I am motivated, professionally, by this idea that I can always do better — or, more accurately, that whatever level of accomplishment I can currently claim isn’t enough. In a sense, I don’t allow myself to enjoy whatever success I’ve attained; I’m forever re-assessing my status or beating myself up for not yet having reached some higher, better plateau that seems to lie perpetually just beyond my grasp. I don’t let up on myself.

This isn’t bragging, nor is it career advice. It’s a strategy that got me where I am today, but it’s exacted its own kind of price. As much as I try, and as intent as I am on reshaping my behavior, I have a difficult time appreciating what’s good about my life. And this careerist sensibility bleeds over into my personal arena, too. It’s caused me to have a hard time creating consistently meaningful relationships with the people I care about. Or maybe this perpetual dissatisfaction was hardwired into me deeper down, turning me into an efficient desk jockey on the one hand, while on the other hand leading me to continually seek other, ‘better’ relationships — meanwhile becoming disaffected and disconnected from those I care about.

Either way, it’s not a sustainable strategy for living. I realized lately that I haven’t done a good job appreciating what I have or, especially, who I have in my life. I’m not completely without gratitude, but I have spent a lot of time in the company of people supposedly near to me while daydreaming about being elsewhere — thinking about design, or playing on my computer, or just not being present. On the whole, I think that I would have had a much nicer time these past three and a half decades if I’d just been mentally there, if I’d really appreciated the people around me, let them know that I was really with them, and happily so. I would have had a lot more fun, and I think those in my life would have, too.

I’m going to start doing a better job with that. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

  1. These might as well by my words, although written more eloquently. It is a constant struggle to balance chasing goals and enjoying the fruits of one’s labor. I don’t think I’ll ever dial it in exactly. Instead I kind of alternate between work and play.

  2. It’s the price you have to pay for success. Personally I love what I do, I love graphic design but as much as I love it, I would never let it take over my personal life. To me my family and friends are the most important aspects of life for me. Nothing will ever compare. Some people out there are 100% committed to their work and they succeed but I can’t be that way. My life wouldn’t be fulfilling.

  3. In order to appreciate what you accomplish in the workplace, in relationships, and in life, you need to have experienced some degree of failure in each.

    Before you fail in the workplace, you’re likely to just think that every new thing you do is going to be even more successful than the last. Same thing with relationships, friendships, and everything else. It’s a sense of invincibility without an accompanying sense of appreciation for how lucky you are to be where you’re at.

    Some people go their entire lives without experiencing much hardship at all, whether it be financially, romantically, socially, or professionally. These people may end up being just fine, but I hold that being successful in any one of those areas is ten times as sweet if some degree of failure is experienced along the way.

  4. Sustainable is an odd word to use in this context. If it doesn’t kill you, it’s sustainable. Maybe it’ll cost you terribly in the end, or maybe you’ll learn a new perspective to understand and value it. I like Beth Orton’s line – “what’s the use of regret? Just lessons we haven’t learned yet.”

  5. I think you’re doing the right thing, Khoi–struggling to find that balance. I don’t think it’ll ever be easy to reach greater heights without becoming consumed by it, but being self-aware of that tendency is important.

    Like you, I long for living in the present–enjoying all the nature around me, engaging myself fully with those I’m lucky to be close with–and I can’t say I’ve succeeded. But thinking about it, writing the occasional self-deprecating blog post, and essentially catching oneself in the process is possibly the first step.

    Good luck to you in finding that balance, Khoi.

  6. By contrast I have had far greater success in my personal relationships than I have professionally.

    I care full-time for a gorgeous young son whilst my terrific girlfriend of ten years keeps a roof above our heads, live in a share house where people are always ‘dropping in’, and enjoy strong friendships with my two previous ‘serious’ girlfriends.

    There were certainly times before our son was born when I was ‘absent’ – I suspect that is the nature of a creative life. The moments of inspiration which can lead to your greatest successes have a habit of announcing themselves when you least expect it.

    My girlfriend recognised this – to an extent, at least! – and was able to deal with such occasions in our lives sensibly. She’d give me a short period of grace, and then gently but firmly let me know when my time was up.

    Those moments have been few and far between these last few years. But surely few can thrive indefinitely without enjoying different types of nourishment. And so, after very happily relegating design to near the bottom of my list of priorities these past few years, the urge to stretch myself creatively has recently returned with a vengeance.

    I just need to design a few more hours into the day…

  7. I know exactly how you feel. The same revelation has hit me hard in recent months. It’s good to see someone else going coming to the same conclusion. Give thanks, be present, and better enjoy what you do.

