How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Job – And Leave It
I’ve noticed a rash of design professionals leaving their jobs lately to pursue creative freedom. Designer Frank Chimero, Helen Walters of BusinessWeek, Andrio Abero of Wieden+Kenndey, and Alex Bogusky of MDC Partners have all written high-profile accounts or made announcements about going on hiatus or quitting. There are countless others leaving both high-ranking positions as well as quieter corners. Is this an industry that is constantly in flux, or is there something to be said about all the ship-jumping? While each “adventurer” (a less patronizing title than “dreamer”) will have their own personal reasons, I can offer some insight into my own recent experience of striking out on my own.
How it started: The two year itch
Over the past year or two I’ve been busy. I’ve been reading up on creativity, motivation, process, design and art, and I’ve been weighing the lofty ideas of commercialism and environmentalism against each other. I’ve been trying to perfect my strategic thinking, time-management, and people skills, reading everything about the business to glean some insight from so many people on the web who are so much smarter and more experienced than I am, all in an attempt to better understand what it is I do. While I believe it is crucial for people to be knowledgeable of current affairs in their industries, I think my thirst for such knowledge had a more prescient motivation for doing this: At the root of it, I wanted to know why I was unhappy with my job.
It’s a difficult question without one single answer and I spent a long time blaming it on the inexperience of youth. I love the interactive design industry, in particular the openness and generosity of our community, the pursuit of perfection, and ongoing experimentation. I love the blank page, as ominous and threatening as it can be, and I love the physical act of actually designing something. I have not so much, however, enjoyed the hierarchy, snobbery, and limitations of the industry in practice. Much of my dissatisfaction I put down to the fact that I hadn’t worked for even five years, much less ten, and I came to believe my idealism was actually an ailment particular to Generation Y, the generation that believes in having it all, one that is both impulsive and disloyal. I could hear my long-gone grandfather’s voice ringing in my ears: You don’t know what hard work is.
Asking a question and then answering it doesn’t make you crazy
I spent too long doubting my instincts instead of returning to some rather basic questions, but once I threw my hands in the air and allowed myself to ask them, this is the approximate succession in which these questions came:
Q: Do I even like design? If so, is web design the problem?
Q: If I want to be doing art instead of design, what exactly is the difference between the two?
Q: How would I feel about my career if I died tomorrow?
Q: What do I truly consider success?
Q: If I crave change, what’s stopping me?
Despite the obvious challenge of their open-endedness, I did come up with some answers.
A: Yes; No.
A: Both are forms of communication, but in art, you decide what you want to say, instead of someone else.
A: Pretty crappy.
A: Being brave enough to follow your dreams.
Do talents need to be exclusive?
There is one thing that I have always known about myself. It is as irrevocable as the sun rises and sets: I am a maker. This permeates everything I do, from the friendships I nurture to the meals that I cook, to the home that I live in and the work that I do. I have an insatiable desire to express myself. I’m not sure why. Call it ego or a psychosis, I have accepted it. But working a 9 to 5 job, trying to please someone else all the time, feeling chained to my desk, was making me so unhappy. At least once a week I would have a breakdown and wonder why I was putting myself through this.
I believe the reason is because I needed to learn a few things, and I have learned much from four years as a web designer. I have learned to compromise for the sake of accomplishment, to be appreciative of other people’s talents, to be humble about my own, to ask for help when I need it but not out of laziness. I’ve learned how to show up on time, to speak in front of others including strangers, to take risks despite people telling me not to, to finish projects. I’ve learned how to be reliable and disciplined. I’ve learned the value of being involved in a solid industry.
But did I love my job? When I take a step back, I believe the truth to be that when fresh out of school and even during it, I misunderstood what design was. I always knew it to be ephemeral, which was part of the reason I went into web (at least in digital, which is inherently transitory, we weren’t lying to ourselves about our own importance). I loved the practicality of web design, that people would actually be using my creations, and that in some way my work would improve people’s lives. I still think design is important, more important than a lot of people give it credit for, but what I failed to see was that my other instincts are also important. Design was never the only thing.
