Design View | Articles and opinion on design professionalism, technique and culture by Andy Rutledge

Life Lessons

March 7, 2006

I receive a lot of email correspondences in which people, mostly other designers, ask me about how I learned to do this or that or how I landed a particular job or contract, or simply how I broke into the professional design ranks. In almost every case these correspondents solicit advice of one form or another. I’m certainly happy to offer whatever advice seems appropriate in my replies, but I always wonder if I have the requisite credibility to offer this advice.

The fact that I increasingly receive these sorts of emailed questions got me thinking about how I got what I have today and how I get to do what I do these days. Upon reflection, I noticed that most of the good I’ve achieved or received in life came either from luck or a willingness to dismiss comfort as a relevant issue. I believe that consequential events in life are distilled from preparation and/or uncomfortable choices and I tend to believe that all advice is useless unless the context of those choices is made clear.

So toward that end I’m going to touch on some consequential moments in my life here and in doing so I’m going to use the kind of candor that is uncomfortable among people who don’t know each other. Some of what I’m going to say qualifies as TMI. It’s uncomfortable for me to touch on some of these things, but perhaps my doing so may have some positive influence on readers looking to find something more than they have today.

Some of what I have to say relates directly to the design profession, but I think all of it is relevant to achieving success in life, as I understand it. I have come to believe that no amount of training, knowledge or preparation will do anyone a bit of good unless they’ve got the intestinal fortitude to make difficult choices. I’m going to share a few examples of these sorts of choices and show the results on my own life. I hope that doing so helps some of you in some way.

Right now I am a self-employed designer. I have a wonderful wife, a terrific son. I own a house, two cars and I have friends and clients with whom I share respect and admiration. I have all of these as a result of confronting choices that were difficult and uncomfortable to make. But if I chose not to act on what I wanted, I’d have none of this.

How to invent your own job

A few years ago I started an online art/hobby magazine. I worked hard on it and it garnered a fairly sizeable following. The magazine was free online, but became increasingly expensive to produce. I had very little income and no steady job at that point. I couldn’t imagine my being able to turn it into a subscription magazine, but I knew that was the only way I would be able to keep up the quality.

So I brazenly converted it to a subscription publication and held my breath. In just a short time it had a few hundred subscribers and I was able to increase the quality and the content, all because I asked for what I wanted.

Later, I had the idea to pitch a deal to the top national print publication for the hobby. I thought that it might be appetizing to them to acquire an online publication, complete with editor/webmaster and subscribers, to add value to their print efforts. It was a vain idea that, on further reflection, seems beyond my ability to pull off. I was just some guy with a website. Surely, they’d laugh me off for even suggesting they bring me into the fold to run their online effort.

I almost talked myself out of contacting them about it, but finally gathered my courage and made a phone call. Less than a week later I was employed full-time and working for a prestigious publication, doing what I really enjoyed. All because I asked for what I wanted.

If you tell somebody you can do it, you gotta do it

Like many of you reading this, I taught myself (for the most part) to build websites. I started out making the most gawd-awful pieces of crap known to man, but practice and research helped to improve my efforts. Slowly I became interested in and informed about Web standards and proper HTML and CSS development. But the idea of laying out a Web page without using tables was terrifying. I liked standards and semantics, but an all-div layout seemed beyond me.

Then I landed a job at an interactive agency and, I assumed, with so much work to do I’d have plenty of practice to learn how to make CSS driven div-only layouts. Only I still wasn’t getting it. My CSS layouts didn’t always work and I still relied on a few tables here and there. But I wanted to get it right so I’d not have to use tables for anything other than tabular data.

Then I was assigned to a client project, did the design, got it approved …and I jumped in head-first. I told the client I’d build their site using modern Web standards with no tables and an all-CSS layout. I told them to their face. And I was terrified because I wasn’t sure I could pull it off. But I did what was necessary to keep my word to the client (who was dishing out a few thousand dollars on this project) because I had to. Ever since then I’ve not looked back to old-style development because I demanded of myself what I knew I should. If I hadn’t then, I’d probably still not be confident enough to go tableless.


