How to Fall Down and Get Back Up
Published: August 30th, 2017
This quote reminds me of advice I received from my high school electronics teacher, “It’s not failing if you’ve learned something from it”. I’ve tried to keep these words in mind and learn from anything I do. Constantly learning and always making changes based on what I learn.
To this day when I look back on where I started I’m always surprised with how far I’ve come. Graduating from college I never dreamed I’d be a designer/developer. It wasn’t on my list of potential job decisions, it wasn’t even a thought I had. I continually progressed to this level. This progress didn’t come easily and without a heavy price.
Not exactly smooth sailing: search for the first job.
I graduated with a BFA in Graphic Design & Computer Animation. Dual majoring left me undecided of my future but knowing I had options. Ready for internship hunting, having my showcase reel and my physical portfolio. The expectation was getting a good internship, getting yourself in the door and then moving up. Started my search excited to get out in the working world and be a fresh-faced intern at a company in the city and start my career.
The old saying “It’s not what you know, but who you know” was painfully true.
The unforseen problem was actually getting an offer. I wasn’t, and to an extent still am not, the most socially outgoing person who is able to freely make connections. When it comes to talking about myself, I’m respectfully meek instead of confident, I know my skills but couldn’t explain them well. For my search I was struggling to connect with people and getting a foot in the door anywhere was pretty nonexistent. I knew that I had talent but I just needed someone to trust me and see it.
I had enough talent to get interviews, which I was happy about. Yet, never getting past that first stage was really heart-breaking. Coming out of school everyone thinks you’ll get that first job and you’ll be set. So spending months looking I felt very disillusioned. I always came up lacking somewhere or just didn’t fit what the company wanted. I was constantly questioning my skills, my worth, and my decision to do this at all. I gave serious consideration to switching professions and being an architect. I even applied for a Masters at the University Pennsylvania and was accepted. In the end I persevered and shifted my vision.
Internship adventures: getting experience.
I may not have gotten an internship at an agency or studio but I did end up getting internships. These were awild adventure of their own, some were suspicious, there was no teaching; they were using us like paid employees; and using illegal software. Others were worthwhile, I was primarily on my own but I still learned and did things I had never done before. I was making pamphlets, stationary, and marketing materials. I quickly could tell the difference between a bad business, just using free or really cheap labor, and a good operation, where you were going to learn something.
These internships were all learning experiences, some good and some bad, but some part of me couldn’t stop thinking about the fundamental mentor like relationships I was missing out on. Having been taught design agency practices, you’d have more of a constant guiding force on you and your work. Someone to really guide you, answer your questions, and help you down the road. I was lacking that and couldn’t help feeling out of place and unsure of myself.
I saw an opportunity to intern for a web developer and I’d taken one course in college and was interested to learn more. Hearing that digital was going to be the future I didn’t want to get left behind. I jumped at the chance and worked for a great man who was helpful in teaching me and guiding me. He taught me fundamentals for the construction of sites, having had many years of experience at this point. I created a few pro-bono websites for him and got the taste for digital work.
Going freelance: making my own work.
After the web development internship I started freelancing so I could still create work. I was still unsuccessful in finding full time employment at an agency or studio. I worked with people near me, on the other side of the country in California, across the ocean in France, and below in South America. Worked on many different types of projects: web development and design; stationary; branding; publications, and emails. I was very inexperienced, and honestly bad, at running my own business. I had issues common to most freelancers, not getting paid and a few bad clients. I was poor with my prices, poor with time management, poor with picking and dumping clients, and generally bad at estimation of time. Looking back on it now, I’m amazed I did so well for myself back then. On a positive note I had one steady client who was not only a great longtime client but became a good friend.
These were all fun experiences but not exactly the work and/or environment I had envisioned for myself.
I was working alone with no team experience, no real workflow, and just generally winging it. I’d felt bereft of guidance since I left school and freelancing amplified that feeling. I was working with no community, no one to bounce around ideas, no way to have a design level discussion, and no deep critiques of my work.
