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Episode 148: Dersu Rhodes on Finding Purpose Through Play

This week on the show: Dersu Rhodes, former VP of Creative at MUD\WTR, former Creative Director at VICE, current freelancer and all-around creative genius. Dersu discusses his career path, what his current phase of creativity looks like, how to discover your passion, and more. Dersu focuses on exploration, authenticity, and bravery. There may or may not be mention of puppets. This one is a can't-miss episode!

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Episode Transcript

Dersu: I think in the outdoor, especially, like, environment, I think there is like a lot of facades sometimes of like, you'll see people sort of… they're really good at something and you don't get a lot of depth. But then you… within, you know, people don't reveal a lot of themselves. And I think there is something exciting about… even thinking about Free Solo is like, you got such an in-depth look at Alex's life and like really vulnerable sharing from his wife about him and their… you know, I think for me that's like the guts of where as humans we can start to really connect, which is like us opening up as individuals on a super deep level and not being afraid of what people think. Because that's the way that we find, like, the deepest connection to each other.


Lisa: Welcome to Outside By Design. I am your host, Lisa Slagle, and I hope my audio is okay. I'm recording this from my cabin in Montana, and the wifi out here is questionable. So here’s hoping it's good enough.

Today is a great episode. It is with Dersu Rhodes. And I know I always say it's a great episode, but I find Dersu to be like a cool, fascinating, very talented human. He was the creative director at Vice, he was the VP of Creative at MUD\WTR. He's worked at a ton of different brands throughout the action sports industry, and now he recently started freelancing. And I think this is a fascinating episode on a personal level because I'm in kind of a similar… I hope it's not a midlife crisis, but I'm in a similar point of change in my life. And I just find Dersu's journey to be inspiring and honest and rough around the edges in the best way possible and just like so real.

And I can't wait to see what comes out of it because. like, change isn't packaged well and tied up well. And he's very open about everything he's going through starting freelancing, you know, 20 years into his career and… he is just a very wise guy, a very thoughtful human. Anyway, enough from me, over to Dersu.


Lisa: Dersu. Thank you so much for being on the podcast today.

Dersu: You're so welcome, I'm happy to be here.

Lisa: I'm excited to talk to you because you've done a lot in your career and as a person. You've moved around the country. And we don't know each other that well. So the first question I always ask everyone is where are you in the world and what are you looking at? So I’m gonna I ask you that and then tie it into and how did you get into this exact moment?

Dersu: Yay! I am in Topanga, California, right outside of LA, it's about… yeah 20 minutes from Venice up towards Malibu and you just wind up this little canyon road. It's an amazing community, this is where… I think there was a lot of iconic artists and weirdos that hung out here. I think at one point you had some cults hanging out up here, and then Neil Young had a spot up here. So it's like definitely a bit of a funky space. We at rent a little house up here.

I'm looking at a bunch of beautiful, beautiful greenery because we've been nailed with so much rain. So it's so gorgeous here. I'm also looking at a poster for the grand finale party of the Kater Holzig bar in Berlin that was like an iconic bar/club that I got the opportunity to spend a lot of time I was living in Berlin during my… maybe we'll call it like quarterlife crisis. And yeah, and then looking at one last thing, which is an amazing photo that my friend Chris Straley took, it's a cover of Surfing Magazine and it's the first time I ever arrived at the North Shore and it was this huge second reef set that was coming through and one of the guys that was on the team that I was working for at the time at Reef, Tiago [unintelligible] is getting the craziest barrel of his life. And he's so deep and the whole beach is filled with people and it's like… I'll send you the photo. It's really special. So that's like framed, signed by my friend Chris. So that's my little office. It's pretty humble. But yeah, that's that's what I'm looking at.

And what was the second part of the question?

Lisa: How, like, what's your journey? How did you get to this moment?

Dersu: Yeah, oh my gosh. I mean, I grew up in Whitefish and I was going… was really interested in art. I think art was like my salvation in so many ways. Mr. Collinsworth, shout out, Whitefish High School. He basically was one of my big inspirations of just finding myself through art. And I also met a few people along the road. My dad being one of them, obviously, my mom, that were really interested in design and art and we were drawing constantly on napkins, we didn't have a TV ‘til I was seven. So there was like a lot of, just, art, because of the fact that was what we had to do as far as entertainment. And I remember going to art school at the University of Victoria and it was very abstract, super conceptual. I was craving, like, tangible design skills and so I ended up, after college, basically teaching myself a lot of it. Because back then I didn't feel like… I mean, photoshop was kind of on the… it was the beginning. Illustrator I don't even think existed yet. And so you were dealing with like a lot of - yeah, I'm dating myself here, but - it was… you're dealing with a lot of just not very hard skills. And so I remember jumping on Youtube and just like really teaching myself that.

And actually my first project ever was the was Meadow Lake Golf Course. I did a brochure for them probably in 2005, something like that. So… and then from there I decided I wanted to learn how to surf and I was a snowboarder and so I ended up by ripping down on a trip to San Diego and and then fell in love with it here. And ended up spending 10 years in San Diego and then 10 years in LA. LA was kind of like the evolution of San Diego in a lot of ways culturally, so it was really exciting to be here.

