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Balancing the Grind with Willem van der Horst, Playful Strategy Consultant at Ice Cream for Everyone

Willem van der Horst is the Playful Strategy Consultant at Ice Cream for Everyone, a branding and marketing strategy consultancy working with brands, startups, and agencies.

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1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your career background and current role?

I’ve been lucky to have opportunities for my career to evolve and change in interesting ways both in jobs and locations over the years.

I started out as a graphic designer in France, where I grew up, with a small agency near Paris. A couple of years later, I had an opportunity to shift into coaching with an international growth & development company.

I still rely on a lot of the training I received during those years, and that also led me from Paris to London.

Following that, I had a stint in recruitment for the creative and digital marketing industries, before finding my first role as a strategist.

Fast forward 13 years of working on a wide variety of branding, marketing and communications strategic challenges for global brand clients with creative agencies in London, Singapore, Paris, and Chicago and we get to my current role.

Nowadays I call myself a playful strategist. I am an independent consultant, recently based in Paris again. I still work with agencies and directly with clients helping them communicate with their audiences and strategically solve a wide variety of business and brand challenges.

My main point of difference is that I leverage play and game-like elements in my work to favor and enhance creativity with clients. I also teach regularly, and deliver creative strategy workshops and trainings.

I also host the Ice Cream for Everyone podcast, “where play meets strategy,” in which I have candid conversations mixing play and interests of creative and marketing industry professionals I welcome as guests.

2) What does a day in the life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?

Like other freelance and independents, my days tend to change based on my current project workload.

That said I’m probably still pretty traditional in saying it starts with coffee, maybe only slightly less so by mentioning the 20 minutes of meditation preceding the coffee.

From there I’ll check up where I’m at with my loose to do list typically updated at the beginning of every week, check up on emails, news headlines, and social media.

I had been using Evernote for over 10 years as a knowledge management and organization system, and I’m recently moving over to Roam Research, so I’m still organizing and learning how it all works at the moment.

Then I’d get back into a paid project if that’s what there is to do. Those tend to be really varied, but almost all would involve a research phase, followed by some synthesis, then drafting of a document, generally in written or slide presentation form.

Occasionally it might be slightly different, for example recently testing collaborative virtual whiteboards for remote workshops. Live projects will include meetings and calls – whether remote or in person, depending on the client. 

Sometimes I can also be working directly at an agency or brand client’s office too, which aside from a commute doesn’t tend to change the day much.

If I have a low paid project load, or am between projects, then I’m spending more time looking for new leads, recording and editing my podcast, catching up on research, books, and industry news, writing, and designing new exercise or workshop content.

3) Does your current role allow for flexible or remote working? If so, how does that fit into your life and routine?

Yes, having a lot of flexibility is an important part of the way I have and still am designing my role as an independent consultant, and my life overall, really. I’ve been privileged enough to be able to take time off between jobs in my life. 

Sometimes that meant traveling on a budget in between contracts to ski or scuba-dive, or spending time with friends and family.

It can also mean taking some time in the middle of the work day I described above to learn something new, play tabletop games, have lunch with a friend, go out for a walk, or even just take a nap in the afternoon.

I sometimes berate myself in thinking I should be more productive, but that tends to happen when I compare myself with others (say fellow professionals I identify with or even know, and look at their social media activities), but then I try to take a step back and think of what is important to me. 

4) What does work-life balance mean to you and how do you work to achieve that goal?

I’m going to hand over this answer to a way better writer than I am, and because I can’t really sum things up any better.

In his autobiography, author James Michener says:

The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his information and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he’s always doing both.

Achieving that goal is certainly tricky. I’m always looking at ways to do that; it’s a work in progress. As mentioned above, considering what is important to you is key.

For me it has meant accepting a lot more uncertainty in life, for example not always knowing where my next project or source of income is going to come from, in exchange for time and flexibility in my life.

I believe it also really takes knowing oneself, and the industry, world, or even society inside of which we operate – while accepting at the same time that it’s probably way too complex to fully understand. 

Meditation has become important for me (I tried a few practices, and have settled on Sam Harris’ Waking Up app, I really enjoy it) and a number of personal growth and development courses have helped me a lot.

The two I go back to on a regular basis and credit with the most benefit in my life are learnings and practices from Landmark Worldwide courses I participated in, and Gallup Strengths – including their Theme Thursday podcast I highly recommend checking out if you did their test.

I don’t have ties to these things, these are what works for me. Maybe you’ll find other ways, courses, apps, methodologies, or whatever. 

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5) In the past 12 months, have you started or stopped any routines or habits to change your life?

I changed my life completely nearly 12 months ago, by moving from Chicago back to Paris after 15 years away, and I feel I’m still re-adapting to living in France. I started writing and podcasting in French in addition to English.

I’ve never been extremely assiduous in following through on physical exercise habits, though I’m conscious I turned nearly 40 a year ago and want to keep in  somewhat decent shape.

I started swimming weekly at the beginning of this year but the pandemic and lockdown interrupted that quite abruptly. Swimming pools in Paris recently reopened so I should go again.

As mentioned above I am shifting to Roam for my personal and professional organization and knowledge management system, and I’m hoping for it to be a big game-changer. I’m writing this reply in Roam right now, and I have high hopes in their bi-directional links to help information and ideas resurface.

6) Do you have any favourite books, podcasts or newsletters that you’d like to recommend?

I always have loads! I’ll try to limit my recommendations.

Books:

  • Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Pr. Yuval Noah Harari (and all his other books)
  • Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull
  • The Anatomy of Humbug, by Paul Feldwick
  • Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki
  • A Theory of Fun for Game Design, Raph Koster

Podcasts:

Newsletters:

7) Are there any products, gadgets or apps that you can’t live without?

I think I mentioned them already, and most of the rest is pretty uneventful or tends to change: a Pixel smartphone, a MacBook, a Blue Yeti mic, Zoom H5 digital recorder, Dropbox, Miro.com, etc.

8) If you could read an interview about work-life balance by anyone, who would that be?  

I’ve often found the most interesting people to learn from just do their thing and aren’t necessarily actively or publicly sharing anything about their lives.

Still, let’s say game designer Jason Morningstar.

A fellow strategy consultant and friend also interested in work-life balance, Heather LeFevre
Maurice Cherry, host of the Revision Path podcast.

If they were still around, then Shuryu Suzuki and Terry Pratchett

9) Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?

I’ll just rephrase what I’ve said above: the more you know yourself and what is important to you, the better you can orient and align your life and career to your values and ideals.

In other words it’s the Japanese concept of Ikigai. However you do that is key to whatever balance you aspire to.

I’ll finish with quotes from a master, and one of the books I recommended:

The best way is to understand yourself, and then you will understand everything. So when you try hard to make your own way, you will help others, and you will be helped by others. Before you make your own way you cannot help anyone, and no one can help you.

Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice

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About Author

Balance The Grind gives me a platform to talk to these people about how they're achieving their ideal lifestyle. I'm inspired by the passion, the work ethic, the hustle; and these conversations motivate me to live life the way I want to live it.