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How Can This Be Successful?

This one question comes packed with copious effects and repercussions. It’s a question I ask myself, my team, and the client before picking up my pen and letting the scribbles begin.

The wise words of my former colleague and esteemed creative director completely changed the game for me. I’ve always considered myself a go-getter: productive, proactive, and able to use initiative. But this has been acquired through an education of self-discipline. I’ve never met anyone who’s born with these traits. They’re there to be learnt. To be practised until they become habitual.

It was 2020. Lockdown, the knock-on effect of the COVID-19 virus, was now in full swing and surfaced a convenient hiatus from the office for the summer. My company had offered me the position of a lifetime as an integrated creative on the Adidas team – a lifelong dream of mine to write and create for one of the major sports brands. I was coming to terms with a new team dynamic and brand parameter. My professional – and inadvertently – personal world was about to experience a shift in perspective.

We sat down – over Zoom – to catch up on general creative best practices. It was an opportunity for me to share my challenges and, in turn, to accrue some much-welcomed advice from an experienced peer. We discussed how I approached the briefs. At this time of my career, I was neither an art director, a designer, or a writer. I was lost in the murky abyss, clambering to the light in search of answers. My creative director took a momentary pause from their critiquing and retorted unfazed and composedly, “Before you start a project, ask the person setting the task what success looks like for this brief.”. My eyes – scattered in bemusement. My brain – a display of fireworks. I had to ask him to repeat himself. To which he did. It was another hit of whatever ineffable feeling I had experienced moments before.

It was a piece of advice that unspooled more meaning the more I scribbled it down or recited it to my housemate.

I carefully dissected the statement, looking at how best to phrase it and how best to ask it in a conversation. It just happened that the very same day, I had a briefing for a new adaptation brief that needed to be rolled out in different markets. I listened pensively as the project manager recited the deliverables from the account manager’s email. The inevitable arrived, “Any questions?”. Oh, yes, I have one. “How can the response to this brief be a success?”. The two of us shared the same inquisitive smile, and the meeting rolled on for another five minutes before coming to a satisfied end. I knew exactly what I needed to do. I had clarity and certainty.

One question that made everything I approached easier to comprehend and accomplish: how can this be a success?

This isn’t a solution to the problem – it is, rather, the definition of being on the same page.

I use this question as a tool to prepare my expectations of what’s to come. I’ve referred to it before setting off for a run, before a vital chat with my partner, family, or friends, and before writing this article.

It’s a tool that works wonders for my professional life, but it has permeated all facets of my life and is now a way for me to ground myself and apply some logic. Depending on the situation, I mould, dissemble, and rebuild the question; its skeleton will always keep it upright and functional.

Use this at work. If the person setting the work can’t answer it, they must either retreat and recalibrate what’s needed or work with you to formulate the answer. Use this before going to the gym or reading a book. The success of each activity is not bound to criteria, nor is it so loose that it becomes redundant. It’s malleable. I want to run 5k in 27 minutes. I want to read 20 pages of my book before going to bed. That’s what success looks like for you in those moments. You have a recipe for a blueprint that can be shared or internalised.

But once you establish the criterion, I promise, your life will become much easier. There will be no more guessing or predicting what is expected, no more falling short or overdelivering. You will know exactly what to do because you have yourself the blueprint for success.

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