We had the good fortune of connecting with Stijn Spaas and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Stijn, how has your work-life balance changed over time?
That’s a fascinating question during this pandemic. Despite the fact that my perspective on working from home has changed, in a positive way, my perspective on the work-life balance hasn’t. I’ve always viewed it as something that can’t be measured on a day-to-day basis. Working 9 to 5 every day and taking time “to live” before or after is not necessarily a balanced life to me. Partly because I often feel most productive or creative at night, partly because I actually enjoy working on a lot of my projects. Instead of looking at the work-life balance on a daily basis, I catch myself getting really passionate about certain projects and going all-in on them for several days or weeks. During those periods, I don’t go completely off the grid, but there’s a high probability that I’ll tell my friends that I can’t join them for a drink or activity. Once those projects slow down or finish, I’ll usually plan more time with friends and family to catch up, go for long hikes, or even on trips. Those are the kind of experiences I look forward to and love working towards.
That being said, I also know that I’m saying this as a young person, early in his career, who still has a lot of energy and doesn’t have a family waiting for him to come home. The FaceTime calls I still do with my parents and siblings back in Belgium every weekend obviously don’t take as much time as others spend on preparing food for their kids, helping with homework, working a side job to pay for tuition, etc. That’s why I can only say that I have a ton of respect for coworkers and peers who are doing what I do — and often more — with children and/or a spouse at home. Who knows what I’ll answer to this question if you ask me again a few years from now.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
When I was in high school, I had no clue that a career in brand strategy existed. I didn’t find out about it until I was researching a speaker for a marketing conference that I was organizing as a student. The internet has many cons, but if you’re a curious person, it’s an incredible source of knowledge that can change your life — and for me it did.
In essence, I pursued an internship and eventually a job at the brand strategy consulting firm, Innovation Protocol, in L.A. How I got those gigs is a whole other story, but the key take-away was that I had to stand out from other talent. For instance, after my internship, I created a video in which I pitched myself for a job and I sent it to, not just HR or the general manager, but the entire company. I wanted people to talk about it and start advocating for me.
That not only got me the job, but it ended up becoming my job — helping businesses and people stand out from competitors and peers. It allowed me to learn a lot about many different industries and businesses, while meeting incredible people along the way. The curiosity never stopped.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
We’d probably start the week off with lunch at Larchmont Village Wine & Cheese, where I’d recommend ordering the No. 5 (a sandwich with imported Italian prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, arugula, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar), and we’d leave the shop with a good bottle of wine that we might consume later in the week. Afterwards, we’d walk through the gorgeous neighborhood of Hancock Park, spotting beautiful houses and chatting with friendly locals.
Later, I might take them to Rick Caruso’s Grove and tell them about how it’s strategically designed as a Main Street for a city that doesn’t have one, including the impressive business model behind it. We might stop by the LACMA, to either visit or just so that they can get their Instagram pics taken, depending on the guest. Then we could drive down Fairfax to have dinner at Ysabel and maybe end the night at Good Times at Davey Wayne’s (pre-pandemic at least).
During the rest of the week, I’d show them more of the city and its surroundings, from DTLA to Malibu and back, probably going from good restaurant to good restaurant, stopping by beaches and a few cool local stores along the way. Depending on where they’re visiting from, we might even end up doing a road trip to nearby national parks. My friends know I customize the itinerary based on who they are and what they’ve seen. Only good food is non-negotiable.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
Absolutely. As a matter of fact, I’d say that everything I have achieved is thanks to someone who influenced me or gave me a chance in some shape or form. My parents, for example, raised me in a fairly strict way, which I hated as a kid! But as I got older, I appreciated it because it made me become more independent and disciplined.
Then there’s my siblings, whose competitiveness always pushed me to do more. Being that we were three also meant that there were always “allies” to be formed. Sometimes between my brother and sister, sometimes my sister and me, sometimes my brother and me. While it’s great when you’re part of the “alliance,” you really learn how to stand up for yourself when you’re on your own.
My friends and leaders at Boy Scouts, who taught me the values of life and how to survive — quite literally, as we’d be dropped in the woods with two matches, a fish, a potato, and a sleeping bag. From 3-day hikes in the Pyrenees to selling waffles and chocolate — what else would Belgian Boy Scouts sell?! — to fund our summer camps, the experiences we went through together have shaped me as a person and formed friendships for life.
My Ultimate Frisbee friends, with whom I travelled across Europe and the world to play tournaments of an intense sport (7 vs. 7 on a football field for 90+ minutes). A sport that is entirely based on “fair play” by the way, requiring players to be their own referees, admitting their own faults. Eventually, I was co-coaching and training teams of older players — some more than a decade my senior. That’s how I quickly learned what motivates a team and what doesn’t.
My teachers, professors, and lecturers over the years, who often inspired me and encouraged me to do greater things. Supporters and sponsors of the marketing conference I organized as a student that launched my career. Employers, who helped me gain international experience and allowed me to grow professionally. Coworkers that inspire me every day. Clients that challenge me and keep me on my toes. Mentors, who help me make decisions which are often, if not always, life changing. The list goes on and on.
Most importantly, I have to say thanks to my close friends and family in Belgium and around the world for being there for me. Always. In good and bad days. Because that work-life balance we talked about earlier, is worth nothing without them. You might remember Christopher McCandless, whose story inspired Jon Krakauer to write the book Into the Wild. As a lone traveler, McCandless thought he could find happiness within himself, until he came to the realization in the Alaskan wilderness, right before his death at the age of 24, that “happiness is only real when shared.” That’s a fascinating statement. Now, I’m not saying that you can never be happy by yourself, but an 80-year-long study from Harvard actually confirms that close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives. That’s what I’m grateful for. That’s why those people deserve an incredible “shoutout.”
Images by Shanel Kinoshita