Debbie Millman on fear, time, and terrifying learning

Debbie Millman at a conference.

Few others have done as much to get designers talking, as Debbie Millman. She’s an author, educator, strategist, and perhaps best known as host of the Design Matters podcast. She is the author of six books, and President Emeritus of AIGA.

We’re thrilled that Debbie’s joining Officehours and sharing her insights with others. In our Q&A, she answers a number of questions about her experiences with designers—and how to make one’s design career the best it can be.

You work with many young designers. What surprises you most about them?

Their fear. Young designers have so much runway! They have so much time! I am not only surprised by this, I am also heartbroken when I hear young designers or (worse yet) student designers tell me that they are afraid to go after what they want because they don’t think they can actually ever achieve it.

What do you think most stands in their way?

That very same fear. I’ve written this before, but I think it bears repeating, especially since I’ve “suffered” from this same fear for nearly my whole life. This is from a commencement speech I gave at San Jose State University:

I discovered these common, self-imposed restrictions are rather insidious, though they start out simple enough. We begin by worrying we aren’t good enough, smart enough, or talented enough to get what we want, then we voluntarily live in this paralyzing mental framework rather than confront our own role in this paralysis. Just the possibility of failing turns into a dutiful self-fulfilling prophecy. We begin to believe that these personal restrictions are, in fact, the fixed limitations of the world. We go on to live our lives, all the while wondering what we can change and how we can change it, and we calculate and re-calculate when we will be ready to do the things we really want to do. And we dream. If only. If only. One day. Some day.

Every once in a while—often when we least expect it—we encounter someone more courageous, someone who chose to strive for that which seemed (to us) unrealistically unattainable, even elusive. And we marvel. We swoon. We gape. Often, we are in awe. I think we look at these people as lucky, when in fact, luck has nothing to do with it. It is really about the strength of their imagination; it is about how they constructed the possibilities for their life. In short, unlike me, they didn’t determine what was impossible before it was even possible.

Is there one piece of advice you give them, to help overcome this obstacle?

Yes: Do what you love, and don’t stop until you get what you love. Work as hard as you can, imagine immensities, don’t compromise, and don’t waste time. In order to strive for a remarkable life, you have to decide that you want one. Start now.

Do you see any common characteristics in young people who move on to fruitful careers in design?

Yes. They have drive, they have persistence and they work really, really hard. It is a wonder to behold.

Debbie interviews Seth Godin at HOW 2014. Debbie interviews Seth Godin at HOW 2014.

What about characteristics that limit designers from being their best?

Let’s turn this one around. How about this as the question: What characteristics or belief systems do you think designers need to develop to be their best?

Finish what you start. I am a firm believer that no matter how good or bad you think something is, there is a benefit to actually completing it. Not everything you make has to be perfect. You learn as much from the strikeouts as you do from the homeruns and it is important to understand WHY you struck out in order to really learn about the conditions that led you to striking out. This helps you improve your form and also takes some of the pressure off of experimenting.

Busy is a decision. We do the things we want to do, period. If we say we are too busy, it is just shorthand for “not important enough” or “not a priority.” Busy is not a badge. You don’t “find” the time to make things, as Maria Popova says, “You make the time to do things.” If you want to do something, don’t let busy stand in the way. Make the time to do it.

Try not to take no for an answer. I often ask more than once for something, even if I’ve been turned down. I will ask a different way, or wait a bit of time before asking again or find a more creative way of manifesting a YES. Sometimes this can be annoying, but mostly I can’t help myself.

How about the future? What skills do you think designers need to develop, so they’re ready for changes in our industry?

Designers need to be polymaths now; in addition to being able to design, they need to be able to write, draw, code, and market, position and brand themselves. It is so much more competitive than ever, and employers and clients want to work with designers that can do way more than design. In many ways I think being a good designer is now table stakes for a career as a designer.

What do you wish you knew when you started your career in design?

I wish I knew that anything worthwhile takes a long time. I wish I knew that things would turn out okay by the time I was in my forties. I wish I knew enough not to be so afraid to go after what I really wanted.

Debbie doing her part at the Cannes Lions. Debbie doing her part at the Cannes Lions.

What one piece of wisdom most affected your life? Who gave you this advice?

Avoid compulsively making things worse. This advice was presented to me in the distinct form of a fortune cookie.

A career in design seems to involve ongoing learning. How do you learn best? What subjects are you currently working to expand your knowledge in?

You learn best by making mistakes. Unfortunately we are living in a culture that seems to applaud failure but rejects mistakes. How ironic is that? For me, almost all of my mistakes have led to some type of learning and self-knowledge. I expect things to be difficult and complicated and to take a really long time to manifest and to change and morph along the way. That’s when things get exciting and when you are learning what you stand for and what you believe in and what makes your heart flutter. When you are learning, you are growing. And you can’t ever learn without making mistakes.

Currently I am working to expand my knowledge in living whole-heartedly. I am making a lot of changes in my life at the moment and it is TERRIFYING. I hate change and I hate being vulnerable and I hate being out of control. But I am in a state in my life right now where, despite how much I hate these things, I have no choice but to live through them. I’m learning a lot about myself every day at the moment, but it isn’t making it any easier. But sometimes you’ve got to have a little bit of faith. That’s something else I’m working on trying to understand better. It’s frightening, but it is also thrilling to be feeling this intensely again.

In spite of how much Debbie has already shared here, she has plenty more wisdom to impart. If you’re a designer—or an aspiring one—in need of insight, you’d be foolish to not apply for one of Debbie’s upcoming Officehours sessions.