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Life lessons from Project Runway

Lately my favorite TV show has been “Project Runway.”

It’s a reality show where a group of clothing designers compete to win the resources to start their own fashion line. On each week’s show they complete a design assignment and their work is reviewed by a panel of judges. One contestant wins and one is eliminated. As they say, “One day you’re in and the next day you’re out.”

The show has been on for years but this time there’s a special catch: Each assignment is carried out by teams. While teamwork requires cooperation, only one individual wins.

I enjoy reality shows because I think about how I would behave in any given challenge and also because I try to guess in advance who will win and who will lose.

I believe there are life lessons to be learned through such shows, not because these shows are so profound but because they are not fair. Just like life itself.

Sometimes the contest even appears to be rigged. (Come on now, Anya, in Season 9 (2011), could hardly run a sewing machine and had only been creating clothes for a few months. Suddenly the judges concluded that putting in a zipper correctly is only an optional, nice-to-have skill.)

On the Project Runway episode first aired on March 7, 2013, the contestants were paired off to design prom dresses using duct tape. (Turns out that duct tape comes in all sorts of colors and patterns other than plain silver.)

Here’s what I’ve learned lately, reinforced by this specific episode:

Everyone’s a winner. That’s my conclusion, not the show’s. The teams had only a few hours to design a dress using a “nonconventional material” they had never worked with before. They got the job done, the dresses fit the live models and the garments stayed together till the end of judging. That’s an amazing accomplishment considering the time limitations and the stress.

It’s all a game. The contestants are encouraged to take this all very seriously. They are interviewed throughout the competition for their thoughts and they always talk about how badly they want to win and how they are “stepping up their game.”

Yet most of these tests are so unusual—and so hurried—that they don’t represent real life. Training and experience can’t prepare you to design so quickly for such novel assignments.

It helps to be a little fatalistic. I’d like to see the contestants have a little more fun with such challenging and quirky surprises.

Take time to plan. Regardless of the time available, contestants would achieve better results if they took more time to plan and consult with their team before starting work. Of course, they are given only 30 minutes to sketch before going off to buy their fabric so they are constrained in doing this when it would be most helpful—at the beginning.

Still, as an episode progresses—and more importantly, in real life where there’s usually a little more time available, it’s better to slow down and think a little bit before forging ahead. Especially in team challenges, partners could share advice more constructively if they took a little time early on to discuss options.

Since most of the designers are experienced and highly skilled, they could implement much more rapidly if they had a firmer sense of where they were headed.

They say, “Measure twice and cut once.” This is true on the technical side, but it applies to the creative element as well. “Design twice and cut once.”

Finally, the judges don’t always know best. Heidi Klum, star of the show and leading judge, often shows up in fashions that are mediocre at best yet she lectures contestants on how they must be more “fashion forward.”

Also, the criteria constantly change. Sometimes the most important criterion is sexiness, other times it is commercial appeal and wearability for a large share of the female market. Sometimes judges ignore messy construction, other times designers are kicked off for a crooked hem or puckered zipper. One occasional judge is consumed with how the designs accommodate bra straps.

And because judges don’t always know best, I recommend maintaining a sense of perspective about winning and losing.

We often meet competitive situations in real life too. For instance, I lost a Toastmasters speech contest the other day. I believe the observations above apply here and to other day-to-day circumstances as well.

Originally posted 3-18-13

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