A Brand Called You - Notes from Debbie Millman's Class
Debbie Millman (from her website:) is a writer, educator, artist, brand consultant, and host of the radio show Design Matters.
She also has a course on CreativeLive called “A Brand Called You”. Some of it is based on her teaching at the SVA over the last 10 years, and includes helping students prepare to get their dream jobs. I took these notes while watching the episode on mindset recently, and would like to share a few of her definitions and questions, because I found them helpful in thinking about how I want to show up as a letterer and calligrapher with my clients.
Winning a job vs. Getting a job
- You are competing for what you want with others who have the same education.
- Think about how to show up as the best version of yourself.
- Prepare for an interview, practice, and analyze every step and every aspect.
- What do you need to do to get into the competitive mindset of winning, not getting, that job?
I love getting requests for proposals from clients, and always wonder what it was that didn't get me the job, in the cases it doesn't work out. Sometimes it's price, sometimes it's timing, sometimes they don't say and I'm left wondering. I know I'm not always going to get an answer, but it's nice to feel empowered to do as much as I can from my side to get to a "yes".
Not getting the job can leave you feeling discouraged, but here's the thing:
“Confidence is over-rated” - Dani Shapiro
Confidence is the result of doing a thing well more than once. But what if you’ve never done it before? Courage is fearing the thing and doing it anyway, and only that way you’ll learn that the fear didn’t have such an impact. In other words, confidence is something you earn, once you muster up courage.
“If it were easy, it would be easy”
If we think we’re taking an easy way out, more often than not we’re still working hard but at something we hate. Nothing is easy.
Something to consider: why do we think that things should be easy? I guess when I see lettering and calligraphy masters post amazing pieces on Instagram, I think they’re doing it in 5 minutes, for something that would take me 5 hours. What I have to remind myself of is the years of study that went into developing the talent, the hours of practice that lead to improvements, and the dozens of sketches that probably didn’t make the cut.
Reminder: People work very hard to make something look easy.
Busy is a decision
If you’re not making the thing you want to make because you can’t find the time, you don’t really want to make the thing. Be honest with yourself about how important something is to you.
I totally believe this to be true. For years I wanted to lose weight - but not as much as I wanted to eat the pizzas. Getting what you want is a decision of priorities, and there are multiple studies out there about why we humans favor short-term satisfaction over long-term benefits.
There are multiple studies on why we should take decision-making out of the mundane things, so we have willpower to spare when the going gets tough. But since most of these processes are steered by hormones and chemicals in our brains, just because we’re aware of them doesn’t always mean we can control them. So the approach that seems to work for me now is to make the decision, set the goal, find a “why” to remind myself when I’m tempted to go off track, and if I do go off track, forgive myself and move on back towards the goal as soon as possible. Trying to instill habits also helps, e.g. this year I'm making it a habit to journal every day. So far, I'm 16 for 16.
What kind of energy do you give off?
Are you a generator or a drain? Energy generators are a joy to be around and they leave you feeling hopeful and inspired. Energy drains operate from a place of scarcity and complain a lot. How much do you complain? Even when things are awful, don’t spread the toxicity.
That's a hard one. I generally want to be a light in this world, but come on - a good bitch and moaning session with my friends over a glass (or several) of something is just necessary sometimes. But yes, I do try and always leave on a high note - just the get grievance out of the system and move on.
The difference between skepticism and complaining
Skepticism is curiosity whether something is true, but you’re coming to the question with doubt. You’re waiting for the other person to prove it. Think about how you respond to things you are not sure about. Think about how you’re approaching not knowing or not believing something. Are you maybe trying to cover up your own insecurity?
If you find yourself complaining a lot, and don’t want to come across as a drain, come up with solutions. Give the person you’re complaining to some options of how to make it better. This invites collaboration and shows you’re engaged and eager to make it better, without putting that person on the defensive because you’re expecting them to do the fixing for you.
80 % of people give up after the second attempt
Know that (winning the job) is going to take work. It takes time and practice to get the things you want; ability and talent are not enough. Your attitude and personality are the extras. If you’re a designer, people expect you to be able to design. Skills are a given. Your mindset and how you show up are the other piece.
When showing your portfolio, ask what they would recommend you take out. That information will help you gauge your range. If you insist on leaving it in, get better at talking about it with more authority. Ask people how you can show up better. Having that information is invaluable.
If I may go back to the diet example - if I had a nickel for every time I went off whatever program I was on after one meal that I felt was "bad" or indulgent, I'd have enough money for a personal chef and trainer. It's so easy and tempting to say "oh I blew today, might as well give up and make it a weekend", which turns into a month. Someone in my Weight Watchers meetings shared a great analogy - if you drop one egg, you're not going to throw down the whole carton. So it's good to remember to be persistent. As the Japanese proverb says, "fall down seven times, get up eight".
To have a remarkable life, you have to decide you want one. Create it. Your mission is made up from your unique beliefs and benefits, stated with stature and sincerity. Your mission has to come from within, it isn’t an opinion poll. It will take a lot of processing, deconstructing what you believe and why, and understanding where you draw the line.
Positioning is the birthplace of a mission. Who you are and what you believe is as important as your portfolio. Your portfolio is your proof of operational excellence, but why do you want to do what you do? What do you believe in, and how can you communicate it? What do you say when someone challenges your beliefs? Are you proud of them? Would you put them on your business card?
Your mission can be one line about what you’re seeking to do. Debbie’s mission statement while she was designing packaging for consumer products: “I seek to make the supermarket more beautiful.”
I believe that lettering and calligraphy have nothing to do with your hand writing, and that they are skills that can be learned. I believe writing with our hands and spending time doing cursive enables us to communicate more intentionally and more personally. And my mission is to educate, inspire, and bring together a community of lettering and calligraphy enthusiasts to celebrate writing with our hands.
Think about your key benefit strategically.
“Strategy is choosing to perform activities differently or to perform distinctly different activities than rivals.” - Michael Porter (Harvard Business School)
What are the benefits of hiring you? Make a list. What are the attributes you want to convey? The top 10 from her past students are:
Debbie calls these the table stakes. These are the basics you have to have already when you show up. They’re not the ones that make you unique. Being a people person or able to multi-task isn’t a unique benefit you can bring to a job. If you’re unsure about your unique benefit, ask people you trust to give you feedback.
My benefits, as I see them, include the ability to break complex ideas down to their bottom line, and teaching skills providing context, detailed instructions, and constructive feedback.
And there we are, thank you for staying with me! Now it's your turn: what are your mission, beliefs, and benefits?
For even more tips, also check out this article on How to Highlight Your Talents in a Job Interview without Showing Off.