As I plow through middle age, I look back at a track of bone-headed mistakes, hard-won triumphs, alienated relationships, accidental victories, and treasured partnerships. With that hindsight, what might I tell my younger self about success and contentment in professional life?
My friend Andy Pratt recently put this question to a ton of designers, including me: what advice would you give your younger self about “soft skills”—the non-technical stuff we need for success in our craft. I confess the question paralyzed me, because there’s so much that kid didn’t know. I started jotting things down. And more things. And more. The list was long, but one bit of advice easily floated to the top. This was my answer to Andy, the advice I wished I could beam back to my young self:
You are not your work. Your immense value as a human being is completely unrelated to the worth of the things you make. The success or failure of a project, the presence or absence of attention, the silence or applause of an audience… all of these things are useful commentary on your work—but your work is outside of you. Apply that feedback to the things you make, not to your self-worth. Success doesn’t make you a better person, and failure doesn’t make you a worse one. There is no rest or satisfaction in thinking you will finally be happy if only your work is a success.
Conflating what I push into the world with my own sense of self has easily been my biggest recurring self-sabotage. It’s an easy mistake to make; like so many, I pour a huge amount of effort and care into my creations—designs, talks, books, essays—and it sometimes feels impossible to separate them from myself. Regular Pastry Box readers know I’m not the only one who struggles to be kind to myself when things don’t pan out as I’d hoped. It remains a daily challenge to stoke my enthusiasm for the stuff I make while also maintaining healthy emotional distance from its reception. I wish I had realized the importance of that separation sooner.
As I thought about what else I’d tell young Josh Clark, the list kept growing. Some items were practical, others unabashedly self-helpy, but all were very personal—tuned to my own foibles, strengths, and experiences. Even more than most advice, of course, this means your mileage may vary with this list. But on the off chance that you’re tuned the same way I am (and was), I herewith share the rest of my list with you:
That thing you’re good at: fast work, fast ideas, long nights, little sleep… that doesn’t last. It will fade as you get older. Capitalize on those talents of youth but cultivate the big idea for the older you. Learn to listen, watch, make connections, and make conceptual leaps. The best best practices change over time, as assumptions and givens change. Don’t get so hooked on a single technology that you are not ready for the next thing. Keep moving. Always keep moving. Don’t be so afraid to quit. If the design doesn’t work, if the business doesn’t make money, move on. Failure is powerfully disappointing, but not as disappointing as staying stuck in it. Your work is much bigger than the current project. Your work is to cultivate your craft, and that craft goes beyond the screen. Get your head into the real world and enjoy life around you. Don’t be so narrow. Indulge your curiosity, and cultivate broad pursuits. You might think of yourself as “creative,” but that doesn’t also mean you’re not good at “business.” Business is mighty creative itself, full of storytelling and design opportunities. The crux of design is selling. The design needs to sell its subject (this is commercial work, not art) and you need to sell that design. For the design to be a success, you have to pitch the project, sell your solution to it, and persuade your client to adopt it. The pitch is part of the creative process. Selling design work requires intimate knowledge of the problem that needs to be solved. That’s the very heart of design. How is this idea, design, process, or experience going to make life better for the client, the customer, the community? Understand what motivates those audiences, and you understand the goal of the work. You’re better and smarter at more things than you might expect. You’re also worse and dumber at other things than you think you are. Get to know your strengths and weaknesses so that you can better appreciate the talents of others. You need other people. You can’t do this [thing, business, project, life] by yourself. Figure out the things that you like to do and that you’re good at (they often don’t overlap) and focus on those. Find friends and collaborators who like what you don’t and who are good at what you’re not. Celebrate their talents instead of envying them. You will make amazing things together. The success of others has no bearing on your own. Don’t begrudge others when they’re awesome. This is not a zero-sum game. Their success does not take away from your own. There’s plenty of room for all of us to kick ass. Having a difficult conversation isn’t nearly as bad as not having it. Being nice isn’t always being kind. You’re not exceptional. Special things will happen to you, like they happen to everyone else. Be kind to others and support their awesome moments, and understand that your own awesome moments don’t make you better than anyone else. (But man, enjoy the hell out of those awesome moments.) There is no big time. If you set up your life as a series of “when I finally get there, I’ll be happy” goals, you set yourself up for a lifetime of disappointment. A new goal or accomplishment or barrier will always arrive, and your happiness will always be just out of reach if you think that way. Keep up the chase, but don’t hang your happiness on the result. Making the leap is scary but not as scary as waiting and waiting and waiting. Perfect is your enemy. The world will not crash down if it’s not just right. And it won’t crash down if you outright fail. Success and failure are both fleeting and relative. There’s aways a next chapter. Focus on what’s happening now, enjoy the current accomplishment, and then turn the page to see what’s next. You’ve got time. Don’t be in such a hurry.
The list barely scratches the surface. There’s much more I’d tell young Josh, not that I’d expect him to listen. That headstrong young man was supremely confident in his exceptionalism and in the path he was sure he’d follow. He hadn’t yet made any big mistakes, and he somehow assumed that pattern would continue. In the end, there are things you simply have to learn yourself, through your own hard falls and soaring successes.
The worst, of course, is when you repeat the same hard fall over and over again. The good news is that I’ve accumulated these little rules to help avoid those falls. Maybe I’ll actually follow them this time.