What Matters to Ande La Monica

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Debbie Millman has an ongoing project at PRINT titled “What Matters.” This is an effort to understand the interior life of artists, designers, and creative thinkers. This facet of the project is a request of each invited respondent to answer ten identical questions and submit a nonprofessional photograph.

Andrew La Monica is an executive design leader and licensed executive coach who helps people work better individually, together, and at scale. Ande has 20+ years of expertise in solving complex business challenges, building multi-faceted design teams, and delivering world-class customer experiences for iconic brands.

What is the thing you like doing most in the world?

Sometime back, I had the opportunity to study under Milton Glaser— the Yoda of graphic design. He is one of those leaders who changes you for the better, not just as a designer, but as a person. He spoke about the “Act III” of a design career, that phase after you’ve done great work and have a sense of personal accomplishment, where you start to focus on helping others and giving back to your professional community. Those words have always stuck with me.

Helping others was codified during my time at GE, where I had the opportunity to work and learn from so many amazing leaders. Something to note is that coaching, mentoring, and developing talent was a core aspect of GE, and one that became a critical aspect of my role as a design leader on the CMO’s team. Part of my remit was to help elevate leadership skills of the design culture across the enterprise. That experience later inspired me to get licensed as an executive coach, and it continues to be an invaluable competency in managing the people component of the design functions I lead.

I love the people part of my job and continue to find it incredibly fulfilling to work with individuals to help them unlock a solution to a complicated problem, navigate around internal politics, or discover something that genuinely excites them about their career. I believe the best parts of my “design portfolio” and the work that I’m most proud of are the people I’ve helped develop. That is the type of work I look forward to doing more of as I move into my Act III.

What is the first memory you have of being creative?

Building a replica of Johnny 5 out of Legos.

I just googled the movie Short Circuit and immediately felt really, really old.

Thank you, Debbie. I love you.

What is your biggest regret?

Regret is a powerful feeling because it has to do with a person’s hope for a better past. It more commonly comes up with the senior executives I talk to than with the junior or middle management. I’m not sure why that is, but sounds like something Dan Pink or Brené Brown should study. That said, like most people, I too have had my share of moments that I would like to take back.

I remember talking to an executive when I was going through a regretful time at work. In the context of that situation, he shared the story of a Zen master and a little boy. I won’t retell the story, but the plot points are something bad happens to the boy, and the Zen master says “we’ll see.” Then, something great happens to the boy, and the master says “we’ll see.” Then something else bad happens, something else good happens, and so on with each new outcome being met with the refrain, “we’ll see.”

What I took away from the story was to give things time. I constantly apply this to feelings of regret, and sure enough, every single one of those moments where I experienced a feeling of regret, when I gave it some time, it worked itself out. Reflecting on this, most things I worry about end up not being that big of a deal in hindsight. I didn’t discover until later that this is actually scientifically backed. When you can take space away from a strong emotion, mentally and temporally, it reduces the intensity of the emotion.

How have you gotten over heartbreak?

Heartbreak is tough. It is one of those feelings that everyone goes through, and there is no age limit to ride that roller coaster. Diagnostically, heartbreak has a lot to do with “unmet expectations.” A person can experience it with a romantic partner, with a parent, or even a close friend. Something that has been helpful for me is something behavioral psychologists call Attachment Theory. I didn’t discover this until later in life, but when I did, a lot of my patterns related to heartbreak and unmet expectations made more sense.

At a high level, when we are young, we seek a connection to the parent or caretaker whose love we didn’t get enough of. If the caretaker whose love you craved was someone who was outgoing, a “life of the party” type, you are going to be drawn to those characteristics in the relationships you choose. Similarly, if you had one caregiver who was distant and emotionally unavailable, you may seek partners later in life who are also distant and emotionally unavailable. When I took the time to really look into heartbreak in relationships and how my needs were not being met, I started to see the patterns. It was eye-opening.

Many people don’t notice the red flags in relationships because they are actually familiar patterns. Getting over heartbreak is not like a switch you can flip, but noticing the patterns and understanding why you subconsciously put yourself in situations helps you avoid it going forward. It’s also good to know when you are processing the emotions of heartbreak that there is nothing wrong with you. You are not broken. Rather, it’s how you were wired by someone else, and when you fix the wiring, a lot of this goes away, and you open yourself up to more fulfilling relationships.

What makes you cry?

The easy answers are: pollen, sawdust, the mise en place of onions, and Gavroche’s last scene in Les Misérables— it’s gutting every time, even though I KNOW it’s coming.

The vulnerable answer is that I cry when I experience something that forces me to come to terms with a part of myself that is uncomfortable. The interesting thing about crying though is that it’s not always about sadness. Rather, it’s an outward expression of emotion and you being authentic with yourself.

I had a moment recently when I was struggling to connect with someone for whom I cared deeply. The relationship wasn’t working the way I wanted it to, and I was taking a lot of ownership of why we were not connecting. My internal monologue was that I was doing something wrong— that this should be better, and that this wasn’t working because of me. I had a conversation with my best friend about it, and he simply said to me “Okay, so that person is not capable of connecting with you.”

That simple comment crushed me. 

It unlocked a flood of emotions and I just started to cry. I was sad that what my friend shared was the most likely outcome, but I was happy that going forward, I would have to meet them at their level. I was also understanding that it wasn’t about me, and allowed me to realize that the person wasn’t capable of connecting with me the way I wanted them to. That helped me accept that this person could only give what they could give, and that was okay. It was a good and healthy release. I felt a lot better, I had clarity about the person, and now I have a more positive and realistic outlook on the relationship.

