Worse Than Self-Doubt: Self-Expectations

“These won’t do,” he said looking at me in the eye, and I could feel the storm of tears beginning to brood just beneath my eyelashes. “You need to think more exotic. What does ‘exotic’ mean to you?”

I managed to hold my tears until I left his office, but not much longer after that. I cried all the way home, and I cried for a good hour at home, curled on my bed in the fetal position. I wasn’t sure if it was the guilt of having disappointed, the shame of having presented sub-par work, or the fear of never making it as a designer that had the strongest grip on my poor, miserable self, but I was a wreck.

I had failed. SPECTACULARLY.

I was useless. Worthless. A terrible designer.

That was my (Stella here) first job out of college as a freelancer for the Rainforest Fish Company. I had found the listing for a logo designer in the bulletin, got my dazzling design-school portfolio ready, and applied for the gig. When the company emailed me that I won the bidding war and that they’d like to see me for the job, I was ecstatic!

I went out to buy a new pair of slacks, prepared a contract, picked up my sleek, silver portfolio case, and marched right into the client’s office. Everything felt so proper and official. Just a few weeks out of college and I had made it. BIG TIME. I had turned myself into a true professional.

Until, that is, I returned to the client’s office to present the first round of logos I had created.

The idea was:

  1. I create 3 logos.
  2. The client has a hard time choosing the one he likes best (because obviously they’re all awesome).
  3. We do some minor adjustments.
  4. I deliver.


Simple and sweet!
Except… Yeah, it didn’t go that way. His disapproving head shake brought me back down to earth in a snap.

“No, these won’t do” he repeated, “we said exotic, remember? There’s nothing exotic here.”

My stomach dropped to my knees. He was right, and I knew it. I hadn’t given him exotic; I had given him average, ordinary, expected. But in my young naïveté, I never realized that he would know that, too. But the worst part wasn’t that I had disappointed him. Nor that he told me that I had disappointed him. The worst part was that I had disappointed myself.

Back home, and after the sobbing stopped, I went through the logos I had created with my heart tied in a knot. It was time to face the hard truth: I didn’t do a good job. NEVER IN A MILLION YEARS would I had presented those gobbledygook doodle-y “things” as my final logo designs in class. I would’ve died of embarrassment first. Yet, somehow, I told myself they were good enough for now.

What had changed? Why had I presented those things to a client? And MY FIRST PAYING client at that? The answer:

I had let myself slip into expectations.

Not necessarily other people’s expectations (obviously my client expected much better work from me), but my own perception of others’ expectations.

Expectations of being a “professional,” expectations of doing “serious work” for real, “serious companies,” and expectations of no longer doing fun, experimental projects “for school.”

“We aren’t in Kansas college anymore, Stella!” I had told myself as I sat at my drawing desk, stiff as a stale rice cake (and with just about as much taste), pretending to be designing some “serious” exotic logos. I allowed myself no playing time, no discovery time, and no “wasted” time. The client was paying me to draw logos, after all, not to play around.

And the results… well, they were blah!

So the second time around I did what I knew how to do best

I dried my eyes, threw my preconceived expectations of the professional life out my tiny studio window and got to work they way I always did and loved. The way it had best served me in the past.

I sat on the floor with books and magazines sprawled out every which way and did my visual research extensively and deeply. I flooded my senses with inspiration and images. And then I flung myself onto the bed “wasting” time I could never account for (nor needed to, as I soon discovered) contemplating the ceiling and digesting all the information I had just collected. I took my time playing with colors, textures, shapes, meanings, and representations of the “exotic,” opening up my view and understanding to the different interpretations of the word in the world.


And in the end? I created three stunning logos that I was very proud to call “my work” and eager to present to my client.


“These look like you’ve gone and hired a whole team of designers to help you prepare them!” was the client’s reaction. And I couldn’t help but beam with joy. “I have the best problem in the world having to choose among these logos!” he said without ever taking his eyes off the presentation board.

That was the best non-eye-contact I’ve ever made with anyone in my life! The client LOVED the designs that I LOVED creating. I never thought professionalism would feel so LOVELY–or would make me feel like I wanted to pee so badly.

The only change we made to his final selection was to add a dot representing the eye of the fish since we couldn’t agree which way the fish faced.
Voila! Exotic.


And if you thought this happened yesterday (flattered at how young you think I am, by the way!) that logo was designed more than ten years ago. And it still looks just as fresh and exotic as the day it nearly made me pee my pants.


And that’s because good design is timeless.

Like all good work is timeless.

And the trick to good work that’s timeless? Is defying expectations.
Good work doesn’t conform. It doesn’t make excuses. And it doesn’t follow expectations. Because expectations can only create what’s expected. And the expected never wows; it just mehs.

So tie your expectations (and your perception of others’ expectations of you) around the “professional conduct handbook” and throw them both out the window.


Because in order to do good work?

You need to embrace your exotic.
You need to create your own method.
You need to listen to your heart.
You need to follow you gut (even if it gives you that pee-in-my-pants feeling).

Sprawl out on the floor if you need to.
Cry if you need to.
Laugh if you need to.
Play if you need to.


Do. What. YOU. Need. To.

You’re already good enough. That’s why they hired you in the first place. No matter WHAT your self-doubts and the fear of failure evilly whisper in your ear.

Fearing failure won’t make you any better. It will only stunt your creativity.

And doing what’s expected will never yield anything spectacular.

Do things in your own way. Even failure.

Because even if you’re going to fail? You should at least fail spectacularly!

It’s much better than failing miserably.