  8. Lovely words – feeling the same after chasing a design career half way round the world to Asia. Your words could not come at a better time!

    Is there a social networking niche here? – warm human connections for career junkies!

  9. Khoi,
    thanks for sharing – as a Scot we have this ‘in spades’ I think! We find it hard to give, and sometimes harder to receive appreciation!
    I’ve been learning in my work (and life!) just how important these two words/phrases you have brought to our attention are: ‘being present’ and ‘appreciation’.
    Simple, but not easy.

  10. Khoi, that was expressed in way that felt genuine, heartfelt and modest – something few other web writers have achieved when exposing their innermost feelings.

    Food for thought.


  11. Being able to reach an awareness that you have an issue is important, but then being able to identify what it is or what causes it is excellent.

    One thing that I have done for quite a while has been meditation. It is not for everyone but it has improved my own awareness of where I am.

    Life is short, but life is also now. Enjoy Khoi.


  12. I understand what you mean completely. This is a topic my wife and I discuss very often. It’s a personality trait though, I’m not sure if it can be helped. Being aware of the problem doesn’t seem to help me. I make a conscious effort to live in the moment, and appreciate everything about that moment, but unfortunately what I get out of it is not genuine. Some people can do it. Mine is merely a forced “I’m here, now, and I like this” kind of a mental state.

    Somehow I’m getting better at it though; the age helps too. I think the gap between the “present” in my mind and the “real moment” is getting smaller the older I get. My “limits” used to challenge and bother me when I was younger, but lately they became my comfort zone, and I think I’m finally beginning to enjoy what I am capable of.


  13. In my mind, the balance between personal and professional success, as you have defined them, is the primary struggle for modern professionals; possibly even more so for the Creative Class.

  14. I’m raising a glass in agreement from Buenos Aires, on my first two-week vacation ever – a honeymoon we delayed for more than a year in order to focus on the next work phase, and the next one after that.

  15. For me, the realization a couple of years ago that I was living to work rather than working to live really struck home and made me reevaluate my entire relationship with work, design, the web, and the people around me.

    In some ways my decision to concentrate on the tangible people and things in my life has been mildly frustrating. I know I will never be at the forefront of the work I find interesting as I just can’t give it the time and energy that I’ve diverted into my non-working life, but it’s so, so completely worth it.

    I would consider myself a “fallen” buddhist, but the concepts of being mindful and present in the moment still resonate very strongly. It’s clichжd as hell, but life’s too short to not try to squeeze every moment for all it’s worth.

  16. Thanks for chiming in everyone. It’s really gratifying to have people respond to me on this topic, which is only tangentially related to design, has nothing to do with grids, Macs or the Web.

    Wilson: you shouldn’t be reading my blog on your honeymoon.

    Mike D: You make a really salient point on failure. As humans we all too often have to lose something in order to really appreciate it. It’s miserable, but if it’s part of what makes life so interesting, I suppose.

  17. Having recently told my boss of 3.5 years that I want to start looking for another job, I can relate to this on some level.

    My current position is great. Good creative freedom, variety of projects, direct client contact, good working relationship with my boss, etc. There is nothing wrong with my current job. However, I’ve decided that if I want to continue to grow and elevate myself as a designer – I need to learn from, and be around, a variety of others.

    I don’t want to stop learning – and I think this is something that I can read into your thoughts here, and something that many creatives deal with. The drive to continually grow, engage, and ‘become better’ is what makes a lot of us who we are.

    With all that said, during this quest for a new job I have completely avoided looking at really good studios and agencies because of their work mentality. Having a life (and a wife) outside of design is very important to me, so sacrificing a potentially rewarding position at a really great place is something I’m willing to do.

    Does that go against the desire to grow and learn – I’m not sure. But it just feels right.

    ps – thanks for sharing – this is one of my favorite posts on Subtraction so far.

  18. I would say eventually this will take its toll on you, and you will become burnt out. So I would say it would be a good idea to work on a priority shift sooner rather than later.

    I’ve always had the mentality that the order of priority should be:


    at least to some degree or another this is the code to which I live by. Not to say I haven’t made sacrifices in all of the above for another. Like say, I have sacrificed time with family for work, and so forth. But for the most part I would say this is the code I live by.

    At least you are honest.

  19. Deep post. But one I can relate to… What you’re saying has a lot to do with the culture we live in, particularly more recently. There are always things niggling in our minds… Distractions! Hell, as I’m writing this I’m eating my lunch, checking emails, and I have 10 or so tabs open in Firefox.

