It’s Time to Do Something

Recently on Design Matters, Gretchen Rubin talked to Debbie Millman about how she kind of drifted about during her early life to the point that she basically drifted into—and out of — law school, and into a clerkship with Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. The conversation struck a pretty personal chord with me, especially every time Gretchen talked about how she drifted from one thing into the next. I’ve done the exact same thing, just maybe not on the same level.

When I take a hard look at my life, I must conclude that I don’t often do anything on purpose. I’ve spent most of my life drifting around as circumstances carried me along. Either I would do what was expected of me, or I would take the path of least resistance. I went to college because it was expected of me. I ran cross country because my brother did for a year. I became a journalist because it was the easiest thing to do right out of college. I took a job in an unfamiliar city because it kind of fell in my lap.

Not all of these directions are bad ones, certainly! I enjoyed running, and did throughout my college career. Journalism was a blast, even if I eventually burned out on it. Taking a job in a new city was a great way to explore different parts of myself and learn new things.

I have nothing against my college, running, writing, or my previous employers. I just notice that I simply drifted in and out of things or went with the flow for large stretches of time.

I’m certain that I’m not alone in feeling this way. May of my peers went to the state school that all their friends went to, Followed an academic path that was expected, took the first job they were offered, and coasted through that first job to a promotion or two.

My best decisions—the ones that really define me—were ones that I made myself. I decided to go into the Humanities instead of engineering or science. When I was a journalist, I decided that I wanted to focus on stories that fascinated me: agribusiness, design, energy, and entrepreneurship. At my old agency, I decided to take the lead on projects that were more design than copywriting. I decided to leave that agency on the eve of our most successful and exciting launch to go work for a company I’ve admired for years.

My best decisions — the ones that have really defined me — were ones that I made myself.

The decisions I purposefully made gave me huge benefits. The Humanities gave me a solid platform of knowledge to build on. I had fantastic professors and peers who challenged me to think about scholarship, literature, history, and philosophy in ways I hadn’t before. They encouraged me to explore ways I could apply my skills to projects that weren’t typical scholarship.

If I hadn’t gone into the Humanities, I wouldn’t have taken a class in the Digital Humanities where I was exposed to Photoshop, Final Cut and how visual communication can influence the way people absorb information. I wouldn’t have been drawn to design.

As a journalist, if I hadn’t picked the stories that interested me most, I wouldn’t have met many of the designers I know. I wouldn’t have seen the breadth of design disciplines, from industrial design to branding, and I wouldn’t have learned that design is not only something that people can do, it is a lense that people can use to look at the world.

If I hadn’t taken an agency job, I wouldn’t have gotten to explore how I can contribute to the design process. I would have missed out on large print and digital projects that helped me stretch and grow as a writer and as a designer. I would have missed opportunities to learn and grow by doing: information architecture, UX strategy, art direction.

Four months into my new position, I feel like I’m starting to drift again. The experience of being at a new company coupled with it being a large, unfamiliar organization have unmoored me a bit, and I need to take the helm again (especially when it comes to this metaphor).

I need to stop drifting and start doing.

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