A talk with Debbie Millman: “It’s better to suffer from heartbreak than from regret”

Four years ago, when I was a collaborator at Dissolved Magazine, I had the great pleasure to sit down with the very talented Debbie Millman and talk to her about heartbreak, design, and failure. I have particularly adored one of her take-aways about confidence and authenticity, which has stayed with me since.

*Notably, the views expressed in the full, published interview are her own and are more than four years old. Some do not align with the worldview I hold at the moment. I am attaching here my favourite parts of the interview which greatly spoke to me four years ago, and which continue to do so. And, I continue to be in awe of Debbie as an artist.

When did you realize you can design your life, was there a moment?

No. (laughs)

I’m still working on that. I think if I did fully design my life, I might rely too much on decision. I think that part of the experience in life is to be open; it’s hard for me to say I’m doing this and that and this – even saying that I’m a writer or an artist…Once you say you are one thing you are stuck doing that thing forever. For me, there’s a combination of worrying that I’m not that or becoming that and turning into a fraud and then I’m stuck with that despair. Despite my education on branding I have a really hard time labelling myself. There s a difference between seeing people as brands and perceiving brands as brands. People are people. Brands don’t have a soul, brands don’t have a sense of consciousness, brands can’t make decisions. We manufacture meaning into brands. I would hate to think that we manufacture meaning into people.

I can say I’m an educator or a designer. But I would have a hard time saying I’m designing my life in a certain way. I try to have a life of meaning, of purpose, but beyond that I can’t say that I’m designing a life. This way, it does leave a lot of room for the unexpected.

There are many artists that say they live with a constant fear of being ‘found out’, with the possibility of being a ‘fraud’. Are you ever afraid of being phony?

I worry more about not being good, both literally and figuratively, than I do of being a phony. I’ve been making things since I was a little girl: I’ve made fake perfume with baby oil and crushed rose petals. I made my own magazine when I was in 6th grade. I never questioned that I was a person that made things; I’ve been doing it for fifty years. Whether the things I do are valuable, meaningful… I know I’m a maker…if what I’m making is of value…that’s a constant struggle.

In 2014, you said you aspired for greatness, but never achieved it. Do you still feel the same?

Yes. (laughs)

Has anything changed?

No, I wish it had. I’m amazed with the people who have this confidence, this sense of ‘I’m good, I’m doing good’. The only thing I can tell you that I’m good at (which I’m not sure it’s meaningful in the scheme of my life) is understanding brands; I’ve been doing it all my life. Everything else, I just hope I’m good at.

It’s not preventing me from doing things, as it used to. I talk about this in various podcasts, in interviews, about this notion of confidence. Once I was interviewing Dani Shapiro and she said that confidence was overrated. I was surprised because I had been always searching for confidence. She thought that courage was more important.

I thought about it a lot…what is confidence, really? It is the successful repeated attempt to do something. Because the first time you do something, you have never done it before. How can you know if you’ll be successful? That’s where faith comes in. If I did it one time, I can do it again. I always think of it like driving. When you’re learning how to drive, you don’t have confidence. You’re terrified you’re going to kill yourself or someone else, you’re nervous. But, as the years pass, each time you get in a car you stop thinking ”I hope I don’t kill somebody.” That’s driving confidence. You can’t have confidence when you start something unless you are delusional. Confidence is built; courage is the birthplace of that: a successful repeated attempt of doing something.

The longer you do something, the longer it lasts, as you said in an interview. How do you find this to be fitting in this culture of gratification that we live in now?

It doesn’t fit in. People want instant greatness, instant success. That’s why people put confidence on such a high pedestal.

I think there’s this really misleading notion, that you need confidence to do something. I saw Barbra Streisand last summer in New York, in Brooklyn. I went by myself. I love her! And one of the things I read about her in the New Yorker is that her manager said that her greatest talent wasn’t singing or directing, but it was doing all of those things with stage fright. She didn’t tour for decades because she was nervous she would forget her lyrics, as she did this once. And there I am: watching her. At some point, I look up, for some reason. We were in a huge theatre, with a gigantic ceiling. And at the very top, I see a teleprompter tucked between the lights, with all the lyrics of all of her songs. She’s been doing this for 60 years and she still needed to know the lyrics. I mean, I know her lyrics! It was so incredibly heart warming to see that she still needs to have a backup. And she’s still doing it! And she’s one of the most important artists out there.

