Stay Stupid, my friends
A few months back, I gave a presentation by the same title. Was I advocating that designers literally “show an utter lack of intelligence or common sense”? Not exactly. I just suggested one suspend it for awhile.
That talk had some simple principles for all designers — some might argue “professionals of any kind” — to apply to their careers. Not advice. Call it a combination of experience and personal aspiration. I aspire to these behaviors — and in my experience, they’ve served me well when I remember to demonstrate them.
Beware of bestowing or accepting the term “expert”. Let others call you that. Blush when they do. Graciously accept their appraisal, but don’t let it go to your head. Even if you have spent 20,000 hours earning that title. Everyone has so much to learn — and the game is always changing. Stay hungry. Stay humble. Stay open to being wrong. Life’s greatest secrets are revealed to us when we sit, patiently, and allow them to surprise us. The two words that most risk stifling an opportunity for growth are “I KNOW.” Yes, put in the work to earn the title. But cast the title aside. If anything will keep you humble, it is suspending your expertise long enough to curate an insatiable curiosity.
Curiosity isn’t a mindset — it’s a behavior. To be curious, one must DO curious. Get out of your chair and go there. Stick your nose where it doesn’t belong. Watch. Listen. Take notes. Delight in what you discover — especially when it surprises you. Be still. Watch things with the eyes of a child. Don’t let the fear of looking silly keep you from looking at all. Provoke with ideas, drawings, and then listen and learn. Ask the questions no one is asking. The obvious ones. The tough ones. The brave ones. The braver, one might argue, the better.
I once heard a great radio interview with author Steven T. Asma. He’s both a professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago and a jazz musician. And he has a recipe for improvisation that I quite love:
- Commit. That is, decide that you’ll perform, on a stage or otherwise. Bravely decide before you’re ready. Steel yourself, take a deep breath, and never doubt yourself or your place on that stage, in that role, as the woman or man for the job.
- Practice, practice, practice. Practice voraciously. Build muscle memory. Aim for perfection. Put the work in. The real work of sweating the details, crafting the nuance of an idea, a story, a technique, the intonation and the timing.
- Forget. As you step into that spotlight, with an instrument, a speech, a presentation, a project, empty your head (for a minute). Leave yourself open to the energy of others. Your bandmates, your audience, your team. Improvisation is a conversation. It is the ability to frame your output in others’ input. And vice versa. It is adding listening to knowing. Improvisation is about creating, not just regurgitating. It embraces thrilling risk, and creates unfakeable energy. You can’t do it alone — so be grateful for great partners.
Thank your peers, your bandmates, your colleagues, your mentors. Share the credit. Teach what you learn, because it helps you commit your experience and wisdom to your deeper mind and your heart. And because you owe it to others to share what you know. Be grateful for your opportunities, and share those gifts with students, or with the world. Others did it for you. Now it’s your turn. Don’t horde your “expertise” — and be careful not to let sharing your experience feed your ego. See above.
Stupidity isn’t about maintaining ignorance. It’s about maintaining humility, curiosity, bravery, and gratitude.
I am grateful to the jeans brand, Diesel, and their agency, Anomaly, for putting so bluntly into pictures what I’m trying to say elegantly in words.