What Are You Investing In This Year? A lesson in perspective and humility.

Mark Busse – One Comment

I was recently asked to be a presenter at PechaKucha Toronto. Of course it was an honour and, telling myself that these sort of challenges lead to discovery and reward, I happily agreed. As the day grew near I started to fret—OK, I was freaking out a little. Not only was I struggling to find a topic suitable for the evening’s theme of “Design + Think + Passion”, but I hadn’t ever done a PechaKucha talk before and found the format surprisingly challenging. I was nervous.

For anyone unfamiliar with PechaKucha, it’s a presentation format where each speaker is permitted exactly 20 slides, and allowed to speak for 20 seconds per slide before it automatically advances to the next—whether you’re ready or not. It’s a terrific platform which forces speakers to make their point quickly, resulting in succinct, on point presentations the audience can digest easily.

I’ve done plenty of public speaking in my career, and I love challenges that scare me (it forces growth), but I found the restrictive parameters of PechaKucha uncomfortable. Anyone who knows me can attest to how much I enjoy talking and storytelling, but when you have less than seven minutes to take a crowded room full of strangers from “Hi my name is Mark…” through an entire story arc leading to an intelligent final point the audience will remember is a hard thing indeed. But beyond the confines of the format, I still had no clear topic idea and needed help. That help came from an unexpected source.

The week before my presentation, I joined my friend Ryan for a drink one evening. As we hadn’t seen each other in a while, he asked how life and business were these days. I described my PechaKucha woes briefly, but then found myself surprisingly whining a little about worries over the economy, sales and revenues at work, my income and poorly performing investments. One of my smartest and more successful chums, Ryan neither suffers fools nor tolerates whining, so it wasn’t out of character when he brazenly told me to “Give your head a shake!” But I was caught off guard when he leaned forward and asked, “What did you invest in last year?”

Not seeing an obvious connection to our previous conversation about my presentation, I thought for a minute and struggled to form an answer. Between the umms and awws, I said something about a GIC, RRSP and TFSA contributions, and was starting to bitch about crappy mutual funds and the insane real estate market in Vancouver when he stopped me abruptly, shook his head, and said he wasn’t talking about money at all. What the what now?

He then told me about a friend of his who, after a particularly good year with his business, instead of putting a chunk of money into savings or investment vehicles like real estate or the stock market, decided to invest in friends, relationships and community this year. To his accountant’s chagrin and disbelief, he had chosen five people he believed in and was spending his money to go visit them, travel with them to conferences and seminars, and set up meetings with influential people and potential mentors. His theory being that these people were on career trajectories that he could not only positively influence, but benefit from in the long term. He believed that spending his time, energy and money on them would open doors otherwise not opened and be far more profitable (for both parties) than conventional investments. A fascinating story leaving me feel a bit humbled, but I was still confused about the connection to my PechaKucha situation.

“It’s simple,” Ryan continued, “you may not have the financial means to invest thousands of dollars the way my friend did, but you’ve been making similar investments all year long—and these pursuits will be profitable for years to come. You have significant reach and influence via social media, you volunteer for various community groups doing excellent work, you’re an active member and leader of various industry associations, and you frequently either attend, host, or speak at events and conferences each year. There’s your PechaKucha topic—a new way of looking at investments that others can consider and be inspired by.”

These certainly cost me money, but that wasn’t what he was driving at. As I sat there and listened to a friend’s objective perception of me and my activities, I started to understand. He was arguing that where I spent my time and energy was as (or more) important than where I invested my money, and could equally produce profits in social currency and capital. I started feeling mildly foolish and arrogant for whining about money, but also better about myself as I considered this line of thinking.

Ryan continued, pointing out the various industry events I’ve helped produce or host in the recent past, such as Salazar student design awards, Practivism sustainability speaker series, Graphex national design awards, and Icograda Design Week Vancouver.

He asked me how many pro bono or charity projects I’d participated in, bringing to mind many examples, such as Canstruction (benefitting Vancouver  Food Bank), Half The Sky Foundation (helping orphaned children in China), Dodson Neighbourhood House (providing safe, affordable housing for DTES) and Room To Read (building libraries in developing countries). I hadn’t really considered how participating in charity work could be viewed as a profitable investment.

Ryan went on talking about the leadership and organization skills I lend organizations like DOXA, SIGGRAPH, and Barcamp Vancouver, reminding me also of the various informative articles I’d published, the teaching and lecturing I do for various design programs and professional associations, and the mentoring I provide for students and young design professionals. He complimented me for being the driving force behind inclusive business networking groups such as Likemind Vancouver, which brings creatives together for coffee once a month, Interesting Vancouver, an annual “unconference” featuring interesting people talking about their hobbies, passions and obsessions, and Foodists, a collective of like-minded food worshippers I co-founded with some foodie friends.

Ryan wrapped up his argument by expressing appreciation for the way I volunteered my time and energy to serve as leadership with the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada, and for bringing the breakfast lecture series CreativeMornings to Vancouver, reminding me how many friends, collaborators, staff—even clients–had emerged as a result of all of these efforts—not to mention the positive impact it had on my reputation, network and influence.

My friend’s point was more than suitably made, and I felt great. I had never really considered all the various activities that I engaged in terms of an investment, but he was right: I had muddled the meaning of words like “investment” and “profit” by confusing them with money.

The truth is, beyond any feel-good sense of fulfillment, I was indeed profiting from my investments of time, energy, creativity, leadership and unpaid hard work in ways that easily outstripped most financial vehicles available. And in practical business terms, my company receives numerous inquiries, recommendations, new clients and projects, and in fact PROFITS from all of these indirect investments.

So how’d my PechaKucha presentation go? Well, it was still a challenge to put together and delivery succinctly, but as usual the challenge motivated me to step up and overcome my own fear and I think it went OK. According to coverage of the evening, the event was a success and my presentation was well received and memorable. Here’s a link to the audio and slides, so you can judge for yourself, but I feel like the effort was a good investment.

So now I ask you, what are you investing in this year?