Drink Like a Lady Podcast

The Most Motivational Talk You Have Ever Attended with Debbie Millman

March 07, 2022 Joya Dass/Debbie Millman
Drink Like a Lady Podcast
The Most Motivational Talk You Have Ever Attended with Debbie Millman
Show Notes Transcript

What you will learn in this interview:

  • Rejection. How do you deal with it?
  • Why 'courage' is more important than 'confidence' ?
  • The question of deserving. What is that nonnegotiable for you?
  • Most think about the 'why' in life. Then the 'what.' Then the 'where.' Why Debbie puts the 'where' first?

I could tick off all the accolades and accomplishments of Debbie Millman.

  • She designed the merchandise for the movie Star Wars.
  • She worked on the redesign of Burger King. Hershey’s, Tropicana.
  • At one point, if you walked into any given grocery store or supermarket, anything like that, she had a hand in about 20 percent of everything you might see or touch.
  • She helped co found the world’s first master’s program in branding at the School of Visual Arts in New York City,
  • She is founder and host of "Design Matters," which is the world’s first and longest podcast about design.

But what I'm really about to give you is one of the most motivational talks you have ever experienced from a successful woman in business.

I will ask Debbie about three exercises she teaches her students:

  • Her "10 year future you exercise." In your best possible life, what are the things you could accomplish?
  • Understanding how you come across. How do you want to be perceived?
  • What's a three-word combination that could only describe you?

And other questions.

Joya:

I want to introduce you to Debbie Millman, who was one of the few women in the United States to run a global brand consultancy. She was president of Sterling Brands, but today she is most known for her podcast, which is called Design Matters, and over the course of her 15 year tenure and hosting that podcast, she's interviewed over 400 creative people. And that's also given rise to one of her six books, which is called Why Design Matters. And we're going to be touching on that today. That Debbie. Welcome.

Debbie:

Thank you. Thank you, Julia. It's really great to be here.

Joya:

I want to just trace back on some of the high beats of your career when you were at Sterling Brands, and now you think back, how do people stand out or how do brands stand out in a highly competitive market? Would you say that's changed?

Debbie:

Oh, yeah, absolutely. I think that for a very long time brands iterated by creating a different form or a different flavor. Um, I think now consumers, people really want brands that are going to make a difference in their lives, and that is a very big shift.

Joya:

I also heard you say that a brand can also be a movement, the pink pussy hats or Black Lives Matter. That also requires branding.

Debbie:

Yeah. I mean, all of these movements are using the tenets of branding, the same tenets of branding that corporations do. Um, it's not just a tool of capitalism anymore. It's really a tool that humans have been using for millennia to be able to make and mark and record our histories, our shared histories, and to be able to signify our beliefs and our affiliations telegraphically. It's a behavior that's almost as old as we are.

Joya:

For those of you that are just joining, I am in conversation with Debbie Millman today, and we are going to follow our usual cadence where I will be in conversation with Debbie for the first 20 minutes, and then we open it up to the last 40 minutes, which are, of course, to ask her questions live. Um, Debbie, you founded the first graduate program in branding at the School of Visual Arts here in New York City. Would you say what you've taught over the years about branding has changed?

Debbie:

Yes, and no, I mean, we've always had a very specific focus on a number of different disciplines, all of which unite to create the overall process of branding. So cultural anthropology, behavioral psychology, economics, statistics, business strategy, and then of course, an aspect of creativity as well. So those have remained fairly constant and I feel that those are even more important now than ever. Um, but the way in which the world responds to and with branding is always shifting and changing. And so we always need to be cognizant of that. Our thesis every year is about looking at brands that have fallen out of peace with culture and those brands change every year. And then they also were impacted by the times. And so. What's currently happening in the moment, heavily, heavily influences the, the thesis project that we do every year with the students.

Joya:

You've interviewed over 400 people, maybe it's 500 people now on your, on your podcast Design Matters. We had a really robust discussion this morning with some of the ladies that are on the call right now about why a niche matters. You can have a really strong brand, but it's important to have a niche. And you really pick that when you decided to launch this podcast. And I wondered if you could talk a little bit about that?

Debbie:

Yeah. I mean, it's interesting because that very same niche. That I originally became known for also creates some boundaries about the way in which the podcast is perceived. So on the one hand, every brand in order to be successful, has to sacrifice certain things in order to be other things you're, you're making a choice to embody a certain attribute or a certain positioning, therefore by the sheer exercise in doing that, you're sacrificing all these others. When I started Design Matters, and this is something that happens to a lot of companies or founders that start things with a very small intention. You know, I was doing it at the time as something to reignite my creative spirit without the foresight to think, you know, what happens if you're doing this in 17 years, what will you be wanting to do with it? You know, you don't always know these things. You often don't know these things. And so it, as much as I started the show back in 2005, As a way to reignite my creative spirit, talk to my design heroes, you know, had I known that I'd be doing it 17 years later and that I'd want to, just because of my personality evolve it in some way, I might not have thought about keeping such a narrow focus with a name that is very specifically signaling design. Um, now as a brand consultant, I know what the ramifications are of changing a name 17 years into a tenure. And so I'm somewhat reluctant to do that. I've tried to, re-engineer the understanding of the name by trying to explain it as how the world's most creative people design the arc of their lives, but that's not telegraphic.