This one does not have a happy ending, but its example and its lesson is consistent with my purpose in this essay.

Aside from my wife, Terry was my best friend. He was the big brother I never had and the one guy in the world I would trust my life to in an instant, no questions asked. I knew Terry would never let me down and I would certainly never let him down. We shared a bond, a respect and understanding that only comes from having faced serious trials together and that could never be born of simple, even if genuine, mutual affinity.

Terry’s heart stopped one day while we were training together. He suddenly dropped to the floor and I rushed to see what was wrong He gave no response and had no pulse. What do you do? You call 911, you try and wake him, you make sure that the folks at the health club know that there’s a major problem here, right? I’d been trained in CPR years before, but this was real. There was a real guy on the floor with no pulse.

What if he really did have a pulse and I just couldn’t find it at the moment? What if I screwed him up with the CPR? There were people looking on, looking at me. I was going to have to put my mouth on his. I’m not that guy. I’m not the CPR guy. But I was. And that was my best friend lying on the floor.

I went to work on Terry and another friend jumped in to help. We worked until the paramedics arrived and we even got a weak pulse going, twice. But each time it disappeared. The paramedics took over for us and then took Terry away in the ambulance, but Terry never regained consciousness and was pronounced dead at the hospital.

I failed to save Terry’s life and that is hard to live with, but it is surely nothing compared to having to live with the choice of inaction at that moment. Had I chosen to simply stand around hoping and waiting for the paramedics I’m not sure I could have dealt with the emotional consequences. I live with the knowledge that I did what I could and what happened happened despite my best effort. I acted on what I wanted. I wanted my friend to live and I did everything I could to make that happen. I don’t want to consider what life would be like now if I’d not chosen to do so.

Here’s to happy endings

Last one. I almost lost my then future wife to my own inaction. At that time we were roommates in a 2-bedroom apartment that we’d acquired as friends in order to share expenses. Then we began dating and became serious about our relationship, which had grown quickly and it was quite apparent where things were heading.

Something happened one evening. I can’t even remember what it was that I did to get her so upset, but I remember that it was bad enough that she locked herself in her bedroom, crying. Again, I don’t remember why, but I knew that leaving things as they were likely meant the end of our relationship. And so what? She was just another girl and there were plenty more where she came from. But in truth she wasn’t just another girl and I knew deep down that there were no more like her. She was the one.

So in spite of how awkward it was going to be, in spite if how difficult it was going to be and how needy I was going to appear, I stood outside her door and poured my heart out to her in an effort to win her back. To win her trust. To win her love.

I stayed at her door for more than an hour, pleading and trying to get her to come out and talk. Through her door I laid bare my heart and soul and I detailed in no uncertain terms what she meant to me and how sincere I was about our relationship. If it were not enough, she’d probably hold me in contempt for embarrassing myself like that. She’d tell everyone how ridiculous and pathetic I was and I’d never be able to live it down. But I leapt in with both feet and in the end she opened her door and let me in. We’ve been married now for more than 16 years and I don’t regret a moment of it.

No regrets

How did I get what I have now? How do I get to do what I do now? Almost all of the good stuff in my life came from swallowing fear and inhibition and daring to ask or daring to do all I could to get what I knew I wanted. I didn’t have to fight or claw for it and I didn’t have to hurt anyone to get it. I just had to be willing to leave my comfort zone and do what was difficult. I expect that this is true for anyone who has good in their life.

The rest was luck. But we make our own luck and only a fool believes otherwise. Luck = preparation + opportunity. If we’re not prepared, we’ve got no use for opportunity. I’ve found that when opportunity knocks, it knocks very softly and we may try and tell ourselves that we’re not worthy to answer the door. Crush that idea right now. If you’re not worthy, answer anyway and make yourself worthy before anyone catches on.

Dare to ask for what you want. It’s the only way to get it, unless you’re the sort to leave things to fate. But fate is not kind and doesn’t suffer fools. If you want to do something, do it. Your alternative is to live with regret and regret makes a poor life partner.

As for parting advice, I’d just say that if opportunity isn’t knocking on your door, go knock on its door. Bang on its door. Kick the damn door in.