5 Crucial Lessons Art School Taught Me About Success


It’s been a little over a year since I graduated from art school. I’ll be honest with you — it wasn’t an easy process. I can’t tell you how many times I thought about calling it quits and pursuing something else. My first day at California College of the Arts, I didn’t even know how to use a sewing machine. But I stuck it out despite the tears, setbacks and anxiety I experienced while I was there. And you know what? I managed to come out on top.

My senior collection sold for hundreds of dollars, I scored a year-long mentorship with a highly influential craftsman, and I was published in 7X7 — a well known San Francisco Bay Area magazine. How was I able to turn it around, you ask? Every time I experienced a setback or had a critique that didn’t go well, I found different ways to approach the problem until something worked. In fact, looking back, there are a lot of valuable lessons I learned during my time at art school that can aid the pursuit of success in just about any field. Here are the five key things art school taught me about achieving success.

1. Trust Your Intuition — Even When Everyone Else Doesn’t

Because the majority of my art school colleagues would be up working into the late hours of the night, I felt I had to do the same in order to keep up with them. There were countless nights where I was up until one in the morning working on a project. The problem? At a certain point, I would start to make mistakes. I’d draw outside the lines of my illustrations, accidentally sew the wrong sides of my project together. One time I even cut my hand with fabric scissors. I knew these mistakes could have easily been avoided if I simply went to bed early and worked on my project the next day. But even though I was aware of this, I ignored my intuition, because it was what everyone else was doing. Somehow, the idea that the people who stayed up the latest would have the best work seemed logical. But it wasn’t working for me, and I knew it.

Once I started doing what was right for me instead of what everyone else was doing, I started to feel right again. I began to rationally divide my time into tasks. I’d call it a night once I made the first mistake instead of trying to power through. I took breaks whenever I felt like it was necessary. As I result, I finished my senior thesis early and showed up at my senior review with a full night’s sleep.

Your gut feeling is there for a reason. Giving into peer pressure isn’t going to lead you to success in any situation. Whether it’s a certain way that you know you work best, a lifestyle change you feel compelled to make, switching your major or starting on a new career path, don’t let what other people around you are doing stop you from doing what you know is right for you.

2. Stop Comparing Yourself To Others

It’s easy to get discouraged and feel unmotivated when you see someone else excel at something better than you have — especially you’re trying to achieve a similar goal. There was plenty of that to go around in art school, with competitive internships and awards being given to select students — and all of us eyeing for the same opportunity, knowing only one person would get selected. During my senior year, my closest friend won an internship that I wanted. When a mutual friend of ours announced it, I felt this overwhelming amount of jealousy. Her success made me feel like a failure — to the point that I almost didn’t want to congratulate her. But I loved my friend and I wanted to be happy for her instead of giving into these feelings of jealousy.

How do you overcome jealousy? Here’s what worked for me: I excused myself from the celebration, went to a quiet space and took a couple of deep breaths. I got a notebook and wrote down all of my negative feelings. Then, I wrote down what I wanted to feel: love and excitement for my friend. I put my focus and energy into that feeling. Doing so allowed me to acknowledge the negative thoughts and not suppress them, and gave me the opportunity to stop these feelings from controlling my actions. After going through the process, I was able to get back to the party and show genuine happiness for my friend.

Life will throw these types of scenarios at you constantly — whether it’s a coworker who got picked for the promotion you were up for, or that one friend who always seems to have it all together while you’re constantly struggling to find your way. But giving jealously power over you isn’t going to get you anywhere. The reality is, thoughts are just thoughts. It’s only when you put them into action that they become real — and that is completely in your control.

3. Avoid Gossiping

There’s nothing positive that ever comes from talking behind someone’s back. And most of the time, the reason why we’re gossiping stems from us wanting to deflect our own problems by highlighting someone else’s.

For most of us, the work we do is vulnerable. We pour our feelings into our project. When we present our work, we expose ourselves. When we receive a poor critique, a meeting doesn’t go well or a project doesn’t turn out as planned, we feel self-conscious because our work is a part of us. When we’re hurt, we tend to say hurtful things about the people who had stronger projects in an effort to make ourselves feel better.

But at the end of the day, gossiping won’t improve the your work, or serve you in any aspect of life. Instead, reflect on why you feel compelled to put someone down or talk behind their back. Ask yourself if you might be doing so because you’re hurt or jealous of that person. Getting in touch with the “why” behind this feeling will help you improve yourself.

4. Ask For Help

I didn’t know how to sew when I first got to art school. But instead of asking for help right off the bat, I tried to go it alone. Which ended up being a pretty bad idea, since my grade in that class suffered as a result. As hard as I tried, sewing just didn’t make sense to me, and I was barely passing. Finally, I asked my teacher for help, who encouraged me to hire a private sewing tutor. Thanks to this extra help I was able to pass the class, and my sewing skills improved immensely.

Even if you’re not enrolled in school, the reality is we’ll always be learning throughout life. The only way you can improve at anything is by constantly working on it. And if you hit a wall like I did, know that it’s okay to ask questions and get the help you need. Don’t be afraid that your boss or coworkers will think less of you. In fact, it’s more time efficient for you to get the help you need than to use your own guesswork to struggle through it.

5. Volunteer When Something Interests You

When a new opportunity presents itself, don’t be afraid to volunteer to take it on — even if you don’t have any prior experience. During my sophomore year, one of my teachers popped in after class and asked if anyone would be interested in taking a bridal consultant job. Even though I had no experience working in this capacity, I immediately said yes. I got the job on a month-long trial period, which led to a year-long gig. This job taught me a lot about how I work best. For example, I discovered how much I loved to help other people on an intimate level. I realized how much I enjoy working independently. Figuring these things out early on helped me tremendously. Had I convinced myself that I wasn’t qualified for the job, I would have missed out on learning so much about myself in the workplace.

There are lots of times where we stop ourselves from pursuing something because we get too wrapped up in the “what ifs.” What if I’m not good enough? What if I fail? We tell people stories of why we can’t do things in order to give ourselves reasons not to do them. No one ever became successful by letting the fear of failure hold them back. There’s always more value in trying and failing than playing it safe.