An instructor I had at Virginia Tech, Ben Hannam, asked each of his students to define success. He wanted us to interpret what the word really meant to us as individuals. At the time, I had defined success as happiness. However, times have changed and I have re-defined what success looks like.
Recognizing this change has also helped me to truly understand and begin to overcome my fear of failure. I thought that success was about a state of being that was attained when you were happy and content. By that logic, if I was a happy person, then I was successful.
But I quickly realized that although I was content with my life, I was not improving or succeeding as a designer. I now believe that success is about personal growth in all aspects of life. Being successful is not just about achieving a state of being, but more about the never-ending journey toward improvement. A successful person is constantly setting new goals and ideals for themselves. They always find new ways to provide value to others and to themselves thereby increasing their own perceived self-worth.
With that said, I’ve also thought quite a bit about the Dunning-Kruger Effect and Imposter Syndrome as they relate to failure, fear and personal growth. One of the most difficult things that I have faced as a designer, is my fear of failure. My fear of failure has actually inhibited my success. This fear of not being accepted has actually stopped me from practicing and sharing ideas. In the end, it has stopped me from learning and increasing my value to others. I believe that my fear of failing as a designer stems from my overly critical perception of my work. At times, I have found it impossible to get past my fear of taking risks, trying new things, and putting my work out there for the world to see.
While being critical of my work has its advantages, I must understand that being critical does not mean that I should doubt myself or my abilities. Wikipedia defines the Dunning–Kruger Effect as “a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average. This bias is attributed to a meta-cognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their mistakes.”
So how does this relate to graphic designers? According to the Dunning Kruger Effect, a person with no understanding of the basic design principles can not accurately assess how skilled they are. As a designer’s knowledge and techniques improve, they can begin to judge themselves with more accuracy. The more a person learns about design, the more likely they are to identify their mistakes and fix them.(Finally, a scientific explanation for why I would be embarrassed to show the work completed in my first year as a designer! And I’m probably not the only designer that shares this sentiment!) So how does the Dunning-Kruger Effect relate to my new interpretation of success?
As I mentioned before, I now view success as the continual process of achieving personal goals. Success is not an end state. When I give up on my goals, or fear attempting to achieve my goals, I am essentially giving up on my personal success. I have come to the conclusion that I need to start making more mistakes! Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But I see now that perceived failures are really just learning experiences. And each learning experience is a successful step forward.
My recipe for success:
Be confident + be humble + keep learning