The beginning of the temp life: staying busy.
While looking for clients I stumbled across a great staffing agency in the BOSS Group. Having had encounters with other agencies where I trek all the way to their offices and do all these skills tests then wait to hear back from them and never get a job. The BOSS Group came through and were able to place me. The locations were very enjoyable and I learned a lot from them. I met a senior designer who taught me to never write in content always copy and paste it in so no one could blame you for their grammar errors. In another I had an art director who showed me his world of different projects and how they were all connected. I had a creative director who explained to me how his workflow worked, why it worked and taught me more about good design skills.
These assignments are where I got my start in email development. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do and had taken an assignment for email design and development. I was asked on Friday if I knew email because a client needed someone on Monday. I said I did and spent my entire weekend learning everything I could find. It was successful because I got tagged for more email work. After a few weeks I really had emails down and I loved doing them. This skill put me ahead in some applications because people seem to hate emails with a blinding passion.
Full-time Aspirations: wanting something steady.
As much as I enjoyed temp work I was always on the lookout for something more permanent. The entire time I was temping, I was looking for that elusive full-time job. I was keeping an eye out for an full-time job that matched any of my skills, which at the time were visual design and emails. In my temping I had worked at some big places and was hoping the work I’d done there would maybe give people pause to hire me. No such luck it seemed. I was still having about the same problem of callbacks, a few interviews, and no job. I was applying on any system capable with putting me in contact with a company. I was using many staffing agencies, all the design job boards, even Craigslist.
I had replied to a Craigslist ad looking for an email designer/developer. When I went in for the meeting, I met their only designer and was interrogated by the lead developer. He wanted to know my development skills, which were good but not great. I could do HTML and CSS and code emails, better than the basics but not by much. Then I waited. I waited so long I honestly forgot that I had applied. It was a few months later, I was just about to end placement and I got an email saying they would like to work with me in an in-office freelance capacity. I was a bit unhappy with the freelancing part but it was better than nothing and could lead to full-time employment.
In-house freelancing: steady and looking to grow.
I’m ecstatic to have a non-placement 9–5. During my temping I was working a part time job as well so it feels great to feel like a normal working adult. Not someone whose employed by Gamestop on the weekends and at any other available time.
I was relieved to leave my weekend work behind, working one job a full week and working part time nights and weekends is exhausting.
I’d never worked with editors before so getting feedback from them was a new experience and I was absorbing all the feedback like a sponge. I had a sheet of how each editor liked their content, some were super picky and others a little more lax. For myself, I was very precise about getting my content done properly and quickly. I strived for no errors on the first try on my end and usually met that.
Stagnation Hits. Trying to Stay Creative and Motivated.
After a few months the hiring freeze was ended and I became a full-time employee. Then a few months morphed into a few years but my job never evolved from its previous capacity. I was moved to a different “division” where I did the same things. In my free time at work, either having a feast or famine email demands or having completed my work with nothing else to do. I had a few projects, I constantly wondered about improving my workflow and making things easier for me, my coworkers, and my company.
Trying to stay motivated I went to conferences, a first in my life. I had gotten an email from Behance for 99U and I decided that with my free-time and desire to do something else that maybe it was time to get a spark back in my creativity. I applied to go from working on a current redesign for our site and wanting some inspiration. I was using all the principles I’d learned of so far and wanted it to go more than skin deep. Going to my first 99U was an eye-opening experience. I felt so energized and excited to get back to work. I had some new techniques and ideas to make workflow better, have more communication, and potentially open the door to better quality. I also learned another important lesson, your not in control of your work environment.
When I tried to put some of these learned practices into play within my organization the only person who seemed to want to work with me, was me. I wanted to create an environment were I was included earlier and was more involved, instead of being brought in at the end. Everybody was so used to not including me in any meetings or project launches, that it never changed. I’d only hear about the projects with a week left to launch. Maybe 99U was only highlighting a few companies that placed a high priority on design/development. Either way, I was sinking back into questioning what I was doing with my career. I’m a problem solver and I was making things that had such potential to be better. Yet my influence in advancing these projects was nonexistent.