Figuring out what’s important
It is important to love what you do, for it to make you feel passionate and inspired, because that passion is contagious. It is important to inspire others. It is important to treat others with respect and tolerance (I’m specifically talking about clients and colleagues, here, but can be applied to how you treat anyone). My natural proclivities toward art and writing were also important; it is important to have books and poems and stories. It is important to have paintings and art. It is important to create things that other people can connect with and it is important to connect to other people.
These arguments for abandoning design in lieu of “pure” art are flimsy and ill-constructed when put against the cold hard reality of “How will I pay my bills?” and “How will I feed the kids?” I count my blessings now that I went to school on scholarship and don’t have huge education loans to pay off and that I don’t yet have kids to be fed, and more so that I have a partner who is supportive of my dreams and willing to work that 9 to 5 while I become my own boss. But I still think it is doable, even with bills and kids, and that courage – like long-distance running – is learned and practiced. How much do you want it? How would you feel about your career if you died tomorrow? Does that even matter to you?
While other people would have answered these questions differently, I know that I would regret it if I did not offer myself the opportunity to achieve what I see as success. I didn’t feel as if anyone else was offering me that same opportunity. And “fear” was not a good enough reason to keep putting off what I saw as inevitable.
Your dreams vs. someone else’s
I’ve worked with many quite talented, humbling intelligent people and don’t regret my route to this crossroads at all. I have, however, come to see my previous jobs as someone else’s dreams. When I was working for other people I worried about efficiency, whether the client was happy (even if they were extraordinarily rude to me), and whether or not I put in my full eight hours of work, whether or not I had worked hard enough to earn my paycheck. I was needlessly worrying about someone else’s dream. I was being unfair to myself. My wants are to write books and create amazing art and design that can make people laugh and cry and to be proud of how far I have come and what I have learned as a maker. I want to be the best writer, best artist, and best designer that I can possibly be. I simply couldn’t do that on someone else’s watch.
I have no idea what the future holds. The prospect of selling my art or publishing a book is hopelessly intimidating. How do I even do that? But I believe with time that I can resolve these questions, even if it is embarrassing or disappointing. Even if I embarrass others. Even if I change directions and start my own design company, or become a teacher, or move to the boonies to become a potato farmer, I’ve realized and finally accepted that there is nothing shameful in following your dreams. I really think that it would be even more embarrassing not to try at all. I resolve to be good, kind, appreciative, and humble and hopefully that is enough. I do hope that money will follow, so that I can support my partner in his dreams and because I am not totally impractical, but I do not need to become the Princess of Zaire nor do I need a money vault the size of Scrooge McDuck’s. Even if I have to work the rest of my life at least I will be doing a job that I love.
Where do you sign up?
This jumping ship is not for everyone. Many people I’ve talked to who did this in their twenties and are still struggling in their forties and fifties have done their best to dissuade me. But I never said I was good at following in the footsteps of others, especially when it just doesn’t feel right for me. I still have questions and doubts, particularly about timing and whether or not I’ve paid my dues, but despite it all this seems like a step in the right direction. If you are reading this and it feels like something you too need to do for yourself and you plan to make a stand against your work woes, please at the very least do these things:
- First, put away the finger. Don’t blame anyone. Accept that this is the way it is and that change is inevitable whether you make it happen or not.
- Don’t do anything stupid. Trust your gut, but also be responsible. Make a budget. Don’t burn bridges. Be nice to your employers – it’s certainly not their fault you don’t enjoy your job. That responsibility my friend is your own, no matter how horrible they might have been.
- Seek advice. Don’t try doing it on your own. Being a loner is not sustainable or healthy, and it’s much more rewarding to take people along your journey with you.
Remember that this path is not for everyone and I’ve only just embarked so I cannot testify for or against it (but it sure does feel good to get the high fives). Good luck with whatever you may decide personally and know that I believe everyone deserves to be happy at work. If you have a story about leaving I’d love to hear about it and know how things work out for you. Feel free to share your experience.