But yeah, and so then I'm in this, like, wild chapter right now of just being… I just went contract for the first time in my life. I've been… I was involved in a lot of massive projects for long periods of time, I was at Reef for 5 years, I worked in the surf industry, I've worked at Volcom, DC, I was contracting at Quicksilver, at Billabong. So many different… Spy. So there was a lot of action sports, action sports. Like, learning the sort of the rules of the game with apparel design and footwear design and marketing. And then ended up by… going from there, wanting to learn the agency world. And then just dove headfirst into that and was working for a bunch of different agencies, digital agencies and things of that nature. Learned web design. And then my… I guess it was kind of like the big culmination of my career, I felt at that time, was I got a job at Vice Media. And the very beginning of the LA office, so they had just opened the LA office. And I interviewed with Matt Shane, who actually passed last year, but he interviewed me on this like purple couch in this weird… it looked like a post World War II bunker. And I ended up getting that job and then helped build the design team and creative team in LA and was there for 8 years. Which in Vice years is like 60 years.

Lisa: [laughs]

Dersu. Yeah. And it's also wild that they just declared bankruptcy, I think like two days ago. Which is sad but that's a whole other story. But anyways, yeah, and then I was at MUD\WTR for two years. And for those of you who don't know what MUD\WTR is, it's a coffee replacement brand that I think really took on a lot of cultural relevancy just because we were championing the conversation around mental health and I think we were really excited about pushing the envelope. Our founder was talking about microdosing on a podcast. He was published in Fast Company about supporting microdosing with his employees. It was like very, I think, yeah, cutting edge in a lot of ways and we definitely wanted to push the envelope of just like, how do you do business? How do you take care of your employees? What's the way that you talk about mental health? How do you sort of dissect the culture of hustle culture in itself? Because I think, as you know with creativity, it's… a lot of times those two are really married. It's like… if you really want to do well, if you want to, you know, be perceived as being a hard worker and being valuable, you gotta work all the time. And there was that culture that was like, just drink a ton of coffee and don't sleep and like pull all-nighters and you rock and roll. But obviously, as you know, that's like definitely not sustainable.

So I'm in this interesting chapter right now of just trying to figure out… yeah, like, what is it that lights me up? Even in the moments of work… I realized, I think this is something really interesting, is that as creatives - I think especially designers - it's almost like you tier different types of work as being either junior or senior work. So it was almost like, oh, if you're working on a keynote deck or you're doing a logo design, you're like a junior designer. But then if you are on a shoot, you're an art director. And then if you're like leading a pitch, you're a creative director. And so you start to tier those different disciplines and then you realize that, like, okay, what are those measured on? Are they measured on sort of your perception of what success is in a career or is it that you actually love those things and you sort of have evolved to them? And what I realized is that in these last two months, like, I actually love design. And for a long time I sort of perceived design to be kind of the, like, junior… like, I'm a creative director and I don't do design, I just… I just pitch and talk about, you know, how we're going to make things and schmooze with clients. And I realized, okay, that's a lot of bureaucracy. And I don't mind that part, I actually love the conversation, but as far as, you know, as a creative, like, you sit with what you're actually doing and just sit down and and and you're doing the work. Like, check in. How does your body feel? And a lot of times lately I'm like, I actually really enjoy these parts of the process that I never thought that I liked. And so it's been really fun to kind of fall back in love with like design in its simplest terms and sketching and like… I'm doing these drawings now. And yeah, I bet you - it kind of feels like an ego death - and some people would probably say it's like a midlife crisis for sure.

Lisa: Okay, I'm going through something fairly similar.

Dersu. Yay. Congratulations. [laughs]

Lisa: How old are you?

Dersu: I'm 41.

Lisa: You’re 41. I turn 36 tomorrow.

Dersu: Wow, happy early birthday.

Lisa: Thank you. And I started my company when I was 22. You know, and it's just been the same thing where I'm like, I had to like take on this ego as like an employer, like, a creative director and an employer. And you know and then it's like… but I actually love picking up a mouse. I've never loved being like… I don't know, like, I've loved the actual act of making things with people and that production. So I'm curious, like, for you - because you were the VP of creative at MUD\WTR, you were the fancy creative director Vice, like LA creative director guy - like, how are you doing without a team? And like, going solo? And kind of doing everything - or maybe you still have a team, but I don't know, where are you at with that?

Dersu: No, yeah, I'm doing everything. I'm working with a friend Scott Suter [sp] who's actually in Whitefish, his dad Tom Suter is an amazing designer and he… yeah, but basically like, had been, you know, pairing projects with him but we're doing everything. And I think… And then, a lot of these other projects, yeah, I'm by myself. And honestly… I think there's definitely points where I wouldn't say I excel in the financial part of things very well, like, I think I have a tough time sometimes talking about money and asking for what I'm worth and that part's a bit tough. And I and I would say there's like definitely some correspondence things and there's sticky parts of it where I feel a little stuck and feel like, okay, maybe this isn't the best use of my time. But overall I really enjoy it. I mean, I think there's systems that you can put into place and I think about this concept a lot, of impact versus effort. And it's really thinking about… there's times when you're by yourself where you start to spin in circles and you get stuck kind of working on something that's maybe not moving very far, and I think about this graph, almost, of like… our old boss at MUD\WTR, Shane, was sort of… presented this idea of, you've got impact, you know and effort. And impact is sort of this way and effort’s this way. And as you go along, it's like, the amount of effort that you have to put in, the impact is a little bit less. So I think it's like really being aware of how much time am I putting into something and how much impact is that going to have on my business?

