I had a critical and determining experience during my first job as a professional. I was hired, welcomed, nurtured, and celebrated by an entire team of mentors and teammates in a manner that formed the way I view my working relationships to this day: Teams that laugh together, build closer and more resilient relationships—the kind that transcend both distance and time.
Friday, March 17, 2023
The year: 1994. The place: Englewood Colorado, USA.
I was sweaty and spastic with anxiety on my first day in a real office. Once the tunnel vision started to widen, I began to take in my new surroundings. Beige, tan, and taupe, warm gray and silver—all tinged by the flicker of fluorescent light. I felt ill. I was floating five feet in the air watching myself sitting in a foreign land. I wondered, “Is this real or a dream? Maybe I’m still in bed having a nightmare about my first day.”
Our office was a giant building in a rural office park that backed up against a regional airstrip. Our department, the media group of an aviation company, was a literal bolt-on to the main building. We had a separate entrance, not unlike a service entrance, and you could only reach us from the main building by traveling down a long and lonely linoleum floored hall—a hall perfect for turkey bowling, a sport we invented after being gifted frozen birds for Thanksgiving on year, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s stick to my nervous first day.
In a time without smartphones (or cell phones) and computers that took an eternity to boot but only a split-second to crash (and required many minutes to save files), the machinery hummed and the clock tick, tick, ticked. Was this a pressure test to see if I could hack it? As it turned out, kinda. After an hour of stepping into this strange new existence, I was saved by my new boss, Rich. It was time for our coffee break. “You don’t drink coffee? That’s fine. You’re still coming,” Rich explained.
Roughly a dozen people started to emerge from darkrooms and cramped cubicles, all converging and departing. We strolled down that long corridor, en masse, a quarter-mile to the cafeteria. “Wow—our own cafeteria?!” I wondered.
The team took seats around a large table and began a group banter. What I witnessed over the next exactly-ten minutes was like a cool wind gradually building from breeze to gust. From how-are-yous and storytelling to jokes and jabs, to laughter and outward shows of respect. Clearly, these people had a shared experience and cared a great deal for one another. I was starting to reenter my body.
The crew showed me the ropes. We sat, sipped coffee from our matching logoed mugs, and shared a bunch of laughs. Yes, I decided to try coffee with lots of cream and sugar.
Never judge a book by its cover
Returning to my desk, I continued to settle and orient myself to these strange and wondrous new digs, and over the weeks, months, and years that followed, I found myself deeply connected to this group. Each one of them in different ways, but maybe more than anyone, I could relate to this departmental oddity named Herb McAllister, or, Mac, to his friends.
Mac was indeed a member of this group but he also stood apart. He dressed differently. He was a bit more silver—both at his temples and in button and belt buckle. He was the only hand illustrator still standing in a department rapidly transitioning to digital and I’d been hired right out of design school to help this team with just that shift. Clearly, Herb and I had a lot to learn from one another but I didn’t yet know how much.
I came to learn that while I was just beginning my journey as a professional creator, Mac had already lived many lifetimes as one. In Mac, I initially saw a somewhat stodgy, often crotchety old school veteran of the Korean War era. What I experienced over the next few years was quite different.
To paint a word picture: Mac was quick-to-laugh, tall-tale-telling, and, like yours truly, Mac found himself to be the best audience. I began to understand that Mac was actually a deft social grifter, always looking to explore, learn, push, and create connections. He was king of the long-form practical joke, sometimes taking weeks to play out.
I’d later learn these interesting details: Mac drove a powder blue Mercury — gifted to him by his mother — that created a comical effect when he’d fold his lanky western wear frame into the front seat. Mac was probably the first eccentric I ever met. He was a prolific painter, had a giant marlin mounted over the faux fireplace in his apartment, and was famously depicted by actor, Henry Winkler, in a magical biopic about Mac’s once-regionally-famous TV persona, Happy Herb, and marionette, Froggy Doo.
Once upon a work weekend, I witnessed him curling his lanky frame into a cabinet in our darkroom and then waiting for twenty minutes for a particular unexpecting coworker to enter. Mac then, very slowly and subtly, began to scrape and moan his way into the imagination of his victim until they began to feel acutely haunted. All done in the spirit of fun.
Mac taught me a lot during the few years we worked together, and he wasn’t the only one. That entire group gave me a beautiful foundation for effective and healthy teams. But Mac’s teachings have boiled down to three important themes for me:
- Understand and communicate your bounds,
- Work hard to know your team intimately, and, as mentioned above,
- Cause fun
We believe so much in “causing fun” at Territory, that it’s a cultural tenet defined as such:
Cause Fun: Explore, play, and laugh every day. Levity is a prized component of our creative process. Use it to open doors through play and improvisation. Cap the end of focus time with a playful reconnection with your team.
It’s not easy work. Causing Fun works best once you’ve mastered three things:
- Become vulnerable: Teamwork and a feeling of “team” starts with you. The first step in having fun is to know how to leave your ego at the door. Learn how to drop your defenses and laugh at yourself.
- Invest in your teammates: Spend time getting to know and understand the people you work with. Cultural intelligence is something to value, trust me: I once won a week at a resort in Mexico after winning a “know your team” competition. Seeking to understand what defines and delights the people you work with won’t only be informative and insightful—it will also let them know the you care about them. Done well, you’ll forge lasting bonds of trust and kinship.
- Make work about the team: We all have our own reasons to work, be them; obligation, passion, money, all or none of them, but most of us don’t work on an island. We depend upon and are depended upon by the people around us. Work together to create a culture of curiosity, sharing, and seeking to understand. After all, shared successes are the most rewarding.
Is your work fun? I hope it is. If it’s not, perhaps you should consider making fun a cause worth investing in!