Dear Design Martyrs: The One About ‘Making It’

Posted inDesign Inspiration

“Dear Design Martyrs” is PRINTmag’s latest advice column from Debbie Millman. Debbie will respond to your most burning questions about design, branding, work-life balance, and so much more.

Dear Design Martyrs,

I’ve read a lot about your career and the pitfalls you experienced when you started. I’ve been working so hard for years now and still don’t feel that I am close to “making it.” Young Guns have come and gone, and I doubt I’ll make it on to any Forty Under Forty list. I want to know: how do you know when to fight and when to fold? I am feeling very discouraged.


Down in Detroit

Dear Detroit,

When I first started out, 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.

But I didn’t. 

I thought that if I didn’t get into the graduate school that I wanted to go to, I wouldn’t get into any. I thought that if I didn’t get into one art program that I wanted to get into, I wouldn’t get into any. And I thought that if I didn’t get the one job that I really, really wanted, then I would settle for whatever came my way, as I would otherwise never get a job and be unemployable for the rest of my life. Which means that I would end up homeless, penniless, and alone. 

At that time of my life, I feared that I was too old, not talented enough, not smart enough—not anything enough to get what I wanted. And I was only 30!

Looking back on this now, the feeling of being infinitely unemployed was palpable. I never once considered I was worthy of getting a job that I loved and that it was possible to live a creative life.

One of the unfortunate ramifications of the technologically driven world we now live in is the speed at which we expect things to happen. We’ve gone from writing letters to making phone calls to sending faxes and emails to typing out one line about this vast experience we call life. We can have instantaneous global conversations, immediate poll results, and 1-minute viral sensations online. As a result, we now want the instant gratification of our hopes and dreams, but accomplishment and mastery take time and reflection. The only “formula” for success is time and hard work.

For example, several years ago, I was doing a lecture for a group of students talking about how long things can take. A young woman raised her hand at the end of the talk and asked for some advice. Apparently, she was feeling very discouraged as she had started a blog and wasn’t getting any traction. No one was reading what she had written. She was hoping to get some pointers on how to get people to visit her site and read her posts. My first question to her was, “How long have you been working on your blog?” And she looked at me without blinking, and very sincerely and earnestly, she said, “Six weeks.”


Here’s the thing—success takes time.

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

But anything worthwhile takes time. Mastery is a process of years. If you are one of the few souls in the world that hit it out of the ballpark before you are 30, you might want to consider how you will 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. 

That is impossible.

Take your time and build your skills. Refine your methodology over time and allow yourself 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.

In thinking about the speed of success, consider the following questions:

• What are you rushing for? Are you competing with yourself or other people?

• Are you in a race to succeed to feel better about who you are? Why do you think this will work?

• If you aren’t succeeding as fast as you’d like, do you need to develop your skills further? What might seem like dissatisfaction with your level of success might be a lack of confidence in your skillset. Think about how you can continue to grow as a designer first.

• What would you rather have: instant unsustainable success wherein you peak before 30, or a slow build to a meaningful career that has the usual ups and downs for the rest of your life?

Your life is not a race. Your career is not a competition. Small steps will get you to the top of the mountain, and the view will be the same whenever you get there.