And I think at the first stages of projects, you’re… a little bit of effort goes a long way. You know, you could design a sketch of a website within like 10 minutes, but then there's this point where you start playing with buttons, button colors and like typography, and you could do something for like a week and not make that much of a difference. And I think just in general with like our work as individual creatives, it's really important to think about you know if you're filled with joy and energy, great. That's a great little place to follow, you know, as far as keeping yourself balanced. But if you find yourself being really taxed by jobs that you're feeling stuck in and you realize like the amount of impact this is going to make on my career or on this job or on my life is really minimal, it's usually a good opportunity to like, assess and say, okay, well is there anybody that can help me with this that does it faster? You know, as you know, it's a little scary to pay other people to do things because it's out of pocket. But I do find that I have reached out to a few people and gotten help and things. Jnd just also asking, you know, phoning a friend has been huge. I've got amazing friends that are willing to help. And I feel like we're always trading ideas. So many people are on their own right now. So I'm really encouraging a lot of my friends as well as reminding myself to reach out for help and just ask people, hey what do you do? I was asking somebody the other day, like do you register, you know, record your billing when an invoice comes in or when you send it out? And just stuff like that, where it's like, I don't know, you know. So I think that's a really good way to look at it.

Lisa: Yeah, for many years my overhead to just keep the lights on at Wheelie was seventy thousand a month. Which is like, that's a lot of creative work to pump out, regardless. And then it would be like okay, I had one guy who's like super good at web. And then I had way too many video projects. So meanwhile, I'm like, I got to sell web projects to keep this guy busy. And it was just like feeding this machine that became really unpleasant for me after years. Like, at first it was exciting. For the first 10 years I'm like yeah I can do this I can make all these puzzle pieces fit together. But then it started depleting me, I’m like, what are we doing? Because I think that creative work is really powerful and it can change the world and like, making sure that we're using those powers for like a positive impact became really important to me. And I'm curious like, you're calling it a midlife crisis, like what do you envision for the next…

Dersu: Yeah, the next chapter.

Lisa: the next chapter, or like, what do you want it to feel like? Or like, I don't know, it's hard to just be like, this is what I want, but like, I don't know. How do you want to feel when you're 50?

Dersu: Yeah, great question. I think… I want to play more. That's really been the theme of this last couple months for me has been I fell out of play. I think everything got very serious and I even find myself in a lot of these moments thinking about, what is the reason for this existing? You know? And I think there's been a huge amount of energy and probably stress and kind of like intensity around this me finding my purpose. And this idea that if I'm on this earth for this period of time, what is my purpose on this planet? And I worry that that actually… well for one, it's like, a bit abstract. And to follow it is… can be challenging because it's… it's like, okay, well there's the quintessential things that are purposeful, which is you know, save the planet or, you know, help people in need, or donate your time or, you know, take care of people that are less fortunate. I think there's like all these things like that. But it's a lot of pressure to suddenly make a decision and to devote yourself to this without really knowing what lights you up. And I think to me, those two are hand in hand. This idea of energy and finding your purpose is when you are the most activated, I think, as a human. And the most on your edge or the most energized. And so I think that's the… that's the map that you use or like, the guide, is essentially playing. And I think about my friend Ben Nemtin who wrote a book called The Buried Life. And essentially he had a show on MTV back in the day where him and his buddies drove around in a van and they would check off things off their bucket list and every time they would check something off their bucket list, they would help somebody else. Yeah, you're… you remember that.

Lisa: Yeah.

Dersu: So I remember him saying, you know, just make a bucket list and check a bunch of stuff off it. And I remember thinking that he was super selfish and that the whole thing was kind of stupid because it was like, great. You're very privileged that you get to drive around and do anything you want, like ride a bull or like go play basketball with Obama. But what about, you know, people that are struggling or feeling uninspired, etc. And what would you say to somebody in that case? And I recently heard him on a podcast with Aubrey Marcus and what he said was really like resonating with me deeply, this idea that play is your path to your purpose. Because to put so much pressure to think like, oh I want to be this, and you ask a kid that it's like, I don't know! Like, a kid has to be a kid and there's an exploration that happens. There's a finding the wrong door and realizing that you're unhappy, there's a, you know, finding something that really doesn't make any sense that your parents are like, there's no way you're going to do that because that doesn't make any sense. You can't make a career off that. But I would say a lot of times those are the big clues and it's like the times when things don't make sense and you're just really excited seeing like, how do I play in that zone? And what Ben is saying in that podcast was basically, you know, write a bunch of stuff down that you've always wanted to do that always has excited you. That doesn't make any sense. That is sort of playful. But like, you know, doesn’t amount, associate to a career. And then do a bunch of it and see what… really, what happens. And you would be surprised, you know, you could find yourself in some sort of situation where you're really excited and turned on and all of a sudden things start to fall in a place and there's this vision of like hey I think I could do more of this.

So, to me, I would say it's not selfish. It's actually what the world needs. And I'm really trying to remind myself that at this stage of my life. It's like, how do I express myself as genuinely as possible? And through those comics that I'm doing has been one way. It's like, you know, just sharing really from the heart of what's going on in my life and trying to like do away with the facade of how do I present myself so that everyone thinks I'm super put together? And, you know, losing my job at MUD\WTR was one of the huge catalysts for sort of the erosion of all of these constructs for me because I felt so… just everything crumbled. And I actually did a comic about it. It was like this idea that my whole career that I built for 20 years has crumbled and what's left? Like, do people even think I'm cool? What the fuck am I going to do with myself? And then all of a sudden it was like, okay, if I can share genuinely what's happening in this moment, you know, maybe that - one, it feels good, but like, the beautiful thing is that it starts to impact people and I think that people find a little bit and of themselves in it. And so... I guess the really long-winded answer to what I'm experiencing is that my hope is to play in a way that lights me up in this next chapter. And whether it's you know, just through art or through design or through creative ideas, like, what's the disruption? And the kind of way that we we start to take ourselves a little less serious and to try things and see if we can apply those to serious issues or places that really need our help like the planet. You know, what happens when you really drop into what excites you? Is there a thread there that can tie into you actually conserving the resources you love or to helping a client that you believe in with a really obscure creative idea that disrupts the whole playing field? I think that's… that to me is really exciting. And, yeah I mean… right now I'm writing a puppet musical.

