Why I quit striving to be a successful designer
About 1 year ago I made the partly unwilling decision to take a break from my career as a product designer. Something I had resisted even through the hardest seasons of life. Partly because I could not imagine myself separate from my work, but also because I believed we could not afford it. I am a passionate, persistent and ambitious person. I dream big dreams. The idea of “stopping” is scary for me. Then we found ourselves in a season of big change in our life that made this change inevitable. In the midst of a big international move, many shifting parts and a long season of limbo, and chronic illness (which has persisted for 5 years prior to this – another thing I had resisted letting go of my career for) I clung to my “career identity” and did my best to keep things “as they were”.
I recall desperately asking God not to “change who I was” and fighting against the natural evolution that was already in motion. There were days and nights when the fear of no longer being “who I was then” drove me to tears, anxiety and intense feelings of worthlessness. I felt a sense of loss, an undoing, and yet I did not realize that life was leading me exactly where I needed to be. God was leading me to where I needed to be. And at the time I didn’t realize that it was so much more than who I had been – more than that version of myself that I had idolized and imagined had a linear growth trajectory. Change was scary. Letting go was scary.
Striving to matter often comes in a disguise. Striving to be an acceptable version of ourselves that we believe justifies our existence in any sphere of life can mask itself as ambition until it begins to break us down.
Deciding to step back from ourselves and from my striving does not come easy. I have deep gratitude now for the signals that finally broke through my deafness and made me realize it was time to do something differently.
I quit striving to be that successful definition of myself because I was living in a chronically stressed out survival state, working to meet an expectation that I didn’t need to. And it’s when I did that, that I began to become the best version of myself.
Here are my biggest lessons learned (and still learning) as a young professional recovering from living and working in chronic survival mode:
1. Life will send you signals when you are not on the right path.
They will start out subtle but the further we go on the wrong path, the louder they will become. These may come in form of anxiety, frustration, a general feeling of resistance that you can’t quite place, or as in my case something as loud as chronic illness. One of the more subtle red flags for me was when I started dreading Monday mornings. I was your Monday mornings girl. I looked forward to getting started in the week and effortlessly flowed through my tasks and projects. A time I once had looked forward to became a huge source of anxiety instead. The anxious energy each Sunday night for those years was just one of the signs that I had made a shift in my life that was not serving me and that I needed to redirect things to find balance and peace again. The major signal that I ignored even though it turned my life upside down was becoming seriously chronically ill. For years I resisted and pushed through debilitating fatigue and other symptoms, only to get to a point where God took away my “work” as I knew it and opened my eyes to see how I was breaking myself down.
2. It’s okay to come back to yourself.
At some point I had drifted so far from who I was that I subconsciously believed the only way to move forward was to plough through in that false direction. Coming back to myself felt like taking steps back. But it has been the truest step I could take. I needed to come back, slow down, stop and listen. Sit with myself and invest in inner work that did not offer a paycheck, or praise from anyone else, so that no part of me would be left behind. And the thing is, in my disillusioned survival mode, it was the most valuable and truest parts of me that I had left behind. The ones most worth coming back for. I am sitting with those parts and learning to re-integrate them into my life and allow them to show up so I can be more fully myself and live as I am meant to live.
3. Growth is incredibly non-linear.
One of the fundamentals of human centered design is that the design process is non linear. We constantly cycle back and move forward, and it is this repetitive iteration that carves out the way forward and yields sustainable results. One of the biggest misconceptions I had was that personal growth is different, and so I rigidly beat myself down this linear path, denying fatigue that came with seasons of having children, ignoring the tugging of my heart, and warning signs that told me I was straying from my path, shaming myself for not meeting expectations carved out by others in an effort to “grow” and prove my worth. It got to a point where I felt like I was not letting myself breathe, and I was not myself anymore. Now I am beginning to see that my path is not linear and neither are my passions and pursuits. Does that mean I should not stay focused and determined and grow? Absolutely not. On the contrary, I get to grow organically into who I am already meant to be. A river doesn’t fixate itself on a linear path but flows in harmony with the terrain that leads it to change its course. When we give ourselves this freedom, this permission, we can breathe, expand, flow, and become who we are. And that is the most satisfying space to grow in.
4. I can define what success is to me.
This has been a hard one to make peace with because our world in almost every career path has a very defined idea of success, and if you somehow do not fit that mould then it is hard to feel worthy. When I think about what I want in my life, yes, I am motivated by certain standard measures of success. But that’s not the most important thing. There are things I want more, and I keep reminding myself that those are the things that matter and it is okay to make them my priority. There was a time when I felt like I needed to be the most intellectual person in the room, with the most impressive resume. That was a very unhappy time in my life. I was waging war against myself daily. Now I fight so those things don’t take up space that they shouldn’t in my life, reminding myself that for me success is doing what I love, being with my family, caring for my mental health, long walks in the mornings, afternoon hikes when I need them, obsessing over my plants and building friendships. The accolades no longer hold that place in my heart. And because they don’t, now I can actually do what I love better, and it comes more naturally. I feel a freedom to say no when something doesn’t fit well. I have space to think and plan a future which excites me.
5. Our work and career is important, but it is NOT the end goal.
When I look back at my worst years lived in survival mode, it’s not the boardroom meetings or design sprints that I miss. It’s not the project management or praise I got for a job well done. It’s the times I look back on and realize that life was passing me by. The days I rushed out of the house handing our 18month old baby girl to our nanny so I could start my hour-long stressful commute to a job that was not actually a good fit for me at the time. It’s the time I dropped off our 3 year old son at daycare and he cried his eyes out but I walked out anyway because I had to get to work. And so now, I don’t want to look back at those times in regret, but I want to listen to my heart and live not for my work, but for my true purpose! It truly doesn’t have to be a fight. We can flow and learn and our work and careers can be a part of the bigger picture of who we are.
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With a smile and lots of sunshine,