    Perhaps you need a holiday 😉 No computers!

    But dude seriously, you’ve achieved heaps. Don’t take it for granted. Soak it up, enjoy it. There’s plenty of time to soak up the finer points in life too.

  20. Khoi, I saw you speak at the AIGA Next Conference in October and have been thinking about how accomplished you are at this point in your life. I’m an avid reader of the NYTimes online, and I must admit some jealousy on my part. I thought that someone that works at arguably one of the best daily papers in the world would feel an intrinsic sense of accomplishment. The first night of the conference, I had an opportunity to see my father. I had to blow off some of the AIGA events, which I generally dislike, but I hadn’t been able to just hang out with my parents for a night and enjoy their company. Turned out, that night I had the last conversation with my Dad before he succumbed to emphysema at the age of 64.

    Once back to my home in the south, I ended up flying back to my parents and designed a card in memory of my father for his funeral. Design was at the bottom of my list, and to some degree still is. I teach, so I have to be on my game in order to help my students graduate and work in the field, and I’m back to myself in the studio, but I’m starting to question that drive in myself to get the next job in order to succeed. I wonder if that sense is a strictly western idea of work and play, or more derived from the commercial aspects of our life’s as designers. Regardless, thanks for your words, it’s comforting to see someone I respect and admire struggling with these ideas, and others that feel similarly.

  21. Khoi,

    I was surfing the net trying to find how to set up my first website when I accidentially linked into your blog (a new word in my dictionary). My current life’s challenge is simple.
    I only need to raise $halfamillion by May(*).

    It took me 53 years to get this far – hopefully half a lifetime. I think I’ve found the secret of how to get the right balance while living an extra-ordinary life.
    I found it through Tony Robbins “Get the Edge”. It took me X divorces before finally realizing…..

    Happy Thanksgiving, everyone


    (*) if curious, try link .

  22. I’m currently listening to “The Art of Happiness at Work.” While I’m very pleased with my current job/work…I’m always intrigued by Buddhist philosophy.

    One main idea in this book that I think is relevant to your situation is the idea of being content v being complacent. I don’t think I could do the passage justice by reiterating it here. But this passage and others seem to touch on approaches to attaining the balance you seem to be looking for.

  23. Today’s my birthday and on my birthday I have the habit of getting reflective and thinking about where I’m at and where I’m going. It’s difficult to just enjoy the present but I’m trying. Your post was very timely and I appreciate it–thank you.

    I know I plan on “unplugging” for a bit this weekend and I hope you’re able to do the same.

  24. I don’t have much to add this time, but I just wanted to say that I found this entry to be thoughtful, personal, and quite moving. Thanks, Khoi — really nice.

    And, I’d say the same thing about Mike D.’s comment regarding failure. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, when I look back now at some of my failures in relationships (I’m divorced), and work (I’ve been fired), I can definitely chalk it up to some degree of invincibility and feeling as though the next thing is always going to be better than the last — which isn’t always true.

    Thanks, guys.

  25. Thanks, Khoi. Beautifully written and so very true.

    It’s interesting following the comments and realising how many of us face this issue. It’s the reason why I’ve dropped off the pursuit of Australia’s (small) conference circuit, have been seldom blogging and have slowed down those random ‘let’s have a coffee and catch up’ meetings we all seem to want to have with web/design types we haven’t met.

    Any you know what? My work is better. My experience design has reached a higher level. Just goes to show… we can learn more about web-focused interaction and experience through appreciating, feeling and living our own life experiences than we can from constantly living our lives in the pursuit of ‘more’.

  26. While your awareness of this self-truth is striking, what is touching about this post is your willingness to share it with so many.

  27. Khoi,

    You have achieved much, and are at the top of your profession. We all admire you.

    Read about others who have done the same, and you will find they were ‘married to their jobs’ in some sense too, because that’s what it took to be the best at what they did.

    On the other hand, that’s not to say it’s not enjoyable to work at what you love, and to be rewarded for that! Believe me, I know well…

    Nowadays, people are all too reluctant to say, ‘I love my work, and I appreciate the great privilege of being able to do this!’

    Why should work be a drudgery anyway, something to be avoided and scorned? After all, we spend more than half our waking hours working, usually with a small group of people, so why not have fun doing it?

    Besides, in the age of cyberspace and the internet, you can have so many friends and relationships online, and maybe soon virtual lovers, too!

