How does one go from being a recording artist’s trusted, and reliable, creative collaborator to being the menswear designer at Louis Vuitton? Some might say that such a journey would be practically impossible. That’s the journey that the late Virgil Abloh made, accomplishing in years what others take decades to; it all started with screen printing T-shirts, leaning into his strengths—his architectural sensibilities and relationships with artists—and moving forward one project at a time. Abloh’s prominence was a fruit of his proliferation; he constantly kept making new work and releasing it. When he passed, I started listening to his lectures again, and I’m super appreciative that he took the time to speak and record them. Here are three things I learned:
“Yes” is an invitation
In a lecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Abloh talks about directing the music video for Lil’ Uzi Vert’s song “XO Tour Life”. He said, “It might be different for you guys, but my immediate reaction to anyone asking me anything is yes. And then I’ll think about it and usually I won’t say no. But 9 times out of 10, I should probably be like, “Oh, I’m busy,” or whatever. But I just say yes.”
This is completely the opposite of what I’d learned as an editorial director; that creativity was about saying no. (Abloh’s collaborator Justin Saunders would say the same.) Former Apple designer Jony Ive said he learned from Steve Jobs, “What focus is: Saying no to something that with every bone in your body you think is a phenomenal idea. You wake up thinking about it, but you say no to it because you are focusing on something else.”
The advantage to saying yes as often as Abloh did was getting to start all of these interesting projects, and to build working relationships with interesting people. An initial, “Yes,” is a small commitment; it’s accepting an invitation, showing up, and learning about how you can contribute or doing a small project. If you’re looking for opportunities, this starts something of a self-fulfilling prophecy; as you take on more projects, you learn how to do more than you’d thought, and expand your body of work. As other people see your projects, they start learning how they might be able to work together with you.
Anything that’s interesting happening for me now almost always flows through a previous project that I did, or a person I’d met previously. It’s only because I said yes before that I’ve been approached with an opportunity. I’ve been on a mission to say no more, but Virgil’s commentary—and my own past experiences—really stand out in my mind.
I used to say no a lot, and put up barriers to my work; now, I’ve started saying yes a lot more, and being okay with starting on smaller projects with friends.
Commit, scope, and deliver
In “Do Less, Little by Little,” I write, “The best way to do more, better, is to focus more on finishing the most important thing at that moment, and then to pull the next thing. Don’t start something new if you’re doing a certain number of things already. Keep multi-tasking to a minimum. Increase the limit of simultaneous tasks when you’re feeling good, and decrease the limit when you’re not.”
Virgil never reneged on any of his major creative or corporate commitments. Maybe sometimes, he spread himself thin. But Virgil’s personal design language (the infamous 3% approach, in which he tweaked nothing more than 3%), and the teams he built and ideas he collected, also made it possible for him to sprint through his projects.
Saying “Yes” is the beginning. Make sure the opportunity is scoped accordingly, so that you can take it on with the time and energy that you have. If you have a tight deadline and are running thin on time, scope down accordingly.
Work with a sense of urgency
Another lesson was Virgil’s sense of urgency; a lot of the projects he moves quickly on, seizing the moment with spontaneity. He says, while demonstrating a shoe, “This is the very first shoe that I made there. Because I was like, I didn’t come all this way from my first Nike meeting and not end up with anything to take home. I was like, where’s the printer? Like, hey can you– and that’s what I do– say, “Hey, can you do this? Can you glue this here?””
In other words, he did the meeting, then stuck around until he could get a shoe made. And of course, those meetings would lead to a collaboration where Abloh put his own spin on ten pairs of sneakers. (It even has its own Wikipedia page.)
That’s what saying yes means to me now. It doesn’t mean doing more or overcommitting, it means finding a way to make things happen and to explore opportunities. I said yes to writing daily, and made it work for me, when it had failed many times in the past. By adjusting enough constraints, attitudes, and philosophies, there’s always a way to make a project happen.