Thursday, April 15, 2010 Blog: How to survive the unpredictable ride of being a professional creative

Recently, I was invited to give a brief talk to a fresh batch of design graduates at a well-known Sydney design college. I was given the topic, “how to survive your first baby steps into the industry.” After endless thought and panic, I finally came to a conclusion: perhaps I could give them some advice that could help them through the unpredictable roller coaster you experience as a creative professional—the highs and the lows. After I delivered the talk and discussed it with many of my colleagues, I realized these tips were processes we all employ on a daily basis, no doubt even beyond design in other industries, young and old.

Now it sounds like an innocuous subject, giving advice, but on early reflection, I decided the task was incredibly tricky and difficult, and it needed a lot of hard work and deep thought to solve. This was quickly followed by a deep sense of fear that I probably wasn’t the right person to give the talk that I’d somehow manage to screw it up and embarrass myself and would possibly scare many of the students out of the industry.

But what I realized was, this process is what I deal with every day—and they call it the creative process. It’s possibly the most destructive and addictive drug known to man—creativity that is. The rush of absolutely nailing a brief and thinking you’ve truly had an original thought, that everything has slotted into the right place and this will be the best thing you’ve ever done—that’s the high, that’s the rush. The terrible depths of having your ideas knocked back, or even worse "taking on feedback" or realizing your deadline is looming and you haven’t had one good idea—these are the lows. The highest of highs and the lowest of lows.

Acknowledging and learning to deal with this roller coaster is probably the thing I’m proudest of in my career thus far—it took me a while to come to grips with it and get a handle on it, but once I did, it made the day to day a lot easier. Following are the four simple tips I shared with the graduates on how to enjoy this ride of being a professional creative.

Give 150 percent
Anything worth doing, is worth doing right. A designer I’ve worked with and know rather well once told me “hard work trumps talent every time." You may be incredibly talented and bursting with ideas—but if you don’t work as hard as you can, and in many cases, harder, then you won’t last long in a creative agency. No one will expect you to have all the answers, but what they will respect and value is hard work. But most importantly, you need to listen. Listen harder and longer and more than you ever have in life and the people you work with will appreciate it and invest back in you. It sounds clichéd, but you only get out what you put in.

Don’t be afraid
As I described before, fear is the most paralyzing thing a creative professional can endure. It stops your creativity and your thinking. It makes you irrational, indecisive, and grumpy. Fear is energy wasted. A designer who is afraid is a designer who is uncreative. If you combine fearlessness with hard work, you’ll go far. If you give it your all and try as hard as you can—regardless of whether you’re doing a great job or not, you will win the respect of your peers and colleagues.

Don’t fear competition
This is possibly the hardest process to tackle, as it is simply human nature. Some people are naturals. They effortlessly produce beautiful designs seemingly without trying, day in and day out. They’re confident and articulate—and probably attractive, too. These people will always exist no matter where you go. Trying to compete with them and comparing yourself to them is a waste of energy. By worrying about this sort of thing you’ll quickly become disheartened, as you’ll think you’re no good. Now, you should still be competitive—but with the one opponent you can almost always beat: yourself. If you push yourself to be better day by day, brief by brief—you will be, and you’ll catch up with those naturals soon enough. A career in design is not a sprint, it’s a marathon, and nobody gets the gold by leading in the first 5 km of a marathon. So embrace competition, but don’t let it paralyze you.

There is no trick
It never gets any easier. The problem with getting older in design is that you get better. Your abilities develop, but so does your judgment. If anything, I find it harder to design now than I did when I was younger. When I was a junior I had no idea that 99 percent of what I did was complete rubbish. Unfortunately, I can only see this now. As you mature as a designer you gather more and more responsibilities, the problems you’re solving become bigger and more complex and the expectations become higher. This all mixes together, and you find that as you get older and more senior, it just gets more and more difficult. But, hopefully, having made it this far, you’ve learned some coping strategies and are able to push through.

I still use these little tips every day. It’s the only way I keep myself sane and employed in an uncertain world. Even after eight years I still give it my all, I still have to remind myself to calm down, not to freak out, and not to be afraid. But that point on being competitive, I am yet to get the hang of that one. I can’t help it.

Every day is a new problem to solve. It sounds depressing, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. If there weren’t any problems to solve then there wouldn’t be a need for designers. Now that's a depressing thought. Blog

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