Burnout: it’s a bitch
After realizing how pointless my position was within my company and how trying to change it made no difference I threw myself in trying to make things and looking for a new job. I was putting so much time and pressure on myself that I was spending every night and all weekend working on a single dribbbleshot or reworking my portfolio. The harder I worked the less inspired I felt and the worse I felt my work was. I was delaying applying because my site wasn’t perfect and my work didn’t showcase my abilities to their fullest. It was endless excuse after endless excuse. I got to the point where I wasn’t doing anything at all. This is when I realized burnout had been achieved.
To overcome burnout you need to have a change in your thinking and approach to your work and yourself. I adopted the ideal of “it’s not perfect but it’s done enough”. I chose to give up the life of a tinkering perfectionist who didn’t do anything and start doing something. I went out and learned new skills (Wordpress from GDI), went to functions and communicated with people, joined communities and conversed with these people (The Designership), and
Still learning and improving: learning never hurts
Still stuck in a world of stagnation, I looked into automation. Some of the conferences I’d attended were talking about task runners and using modular code. I initially was worried about breaking my computer, I wasn’t strong with the command line. Once I got comfortable with the command line, NPM, and Node.js I just jumped in and started testing Gulp. It’s been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I used it to create a workflow system used in the creation of a suite of emails for one of our events. It sped up the time it took to create the emails, cut down on errors (from manual changes), and made making changes more consistent and less stressful. It was a godsend, instead of fighting to remember changes I’d previously made I could make 5 emails at one time.
This work with Node.js, Express, and Gulp lead to learning about React, Electron App, and more programming like it. There are new programs created everyday, it seems, so I try and learn the underlying theory behind them instead of knowing each language expertly.
Some helpful lessons that I learned from frequent failure.
If your starting out and don’t hit your stride straight out the gate: Don’t despair and just keep working towards your goal. Some people aren’t meant to be successes from the beginning, this doesn’t mean your a failure though. Maybe your job climate is tough or maybe there are a lot of good applicants or nepotism is running rampant and there was nothing to be done. You don’t know the reasons so don’t start making them up.
Find a mentor or supportive community as fast as possible: Finding a good mentor is worth more than you can ever imagine. They don’t sugar coat anything and will give you the tough love you need. They’ll set you on the right path and it’s just really indispensable.
Freelancing is fun but more work than most think: Be prepared to be a one-man (one-woman) show and it’s tough. If you think it’s all just designing and dealing with clients then your in for a shock. With time tracking, managing your pay per projects, managing clients and not including the general business work, it’s overwhelming.
A good staffing agency can be a great experience: Being able to work in so many different places and working with other people. It’s fun if your more of a nomadic person and want to constantly go somewhere else new. I worked places I’d never dreamed of and even though it was sometimes a day other times a few months it was exciting.
Even a stagnate job can be used to your advantage: Learn something, see if work will send you to a conference or to learn a new skill. Use some of your work for inspirations on making improvements in the workflow. Test new programs, techniques or ideas out on your less interesting projects. Did you always want to make email creation easier then make a program to assist you, learn how to use regex and make small edits easier, use modular methods to make email or website construction easier and more reusable.
Don’t stop learning even if you’ve no one to help you: It sucks to try and learn something when you have no idea how it works. Everyone needs to start somewhere and you can start on your own. Send a message to a professional you follow and see if they can give you some tips. It’s a strategy that seems to work more than people think it will.
All in all the point of this very long article is even when things aren’t going your way and it’s easy to just stop doing anything it’s better to do something. Imagine where you want to see yourself and have faith that you’ll come out on the other side. Not to offend the non-religious, the saying goes “God won’t give you any more than you can handle”, but sometimes it feels like maybe you’ve been given just more than you can manage. In these times you need to fallback on your online community, your real world community, your friends or your family and trust that your desire will pull you through.
If you made it to the end of this, Hooray! I’m doubtful many will. It’s a beast :)