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How to Meet Your Hero

I knew her before I knew her, if you know what I mean. For years I had seen her design work– at awards shows, in the credits on albums and book covers, and in industry magazines. Her name was Emily, and the long circuitous route to our friendship would challenge how I formed relationships outside the office.

Debbie Millman

Somehow, when I imagined what she was like in real life, she seemed older than I was; back in 1991 the name Emily had a slightly old-fashioned patina to it. Emily worked at the most famous design firm in the world, and then she and her best friend started their own company. She had it all: a successful creative agency; she was beautiful and smart, and she was even dating a man who was one of the most innovative designers in the business. Emily was so much larger than life to me that I couldn’t envision what it would be like to be friends with her, or what I would say if I ever met her. I was too intimated to even imagine it.

But then, there she was, at a conference I was attending in Chicago. It was 1998 and she was one of the keynote speakers. Someone I knew also knew her, and I begged to be introduced. But I was so nervous when we met, all I could manage to say ended up embarrassing us both. “Wow, I thought you were older,” I blurted out, and she looked confused and laughed a little laugh that was part bemused and part taken aback. I knew right then and there that our friendship was doomed, and I didn’t see her again for several years.

The next time I saw her was at an American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) Leadership conference in 2001. I spotted her from behind. She looked effortless and elegant and cool. I took one sidelong glance at her and scurried away in the other direction. I was way too nervous to risk talking to her again. I saw her one more time over the course of the conference, and for a millisecond I thought she saw me, too, but it seemed as if she wasn’t exactly sure where she knew me from and her eyes quickly darted elsewhere.

In 2003, I became unexpectedly embroiled in an online blog brouhaha about some logos I had designed. It was the most public debate I had ever participated in and many, many well-known designers from all over the world fought over the questionable quality of my work. Emily participated as well, though she (mercifully) wasn’t as critical as the rest of the crowd. I tried to hold my ground defending myself with the others; I thought I was marginally persuasive, and eventually the conversation waned. I made it out, but barely.

But, ironically, that’s when Emily took notice of me, and several weeks later I received an email from her. She complimented me on the grace she felt I displayed in what she knew was a tremendously difficult situation. As I read it, my eyes nearly popped out of my head. And then I spent hours constructing a breezy response thanking her for the generous note.

In 2005, she wrote again. As President of the New York Chapter of the AIGA, she was reaching out to invite me to join the Board of Directors of the Chapter. She asked me to call so she could outline what the job entailed, and when I did I (once again) blurted out something ridiculous: I told her it was the happiest moment of my life. But this time it was sort of true and of course I accepted her invitation.

Emily’s term as President of the NY AIGA board was up as I joined, so we didn’t get to work much together; but in the years since, we became friends. And nearly 30 years after I first admired her work and her ideas, she is now one of my closest confidantes. She eventually married her brilliant designer boyfriend, and now they have two children I adore. Her family has become my family, and I hope we all grow old together.

So, what did I learn after my years-long journey to my dear friendship with Emily? Here are a few key takeaways:

Attend the Conferences

Stick your hand out and try and meet everyone you admire and anyone you like!

Participate in Industry Dialogues

Take a risk, even when it terrifies you. Don’t let an opportunity to connect with someone go by because you are nervous or scared. You never know when you’ll have the opportunity again, and overcoming fear is easier than overcoming regret. And if not now, when?

When All Else Fails – Be Gracious

If you are not sure what to say when your hero is in front of you, try this: I love your work, and I want to thank you for inspiring me to be better at what I do. Be sincere, kind and polite. But never, ever—under any circumstances—open with how you feel about their age.

Life is a mysterious, circuitous arc. How easy it would have been not to shake Emily’s hand back at the Chicago conference in 1993! How effortless it would have been to ignore the criticism of my work in 2003! But oh, I am so grateful that I pushed through my anxiety and lack of confidence to do it anyway. I know I could have been more graceful, and I certainly could have been more eloquent. But looking back on it now, I’m so, so glad I did it, no matter how silly I seemed.