Advice: Debbie Millman – How to manage the Conundrum of Choice

  • Debbie Millman
  • How to deal with the conundrum of choice
  • Inspirational host of Design Matters:, Debbie Millman shares her hard-won advice on
    how we can make a living doing what we love

What is the biggest obstacle to making a living doing what you love?


You are.

When people suggest that getting what you want—or not—is all in your head, they are actually right. Well, nearly. It’s all in your brain.

50,000 years ago our brains underwent a major transformation as a result of a major genetic mutation, resulting in a biological reorganization of the brain into three distinct parts. After the reorganization, there was an explosion of tool making, more sophisticated weaponry, and we created our first cave paintings. Scientists refer to this phenomenon as the big brain bang or—far more poetically—the Great Leap Forward. This is where the seeds of our need to make and mark things emerge. This Great Leap Forward is also responsible for most of our modern abilities: language, art, music, cooking, and self-decoration. These are considered cultural universals: everyone everywhere engages in this behavior.

In the book, “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind,” author John Jaynes theorizes that conscious thinking began only about 3,000 years ago. This is about the time the human brain increased in size, which he contends is evidence of our evolutionary efforts to solve the problem of coming up with better, smarter ways to hunt for food. This ability to “think better” impacted the outer part of the brain, the neocortex.

James Watson, the Nobel-prize winning scientist who helped discover the structure of DNA, described the human brain as the “most complex thing we have yet discovered in our universe.” The three distinct parts of the human brain are considered “sub-brains,” each the result of a distinct age in our evolutionary history. The three brains communicate with each other and intermingle, but these “three brains in one,” (or what is now called a triune) is unique to only one species: humans. The three parts of the triune brain are the reptilian brain, the neocortex, and the limbic brain.

The neocortex is the most recent of the triune, and it is also the largest. Language, reading, writing and reasoning all originate in this area of the brain. In fact, all of the experiences of our senses and all of our voluntary behavior are controlled by the neocortex. This is what we now refer to as consciousness or awareness. Our neocortal brain has the ability to organize and convey logic and reason, but the most fascinating aspect of the neocortal brain is its skills of abstraction. As a result, all problem solving (whether artistic or scientific) and any exercise that requires symbolic representation and has its origins in the neocortex. 

In the late 1800s Paul Broca, a French neuroanatomist, published a paper that suggested the brains of all mammals had something in common. He called this the great limbic lobe. This proved to be the part of the brain that separates prehistoric man from modern man. Mammals have an innate orientation to their offspring, which we now consider the feelings of love. The limbic brain establishes positive or negative ties before the neocortex articulates them. Humans everywhere all over the world show identical facial expressions. A smile signals friendliness and joy in everywhere in the world. These culturally universal expressions allow us to communicate with other humans instantaneously and without conscious thought.

The oldest of the three parts of the triune is the reptilian brain. The reptilian brain, which we share with our distant relatives the crocodiles and snakes, regulates heartbeat, digestion, and other basic life functions. But the reptilian brain supports neither emotion nor cognition. This brain is responsible for all of our vital but involuntary behaviors: regulation of the heart and lungs, metabolism, the digestive system and the adrenalin rush we feel when we believe we may be in danger. This ancient part of our brain is fundamentally all about security and survival. We can’t control this part of our brain at all. Despite our best efforts, we can’t help but feel vulnerable (and thus fearful) when we are facing an uncertain future or experience something or someone unknown. As a result, this has a profound impact on our ability to imagine our future or to “reach for the stars.” Any uncertain outcome has the potential to create a sense of fear or dread.

When thinking about our hopes and dreams,
we often self-edit in an effort to avoid uncertainty and vulnerability.

When thinking about our hopes and dreams, we often self-edit in an effort to avoid uncertainty and vulnerability. This is best exhibited when I ask my students the following question: What are you most afraid of if you don’t achieve your dreams? One of the most honest and heartbreaking responses I’ve heard was from one young man who declared that if he went after what he wanted and didn’t achieve it, he would “die of heartbreak.” As a result, he (and so many students I meet and teach) would rather not pursue their dreams at all in an effort to avoid the debilitating, life-threatening heartbreak that might occur if they try something and fail. They would rather compromise their hopes and dreams in an effort to avoid a heartbreak that will kill them.

But, surprisingly, that kind of heartbreak rarely happens.

