On Paying and Paying and Paying and Paying Your Dues

My best advice on this subject is to just drop the notion that dues paying ever really ends.

I don't think I've ever stopped paying my dues, and it's been over 20 years since I graduated from art school and got my first job in graphic design. Sure, I've stopped paying certain kinds of dues, but other kinds keep showing up. I think this is because I continue to evolve and expand what my job actually is. I keep taking on new challenges in the practice of design. All of which means there is some kind of new learning curve involved. Learning new things always means paying dues somehow, to somebody, for something.

For me, the fun of life is pushing the boundaries of what's possible. That can often mean starting over and not having it all buttoned up. It means I might fail. It means that there are probably people much better at this new thing than I am, so I'll need to stretch, and perhaps even be a little lost and confused for a while. This kind of risk-taking involves putting in extra effort, long hours of due diligence, probably disappointing people along the way, then finally beginning to get it right, and eventually actually figuring out how to do the new thing. It is this journey that I think of as paying dues.

Early in a design career everyone ought to expect to pay some dues. Dues look like extra effort, patiently following your boss's lead, having a happy attitude and boundless energy (no matter what) all in the pursuit of excellence. Keep this up, and bigger, better opportunities get presented. As a result, perhaps mastery occurs. Keep on working hard and smart, and your peers might recognize that mastery.

At that point a choice happens-get comfortable or keep pushing yourself. The more experience you get, and the better you become at your craft, the less inclined you might be to try to branch out and change. You might just want to rest on your laurels and pretend that you are challenged, but in your heart, you'll know that the thrill is gone. Once you admit that, you've opened a door, and you might have to do something about it. It might create the possibility of more dues to be paid.

I am convinced that relentless curiosity is an essential trait in a designer. Curiosity leads to growth. Growth brings new horizons and, inevitably, dues. But dues mean you're really in the game, not sitting on the sidelines. When you stop having to pay dues, it is just the right time to look for new things to do that come with a new set of dues. In time, each person figures out for herself which dues are worth paying and which aren't. For me, the real point is simply to stay open to paying dues. Being vital and challenged is how I want to live. I figure that I can rest (and stop paying dues) when I'm dead.
Terry Stone
The Office of Terry Stone Design Management Consultant and Writer/Educator Los Angeles, CA