Young and brash: Don’t become old and foolish

“If youth only knew: If age only could.” – Henri Estienne

I reconnected with a former art school teacher the other day. I’ve tried to keep in touch with all of my old teachers, at least the ones still living.

They were my mentors, and they cared about teaching students to enter the field as professionals and to succeed.

He was at the top of the field then, an art director for a hugely famous magazine, and I took his class so that I could get closer to him as a connection and possible employer.

He was creative, kind and caring. At the end of the semester, he signed a magazine for me, “It’s been a real pleasure having you in my class and watching you totally miss the message.”

I laughed at the time and thought it was a joke. But he was serious and he was right. When I connected with him recently, I reminded him of what he wrote and thanked him for trying to give me a swift kick to wake me up.

“It didn’t sink in for many years,” I wrote, “but when it did, I realized the lesson you were trying to teach me, and it’s one of the reasons I have had a successful career.”

This was a repeat of a similar incident I had with another teacher a few years back. As with the first teacher, this person who tried to mentor me into adulthood and professionalism was humble about my apology and confession and said that it meant a lot to him that he was able to get through to me… albeit many years later!

It was Mark Twain who said, “When I was 18, I thought my father was the stupidest man in the world. When I turned 21, I was amazed to see how much the man had learned in 3 years.”

There is no sadder sight than a young pessimist.
– Mark Twain

 

An editor once wrote of me, “Extreme, aggressive and opinionated.” And he was being complimentary! An interviewer wrote of me, “He lives on the edge of madness and seems perfectly comfortable there.”

I admit to these being true, but I also admit that I was a hundred times worse in my younger days. Yes, I said worse, if you can imagine an out-of-control maniac running amok in the ad agencies and magazine publishers of New York City. I gave the term “Mad Men” a whole different meaning. My “fight first and ask questions later” attitude got me into a lot of trouble. I deeply regret those days and feel distressed by my actions. Some put up with it, some ran from it and some encouraged it. The people who encouraged it used my anger at the world and know-it-all attitude for their own purposes. I was young, foolish and blinded by the apparent admiration for my special talent for pissing people off.

As a young professional, I joined the Graphic Artists Guild and was soon on the board of directors, mostly as a result of being the Forrest Gump of the design field (being in the wrong place at the right time). People got to know my temperament and would call to ask me to “back them up on a vote” or something of the sort. They called me “The Hitman.” There were other names, but they can’t be printed here.

As years went by, I realized that I was hurting the people who could help me and was being used by those who didn’t deserve the time or attention I gave them. I excuse myself only due to my age and inexperience then.

To their credit, once again, there were those, like my teachers, many of whom did hire me after graduation, who forgave my “passion,” as one of them so kindly put it. They were older and mature, and they were mentors. I’ve learned over the years to be more like them. I hope one day to be just like them.

I’m not young enough to know everything!
– Oscar Wilde

 

A while back, a young lady, just out of college, was commenting on a LinkedIn group to which we both belonged. It wasn’t so much her opinion on the subject being discussed that bothered me, but rather her assertion that everyone else was wrong and that she had the key of knowledge. I should have let it go, but I didn’t. In my mind, I was being logical with her and was reminding her that she was just out of college and wasn’t familiar enough with the subject. She heard me calling her a moron and saying that she didn’t matter. I realized later that she was no different than I was at her age.

Naturally, she got upset. She wrote on her blog about what an idiot I was and complained to the group moderator, and I was deleted from the group. Frankly, I deserved it. I should have ignored her, as everyone else did. I felt I was teaching her a valuable lesson. As with me in my younger days, she didn’t want a lesson because she “was right.” I shuddered at the realization of how alike we were.

In youth we learn; in age we understand.
– Marie Ebner von Eschenbach

 

A famous designer once chatted with me at a design event. I asked why young designers were so nasty but those who really made it were so nice. He smiled and replied, “Because there’s all the room at the top and precious little room at the bottom!”

That’s when my outlook changed. If I can somehow pay back that sage advice, it would be with the article I wrote on career development. Many designers, young and old, have told me it changed their life. That feels more rewarding than verbally crushing my enemies or innocent parties who get in the way.

I care about our young people, and I wish them great success, because they are our hope for the future, and some day, when my generation retires, they will have to pay us trillions of dollars in social security.
– Dave Barry

 

The industry has changed, more so in its economy. “Young and cheap” has become the way to hire. When I was young and entering the field, my peers and I were told that we couldn’t be hired because we had no experience. Of course, the catch-22 was that we couldn’t get experience because no one would hire us. That frustration caused bad blood and stress.

