This monologue is the introduction to my talk on design at LevelUpCon.
It was the summer of 2004 and I was at a crossroads between accepting my dream internship as a graphic designer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City or accepting a full time job as a graphic designer in Washington, D.C. at…. FOX Architects. I remember this moment like it was yesterday and I was terrified that I was going to make the wrong choice.
I had just packed up everything I owned, living through four of the best years of my life at RIT, and I was sitting at my parents’ kitchen table in Coopersburg, Pennsylvania. Putting it mildly, I was at an all time low (at the age of 21 with two job opportunities in front of me). I put my head down on the cold tile tabletop and closed my eyes. I began to imagine what my life might look like if I followed my then “dream” and many questions ensued: What are the chances the MET would hire me full-time after my internship was done? How would I like living with my parents and riding a bus one-and-a-half hours into and out of the city each day? Why is college over? How did four years go by so fast? Why me?
I wasn’t getting any closer to a decision.
All my life I knew I was going to be an artist. I studied artists. I painted like artists. I drew like artists. I read books about artists. I hung out with artists. I lived at art museums. I worked at an art museum. I even created a binder that had a page for each art museum in the United States and the MET was page number one. I had done everything I needed to do to be considered by the “mecca” of all art museums, and they accepted me.
My decision seems to have had an obvious choice, but it wasn’t obvious to me at the time. From a very young age, my parents taught me, my brother and my sister that we need to consider what was “reasonable” in order to ensure a financially secure future. So I wondered, was a low paying internship at my dream job, reasonable? A full-time job at a no-name architecture firm, on the other hand, was reasonable… right?
So I packed up my blue 1996 Honda Civic with manual transmission and moved to Northern Virginia on June 17, 2004. No other date is burned into my mind like that one.
I look back ten years later and try to soothe my inner artist. She thinks I made the biggest mistake of my life – it was the wrong choice. A complete failure. But the truth is: I am not unhappy with anything that has transpired over the last decade. In fact, I consider myself incredibly lucky that I now own my own business where I enjoy working with hand-selected clients all while making a very comfortable living. Deep down in the pit of my stomach I know I settled, but does that mean I made the wrong decision?
We put so much pressure on making the wrong choice that sometimes we forget to consider what it is that we really want. It’s nothing short of fear, worry and doubt. We worry we won’t be good enough, we fear for our financial security and we doubt the choices we’ve made. It’s possible to stand in this paralyzing mental framework of wrong and compare our decisions to what could have been instead of having the strength to imagine what will be, no matter how we choose.
My dear friend Debbie Millman recently produced a visual essay, Fail Safe, in which she tells a similar story about having the courage to fail. Her conclusion really resonated with me:
In the grand scheme of life, maybe (just maybe) it is not about knowing or not knowing, choosing or not choosing. Perhaps what is truly known can’t be described or articulated by creativity or logic, science or art—but perhaps by the most authentic and meaningful combination of the two: poetry. As Robert Frost once wrote, “A poem beings as a lump in the throat, sense of wrong, a homesickness, a love sickness. It’s never a thought to begin with.”
It’s really really scary to follow your dreams, no matter if you do or if you don’t. You will fail at something at some point along your journey. When you do:
Pick yourself up.
Dust yourself off.
Check your blind spot, and then have the courage to get back in the damn game. We’re waiting for you.