You were taught to ask first before acting on an impulse. This requirement was important when you were six years old, but it’s holding you back now. You’re not the only one—I spent the last two decades trying to break my addiction to approval.
I stumbled into a low-level design/production job just out of art school. I was hungry to learn and looking for opportunities to prove myself. The newspaper I was working for distributed a weekly edition that desperately needed a redesign. After weeks of thinking about trying my hand at this task, I entered my boss’ office and made the case. I even noted that I’d complete the work on my own time—and that they could use or discard my approach with no cost to them or second questions, either way. Bill didn’t think long before saying no. Many in the company wanted a part in that project, and if he allowed me to do this work on my own time, union members would be up in arms. He wasn’t negative about the question, but he also didn’t want to deal with the associated headaches.
So, I stopped asking.
I’d haul ass to complete my assigned tasks, and then I’d take on other projects. Most newspapers have small “holes” that need to be filled. For example, the classified section rarely has the exact amount of text and display ads to perfectly fill the space allotted. So, you put “filler” ads (general newspaper promotions) in these spots, to complete the page. Whenever there was a spare moment, I’d conceive of an ad, prepare the text and artwork, and put the finished comp on the side of my desk. Once I amassed a small pile, I’d show them to my boss, saying, “Let me know which ones you don’t want to run.” He crossed out a few, and the rest were added to our library of filler ads.
In creating these ads, I started to build a small portfolio, and learn new design techniques. I did the same with the newspaper’s logo archive, re-sorting files, and converting low quality bitmaps to efficient vector graphics. From this I learned about type and how to build good files. Wherever there was a chance to try something new, I took it. Some questioned why I was sticking around past my shift; to avoid making waves, I just told them I wanted to hang out and tinker.
What surprised me about these unapproved projects, was that so long as I never asked permission to do this work, no one had a problem with what I was doing. So, I started acting a little bratty, and seeing how far I could push. When Peter (the surly editor) would bark, “Are you doing anything today?” I’d snap back, “I didn’t yesterday; why the fuck would I today?” He’d then laugh and keep walking, leaving me to my work. Turned out that so long as I did my job quickly and efficiently, I could pretty much get away with whatever I wanted.
You’d expect that I would have learned some sort of a lesson in all of this, but I didn’t. Upon starting a business, I fell into the old habit of asking for permission. For example, I started asking industry magazines if I could write for them, but only received negative (and sort of miserable) responses. Eventually, I just started to write my own essays on ideasonideas. I didn’t know much about writing, or what made for a good story. However, the simple act of doing led me to practice, get reader feedback, and subsequently improve. It didn’t take long before a few magazine editors started asking if I’d write for them.
Lots of people ask for opportunities, but fewer take them. In the preceding statement is an insight that can change your life. It’s a supply and demand dynamic. For example, if hundreds of new designers are asking for an opportunity to prove themselves, the person making a hire is left with an overwhelming number of options. Each one of these people talks about what they could do, but many of these claims are not validated, which makes the decision process difficult. However, if that same person sees something amazing that you’ve done—independent of this hiring process—you become one of very few. This means that instead of having to fight past all of those others in a flat race, you stand out as someone who has already proven herself.
Want to write a book? Forget looking for a publisher. Instead, start writing and self-publish. Want to start an online company? Skip looking for venture capital, and start building something that makes money. Want to work in the film industry? Get a camera, and create your own film—even if it’s brief. What you produce won’t be very good, but the experience you’ll gain by simply doing will be invaluable. While others talk about their plans, you’ll have gained real world feedback from your experiments. And, in having done so, you’ll have something tangible to show for your efforts.
Our world is centered around the notion of control, and you’ve been conditioned to think that you need approval before you proceed. Unfortunately, the wait to get a green light can be awfully long—and you’re running out of time to do what you’re dreaming about. Don’t leave your future in the hands of others; take command of it for yourself. You might stumble, but at least you’ll be moving.