Bounce Back: Become A More Resilient Designer
Mindy Wagner, Former Design Director
February is almost here, which means I've had a month to reflect on the past year’s successes and failures. My days slide by quickly, so I try to slow down at least once a year to focus on the big picture. It’s encouraging to see all that I did accomplish (yay me!) and it brings clarity to the things that still need work - helping me decide what next year's goals should be.
Looking at my professional life in 2012, I’m happy to see lots of wins. But I also see something big that I’m putting on the must-fix list. I fell prey to negativity on two challenging projects. It happens to everyone from time to time, but it’s a waste of creativity and energy and I certainly don't want to let it creep in again. Since I’m a “project person”, I decided to get my hands on some reading material and research ways to combat it.
Positive psychology sounds like a creepy cult thing, but it’s not about Stuart Smalley style affirmations or kitten posters at your desk. Although that sounds awesome too. I find reading about how our mind works (and how we can manipulate it) to be fascinating - and encouraging. Most of it is common sense stuff. But how many of us spend time intentionally making ourselves happier? We go to the gym and eat our veggies, but ignore our happiness level unless we get to a very bad place. Once you start thinking about it, that seems pretty silly.
I went down the rabbit hole, consuming everything I could find on the topic. Boiling down all the research I’ve done in the last few weeks, I’d sum it up like this: A huge chunk of our happiness (or unhappiness) hinges on our resiliency. And your personal resiliency can be improved.
That’s great, right? It seems we’re not completely doomed by some genetic happiness setpoint. In fact, experts in the field believe about 40-50% of personal happiness is within our control.
What Is Resiliency?
Psychological resilience is your ability to cope with stress and adversity, and to adapt in the face of negative experiences. Being resilient doesn’t mean you’re unbreakable; it means you bounce back well.
Resilient people accept that they will sometimes fail, and that those setbacks are transient. They understand that not all failure is personal, and that even the most personal of failures will have benefits. Instead of dwelling on mistakes and should-have-dones, they view failures as opportunities to learn and grow. This mentality helps them take a few hits and come back stronger.
Why It Matters For Designers
Designers who are happy with safe, predictable solutions - those who see design as just, well, work - don't have to struggle nearly as much. But for those of us emotionally invested in our designs and in trying to move the web forward, failure is inevitable. We need to deal with those failures the right way so we can continue to push boundaries.
It’s no secret that this career path is hard on your ego. We’re constantly in the line of fire. It’s expected that our work will be questioned, challenged, and perhaps undone. For every big win, there will no doubt be a handful of tough losses. You’ll have awesome ideas that never see the light of day. You’ll run up against challenging clients who question every tiny decision you make and committees who can’t agree on anything, including your work. You’ll fail repeatedly in ways both big and small. It’s just part of the job.
To be a great designer you need to be able to cope with rejection and dismissal more gracefully than most. Because when that rejection happens, you need to move forward and create the next awesome thing that will get the client (and you) excited.
Resilience will help you to be:
When you receive frustrating feedback or a project takes an unexpected turn, you feel a sudden loss of control. Humans naturally crave control, so any threat to our sense of control over a situation is uncomfortable. In response, we feel an immediate and instinctive rush of emotions. We want to shut down and refuse to change. Stress and conflict can greatly inhibit our creativity.
Resiliency lets us stand back, evaluate the situation, and come up with a solution that is equally good - or maybe even better - than the one we first proposed. If you can manage your negative emotions, you can keep a clear head and an open mind.
When a project gets frustrating, it’s hard to keep your passion for the work. As negative experiences pile up, it is natural to begin detaching so that the failures are less painful. This is, of course, absolutely no good. We need passion to do great work, and to enjoy doing it.
Resiliency can keep you from feeling helpless. It gives you the energy to dig deeper, take decisive action, and stay motivated in the face of obstacles.
It’s easy to let design critiques chip away at your confidence. The work we produce can come off as fairly subjective. It can feel difficult to measure or prove how good it actually is. Even the most successful designers I know get insecure about their work sometimes. But confidence is essential for a designer. You need to take risks, be bold, and successfully sell your solutions.
