How to Bounce Back from Failure and Rejection: Life Lessons from Debbie Millman

“So, what do you want to be when you grow up?”

Debbie Millman recently asked a young girl this question. The girl looked her straight in the eye and gave her fearless answer: “everything.” Millman was amazed that someone could have the self confidence to think that they could do whatever they wanted, without fear of failure. She used this anecdote to open her recent talk: “On Rejection, Or How The Worst Moments Of Your Life Can Turn Out To Be The Best,” hosted by Designers+Geeks, a community for designers, thinkers, and makers.

Looking at Debbie Millman, you would think that she has lived a charmed life. She is President of the design division at Sterling Brands; President Emeritus of AIGA, the world’s largest professional association for design; founder and chair of the world’s first Masters in Branding program at SVA; author of six books; and even has her own podcast, Design Matters. However, Millman’s journey has been filled with false starts and rejections. Fortunately, her drive and persistence have paid off. These are some of the lessons she learned on her winding path to success:

If you really want to do something meaningful, you should be expecting to fall on your face. Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time and a lot of hard work.

Millman really emphasized the importance of pushing yourself to learn and grow while you’re young. She didn’t feel that she had done any work of real value until she was in her 40’s, but it was the risks and failures of her 20’s and 30’s that set her up to do well later on. “We live in a 140 character culture. We’ve gone from letters to phone calls to faxes to emails to sending one line about this vast experience we call life,” she explained. We expect instant gratification, but accomplishment and mastery take time and reflection. The only “formula” for success is time and hard work.

Rejection can hold opportunity, if you keep your eyes open.

In 2003, Millman learned about the new concept of the “blog.” She didn’t hear about it by Googling new recipes or by following her favorite author, but from an email sent to her by a friend. This email, with the subject line “begin drinking heavily before opening,” contained a link to a blog post (and the 80+ comments that followed) trashing her work, her career, and her credibility. Though this was upsetting, Millman did not let the insults discourage her. Rather, she jumped in and joined the conversation. Soon after, the founder of the blog wrote to her to apologize for the bullying tone of his piece. This began a conversation, and he eventually invited her to write for the very blog that had insulted her in the first place. Millman, intrigued by this new platform for sharing ideas and opinions, decided to join the team. This unexpected collaboration set off a series of events that led to Millman’s first book, and later her co-founding the world’s first Master’s in Branding program.

Failure isn’t permanent: you never know what’s around the corner.

After transitioning from account management into branding, Millman became involved with AIGA, the professional association for design. She joined the board of the Brand Experience Group and felt like she had finally found her community. However, when board elections rolled around, Millman was the only board member not to be reinstated. She was crushed: “it was worse than being the last person chosen for the basketball team in high school. It was the worst professional rejection I had ever felt.” As a consolation, AIGA asked her to be a juror in their annual design competition. This, too, was a disaster. One of Millman’s fellow jurors couldn’t stand her or her work, and she left the experience thinking that she was completely done with the AIGA. Several years later, to her surprise, Millman was asked by her personal hero and confessed “girl crush” to be a member of the very board from which she had been ousted. Millman’s previous rejection gave her unique insight into the organization’s flaws and helped her discover what she now, as President, had the power to improve.

Ask for opportunities. Say “yes, and…” to almost everything.

Most people are willing to take no for an answer. Millman encourages you to not be one of those people. With practice, you start to learn to “chip away at the no’s and turn them into yeses.” If an opportunity isn’t quite right, take it and turn it into something that works for both of you. Millman gave the example of her first book. A publisher had an idea for a book called “How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer.” She was stumped: how can individual thought processes and design methods be turned into a simple “how to” guide? So she proposed her own spin on the topic: keep the title, but rather than write instructions, she would interview several accomplished designers and let the reader come to their own conclusions. The publisher went with this idea, and “How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer” is Millman’s top selling book to date.

Busy is a decision.

Millman feels so strongly about this point that she is thinking of using it as the title for her next book. Being busy isn’t really about time: it’s about priorities. Ultimately, if you want to do something badly enough, you will find a way to make time for it. Otherwise, take some pressure off of yourself and let go of the task for now. And what if you really want to do something, but feel that it’s not a “worthy” use of your time? Millman is a great believer in the benefit of always having a personal project in addition to “productive” career-related work. Though it may not be earning money or acclaim (right now), having personal projects can provide solace and sanity during difficult times.

“You can be the ripest, juiciest peach in the world, and there’s still going to be somebody who hates peaches.” ― Dita Von Teese

Millman ended the evening with this quote, and by giving the audience our own assignment: “Re-engineer a success. Plot rejections you’ve encountered. I bet it will surprise you when you see how you have grown.” So, FindSpark community, I ask you to do the same. How have you grown from your failures and rejections? We’d love to hear your story in the comments section.

About the Author

Bianca grew up in Wisconsin, but has always known she belonged in New York. After studying theater design and honing her procrastination-baking skills at Vassar College, Bianca took the plunge and moved to NYC. Now, no matter what she’s working on, she’s always consuming either chocolate or chai, and probably thinking about puppies.

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