    Of course, that’s easy for me to say, looking back from the other side, after having a successful career, a fine family, and the love of wonderful people to remember.

    Keep on going!

  28. hey sweetie–
    i can totally relate. it is hard to have it all. professional success is often at odds with “personal” success–sometimes, in order to achieve a remarkable career you sacrifice quite a lot to get it. Then, naturally, it is never enough, as you have so eloquently stated.

    personally, i have looked at this issue from lots of different angles, and i think that while the effort put into a high octane career creates its own unique interpersonal challenges, i sometimes wonder if those interpersonal challenges were why i choose the career first. in other words, the interpersonal awkwardness might have drove me to put career first, not the other way around.

    who knows the truth, khoi? or how to find it?
    likely my shrink does, but that’s another post. all i can really offer is this: you are awesome and time works wonders.


  29. I have wrestled with this issue for the better part of my life as well. For me, I’ll often find myself buried in work and other projects until my wife finally confronts me about the time I’m not spending with my family. I have to remind myself occasionally of the reason(s) I work. Obviously my wife is good about that too 😉

    Yes, we all need to pursue career achievement and self-improvement, but we need to remember that these are means to a different end.

  30. Khoi, I can relate to what you’re saying, especially since becoming a mom 4 years ago and either feeling guilty for working, or not working…whichever one I was doing at the time!

    A friend recently gave me a copy of The Underachiever’s Manifesto by Ray Bennett. From the book description, “With sharp humor and genuine wisdom, this welcome little book extols the fabulous benefits of underachievement in our overextended society. … Devilishly enlisting examples from philosophy, economics, science, and good common sense, The Underachiever’s Manifesto is a lighthearted, life-changing rallying call for those who dare to do less and enjoy more.”

    I’ve gotta say, it really did make me stop and think…and best of all feel ok about NOT working every single hour available to me while my son is in school; that it’s ok to run errands during “work hours,” or keep him home for a day and bake chocolate chip scones. And I’m looking forward to having him skip school so we can do some afternoon skiing this winter. A growing child is an in-your-face reminder that time passes, you’ve got one life to live, and that what you most remember in the end are the times you’ve shared with people you care about.


  31. I’m rarely a “reply-er” but I’ve read this post several times since Thanksgiving and really felt compelled to say how much I liked it… The things that you wrote about here are things that I’ve thought about many times and that many of us do. Motivated people — whether they’re motivated by business, school, hobbies, etc. — often get kind of a “tunnel vision” where that one thing consumes all of our attention and efforts. I know that I spend a good portion of my life in the tunnel and I really appreciate your perspective on this.

    Great post. Many of yours are, I’ve been reading for a couple of months and very impressed with your insights on design. Congrats on taking the first step out of the tunnel. Hopefully you’ll see me on the other side as well 🙂

  32. I like what you say, I discovered all this and more by doing the Landmark Education Forum, it is brilliant, a paradigm shift for how you live, please don’t be put off by all the rumours, do it yourself and see, I really think there is something in this work that can make a difference to all mankind…

  33. How serendipitous that I find this post.

    I have been working on the issues you speak of for my entire career. Being a husband for 8 years and a father for 7 it has brought all these issues to bear stronger as each year passes.

    This year, 2007, has been a ‘tipping point’ year in terms of clarity and realization for me. Now that awareness is clear, continuously putting things into practice is the next challenge. Be present, be real, be inspired, be grateful, and be flexible.

  34. Thank you for this post and for taking a moment to pause, in between deadlines and life’s ongoing frenzy, to be present and remind me to do the same!

  35. Khoi, this is exactly what I recently realized about myself and the way that I had been living my life. I turned to Buddhism, as silly as it may sound, and it really helped. Practicing Buddhism has taught me to be more mindful, to live in the present, to let go of attachments and as a result I have felt a huge weight lift allowing happiness to roll right on in. The best thing for you just happened, you came to this realization, acknowledged it and decided to make a conscious effort to change it. Good for you!

  36. I love what you say about being present. It’s quite a challenge today, more so that it was even five or 10 years ago. We have phones in our pockets that ring with calls and text messages and laptops to work on while the TV is on and all the while people we love are likely saying something that we’re most likely missing. The chaos needs to be managed. No doubt.

    As for the perpetual striving to be better, I think it’s about the path not the destination. We hold the destination in mind, but it’s not real. Whereas, the day-to-day path is real. As long as the daily walk on our various paths is time well spent, we’re good.

Thank you! Your remarks have been sent to Khoi.