I Think You Can Do Better
The agency culture I came up in was a blunt-bladed emotional thresher. We can do better for the next generation of creatives.
I remember the first time a mentor who I respected and admired told me that I sucked.
We were putting our work up on the walls prior to a critique. My mentor was slowly making his way around the room, laying down a base coat of fear and loathing, when he suddenly paused at my halfway papered corner.
After a brief study, he looked at me and said, “You know, if you spent half as much time on this work, as you did on that outfit, you might actually have a decent idea or two to share.”
And as he walked away, I was left standing there, reeling from the emotional sucker punch, wondering how I had managed to become such an oblivious, talentless, futureless hack.
Welcome to You Suck Culture.
You Suck Culture exists in many forms and many disciplines. I’m most familiar with its agency creative team version, but a similar protocol exists in professional kitchens, newsrooms, fashion houses, and even some teaching hospitals. It seems to be a part of any profession that requires knowledge of the craft be handed down from one generation to the next.
And this is how it works:
You enter the industry as a bright young thing who thinks you’re going to change the world. One day, a more experienced person, who has the job you want, sits you down and lets you know in no uncertain terms, that you suck.
This person then makes it their purpose in life to grind your hopes, dreams, and work product into a fine gray powder that they unceremoniously dust off their shoulders. And then it’s simply rinse, grind, and repeat.
The person on the business end of this treatment typically responds in one of two ways:
- They quit
- They try harder
The decision to try harder can be Stockholmian, or Kuyashiian, but in the end if you decide to try harder it’s mainly because you want the pain of being told you suck all the time to stop.
So you grit your teeth, put your head down, and try. Harder.
And as the magic formula goes: Time + Effort = Improvement.
You start to get better. You hear that you suck a little less often. And then maybe a lot less often. But deep down you know that the only thing standing between your current status as a mildly competent individual, and a devastating descent back into suctorial loserdom, is great work.
A foundational belief starts to map its way onto your creative DNA:
As long as I’m producing great work, I don’t suck. The minute I stop producing great work, I will begin a life of suckatude once again.
And it is upon this rock that you will build your career — until lo and behold, one day YOU are that experienced person facing down a fresh new recruit who thinks they are going to change the world.
And because it’s the only system you know, and because that sort of unbridled optimism is just chum in the water for your lurking, wounded, apex predator of an ego, you hitch up your waistline, deaden your irises, unhinge your slingjaw — and crush.
You tell them, in no uncertain terms, that they suck.
And the cycle begins anew.
There is no arguing that this system “works”. It effectively produces new creatives who can reliably deliver high quality work. And it does so in a way that is fast, efficient, and — bug or feature? — breathtakingly brutal.
But while this approach inarguably produces results, have we ever thought about the kind of people those results are producing?
Because when your process requires that you break people down to succeed, what you’re left with, in the end, is broken people.
Broken people who are terrified of failure, because failure doesn’t just mean failure as a professional creative — it means failure as a human being.
If producing bad work means you suck, then the only way to avoid sucking is to produce great work. 100% of the time.
Which leaves you totally exposed and without any psychological cover on the days when you actually do suck.
One of the most talented designers I’ve ever known, a creative director who, mid-career, just for kicks, switched from being an art director to a copywriter, confessed that part of what drove him was the fear that he’d one day be exposed as the trifling creative fraud that he actually was.
That is what You Suck Culture does to us.
If you believe, deep down, that every good idea you’ve ever had is simply a momentary getting-one-over on the pun-slinging, cliché loving, gum-snapping hack inside you, then what happens on the day when the good ideas just won’t come? No matter how hard or long you work?
The white whale.
Whatever designers call it.
Burnout is what happens.
I think it’s one of the reasons that addiction, abuse, depression, and suicide — the full sampler platter of human misery — all surface in disproportionate numbers when you look at any “creative” field.
It’s a dream to do what you love for a living. But it also means, if you’re not careful, you can find yourself slipping into your very own professional nightmare.
This is not a sustainable system.
There has to be — if not a happy — at least an at-peace medium between being driven by a desperate need to outrun your inevitable professional self-destruction, and sashaying through life like some kind of modern day creative Midas. (To say nothing of the long-term prospects of any culture that makes a habit of devouring its young — Utah prairie dogs and reality television dynasties excepted.)
So what do we do?
Stop being so hard on the kids?
Ease up, chill-out, OK CREATIVE DIRECTOR?
I don’t think that’s the answer.
This isn’t an apology for mediocre work.
It’s an appeal for a better way of getting to great work.
The bad old days that I came up in — where you had your work literally ripped into shreds, stomped on the ground, and covered in a thick layer of expletives — are disappearing.
The problem is, what has replaced them?
I think it’s something just as damaging, if admittedly, a little less ugly.
The pendulum has swung to the other side of the creative pit, and over here, instead of spewing vulgarity and the rending of 8.5x11 copy paper, what you hear is...
Toxic You Suck Culture has been replaced with a pernicious form of Be Nice Culture.
And it makes sense. If you want people to stop being mean, the solution is simply to start being nice. So instead of direct critique you use dot voting, or write memos, or just crowd-source your feedback by calling it an mvp.
But while viciously negative feedback leaves your confidence with a permanent residue of self doubt, Be Nice Culture doesn’t give you enough feedback to actually develop your confidence in the first place.
Said another way: If no one ever tells you you’re doing it wrong, it’s a lot harder to believe them when they tell you you’re doing it right.
I think Be Nice Culture might be part of what’s fueling the rise in imposter syndrome. Instead of producing people who are running a perpetual catch-me-if-you-can foot race against their own perceived incompetence, we’re producing people who don’t feel like they have a right to be on the track in the first place.
So if being a jerk doesn’t work, and being nice doesn’t work, then what the heck is supposed to work?
Trust. I think trust is what works.
Specifically, setting a high bar for your team and then believing that they are going to reach it.
“I think you can do better.”
That isn’t a phrase I heard coming up, and it’s not really something you can say with a dot. But it is a way to communicate that someone’s work product isn’t right — yet — while also communicating that you believe that they will get it right — ultimately.
It’s a way of providing real critique that holds work to a high standard, while also encouraging the maker, and explaining your motivation.
It’s a simple way of simply saying:
I believe in you, and I’m going to hold you accountable to that belief.
We can do better for the next generation of creatives.
We don’t have to bring them up in the You Suck Culture that formed us.
And that doesn’t mean we have to go soft. It doesn’t mean that we start pretending work is good when it’s not, or that we stop doing honest critiques, or that we cease to take risks and push boundaries.
It just means that we grow the creative people in our care by building them up, not tearing them down.
That we show them we believe in them so they can learn to believe in themselves, and swap a kick-down culture of creative mentorship for one that ultimately lifts all of us up.