I meet many young creatives now who have hit a great period, when their youth has become an advantage. When I speak at art schools, I point out that they have a chance to pursue career paths much earlier than graduates from just five years ago, but the pressure has also increased, to the point where burnout is a dangerous side effect. Salaries are lower, titles are more important and the pressure to perform upon entering the field has increased — from what I hear and see, it has increased to unfair levels.

In nature, the young are mentored, taught and cared for by the parent. The child grows, matures, learns and eventually leaves the nest and becomes self-sufficient. The mentor ages and retires… or is brutally fired by the very person they trained and resigns themselves to watching Matlock reruns. It’s the cycle of life, the natural order. Back then, business was no different. One needed enough experience to join the company, ushered in as a child and nurtured into adulthood.

Nothing can be so amusingly arrogant as a young man who has just discovered an old idea and thinks it is his own.
– Sidney J. Harris

 

The young intern or assistant learned from their boss or mentor and grew with experience, guided by the mentors around them. The mix of youthful verve and aged experience was a successful combination, with each learning from the other, each motivating the other. It was this mix that made companies run. The balance has been disturbed, and that is one of the problems with our floundering economy. Moreover, it forces youth, who should be enjoying simpler times, making mistakes and learning easier lessons from life’s bumps and grinds, to grow old and responsible too quickly.

The dead might as well try to speak to the living as the old to the young.
– Willa Cather

 

Will young designers understand my points here or learn from my experience? I doubt it. Nor would I expect it! What do I know? I know years of experience filled with painful twists and turns and falling flat on my face. Like a father to his children, my hope is that my mentoring words will raise an eyebrow or spark an introspective thought on the part of young professionals. Your actions will not only affect your own career, but steer the future of the industry. Mistakes made today will have a butterfly effect on the future.

Just the other day, a young man of 39 was bemoaning that he had been laid off from his job of 17 years and that he was unable to find anything else. “I can’t believe my career is over at age 39,” he wrote.

I can understand we older designers being passed over for employment, because we represent higher salaries and health insurance costs. But when I considered that 39 is the end of the line, like a sick version of Logan’s Run, I thought of how little time there was to experience all that a working career offers. Workers are starting younger but being put out to pasture earlier. You may laugh at me as being a silly old man, but you will be here one day — apparently sooner than later. Because of this, grab all you can while you can, and that includes mentoring. Gain it, give it and hold on to it.

It is a pity that, as one gradually gains experience, one loses one’s youth.
– Vincent van Gogh

 

Keep in mind that Van Gogh was insane. Talented, but insane. It is possible to grow up but not old. One can listen, learn and grow. They are the ones who will continue to evolve, long past the age of 29.

When the corporate world has decided you are no longer viable as a worker, a wonderful, creative world of freelancing awaits you. That world, however, requires experience, knowledge and… maturity.

 

Did you have the same trouble taking advice in your youth? Please share your experiences below…


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  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_P3RZXQ5HJYY4RIW2BCPBLITGQY Evert Van dansen

    Once you realize you are not always right, you are probably wrong. And no that is not a joke. Being pretty old myself (will turn 50 soon) I have gone through a period like you describe as well a through a period of thinking like you do in this article. After that comes another epiphany: we all just bungle along.
    Insight in ourselves always turns out to be wrong when we look at it in hindsight, and then that hindsight becomes the new insight, ad infinitum.
    So I am probably wrong about this.

    • http://cinitriqs.deviantart.com/ CiNiTriQs

      Now… can u teach us/me ? ;) wrong or not, I do need mentoring!

      • Speider

        CiNiTriQs — Pick a mentor! Find someone local and approach them about being your mentor. I think you’ll be surprised that people still welcome the chance to help others. Give it a try. The most someone can do is say, “no!”

        There’s no death penalty for trying.

  • brandon moore

    great article Speider! your words are duly noted. i alway appreciate any advice from those older/more experienced than i. i graduated design school 2 years ago and continue to go back to catch up with my old instructors. i hope i can always do that. never stop learning.

  • Anonymous

    Brilliant article.  Funny this should be today’s post–my waking thought was “youth is wasted on the  young.”  I’m not sure who to credit that to…am sure it’s not my original thought.  Nonetheless…timely article, if for no one else but me.  Thanks!

