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Life Lessons From a Desk

06.11.2018 | Scott Millen

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When I was a kid (all good stories start this way), I would sit at my Grandpa Wright’s desk and pretend I was the president of Merchants Delivery, our family business that was based in Portland, Oregon. He had an enormous (or, so it seemed) traditional wooden desk with a pencil drawer at the center and two hefty drawers on both the right and left sides. It looked straight out of the 1950s. He also had a name plate, which I always found funny. Who would not know who my grandfather was? He was the president of the company. Everyone knew that!

I loved that desk. Perhaps what I really loved, however, was what it represented, even if I couldn’t put it to words at the time. I loved the feeling that I was in control. That I mattered. When you’re the president of a company, there is no one telling you what to do. You call the shots. I’m pretty certain that, as a kid, I exhibited what some would politely call “independent thinking.” I wasn’t so keen on group work; I wanted to be the leader. I wanted to be Captain Kirk, adventurous and decisive. I wanted to be Superman, leader of the Justice League of America, kind and smart and powerful.

There is something inside all of us that compels us to engage with the world in a way unique to ourselves. Yes, we all have instincts and drives, but the way we go about achieving goals is our own. It’s probably not a surprise that I’ve always wanted to run my own business. My unique instincts and drives eventually led me to this point via a circuitous and fortunate path. Along the way, I have been mentored by all types; from Bill, the manager of a photo lab (remember those?) I worked at in college, who would berate me for lacking the simple ability to add in my head; to John, who slowly, gently, lovingly molded me from an arrogant young creative director in need of proving himself to someone who slows down to listen-even when it is really hard-and makes sure that everyone’s unique drives are being addressed, that their voices are being heard. To make sure that everyone understands that they matter. That everyone has their own desk, so to speak.

When we started 2 Fish Company in 2011, the goal was simple: do good work with good people. It was important to me that Shelly, my wife and the company’s Relationship Director, be a full partner in the endeavor, even though she was working in a different field at that time. I’d learned by then that one cannot accomplish something awesome and lasting alone. It’s hard to succeed when you’re on your own (I know this because I’ve tried). You have to have a partner, a team, a family, to carry and augment the vision. You need a lot of desks.

I worked out of our family basement for a year, contracting friends and former co-workers so that I could do the work that I loved: solving problems though great concepts and doing it in partnership with clients I loved and who loved me back. We’ve grown over the years and are now a team of nine in our fourth office. Our goals remain essentially the same as when I started, although we’ve formalized them and given them a strong name: Our Standards. I love that someone on the team recognized these ways of working as a set of standards. We can measure our success against whether we achieve these standards daily:

First, Ask Questions – If you don’t know, you should find out.

Relationships:Creative:Breath:Life – Relationships are to creative as breath is to life (or as water is to fish).

Own Your Mistakes – When you screw up, admit it and make it right.

Constant Improvement – Do better tomorrow what you can do well today.

Make Miracles – Two fish CAN feed five thousand. Make the most of what you have.

When my grandfather passed away, I was gifted his desk. It was one of the greatest gifts I had ever received. A tacit acknowledgement that I was “The Guy Behind the Desk.” It even came with my very own name plate. I used that desk from middle school all the way through high school. When I moved to college, it was too big to ship across country, and I had to leave it behind. And it was time, really, to let it go. To begin the process of earning my own desk.

You could make a case at this point that I’ve covered far more than one simple blog post should. There are desk metaphors, origin stories, and company standards of excellence that could be solid posts on their own, and at some point in the future, likely will be. But all of these things are connected. One experience informs another, shaping in part who you become. One may be inclined to leadership naturally, or think independently without trying. But without humility, without life lessons, without the ability to learn and grow and change, you’re only a boss behind a desk. Leadership isn’t about power or control. It’s not about the size of the desk you sit behind, or what your nameplate says. Leadership is continuously humbling yourself by serving others. Leadership is asking questions, owning your own mistakes, constantly striving to be better, making sure that people are taken care of, and, above all else, making miracles.


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