Between failure and giving up, I choose to fail. Especially when it comes to design.
It was halfway through my first semester of design school. Like many Georgia Tech industrial design students who came before me, I was sleep-deprived, over-caffeinated, cursing Sir Issac Newton for coming up with calculus, and dreading the critique I was about to receive from my peers and professor in my intro to sketching course. I never looked forward to waking up on Tuesdays at 7:55 am for 8:00 am sketching class. On this morning in particular, I had a vague sense of confidence that maybe, just maybe, the sketch I had spent all night perfecting was finally going to blow everyone’s mind. Boy, was I wrong.
The sketching assignment asked us to “compose an arrangement of cubes in perspective with a common horizon line. Be creative”. Easy enough right? The assignment sheet (back when you received a physical piece of paper from instructors) even included this beautiful example composition.
I was really excited for this assignment. I had this great idea to make a cube composition of Pac Man. In my head, it made total sense to transform one of my favorite eight-bit video game characters into a beautiful amalgamation of cubes forged from the finest perspective technique. How, you may ask, did I screw this up? Did I use the wrong vanishing point? Did my lines diverge into space instead of converging? Dear reader, I wish this was my sin. Alas, my royal screw-up was far more unforgivable. It was a mistake that even a first-grader would have facepalmed over. You see, I, an eighteen-year-old design student, who was a super fan of the Wiggles and Seasame Street in my prime toddler years, confused a cube with a square.
Possibly the worst part of the whole story is I was confident that I had aced the assignment. It wasn’t until I stepped back and looked at the sketches pinned up to the right and left of mine that I felt this confidence quickly drain from my body. Only then did I realize how badly I had kerfuffled the assignment. I tried to shrink to the back of the group as we gathered around the pin-up board but I couldn’t escape my sketch staring right at me. One by one, I watched as my peers stepped forward to explain the techniques they used and brag about their compositions to our professor. Finally, it was my turn. I thought about all the ways I could explain away my shortcoming but all I could do was look into my professor's eyes and say “I know I failed this time, but give me a second chance.”
I buckled down after class and went through so many pieces of paper to create something to replace my failure. I admit, the final result isn’t spectacular. If I re-did it now, I would pay more attention to the tiny details, I would have stronger contrast in my linework, and I would actually measure out the size of the bits to make them visually perfect. What I would do now doesn’t matter though. What really matters is this: I didn’t give up because I failed, I used my failure as an obvious “what not to do” example and kept moving forward.
This may seem like an insignificant, embarrassing moment for a first-year student, but I made a pivotal decision that day. When I decided to redo the sketch, I also decided that I wasn’t going to give up on my dream of becoming an industrial designer. I thought hard about it. I thought about transferring out of the program. Maybe I could be a mechanical engineer or some other field that didn’t involve me stressing out over cubes. I didn’t have natural sketching abilities. I was consistently towards the bottom for all of the critique sessions. Graphic design was a foreign language to me. I was still afraid to boot up Photoshop on my computer because I felt like a little kid in the cockpit of a crashing plane. That’s pretty dramatic but that is exactly how I felt. I was terrified because I recognized I was not good at industrial design.
It is a frightening realization to have. We grow up being told by our parents, our teachers, by social media, by society that we should figure out what we are good at, and fast, or we will miss out on living our best lives. I had done the opposite. I picked something I was not good at, at all, and dove in headfirst. I didn’t know the first thing about designing. I just saw a couple of cool sketches and prototypes in a room a year before I started college and said “Wow! This is so cool! I want to do this!” I had no innate talent. I had no extensive background in engineering or art. All I had was a drive to pursue industrial design.
