What the Hell Are You Doing with Your Life?


Would you develop retail branding to launch a hot, new consumer electronics gadget after the client gave you two and they both stopped working within weeks? What if they confided to you that they knew their gimcrack gizmo had a design flaw, but they were working on a fix? How would you feel if they planned to sell the defective units in the meantime? Have you ever felt screwed as a consumer?

Would you be willing to brand a sugary fruit drink that was nothing more than a caloric concoction of chemicals you couldn’t pronounce? What if the client planned to market it to moms as a healthier alternative to soda? How about if they wanted to brand it with cartoon characters so it appealed to kids? Are you a parent?

Would you market an OTC dietary supplement that claimed to dramatically increase breast size? What if it was labeled with disclaimers about varying results, and warnings to consult a doctor before use? How would you feel if it turned out that underage girls were buying it and exceeding the recommended dosage? What if clinical tests revealed that the product could potentially awaken latent cancerous cells that may otherwise remain dormant? Have you lost anyone to breast cancer?

Would you collaborate with a political consultant to brand his candidate even if you didn’t agree with their politics? What if that consultant tells you – with utter sincerity and conviction – that he entered politics because God appeared before him in the shower one morning and instructed him to do so?

He’s dead serious, he’s sitting right in front of you, he’s got a lot of money to spend, and he wants to know if you’re ready to help him and his candidate “change the world”.

What do you say? Do you compromise your principles for the money? You’d better be ready with an answer – and willing to live with the consequences.

Dilemmas & Disbelief

Every career has its share of ethical quandaries and “what the hell am I doing with my life?” moments. Those were a few of mine. Chances are, you’ve had a few of your own, either as an employee, or a business owner; either as a service provider, or product manufacturer.

Sometimes, you’re confronted with moral dilemmas, and other times it’s a situation that’s so silly, and surreal that you feel like you must be on hidden camera. That thought crossed my mind many years ago when I found myself sitting across from a client discussing branding for a line of sex toys.

Trapped in the Court of Caligula

This particular client was actually in the battery business. Recently, though, he’d discovered that he could make more money – a lot more – by purchasing vibrators from China for cents on the dollar, reselling them for $100 per, ahem, unit, and offering mail order replacement of the specialty batteries that powered them. The real money, and the “genius”, was in the replacement batteries.

Picture a conference room, empty but for a single table in the middle, and adorning that table dozens of dildos; a bona fide phallus freak show in a kinky kaleidoscope of plastic, metal, and rubber – all standing erect, right at eye level between myself and the client at the far end.

Selections for the new product line were under consideration, and a motley array of vivid, vibrating, spinning, studded, knobbed, ribbed, and pronged appliances – of varying lengths, and freakish configurations that could have made Caligula cringe – were being sized up. I was there to discuss batteries, but things had gotten more colorful.

“What do you think of this one,” the client asked, holding up a lime green, anatomically correct (for the Jolly Green Giant) rubber appendage with large, gyrating prongs that… well, it’s not important. What did I think? Oh, so many things, like “Why are you asking me?” and “This can’t possibly get any worse.” Then it did. He added, “This is the one that Craig (my then-boss, and no, that’s not his real name) said he uses with Nancy (his wife, my other boss).” Much worse.

At the time, I was six years into my career, employed by someone else, and desperately wanting to leave and start my own studio. Churning out sex toy ads for the back pages of skin mags was not why I’d gone into design, and it damn well wasn’t why I’d put in all those late nights, weekends, and holidays. Design was supposed to save the world. What the hell was I doing with my life?

To be fair, peddling kink in porn pubs probably wasn’t what my bosses had envisioned for their agency after two decades of hard-earned reverence from clients and peers alike. But, once poor decisions led to desperate measures after reckless ambition proved shortsighted, the agency found itself in the unsavory position of having to accept any account that came knocking.

Nobody wants to be in that position, and years later, when I launched Nocturnal, I swore I never would be. I learned early in my career, that responsible growth lets you make responsible choices for yourself, your business, your employees, your customers, and beyond. You might not always be able to do the work that feeds your soul; but if you don’t get stupid or greedy, you won’t have to do anything that sucks your soul, either.

“To open a shop is easy, to keep it open is an art.”

So goes an ancient Chinese proverb. Truthfully, it may have come from a fortune cookie, I don’t know. I read it on Twitter, but it’s spot on. Business often requires tough decisions. The choices you make define you as a person, and define your business as a brand; and can have far-reaching, and profound impact. Doing the right thing isn’t always easy, but it’s a sign of strength; and operating a business from a position of strength is the path to success.

