Q. What do you want to do when you grow up?
A. Everything.

Addressing a packed audience at the Type Directors Club, renowned designer Debbie Millman began her talk on the topic of failure by related an encounter with a young child.

She had asked a young girl what she wanted to do when she grew up. “Everything” the child boldy answered. Impressed with the answer, Debbie mused that perhaps her life would have been different if she had had that sort of open curiousity when she was younger. Instead, she recounts how she moved from one interest to the other – forced to change track by rejection or a realisation that she just wasn’t any good at the subject she was interested in.

Like everyone else in the room, I’d been drawn to the talk out of a fascination with both the speaker and the topic. I have long enjoyed Debbie Millman’s podcast Design Matters, and was curious to hear what type of failure someone so famous and outwardly successful could possibly have experienced.

It turns out quite a bit.

As Debbie bravely weaved a picture of failed passions and rejections from numerous organisations – whether they be the school newspaper, columbia university or the AIGA board of directors – we saw a side to Debbie that we all have, but that most people keep under lock and key.

By Debbie’s own admission she had long fantasised about being part of the heady New York design scene. And much of the pain in her adult life was a result of her repeated attempts to become part of that scene.

Begin drinking heavily before opening.

Debbie’s tale of rejection and degradation culminated in May 2003 when shortly after being voted off the AIGA board of directors, a good friend sent her an email with a subject line that read: “Begin drinking heavily before opening”.

The email contained a link which took her to a “blog” – the first ever online forum about graphic design and branding – where she found herself reading an article and comments that disparaged her entire career to date.

Distraught, Debbie considered leaving the design profession altogether.

After some soul searching she decided not to run away, and bravely stuck her toe into the water and responded to some of the comments.

Whilst still recalled as one of the worst moments in her life, Debbie explains how this moment, and her decision not to back down and run away would go on to change everything. She faced her critics, and by joining the dialogue, found herself writing for the very same blog only a month later. Within several months she was writing for Print Magazine, cementing herself as a key figure in the New York design scene.

Without that low point the rest of the story wouldn’t have happened.

With a renewed sense of vigour and optimism she conceived of and bankrolled her now famous podcast Design Matters. And several years later was invited back to the AIGA board and eventually became it’s president.

Debbie’s lessons learnt

  1. If you are not making mistakes you are not taking enough risks.
  2. Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time.
  3. Work very, very hard.
  4. Ask for opportunities.
  5. Finish what you start.
  6. Say “yes, and…” to everything.
  7. Busy is a decision.
  8. Don’t censor your dreams before you actually dream.
  9. Learn and build from your failures, but
  10. It is only failure if you accept defeat.

Faced with a similar situation, it is easy to wonder if any of us would have had the bravery to respond to the situation in the same way Debbie did. But it goes to show that the potential is there, and that it is up to us to make the best of every situation. Who knows what can happen.