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Designer Debbie Millman

Photo credit: Catalina Kulczar-Marin

Debbie Millman may well be best known for her podcast “Design Matters”—the world’s first and longest-running podcast on design—but that podcast is really just one of many highlights in a long and successful career. Named as “one of the most creative people in business” by Fast Company, Millman’s expansive body of work, writings and insights, built and accumulated over several decades, have made her one of the most influential designers of our day.

During her 20 years as the president of Sterling Brands—a leading branding firm—Millman grew the company from 15 to over 150 employees and from one to five offices. She co-founded the world’s first graduate program in branding at the School of Visual Arts, in New York City, and has authored six books. Her illustrations have appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times, Fast Company and Print. Millman also serves as President Emeritus of AIGA, the nation’s renowned professional organization for design.

The many lessons Millman has learned through a career spanning over 30 years apply to every professional field and every stage of life. We are living in a “140 character culture,” as Millman describes contemporary life, maintaining that anything worthwhile takes time—as well as hard work, dedication, and no small amount of courage in the face of uncertainty. She suggests that confidence is overrated and secondary to courage, which is the necessary first step in any endeavor. Confidence comes later, she says, and is a result of experiencing repeated successes over time. She argues that leadership is a skill to be learned—accessible to everyone willing to put in the time—more so than an inherent gift that one may or may not possess.

Millman’s “go slow to go fast” approach to success and fulfillment provides a refreshing perspective in an ever-accelerating world. In a time when college graduates expect overnight success and immediate promotions, she reminds her readers that meaningful achievement takes trial and error, years of work and, undoubtedly, some amount of failure. For those who are caught up in the frenzy of “more faster” that has become all but standard in our modern work culture, Millman’s experience serves as a reminder that acquired experience is not a punishment to be endured, but rather a gift that ultimately yields higher quality work—and greater professional success.

We have identified a few of our favorite insights from Debbie Millman that address themes of courage, fear, and mastery within the context of career development. We encourage you to take a little space in your day to follow the links and explore the original content.

On Courage

“What I think is more important than confidence is courage. Because courage is taking that first step without knowing whether or not it’s going to be successful.

What is confidence? I’ve deconstructed confidence and I believe confidence is the successful repetition of any endeavor. That’s when confidence comes. When you know the next time you do it you’re likely going to be successful. Most people that drive have car confidence. You don’t start off having car confidence, you don’t wait to have car confidence to start learning how to drive. You start learning how to drive and you’re terrified behind the wheel of this giant machine that could kill someone. Most people don’t go and take their driver’s test fully confident that they’re going to ace it. They’re nervous. You develop car confidence after the successful repetition of driving and not killing someone or crashing.

That’s when you develop confidence. You develop confidence after the successful repetition of any endeavor. It comes after repetition. But the ability to try something new requires courage and that’s far more important. What we need to be able to instill in people is the courage to do something knowing full well they might fail, they might be rejected, but it’s only a failure if you accept defeat.”

—from Ideou: Debbie Millman on the Importance of Courage.

On Fear

“Being afraid of expressing what you want or who you are is not an excuse to not do it. You just can’t use being nervous or scared as an excuse not to do it. You must do it anyway. You must do it ‘as if’ you are not afraid. You can’t wait to be less scared or nervous.

The only way to alleviate that fear is actually doing the thing you are scared and nervous about over and over until you get better at it. Very few people ever do something the first time and do it perfectly right out of the gate. Being nervous and scared is normal. But the fears will lessen over time as you get more and more comfortable actually doing the thing you are scared of doing.”

—from Creative Boom: Debbie Millman on the power of courage over confidence, embracing criticism and overcoming fear. Katy Cowan, 2018.

On Mastery

“We are living in a culture in which, upon graduation from college, you are expected to know exactly what you want to do, where you want to do it and what your life plan will be. And if you aren’t successful right out of the gate, there must be something wrong with you. And this emotion builds into a palpable sense of hopelessness if you can’t achieve something quickly.

Anything worthwhile takes time. Mastery is a process of years. If you are one of the few souls in the world who are actually able to hit it out of the ballpark before you are 30, you might want to consider how you are going to be able to sustain that success over the long term. The pressure to keep succeeding over and over will mount and you will likely feel that you must only hit the home runs. This is impossible.

Take your time and build your skills. Refine your methodology over time and give yourself the opportunity to grow and develop…. Build something meaningful rather than something fast. The length of time it takes for you to succeed is generally a good measure of how long you will be able to sustain—and enjoy—it.”

—from Debbie Millman: Anything worthwhile takes time. Debbie Millman, 2019.


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