On her 1978 hit single, Gloria Gaynor sang: ‘At first I was afraid, I was petrified’. The lyrics describe her discovery of personal strength after a devastating breakup. But I have a fact about this song that will disappoint jilted lovers everywhere: the song wasn’t written by Gaynor, but by a guy called Dino Fekaris who had been fired from his job at Motown Records. I Will Survive was Fekaris’ way of telling the label, ‘I’m gonna do me.’ And when you relisten to the song with that in mind, it’s a masterclass in storytelling, perfectly describing two essential creative ingredients: confidence and fear.
I’ve only ever been fired once, from my Saturday job at a garden centre when I was 16. It didn’t come as much of a shock. I knew precisely nothing about plants, so I’d make up answers to customers’ questions, and their gardens presumably went to shit.
When I started on placement as an advertising creative, it wasn’t much different. I kept my head down and tried to muddle though. I followed the example of others, and looked busy when the walked past my desk. I was new, full of fear and lacking in confidence – all totally normal. At the beginning your skills aren’t developed and so you have to paddle faster to keep up, or else you’ll drown. All. Totally. Normal.
But now, having made it through my first year as an advertising creative, the fear is different. I fear being mediocre, and creating mediocre work that goes unnoticed without impact. I worry about not standing out from a sea of other creatives. I worry about ‘settling’, not making the most of my years without the commitments of kids or a mortgage. Creative director and writer Dave Trott said, “You start getting fired from your first job the day you get it. Because you start to relax. So you stop doing everything that got you the job. Which was whatever it takes.”
Embrace your fears
But, good news! If you’re afraid of mediocrity, it means you have ‘great’ in your crosshairs; that’s what you’re aiming for. And if mediocrity starts creeping up on you, shoot it dead and move on. You’ll be in good company, too – many of my heroes in design and advertising have been fired. Some multiple times.
Subsequently these women and men have cabinets full of awards, started their own agencies, and created iconic work that has changed culture. Many even wear their sackings like badges of honour. Because it’s much scarier to be mediocre than it is to be fired following your ambition.
I think fear is an essential ingredient in a great creative. The fear of doing something bold that hasn’t been attempted before. The fear of working on a thing that is totally fuck-up-able. But that’s not all you need. To be able to go out and do that big bold thing, to attempt the unattempted, and to do so at the risk of it all going wrong, you need confidence.
Fake it until you make it
Even though they seem like polar opposites, you can be afraid and confident at the same time. In fact, you should be. Without confidence you make decisions based on fear. But with confidence, you make decisions in spite of fear. Mike Tyson once said: “When I come out I have supreme confidence. But I’m scared to death. I’m afraid of everything. I’m afraid of losing. I’m afraid of being humiliated.
But I’m confident. The closer I get to the ring the more confident I get. All during training I’ve been afraid of this man. I think this man might be capable of beating me. I’ve dreamed of him beating me. For that I’ve always stayed afraid of him. But the closer I get to the ring, the more confident I get. Once I’m in the ring, I’m a god.”
With Tyson’s words in mind Sam Ball, founder of Lean Mean Fighting Machine, said: “If the toughest motherfucker on the planet can be confident and afraid at the same time, then so can you.”
Guard that confidence carefully, because the conformists, the realists and the pragmatists will try to knock it out of you. We must not let them. Do the opposite. Set yourself a big scary goal that seems impossible, and then learn, grow, and develop by constantly learning and acquiring new skills, and you will gain confidence. Hold onto those two essential ingredients: confidence and fear.
D&AD, the organisation for which I now serve as a trustee, stands for creative excellence – that’s what it awards and what it teaches. It’s also what you and I are both striving for. In the following issues, we’ll look at the skills needed to achieve excellence in the creative industries. I’ll talk to professionals who have these skills and have used them to pursue goals that are big and scary.
We’ll cover topics like selling your work, building your personal brand, and the power of side projects, to name just a few. Whether you’ve been working for one year or 10, we’ll take you through what will be a journey of discovery. Here’s to fear, confidence, and hopefully, excellence.