Lisa: [laughs] You are?

Dersu: Like, what? Yeah. I mean, it doesn’t make any sense. No one... Everyone's like… what the hell are you doing dude? But it really excites me. I like, I’m smiling for, you know, an hour while I work on it because it's just so silly. And yeah, I think that's what I'm hoping for. And as far as career, I don't know. Like, hopefully be able to you know, pay for our rent, that would be cool. And maybe someday buy a house. But like, right now I think it's just play by play. Yeah.

Lisa: Okay, I love this. So, puppet musical. What else are you kind of exploring?

Dersu: Yeah, the comics have been really special. I think there's this part of it where it's like any time that I feel tension or almost ashamed or anything that feels like it's going to make people mad or, you know, push some buttons, I immediately start to draw. Because it's… it’s like I feel like that's the good stuff. It's the juicy stuff, these moments of insecurity, of… you know, I was thinking about the other day, I caught myself making up a story that was like not exactly the truth when someone asked me something that was slightly uncomfortable. And I realized that was… that opened up this whole box of like, moments where throughout my life, I've tweaked the truth to sort of come across more put together. And I was… and so I drew something about it. And it was really out of my comfort zone to say that you know it's like, hey, I have… ‘I'm like addicted to lying’ was essentially what the hook of it was. And obviously it's deeper than that and like, I wouldn't say I've relapsed very much in the last few years, but it was something that was a huge part of my childhood, was you know making up stories to be accepted by friends. And so, in those little narratives I think there's a lot of really cool things for all of us to look at. It's like, you know, going into, what are the places where you felt maybe the most insecure and kind of stuck? And like, what are ways that you can express that? Especially as artists or like, anything… writers.

I think in the outdoor, especially, like, environment, I think there is like a lot of facades sometimes of like, you'll see people sort of… they're really good at something and you don't get a lot of depth. But then you… within, you know, people don't reveal a lot of themselves. And I think there is something exciting about… even thinking about Free Solo is like, you got such an in-depth look at Alex's life and like really vulnerable sharing from his wife about him and their… you know, I think for me that's like the guts of where as humans we can start to really connect, which is like us opening up as individuals on a super deep level and not being afraid of what people think. Because that's the way that we find, like, the deepest connection to each other.

And so I'm a bit on a crusade to do that right now and I think it's either through comics. It's through art. It's through film. It's through puppet theater. It's… Yeah. I think a lot of it too is just, you know, I want to lead a men's group eventually. I'd love to work with kids again, maybe in some facilitation standpoint. Yeah. So those are kind of like the ways that I'm playing right now.

And project wise, I’m working on a project that's kind of in a similar zone but it's called Roam America and it's just launching. And they're essentially finding like old KOA campgrounds that have been… I would say ignored or left behind, and helping them kind of revive with better wi-fi and that really nice bathrooms and better food and… you know? So I think there's a cool project there that's thinking about like, how do we brand kind of the the road trip experience in a way that makes it really fun and playful? But those are some of the things up from a top level. Yeah.

Lisa: Okay, so Tina Fey kind of makes all these jokes very openly about how, like, in Hollywood women over 40 should just die. Because like, society's like, ‘oh they're over 40? They mean nothing.’ Like, goodbye!

Dersu: Totally, totally.

Lisa: And become irrelevant. And so like I have friends who are writing books about quite the opposite, of like all the wisdom and everything that they learn makes them more powerful after they turn 40 and that basically everything they did up until then was just winging it. Do you feel because you've been through so many cool experiences, you've led teams, you're tremendously talented. Like do you feel like you're just getting started or that like you're at this point where like you kind of have the gift of choice?

Dersu: Oh my gosh. Yeah. I Love the way you just framed that. Because… I think that's the fear also for men as well. And I know that culturally we… I would say that you've got a lot of this, like… how do I say this? It seems like there's this idea of age and kind of becoming less creative or less relevant in some ways, I think. Where you're not at the edge of trends in the sense of, you know, you look to the younger generation to who's the hottest artist like, who's, you know, who are the musicians that are doing things? And so I think that's part of the trope. It's this idea that you sort of become irrelevant as you get older because you get uncool. So I think that's like a fear of mine as well. Or you have to dress a certain way. And I think… yeah, I definitely have these weird ego things that start to come up of, am I too old to DJ? I still DJ, am I too old to DJ? Like am I… is there a point where you know, the way that I dress… if I wore an earring or something, is that like… are people going to say like, ‘who's the old guy?’ and so yeah, there's there's the physical fears.

