Payoffs and Paychecks: Where to Go from Here

“How much did they first pay you to give up on your dreams?”
—Up in the Air (2009)

For the past two weeks post-graduate school, I’ve been besieged by the question, “What will you do after school?”

This is a critical question, more so because it’s after a graduate program. After a bachelor’s degree, I felt like I should just try anything, to get my foot out into the real world. It was assumed that you will inevitably make a ton of mistakes, some of them colossal ones, but that these would help build your character in a way that being cooped up in a school would not. Many people I know did graduate school precisely because they were burned out by these post-undergraduate experiences and wanted to find their own voice, and thus stake, in the world.

It’s not that I don’t want to make mistakes after graduate school, but I don’t want to make the same kind of mistakes I did before it. These include doing work I didn’t believe in, working for people I didn’t respect, and taking jobs for the money, among other things.

The past weeks, I tried to look at positions at certain companies as most of my classmates have had. I’m so happy for those who already have jobs and are set to begin their post-grad careers in these organizations that I believe do a lot of good in the world. During our last semester, I’ve seen some arrive at the studio late in the day, sharply dressed and looking drained. They spent hours on their CVs and met, dined, and negotiated with people they may very well spend the next several years of their professional lives.

When it was my turn to do it—to begin the string of emails and line up interviews, I found that I couldn’t. Well, at least not right away. The past two weeks, I have been sleeping in recovering, visiting museums, going to double taekwondo classes, clearing my desk at SVA, saying goodbye, and turning the last few pages on this chapter of my life. You know, procrastinating.

But there were other things, too. I spent time reflecting on the things I loved about graduate school, and what made it a more enriching time than my undergraduate years, which also rocked but in a different way. Like a good interaction designer, I made lists, wrote on Post-Its, and tried to make sense of all the words. Like a good citizen of the Internet, I watched a lot of videos of inspiring commencement speeches, particularly by some of my living heroes, Adam Savage of the Mythbusters and Neil Gaiman.

In his keynote address in Sarah Lawrence College (full text here), Savage told the students to work really hard, to be kind to everyone (yes), to not work for fools (hell, yes), and to stay obsessed. My favorite part was when he stressed about how we are all works in progress:

“Think about yourself at 17, just five some-odd years ago. Think about what you thought college would be like, and what you expected yourself to be like. Now look at yourself. I’m going to hazard a guess and say that things totally didn’t turn out like you expected.

“This process will repeat itself ad nauseum throughout your entire life. Everything you think now will likely be different in five years, and the more frequently you realize this, the better it will be for you. We are never finished products, we are all works in progress.”

Gaiman’s speech at the University of the Arts highlighted the lack of rules in a world that is changing, and how we should see it as a good thing. (Full text here.)

“Which is, on the one hand, intimidating, and on the other, immensely liberating. The rules, the assumptions, the now-we’re supposed to’s of how you get your work seen, and what you do then, are breaking down. The gatekeepers are leaving their gates. You can be as creative as you need to be to get your work seen.”

It’s ironic that they never graduated from any higher institution, but instead chose to create their own paths. And I think that’s quite inspiring.

Goals vs Tools

The key thing I found in graduate school was “independence.” Unlike colleges, most of which primarily teach what to do, in graduate school, I discovered how to do them. In college, I found the value of goals, but in graduate school, I found the value of tools. Most of the things I learned as an undergraduate were cut and dried. Doing well in exams, graduating with honors, and other such traditional measures of excellence were extolled as the keys to success. On the other hand, I found so much freedom in graduate school—it allowed me two years of happy making that were unfettered by someone else’s rules. I turned all that into all of these projects that I believe I can still work on after the Keynote was presented and the Post-Its and chicken scratch were documented and thrown away.

In college, there was unwritten emphasis on pleasing other people—the professors who will write your recommendation letters and the awards that will fill up your resume. In graduate school, I felt that trying to please teachers took away from the time I could be making my own thing, though I admit that I was a bit naive in this because I had no idea who my teachers were, coming from fields that were so far removed from design and coming from outside the United States. Perhaps what I am most proud in my two years at SVA isn’t the fact that I graduated at all or that I was here on a scholarship (though I am very grateful for both) but that my work made some miniscule impact on people (whom I didn’t know and had no stake in my success or failure) outside of the industry and while I was still a student. For me, it meant that I had a shot, no matter how small, of standing on my own and carving out my own path instead of meeting someone else’s job description.

With Thanks to My Elders

I also spent some time thinking about my conversations with friends who are considerably older (and allegedly wiser). They are established and respected in their professions, some of them not very far away from design (or art, writing, science, etc) and whom I may eventually run into in some professional event (the horror). Through the years, I’ve always asked them questions, such as whether they are happy in their jobs or would they prefer to be doing anything else. The struggles some of them have mentioned include:

- lack of satisfaction (from one who has his own firm)
- at the end of the day, they didn’t care
- lack of motivation from people around them (or that they didn’t like them)
- they liked the payoff (i.e. a paycheck, a house of their own, a house in the country, etc.), but not the things leading to that

A Disclaimer

I’m also grateful to have the time and opportunity to even think about these things. I’ve always considered it miraculous that I returned to New York on a Fulbright. I suppose this is a factor in choosing what to do afterwards—I am aware of the responsibility, of the many people who (knowingly or not) invested their time and resources in making sure I had the best education possible, so that I can have a better chance of reaching my dreams. Being a scholar of any kind probably contains a similar stigma as being a student of a very reputable school, or being a member of an influential family. Your life path will be partly marred by the unspoken yet looming terror of screwing up and letting so many people, including yourself, down.

Two Lists

Here are two lists that I feel I would never have written at 21, and now, after all of these jobs, projects, side projects, and residencies, I wrote off as quick as I would a grocery list:

No More
- long arduous meetings where few things, if anything, get done
- using words like “leverage”
- sitting at a desk and pretending to “work” while watching the clock
- thinking about when you will quit
- working on someone else’s passion when I could be working on my own
- working just for the money
- working because the name of the position seems respectable and will get society’s “approval”
- giving up the things I love for silly meetings or being with people I don’t like but have to pretend I do
- reading job descriptions and hoping you’d fit
- running away to unexplored countries

Yes To
- doing what makes me happy, every single day!
- side projects, side projects, side projects!
- constantly learning new things, especially those that scare me
- making my own stuff and putting them out in the real world
- talking to real people (by ‘real’ I mean those you pass by on the street)
- being my own boss (though collaborating with great people whom I genuinely like)
- doing good, but in a tangible actionable way
- running to unexplored countries

While the path ahead is still unforged, I know one thing is true:

What I can’t help doing is what I should do for a living.

Here’s to carrying on making things up as I go along.

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