Joya:

Well, and then your series of interviews that have now culminated in the book, Why Design Matters. I know why you probably didn't change it because you've got so much now brand equity. And then in that net title design, you really, the book's a missive, right? It's, it's a way for people to live their lives a little more intentionally. So I have a series of questions in that spirit that I wanted to ask you for the benefit of the group here. My first question is around rejection. How do you deal with it?

Debbie:

Not, well, [laughter] I don't have any hacks on dealing with rejection. Um, I generally feel very wounded when I am rejected, uh, for anything and it takes me a while to recover, but what I can say about rejection is that it's really only a failure if you accept defeat with that rejection. Rejection is a very externally driven factor. Somebody else is telling you "No." You're not saying no. The other party is saying no. And so you have to decide in that moment. Well, is that the empirical evidence that this is a doomed endeavor or is it just one person's opinion that it's not a good fit? And so I try to think of it more or less in that way, that rejection on my best day is, a "Not now," not a "Never." And it also doesn't mean that anybody else that I approached with the idea is not going to think it's a wonderful idea and potentially be all in.

Joya:

I was out to dinner with a VC last night. And he was telling me about a deal that he passed on. He was like, "But it's a no for now. If they figure out their shit," he's like, "we'll come back. But for now it's a no." So why is courage more important than confidence? I often say this when I teach a masterclass in public speaking and I think women come and enroll because they think they're going to get confidence. But I really think at the end of it, it's courage that is the big transformation that happens for them. Why is that more important?

Debbie:

I mean, this is something I learned after an interview with Dani Shapiro, the writer who, after we exited my studio at the School of Visual Arts, came into my office and saw a stack of books on my desk, all about confidence. Um, I at the time was particularly interested in the topic matters should look through the books. And she was like, oh, "I think confidence is really overrated." And I was like, what? Confidence to me was the holy grail, and she felt that, you know, overly confident people can sometimes be off-putting and feel less than human. And she said that she felt that courage was more important than confidence because you need that faith in taking that first step and, and you don't ever have that confidence in that first step, but something that's manifested over time. And ultimately, I thought a lot about that conversation ever since and have determined that real confidence is, is manifested and developed and grown over the successful repetition of any endeavor. So if you do something enough times successfully, you begin to expect that you're going to be able to do it again. There's that repetitive pattern that you can recognize in the muscle memory of doing the thing again. Whereas the first time you do something, um, you don't have that to fall back on. And so often you might fall doing it. Um, we're born with a certain exuberance in doing things we don't know how to do, just because we're helpless, but grow to learn how to do those things really, without any sense of conscious confidence; we just learn how to do them. We're not afraid of falling. We're not afraid of making a mess. We're not afraid of pooping in our diaper. You know, we learn over time how to do things that we then take for granted, but we all now have confidence doing those things if we're able bodied. So I think that we expect to have a certain level of confidence before we try things, but that doesn't come until we try things. So it's a bit of a conundrum.

Joya:

And that's where the courage comes in, right? The courage, the authentic, the courage to be vulnerable.

Debbie:

Yeah. The courage to do it, even when, you know, you're not sure when you're uncertain about the outcome and you know, part of the other problem in all of this is our brains. You know, we, we are hard wired to try to avoid uncertainty, to avoid vulnerability. That's really part of our reptilian brain, which is the oldest part of the brain, the most sort of prehistoric part of our brains, which also regulates all of our involuntary behavior. So we don't will ourselves to blink. We don't will our hearts to beat. We don't will our lungs to breathe. These things we do without having to think about doing them. And fear is the same thing. The adrenaline spike that we get when we might be in danger is our body warning us to be hyper alert. We can't will that adrenaline. We can't will the fear to go away, and so we have to take that into account when trying new things and give ourselves the opportunity to experience what that feels like while still moving forward and doing it anyway.

Joya:

Hm. I think our brains are also designed to keep us very safe and to place things, and categorize things.

Debbie:

Yeah. Yeah. They're regulation machines. Our brains are regulation machines. When we're hungry, we want to eat when we're full, we'll stop eating. When we're cold, we want to be warmer when we're too hot, we want to be cooler. Our brains regulate our bodies in that way. And the response to fear is very much a bodily function.

Joya:

What about deserving? What is a non-negotiable for you when it comes to deserving?

Debbie:

I don't know. Um, you know, I struggle with worthiness and I struggle with value when I struggle with being enough. And so I don't really feel that I'm an expert in, in worthiness or in non-negotiables, you know, for me, when I graduated, I recognized that a non-negotiable was where I live. Um, I wanted to live in Manhattan. That became the non-negotiable without my even realizing it, I sort of set my whole life up around where I wanted to live and did everything possible to ensure that that could happen. But these days in terms of the non-negotiable. I don't know, the older I get the harder it feels to declare these things empirically.

