that makes us feel like we’re not quite good enough. I think it’s really important you said that the things people are coming out with — it doesn’t have to be perfect, it doesn’t have to be aesthetically pleasing. It can just be something you’ve enjoyed building or something you’ve enjoyed putting together with your hands.

Yeah, definitely. I mean, I’m one of the people that I think is probably most outspoken in content design about the fact that I don’t really believe there is a best practice. And I don’t necessarily think there should be. I think we should make sure everything is accessible and inclusive, but that is the baseline. When it comes to anything else and people are talking about the best practice is this or that, I think there is room to question that.

I feel the same about most things in life. I think the only way for us as humans to advance is for us to always be questioning systems and things that we’ve just accepted because we’ve been told to.

I feel the same about pottery, honestly. You can do things your way and that’s okay.

Is there anything that you’ve learned that you can take back into your work environment, or is there anything you’ve learned that you feel has made you a better leader?

I think this answer is going to feel a little bit far-fetched, but the thing that jumped to my mind right away is my personal bias.

Because when I came into pottery for the first time or even a couple of the first times, I thought I had a very clear picture of what I wanted to make, because I knew what I liked. And then as I started throwing and playing with different techniques and trying out different glazes and stuff, I realized “I actually don’t like this”.

I liked something completely different. Even this weekend when I did this course and we threw various things — a bunch of mugs and vases and whatnot — when I went into it, my intention was, “I’m going to throw at least one really nice mug in this style”. And then I did that, and I did a bunch of other stuff, and a lot of stuff that I hadn’t really expected or properly thought about. But there were one or two items there that I just thought were so much more pleasing, because I hadn’t walked in with that kind of preconception of this is what I want to make. I made something completely different.

In a way, it was much more creative working with those items, because it looked a little bit different from what I had in mind. It kind of just happened. I had to problem-solve as I was working on them.

That is a really great way to think about being a leader and specifically about being a leader in content design, because so much of what we do of course, is still trying to create more visibility, showing our impact, kind of managing up in a way. And a lot of that comes with unexpected challenges.

A lot of people — and I definitely did this as well when I became a leader — follow common strategies here: present at the company all hands, make sure you have one-on-ones with the higher-up stakeholders, things like that. But I think there are other ways to do this. And if we just get rid of this preconception and bias that we have, that this is what people want to see, and instead actually tried out some other things, showing some other things, listening, and maybe even taking that time to really follow up, that I think is where magic happens, and where even the leadership role can feel more creative.

I think what you were saying earlier as well about trusting the creative process a little bit more and being like, “Okay, I’m going to do this and see what comes out of it, and actually what comes out of it might be amazing”, is also about having trust in yourself and trust in your own abilities and instinct.

So, could you see a future where you just quit everything and just go full time into ceramics?

I don’t think I’m going to be into it enough that I make enough things to sell because that’s not really the part that I enjoy. I don’t enjoy making a lot, I enjoy making different things, but I could see myself teaching others and really enjoying that.

For me, I would probably want to run courses with a little bit of a different angle, maybe focused on just figuring out different ways of being creative, rather than the output of creating a mug or something. I think that could be fun.

I love when people have something on the side where it could be a thing — maybe not now, but in the future. I just think that’s such a nice way to look at your career: There’s some other potential directions.

I think we should just try new things and get out there and do things that we always thought about but never quite had the time or energy to do.

Nicole speaks at this year’s Lead with Tempo conference. Get your ticket at www.leadwithtempo.com.

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Rachel McConnell
Lead with Tempo

Content and design leader. Found of Tempo. Author of Leading Content Design and Why you Need a Content Team and How to Build One