But then as far as this chapter, if I really sit with it, I love the way you just said… it's like, I feel finally free in some ways. Like, I'm able to kind of relax around this needing to prove myself. Which is such a huge shift. I think it's the natural evolution of humans in general. It's like, if you think about the way that we were hunters and gatherers. It was like, young people were either, you know, the ones who are the go-getter foragers or the go-getter hunters or the go-getter protectors or healers and were probably in their younger… it was the way that it kind of like keeps the tribe safe. You have to have people that are like out there trying to prove them themselves counting coup or like whatever that looked like. And then as you get older, it's like, you start to sit back and, you know, maybe once in a while say something wise around the campfire. But like, that need to to prove yourself and like, you know, ride your horse fast or whatever that looks like I think starts to dissipate because this feeling of like, I've done it and I'm exhausted and I just want to like be present and enjoy my life. Because yeah, I've gone through a lot of it. And so, I would say for me, it's like… my hope is that I would be able to really appreciate where I'm at and less of this like wanting to go somewhere else.

And, you know, when you're younger, it's always like middle school, oh wait I wish I was in high school because the high school kids are so cool. Then in high school, you're like, fuck high school I wish I was in college because the college kids are the best. They don't have parents. And then all of a sudden you're like, oh shit I'm 40. Like, now I kind of want to slow down. It's like, I'm not… not in that zone of trying to chase something as much. I don't know. Yeah. I don't want to sound like an old man here. But I think that's what's going on for me.

Lisa: One thing I have found with creative directors specifically, myself included, is this fear of being uncool. And this, like, desire to be cool. And I think that's what actually… that ego in there pushes someone to be a really good creative director because it's this intersection of brand and culture nd curiosity. But I think that's like a huge way I'm wired, is like I have this like deep fear of being uncool. And I'm like really uncool. I like, sit at home and read books. You know like I'm tremendously uncool and like, I don't know I've been embracing that and that feels… that feels pretty nice. Like, just to be who I am.

Dersu: Yeah, because when you embrace that, that's when your unique self starts to come through. If, you know, it's like… to not embrace you whatever the attributes you have of yourself is to fake it. And so everyone can feel when someone's faking it, unfortunately. You know, you can sense it in a performance even, within a musical performance when someone's sort of being showboaty. It's like, you kind of sense it. I remember, you know, I talk a lot about this idea of authenticity and how you come across. It's been proven over and over that someone can be technically less proficient but come at it from such an open-hearted place and such a genuine place that they come across in an incredibly appealing way and people really resonate with them and connect with them even though they might be singing out of key or their art might not be perfect. But something about the way that they're doing it, it's like it's them. Truly. And that's what we connect with as humans. It's like, it's down to a physiological and psychological level a hundred percent. And so trying to fake anything is going to divide you from connecting with people, unfortunately. And it's something that I probably learned a little too late because I spent a lot of time faking it for sure. [laughs] I guess you kind of have to in some way right? At the beginning.

Lisa: Yeah.

Dersu: It's like, you're trying stuff on. Maybe. We'll say. Yeah.

Lisa: So you in passing earlier in the conversation, you referenced your quarter life crisis.

Dersu: Yeah.

Lisa: What was that?

Dersu: Oh my gosh, that was me breaking up with my long-term girlfriend, running away to Berlin, dressing in all black, listening to hard techno, pulling like full weekends at a club without leaving, getting to know my dark side, falling in love with a German girl for like four days, getting broken up by a German girl, ending up like in a place where I was really lonely, super unhealthy, also really inspired. And I think it was for me the point of my life where I started to sort of embrace a bit of the darkness as a way of expression. And I think California is very, it's beautiful and it's super light and airy and kind of like beautiful… and I think Berlin has this… it embraces a lot of the darkness, it embraces a lot of ambiguity around sexuality and around self-expression through music and art. It was a place where you know you had a wall that was up for so many years, there was a war there, the whole city got demolished. So it's got this essence of like, there's a lot of soul and deep pain that was there and also beautiful creative expression and acceptance. So I think for me, it was like such a revolutionary part of my life to like, just to really find myself in a different way. And I came back, I think, with… my art was much better. My music was much better. I was… like, I had more depth. It wasn't just this kind of Steve Aoki, like Bag Raiders, like just trance… you know, like upbeat. I think just from a musical sense like Berlin is much more minimal. It has, like, nuances of of electronic music. The techno has got so much depth to it that's really subtle and I think less obvious. And I think for me that subtlety is actually really beautiful and something that I try to incorporate in a lot of like my art. My design. And even you know maybe the way I dress and stuff. Yeah.

Lisa: And you grew up in Whitefish, raised by the town's most lovable hippies.

Dersu: [laughs]

Lisa: Like, I don't know, and now you're in California, like, how do you feel like growing up a Whitefish impacted your sense of creativity?

Dersu: I think for me, it's connection to the earth and to nature would probably be the biggest lasting impact, I think. As far as my dad - and mom, my dad made church… our church was basically Glacier Park so it was like every Sunday we would go and cross-country ski or go hike. And it was really important to them and my dad, I remember, would yell things out about you know the spirits or like he'd be like, you know, ‘they're listening!’ you know, or something of that nature. And I think for me at first I was so ashamed of it. I remember one time we were driving in the car and my dad made everybody get out of the car. We were coming back from skiing and I'm in middle school and he's like, ‘everyone out of the car we're going to watch the sunset!’ And I remember feeling like, ‘oh fuck. Are you kidding me?’ And we ended up getting out of the car. My friends were like, you know, thought it was cool, actually. I was super embarrassed. But I think it really was like this deep connection to the earth. And, you know, Whitefish in general like has a lot of amazingly creative people in it. You know, like, I think about my friend Pete Thomas who's doing amazing art, I mean, you're doing awesome stuff, like my friend Canyon came from there, was was painting all the time. It's like, I don't know, you have the Nate Chute Classic that was a lot of expressive art.

