Discarding Old Habits

Self-Directed Learning and Its Unexpected Challenges

Day 37 of working at Rule29. The days are growing shorter, the weather more bitter and I’m finally seeing my project come together in a valuable way. But structuring my own brand alignment research has been tougher than I expected. From defining objectives and creating interview questions to qualitative data management and analysis, it has been a true test of my agility and capacity to learn things quickly.

I’ve constructed the bulk of the project with a lot of guidance from Justin, Kelly, and the other account leads. Countless iterations of data management and client personas aside, I’ve been racking my brain over how to present my findings as a final deliverable to the team.

With this being my first time doing any semblance of a brand audit and my first term as an Experience Institute fellow, I’ve been feeling a bit of anxiety — anxiety about not having something to show for the end of my experience and anxiety that I won’t be able to hand over something useful to Rule29.

With the amount of the work on everyone’s plates, it gives me pause to reach out for help, which is a damn shame because the Rule29 team has a lot of knowledge that they’re happy to offer. This tendency to avoid asking for guidance stems from my internal fear of looking like I don’t know what I’m doing. A silly and unavoidable fear considering that’s the whole point of my year. I’m never going to know everything — ever in life, but especially this year — and I promised myself that I’d do my best to stay clear from my comfort zone and live in the nebulous learning zone.

My comfort zone is pretty big, but I have a lot to learn too

My comfort zone is pretty big, but I have a lot to learn too

“Exploration” and “introspection” have been my mainstay guiding words for my Leap Year, but working at Rule29 made me realize that “testing” and “checking” my old habits and doubts will also need to be incorporated as I navigate my way through a year full of unknowns and many questions.

While adjusting to the work environment and culture at Rule29 has been smooth, I’ve been finding myself grappling with managing a self-directed project and hesitating to ask for advice. With this, I’m learning a lot about iterations, efficiency, impromptu check-ins, and gathering and sharing input to the team. Oh, and brand alignment.

Iterations on iterations

Iterations on iterations

The brand alignment project has evolved quite a bit since the outset. Its main purpose has always been to gather as much information about Rule29’s brand from both Rule29ers and their clients and harmonizing the constants of the agency as a cohesive brand. From employee and client interviews to defining Rule29’s motivations, core values, personality, and pain points, my understanding of the project has gone from murky to definite. I’m hopeful to share my final findings, any key insights, and confirmation of the workplace they’ve all cultivated until now.

My greatest moments of clarity, unsurprisingly, have been when I’ve simply sat down with Justin, Kelly and/or the team to hear their feedback, expertise, and criticisms. With that clarity, I’ve seen the project take on more meaning and life.

So note to self: be direct and just ask for help. Admit that you’re confused or lost. And know that it’s okay because there are people who have your back.

Unraveling Rule29

An Unofficial (and Working) Guide to Navigating Rule29

When you start working at a new place, you might feel lost or anxious during your first few days. And if you’re like me, you think about every possible thing that could happen the night before your first day and lose sleep over it. What if I’m dressed inappropriately? Are they going to be super rigid? Septum piercing in or out? Is parking going to be a pain? What if there’s unexpected construction on the way? Better leave way too early — you’re not going to sleep much anyways.

Without fail, these kinds of questions and thoughts race through my head. And that nervousness feels silly now that I’ve settled into my position at Rule29 because it’s pretty different from most places I’ve worked before (read: it’s an incredibly welcoming and friendly environment). I began working at Rule29 in October for my first apprenticeship as an Experience Institute fellow, where I’m using experiential learning to create a model for design research, strategy, and social innovation.

As a Brand Research Fellow at Rule29, my main project is to help mold a more cohesive and true Rule29 brand. Even though branding is one of many capabilities at the agency, having an outsider’s perspective was necessary to go through the process in an appropriate way. Learning from professionals who do award-winning branding and design work while utilizing my research and strategy skills has been the kind of exchange I was hoping to experience during my Leap Year. At the end of my three-month experience, I hope to leave the agency with an even greater sense of confidence in their brand alignment within and outside the company, whether that means overhauling the language in their static content or just suggesting small tweaks to their tone of voice.

The wall of polaroids along the staircase. Taken for every employee and intern, some visitors, and couple fellows.

Besides interviewing both Rule29 employees and clients to understand the values and personalities of the company, I’m also actively observing the environment and interactions in the workplace, a.k.a. the old Geneva house-turned-studio that’s more of a home than a typical office.

I’m still figuring out the culture and nuances of Rule29, but already I feel like I’ve gotten a grasp of the place, thanks to being thrown right into the mix. So far, here’s what I’ve been able to pick up.

. . .

Multitasking is not just a useful skill, it’s an absolute necessity at Rule29. Join a Monday Production Meeting for two minutes and you’ll see just how full everyone’s plates are. And the variety of work on each plate is more than I realized a small agency could deliver.

“Hey, Susan. How’s everything going with the wireframes? And the brochure layouts? What about the ad campaign? Ok and the HTML email template? Anything else? Oh right, the Keynote?”

In Rule29’s case, multitasking also means balancing many talents andexpertise. Equal parts grit and skill, the team is creative, strategic, empathetic, earnest, and tenacious. Diving into work alongside this group has been both humbling and a great learning experience for a strategic creative agency newbie.

They care about their clients and their work. A lot. I’ve watched the blood, sweat, and tears (ok, maybe not blood, but definitely some sweat and a few tears) that the team puts in to create high quality and valuable work. Their ability to listen and execute is one of the most valued abilities that their clients have brought up in interviews.

The server. Don’t mess with perfection, am I right? Since I don’t need to go in there often, I stay away from it because that’s where all the creative goodness lives.

