It frustrates me when others preface their presentations or opinions with caveats or apron strings that lowers or alters our expectations as listeners. But I’m also guilty of doing the same thing. In response to a classmate’s feedback that I tend to sell myself short, I started thinking about the reasons we’re conditioned to do this kind of thing.
Immediately, we both thought “it’s a girl thing.” That is true and there’s a lot to say about that in terms of different types of feedback, different channels of reflection. But then I started thinking about how it’s also a “society thing,” which is a lot more interesting to me. What of MY past experiences have led into this habit of downplaying my own accomplishments and strengths?
It’s a School ThingBeing the goody-two-shoes straight-A nerd student is not easy. It is not cool. When you win end of the year awards in fourth grade, and they make you walk up to the front of the class again and again even though you’re super shy, and the other kids are all rolling their eyes, you do not want to keep getting acknowledged for those A’s. When your friend says to you in 6th grade “I hate you” with a smile on her face and as a “joke” because you’ve gotten an A on a home-ec test and she didn’t, you still feel the sting of those words.
What are we instilling in our kids if the structures set up in our schools creates stratospheres of winners and losers, so that nobody can celebrate each other’s learning, the actual process instead of outcomes, or their collective accomplishments?
The world needs strong thinkers who can also honestly reflect on their strengths and growth areas—without feeling overly congratulated for simply making the grades/test scores, yet able to find ways to celebrate and expand on real improvement, growth, learning, and success.
It’s a Creatives ThingI spent most of my college years feeling as if (on some level) I wasn’t doing as much (or as valuable of) work as my engineering friends who were cramming for calculus and systems analysis tests…even though us design/art students had three or more 8-hour studio courses a semester.
This is probably compounded by Asian-American second-generation immigrant-parent expectations. You’re supposed to study STEM and play a musical instrument. I did neither, and I was constantly reminded of this during Saturday Chinese school classes during high school. While other students often missed class for recitals or concerts, I only missed one class—and that was for a Beach Clean-Up with the Art Club. (I didn’t tell them I was president.)
It’s also harder to share your accomplishments, when there’s a language gap. I don’t know how to talk about design in Chinese to my family, and I don’t know how to talk about design in plain English to my friends in a way that they understand its value. Lots of times, if you talk about it at all, it’s to show an end product instead of talking about what you learned during the processes.
It’s a “Success” Thing
All of the above holds true when you move from college into the “real world” and start working full time. It’s pretty depressing to compare creatives’ salaries with pretty much anyone else. Even if you don’t care about money, you still feel it on some level because it’s a measure of how much society (doesn’t) value your skills set.
There’s more value—and you have an easier story to tell at family gatherings—if you have a stable job (even if you hate it), are working toward home ownership, and are on track to make grandbabies.
Additionally, I’ve quit and switched jobs/industries a bunch in the past couple years, I don’t feel like I have the same specialist experience that other peers of my age who have stayed put in one field have (notwithstanding ongoing debates about value of generalist/specialist/various-shaped designers). I don’t fit any of the job descriptions I see on job boards, and since I don’t know who would pay me for my special mix of skills, it’s hard to reflect on the “strength” of any single one of my skills.
If we as a society need more creatives, more designers, and more cross-disciplinary thinkers, we need to figure out ways to nurture and support and celebrate them without making them feel (even if unintentionally) like outcasts at holiday dinners.
It’s a Design ThingWe foster a culture of judgment and critique because we have high expectations of ourselves and of our work. Because of this, every time we present, every time we send something off to a client, we hold our breaths and brace ourselves to be skewered, to hear rejection, or to at least get back a ton of change work to add onto our plates.
Design schools need to provide guidance on how to give effective and valuable critique. Additionally, a lot of times during design school, we only get present to be critiqued at the very end of a project–when you can’t do anything to change what you’ve just presented. So you’re naturally on the defensive. Might as well throw in some qualifiers to lower expectations, to let them know that I also know that this is not perfect.
Throw some traditionally-trained designers who like to present fine-tuned “final” work into some rapid-prototyping everything-is-beta-all-the-time presentations, and it’s definitely a learning curve of what “presentation” and “critique” mean.
We owe it to ourselves to StopWe owe it not only to ourselves, or even just to our classmates, but also to AC4D to stop downplaying ourselves. I know we all believe in our collective awesomeness, but news flash–that also means your individual awesomeness has contributed to that. We can also spend all the extra energy and brainpower back on the work itself.
Quick ideas of how to do that on a practical day-to-day AC4D level:
- Just start the actual presentation! No caveats, qualifications, apron strings. Save em for later, other channels, or not at all.
- Focus on what feedback you’re looking for to keep being awesome or to keep getting better next time instead of dwelling on what went not-so-perfectly this time.
- Bite your tongue if you feel yourself starting to self-deprecate. Ask a question instead.
- If you find yourself starting off emails or writing with caveats or apologies, go back and delete them before sending/posting to the world.
We also need to share our stories, so others know it’s okay to be cross-disciplinary and awesome and smart and strong and overachievers. The world is in sad shape, and we don’t have time to apologize for trying to make it better.
And while we’re at it, let’s figure out ways to celebrate (real) achievement in K-12 schools as well as higher ed, so that we don’t lose those engaged, creative smarties — or any of their classmates — to either the peer pressures of underachievement to fit in or to the dehumanizing one-size-fits-all path toward “success.” This could mean anything from mentoring one child to restructuring the traditional grading system to teaching design as a liberal art…