So, are our parents, teachers, and social media wrong? I don’t know. I think finding something you are good at is a great place to start when planning out the rest of your life. I also think we should take into account what we WANT to be good at. Every day I want to be a better designer. I can’t explain why I initially fell in love with industrial design. It was very much a fairy tale “love at first sight” scenario. Now, I love design because of the impact the field has on our every day. I love design because every person is unique, and getting to know their stories, needs, and wants is fascinating. I love design because it presents challenges that require the best in creative problem-solving. Every tool we use, every extension of ourselves we touch, is meticulously planned and tested by a group of individuals. Your phone, for example, has countless hours of womanpower and manpower poured into it. The feel of it within your hand, the weight of it in your pocket, the gliding of its buttons, and the smoothness of its screen, all carefully thought out and executed for the optimal impact.
I love designing things. I am by far better at it now than I was four years ago, but I still have a lot to learn. I learned from my failure on that Tuesday sketching class because giving up wasn’t an option. I still fail every single day. I would be lying if I said it didn’t get me down every now and then. It’s not easy to continually fail. Giving up is certainly much easier. So why do I keep pursuing design? Simply, because I want to enrich people’s lives with the products I create. I want to make the world fall in love with the design just like I did four years ago. That is my dream, and no matter how much I fail, I know that every shortcoming is a valuable lesson for the future.
So, if you are like me, and fail fast and fail often, here are some tips to help you pick yourself up from the hole of self-doubt and give uperary that we all fall into from time to time.
Remind yourself WHY you want to do what you love
You started doing what you're doing right now for a reason, right? Think back to that reason and imagine it vividly. For me, industrial design was the coolest occupation in the world. My reason for pursuing it has evolved over the years as I have, and it will continue to evolve. That being said, it never hurts to go back to your roots. Be inspired by yourself and let it drive you through the sting of failure.
Celebrate every win, no matter how small
Your mind from time to time, quite annoyingly I might add, may eclipse your successes behind your failures. It happens to me often. I am currently working on a project that started out as an “innovative” modular coffee mug. I took weeks to develop the sealing mechanism for this mug. I finally got it to work, but when I showed the design to my target consumers, they all pointed out that while the mechanism was cool, they would much rather have a mug that could hold more liquid than one that could hold less. I was disappointed, but while I didn’t go forward with this design, I was still able to make it work for the prototype, and I am proud of that.
Failure is a form of success, but it also feels good when we have a clear-cut example of success right in front of us that we can bask in. So you got rejected from another job today? Go run your best mile time this week or do your laundry or cook that meal you keep drooling over in your Instagram feed. Positive energy is contagious. If you put it out into the world and celebrate everything that goes right AND even the things that go wrong, you’ll be much happier when you inevitably fail.
Take a break
Taking a break is not giving up. We all need a break if we want to keep our sanity. I love sketching and I love looking at all the wonderful talent on the internet for inspiration (and oh boy is there a lot of it), but after scrolling for too long, I get self-conscious and hypercritical of my own work. It's not inspirational or constructive. Whenever I notice this happening, I switch off my phone and read a book, watch a movie, or do some other activity I know I'll enjoy. So take care of yourself, because if you aren’t enjoying what you are doing, how can you enjoy failing at it?
And if all else fails, pretend to be successful. Magical things will happen.
In the wise words of the American Indie Pop trio AJR, “You can be whatever you pretend to be.” So, right now, picture what the best, most successful version of yourself looks like. Visualize what they are wearing, how they carry themselves, and what they have done to make themselves successful. Got that image? Good. Now pretend that you are that person, like you use to in your cardboard castles. Look in the mirror and fully embody the persona. Walk around for a day like that, a week even, and see if you can tell the difference. The secret behind this method is that the most successful version of yourself, the person you long to be, is you. You can be successful because you are successful. You’ve failed, you've learned, and you've persevered. You are the best version of yourself and you should be proud of it, even if something goes wrong from time to time.
So in summary, I fail. A lot. We all do. Giving up is easy, and very tempting. We should embrace our failures though, especially when they are hard to swallow. The sting of failure you feel in your chest is just a growing pain. It will pass and you’ll come out more successful. Our failures don’t define us. What we choose to do after we fail, whether we choose to keep forging ahead or to lay down where we have fallen, is what determines our trajectory forward. Paul Arden said it best: “It’s not how good you are, it’s how good you want to be.”