Rethinking your career goals

January 09, 2007  in  Art as a profession       Related posts:  

I love it when someone manages to put into words an idea that’s been banging around your skull for a long time. In his blog, Shane Nickerson (via Wil Wheaton) writes about how his career goals, which he has held dear for a long time, have changed:

I have not compromised my dreams; I have discovered new ones….. I once yearned for the spotlight and the mythical fame (and scrutiny), but as I get older (and perhaps wiser), I long only for happiness and satisfaction, and a creative outlet that provides both of those things. [link]

This is how I feel about how my career has changed over time. For years I had worked my ass off to become a graphic designer. I remember being a couple years out of college, doing graphics at a local mom-n-pop print shop, and dreaming of one day being able to call myself, without reservation, a “Designer”. I hadn’t gone to design school, so I always had a little chip on my shoulder about whether I was a real designer or not. This made me work hard to earn that title, taking whatever job I could find that would teach me something new. Finally, I made it. I was a designer. I became the creative director for Yahoo!, one of the highest ranking design positions you can have. And that’s when, to my surprise, I started to burn out. Four years at Yahoo!, and my dream job was becoming less about using my creative skills and more about politics. I spent most of my time defending my team’s right to exist, defending projects we were working on, and appeasing personalities. It wasn’t what I dreamed of. So after working so hard to get there, I walked out.

It was strange to turn my back on a goal that I worked towards for so long. And for a while, I felt rather confused by it. But eventually I realized what Shane is talking about: I was longing for more than the badge of honor of being called a designer. I was longing for “happiness and satisfaction, and a creative outlet that provides both of those things.” The goals I had during my 20s were more about how others perceived me. And as I made my way through my 30s, I realized that it was more important to have goals that related to who I actually was. Satisfaction from your career doesn’t come through fame, acceptance, or a title, but from being able to do work that expresses your skills, that lets you be who you are. Having “acceptance and recognition by others” as a major career goal is just stupid, tiring and eventually unsatisfying. It makes the outside world the definer of your success instead of yourself, and that is just a dumb way to live.

This realization led me to discover a new creative outlet in photography, an art I hadn’t done since high school. I then began to look for an outlet for the skills and interests that my design career never allowed me. This led me to start my own business, a job that lets me blend my interests in design, marketing, and coding together in a way that both satisfies me more than design ever did, and helps me earn money for my family. My goals had changed. They became deeper, richer, and more personal. You could even say they “matured”. Whatever — I was just having fun doing work that was about who I was, instead of about who I thought should be.

Still, those old goals can be hard to shake. Every so often I still find myself desiring that same kind of acceptance I sought as a designer. I’ll read a profile on a young up-and-coming artist getting his big break, and glumly complain “that should be me.” But that’s when I need to slap myself and shout “that’s not your goal anymore, you idiot!”. That’s when I need to look around at that new dreams I am starting to build, smile, and get back to work.