Please enjoy this transcript of my second episode featuring Debbie Millman (@debbiemillman), named by Graphic Design USA as “one of the most influential designers working today.” She is also the founder and host of Design Matters. Transcripts may contain a few typos—with some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it’s difficult to catch some minor errors. Enjoy!
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Tim Ferriss: Well, hello there. Welcome to another episode of The Tim Ferriss Show, where it is my job to share the habits, tools, and patterns of world-class performers of all different types. This special episode is shorter than usual and features thoughts and recommendations from Debbie Millman who, in her first appearance on this podcast, gave a wide-ranging and very emotionally impactful interview that is still one of the most downloaded episodes of all time on this podcast. You can check that out at tim.blog/Debbie if you want a longer former conversation. But this will be a shorter taste of Debbie.
Debbie @debbiemillman on Twitter, has been called “One of the most influential designers working today,” by Graphic Design USA. She is the founder and host of Design Matters, the world’s first and longest running podcast about design, where she’s interviewed nearly 300 design luminaries and cultural commentators, including Mossimo Vignelli and Milton Glaser. Debbie has, I suppose to put it one way, done it all. Her artwork has been exhibited around the world.
She is the President Emeritus of AIGA, one of only five women to hold the position in the organization’s 100-year history, the editorial and creative director of Print magazine, and the author of six books. In 2009, Debbie co-founded, alongside Steven Heller, the world’s first Master’s program in branding at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, which has received international acclaim. So, she has been on many different adventures in many different fields and has learned a lot of very impactful lessons that you can hopefully apply to your own life.
In this episode, Debbie outlines more than a few things, but among them she talks about how to bounce back from rejection and criticism and shares some of her personal stories; the importance of mental health; whether courage or confidence is more important, if you had to pick one; five questions to help you clarify your own purpose; and much more. Without further ado, please enjoy this shorter episode with Debbie Millman.
Debbie, what is the book or books that you’ve given most as a gift and why? Or what are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life?
Debbie Millman: Well, a book that has influenced my life and one that I keep going back to over and over is the anthology, The Voice That is Great Within Us: American Poetry of the Twentieth Century. Gorgeously, thoughtfully, and carefully edited by Hayden Carruth. It was required reading in a summer college class I attended back in the early 1980s. This funny looking book introduced me to my most treasured, deeply felt poem, Maximus, to himself by Charles Olson, which has since become the blueprint of my life, as well as the poetry of Denise Levertov, Adrienne Rich, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, and so many more.
I still have my original copy from the 1980s and though the cover has come off and the spine is cracked in numerous places, I will never replace it.
Tim, I thought I’d read a version of Charles Olson’s Maximus, to himself, since it is my favorite poem and I get such great joy reading this.
Maximus, to himself, by Charles Olson
I have had to learn the simplest things
last. Which made for difficulties.
Even at sea I was slow, to get the hand out, or to cross
a wet deck.
The sea was not, finally, my trade.
But even my trade, at it, I stood estranged
from that which was most familiar. Was delayed,
and not content with the man’s argument
that such postponement
is now the nature of
that we are all late
in a slow time,
that we grow up many
And the single
is not easily
It could be, though the sharpness (the achiote)
I note in others,
makes more sense
than my own distances. The agilities
they show daily
who do the world’s
And who do nature’s
as I have no sense
I have done either
I have made dialogues,
have discussed ancient texts,
have thrown what light I could, offered
But the known?
This, I have had to be given,
a life, love, and from one man
But sitting here
I look out as a wind
and water man, testing
I know the quarters
of the weather, where it comes from,
where it goes. But the stem of me,
this I took from their welcome,
or their rejection, of me
And my arrogance
was neither diminished
by the communication
It is undone business
I speak of, this morning,
with the sea
from my feet”
Tim Ferriss: What purchase of $100 or less has most positively impacted your life in the last six months or in recent memory?
Debbie Millman: Well, the purchase that has influenced me over the last six months is the Apple pencil. I do so much of my artwork by hand and now there is a device that draws and feels like a real pencil that I can use electronically. It’s changed the way I work.
Tim Ferriss: How has a failure or apparent failure set you up for later success? Do you have a “favorite failure” of yours?
