Destroy your work, to make yourself better at it

I know that this sounds bizarre, but it’s true. There are benefits to creating, to producing artwork, poetry, designs, anything you can think of, and simply destroying it.

Some of you may have already heard this theory, and whether you agree or not there are generations of artists and designers out there to back it up. Whether preparing you for a career in a creative industry or simply helping to grow as a person, read on.

For the professionals

When going through university a standard assignment for design students is to create a poster or some other artwork, go through feedback rounds to perfect it, and at the end of the cycle the student is told they are to destroy the piece. Literally, delete all files and rip the hard copies into pieces. The lesson here, so design lecturers say, is to not be emotionally attached to your work.

While this may sound bizarre, it makes sense. In this context design students are looking to progress into jobs in the design industry, a place where negative feedback flies free, and if you are emotionally attached to your work then heartbreak soon follows. Learning not to be emotionally attached to your designs can benefit in more ways than one.

  • When you realise something isn’t working and need to pull the plug on a design
  • If you receive critical feedback, whether from the client or a colleague
  • When handing the project over to a colleague to finish off
  • When working collaboratively within a team
  • In the event of a tech disaster where work gets lost

By learning not to be emotionally attached to a design you are generally more open to change, making you a more flexible and efficient designer.

For the artists

For the artists out there I’m going to an artist for reference. Kurt Vonnegut, an American author with a career spanning fourteen novels, three short story collections, five plays, and five works of non-fiction, claimed that destroying your work helps to make “your soul grow”.

In a letter written to the staff and students at Xavier High School, Kurt wrote the following…

Here’s an assignment for tonight, and I hope Ms. Lockwood will flunk you if you don’t do it: Write a six line poem, about anything, but rhymed. No fair tennis without a net. Make it as good as you possibly can. But don’t tell anybody what you’re doing. Don’t show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood. OK?

Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash recepticals. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.

Kurt Vonnegut

If you’re so inclined, you can listen to Sir Ian McKellan recite this full letter through Letters Live.