“Wait. Which folder did you put it?”

The sense of family is apparent from the very first day. Not only is the office a house with a fully stocked kitchen that people actually cook in, the team openly and jokingly bickers like siblings. Some stay out of it and opt to find solace in their quiet corners, but most of the time everyone is laughing (unless Kelly is making the joke).

I’m so glad I happen to be here for the holidays. Immediately after Thanksgiving, Dawn, the Studio Operations Manager, decked the place out in all things Christmas. Tinsel, lights, three (and counting) trees, and numerous holiday-scented candles create a cozy, festive ambiance. And how could I forget the holiday music playing on the Sonos system?

“How do you feel about Mariah Carey?”

. . .

It’s been a little over a month and I already feel like a part of the group. Feeling a sense of belonging in a workplace makes an enormous difference, not only by experiencing comfort in a place you spend many hours a week but also by feeling appreciated and motivated to do your best work. Even though it’s quite a jarring difference from my last job, it’s a very welcomed one that will surely inform, and set the bar for, what I look for in future endeavors.

Photo courtesy of Rule29

Upper Peninsula

46°38'23.3" N, 86°12'56.492" W

It's been eight years since the last time I was in the Upper Peninsula, and each of those years have brought incredibly different experiences and lessons. Driving on the isolated two-lane roads and past the expanse of conifers reminded me of where I was, mentally and emotionally, during my last visit.


In my mind, I was certain that I'd become a physician. But in my heart, even back then, there was a seedling of doubt starting to breakthrough the surface. I stomped on it every chance I got and persevered forward with my sights set on medical school.

Having that clear cut path made life easier than I realized. I boiled it down to this extremely detailed and well-thought-out plan:

  1. Study hard
  2. Apply to medical schools
  3. Study really hard again
  4. Apply to residencies
  5. Work really really hard
  6. Profit

Clearly, life didn't go as planned mostly because I didn't understand back then that my doubt seedling was planted by my desire to have a more free and creative life. I wasn't one of those kids who could balance being stoked about medicine, play music, do research and publish, dance in multiple groups, be on the board of ten different organizations, hold down a job, and do well in school.

Well, actually I did manage to do all of the above with the exception of the very first thing. How in the world did I think I could become a doctor with a dwindling passion for medicine? 🤔 To be successful, I knew I needed to do nothing else but focus on medicine and I just wasn't willing to make that sacrifice.

I wanted to become a physician to play a vital role in society and to be a problem solver. I wanted to make my parents proud and show them that their immigrant experience wasn't for naught. I wanted to make sure I took full advantage of the privileged life they provided me by advocating for others and improving the lives of those around me.

My trip to Ishpeming and 12 Mile Beach ended up being a relaxing and grounding trip, despite the fact that we hit a deer on the way up (I'm sorry, Morgan's Fiat and the deer). We were fine, the trip continued, and we got to see our longtime friend in her new home. We saw a beautiful sunset, collected tumbled stones on the shore of Lake Superior, and camped right next to the beach.

My little rock collection

My little rock collection

Without meaning to, the trip showed me how far I've come since my last visit and left me feeling grateful for the windy road that my life has taken. From it, I've met incredible people, lived in a number of new places, and created memorable stories. I imagine my upcoming leap year will be like the last eight but on, uh, uppers. If those years have taught me anything, it's that unexpected paths and new, uncomfortable situations make for the most impactful growth. I'm ready to take that seedling of doubt and nurture it to develop into a sturdier, more impassioned, and increasingly skillful version of me.

Consistency as a Necessity

My parents have a beautiful, inviting home with a special room for chanting twice a day, every day. Morning and evening I heard the sound of their voices permeate the house, and I had the great privilege of growing up in this rhythm. I realize now that rhythms have been an integral part of my life. The sounds of trains running over tracks, the cadence of rainfall on rooftops, the beat of my current favorite song (yep, it’s still M.I.A. — “Go Off”), and now my own Buddhist practice, so much of everyday life has a pulse.

But simply observing the rhythms around me is entirely different from creating them to form, say, a healthy habit like exercise or to develop a new craft like hand lettering. And if your goal is to not suck at something new, establishing consistency and a regular practice is an absolute necessity. However, one observation about creating rhythms stands out in my mind — my parents are by far the most consistent people I have ever known.

Where my family’s daily rhythm begins

Where my family’s daily rhythm begins

Without fail, regardless of their busy or stressful schedules, my parents bookend their days with morning and evening prayers. My dad has taken three sick days in his entire working life and his comment about that is, “well, it isn’t a perfect record.” My mom has written a journal entry every night in her 10-year diary to complete several volumes now. My point isn’t that my parents are robots (they’re not), but that they’ve given me lifelong examples of what a practiced, consistent rhythm can bring. In the case of their Buddhist practice, it has brought courage, determination, wisdom, and the compassion to live earnest lives.

This year as an Experience Institute fellow, I want to keep my family in mind as I build and actualize my own rhythms throughout the year. The reason I decided to take this time to explore my many passions was because I wanted to live true to the intrepid and creative nature I had stifled for too long. Living an honest life sounds wonderful and all, but I know in reality if I lived too honest a life, I’d be sitting on the couch eating pizza off my stomach while watching Broad City. Instead, this year will be about intentionality and consistency. My goal is to live honestly with full-out effort and commitment to the rhythms I established at the end of August 2016.

My rhythms as of August 2016

My rhythms as of August 2016

I’ll need these rhythms since the many things I’ve traditionally found security in, like a home, job, and social circles, will be changing rapidly in my upcoming year. So here’s to a year full of growth and challenges, new experiences and radical shifts, and consistent rhythms to keep me grounded.

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