Debbie Millman: Tim, I have so many failures. I think the first decade of my career were experiments in failure, rejection, and humiliation. But I do have a favorite, so I will share that. In early 2003, a good friend sent me an email with a subject line that read “Begin drinking heavily before opening.” The email contained a link to a blog titled, “Speak Up,” the first ever online forum about graphic design and branding in the world.
Suddenly, sprawled before my eyes, I found myself reading an article that disparaged my entire career. This particular incident, in tandem with a number of historical rejections and setbacks and humiliations, sent me into a really deep depression and I seriously considered leaving the design profession altogether. However, however, in the 14 years since this occurred, this utter takedown of everything I’d done to date and everything I thought was a complete and total failure for a long, long time ultimately transformed into the foundation of everything I’ve done since. Everything I am doing now contains the seeds of origin from that time.
So, it turns out, for me, the worst professional experience I faced ultimately became the most important, defining experience of my life.
Tim Ferriss: Debbie, if you could have a giant billboard anywhere with anything on it, what would it say and why?
Debbie Millman: This is easy. My billboard would say this, “Busy is a decision.” I say this all the time ad nauseum. Here’s why. Of the many excuses people use to rationalize why they can’t do something, the excuse, “I am too busy,” is not only the most inauthentic, it is also the laziest. I don’t believe in too busy. Busy is a decision. We do the things we want to do, period. If we say we are too busy, I believe it is shorthand for “not important enough.” It means you would rather be doing something else that you consider more important. That thing could be sleep, it could be sex, it could be watching Game of Thrones. If we use busy as an excuse for not doing something, what we are really, really saying is that it’s not a priority.
It’s not as important to us. So simply put, you don’t find the time to do something. You make the time to do things. I think we’re now living in a society that sees busy as a badge. It has become cultural cache to use the excuse “I am too busy” as a reason for not doing anything we don’t feel like doing. The problem is this: if you let yourself off the hook for not doing something for any reason, you won’t ever do it. If you want to do something, you can’t let being busy stand in the way, even if you are busy. Make the time to do the things you want to do and then follow through and do them.
Tim Ferriss: What is one of the best or most worthwhile investments you’ve ever made?
Debbie Millman: This answer might surprise you or maybe not. But the investment I’ve ever made was in psychotherapy. When I first started, I was in my early 30s and the bills practically killed me.
But I knew I needed to deeply understand all the destructive things that had happened to me in order to try to live a remarkable life despite these things and I wanted this more than anything. Over the years, I still sometimes smart at the monthly invoices, but I’ve never doubted that this investment has profoundly, profoundly shaped who I’ve become. Although I still think I have a lot of work to do, it’s changed and then saved my life in every imaginable way. I’m in what is called psychoanalytic psychotherapy. Put another way, psychoanalysis with an emphasis on self-psychology.
So, for me, talk therapy is the only thing that I’ve ever really felt drawn to. Things like EMDR and behavior modification might be really helpful for other people, but they seem a little bit too voodoo for me. So some things that I think are important to consider, strictly from my perspective, I’m not an expert at assessing or analyzing the value or worth of psychoanalysis, only I am able to convey what this has done for me.
But for me, once-a-week therapy did not work well. Twice or more gives you continuity and an opportunity to germinate in a way that once a week doesn’t. Also, once a week almost feels like a catch up. You sort of bring the therapist up to speed on what happened in the last week and then you have 20 minutes to sort of talk about what’s happening right now. Therapy takes time. I often say that anything worthwhile takes a long time. Therapy is one of those things. I’ve been in therapy for a really long time, for decades. But I can now, after those decades, actually point to empirical evidence of how my behavior in the world, my sense of who I am has fundamentally, fundamentally changed.
Being in therapy and being in therapy for any length of time, it takes dedication, it takes stamina, it takes resilience, persistence, and a lot of courage to face things that you might be really afraid to look at. It’s not a quick fix, but like I said, it’s really saved my life. Try and tell your therapist everything. If you edit who you are or if you pretend to be something that you’re not in order to impress the therapist, if you want to project who or how you want to be seen, it will take that much longer. Just be yourself. They likely in their practice heard everything. They understand humanity. Just be yourself.
If you’re afraid your therapist will judge you, tell them that also because that whole projection is really critical to understanding the dynamic that you have with people in general. All of these things are really important to talk about. There’s no shame in feeling shame. I’m saying this from a place of deep empathy.
