“We’re not going to waste time talking about half-a** work today.”
The work being referenced was my own.
I attended the University of North Texas between 1989 and 1993 and, like most college males, I believed I could do no wrong and that the world was only a single college diploma (mine) away from experiencing absolute bliss. This detestable attitude crashed down on my ego and perception of self-worth in dramatic fashion one fall day in October 1993. Thankfully, the end result provided for me a new perspective on the subject of hard work and the worthless nature of pride.
The University of North Texas doesn’t exactly roar to the forefront of the minds of the advertising elite as a resource for top creative talent. However, the School of Communication Design at that institution has for some 40 years quietly and consistently delivered into the marketplace creative individuals whose accomplishments and accolades would make even the top graduates of the top schools in the nation turn to take notice. The school at UNT has been able to develop some of the best creative minds because it is focused upon conceptual thinking and is able to maintain excellence through quality curriculum and faculty. It was from the ranks of that great faculty that intensely important life lessons were brought to bear on my unsuspecting pride.
It is striking to me that people who exhibit a genuine and altogether passionate desire for excellence are consistent in their application of pressure to their own work and the work of others without favoritism. In a world sickeningly obsessed with “political correctness” the attitude gets labeled as being just plain mean. Everyone is deathly afraid of hurting someone else’s feelings.
Well, not everyone.
Part of the requirements for my graduation included a Senior Portfolio Review course led by then adjunct instructor, Brian Boyd. The course was unassuming enough. Aside from assembling and reworking, if necessary, our very best work from the previous two years, the only requirement for passing was the successful completion of two additional projects, each extending over roughly one half of the semester’s duration.
Brian was absolutely confident in his approach and unwavering in his disdain for mediocrity. Indeed, there were rumblings down hallways between classes that he was simply arrogant. Though I had similar thoughts, it did not bother me. I was arrogant myself. In fact, I wasn’t at all concerned about the first project assignment or the rigorous schedule that lay ahead. From an early age, I had somehow convinced myself that raw talent and sheer will power was really all that was required for success in any endeavor. Up to that point, I had done quite well in those classes that I found remotely interesting – without putting forth much effort.
The first major deliverable for the first assignment was instructed to be hand drawn thumbnails and sketches that would clearly define the strategic and conceptual thinking behind an assortment of branding media. For most of my life, I had nourished a drawing skill that had served me well as an attention-starved juvenile looking for approval from my peers. For all three years prior to my pivotal college senior year, the same skill had won the day time and again, earning for me approving nods from many impressed instructors and students alike. Something different, however, was in store for me for our first critique review when it eventually arrived.
Hanging the tissues on the wall was invigorating. I had over one dozen sheets with immaculate hand-rendered logos, packaging elements, brochures, billboard and magazine advertisements, t-shirts and television storyboards. I had strategically positioned myself so that my work would command the center section of the wide, cork-covered wall. And it did. Even while hanging the material, fellow students remarked with comments like, “Nice stuff.” “Great work.” And even, “You’ve shamed us all.” With over fifteen students in the class, the critique would certainly require the full three hours as scheduled. But, the time didn’t matter. I was going to be heralded as the gold standard and I was content to wait my turn for glory.
Brian began the critique session as expected with a linear path across the broad wall from left to right. The discussions were bright and informative, but one could almost feel the anticipation for the discussion that would be generated from the work hanging in the center. With each step closer, my work seemed to stand out all the more. Brian was adamant about using pencil for all assignment sketches, and all students complied. However, from a distance most of the student’s drawings appeared faint and washed out. Students would occasionally need to step forward to get a closer look as the discussions marched on. I had been very selective about the lead that I used for my work – choosing a much softer lead in order to generate very dark markings for high contrast against the milky white sheets of paper. One could almost discern every element of my work from across the room without difficulty.
At last, the moment came. The final questions were answered for the work just ahead of mine and Brian turned to approach the next set. He quietly strode past my work and proceeded to ask questions about the work immediately to the right. I caught more than one piercing and inquisitive glance from fellow students, but I did not reciprocate their gazes. Instead, the instant thought of “Oh my.” was instantly replaced with “Oh yeah!” There was no doubt in my mind that Brian was going to finish out the discussions and return to the center of the room to make a statement about the bar of excellence I had set and for which the rest of the class should have been aiming. And make a statement he did.
With only a few minutes of class time remaining and after the last set of sketches were put through the paces, Brian walked directly to his desk at the front of the classroom and began to outline the next stage of the project. After fielding a couple questions from students, he dismissed the class. I quickly asked for his attention and inquired about the peculiar omission of my sketch work. After a pause that seemed to last an eternity, he responded with the butt-carving words that may as well have been red-hot daggers piercing me from every conceivable angle.
You see, Brian knew both what I had done and what I had not done in order to accomplish the assignment. For him, the things I had not done were far more important. He had made it clear on the first day that multiple options would be made available to interact with him and with the actual clients for which we were producing the work. He had shared phone numbers and office hours for reaching out to him. He had encouraged communication with each other and with the clients to stimulate dialogue along the way that would make all of the work better. I had done precious little of all of that, choosing instead to wait five days before the due date and essentially forcing myself into a sleepless stupor in order to hammer out the work just in front of the deadline. Brian knew that it was not my best work and he made it very clear to me on that fateful day that regardless of one’s natural abilities, a person can really only expect to receive out of any objective the sum of what he or she invests into it. There will always be room for improvement and there will always be need for stretching and growing beyond one’s comfort zone.
I learned that day from Brian Boyd that really great work may only be achieved through really great effort.