 Why are we always amazed by this?

Because people manufacture their own work in an entire different way. What are the Kardashians really known for doing? They make it seem as if it’s easy; that all you need to break through it sort of just existing; living every moment or every day without making something meaningful.

 And how do you teach this patience?

I don’t think you can. I think you can show what it does. It’s a matter of really understanding. I mostly teach my students sustainable ideas and how to turn those ideas into something concrete. If they can take something from that process and then apply it to their lives, then I did my job. I try to rewire their minds, to make them let go of self-imposed limits. I try to reveal to them what’s inside their minds.

 Was there anyone that did that to you?

Therapy. (laughs)

 What has teaching taught you?

You become very clear about what you do know and what you don’t know, which is very important.

Did your podcast teach you that you can do other things?

It taught me that you have the time to do what you want to do. You make it. You choose to spend the time that you have doing what you want to do.

It also made me ask myself: do you want to spend time making things or watching other people make things? Sometimes you do the second too, because you get inspired.

What does inspire you?

Travelling. I didn’t like to travel when I was younger, then I travelled for business. Now I mostly travel for events like these. (Power of Storytelling). I love meeting people from other cultures, experiencing things. I’m also inspired by music, theatre. I love theatre, I love live performances (music or theatre) I love watching people make things right in front of myself.

Was there a certain time in your career when you said ‘I’m self-sufficient now’?

Not exactly. Security would be a better word for it. But security is what you don’t have, which no amount of money can give you. The feeling that you’re okay, that you can take care of yourself.

Did you reach that point?

I’m close. I know where the worry comes from. But you always have to try to choose a path that not only provides security but also creativity.

Thank you for saying that you can “choose the creative path, not necessarily the secure or safe one”, and for pointing out that one does not exclude the other. As you’ve completely rebooted your life when you were 29, do you have any advice on this?

Try not to live in the future.

The question I ask myself is if not now, then when? Everything is easier when you’re young. You have everything at your fingertips. If you edit what is possible before it’s even possible, it becomes impossible. We self-impose our own fears on our futures. Very few people, once they become adults, are being told: you can’t do that. WE tell ourselves that. My mother or my father were not saying you can’t do that, I was the one saying it. So, I mean, it’s not something that I can tell people to stop doing, but I can suggest that if they do that, what are the alternatives? We will sooner die of regret than heartbreak. What would you rather?

What are you afraid of now?

I’m 55. How much time do I have? I remember 40 years ago as if it was yesterday. What if I don’t do everything I want to do?

Do you have a bucket list?

No, I only have a bucket list of places I want to travel to. I have to make a new plan, a new 3 year plan. Almost everything came true from my last plan: things that seemed impossible. Which is amazing, because it limits what you think is impossible.

How do you find a purpose and how do you keep going, even when everything seems meaningless?

Just this desire to have a meaningful life, to have a life that meant something. To feel like I was worthy of being born. But I still want to do so much more, to feel so much more.

Don’t we all, Debbie. We thank you.

Litehouse: “Interview with exophonic writer Téa Nicolae”

so thrilled to have been interviewed by Litehouse!! you can find my interview below. 🙂

A few details about yourself.

My name is Téa Nicolae. I am a Romanian poetess and a scholar, and I have been living in the UK for four years. I have a Bachelor of Arts in Film and Creative Writing from Lancaster University, where I am currently completing my Master’s of Arts. I am highly interested in non-dual philosophy and in Goddess-worshipping spiritual traditions, which I explore in my writings. My work has been published in various magazines and online platforms, such as The Writing Disorder, Skye Magazine and Cake Magazine. I was shortlisted for the Lancashire Literary Award in 2018.

What does being an exophonic writer mean to you?

To me, being an exophonic writer means that this grand, beautifully interwoven and formidable world is my home. I am not bound to any place and I can make my home in those around me. Moreover, writing in English gifted me the courage to shed olden ideas about who I thought I was, and it gifted me the space to meet unknown parts of myself in wondrous ways.

What do you write? What is your writing process like?