Almost everyone feels shame. I think Brene Brown says that anybody that doesn’t feel shame is likely a pathological person. Almost everyone does and therapy will help you understand it. There’s nothing like understanding your motivations and insecurities to help you integrate all of those feelings in your psyche in the most healthy and authentic way. So, for me, I would not recommend going to a therapist that one of your friends goes to.
Asking your friends for a referral and then going to somebody that they see might seem like a good idea because that person trusts them and therefore by extension you might feel like you can too, but it ends up blurring things quite a bit. I think most therapists abide by this rule now of not seeing friends or clients of friends. Things really do get very blurry and boundaries can get weird and I just don’t recommend that.
Big elephant in the room here. It is going to be expensive. But what is more valuable than better understanding who you are, breaking intrinsic bad habits, getting over much of your shit, or at least understanding why you do the shit in the first place, and generally living a happier, more contented, more peaceful life? One thing that I’ve come to understand recently, and this was actually not only through the help of my therapist and guidance form my therapist, but also through my dear, dear friend, Seth Godin, is understanding the difference between happiness and pleasure.
I think people are often trying to reach for and strive for pleasure. The response to trying to seek pleasure is actually wanting more pleasure after that. We live on this hedonistic treadmill. We metabolize our purchases and our experiences very quickly. So, when we have that pleasure or experience that pleasure, then we want more.
Happiness is very different. Happiness essentially means you’re okay as is. You don’t need more. You don’t want more. You feel good with what you have. I think that therapy really helps you understand the difference between what you seek, what your motivations are, and ultimately what you want and how you can manifest that in your life. So, breaking these intrinsic bad habits, getting over much of your shit, and generally living this happier, more contended, more peaceful life is something that I think is the ultimate gift of therapy, or the payoff.
Lastly, my advice to anyone looking for a therapist is to make sure they’re really trained. I highly recommend training here. A Ph.D., an M.D., plus post-doctoral training, you really do get what you pay for here. I highly recommend somebody that is truly, fully educated in what they do.
Tim Ferriss: What is an unusual habit or an absurd thing that you love?
Debbie Millman: I’ve been told that because I like to make up silly songs and then sing them in all sorts of absurd situations and occurrences, that I am trying to turn my life into a Hollywood musical. Since I was first told that, I’ve come to completely agree with that, and I think that is awesome. But I have songs for everything. I used to have songs for feeding my cats, but they’ve since both passed away. I have songs for my dogs. I have songs while I’m cooking. I usually take some well-known tune and then rewrite the lyrics for whatever it is I’m experiencing.
So, for example, when I was feeding my cats, when I would open up the cans of cat food, I would sing, “Who wants it fancy? Who wants it feasty? Who wants it fancy? Who wants it feasty? Feasty, fancy, fancy, feasty, let’s open up the cans now.” They loved it. Everybody else around me hated it, but they loved it.
Tim Ferriss: In the last five years, what new belief, behavior or habit has most improved your life?
Debbie Millman: After a Design Matters interview with the great writer, Dani Shapiro, we started to talk about the role of confidence in success. Apparently, I think at that time about four new books on confidence had some out. She went on to state that she felt that confidence was highly overrated and I was instantly intrigued and asked her why. She explained that she felt that most overly confident people were really annoying and that most confident people were usually a little on the arrogant side.
She felt that over-exuding that amount of confidence was a sure sign that a person was compensating for some type of internal psychological deficit. Instead, Dani declared that courage was more important than confidence.
Taking that first step and doing anything was the real key to begin to manifest the possibility of that thing happening. So, when you’re operating out of courage, you’re saying that no matter how you feel about yourself or your opportunities or the outcome, you’re going to take a risk and take a step toward what you want. You’re not waiting for the confidence to mysteriously arrive. Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about, well, how do you develop confidence? How do you bring that confidence to whatever it is you do?
I’ve come to the conclusion that, and this is my definition of confidence now, is that confidence is the successful repetition of any endeavor. If you think back to something that you had to learn for the first time – walking, for example. You didn’t start walking and just start walking perfectly. You were crawling, you were holding onto things, and then ultimately you get that ability to step up and take that first step and then you learn how to walk. But even a better example, I think, is driving.
