On Rejection

In the mornings, I have a bit of a routine: I check my emails, responding if truly necessary. I get a diet Coke (I’m not a coffee guy, but I needs me my caffeine). I check Achewood. Then I read some random sites, hopping around like an OCD kangaroo to whatever strikes my fancy. Then, if I get excited about something, I blog. By that time the caffeine has kicked in and the blogging shoos away the cobwebs and I am ready to start my day.

It’s a wonder I get any work done at all.

Somehow today I wandered to graphic designer Frank Chimero’s blog, which inspired this day’s comment. In a post, Frank shares part of an interview he recently had:

It seems designers, as a profession, have a “peculiar combination of arrogance and insecurity.” Do you agree with that?

I think arrogance is usually a by-product of insecurity. But what do you expect? For designers to do good work, they have to pour themselves in to it, and there’s always the possibility of rejection. It’s easy to make the correlation that the rejection of your work is also a small rejection of you as a person. It’s your idea, after all. It’s a tightrope walk, and I think that even professional tightrope-walkers are scared of falling every now and then. I know I’m disappointed, sad and sometimes angry when my hard work gets shot down with just a word.

-snip-

I’ve let go of the belief that my work has a grand impact on culture and the idea that I have to change the world. I think my work has gotten better because of it. Now, I just try to make myself and my audience happy by being honest with them and with myself.

Arrogance and insecurity. Yeah, that about sums up my experience. As a fledgling designer, I had only insecurity at first. Like a battalion of foot soldiers in the army of good ideas, I threw cannon fodder out there time and again only to have those good ideas obliterated. And because I was just insecure that was fine. My ideas were obliterated because they were wrong, I surmised. I tried to listen and tried to learn.

But one day, who knows when it was, I stood up for an idea I thought was wrongfully discarded. I asked: “Why?” when someone said they didn’t like it. And in response I didn’t get a reason or an explanation, I got a “I dunno. Just doesn’t work for me.” And the internal voice of arrogance was born. I worked so hard on this and you dismiss it on a whim? This is top quality! How am I to give you something better if you don’t know what you want?

No one wants to be arrogant. But one does want to be respected for their talents. If it is arrogant to think so, then I suppose I’ve crossed the point of no return when it comes to humility.

The interview really hits the nail on the head when it comes to the issue of fathering designs. We’re hired to design. So we expect that the quality of our work defines our role. And if that work is dismissed it is an easy leap to say the design was of low quality and hence our job performance was poor. And in the games industry, sixty hour weeks can sometimes be a luxury. If you aren’t a performer, then what’s the point of all the sacrifice? Of course rejection will hurt you personally.

A teacher of mine in college once said that the greatest skill a designer can have is the ability to listen. So when I get shot down, I try my damnedest to listen. I know no one will ever give me a straight answer, that in the designer’s toolbox there needs to be a widget that inputs feedback and outputs direction. But what if that feedback is too silent to hear? What if there is no algorithm to translate it? What if it is internally inconsistent? What do you do?

So I suppose I have to let go, like Frank says. But I don’t want to. I want to be fucking amazing 24-7. And the fact that next to zero things I’ve done that have been “fucking amazing” have seen store shelves and I’m on my fourth year of trying. Can you imagine going to college and turning in work every week that gets graded as “It doesn’t work for me.” yet still coming back and producing week after week? Freshman year you get your legs. Sophomore year you refine your work. Junior year you start to formulate a philosophy. What’s left for Senior year? Get pissed off? Watch as people who design without a philosophy, without refinement, without any process feel accomplished? Bask in the radiation from their sense of success? No, that’s just not enough.

It’s comforting to know that even experts get bludgeoned by the hammer of mediocrity, but it doesn’t provide a philosophy or blueprint on how to live life as creativity stifled. If there is anyone out there in a creative industry that has any advice on being “fucking amazing” when only mediocrity is permitted, I’d be glad to listen.

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