The two important moments in creative careers

The other day I had one of those a-ha moments where you realise something really obvious, but quite profound.

I was chatting with my friend Steve, and we were talking about people and moments in our professional and academic lives that had left a big impact on us. When we stopped to think about patterns, there were basically two categories of moments with people that had stuck with us:

1. When someone you admire gives you something to aim for that’s at the very edge of the path you are thinking about going down

This category is about seeing a vision of your future self in someone else. Its definitely not envy, because the moments that matter are when you see that they have done general stuff, or achieved approximate things that you would like to achieve – if you really want to. I’ve had a few of these moments.

One that really sticks in mind is when Richard Eisermann sat me down during my internship at the Design Council and told me about his career in design – he’d worked as a lighting designer for Sottsass, been design director at Whirlpool, headed up a practice at IDEO and was now ‘head of design and innovation’ for the UK Design Council. He told me all about his story, and I basically thought – that’s what I want.

That’s not to say that I want to be Richard, or that I wanted his exact career. Years later Steve actually went to work with him at his new company Prospect (but is now leaving to go and work at Ziba). Its more that I saw the kind of stuff, the types of projects, that you can get involved with as a multi-disciplinary designer if you work hard. And I thought, I’ll have some of that please. So, thanks Richard for giving me a vision.

The second category of important moments is the exact opposite. Instead of it being about wanting something external, its all about internal validation.

2. When someone you admire totally, unconditionally believes in you.

This category is all about giving you complete confidence in yourself, right now. Where as the first category gives you confidence that other people can achieve great things, and you could do the same, in the future, this is just all about being sure that what you are doing right now is great, so you should keep doing it.

An example I had of this was at college, I was doing a project that was going nowhere fast. For some reason I’d ended up trying to do some metal casting or something, and I was feeling pretty crap about the whole thing, to the point of thinking I’d be better of doing a normal degree.

Anyway, one of my tutors, Mike Waller, who wasn’t even that much my friend, saw that I was pretty depressed and he said to me “Nick, don’t worry about this project. There’ll be lots more. After this degree course, some people will go different ways. But I know that you will be a successful designer. So stop worrying.” Or at least, he said something like that. Whatever it was, I remember holding on to what he said, or the sentiment, for the rest of my degree course. I know you will be a success. So, thanks Mike for giving me a rock of confidence. I bet you never knew how much that meant to me.

The point of this post isn’t meant to be really deep – its pretty simple. Basically, I think I’m saying that good leadership in creative fields is about two things. Giving people great big goals to aim for, and giving them complete confidence that they are going to get there. The two moments above have stuck with me for ages, much more so than other ‘normal’ highlights like wining competitions, or seeing my designs being used by loads of people.

However, if you think this is a useful insight around leadership, I’m sorry but I think its going to disappoint. The problem is that I’m not sure that either of these kind of moments can really be planned, because they only work when both people are in just the right place emotionally, and you don’t realise that they are important moments till ages afterwards. Which means I doubt I can engineer ways for people I work with to have them – but I can try to help them find the people who they will have them with at some point. And I can say thanks to the people that have done it for me. So that’s what I’m going to do.