You know, I think the Native American input as well was really huge for me, I think I really resonated with Blackfoot art and with the history there. I felt it. And yeah, I think for me, it was like a huge part of actually my youth. I remember seeing Mrs Audette who was a teacher that I had for a while, she said, ‘I still have a test that you drew an entire native american battle on the back of the test. I think you got a D on the test, but there was this like amazing drawing on the back.’ So I, yeah, I think for me it was a huge part of me, I think about it all the time.

I think it gives me perspective also to connect with people that are not like California people. I can go somewhere and be in a really country situation where there's somebody who's wearing a Trump hat and he's like you know, ah got his old Bronco and I get out of the car and I can like connect with him beyond the the affiliation of like who you you know resonate with. Like, there's a deep appreciation for for farming for country, I think that's huge in design and art. It's like, if you can as a creative talk to people across the divide, that's so massive. And just to understand them and to have compassion and like really feel in your body what it's like to connect with someone like that, I think everything you do within art and design and creativity like speaks to people, right? So I think having that depth of like embracing where you come from and your history is actually like a beautiful tool. And it's like the only tool that… you are the only person who has that specific tool. So using that to like connect with people that you grew up with and that you resonate with I think is a really special thing.

Lisa: Yeah, yeah, you have like that layer and then you have like the crazy time in Berlin and then now you're in LA, or outside of LA, like I feel like you are set up to kind of… I don’t know, I like this stepping stone that you've made of your life where now you can kind of explore and play and like I'm really really curious to see what happens next in this story.

Dersu: Yeah, yeah. Me too. I don't… I think… I love the theme of letting go of the paddles on the river. This idea that you're like, you know, I think you can steer, but this idea of trying to exhaust yourself rowing all over the river is a really cool metaphor for I think sometimes where we are as humans. It's like, okay I don't really like this side of the river, I want to go over there. Like, you know, and you're like, ‘oh wait, but it was cool back there.’ There's… I think, sometimes it's like instead of exhausting yourself rowing all over the place, there's this moment of just being able to like lift your paddles up and just like relax and enjoy the river and whoever's in your boat at that moment. And not being so sure of what's coming next and maybe not thinking about it as much. And it's easy to say when you obviously like have a job. And if you're struggling and in a place of uncertainty, I definitely sympathize with that. It's, like, really hard. And I think to just tell somebody who's in that situation to lift the paddles, it’s to just tell you to screw yourself. Because it's tough like in that moment. But I do think it's like a… life seems to be this contracting and expanding almost like of a hand you know and it's like you're going to contract you're going to expand you're going to contract you're going to expand, it just happens over and over. Nothing is constant. So there is maybe this world of me trying to find peace when there is a contraction and just like know that it's going to expand again. Maybe I don't feel social right now. Maybe I don't feel very sexy. Maybe I don't feel like my life is on track. But like, I will again at some point. Yeah. And I think that it's like relative in that way.

Lisa: I'm just happy you're on the podcast during this time in your life and this can be like a little little documented moment of like you be like yeah looking back at it being like that was kind of a cool moment in time.

Dersu: I'm so glad you're doing this. I mean, it's really fun. I feel like, yeah… I mean, to build this kind of community as well where you have people that are, you know, rallying around an idea. And I mean, the episodes you've done have been amazing. So I think it's really fun to get to join this and have a little conversation.

Lisa: It's cool. I think one thing I've been working on is like, I spend so much time in my imagination. Like, so much time. And I'm writing this book called The Business Of Imagination because I just make ideas up and I sell them. And then I get a whole team to rally behind an imaginary thing that doesn't exist. And then we build it, right? So I get these tremendously talented people to work towards something that's not real yet. And like, the dark side of that is I live in my head. And I live in like a fantasy land. And it's so easy for me to look at something and imagine how it could be better or like look at a product and imagine how it could transform or like who could impact or who could use it. You know? So like, I've been working on spending more time in reality [laughs] and just like basic things like the lighting or like… I don't know, just like looking at the way it is not the way it could be. And that's been a huge challenge. Do you go through anything like that as a creative where you're just like imagining shit all the time?

Dersu: Yeah, I mean I just experienced this very very tangibly. I was… we spent a weekend in the desert with just a bunch of friends celebrating a birthday and somebody brought - well it was kind of talking about this puppet thing, but somebody brought these puppets and it was… it was, they did a skit. It was just like, super silly. It was for our friend's birthday. And then the next thing you knew it, we like had kind of fallen into this whole… we almost made an entire film narrative. And we were… I got so swept up in it that it was… I could see all these scenes, I could really visualize what this would be like. And I really fell in love with it, I fell in love with the narrative, with the characters, with the idea. And like, it felt really special and unique. And then, you know, even coming back to work yesterday was like, pretty intense. It was pretty hard, I almost felt like I was waking up from a dream where you have this beautiful dream where you can fly and then all of a sudden it's like oh wait, you got to send some emails and do a Keynote deck. It was just, like, very sobering and kind of intense.

