Prioritize Your Curiosity
I have tried to always give myself permission to dive into ideas, projects, skills, and stories that really fascinate me. While that sounds like an obviously good thing to do, often times it runs against the grain of what you feel like you should be doing. What you should be doing, with respect to your “career” (whatever that is, more on that later) or your bank account, isn’t always the same as what is just simply interesting at that moment. But in retrospect I’m glad that I usually prioritized latter; I pursued skills and passion projects that didn’t necessarily show signs of an immediate return on investment or even success at all.
To do this, I took a job as a bellman in a hotel because I knew that the only way I could preserve mental bandwidth to pursue my creative curiosity was if I had a means of making a living that let me truly “clock out.” The projects that I put my time towards outside of work helped me develop the skills that eventually resulted in something that looks a bit more like a real career.
Building Passion Projects
Most of the skills that now serve me in my job (and got me the job in the first place) I learned out of necessity in order to make my side projects a reality. I wrote screenplays and produced short films; I started a free outdoor movie event with my brother, for which I had to learn graphic design to make the project look legit; I wanted to write a travel blog, so I learned how to set up a website and use WordPress and tweak it with basic HTML and CSS (and then learned photography to help populate it). I’m not unique in this. I think there is a whole generation of kids who grew up banging around on all of these technologies and built a multi-faceted digital tool belt that, if packaged right, makes us really valuable on teams that need generalists.
Doing creative projects because you enjoy them is also a better recipe for endurance — you’ll just have to trust that they’ll pay off in some way.
The key here, though, is that I didn’t pick and chose these projects because I knew they would lead to some later career path, I chose them because they were cool or interesting or fun. Career goals can be fast-moving targets, so diving into a project only if you think it’s going to pay career dividends will prevent you from exploring most creative projects.
On Being a Generalist
I have always struggled (and still do) with a lingering insecurity that I’m not really that good at anything. I’m a writer and a graphic designer and I dabble in a few other things, but the internet constantly reminds me that I am not nearly as good at any of these things as so many people out there.
I have learned, though, that being a generalist is extremely valuable for start-up style projects and companies, as well as small teams that can’t afford to specialize in everything.
To get this project off the ground, we need a website design and photos and decently written copy and a pitch deck and social media stuff but we don’t have have the time or money to really invest in all that? Well, at least I — just I — can get us 90% of the way there. Those skills have helped me launch several creative projects that I’m proud of, and ultimately those skills were what my team at my full-time job at JPL needed, and so I was very lucky to find a good fit. I think generalists are always going to be plagued by that insecurity and uncertainty about whether they will be able to succeed, but I can say now that, although at times it seemed foolish, I’m glad I’ve stuck with that formula for myself.
The Unorthodox Career Path
Pretty much… just don’t listen to anyone. Guidance counselors, professors, parents, peers, bosses, spiritual adepts. They’ve mostly bought into a neo-Victorian, capitalist scheme that is shackling your creativity and sanity. Alright, I’ll step back from diving off a weird pseudo-philosophical cliff here and just refer you back to the “Prioritize Your Curiosity” bit above. But seriously, I was carrying people’s luggage at a hotel when I was 26, while my friends from Business school at USC had real jobs. I’m not immune to social and financial pressure, so at times (every day) I questioned my career choices. Every time someone asks you “what do you do?”* you’re reminded that you either do something that is deemed respectable or impressive to most of your socioeconomic peers, or you’re reminded that you carry people’s bags. But I’m so glad I allowed myself to eschew the pressure to pursue a conventional career path.
*I hate that question, let’s be interested in each other as people, not as work drones.
I have made most of my professional living through graphic design. The only graphic design classes I have ever taken are on Lynda.com. I went to the University of Southern California and paid out the ass for a college education that I think has contributed far less towards my income and success than the handful of classes that I took on Lynda. Obviously, it’s impossible to tease out the effect that the degree on my resume has had on my success (although I haven’t used a resume very many times, to be honest), but as far as concrete skills, Lynda has added much more to my skill set than any other learning resource. And I’m not a Lynda peddler, there are tons of great learning resources out there, but I just happened to mostly use Lynda. The point, though, is that if there is a skill you want to learn, go ahead and do it, because the year you spend learning that skill is a blip on the timeline when you think about your career in 5–10 year chunks.
I also learned so much through experience. Like I mentioned above, passion projects through me into the fire and forced me to onboard skills that would otherwise prevent a project from seeing the light of day. I learned from friends and colleagues who are filmmakers, designers, writers, photographers, developers, and then I would retreat to my room and follow up with a Lynda course or some online research.
I can’t stress enough how integral learning new skills has been in keeping my fledgling career afloat.
My success thus far has been moderate, but I’ve been able to piece together a living using skills that I find enjoyable — many of which I did not have a few years ago. Read books, watch videos, and die a slow death on forums. You will be reborn a beautiful creative butterfly.
Making and Nurturing Connections
This is important to acknowledge after the “always learning” part because it would be very misleading to pretend that my skills and opportunities have come all — or even mostly — on account of independent learning. The people who have generously lent their time and minds to helping me improve my creative skills have been a huge part of my development.
There is a lot of luck involved in this one. Nothing annoys me more than people who don’t proactively acknowledge the profound fortune that they have inherited through their proximity to friends, family, colleagues, etc. “Who you know” is not just important because they help you get jobs (they do) — they also help to shape your understanding of what is possible, lead you to resources, make social connections, and literally shape your biology and psychology. You didn’t choose your parents or your elementary school or where you were born or your capacity to learn… or most of anything else. So take a minute and be grateful for the opportunities you have been given, and don’t beat yourself over the opportunities that other people have been given that you haven’t.
BUT! I do think that you can actively increase your luck on this frontier. Nurture relationships with friends and colleagues. Show them that you are eager to learn from them. Go to coffee ☕ with them, ask their advice, help them out if you can. The folks who have mentored me didn’t discover some innate worth in me that they sought to cultivate. I badgered them for help and they have since been invaluable resources to me, to whom I owe most of my wins.
Get Out There and Explore
This one is more of a personal hobby horse, but I think travel is a vital ingredient for a creative life. If you have the means to travel, I think it’s worthwhile to get out of your city or country and see how other people and places operate. I’ve found that humans are more similar than different, but nonetheless, it’s fun and interesting to visit other parts of the world. There has never been an easier or more inexpensive time to travel than now. What’s more, you might even be able to continue working while you do it. I’ve done some of that, and have friends who do it full time.
Go travel for three months or 10 months. Keep it cheap, extend your travel, work remotely, settle down in cool places for a month or so, get to know people and places, study languages, eat weird food. That’s the way I like to do it.