Lessons Learned From Reality TV: Project Runway Edition
I watch a lot of reality TV competition shows. Not stuff like Big Brother or The Bachelor, which purport to be “social experiments” but are just about watching people be terrible to each other. I mean things like Forged in Fire, Blown Away, Great British Bake Off, Top Chef — where people with a specific skill are put through a series of challenges until one walks away with a fat wad of cash. I enjoy these shows because I love the appreciation they give me for things I might otherwise never have given much thought. Glass-blowing competition Blown Away, for example, taught me just how much skill and artistry goes into these kinds of glass tumblers. Oh, so that’s why they cost that much. Yeah, that’s fair.
An unexpected by-product of watching these kinds of shows is that a surprising number of them have judges or coaches that impart some kind of wisdom that can be put to use in everyday life. My husband and I often joke about Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio advising a contestant to prepare a dish that’s “simple ingredients, made well” rather than trying to craft some kind of over-the-top concoction that fails because it’s at odds with itself. But there’s a great truth contained within that critique: adding something just to add something is stupid. Be thoughtful with your choices. Simple is not inherently bad, complex is not inherently good. What matters, always, is the result.
The average viewer probably isn’t looking for life lessons in between contestant eliminations, and I don’t think I seek them out, necessarily, but go through enough cycles with a mentor or judge and you begin to see the patterns. The advice not taken, the bad responses to stress, the bold choices made — for good or for bad. And though the contestants on any of these shows are more like characters to the viewers, I imagine it’s impossible for the folks involved in the show not to feel somewhat protective and nurturing of them as they go through the process. Over time, that inevitably leads to them trying to help them as much as the rules will allow.
Which brings me to perhaps the most supportive cast member of any competitive reality show ever: Project Runway’s Tim Gunn. As former faculty from Parsons School of Design, he had the necessary credentials to be the “mentor” for a show in which fashion designers compete for enough money and equipment to start their own line of clothing. But what made him such an icon is the deep empathy he showcases as he deals with the contestants. He’s not a judge; instead, his role is to check in with them mid-challenge to give them feedback on their concept and progress.
It’s a difficult position to be in. Each challenge is resource-constrained: designers have very little time to complete their given task, a set amount of money to spend on fabric, etc., and a sole trip to the shop to get what they need. After a certain point of the process, if what they have isn’t coming together, there’s not much they can do about it. What they have is what they have. Thus was borne Tim’s trademark encouragement: “Make it work.”
Those three words, much like “simple ingredients, made well” are profound despite first being delivered off the cutt. They’re the kind of gentle shove that everyone needs from time to time. It’s easy to wallow in the not: this isn’t going the way I thought it was going to, I’ve already wasted so much time, I made bad choices and feel stupid. All of which may be true, of course, but it’s also beside the point. Tim is not here to dismiss your feelings, but he’s also not here to indulge them. Every time Tim says “Make it work,” he’s not just telling a designer to stop whining, he’s telling them he believes in them. The solution, whatever it is, may not be obvious in this moment, but it exists, and you’re going to find it. So take a breath, have a smoke, do whatever it is you need to do to get your head back on straight and make it work. And then he’s gone, on to the next person who needs his ministrations. Tim’s “Make it work” is a loving push in the direction of self-reliance, a parental exhortation to get the fuck over yourself, already, and do what you’re capable of doing.
Tim Gunn genuinely wants every single designer on Project Runway or, now, Making the Cut, to succeed, which is not to say he wants them all to win. He wants them to be the best possible version of themselves, producing work they’re proud of and going to sleep each night feeling good about the choices they made. He’s going to do whatever he can within his limited power to help guide them down that path not because it’s good TV, but because that’s who he is.
Maybe today is the day you need help to make it work, or maybe it’s the day you have to help someone else. It’s definitely one or the other, so get going.