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Career and life advice for new designers and the rest of us.
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On My Mind

 

Issue 14


Later this morning, I'm going to deliver the commencement address to new graduates of The Art Institute of Atlanta, and I'm scared shitless. Public speaking is always a little scary, but the weight of this task is particularly heavy. I'll be giving new designers advice on how to shape their career and navigate life. No pressure!

In this issue of On My Mind, I'm sharing with you the speech I'll deliver later today. Odds are you're not a new grad starting your career, but as I labored over this speech I discovered that the advice I wanted to share about embracing change, trying difficult things, and claiming creative freedom, could be applied to any point in an adult's life. I hope you find it useful.

If this resonates with you, I'd love to hear from you

Commencement Address
The Art Institute of Atlanta

June 14, 2013
 
I know how it feels to be sitting in your seat right now. You’re thinking, “I’m going home tonight and there will be no homework, only beers.” I can tell you, homework-free living is a beautiful thing. Beers aren’t bad either.
 
I remember at my commencement ceremony I felt a weird mix of excitement for my future and a soul-crushing fear of the student loans that awaited me in my new, adult life. And since I studied painting, I had maybe a little *more* fear of my creditors than you all have. But somehow things worked out for me in ways that I couldn’t possibly have imagined.

Many years have gone by since my last graduation ceremony, and I’ve learned a few things I wish I would have known when I was a scared new grad. There are three things I want to leave you with today that have guided me in my career and my life that I hope will put you on the right path tomorrow.

 

1: Change is Okay

When I was six-years-old I made a drawing that changed my life. It was a drawing of Winnie the Pooh, a favorite of mine. I was at a friend’s house, and he was impressed that it *actually* looked like Winnie the Pooh. When you’re six, that’s a pretty major feat. My parents who were usually a bit reserved with their praise, told me how proud they were. That little bit of praise gave me the confidence and conviction to be an artist. 
 
From elementary school to high school I could always be found drawing or painting. In undergraduate and graduate school I did more than just study painting, I lived it. I worked in galleries, studied with great artists, and showed my work every chance I could. All I wanted to do in life was make paintings—until the day I didn’t.
 
A roommate of mine showed me HTML as the Web was just taking off. I wanted to learn how to make a website so I could show off my paintings to more people. At the same time I started to take classes on Photoshop so I could prototype painting ideas quickly. The images were more interesting to me than my paintings, so I took another class to learn how to animate my images and make them interactive. Before I knew it, I’d found a new love in the Web where I could reach millions of people, something I couldn’t do with painting. 
 
And so I changed. I got a job at a design agency in Philadelphia, I started to learn how to program and design. And I fell in love with the possibilities of the Web.

I remember feeling very self-conscious that my artist friends would call me a sell out. I was scared to let go of something that had been central to my identity since I was a kid. But despite my fear, I followed my passion and embraced the change that has lead to a career that I love.
 
There’s only one thing in life that doesn’t change: change itself. Our world is always changing around us and you have to change with it. 

You’ve just completed your degree and you’re about to start a career, but know that you can always change. You just got an education in creative thinking, and with it you can solve any problem, not just the ones in your field of study.  

Always ask yourself, “If I could dream my ideal life, what would it look like and how would I get there?” Sometimes you’ll find your answers to that question show you that what you’re doing now is no longer making you happy, and you can make plans for a change. And sometimes you’ll find you already have everything you need. 
 
Don’t fear change, embrace it.
 
 

2: Try, Don’t Wonder

A few years ago I had an idea for a book but I had no clue how to go about publishing it. I didn’t have connections in the publishing world and I didn’t even know how to get in touch with the right people.
 
Later that year I went to a big design conference in Austin, TX—SXSW. I went to learn, and meet new people in the tech industry, but the book idea lingered in my mind. With thousands of people attending, I thought it’d be pretty near impossible to find a publisher to pitch my idea. 

On the last day of the conference I strolled through the exhibition hall after hearing there was good schwag to be had. I came across the booth of a publisher I really respect. They’d published so many great books by my heros of the Web. If I were going to publish a book, these guys were my first pick.

Though it seemed like a long shot, I decided I’d walk in and pitch my idea. “Who do I talk to about a book idea?”, I asked the only guy not already locked in conversation. “That would be me”, he said. I shared my idea and I could see he was interested. It was only when he gave me his card that I realized I was talking to Michael Nolan, the acquisitions editor that signed some of the most influential books that changed the history of the Web.

That hot spring day in Austin, TX changed my life. I got a book deal because I decided to try. I could have walked by that booth and later wondered if my book was worth writing, but instead I stopped and struck up a conversation. It was quite literally a fork in the road of my life, and with a little courage I was able to take the more difficult, but rewarding path. 

From that book I got invitations to speak around the world, I was offered an amazing job to lead a team of designers who make software used by millions of people. It lead to more books, and amazing projects with the White House and so many brilliant startups.

There will be forks in your life’s road, but you’ll never have to worry about choosing the wrong one if you give the difficult, scary ones a shot. Try, don’t wonder. Odds are one of them will take you to amazing places. 
 
 

3: You Deserve a Chance

I’m not a big fan of the word “deserve”. It’s often misplaced in sentences like, “I deserve an ‘A’ in that class” or “I deserve that job”. Grades, jobs, and so much else in life are not an entitlement, they are earned through tenacity and hard work. These are things earned, not given, and they’re all the sweeter because of it.
 
But there’s one thing I believe all of us deserve—a chance. A good friend of mine, Tim Nackashi, taught me this lesson. Tim studied 3D modeling and animation in college. After graduating he started a small web design shop with high school friends that had some success. But Tim wasn’t entirely satisfied with what he was doing. What he really wanted to do was make films. 

He started to make small videos for local bands, usually for free. Then he partnered with a friend and made a feature length documentary that was produced by Edward Norton and was featured at the Sundance Film Festival. Today, he’s directing music videos for Gnarls Barkley, Maroon 5, and a ton of other big artists. 
 
I’ve always wondered how a guy that played around with web design and animation ended up in Hollywood doing big things. So I asked Tim what gave him the confidence to be a filmmaker when he had almost no qualifications. He told me, “I know I’m not the best, but I’m about as good as the next guy.” That’s always stuck with me. Instead of waiting for permission to chase his dream he just took it, because he deserves a chance as much as anyone else. With that chance, he’s earned his way to the career he’d dreamt of.

Tim taught me that creative freedom is something you take, you don’t wait for it to be given to you.

 

Conclusion

You’ve got a creative education, now it’s time to use it. You all deserve a chance to show the world what you’ve got, but you can’t sit back and wait for the opportunities to come. Put yourself in situations where opportunities can be taken.
 
When those opportunities do arise, don’t leave yourself wondering how things could have gone. It’s always better to try and fail than wonder. 
 
And when your passions shift to new things, know that you can always change. The knowledge you’ve just gained won’t be lost, it’ll just help you see your new career from a different perspective. All knowledge is connected.
 
Each of you has a lot to be proud of today, but now it’s time to build your future.

Tonight, celebrate. Tomorrow, get to work.
 
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