What is your dream job? The company you want to work at above all others? And are you there right now?
Over the course of our careers, we all job hop, and in fact, we probably should once every three years. But some people do it better than others. And Jesse McMillin, who is a vice president and creative director at Lyft, has hopped from design-led company to design-led company over the course of his career. Before Lyft, he was creative director at Virgin America for seven years, and before that, he did stints at Nike and Levi’s.
McMillin is a gifted designer, but a successful career is about more than just talent. So we sat down with him to find out how he’s been able to land at so many dream companies.
Everything about McMillin’s career started early, but not in the way you’d think. He wasn’t interning at famed design studios at age 12; he was paying attention to the things he was into.
“I’ve always just been really passionate about the quality of work in the brands I like. From an early, early age,” McMillin says. “To that degree, I think you always have in the back of your mind, those dreams it’d be great to work here or there. And maybe even subconsciously that drives the type of work you do, even early on in school.”
The same could be said for McMillin’s hobbies. “I moved to San Francisco in the mid-’90s, to pursue art school and the creative world. But also because I was an avid, semi-pro skateboarder at the time. And that group close to me was actually really close to a lot of things popular now,” says McMillin. “At the time it was gritty, outsider art, counterculture brands, hip-hop music, things that were not mainstream yet were a big part of my growing up. In many ways that probably helped, to have my finger on the pulse.” It also likely helped land him his first big company gig at Levi’s as a graphic designer. But in pursuing a subculture that became a hot commodity to big brands, McMillin admits that hindsight is 20/20: “You never know if that’s going to happen. You just have to pursue what you’re passionate about.”
At Levi’s, McMillin found himself looking around the giant corporation. A position opened at Dockers–a brand within the Levi’s family–he realized he was interested in. He was about to go to his final interview when he got a call from HR: The guy who would be hiring him had gotten fired.
“I’d made my current position really prickly. I was sitting there at my desk with my portfolio in hand, saying ‘This is insane. What did I do?” So I called some friends. There was an ad agency hiring. So I jumped.”
McMillin recognized that as good as a job as he had on paper, it had grown stale for him. And the appeal of being at Levi’s, in theory, wasn’t designing denim. It was that he could go anywhere within the giant corporation to expand his horizons. So when that opportunity dried up, he found new opportunities at an agency.
“I was working with a young designer recently, they were considering a move to somewhere else,” says McMillin. “My advice was, when you’re feeling that, to be really, really conscious why. What is it about the situation is making you feel that? Is it that you can’t do the kind of work you want to do? You feel like you can do better? Or it might just be you’ve been there too long. You need a change of scenery?”
For McMillin, these aren’t minor quibbles with a job that you should simply grit your teeth and tough out. They’re signals it’s time to leave. “That’s a big reason I moved to Lyft,” he says. “Virgin was an amazing brand, but I’d been there seven years. I loved the place but I needed a change personally.”
“Really digging into the reason is important, so you’re clear on what you’re trying to solve,” McMillin continues. “Creative people are problem solvers at the end of the day, and if you don’t know what you’re trying to solve, you’re just hunting around in the dark. And if you don’t know why, you could end up somewhere worse than your current situation.”
Working at a creative agency rather than a corporation shifted McMillin’s perspective–so much so that, for the young designer, McMillin thinks the best option might be an agency where you can work on anything and everything, rather than a single big brand where you might have a very specific responsibility.
“Being in the agency world teaches you a lot of about being able to juggle in a fast-paced environment, while working on TV commercials, print campaigns, digital stuff,” says McMillin. “That agency life for a young creative person is good to do at some point. Whether it’s an advertising shop or a design studio, having the ability to go somewhere and work on lots of brands and projects teaches you a lot about what you want to do.
“That might not be true for an industrial designer who knows they want to design cars or shoes, and should have a laser focus on that,” McMillin continues. “But for the millennial and post-millennial generation, they’re coming out of school with such insane technical ability, but a complete inability to focus on anything. That’s our culture now. You’re constantly jumping from one thing to the next. For that generation especially, having the option to go somewhere to feed that dynamic is really helpful.” And along the way, you might just figure out if there is one thing worthy of focusing all your efforts.
The other great thing about agencies? They’re a great place to network, says McMillin. You meet lots of creative peers, and you meet lots of different businesses. And McMillin credits his network with getting him a job at Nike in Amsterdam when he wanted to live abroad for a while, or Virgin when he decided to move back stateside.
But “networking” is one of those overused pieces of jargon that makes a lot of us cringe.
“Networking. It’s funny. It is a totally loaded word,” says McMillin. “For me the idea is just being really aware and open to the things around you. Any job you’re at, there are so many people you have to connect with on a daily basis . . . and I think, a lot of the time, it’s easy to take those little interactions for granted.
“It’s not about, ‘I’m trying to get out there and network with you!’ It’s not about that,” McMillin continues. “I’m just really open to people I work with. Those connections are genuine. When I’m working with someone, I treat that with a certain amount of respect. So the work is meaningful. Your relationship is meaningful. And when there’s something I want to do, like move to Europe, I’m reaching out to people I have meaningful relationships with.”
McMillin insists that your network is probably larger than you think. If you subscribe to the old six degrees of separation argument, your dream job anywhere is just a relationship away.