March 20th, 2009

How Will You Know When You’re Successful?

By Kathleen Creighton

One Monday afternoon in April, a few years ago, I was sitting on an empty beach preparing a final exam for my class. It was a spectacular day, ceiling and visibility unlimited. It seemed impossible that on such a day and as far as the eye could see, I was the only human present. After scanning the horizon, I looked back behind me and saw my house beyond the dunes. In it was my partner, a great companion and someone who truly enjoys and is occupied by his work. I realized that this being Monday, most people were at work. Many at jobs they disliked or by which they were not wholly engaged, challenged or fulfilled. Not only did I love my job, but it allowed me to have this Monday away from my desk, to sit on the beach and have time to think and write.

What might appear to be a rather simple set of observations was really rather earth-shattering to me. These circumstances represented a level of success I never realized I had, because it wasn’t what I thought success would look like. I discovered it by looking in —instead of out — for approval.

Far from making me feel complacent about my career, this discovery freed me to take more risks. Somehow the idea that I had achieved success of some kind provided me with something to build on. I began to produce prodigious amounts of photographs, take on new projects and change jobs with a confidence I hadn’t known when I was in the early, striving stages of my career.

As I turned my attention back to the final exam I thought about how much more difficult it is for today’s students to sort out what constitutes true and lasting success, bereft as they are of real role models as opposed to the current proliferation of “celebrities.” I knew then what the content of the final exam should be. It would consist of one question: How will you know when you are successful?

The class — one of the best of my teaching career — was incredulous. After the initial “What’s up?” reaction and grinning was over, I explained that it was a serious question and that I hoped they would take it seriously. They did. Many, actually most, of them wrote lengthy answers, taking over an hour to complete their papers. When it came time to collect them, I told the students to keep them, as there are no wrong or right answers. Success for one would — and should — be very different than for the other and is for no one outside of themselves to judge. I only hoped they would keep the papers and consider them from time to time in the course of their lives, if only to save them the time it took me to make the realization I had made that day on the beach.

Much to the disappointment of subsequent classes, I never gave that final again.

Kathleen Creighton studied Photography at Pratt Institute. She has worked professionally producing work for the editorial, publishing and entertainment markets as well as exhibiting her work. An associate professor in the Communications Design Department she has taught for 15 years and developed new courses including a number focusing on Photography and professional practice. Prior to being appointed Chair of the department in July of 2005, she was the Associate Director of the Career Services office at Pratt and also co-published RSVP, the Directory of Illustration and Design. A lifelong resident of Brooklyn, she is at work on a book of her photographs.

This essay first appeared in Never Sleep, a book written by Andre Andreev and G. Dan Covert, published by de.MO. Summary: There is a major disconnect between the life of a design student and the transition to being a design professional. To demystify the transition, we share the failures, successes, and surprises during our years in college and progression into the field: the creative process, monetary problems, internships, interviews, mistakes, and personal relationships.