When I was a wee lad, I was certain I would be the next Todd McFarlane.
I was going to be a comic book creator of such prestige and influence that I would end up with movie deals for the worlds I would envision and illustrate, along with action figures that the children of the world would beg their parents for. I would be edgy and maintain a standard of excellence not found in the comic book industry at the time.
The Art of Success
That dream lasted until I discovered the worlds of fine art and journalism. Both captured my imagination around the same time, and I had plans — huge plans — to be a big-time journalist in the tradition of Woodward and Bernstein, uncovering big stories and informing the public. On the side I would create striking and clever editorial cartoons that would bring the big issues to the public in a manner they could understand. In my remaining free time, I would paint contemporary works of art that would capture the popular imagination and excite the connoisseur, maybe opening my own gallery in SoHo with an interior that would be as glorious as the works on the wall.
Designing a Successful Life
Then I went to college and discovered design, a term I knew, of course, but I always figured it was just laying out ads for newspapers; honestly it wasn’t terribly clear to me where art ended and design began. Once I learned the difference, my journalistic and fine art endeavors took a back seat as I threw myself into my newly-discovered passion, intending to be the next Sagmeister, or a contemporary Milton Glaser; upsetting the status quo, experimenting as a methodology, and pushing myself ruthlessly to develop a unique style and approach.
At this point the dream was to open up an uber-awesome studio in New York that would be known for innovation and high-quality work. I would take on projects large and small, from the most niche gig poster to wall graphics for newly-renovated skyscrapers. My only condition to take on a project would be creative freedom and the potential end result of the work.
The Harsh Reality
This vision of my future lasted until I moved to Los Angeles and started working for a boutique studio right after I graduated from college. I had so many ideas of how things could be run, how things should operate and could be done better, but for a studio with overhead — salaries to pay, doors to keep open, bureaucracy to navigate — the people in charge generally have to be very selective in what projects are taken, and the criteria is not quality, it’s monetary. You go after the low-hanging fruit: the projects that can be knocked out with templates or done by cheap-third parties, or you can’t compete.
This isn’t an absolute, of course as there are many really great studios out there do that amazingly high-quality work consistently. The trouble is that most studios operate this way, and if you are one of the idealistic few who demand quality in everything you make for a client, you’ll likely have a hard time competing with the bargain basement prices of your competitors.
The Business of Success
Fortunately during my college design frenzy I racked up a whole lot of business experience when I started two companies and made a whole lot of mistakes (and a few successes). I decided to get the bitter taste of ‘the real world’ of the design business out of my mouth by starting up my own studio, and after a whole lot of hard work I had (on a very small scale) the kind of studio I had been lusting after for so long.
But the funny thing about success is that once you’ve achieved it, there are always new horizons. After a few years in LA, with a successful (and very rapidly growing) business, I had a terrible realization.
I was starting to plateau, slowly but surely.
The Geography of Success
I wasn’t at the top at this point, and I’m still not, but after a series of very interesting and tempting opportunities came my way, I could see the top. And I panicked…there was nothing else beyond it. It was the end of the Earth, and once I got up there, I’d be stuck. I would have to be certain to buy a comfy chair, because I wouldn’t be going anywhere.
So rather than risk losing my sanity to boredom, I set my sites across international borders at the most difficult thing I could possibly think of: throwing myself into new situations daily, where sink or swim is a constant reality and miniature victories and defeats would have me tip-toeing the line between success and failure every moment of every day.
A Nice Change of Landscape
Is this an extreme solution? Of course! But it’s the only way I could think of to solve the horizon problem of success: that is, the fact that even the most fantastic ambition can be achieved and when someone reaches the highest peak they can imagine, they can either plateau or jump headfirst off the ridge.
I chose to move to a new geographic region completely, one in which there are an infinite number of mountains to scale, and many of them are connected. I can reach the top of a mountain every day if I like, but there will always be a higher peak off in the distance to conquer, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Update: December 1, 2016
I still use that metaphor all the time: learning is pursuing a horizon. And once you breach it, you will always find more horizons. It’s this nature of growth that I believe incentivizes a person to be both humble and confident. The first because you become increasingly aware of how little you know, and how much you’ll always have left to learn, and the second become you come to know, over time, that if you need to learn something, you can. You are capable of learning anything, should you choose to.