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Wisdom for Young Creatives: under promise, over-deliver

I recently left my first job out of college for a new opportunity in a new city. When preparing to leave, I was grateful for all of the things I learned during my time there and spent time reflecting on the important lessons I learned and how much I grew over seven years. What were the things I wished to tell my younger self (if he would have even listened)?

Under promise, over-deliver.

Is it a cliche phrase? Yes, but it is immensely useful advice to getting started in your creative career.

I came into [my] organization with big ambition, hopeful to do amazing work and impress people. I came from the hospitality industry, where I learned to never say “no.” I was a people pleaser, and I was anxious to offer lofty promises of good work.

I distinctly remember a meeting where I was given [this exact advice] from someone I considered a respectable creative and leader. He heard the excitement and eagerness in my voice and knew I was setting myself up for failure.

He was right because there were moments in the beginning of my career where I simply couldn’t achieve what I envisioned. I didn’t know the right people to help me get there, I didn’t have the time to learn the things I needed to get it there myself, and my aesthetic wasn’t developed. I couldn’t see the many reasons that I wasn’t going to be able to follow through on my promises.

The biggest problem with failing to achieve what you promise is the perception. As an employee or freelancer, you have a brand, and you need to actively manage that brand to succeed in business and life. Marty Nuemier says in “Brand Gap,” a brand is not what YOU say it is, it’s what THEY say it is. All people have to go on is their experiences with you, and if you fail to keep a promise to one person, it poisons your brand perception in a way that’s difficult to rectify. (You can go deeper on brands with Marty and Chris Do in this excellent interview from The Futur)


With brands that deal with millions of customers, it’s easy to swallow one bad review. In a company with thousands, and a department with hundreds, and a team with only a handful of people, a bad review has much more weight. In freelance, the market is often smaller than you imagine, and you face similar stakes.

People will give you the benefit of the doubt as a young kid, but if you ever want to break out of that mold, you need to start building a mature brand early. Under promise, over deliver is one of the tenants of building a mature brand, as told to me by a mature professional, and embodied by many of the best creatives I know.

The Art of Under-Promising

Under promise, over deliver is a business idiom that expands beyond the creative field. It’s used in sales, in product development…. How we’re discussing it today is specific to the delivery of creative ideas and the execution of them.

Temper expectations — You‘re excited about an opportunity and see so many wonderful ways to create it. WAIT—you need to pump the brakes. Let your confidence warm you on the inside and gush about it in private with your confidants. Carry your enthusiasm with confidence, but be coy about how you play your cards. If you’ve ever played poker, you know there’s no better feeling than having a great pocket pair as the pot gets bigger and bigger.

But just like poker, there’s still a chance that someone has a better hand than you. This analogy falls short because creativity is not always a competition, but the point stands — you can’t be certain about the outcome of a project no matter how excited you are about the potential. Be realistic about the expectations so there can be no surprises.

Speak in probabilities — Your idea is developing. It could change. There are unknowns—variables. Say “There’s an execution that I think you’ll enjoy” instead of “I have the perfect thing in mind that I know you’ll love.”

This is a little like recommending restaurants to friends. You don’t want to over-sell how good your experience was, because theirs could be different, and you want them to come back to you for more conversations about restaurants and advice on where to eat. But if you’re completely gushing and it falls shorts of the expectation you set, that person won’t be likely to come back to you again.

“The Only Thing I Know For Sure Is That I Know Nothing At All, For Sure” -Socrates

Be clear about deliverables — There’s a minimum winning game (MWG) with creativity. They need three 15-second videos for social. You need to supply those things. Tease out the MWG and use that as the baseline. Everything else on top will be gravy, and lets you flex your creativity without the fear of making a shitty product. If it’s something no one will use anyways, there’s no harm.

Be prepared to go above and beyond — Over-delivering may require you to sacrifice your time, especially at the beginning of your career. But rather than looking at it as a sacrifice, reframe to look at it as an investment. Time is your most precious resource, so invest this resource wisely. Bridging the gap between your vision and your execution will require an investment in learning new skills. You may not be able to make these investments during working hours, so find ways to learn at home. Apply what you learn to the projects you have and make an impression.

Other Creatives on the subject




Let’s reinforce this with another creative’s point-of-view. One creative that recently blew me away with an over-delivery was Hadeel Sayed Hamed. For The Futur, she went above and beyond for a logo exploration and brought tons of value to thousands of design students. Conveniently, she made a post on this exact topic for designers. Here are her thoughts [from the caption]:


Always, under promise & over deliver.

This is one of my mantras, I really live by it when I approach each and every project.

Designers tend to over promise and under deliver, where they think they can provide more than is expected unrealistically, this is sometimes due to unsuccessful interpretation of what you have in mind and how you execute it visually.

Under promising your clients doesn’t mean you should set low standards or handle a project in a negative manner but to set realistic goals and certain deliverables.

Now, over delivering is then perceived as going the extra mile for your client by adding more of what is expected by you either in the quality, quantity or extra research and added information, etc… This adds the wow factor to your projects, having a positive impact on your work, your self and most importantly to your client’s perception of you and your work which helps you on the long run, marketing wise.

Go Forth with new skills

Hopefully, you see the value in this soft-skill and can apply it to your career. Get control of your brand early and create favorable impressions. Learn to invest your time in yourself as a means to bring added value to your clients. Most importantly, learn from the wisdom of those who have walked in your shoes before. Cliches like this exist for a reason — they tap into the cultural zeitgeist and identify a common human experience. You’re not alone on your creative journey.

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