And I would say like, yeah, the dance between imagination and your real life... I recently spoke with a gentleman named John Couch who wrote a beautiful book about creativity and he talks about just the importance of showing up day to day to do the art. And how important that is to stick with it even when you don't feel like it, even when it doesn't make sense, and even when there's no like clear path that you see. It's like if you - once again, just like tapping into that feeling of excitement around an idea or like play - make believe, like you spending time in your mind, to me, is yeah, it's like, okay, maybe you're not fully in the present moment all the time, but check out how you feel. Like, what's your body doing? You know, if you're in your mind and you're in a negative place and you're thinking dark thoughts, that's like probably a good place to feel, like, where is that in your shoulders in your chest? But if really the thoughts that you're experiencing when you're in that state are really joyful and you're feeling excited and there's like ideas coming, to me, that's like the essence of creativity.

And another amazing idea comes from Maya Angelou and she talked a lot about when she was writing these poems, she would sit at her farmhouse and she could feel it coming. She was like sitting in the house or she was, you know, in the kitchen and she would feel this energy coming through the house. And she literally described it as like a dragon coming across the field. And if she didn't get down to start writing by the time the dragon would come through the house, she would lose the idea, she had to, like, pull it back by the tail. And sometimes she would even write her poems backwards. So I think this idea of like creativity and having, when it comes, just like be with it and be grateful for it and like play. To me, that's where the deepest, most beautiful, powerful work comes from. And like, you know, for me, it's like yeah, coming back to reality and the idea of you know, people's expression is similar to when I say I'm making a puppet musical. They're kind of like, you know, what kind of cannabis are you smoking at this moment? But really, I actually think it's like one of the moments that I've been the most excited has been kind of thinking about this in the last month or so. So yeah, it's like doesn't make any motherfuckin’ sense. But here I am. Like, let's go. I'm down.

Lisa: What is the theme of your puppet musical?

Dersu: It's based around... it's kind of based around myself and what happened when we were by the fire, I had never really… I gotta be honest, I just never sang in front of people and for some reason I got - my friend was playing the guitar and I had the courage to sing a song. And everybody after the end was like, wow that was actually really nice. You have a cool voice. And it's not perfect. It's kind of busted, whatever. But it kind of got us thinking like what - you know, is there this character that sort of can't find his voice who's very shy who happens to be working in an oyster shucking catering business [laughs] and who's in love with his boss? And what happens when he sort of tries to follow his voice? And yeah, we started to write kind of this funny love story that that's really sweet and also really funny. It's like, you know when he leaves the oyster company he gets replaced by Shuck Boy which is this total idiot oyster shucker, I mean it's like basically playing with with puppets and creating - we have a friend who's making puppets and so you know we're working with her and it's like yeah, it's just like a lot of playfulness and doesn't make any sense. And we were thinking about it, like, what is the end result? I don't know, it could be a performance. It could be a film. It could be just us playing at a party. It could be us just like literally… if you like let go of where you're going with this thing and where you end up, that gets really fun. Because it's like, it doesn't matter. Like, it doesn't have to be anything. Like, what if in this moment - and the minute that you stop being inspired and you're like this feels like work and we're stuck and like - maybe that's not the direction, you know? And detaching yourself from it being a failure. It's like, it'll somehow pop up somewhere else. It always does, like you have an idea that'll somehow morph itself into something really beautiful. It could be ten years later, you're like, ‘oh wait the puppet musical! Oh shit!’ You know, and who knows maybe it's a kid's book eventually. Yeah. I'm trying to see it like that, like less less control over what this is and let like the creative process be kind of the organic creature that that forms whatever it's supposed to be.

Lisa: Yeah. Shuck it.

Dersu: Shuck it! [laughs] Yeah exactly. Yeah.

Lisa: [laughs] That's amazing. I like that that's how you're spending some time and just - I don't know I think I think that's endearing.

Dersu: Yeah, it's fun. It's just - it gives you, gives me some energy.

Lisa: Huh. Do you - okay, so along those lines of like, that's like a fun thing that you're doing and exploring and playing, and then like to pay bills right now, stepping into freelancing, are you finding yourself in like a creative director role? Or are you kind of taking a step back and you're doing like a lot of contracted design work? Like, because people still need that.

Dersu: Yeah.

Lisa: Where are you at just kind of in like a practical exploration?

Dersu: Yeah, totally. I mean, the projects that I have are… I'm so grateful for, they’re really beautiful projects like the Roam America project I was telling you about is kind of like all facets of creativity. You know, it started with branding and it's like moving into art direction. You have a very small budget for a photo shoot, and so I'm trying to convince my friend to just get in a van with me and drive across the drive across the west and be able to, you know, shoot photos as we go and hopefully use that as our main campaign stuff. So it's like, there is, I think, creativity and creative direction happening within like every decision because you're kind of doing everything. Especially if you're working with a team that is excited to like push the envelope a little bit. And so that that part is definitely paying the bills. I'm also working with a musician named East Forest who makes - he just finished doing a tour called Music for Mushrooms which is like an album that's 5 hours that he wrote for spiritual, I guess, like guided psilocybin work. And so he is launching this documentary about this experience and about this tour. And so I'm working on positioning it creatively and figuring out how to really market this to the world and how to sort of brand it and, you know, what is the visual on the cover? What is the way that we're going to talk about it? How do you actually express Music for Mushrooms to people that maybe don't enjoy or back psychedelics? Like there's a really cool kind of bridge that we're trying to create there.