Profit at Any Price is So Last Millennium

Today, achieving profit potential while also having a positive impact on people, and the planet is the new black, or “green”, or whatever. Think that’s naïve? There’s a whole new generation of Millennials ready to rock your backward-thinking world.

A recent study by Edelman and StrategyOne found 87% of millennial-aged respondents asserting, “Business needed to place at least equal weight on the interests of society as it did on its own interests.” More than a quarter said that brands should exert a “positive impact on the world”, as well as help individuals “achieve their personal goals.” More and more brands, big and small, are doing just that:

  • Shoe company, TOMS, launched their One for One movement in 2006 with the simple goal of matching every pair of shoes purchased with a pair of new shoes given to a child in need.
  • Starbucks Ethos Water Fund supports water, sanitation and hygiene education programs in water-stressed countries. Ethos is just one initiative within the Starbucks Foundation, which started in 1997 by funding literacy programs in the United States and Canada, and that is now supporting communities around the globe in a variety of ways.
  • Whole Foods Market developed a 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating program that grades pork, beef and chicken products according to how farm animals are bred. The system helps shoppers learn more about the origin of meat and poultry products to make more informed choices.
  • You don’t have to be a global brand to make an impact. Phoenix, AZ start-up, Empowered Clothing Co., knows that change begins with individuals. Empowered is an action sports clothing line whose mission is to “inspire everyone to find their purpose in life, and to feel empowered to live that purpose.” Their hip apparel emblazoned with positive messages is designed to help build self-esteem, and help people “be the change we want to see – by living and wearing positive energy.”

According to the 2010 Corporate Social Responsibility Perception study by research firm Penn Schoen Berland, more than 75% of consumers say that corporate responsibility is important. 55 percent of those polled considered social responsibility a differentiator among brands and were more likely to choose a product tied to a cause when other factors such as price, or size were similar.

Brands can no longer be built on promises they must be built on beliefs. People make conscious decisions to align themselves with brands they feel embody their values, and empower their potential. People care about brands that care about them. What is your brand doing to empower people, and show them that you care?

Make A Difference

Sir Winston Churchill famously opined, “We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.” Business is about both.

Recognize the need, seize the opportunity, embrace the responsibility, and become the solution. For some brands, that equation adds up to a fast buck supplying batteries for sex toys. That’s not bad, it’s just not great.

People don’t need soul-suckingly cynical, cheaply-made, inconsequential junk that wreaks real, and long-term havoc on them, the environment, and future generations; they need meaningful products, services, and initiatives that offer lasting value, and engender enduring prosperity. Anybody can make money, but being in business is too great of an opportunity not to make a difference. So, what the hell are you doing with your life?

Note: What brands do you think are making a positive impact? Share them with us in the comments below.

©Nocturnal Design Studio, LLC

About Ken Peters

Chronically curious. Compulsively creative. Opinions here are my own, and those of the voices in my head.
This entry was posted in Bold Ideas, Branding, Inspiration. Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to What the Hell Are You Doing with Your Life?

  1. Megan says:

    These are some great points. People in any business really need to focus on longevity. While I understand that not every client is going to be an amazing award winning venture, who really wants to look at their portfolio and see “vibrator batteries”? (Okay, so some people might, but the majority probably won’t.)
    Our focus should be on the things that will make us proud, that will help the world, or at least our neighborhood.

    • Ken Peters says:


      Thanks for reading and commenting. I agree that as professionals we should focus on doing the work that makes us proud. I learned early that you get the kind of work that you become known for doing, so you need to do the kind of work that you want to get more of.



  2. Ken,

    Great post, I have to say I didn’t see the dildo coming (hopefully this is the only time I’ll ever make that comment!).

    I often say that when Laura and I started Blackcoffee it was equal parts arrogance and ignorance. We didn’t know what it took to run a company, how many hours would be lost to the pursuit of perfection nor how much time would be lost sticking to our ethics.

    A brand is defined not by a company’s words, but rather by it’s actions. You summed this up well with “The choices you make define you as a person, and define your business as a brand; and can have far-reaching, and profound impact.” To many self proclaimed “branding companies” either don’t understand this or believe that it only applies to the client and not to them. They create spin rather than brands and over time it shows!

    Remember, If you work for your self and you’re not happy with what your doing it’s your damn fault!


    Mark Gallagher
    Brand expressionist®

    • Ken Peters says:


      That gave me the biggest laugh I’ve had in ages. I hope that’s the last time you say that, too! :-)

      You’re right, making choices applies to everybody. It’s easy to say, “it’s the client’s choice, I’m just doing my job by providing what they want,” but that’s a cop out. Integrity is required throughout the food chain of business.

