Milton Glaser (RIP) Explains Why We Must Overcome the Fear of Failure, Take Risks & Discover Our True Potential

Mil­ton Glaser died last week at the age of 91, a long life that includ­ed decade upon decade as the best-known name in graph­ic design. With­in the pro­fes­sion he became as well-known as sev­er­al of his designs did in the wider world: the Bob Dylan poster, logos for com­pa­nies like DC Comics, the Glaser Sten­cil font, and above all  I ❤ NY. Glaser may have become an icon, but he did­n’t become a brand — “one of my most despised words,” he says in the inter­view clip above. He also acknowl­edges that spe­cial­iza­tion, “hav­ing some­thing no one else has,” is the sine qua non of “finan­cial suc­cess and noto­ri­ety.” But “the con­se­quence of spe­cial­iza­tion and suc­cess is that it hurts you. It hurts you because it basi­cal­ly does­n’t aid in your devel­op­ment.” When we suc­ceed we usu­al­ly do so because peo­ple come to rely on us to do one par­tic­u­lar thing, and to do it well — in oth­er words, nev­er to fail at it.

But as Glaser reminds us, “devel­op­ment comes from fail­ure. Peo­ple begin to get bet­ter when they fail.” As an exam­ple of devel­op­ment through fail­ure he holds up Pablo Picas­so: “When­ev­er Picas­so learned how to do some­thing, he aban­doned it, and as a result of that, in terms of his devel­op­ment as an artist, the results were extra­or­di­nary.”

We may, of course, ques­tion the rel­e­vance of this com­par­i­son, since many would describe Picas­so as an artis­tic genius, and not a few would cast Glaser him­self in sim­i­lar terms. Sure­ly both of them, each in his own way, inhab­it­ed a world apart from the rest of us. And yet, don’t the “the rest of us” won­der from time to about our our own poten­tial for genius? Haven’t we, at times, felt near­ly con­vinced that we could achieve great things if only we weren’t so afraid to try.

Glaser breaks this fear down into con­stituent threats: the “con­dem­na­tion of oth­ers,” the “crit­i­cism of crit­ics and oth­er experts and even your friends and rel­a­tives,” the prospect that “you won’t get any more work.” But “the real embar­rass­ing issue about fail­ure is your own acknowl­edg­ment that you’re not a genius, that you’re not as good as you thought you were.” We can’t bear to acknowl­edge “that we real­ly don’t exact­ly know what we’re doing,” an inescapable real­i­ty in the process of self-devel­op­ment. But there is a solu­tion, and in Glaser’s view only one solu­tion: “You must embrace fail­ure, you must admit what is, you must find out what you’re capa­ble of doing and what you’re not capa­ble of doing.” You must “sub­ject your­self to the pos­si­bil­i­ty that you are not as good as you want to be, hope to be, or as oth­ers think you are.” And as the famous­ly nev­er-retired Glaser sure­ly knew, you must keep on doing it, no mat­ter how long you’ve been cel­e­brat­ed as a pro­fes­sion­al, a mas­ter, an icon, a genius.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mil­ton Glaser’s 10 Rules for Life & Work: The Cel­e­brat­ed Design­er Dis­pens­es Wis­dom Gained Over His Long Life & Career

Saul Bass’ Advice for Design­ers: Makes Some­thing Beau­ti­ful and Don’t Wor­ry About the Mon­ey

Paulo Coel­ho on How to Han­dle the Fear of Fail­ure

The Long Game of Cre­ativ­i­ty: If You Haven’t Cre­at­ed a Mas­ter­piece at 30, You’re Not a Fail­ure

“Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Bet­ter”: How Samuel Beck­ett Cre­at­ed the Unlike­ly Mantra That Inspires Entre­pre­neurs Today

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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