You see, our human triune brain is also a regulation machine. When we are cold, we seek warmth; when we are hot, we seek to be cool. When we are hungry we eat, and on days like Thanksgiving, we might eat so much that are sure we may never want to eat again. But, as we all know, that feeling doesn’t last forever. How many of us have found ourselves in front of the refrigerator on a late Thanksgiving evening picking through the leftovers? We’ve metabolized all that turkey and suddenly want something more. Or, we fall madly in love and feel as if we can never get enough of our beloved. How wondrous that is! Fast-forward 18 months later and we find that we’re shouting at them to stop breathing “that way.” We metabolize everything—love, hunger, body temperature, and even heartbreak. What seems unbearable at first might prove to be the best thing that ever happened to us—or so our brains will convince us.

The real tragedy of not going after what we really want is that we can live in the paralyzed state of fear forever: It seems the only thing we don’t metabolize is our involuntary fear of the unknown. Despite the many self-help books out there trying to outsmart the reptilian brain, I contend that is it unlikely these efforts will ever be successful. Our brains are clever little muscles that have been evolving for a long time to successfully get us here, right now. I believe that in order to step into our future dreams, we have to simply do just that: take the first step. It might hurt and the outcome might very well break our hearts. But the human brain is a resilient one. It wants us to survive and it will construct new dreams for our hearts to pursue. Then, if we do attain the success we so desire, we will dream up new dreams to pursue, again and again.



Debbie Millman is a writer, educator, brand consultant and host of the radio show Design Matters.

Named “one of the most influential designers working today” by Graphic Design USA, Debbie Millman is also an author, educator, brand strategist and host of the podcast Design Matters. As the founder and host of Design Matters, the first and longest running podcast about design, Millman has interviewed nearly 300 design luminaries and cultural commentators, including Massimo Vignelli, Milton Glaser, Malcolm Gladwell, Dan Pink, Barbara Kruger, Seth Godin and more. In the 11 years since its inception, the show has garnered over 5 million downloads per year, a Cooper Hewitt National Design Award and—most recently—iTunes designated it one of the best podcasts of 2015.

Debbie’s written and visual essays have appeared in publications such as The New York Times, New York Magazine, Print Magazine, Design Observer and Fast Company. She is the author of two books of illustrated essays: Look Both Ways and Self-Portrait As Your Traitor; the later of which has been awarded a Gold Mobius, a Print Typography Award, and a medal from the Art Directors Club. Her artwork has been exhibited at the Boston Biennale, Chicago Design Museum, Anderson University, School of Visual Arts, Long Island University, The Wolfsonion Museum and the Czong Institute for Contemporary Art. She has been artist-in-residence at Cranbrook University, Old Dominion University and Notre Dame University, and has conducted visual storytelling workshops at Academy of Art University in San Francisco, the University of Utah, Hartford University, Albuquerque Academy and the High School of Art and Design in New York. She has designed wrapping paper and beach towels for One Kings Lane, greeting cards for Mohawk, MOO and Card-To-Art, playing cards for DeckStarter, notebooks for Shutterstock and Baron Fig and T-shirts for Within The Fold.

Debbie is the author of six books, including two collections of interviews that have extended the ethos and editorial vision of Design Matters to the printed page: How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer and Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits. Both books have been published in over 10 languages. In 2009 Debbie co-founded with Steven Heller the world’s first graduate program in branding at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Now in its sixth year, the program has achieved international acclaim. The inaugural class wrote and designed the Rockport book Brand Bible: The Complete Guide to Building, Designing and Sustaining Brands, in 2013 the students created branding for the Museum of Modern Art’s retail program, Destination: New York and the class of 2015 worked to reposition a Kappa Middle School in Harlem.

For 20 years, Debbie was the President of the design division at Sterling Brands, where she worked with over 200 of the world’s largest brands, including the redesign of Burger King, merchandising for Star Wars and the positioning and branding of the No More movement. She is also President Emeritus of AIGA, one of five women to hold the position in the organization’s 100-year history and a past board member and treasurer of the New York Chapter. She is a frequent speaker on design and branding and has moderated Design Yatra in India, presented keynote lectures at Rotman School of Management, Princeton University, Michigan Modern, the Hong Kong Design Association, the Melbourne Writers Festival, Design Thinkers in Toronto, the Festival of Art and Design in Barcelona, Webstock in New Zealand, QVED in Munich and many more. She has been a juror for competitions including Cannes Lions, The Art Directors Club, The Type Directors Club, Fast Company, How Magazine, Print Magazine, IDMagazine, AIGA, The Dieline, and more. Currently, Debbie is the Editorial and Creative Director of Print Magazine, the oldest magazine about design in the United States, and a board member of actor and activist Mariska Hargitay’s Joyful Heart Foundation, legendary Performance Space 122 and the venerable Type Directors Club.

Advice: Debbie Millman – How to manage the Conundrum of Choice

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