      Steve Jobs made a comment once in a commencement speech at Stanford that went something like, “if you wake up too many days in a row not excited about what you’ll be doing that day, it’s time for a change.” Makes sense to me.

      Thanks for dropping by!

  3. Ted says:

    Great article, Ken.

    Made me feel better when a few days ago I turned good, valid, for-pay work because it was a dumb concept that I’d never include in my portfolio. Mind you, it wasn’t cat juggling paraphernalia or high-tech gizmos like in your example, it was just plain dumb.

    I don’t want to work on “dumb” anymore. It’s my version of putting my oxygen mask on first.

    • Ken Peters says:


      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Indeed, sometimes you have to ask yourself if your time isn’t better spent elsewhere, on more fulfilling projects. Skipping a nice payday is never easy, but producing garbage now will only lead to more garbage projects in the future. And, why perpetuate or promote garbage?



  4. Nona Carson says:

    Wish I hadn’t been eating lunch while I read this (ha) but great post, Ken. We got rid of a “soul-sucker” last year. Sure, we could’ve groveled and shoveled a bit more, but it wasn’t worth it. I’ve been blessed to have some super clients in the biotech industry and its great to work with companies who have a higher mission than…let’s say, selling batteries. ;)Seriously, why should businesses be the only ones doing the interviewing? Let’s interview THEM to see if THEY are a good fit!

    • Ken Peters says:


      Oh, I hope I achieved a milk through the nose moment for you! :-)

      I absolutely agree that it’s as important for service providers to interview their clients as vice versa. We say on our site:

      “Should you like us personally? Yes. Just as we should like you. Life is too short, and business too great of an opportunity, to work with people who leave you cold. Great branding is the culmination of many things. Achieving success not only requires strategy, and imagination but also respect, and rapport among people who trust, and inspire each other. We’re looking for the right fit when we take on new clients, just as you’re looking for the right fit when you select a creative partner. We appreciate the opportunity to be considered to collaborate with you.”

      I’m not interested in working with people that “don’t get it”. I’m here to do great work, not explain why it’s necessary, I’m not the jackass whisperer.

      Thanks for commenting!


  5. Jim Hayes says:

    I can’t imagine working on anything that I didn’t believe was making a difference in someone else’s life. Life is too short and there are too many opportunities to settle for anything less.

    Even in great companies it is easy to lose sight of the good you are doing. Thanks for the reminder to help people see the difference they are making in their jobs (that is what I am going to do on Monday because of your post).

    • Ken Peters says:


      Great comments. I appreciate you reading and sharing your thoughts. Your last sentence makes writing a piece like this totally worthwhile.



  6. Business better be about something other than making a buck. It better be geared towards making all our lives better. The employer. The employee. The customer. I don’t want to work at a place with death marches and unsatisfied customers. I want to work for the place that realizes we need to fulfill the actual customer need and produce a good product. That is the only way we’re going to make a living so we can do the things we want and not be up all night on emergencies.

    • Ken Peters says:


      Thanks for reading and commenting. Ultimately, business is about people. Brands that keep that in mind are the brands that will succeed and make a positive impact.



  7. Brad Farris says:

    I’ve found the Venn Diagram “What to do” very helpful (you can find it at (http://whatconsumesme.com/2009/posts-ive-written/how-to-be-happy-in-business-venn-diagram/). Yes sometimes you have to make money, and sometimes you take a client because it feeds you soul. But you need to find clients that do all three on a regular basis to stay in business.

    You gave one of the ways to do that above. You will get more work like the work you’ve done before. So if you don’t want to do political work, don’t do it. Keep looking for something closer to your muse.

    Thanks for this post. It made me laugh and made my day.


    • Ken Peters says:


      Thanks for reading, and for sharing that link and your thoughtful comments.

      You made MY day by letting me know the post made you laugh and made your day. :-)



  8. Thanks for the great post, Ken!

    I wanted to share another example that came to mind in reading this post: Patagonia, an outdoor clothing and gear retailer, is doing their part to inspire solutions to the environmental crisis – leading initiatives and alliances to invest in our environment: http://www.patagonia.com/us/patagonia.go?assetid=2329

    As a ‘milennial’ having worked in small- to medium-sized agencies, I’ve had the pleasure and honor of spending equal parts of my day working alongside for-profit businesses and non-profit organizations. I admire companies, and agencies alike, that give up their time and resources to donate to great causes, financially and/or through volunteer efforts or pro-bono work. As an employee, it’s inspiring and motivating to know that the big business efforts you’re working on permits the agency to pick up socially responsible projects on the side.