When most of us start driving, we have to take driving lessons. We’re really nervous about being in the car behind the wheel. We have this big instrument that we have to control. Most of us were really nervous at our driving test and are hoping and praying that we’ll be able to pass. But over time, once you do pass, once you have your license, you start driving more regularly. You turn on the ignition, you drive around, you do your errands, you take road trips, cross-country trips, whatever.
After a certain amount of time, when you get into the car and you turn on the ignition, you don’t worry about the possibility that this might be the day that you kill someone behind the wheel. You have what I call “car confidence.” You get in the car, you know how to drive, and you figure that you’re going to be able to get from Point A to Point B rather unremarkably. I think that is the case for anything that we do. Anything new that we start, it’s highly unlikely that we will feel enormously confident doing something we’ve never done before.
It takes time to be able to manifest confidence through the successful repetition of any endeavor. We end up having a certain internal pattern recognition by the fact that we’ve done this thing fairly well, maybe excellently, and we anticipate that the results will be the same the next time we do it. So the more you practice doing something, the better you will inevitably get at it and your confidence will then grow over time.
Tim Ferriss: What advice would you give to a smart, driven college student about to enter the real world? What advice do you think they should ignore?
Debbie Millman: Well, since I teach, I have a lot of opinions on what advice to give college students. I think one of the most important is about job hunting. Like everything else meaningful in life, it takes training to get good at job hunting. You don’t just find and get a great job. You don’t just go to the supermarket and pick a great job off of a shelf. You have to find and win a great job against a pool of very competitive candidates who may want that job as much, if not more than you do.
So, finding and winning a great job is a competitive sport that requires as much career athleticism and perseverance as making it to the Olympics. You must be in the finest career shape possible in order to win. There is very little luck involved. I’ve done hundreds of Design Matters interviews where I’m sitting across from people, really successful people, who say, “It was just luck. I just got lucky.” I look at them and I always say, “Really?” Because it’s very little to do with luck.
There might be some timing involved, but it’s the timing that is resulting in showing up every day, doing the work, getting better and better at the work, and then being the person most qualified when that opportunity shows up. Winning your great job is about hard work. It’s about stamina.
It’s about grit, ingenuity, and timing. What might look like luck to you is simply hard work paying off. So, here’s some questions I tell my students to ask themselves as they set out on their path in the real world to win a job. “Am I spending enough time on looking for, finding, and working toward winning a great job?” “Am I constantly refining and improving my skills?” “What can I continue to get better and more competitive at?” “Do I believe that I am working harder than everyone else? If not, what can should I be doing in order to be able to accomplish that?”
“What are the people who are competing with me doing that I am not doing?” “Am I do everything I can, every single day to stay in career shape? If not, what else should I be doing?” One piece of advice I think that people should ignore is the value of being a people person.
Because as lovely as it might be to be a people person, no one cares if you’re a people person. Have a point of view, and share it meaningfully, thoughtfully, respectfully, and with conviction.
Tim Ferriss: What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
Debbie Millman: I don’t believe in work/life balance. I believe if you view your work as a calling, it is a labor of love, rather than laborious. When your work is a calling, you are not approaching the amount of hours you are working with a sense of dread or counting the minutes until the weekend. Your calling can become a life-affirming engagement that can provide it’s own balance and spiritual nourishment. Ironically, it takes hard work to achieve this. When you’re in your 20s and your 30s and you want to have a remarkable, fulfilling career, you must work hard. If you don’t work harder than everyone else, you will not get ahead.
Also, if you’re looking for work/life balance in your 20s or 30s, you’re likely in the wrong career. If you’re doing something that you love, you don’t want work/life balance. You want to be able to do this thing that you love as often as possible.
Tim Ferriss: When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, what do you do?
Debbie Millman: Well, as a loud-mouthed, native New Yorker, I have often regretted acting impulsively when I’m feeling angry or frustrated. Now, when I feel that familiar urge to respond defensively or say things that I don’t really mean or bang out a wounded response via email or text to some supposed hurt, I wait. I force myself to breathe, take a step back, and wait to respond. Just an hour or two or an overnight retreat makes a world of difference. And if all else fails, I try to obey this message I got in a fortune cookie, which I have since taped to my laptop, “Avoid compulsively making things worse.”
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