I had a professor in design school who called himself a traveling professor. He would sign a one year contract with a university, come in like a tornado, and then up and leave for the next place. He was eccentric and broody and spoke in riddles. He didn’t believe in As; he didn’t believe in the word “portfolio;” he didn’t even believe that he had anything to teach us. He told us one day that if we thought we would get more out of spending our three hour studio block in the woods than actually being in class, then off to the woods you go.
We hadn’t exchanged more than 20 words when he completely squashed every belief I had about myself as a designer. I walked into his office one day to go over the past few year’s work, laying each piece out on the desk until you couldn’t see the wood grain anymore. Without saying anything, he drummed his fingers against his jaw and took every single piece off of the desk—except for one. He looked up at me and said, “That’s it. That’s all you’ve got.”
I stared blankly at the one lonely sketch left on the table, a sketch I hadn’t even meant to include at all. He started yammering about, “You can make something out of anything” and, “I need to see YOU in your work,” but all I remember is it felt like I was falling. Not just a stumble-and-catch-yourself-gracefully kind of fall, but a face-plant-and-scuff-every-part-of-your-body kind of fall. Three years of design school and he was telling me I had nothing. Well, one thing. Basically nothing.
“You need to fall forward to succeed!” That’s how people reassure you when you’ve hit a massive setback. It’s hard to feel encouraged by that in the moment because all you can think about is that you fell. And a fall doesn’t feel like a move towards success—it just feels like a fall. It hurts. It’s hard to know when you get up that you’re moving in the right direction because success is measured in hindsight, and as one of my very favorite graphic designers, James Victore, says, “everyone—including our heroes—is making it up as they go along.”
When I slouched my way out of my professor’s office with my one measly piece of work, there was no part of me that felt like I was moving towards success. It didn’t feel like I was falling forward when I essentially started my not-allowed-to-be-called-a-portfolio portfolio over again. It felt like I was back at the starting line, trudging my way along, hoping I would eventually get there—and that is where (painfully and quietly) the good stuff happens. The magic, the key to the cliche, is forward. It’s in the repetition, the do-overs, the late nights, the edits and reading and learning and “final_version_34.7.” That’s the thing about success—you never know you’re there until you look back. We’re all just making it up as we go along, successful solely in our determination to keep falling forward.