Tips & Advice

Do design breakthroughs only happen when we’re young and fearless?

“Talent means nothing without the fearlessness needed to use it.”

I read that quote somewhere when I was still in college; I remember writing it in my sketchbook at the time I heard it. For whatever reason, it quickly became my mantra for design, and looking back I think that fearlessness the quote speaks of was a big part of my M.O. Anyway, it’s been rattling around in my brain lately. It’s importance and relevance to me in terms of design, though, was brought home by the following email I received recently, from photographer Zave Smith. Check it out, some great food for thought:

Have you ever wondered why so many people have had their breakthrough idea when they are just starting out?

When we are young, full of energy, passion, ambition and the burning need just to be seen, we are often too naive to know what can’t be done. All of our ideas seem to have equal merit and all seem so easily produced. We have yet to develop scar tissue from years of battle with the powers that be. We are not afraid because we have so little to lose.

For those of us who have walked life’s road a bit and built our professional identity on earlier successes, we have a vested interest in keeping our reputation. The crowds yell out to us, sing, “Satisfaction” again. How do we stop each creative answer from being in the same key? Do we just cash in or do we start again from the beginning? Bank accounts, credit cards, kids in school and a reputation to keep intact – how do we stop thinking about the soles of our shoes?

Youth have no professional habits. They approach each dawn like the first day of Genesis. But the artists, designers, and cultural leaders that I admire the most are those who at sixty are as innovative as they were at twenty. I often ask, how do they do it?

They do it by not being afraid. Fear is the emotion that stops us in our tracks. Fear freezes the mind and builds walls around the soul. The bumps and scars of a creative life teach us to be careful but being careful is the death of creativity. So how can we remain fearless?

Controlling our environment is often easier than controlling our behavior. Can we create a work environment that is both stimulating and reassuring? One of the tenets of improvisational comedy is that the characters never say “no” – saying “no” stops the action. Each character in good improv accepts the line and concepts of the previous characters and builds upon them. Why can’t creative meetings work the same way?

Fear is ultimately internal and unique to each of us. When I am feeling fearful or blocked I may go for a walk, reach into my spiritual side and remember how fearless I was at twenty.

It is nice to grow and mature. It is even nicer to grow wise and still be fearless.


Zave Smith

  • This article stikes a chord. We human beings always want life to be easy, and one of the biggest barriers to creative thinking is our reluctance to break out of our comfort zone. Doing so means the risk of failure, yet this may be the only way to move forward. One of my favourite rock bands is Radiohead, and the reason I love them is that they re-invent themselves with every album. No matter how good or successful their past work has been, they always approach each album as something entirely new – they go right back to the drawing board and never try to repeat anything they’ve done before. In a recent interview they said that this approach was incredibly difficult, yet for them there is no other way. After 15 years of playing together, they could get very comfortable and complacent, and stick to what is familiar. Instead they choose consistently to sail in unsafe and unknown unchartered waters, and their example is an inspiration to anyone in the creative field.

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