How to Craft a Creative Career for Greater Impact
Oftentimes, we have ideas about potential career moves, but we’re not quite sure how to get there. It might be shifting into a new role you’ve been curious about, or joining a company you’ve always dreamed of working for. According to Donald Burlock, Jr., creativity can be a powerful tool to reach your goals and craft a more meaningful career path.
Donald is a senior UX designer at Amazon Labs126 and the author of Superhuman by Design: Keys to Unlocking Your Creativity for Life-Changing Results. Having worked at Dolby Labs, Coca-Cola, Capital One, Facebook, GE, IDEO, and his own design agency Forecast Studios, Donald has learned to apply creative frameworks that have empowered him at each stage in his career journey.
In this Creative Confidence Podcast conversation, Donald shares his personal experiences and insights on using creativity to make career decisions, why you should let your core values guide you, and how to expand your impact by helping others.
Early career: exploring through creativity
In the earliest stages of any career, there are key moments that require us to practice our decision-making skills. Donald uses a framework called the 3 C’s of Creativity—consciousness, connection, and community—as a foundation for having conversations around career exploration.
When deciding between different potential paths to take, Donald reflects on these three areas to evaluate his opportunities. “As long as I was growing in one of these 3 C’s, ultimately whatever choice I was making was still going to be of great gain,” says Donald.
When you are deeply observant of the world around you, you become more aware of the themes that you’re interested in and passionate about. Being fully present trains your mind to be in the “now” and leads to a curiosity toward others. In the process of writing his book Superhuman by Design, for example, Donald noticed that he was interested in understanding the principles behind effective writing and editing.
Meaningful connection is about listening, learning, and gaining knowledge from people in your network. Think about who you’re connected with, either directly or through mutual acquaintances. Oftentimes, people will be willing to share their experiences with you and provide valuable knowledge related to topics that you want to learn more about. In Donald’s case, he reached out to a brand copywriter who gave advice on the editing process.
Building connections can bring you to creative communities, which can expand your expertise by surrounding you with different skills and perspectives. A good community can be a space where you gain new insights and grow in the areas you’re interested in. Through his copywriter connection, Donald was introduced to a community of editors who previously worked with people in design, tech, and entrepreneurship to help them become better writers.
“As long as I was growing in one of these 3 C’s, ultimately whatever choice I was making was still going to be of great gain.”
– DONALD BURLOCK, JR.
Mid career: setting core values
Feeling inspired to create something new and join the startup scene in Silicon Valley, Donald decided to take on a Creative Director role at Skully, a motorcycle helmet startup. When Skully later decided to shut down, Donald suddenly found himself unemployed.
In the face of what he considered a personal failure, Donald created the Superhuman Code, a set of guiding attributes that could empower him to move forward in a productive way. It builds on the idea of a superhuman life, where you reach for your potential and also have a positive impact on others. No matter how big his successes or failures have been in his career, Donald has turned to the Superhuman Code as a value system to find a sense of direction.
There are six attributes in the Superhuman Code: awareness, humanity, integrity, humility, resilience, and sacrifice.
Everyone will experience difficult moments in their careers. According to Donald, resilience is one of the most important codes you can adopt, because oftentimes there are others who depend on you. At Skully, Donald had a team of six who he had hired into the company. When Skully shut down, Donald felt responsible for them—some of them had come from out-of-state, and they all felt anxious to have lost their jobs.
Knowing that he needed to display resilience and humanity, Donald focused his time and energy to help his team. He contacted his connections in the startup space to share his team’s work at Skully and show them what they were capable of. Within a couple of months, Donald’s team had secured a few clients and began working independently as a new design agency, Forecast Studios.
To Donald, the attribute of sacrifice includes both sacrifice as a leader and sacrifice for ourselves. As a leader, it’s when you put people first and find ways to empower your team. Instead of immediately finding an opportunity at another company after Skully had closed, Donald wanted to make sure that the team members who had themselves made sacrifices to move to the Bay Area and join him would have a stepping stone to the next stage of their careers.
However, sacrifice isn’t just about doing things for everyone else. Donald reminds us that it also takes the form of listening to our own needs. When you’re feeling overwhelmed by invitations or requests to take on more work, make time for yourself to stay refreshed and energized. Instead of only being guided by what others want, keep your own goals and aspirations in mind as well.
Late career: scaling impact for others
At his current stage in his career, Donald believes that teaching and helping others is the best way to expand his impact. He focuses on sharing how creativity can be a source of power and how people can leverage it in their lives. After learning how to unlock creativity in his own work, Donald finds it important to give everyone the confidence to be creative. “Your creative core can be worked and strengthened,” says Donald.
By encouraging people to see creativity in a new way, Donald enables them to become deeply curious, explore their career paths, and tap into their “superpowers.” Donald uses the metaphor of superheroes to inspire us in our careers, and emphasizes that we all have superpowers. He also notes that superheroes are pro-social, acting in service of the community and bringing out our best traits and values.
“All of us have superpowers that we can identify. But can you connect your powers to a higher purpose?” asks Donald.
“Your creative core can be worked and strengthened.”
– DONALD BURLOCK, JR.
Big changes come from tiny actions
During his first project at IDEO, Donald remembers seeing the walls of the project space covered in drawings, design renderings, and post-it notes. One of his team members was staring at all of the material on the wall, and when Donald asked why, he replied with something that has stuck with him throughout his career: “I’m looking for the arrow to cut through the noise.”
In your career explorations, instead of jumping at the biggest, most visible things, you can pause and find the right signal in the noise before taking small steps to reach your target. You might have a conversation with someone in your network, or try something new by going to a class or watching a YouTube video. For Donald, his curiosity led him to eventually shift disciplines, from industrial design to brand and marketing. Take the time to explore and understand—then, tiny shifts can gradually move you in the right direction.
In your own career, take a moment to reflect on the following questions:
- Imagine your career path, going beyond the obvious options. What are you curious about, and what small actions can you take to explore your curiosity?
- Think about which career stage you’re in. How might you use the 3 C’s of Creativity or the Superhuman Code as a framework?