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Congratulations! You Failed! Rethinking what it means to be successful in the creative industries

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It’s getting harder to step your foot in that creative door. With agencies focusing on awards and “big achievements”, we tend to focus more on titles and lose sight of personal development. Sophia Luu argues it’s time to scrap these titles and think about the bigger picture.

A few months back I found out that my blood type was A+. “OF COURSE IT IS,” said literally every one of my friends. “Even your blood results are overachievers”.  

Categorising someone as ‘successful’ is probably the most unhelpful thing for their career. They get too complacent (or worse, arrogant!) and don’t push themselves to create different work. Or the pressure and insecurity to remain ‘on top of their game’ have disastrous effects for their mental health and performance. Neither is ideal. 

And failure isn’t much better. We tend to ignore the things we haven’t achieved. Or we let them swallow us up and compare against others. We are getting worse at celebrating our perceived successes and much better at letting a failure knock us back.

We shouldn’t be looking at anything in terms of “career success” and “career failure”. Nothing is achieved in isolation. I was only able to win a D&AD New Blood pencil because I was able to save money through a part-time job to work on my entry. I was only able to set up a social enterprise because I had the luxury of not worrying about rent; the luxury of living with my parents and having their support and acceptance. I was only able to write this article because I have a free afternoon where I don’t have to worry about looking after a child or supporting a family member or friend right now. Don’t split up aspects of your life and measure them against other people’s standards of success. 

It is a success to merely pursue a career in the creative industry. You are most likely going to get taken for granted, work for free and run out of money very quickly. To persist is a success in itself, no matter whether you achieve your goal. And to know when to stop if it’s not working for you is also a huge step. I know lots of people who are fantastic creators in their free time, rather than going through the risks of burning out by pursuing a career out of their hobby. That’s a really valuable learning curve too! 

Don’t let the industry swallow you up. Focus on surrounding yourself by people and environments which nourish you mentally, emotionally and creatively. By founding “on the mend”, I became friends with Mathilda, who shared my values of design in healthcare. We now co-direct the collective and get to work with some amazing hospital patients, museum workers, students and members of the public who continue to inspire us every day. I’ve gained so many valuable insights from hearing their stories, and try to represent that by diversifying my work. Support others who might not have your luxuries. And remember, there is a space for you in the creative industry, even if you have to make it for yourself.

Lastly, don’t forget all the interactions you had with people who helped you to achieve your goal. I’ve had the luxury of being able to volunteer time on creative projects, and I couldn’t have don’t this without the support of my family and friends. Finding a balance and time to unwind is so important. There’s more to life than doing creative work and real success is recognising this.   

I never strived to have a dream job, but to have a dream. Mine was to improve healthcare awareness using my talents, which was design. In meeting other people who felt the same way and wanted to do something about it I have found a support group of creative friends who will last a lifetime.  

Failure and success are the same. Both are as subjective as each other and are separated into useless categories and sub-categories. No seven letter word can make you feel more like a winner than finding balance and gratitude in the people and work you surround yourself with. 

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Sophia Luu is currently an Experience Designer at McKinsey & Company and also founded on the mend; a collective of designers committed to improving the experience of those in healthcare. She was recently a guest on D&AD Make and Break, a six-part podcast series featuring emerging talent sharing tips and advice to help aspiring creatives gain a foothold in the industry. You can listen to the podcast and find out more about the D&AD’s other world-class training and education programmes for both new and existing talent at the D&AD website here.

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