At present, I write devotional and Occult poetry. My writing process is quite simple: I keep an open heart and I allow myself to be inspired by how life unfolds around me. I write down ideas in my Notes app on my phone and early in the mornings I bind them together. Then, the endless process of revisiting and editing occurs! In the past, I worked on an intimate lyrical collection which chronicled my depression, and my process resumed to pouring my grief into words until I felt soothed. And, of course, incessant editing!

What’s the last book that made you cry?

The last book that made me cry was ‘Ecstatic Poems’, a collection of poetry written by Mīrābāī, an enchanting poetess and Hindu mystic who lived a few centuries ago. I am in love with her! She was a devotee of Krishna and she spent her life in unbridled devotion, writing poetry to him and dancing for him in temples. This was scandalous for her time, and people tried to have her killed repeatedly – with no result! Her poetry is intimate, raw and filled with longing.

“As a lotus lives in its water, I am rooted in you.

Like the bird that gazes all night at the passing moon,

I have blinded myself in giving my eyes to your beauty.”

So blissful!

What advice would you give to other exophonic writers?

Be brave, keep your heart soft and your mind open, and read, read, read! And write, write, write!

// Interview // The Emotional Value of Photography for Scan: Arts Culture // Catherine Rose in conversation with Téa Nicolae

*it was such a pleasure to be interviewed by the wonderful Catherine Rose for Scan! i do not consider myself a photographer in any way, but photography holds a deeply emotional & expressive value for me. you can find the interview online here (&a small typo in my name heh!) 🌷🌞


Téa Nicolae is a third-year Film and Creative Writing student. She writes confessional, intimate and experimental poetry, and is greatly interested in Eastern philosophy, eco-spirituality and psychedelia. I spoke to Tea about the emotional, deeply personal and often nostalgic quality of polaroid photography.

So, Téa, what do you use to take your photographs?

I use my iPhone, a Fujifilm mini polaroid and a Nikon D3200. I’ve had my polaroid for about six years and my camera for nine, and they naturally hold a lot of sentimental value for me. It’s touching for me to think about how much time I’ve had them for and how many beautiful memories they froze for me. However, I find myself often avoiding using my camera. I use my phone and my polaroid instead, as I am very drawn to candid photography and I feel like the two capture ‘the moment’ more. I’ve noticed that people usually become tense when they see a professional camera and are more likely to ‘perform’ themselves instead of just being.

Your photography encompasses a really soft and nostalgic feel; as a writer, is the emotional quality of capturing images important to you?

As photography mainly represents a way of preserving memories for me, I find that my feelings often dictate whether I want to take a photo or not. If I am touched by intense emotion, be it negative or positive, I capture my surroundings. Even the photos of landscapes that I take instantaneously evoke what I experienced at that moment. Photos preserve my inner world, which greatly helps my writing process.

Your photography has a dream-like quality stylistically, with dust-flecks and pale filters, making your photographs feel like tiny evocative memories.

Thank you! To an extent, I do believe that nostalgia is the reason I take photos. I do not consider myself a ‘photographer’ by any means, but I deeply enjoy taking photos of everything that surrounds me: people that I love, animals that warm my heart, the beauty of places I find myself in. My polaroid photos are plastered on the frames of my mirrors. I started decorating my room like this the year that I left my home in Romania and moved here at university. My first month in the UK was overwhelming and I couldn’t help feeling lonely and homesick. However, waking up every morning to see the loving faces of my close friends and family smiling at me from the walls of my dorm greatly comforted me. Photos also help me express gratitude for the past and embrace the changes of the present.

What is your dream photography travel destination?

India, probably. I am fascinated by India’s rich culture and I have a deep respect for the wise, esoteric Hindu philosophy. I dream of visiting during Diwali, the Festival of Lights. The photos I’ve seen, from friends and online strangers, are astonishing. It would be such a wonder to be there, to capture the profoundness and intensity of this enchanting experience, to further share it with the world.

SCAN interview

the featured photos:

*the four vertical ones were taken while visiting Rome with my high-school friends. i was in a lot of pain at the time and i was torn between immersing myself in Rome’s beauty, trying to connect with my friends and honouring the process. to me, the photos therefore commemorate that angsty bitter-sweetness. the hands featured are my dear friend’s Rada. the horizontal photo taken at sunset in an empty parking lot immortalises my friend, Lia and the end of high school. 🌷🌞

speaking of Scan, my bunny, Ivy, was featured in their Pets in Quarantine article! hihi 🙂