Named “one of the most creative people in business” by Fast Company, and “one of the most influential designers working today” by Graphic Design USA, Debbie Millman is also the author of seven books, a curator, and the host of the podcast Design Matters. Design Matters is one of the first and longest running podcasts, and as host and founder, Millman has interviewed nearly 500 of the most creative people in the world over the past 17 years.
I couldn’t wait to talk to Debbie about habits, happiness, and creativity.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Debbie: The only thing I try to do every single day is get at least 7 hours of sleep! Sleep is SO important; it is when you regenerate your brain cells and your body. If I don’t get enough sleep, I definitely can not be creative.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
I wish I knew that anything worthwhile takes a long time. I wish I knew that things would turn out okay by the time I was in my forties. I wish I knew enough not to be so afraid to go after what I really wanted.
You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your readers—most?
After an interview with the writer Dani Shapiro on my podcast, Design Matters, she and I started to talk about the role of confidence in success. During the conversation, Dani said that she felt confidence was highly overrated. I was instantly intrigued. Most overly confident people, she said, were really annoying. And the most confident people were usually arrogant. Over-exuding confidence was a sure sign that a person was compensating for some type of internal psychological deficit.
Dani argued that courage was more important than confidence. When you are acting from a place of courage, you are saying that no matter how you feel about yourself or your opportunities or the outcome, you are going to take a risk and take a step toward what you want. You are willing to allow yourself to be vulnerable—in showing your art, starting a business that might succeed or fail, having an opinion on something, being in a relationship. You are not waiting for the confidence to mysteriously arrive.
I believe that confidence is achieved through repeated success. Repeated success provides a foundation that exudes confidence. Really smart people don’t have to prove that they are smart; they exude intelligence. It isn’t heavy-handed or showy. You can’t tell someone you are smart or intelligent and expect they will automatically believe you. Authentic confidence is more internal; it isn’t cocky or arrogant. If you have to “tell” people you are confident, chances are you are insecure about its authenticity.
Confidence is achieved through that willingness to continually put yourself in vulnerable situations. Success or failure has nothing to do with it. I know people who launched a startup that tanked, had their art project excoriated by critics, or went through a difficult breakup, yet they’re still confident; they see the experience as something that helped them along their path, and they remain willing to continue on it. Perhaps confidence comes from a certain equanimity that arises from not putting too much stock in whether you’re celebrated or rejected. “Failure” is an arbitrary label, and the most psychologically healthy people I know tend to reframe it as an experiment that gave them valuable insight. So celebrate your flubs, your rejections, your vulnerability—they mean that you’re taking the risks necessary to grow.
The act of being courageous—taking that first step—is much more critical to a successful outcome than the notion of feeling confident while engaged in the process. Courage requires faith in your ability before you experience any repeated success. But that doesn’t mean taking that first step will be easy. It won’t. Taking ANY step for the first time is difficult and there is a tremendous amount of vulnerability and nervousness you are likely going to experience. But experiencing that vulnerability and nervousness doesn’t give you an excuse not to take the step. There is a wonderful scene in the third installment of Indiana Jones wherein Indy knows he has to step on a path he actually can’t see; it is not visible to the naked eye. But in his heart he knows it’s there, and he knows that he must take the first step to fulfill his destiny. Without seeing the pathway, he puts one foot in front of the other and steps into the unknown. And just like that, a visible pathway appears in front of him and he is able to cross it. Courage is the foundation for authentic confidence. Taking a first step creates courage which will grow with every repetitive step you take.
Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
Many people organize their life around avoiding failure and rejection. Mostly they do this because they feel undeserving or not capable of achieving what they really want. I believe that most of our sense of inadequacy is self-constructed. I lived this way for most of my life, but nobody was telling me that I couldn’t do something; nobody was telling me that I couldn’t succeed. I convinced myself of this and lived in my self-imposed reality. I think a lot of people do this. They self-sabotage and create all sorts of reasons for not doing things under the misguided assumption that, at some random point in the future, they might feel better about themselves and that will finally allow them to take a risk. I don’t think that ever happens. You have to work your way through it and do it as if you have no other choice—because you don’t. You just don’t. And if you do manage to take a stand for something you want, as I still working on doing, that little bit of pride helps you reconsider what is possible—both for yourself and in the world.
Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness?
Does self-sabotage count?
Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?
I recently realized that I am happiest when I am making things. I have been making things for as long as I can remember. When I was a little girl, I made my own coloring books, I made my own paper dolls, I made dioramas, and I even tried to make my own perfume by crushing rose petals into baby oil. I made barrette boxes out of Popsicle sticks, key chains out of lanyards, ashtrays out of clay and Halloween costumes out of construction paper and old sheets. These days I am happiest when I am making something from nothing: it could be a podcast, a magazine, a lesson plan, a presentation, a garden, a meal or a book. If I am making something and being creative, I am happy.
Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful?
My personal motto is this: Busy is a decision. Of the many, 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.” I think that busy is a decision. We do the things we want to do, period. If we say we are too busy, 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, or it could be watching 90 Day Fiance. If we use busy as an excuse for not doing something what we are really, really saying is that it’s not a priority. Simply put: you don’t find the time to do something; you make the time to do things. We are 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 do them.
Has a book ever changed your life—if so, which one and why?
I first read Love In The Time Of Cholera (Amazon, Bookshop) by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the late 1980s. The book takes place in an unnamed port city in the Caribbean and remains unnamed throughout the novel. Headstrong Fermina Daza is the female lead in the story, and after a brief love affair through letters with Florentino Ariza, she ultimately rejects him and marries Juvenal Urbino. Lovesick and forlorn, Ariza is obsessed and tormented by his love for Fermina Daza. “It’s no use,” he tells his uncle at the beginning of the novel, “Love is the only thing that interests me.” And love he does! Though Florentino Ariza believes that Fermina Daza is his soulmate and vows to remain faithful to her, he proceeds to engage in 662 affairs over the next 50 years. He does this while sincerely believing that he is saving his heart and his virginity for her. When Fermina’s husband finally dies, Ariza immediately returns to her, and she slowly she understands that she has loved him all along. They embark on a voyage to sail the Magdalena River, and in an effort to keep other passengers from boarding the boat, the captain raises the yellow flag of cholera. He asks Ariza how long they can possibly keep coming and going in this manner. “Forever” is his one-word reply. This book showed me what love what love really is. I believe that Love in the Time of Cholera is perhaps the most perfect book ever written.
In your field, is there a common misconception that you’d like to correct?
I find the role of branding now incredibly, incredibly exciting and a lot of that has to do with the energy and intellect of the new generation of designers and makers. Movements such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo are some of the most important instigators of change to enter our cultural discourse in a long time. Design has finally become democratized, and these efforts are not about anything commercial. These efforts have not been initiated for any financial benefit. They have been created by the people for the people to serve the highest purpose design has: to bring people together for the benefit of humanity. This is creating an environment wherein design and branding are not just tools of capitalism, rather they have become profound manifestations of the human spirit.