Friday, September 21, 2012

The Ultimate Conundrum: Trying Too Hard

One of the biggest mistakes people make is this: they try too hard.

Before you kickback in your seat at the office, throwing your feet on the desk to catch a quick snooze, that’s not what I meant. What I mean is that people are so antsy to achieve success and perfection that they end up forcing a mediocre, less impressive final result...just to get it done. People tend to envision a final goal, just to reach it, even if they lose possibilities along the way.

We see this every day. We see it in the singers on the X-Factor, belting out off-key “notes” in an attempt to show their range in a short time. We see it in fashionistas, who, as they endeavor to start a trend, create obscure outfits that, although providing shock value, do not reflect their talent at all. And, in marketing, we see it in advertisements that utilize loud colors, patterns, and designs so thought-out and unoriginal as to be nearly blinding and, in the case of neon, headache-inducing.

In college, I took a visual communications course, where our semester project was to re-brand a communications room on campus. The room was going to be the epicenter for meetings, group discussions, student-led seminars, and a variety of other things, as well as a creative study space for students when it wasn’t otherwise occupied.

It was actually a really cool idea, and I was excited to be a part of it. In a society where competition thrives, we were split into groups. At the end of the semester, a “winner” would be declared, their brand image used. As an English major, and the current in-house writer for CGR, my experience with visual arts and graphic design was limited to the occasional use of Photoshop and personal web design.

As a group, we decided that the best way to complete the project would be to work individually-together. What I mean is that we each decided to create a model for the brand requirements (ie: a business card, a logo, a brochure, etc.), and together we would fuse our favorite aspects of each individual’s design into one final product. We were all happy with this plan, as it would give us each plenty of hands-on work to complete, and we also thought it would give our client the opportunity to choose without limitation.

But there’s always that one group member who rocks the boat.

For us, his name was Jon, and he was the quintessence of this kind of “trying too hard”--aka going nowhere, fast. At the start of each class, two of the other group members and I would congregate a corner in the computer lab, where we would work, show each other our designs, and help each other. It is one of the best group experiences I've had, second to working at CGR. Without fail, Jon would come bursting into the classroom about thirty minutes later, in a red hoodie (every day—for a semester—the same hoodie), mumbling some excuse about how he hated the bus, and take over. He’d shove my hand away from the mouse and restructure my designs, or he would loom over the shoulder of another group member and criticize their work. And then he did this really cool thing where he would interrupt our idea-sharing discussions to say, “That's okay...but I have a better idea--much easier, more efficient.” He also attempted to write our final brand report, insisting, "People like it when you use long words. It makes it sound better. I just make them up to sound smarter."

Hi, I'm all for creativity, but no.

Jon did very little actual work, and his ideas were appalling, as he utilized vulgar humor for the logo and a lack of professionalism and creativity for everything else. His only goal was to finish the semester, to win, and to attract attention…with minimum work and as little exertion as possible because sometimes trying too hard to "be done" is the same as not trying at all.

It should come as no surprise that the other group members and I were sick of it. At one point, we met with the client to show him our progress and to receive feedback. The three of us had a variety of examples of our combined work, as well as a portfolio containing each individual’s examples so that we could cover all bases and give him the power to choose. Imagine our surprise when Jon showed up with his own manila folder and announced that he would be presenting independently. Somewhere in the midst of being late to class and wearing his red hoodie, Jon had found the time to complete his own brand work.

At first I was worried that the colorful, shock value of Jon’s approach would appeal to the client.

But guess what?

The client was unimpressed, calling Jon’s overdone work “distracting”, "unoriginal", and “forgettable”. What he was impressed with, however, was a logo design that the other members and I had made through our combined efforts. We had placed it at the bottom of the stack because it was honestly a creative mistake. It happened one day in class, when we were really tired, and really bored, so we just frantically clicked random buttons on Photoshop. What resulted was something like a tiger slash in the middle of the screen. Did I mention that our school mascot was a tiger?

But a slash. That was it. We couldn’t figure out how to get rid of it, so we included it simply to bulk up our portfolio.

And that’s what impressed the client. It wasn’t the well-planned designs or the perfectly centered logos, and it certainly wasn’t Jon’s “one and done” approach. It was a slash.

In a society where competition reigns, but no one wins, we discovered that, at some point in the semester, our client had secretly planned his own brand design and never intended to use any of ours. Regardless, we discovered something about work: it can be fun. It had been what happened when we weren’t trying too hard or focusing on the end that had given us personal success. It was what happened when we were having fun.

I think we all learned a lesson from that class. Well, all of us except for Jon, who, at the end of the semester, snatched from my hand the large binder we’d spent days organizing and handed it to our professor saying, “All of these ideas are mine; they just didn't credit me" before walking out the door. (I’m not kidding. Luckily, the professor had already told us that Jon would be failing the course based on his attendance and...surprise, surprise...lack of work.)

My lesson to you is this. You should always try your hardest. You should always have a goal in sight. You should be great because you are great. But sometimes you’ll find the greatest success when you take a deep breath, relax, and let yourself have fun because, sometimes, it isn't the end that matters--it's what you did to get there.

Besides, why do lackluster work when you’re better than that?

-Hayley Lyons

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