Life & Business

Life & Business: Adam J. Kurtz

by Sabrina Smelko


Adam J. Kurtz is talented, refreshingly honest, and his work and career trajectory are great examples of how many options there are for creatives. On top of his wildly successful book, 1 Page at a Time, he recently launched a product collaboration with Urban Outfitters in stores now, created a #social #media t-shirt with Tumblr to raise money for charity, and tirelessly crafts new products to add to his shop (which most recently includes four lapel pins, four new ribbons, and the “Like” tee that’s all over Instagram).

Back in the winter, he joined us to share his refreshingly honest and relevant tips for success, and today we’re thrilled to have him back, doing what he does best: getting to the heart of the matter (and making us laugh), while sharing a bit more about himself and how he balances a 9-5 job with his business. And if you still can’t get enough, you can catch Adam signing copies of his book at the MoMA in NYC on June 25th.–Sabrina

You work for yourself and run your own business, all while working a 9-5. How did that come to be, and how does that function day-to-day?

Everything sort of happened by accident. As a graphic designer you learn not just the tools, but what to do with them, and so things have always felt accessible. If I wanted to do or make something, I knew it was possible. So I started making small products, started doing different personal projects online, started an online shop, started doing freelance projects. It’s always been my hobby, and working full-time is how it stays a hobby. It gives me a tremendous amount of freedom to just make what I like and not worry about having to get it right every time.

Day to day, things are pretty streamlined now. I love my job and it’s a great creative outlet. I’ll spend a few evenings or a Saturday packing up shop orders and working on personal projects, but I also do a lot less freelance now that I have a day job that’s actually fun.


Can you remember when you first learned about your field(s) of work? How did you discover what it was, and how did you know it was what you wanted to do?

I started with fan websites in the Geocities days and just kept on going, through message boards and social media, learning to edit images, and my words, for online spaces. When I was deciding what to study in college, graphic design was the only thing that made sense. It wasn’t even a question to me.

What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off your career?

In a lot of ways, I still feel like I’m starting my career. I could use business advice right now! But I remember the first year I had to actually file my own taxes, I was maybe 21? My parents’ accountant worked with me, and he said “hey, where are your expenses?” It just never occurred to me that I was a business and I had legitimate expenses. Major corporations are writing off their expenses, and if they are, then I definitely should be. I bought a printer.


Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running your own business? And on the other hand, what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned by working for someone else?

Don’t be afraid to ask for advice from someone else (but be tactful and polite). Work smarter, not harder. Spend a little money to save time. BUY A POSTAGE PRINTER. I don’t know why I waited so long. My DYMO 4XL + Endicia for Mac changed my life.

Working for others will teach you all sorts of things, from “how to get dressed for work” to “how to talk to other human beings.” I know so many people who freelance or work for themselves and I think in some ways you forget how the world works a little bit. It’s a gift and a curse.

Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences that you learned from or that helped you improve the way you work?

I had a trial run at a big New York ad agency. I worked two days in a “cool” office and had absolutely no idea what I was doing. Didn’t know what I was working on, didn’t know the culture, didn’t know how to talk to people, didn’t know how to get myself a coffee. I was terrified and it was obvious. It was a great experience. It is good to be terrified sometimes. It is good to not get the job. Sometimes you need a safe trial run at navigating a new space. A few months after that experience I started working at another cool agency. I had a somewhat better idea of the industry, and some anecdotes to break the ice.

If you were magically given 3 more hours per day, what would you do with them?

You know what? There are enough hours in the day. What would I do with extra time? I’m tired enough after 16 hours, I would be completely wiped after 19.

What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made due to your career?

I turned down a very flattering and career-changing offer from people I genuinely respect and admire. It was a dream job. A lot of people’s dream. Instead, I chose to keep doing what I love right now, which is my weird little personal creative world, even if it may not be as sustainable in the long run.

Can you name your greatest success (or something you’re most proud of) in your profession?

The release of my book, 1 Page at a Time: A Daily Creative Companion is easily my “greatest success,” at least on paper (pun intended). It has absolutely become an anchor for what I do and who I am to people outside my tiny bubble. So much of my work and ideas are strewn across the internet and woven through different projects, but the journal takes a lot of my ideas about navigating life and collects them into a digestible form.

What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative career of their own?

I have actually never read a single business book. Is that bad? Maybe people could suggest books that were helpful to them in the comments. One of those comments could change my life! This is real. Please help.

Has failing at something or quitting ever lead to success for you? Walk us through that.

There are just times that I tried to make or draw something and just completely failed at it. Drawing is hard! Sometimes the dumbest mistakes or crappiest drawings or the half-finished thing that you impulsively post ends up being exactly the right thing. If you never let go of anything for fear of it not being perfect, nobody will ever see anything.

In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider when deciding what it is they want to do?

1.     Do I love this?
2.     Do I want to do it over and over and have my livelihood depend on it and maybe grow to hate it but still have to do it because it is my job now?
3.     What would I do if I didn’t do this?

Last time I was here I wrote a bit of a checklist, and I think it still stands. Decide if this is your passion, and if it is, do you want your passion to become your job/passion, or remain your passion/passion? Is it still a hobby if you need to do it every day? Do you have other hobbies?

But of course, trust your own gut. We are not the same. Only you know what you need!

What’s the first app, website or thing you open/do in the morning?

That depends how many notifications I have, actually. Sometimes it’s my texts, sometimes it’s email.  Those tiny unread notifications drive me insane so I am always anxious to clear them.

What’s the hardest thing about being your own boss that isn’t obvious? What about having a boss?

I mean, it’s totally obvious, but it’s hard to work when you don’t feel like working. Procrastination is easy. Also, I feel like I’ve heard this from a few people lately, but it’s very easy to let yourself have a little drink or something as you go. As creative workers, that is easier to justify, maybe it helps you “get the creative juices flowing!” Just pay attention to what can quickly become unhealthy, unhelpful behavior. Also I’ve heard that some people forget to eat, but that’s never happened to me before.

As for having a boss, that stuff is obvious. Sometimes you just wanna be at home in your socks on the couch, but you can’t always get what you want. Put on some shoes, it’s worth it for the experience and opportunity that being in a collaborative environment can bring!


Suggested For You


  • Hey Adam! I love your honest answers and am pumped to share my most recent favorite business book: Do Over by Jon Acuff. It’s had a huge influence on my recent life/career choices. He’s on a book tour now, and I heard him speak last week. He’s helped grow a community of bright, inventive people who support one another.

    Looking forward to your continued success!

  • I follow Adam on Instagram and his posts always brighten my day! His humor is right up my alley, and I actually love hearing about people who are just feeling their way through the business murk (he is doing it quite successfully!) because it makes me feel less alone and weird for not knowing the ropes yet. Thanks for a great interview, as usual.

  • Fun stuff! I recommend “Creative Inc.” by Meg Mateo Ilasco and Joy Deangdeelert Cho. That book is a really clear and straightforward guide on how to build your own business.

  • Amé la sinceridad de tus respuestas, y admiro que quieras seguir tu sueño y transformarlo en tu trabajo. Yo no pude hacerlo. Estudié una profesión que detesto ahora y es triste porque recién estoy comenzando… Me habría gustado leer tu historia unos 5 años antes para haber pensado mejor las cosas.

    PD: me encanta tu instagram :3

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