How long does the pride and joy of accomplishing something last for you?

This is such a good question, Debbie. It speaks to people’s values and where those values are rooted. I struggled with this for the majority of my design life. I have worked hard and been fortunate to accomplish amazing things in my career. For example, CNBC did a show on my design work, I led the rebrand of a Fortune 10, and I developed design leadership programming for women and BIPOC that directly led to internal promotions. But that pride and joy of accomplishment were always short-lived.

I did some research and discovered that not only was this common with high-performing leaders, but also when the values that led to taking pride in your work are rooted in something external (like a company, a job title, or a paycheck) rather than something internal (autonomy, mastery, sense of accomplishment, or personal growth), the feeling of pride doesn’t last long. If you want to jump down an internet rabbit hole, google Hedonic Treadmill.

There is a framework I now use for this that has turned out to be incredibly effective. I not only use it myself but I also share it with my direct reports and coaching clients. It’s called “High Point / Did Well” and it goes like this.

Keep a running list on your phone or in a journal. Every day, make a note of the high points of the day as well as the things you worked hard on and did well. It could be as simple as “I made a great cup of coffee and was able to have 10 minutes to myself to enjoy it,” or something complex like, “I was able to solve a user experience problem that we were struggling with for months,” or something personal such as, “I took an hour today for self-care.” The framework forces you to place your values of accomplishment in yourself and those internal things. The emotions that come with that experience get internalized and the pride, joy, excitement, and happiness last much longer.

Do you believe in an afterlife, and if so, what does that look like to you?

This question requires a much longer conversation, and probably a stronger cocktail than the coffee I’m drinking right now.

I do believe in an afterlife, but not so much in the bright lights and fluffy clouds. A few years ago I had to give a eulogy for my grandmother— she was 102 when she died, and I obviously hope I have her genes. I remember I was conflicted about the afterlife at that time. Despite being raised a Catholic, being an altar boy, reading the Bible cover to cover, and believing in being a good person, there was something about life, death, and what came next that just seemed unfair.

In the eulogy, I spoke about how much I was going to miss her. I would miss cooking with her and trying new recipes, her yelling at the NY Giants on TV from the other room when they lose, how her house was open every Sunday for family and friends to come over, and how my kids wouldn’t have a chance to really get to know her.

As far as a belief in an afterlife and what that looks like, I don’t know. But what I do believe is that my kids will experience her love when I make the recipes she taught me, that I’ll hear her yelling in my mind when the Giants have a bad game, and that family and friends will always be welcome on Sundays to come over and share food, drink, and good conversation. The afterlife I believe in is how we live on through the lives we touch.

What do you hate most about yourself?

I can comfortably say that I don’t hate anything about myself, although I do wish I was a bit taller. I also have had the benefit of many years of good therapy, and anyone who has done some light research on me knows I’m a vocal proponent of mental health practitioners. I wasn’t always like this though. Like most people, certainly there were times when I said, “I hate X about myself.” However, looking back, I can now see that those times were really about how I didn’t like the way I was showing up, and how I was responding to a particular situation.

An example is how I’ve struggled with weight and body issues for most of my life. Self-acceptance was a challenge, and my motivator for change was that I didn’t like the way I looked, which is a pretty strong negative emotion. And as I’ve learned, when negative emotions are the motivator for change, change doesn’t happen. Rather, the lightbulb moment happens when we accept who we are and root the change in something positive. So instead of talking about my weight loss as “I don’t like how I look,” I’ve reframed it to be, “I want to make healthier decisions so I can live longer for my kids.” Once I made that mental shift, weight loss became second nature.

I talked about this recently at a conference in Stockholm. The host asked a question and I ended up taking 700 design leaders through an exercise in self-acceptance and identifying motivators for change. It only took about five minutes, but I think it was one of the most powerful experiences in my ten years of public speaking.

What do you love most about yourself?

Yesterday, it was my ability to pour a Perfect House Manhattan. The recipe, if you are interested, is as follows:

  • Take a glass and fill it with:
  • A few ice cubes,
  • 2 oz of good bourbon,
  • 0.5 oz of Grand Marnier,
  • 0.5 oz of Dolin sweet vermouth,
  • And a few dashes of orange bitters.
  • Stir quickly.
  • Rim the glass with an orange peel and garnish.
  • Sip it.
  • Become a new person.

Today, it’s my deep empathy and my ability to make other people feel comfortable. I don’t have a recipe for this, but here are some things I try to do:

  • Be kind to other people.
  • Be curious.
  • Listen to learn.
  • Look for similarities.
  • Have gratitude.
  • Share.
  • Make things with your hands.
  • Have something more important than you.
  • Be kind to yourself.

What is your absolute favorite meal?

WOW! Now THAT’s a tough question. Food and cooking are such intrinsic parts of my life that the joke in my family is that if I wasn’t a designer, I would be a chef, so I’m not sure I can really choose just one favorite meal. Perhaps rather than the specifics of what’s on the plate, I’ll instead describe the setting in which my favorite meal would take place. It would of course be something I would prepare myself, my family and friends would be there, there would be multiple courses, the wine and cocktails would be fantastic, the conversation would be engaging, and everyone would leave full with both food and love.

Oh yeah, and I wouldn’t have to do the dishes.