A Pandemic Letter to my Students
Updated: Dec 4, 2020
This semester was weird, and I know it's not quite over since we're now online, but I like closure. During the last critique on the final day of class, I usually say something along the lines of thank you. Thank you for letting me be a part of your creative life for a few months. Thank you for trusting that I have your best interest in mind when new ideas and materials are presented. Thank you for being vulnerable and feeling the fear of doing new things, and doing it anyway. Thank you for letting me witness your growth. You may never touch wire, cardboard, or stone again, but there are some takeaways that will benefit you for the rest of your life.
The technical skills and the vocabulary you learned in this class are almost beside the point. What is important is that you overcame the obstacles of fear and uncertainty. You stayed with the problem until your skill caught up with your idea and then, as your skills improved, your ideas and possibilities expanded.
The takeaway from this class is to do the difficult thing, not because it's difficult but because the outcome will be more rewarding than taking the safe route. Think about the chunk of alabaster that scared the shit out of you, and recall the ham-handed way that you held the hammer and chisel. Now think about the learned finesse in which you chisel those 'hard to get' to places. You learned something, not only about how to hold the hammer and chisel, but something about your resilience and the ability to learn as you go, even while facing the uncertainty of a successful outcome. You showed up and persisted. You have proved that doing the hard things create self-imposed obstacles and it's the obstacles that present an opportunity to grow.
Don't let others define what success means to you. There are going to be folks that come around and tell you what you should value; don't listen to them. Or do, but only for a short while until you figure out what it is that you truly value. Think about that "million-dollar question", that is, how would you spend a million dollars if you couldn't spend it on yourself? Then you might start getting closer to what matters to you. If you can fold the wellbeing of others into your future career and life choices, I believe you will be more fulfilled.
Having empathy for others helps you see a nuanced view of the world. It certainly does complicate things, considering others, but it makes your world more interesting and it makes you a better designer. The better designer you are, the more your skills will be sought after. Also, you become an expert by doing and by launching your idea as soon as possible, even before the bugs are worked out, so that you can start getting critical feedback.
Don't let bureaucrats define your happiness. They look at data and spreadsheets, they don't look at your values and the things that get you excited. Data-driven thinking is looking backward and backward-looking negates the magic of human connection and the thrill of doing things that have uncertain outcomes. Think about the moments of discovery when you were chiseling the stone or applying the membrane to the wire or that moment when you realized that your cardboard project was actually really good. That moment or series of moments when you realized that you can do this hard thing and then the sense of well being of overcoming a difficult obstacle. Seek these moments. They are fleeting because the brain forgets the struggle, and once you overcome one obstacle it shows the way to new, more challenging opportunities. This is growth and the feeling of accomplishment is worth the effort. Bureaucrats will never understand this magic, and why should they? They have another set of values, but they don't get to define what success is. If your career path ever puts you in the bureaucrat's office, try to remember that behind every statistic is a human, and its human connection that gives meaning to your life and the lives of those you're leading.
In the early stages of your career, resist the pressure to specialize and do things that may be a little risky, but will widen your worldview and give you the experience to draw upon when you figure out what you value. Your brain isn't fully developed until you're in your late twenties, so use this developmental time to wire your neurons for growth.
In the meantime, you're going to have to do things that don't bring you fulfillment. It's the job of the bureaucrat and the mid-level manager to play it safe and to create unnecessary work for you because they have to justify their position. That's fine, you'll learn something, but try to make decisions that put you in a position that, "if it's not an enthusiastic yes, then it's a no". You've already experienced the drudgery of doing a task for extrinsic reasons, and you will in the future. But if you can do the hard thing, the thing that makes you grow, at some point and hopefully sooner than later, you can be the one who decides what you do and how you spend your days.