And then yeah, just like little projects here and there with other other people and honestly most of the connections have been made through friends and I would definitely encourage anybody who, you know, has recently gone on their own to really reach out to your friends. And like one of the things that I've been doing is - at first, it was like oh can you use a template and just like email a thousand people? That is definitely not recommended. I would say reach out, call your friends, call the people you loved working with, send them a really thoughtful Instagram message. And that's been really where I've built all of my clients so far. It's been like… has definitely not been on Linkedin, it's all been just through word of mouth and just like, ‘hey this is what I'm looking for I loved working with you.’ Because genuinely it's like - you know those people that you connected with, and we all want to help each other like I always want to help people that reach out to me. And honestly if you are listening to this and you're like, man, I want to get into this industry or do you know anybody who's a photographer? Like, whatever, I think that's where I'm at right now is like activating our networks and doing it through friends.

So yeah, that's the things that are keeping the lights on. And honestly, it’s pretty fickle like I have definitely a month where I was like okay this is getting weird and then there's a month where it's less weird. But I wouldn't say I'm like you know, fully just on cruise control. It's definitely still trying to build clients and find new work. You know. Yeah.

Lisa: Yeah, absolutely. And it's a super weird time in the world right now. But.

Dersu: Yeah I know I definitely sympathize for like yeah, all of us that are going through points that - if you've just recently left an organization that you loved, wow. That's like a full - that's a tough one. I've definitely experienced that.

Lisa: Yeah. What you just said resonates with me in that I am reevaluating all the ways I've essentially fucked up in capitalism. Because I had this, like, whole theory about like building a business ecosystem. So you have, like, your service base, your digital product, and you build yourself an ecosystem, right? And I was like it's just like nature! And then as I've been thinking about it I've been like no, no, no, like, one tree doesn't own the whole forest.

Dersu: Ah.

Lisa: Like, there's all these different things and they're their own private entities and that's what an ecosystem is. And so now I'm in this phase of, like, hiring my friends. Like, I'm all about nepotism, I'm all about, like, yes, let's do a project. And you're your own person and I’m my own person and we're not like all working for me at my company as a W2 employee.

Dersu: Ah.

Lisa: I'm bringing in people that are doing their own thing independently and I'm finding that the work is, like, outrageously better.

Dersu: Oh my gosh. Yeah, that's cool. I love that metaphor. I think being sometimes just like outside of the project a little bit and coming in with fresh eyes can be such an amazing gift for a team that's been buried in it for a while. That's really cool, I love - I love that you're doing that. And yeah, I mean, imagine a world where you've got all of these individuals who are empowered to really determine what projects they work on, being in control of their own destiny, work when they want to work, work when they would feel creative, and then they get to collaborate with other people that are inspired. And if you don't like a project you don't have to renew your contract. Like, imagine a world where you're not stuck in something for, like, long periods of time. I think the agency in its traditional sense will eventually pass. Yeah.

Lisa: Absolutely. I think agencies are dead. Absolutely. A hundred percent. Yeah. And I'm excited by that.

Dersu: Yeah, same. Yeah. And I think that like the collective - you know, I started a project called The Collective Yes, which essentially is a collective of people that are - you know, it's not like revolutionary in the idea. But I think, to me, it's the new way of working. It's - the collective is the new, is the future. It's like yeah because you want to have control over your - I think, to be stuck in something, it just doesn't work. Yeah. We'll see, I don't know. It's like, what parts of the agency are we going to miss? I don't know, maybe the Jaguar parking spots in the front that the rest of the creative team pays for for those executives? I'm not sure. [laughs] I have no idea. I mean, I think there's a trust thing. It's like you have insurance. You know, you go with a huge agency as a company, I Understand why you would, what you would have an agency. It's like, you're insured that they'll, you know, that they do good work, that the executives know what they're talking about, that they can talk the talk that you know that you have a team that supports you. But like, I also think you can hide a lot of things that are not totally honest and transparent within an agency and I think you have a lot of overhead that's not being actually put towards the work and it pays for some weird shit. So, you know, I hope I don't lose a lot of work because I just said that, but whatever.

Lisa: Whatever, whatever, it's -I don't know. Yeah. Instead of a latte I'm working on turning my life into an espresso shot. So more high octane, smaller.

Dersu: Yeah, that's awesome. Yeah I resonate with that.

Lisa: Cool. Well I want to respect your time and our listeners' time. Is there anything that I haven't asked you that you want to share? It's my final question.

Dersu: Yeah, Thank you. Oh, I appreciate being on this podcast. Yeah, it's so nice that you're doing this and it's like such a needed zone to talk in. I think like for me, no, I would just hope that that anybody who's listing who has ideas or or wants to collaborate, I would honestly encourage them to reach out. Because I think this is like a really exciting point where, yeah, if you're feeling sort of stuck and you want to get unstuck and you want to collaborate or just have a conversation, I would love to. And I think there'... just, if you also have an idea that doesn't make any sense, just, like, I would encourage you to follow it. Yeah. And it sounds kind of cheesy but it's true. I think there's really like a lot of energy that can be built that could also feed into your other more serious projects, even if it doesn't make a lot of sense and, you know, your friends and parents think it's stupid but you think it's awesome. I would encourage you to follow that one. And yeah, I really appreciate you having me on and and thanks so much for listening, everyone.

Lisa: Where can people find you online?

Dersu: You can find me @dersurhodes on Instagram and then yeah, you can… what else? I have - oh yeah,, I have a bunch of my work there. So yeah, those would be probably the two best places for now.

Lisa: Right on. Thanks so much Dersu.

Dersu: Thank you Lisa!


Lisa: Thanks for listening to Outside by Design, hosted by me, Lisa Slagle.

This show is produced by my creative agency, WHEELIE. You can find us at our website, You can also visit to find more episodes, transcripts, and show notes. And of course, we're on Instagram. It's @WheelieCollective.

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