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Damn Good Advice from Advertising Legend George Lois

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“Creativity can solve almost any problem — the creative act, the defeat of habit by originality, overcomes everything.” – George Lois

I just finished reading Damn Good Advice by George Lois and I promise that it’s one of those life-altering books for creatives. George is one of my personal idols because he’s responsible for introducing me to the world of advertising as a teenager. Back in the late 90s in my suburban high school, budget cuts were in full swing and our library was completely frozen in the 70s. There was a diamond in the rough, though. One day, I discovered a book of George Lois’ advertising work and it completely opened up a whole new world to me. His iconic covers for Esquire especially pushed a lot of buttons and he wasn’t afraid to get a good rise out of the public, all in the name of thought-provoking advertising. He got me interested in the idea of working at ad agencies years before I became a designer; I knew that somehow, some day, I wanted to be a part of this world that Lois gave us glimpses into.

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Damn Good Advice is one of those books you’ve got to read if you’re involved in the advertising, PR, or design worlds — and the sooner, the better. Lois founded the second ever creative agency in the world and is still alive and kicking. Unlike Mad Men, he wasn’t a caricature of the ad world — he lived and breathed it and in the end, changed it for the better. Rumor has it that Don Draper is even based on his likeness! I could go on and on why Lois is the man but more importantly, the no-nonsense, real life lessons he bestows in this book had me excited, inspired, fired up and ready to take on my next challenge head-on.

Here are some of my favorite “lessons” from Damn Good Advice. Hopefully they’ll inspire you as well:

Follow your bliss.

I am so on board with this! Lois says, “Follow your bliss. That which you love you must spend your life doing, as passionately and as perfectly as your heart, mind and instincts allow. The sooner you identify that bliss, which surely resides in the soul of most human beings, the greater your chance of a truly successful life. In the act of creativity, being careful guarantees sameness and mediocrity, which means your work will be invisible. Better to be reckless than careful. Better to be bold than safe. Better to have your work seen and remembered, or you’ve struck out. There is no middle ground.”

Have you found your bliss yet? It took me years of searching when the answer was right in front of me. As a teenager, I loved making collages, I was constantly saving inspiring magazine layouts and I always appreciated a great ad campaign. Yet, I didn’t have a mentor to show me the way. I didn’t have anyone around me who put the pieces together and said, “You know, you should be a designer.” It wasn’t clear to me until my mid-twenties, when I’d finished my business degree but still felt empty. I knew I wouldn’t be happy unless I was making a living being creative. After that, I enrolled in a design program and the pieces quickly fell into place. Following your bliss isn’t always easy but it also won’t leave you with that nagging, empty feeling.

…Creating ideas without a work ethic to follow through is inconceivable to me.

People have often said to me, “Slow down or you’ll burn out.” But I love what I do! I’m excited to wake up and tackle something new each day. If you feel the same way, you’ll appreciate Lois’ advice: “If you don’t burn out at the end of each day, you’re a bum! People watching me work ask me all the time why I’m not burnt out, how (especially at my age) I manage to keep going. The fact is, I’m totally burnt out at the end of each day because I’ve given myself totally to my work – mentally, physiologically, physically. When I head home at night I can’t see straight. But I love that feeling of utter depletion: it is an ecstatic sense of having committed myself to the absolute limit. But after recharging at night, I’m ready to go the next morning. Isn’t that what life is all about?” I’ve always felt like a bit of an outsider when it came to this subject — it’s pretty awesome to hear someone with decades more experience than me say that it’s okay to give it your all when it comes to your career and own it.

Don’t expect a creative idea to pop out of your computer.

True story: last night, I was sitting outside my hotel, having a meeting with a friend. I was relaxed, my laptop was closed and we were brainstorming. Right then, what I considered to be a sure-fire concept for her logo popped into my head. I did a quick sketch and was like, “This is it!” It had nothing to do with noodling around on my computer or searching Pinterest for the ‘next greatest thing.’ I was away from my regular habitat and that allowed my mind to wander into new places. Lois says, “I’ve witnessed a myriad of creative “professionals” fishing on the computer, frantically looking, searching, praying for an idea. Look deeply, deeply into the screen – there’s nothing there! Without a creative idea in your head, the computer is a mindless speed machine, producing tricks without substance, form without relevant content, or content without meaningful form…don’t sit down at your computer until you’ve grasped a big concept, without a computer in sight. You can’t run until you can walk.”

Creativity is not created, it is there for us to find.

Whenever I travel, no matter how long or short the trip, my new surroundings inspire me to dream up new ideas. Lois affirms that “Great advertising comes down to The Big Idea, but I never create the ideas that characterize my work. I discover them – snared in the air as they float by me…if you’re trying to achieve greatness in any creative industry, go out into the world and sail the ocean blue and live a life of discovery.” I couldn’t agree more. Life experience will make you better rounded and more aware; travel as often as your budget and schedule allow.

Work is worship.

Work at what you do because you love it and you constantly want to improve. It’s as simple as that. Lois asserts that “Working hard and doing doing great work is as imperative as breathing. Creating great work warms the heart and enriches the soul. Those of us lucky enough to spend our days doing something we love, something we’re good at, are rich. If you do not work passionately (even furiously) at being the best in the world at what you do, you fail your talent, your destiny, and your god.” Amen.

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What type of person are you?

You are the master of your fate: you are the captain of your soul.

Finally, perhaps the most important lesson I took away from Damn Good Advice is that we absolutely have to take charge of what we want out of life. Lois notes that “With all the lucky breaks, or unhappily, the bad breaks one endures, I believe a person still decides their own fate, that they ordain what kind of family life they have, what they believe in, and what kind of work they produce. You can decide that no one can make you produce bad work! …If you’ve got the right stuff, “they” can’t stop you from following your bliss, they can’t keep you from demonstrating your talent and they can’t keep you from fulfilling your destiny. Never.”

In Closing

Yes, George Lois has a strong personality that people either love or loathe. Either way, his perseverance and work ethic has been a force to be reckoned with for over fifty years — knowing what you want, going after it and being a self-made success is hugely admirable in my book. I am so glad George took the time to put Damn Good Advice together because we’re now able to take lessons from his life experience and proactively apply them directly to our own.