Joya:

I wrote a post this morning saying that I actually cried the first time I moved to New York because I was in Thompson Square Park, and someone offered me a smoke as those little drug dealers that sell marijuana in the park and I'd never experienced that before. And New York was not where I wanted to move. And here I am, 24 years later. I mean, you sort of built your whole, like, first early years of your life around wanting to move to Manhattan and live in the Village?

Debbie:

Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. That was everything that I wanted. That was really the only thing for sure that I knew I wanted.

Joya:

Debbie, you say that most people think about the "Why" in life, then they think about the "What," and then they think about the, "Where", but you would actually put the Where first, and why is that? What's the context?

Debbie:

I always just felt this very profound soul connection to Manhattan. I'm a native New Yorker, so it's not like I had to move from India to New York. I, it was very different situation. I was born in Brooklyn. I then moved to Queens, Howard Beach, Queens with my family, then Staten Island. And then my parents got divorced. My dad moved to Manhattan. My mom moved to Long Island. She took us with her, but you know, we were shuttled back and forth between Manhattan and, and uh, Long Island. But I had never lived on my own in Manhattan, which is just something that I felt in my soul was part of my, my destiny, I guess.

Joya:

And that really trumped the Why and the What, didn't it?

Debbie:

Yes. Well, in some ways it did, and in some ways it didn't. I knew this is where I wanted to live. This felt just very profoundly necessary, but I also needed to be self-sufficient. My parents, weren't going to help. I didn't want to go back and live with either of them. It was too volatile and very dysfunctional. Um, so I also needed to be in a position to take care of myself to be self-sufficient. And so that did require, especially because at the time it was very hard to find apartments in Manhattan, new, very expensive. Um, I needed to be able to support myself and that's what became the lead gene and going into commercial art as opposed to fine art, because I knew that I'd be able to make a more dependable, reliable income.

Joya:

Does that decision-making process still inform how you make decisions today? Do you think about the Where?

Debbie:

Yeah, it does. It doesn't have to, but this is a really good example about how sort of foundational issues that kind of provoke or motivate the choices that you're making in life don't go away unless you deal with the foundation. You know, for me, it was okay, I want to be safe and secure. So therefore I need to be able to support myself. Well, you can still support yourself and still not feel secure and safe. And so I've been grappling with that and battling with that my whole life, because no matter what you do externally, if you don't feel that internally, nothing externally is going to transform that feeling. It might help. It might buoy it. Um, it might not be as intense, but it's still there.

Joya:

One of the students. One of the exercises to do with your students is the ten-year future you exercise. Um, we actually were talking about that on a peer mentoring call this morning. What is the "Future You" exercise and why do it?

Debbie:

This is an exercise that I undertook while I was in a summer intensive program at the School of Visual Arts with Milton Glaser. It was an exercise he gave us wherein he asked us to envision a day, five years into the future where we were living exactly the life we wanted to be living. Where, how, what we were doing, what we were making. Did we have partners, children, pets, um, traveling, what did our homes look like? Everything like to the most minute detail, and I up took the exercise with great zeal, and then sort of forgot about it. And it was, I had written it all in a journal that I had been working on at the time that I took to class with me and was writing my notes in and. I was looking for some notes about a year later from a completely other experience and came upon my ten-year plan. No, my five-year plan. And it was sort of astounded to see that many of the things that I had written on that original, in that original essay and on the list that I also made at the time were manifesting and then started to pay more attention to it over the years and found, took about... 13 years for most of it to happen, but was sort of astounding, this magical little exercise. And so. When Milton stopped teaching, I asked him if I could start teaching that exercise. And he said, yes, I changed it to a ten-year plan because my students were a lot younger than the students in his class. His class was for mid-career designers, looking to reboot their creativity. My students are more at the beginning of their careers. And so I wanted to them to have a bit more runway, especially since it took me the amount of time it did to do the things that were in my plan.

Joya:

I'm going to finish with this before I turn it over to questions. But, um, one of the gals on this call today wants to become, um, Chief Marketing Officer by June, July. And I asked her to do what I call a bullshit audit, where you basically ask some people for some brutal feedback on how you come across, because what might be standing between you and what you want is how you are perceived. And I wondered if you could weigh in on that?

Debbie:

That sounds brilliant. I asked my students to write an essay about how, what they think their first impression is, not because they want to be CEOs or CMOs because they're much younger, but just when they're interviewing, how do they come across and ultimately try to imbue the knowledge that your impressions can be intentional. You can decide how you want to come across. And if you. Are perceived in certain ways. The only way that you can change that perception is to work on changing that perception. It's not going to magically change. You're not going to suddenly meet a whole slew of people that really get you in ways that other people didn't, that's just not going to happen. And so I do think you can create some intentions for how you'd like to be perceived and then work towards fulfilling them.

Joya:

And, and fix it in real time when someone gives you that feedback. Any last thought before we break?

Debbie:

Um, just, this is an extraordinary community that has been part of. And thank you for the great questions for the sort of way that you've engaged during this time together, and really good luck to all of you, because I've just enjoyed this so much.

Joya:

Thank you so much, Debbie. We feel very lucky to have you today.

Debbie:

Absolutely. Thank you.