Resiliency helps you stay positive so you will believe in your design skills even when they’re being challenged.
To have a long, successful, and most importantly enjoyable career as a designer, you need to build up your resiliency.
How Can We Be More Resilient?
Some people are more naturally resilient than others, but everyone can learn to be more resilient than they are right now. Research has shown you really can train your mind to be more positive. You can cultivate good feelings and learn better mental habits. It’s all about self awareness and self regulation.
Simple ways to improve your resiliency as a designer:
Be Positive - Even If You Have To Fake It
Your brain has plasticity, which means you can change how it processes things. You can actually become more positive by acting as if you are a more positive person. It sounds crazy, I know. But science says it’s true, and I believe in science.
Being positive is hard. Sometimes, you just can’t make yourself feel positive no matter how much you want to. But for starters, you can avoid acting outwardly negative. Because venting to others doesn’t seem to truly relieve bad feelings. Instead, studies show it makes you feel even angrier - and it makes others around you feel worse too. So skip the big rants and try to pretend you’re not seething inside, because “fake it till you feel it” has been proven to work. Studies show even a faked smile actually makes you happier. And people using botox are less prone to anger because they can’t make angry faces!
Don’t fall into the common designer trap of all-or-nothing thinking, interpreting everything as either perfect or terrible. There are always shades of gray. Accept that change is a part of good design. That others might have great suggestions. That your first solution might not have been the best one.
Flexibility is an essential part of resilience. Resilient people see setbacks as an opportunity to branch out in new directions. If a design you love gets rejected, try to see it as a chance to come up with an even better design. There are many ways to solve any given problem, but we often get locked into the first thing we come up with. Think of it this way - finding alternate solutions to will force you to grow as a designer.
Believe In Your Abilities
When our work is dismissed, it can feel as though our self (and not just our design) has been rejected. Deep down, we start to wonder if the client thinks we’re stupid or talentless. But nine times out of ten the dismissal has more to do with politics or hidden agendas than it does your work. And even if they do think you’re a no-talent goofball, it doesn’t mean they’re right.
Resilient people tend to see failures as temporary and specific. They don’t think “I failed this, so I fail at everything, and I’ll continue to fail forever and ever.” Their confidence in their abilities can weather a few storms without being eroded. But building up that thick skin takes practice. When you begin to doubt your abilities, stop and make a list of similar obstacles that you successfully overcame.
If you believe yourself to be competent, you’ll stay creative and keep trying. If you believe yourself to be incompetent, you’ll almost certainly get stuck. Guard your confidence fiercely.
Find Meaning & Celebrate Wins
Happiness isn’t just about positive experiences. To be truly happy, humans need to feel like what they have done is meaningful and valuable.
It’s easy to focus on only the negative when a project starts to go badly. Be intentional about stopping to notice the wins and successes. Revisit past successes when you’re feeling negative, and try to reframe failures. Much of our takeaway feeling about a project comes from how we tell the story. If we keep telling the story in a more positive way, we’ll remember it that way later on.
Seek Out Support
Strong personal relationships are incredibly important to resiliency. So occasionally, get out from behind your desk and work on building and maintaining good relationships with your team and/or professional peers. If you have your own cheerleading squad waiting in the wings you’ll know where to go when you need motivation. They’ll remind you just how awesome you are and stop you from sliding into a dark place.
To Sum It Up
Designing for real clients and real projects will always come with challenges, and there’s not much you can do to change that. But you can change how you view and respond to the curve balls Simple shifts in thinking can produce pretty profound effects on your mindset, and in turn your work and professional growth. So embrace adversity, hone your coping skills, practice resiliency and remind yourself: This too shall pass.
Want extra credit? Here you go:
Dr. Martin Seligman’s Authentic Happiness program at UPenn
The Build and Broaden Theory (PDF)
The Positive Psychology Progress Report
Dan Gilbert - The Surprising Science of Happiness (TED talk)
Stefan Sagmeister - 7 Rules For More Happiness (TED talk)
Jessie Arrington's Rainbow Creative Mornings Talk (semi-related to happiness, definitely inspires me to be more lighthearted)