  • Naty

    I liked your post :P.

    Sometimes, you hear a lot of people giving you advices, I don’t know why, but no matter how many times they tell you, you still make the mistakes.

    I feel like, it is like when your parents tell you to not to play with fire, and you don’t learn until you get burned.

  • http://twitter.com/GanimeCreative Anthony Ganime

    Very nice to read this. I am a younger designer (29), and this career path has spun me around in many directions before I was able to finally begin developing my own true sense of what I think this field is. However, if I have learned anything at all it is that I must remain passionate about learning. I hold a job now and also freelance but when I follow the trends of the field it is apparent that if I don’t keep up with whatever “thing” comes next, the end of the road could come rather quickly. It’s tough out there and maybe the youth needs to learn more in less time than our predecessors, but if we are to embrace this fact our generation should be well conditioned to maintain this work ethic and continue to innovate as new challenges emerge.

  • http://twitter.com/paulspr Paul Sprangers

    Great article and I feel you. I was talking about this exact topic with 20 students a few months ago. They seems to understand it, but I don’t think they really realized what I meant. I think it’s almost impossible to teach younger people this since it has everything to do with experience. Both in life and as a professional.

    “The more you know, the more you realize how little you know” sums it up nicely.

    The 4 stages of competence (or learning) more or less tell the same story:
    1. Unconscious Incompetence2. Conscious Incompetence3. Conscious Competence4. Unconscious CompetenceAgain, it all comes down to experience which is what the really young people lack.And a disclaimer: I’m 28 right now, so I don’t know if I can call myself “old” yet.

  • http://3circlestudio.com/ Justin Carroll

    I often fear I’ll never have the experience of being mentored and because of that never fully grow up.

    • Speider

      Justin — see the advice I gave CiNiTriQs (above).

  • Speider

    Thanks for all the kind words and if I’ve made you think a bit about your career and made the path a bit smoother, then I have started to pay back those who mentored me and saw the mature professional I eventually became… or am becoming with each and every day.

    I would like to dedicate this article to a wonderful and kind man who befriended the young hot head I was and encouraged me to grow — Simms Taback, talented illustrator and dedicated board member of the Graphic Artists Guild. 

    When I last spoke with Simms, he was near the end of his fight with cancer. He had made his peace with his fate and said good bye, leaving me to wonder what the last few months of his life would be like. I was hurt he wanted to spend it without me being able to continue to speak with him. I was angry he was being taken from us. Although I understand his desire to tie up loose ends and hope he has found peace and an end to his pain, I am grateful he did more for me than I could ever return. He did a lot for countless creatives who will never know his name or his tireless work for the copyright law and artists’ rights. 

    I hope, in some small way, that the words in this article would make him proud and he would approve of the message. I can still see that huge smile he often had and hear his warm laugh. I am who I am in part because of him. Thank you, Simms.

  • http://twitter.com/sanjaykhemlani sanjay

    Great message! I am looking for someone to look up to. Learning by yourself is pretty hard and making mistake is another, Thanks for caring those young designers like me.

  • moonlightdesigns

    This great article has given a 47 year old designer a fresh perspective. I know it’s time to be in business for myself. Thanks for another word of encouragement steering me in the right direction.

  • Speider

    I’m thinking I need to write an article on how to find/be a mentor. Stay tuned to WDD!

  • Anonymous

    Fantastic article, Speider. I don’t comment often (not that it means it holds more weight), but just have to take up space to say I really enjoyed the read. Thank you.

    • Speider

      I truly appreciate that, Eric (as well as everyone’s comments). I also appreciate the Twitter follow (as well as everyone’s… except those spammers). You might also like an article I did entitled, “Do You Really Want To Be A Design Rock Star?” I’m told it’s life-changing… or was it underwear changing. I can never remember.

  • Hydra CM

    Very insightful article.  I especially love the first two quotes, “There’s nothing sadder than a young pessimist” and “I’m not young enough to know everything.”  :) Live and learn I guess.

    • Speider

      I was reminded the whole quote is, “There’s nothing sadder than a young pessimist aside from an old optimist.”

      I like an old Odd Couple quote, when Felix’s grandfather tells him, “there’s two things people can’t stand; a dirty old man and a clean little boy!”

  • Lucinda

    The more I learn, the dumber I feel.