    All this to say, I believe a happy balance between business and making a difference exists. It’s a matter of staying true to one’s own values, ethics and integrity that makes this possible. The Churchill quote rings so true: “We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.”

    Mary Lou

    • Ken Peters says:

      Mary Lou,

      Patagonia is a great example of a brand walking the walk, not just talking the talk.

      Pro bono work is always a great way to feed your soul. Sometimes, though, you have to point out to the client/prospect that simply not being profitable is totally different than being a non-profit :-) Everybody wants something for free.

      You’re right on when you talk about finding that balance, and staying true to your own values. It’s not always easy, but in the end, you’ll be glad you did.



  9. Greg de Lima says:

    I know I said I’d comment yesterday, but alas classes got in the way.
    I’ve been in the position, this was about a year ago, where I was approached by a company and asked to do some SEO & Social Media Marketing for them. After sitting down and discussing the expectations of the client, I realized that what he was asking for was blackhat SEO, with link-baiting, and other tactics that I just wasn’t morally going to do. Because to uphold an image, one must do things the right way, without cheating the system, and putting in the honest work. The same went for his social media strategy, I was to simply go around and place his content in places so it could get the visibility, no engagement or community building about it, only getting the name out there. His trust was slim to none in the true system of a social network.
    All said and done, I backed out, I knew that working for him, I wouldn’t be happy, even if the pay was good, and the results were quantifiable.
    I completely understand where you’re coming from, and hopefully more marketers can understand the perspective you’ve taken when you created Nocturnal.
    Thanks gor the great post,

    • Ken Peters says:


      Thanks for finding the time to comment. Don’t feel bad about it taking an extra day, look how long it took me to reply!

      Blackhat SEO tactics are a big thing we run into as well. While not illegal, they are ethically questionable, and very much not what Google approves of (and why on earth would you want to risk getting black listed by Google).

      I’d say you made the right call to back out on that one. You become known for doing the work that you’ve done, and you don’t want to become known for specializing in questionable SEO gimmicks.



  10. Steve Jones says:

    Great post, and 100% accurate.

    Years ago a brand could simply spend enough marketing money to hide any actions contrary to their brand promise. Not so today. Today the consumer has the power and can quickly expose dishonest brands.

    I would love some thoughts on this piece about how Jack Johnson lives up to his brand image through his day to day actions while recording his albums and touring the nation: http://brandlikearockstar.blogspot.com/2010/04/building-tribe-with-jack-johnson.html

    • Ken Peters says:


      Transparency is simply a fact of life in today’s marketplace. Brands that get it, and embrace it, are going to prosper. Brands that try to hide the truth, or cover up less-than-savory business practices are going to answer for it in the end when consumers vote with purchase.

      I’ll check out that link on Jack Johnson. Thanks for sharing.



  11. Ken, seriously big thanks again for writing this. You have no idea how far a post like this goes with us. We still talk about this post at least once a week. Truly appreciate your acknowledgement!

    • Ken Peters says:


      Thanks. It means a lot that the post struck a chord with you guys, and that you cared enough to let me know. Keep doing what you do, it’s fantastic.


  12. Barry Kahan says:


    Thanks for writing this post. This exact topic has been rumbling inside of me and causing a great deal of unrest internally. I recently read a quote in a book by Steven Pressfield.”Most of us have two lives. The one we live, and the unlived life within us.” Resonated with me. Your post seems to nudge people to live the one inside.

    Nice job.

    • Ken Peters says:


      Thanks for reading, and I’m thrilled that the post resonated with you.

      Pressfield is one of my favorite authors. His books, The War of Art, and Do the Work are fantastic. I’m guessing that quote you mentioned probably came from The War of Art, but I can’t remember specifically.

      Based on your comments, and that quote, I think you might also get something helpful from a couple of my other blog posts (heavily influenced by my appreciation of Pressfield). Check out “Plug Into Your Genius”, http://bit.ly/f6Yf2R, and “Life is A Leap of Faith” http://bit.ly/eZeWZY


  13. “I’m here to do great work, not explain why it’s necessary…”

    If it isn’t already, that should be carved in stone somewhere.

    You give us a lot to think about Ken.

    • Ken Peters says:

      Thanks Dennis. Maybe I’ll get some T-shirts printed up with that saying and wear one to meetings with prospective clients :-)