In Defense of Doing Something Completely Different

In late 2013, I was losing steam.

I had just been promoted to Senior Designer at a small brand marketing agency, where I had spent most of the first 4 years of my career.

I played design Tetris nine hours a day; arranging punchy headlines and shiny photos into aesthetically pleasing arrangements. Managers and clients praised my work; I was content, confident, competent… and bored.

I can’t really say when or how the idea sparked. Looking back, the first thing I remember is Googling “massage therapy school,” but there must have some forethought, some building blocks of self-reflection. I must have said to myself, I want to work with my hands, or I feel like I am solving the same problem over and over again, or even, most depressingly, Maybe design isn’t the right career for me.

I remember looking at massage school syllabi: anatomy, physiology, pathology, kinesiology — words that promised a look into the secret workings of that beautiful machine, the human body. I remember daydreaming about making a connection with another person, helping to lessen their pain and quiet their mind.

So, on a freezing morning in January 2014, I woke up at 7am on a Saturday and boarded a train downtown to attend a full day of class. I committed to 750 hours of study and practice over the next 16 months, Tuesday evenings and all day Saturday while still working full time. Family and friends were a bit baffled (and I tried to only cringed a little when they asked me, “So you’re becoming a masseuse?”)

What visually-inclined person can look at this and not find it fascinating?

I fell a little bit in love. I memorized complex systems of bone and muscle and nerve. I delighted in translating flat illustrations into 3D mental models after feeling the real tissue under the skin. Each muscle was like a jigsaw puzzle that bent and turned in real space and interlocked with a larger system.

I learned how to talk to people about their bodies and their pain. I learned how to ask the right questions, how to gather evidence to discover the source of the issue.

After graduating and receiving my license, I opened up my own massage studio. For about a year, I worked part time as a massage therapist and part time as a freelance designer.

When it came to design work, I quickly discovered that clients were looking for skills beyond visual acumen —the two little letters UX dominated job postings. I had designed plenty of marketing websites, pretty façades to sell one product or another, but these jobs spoke of process, empathy, systems, research.

I was intrigued. Wasn’t this what I loved about massage therapy? Studying a complex system, understanding its parts, diagnosing disfunction. Listening to real human beings describe their pain points, testing solutions, and reassessing based on their feedback.

I dove in — learning about UX, doing a few personal projects and then starting to take on client work. By then end of that year, I had more work than I could handle and knew that this was the right path for my design career.

The truth is that UX and product work made me think in a completely different way than visual design. I had to think more deeply, pull from both the right and left sides of the brain, practice both empathy and analysis.

I closed my massage studio in 2015, after practicing professionally for only a little over one year. I had no regrets; pursuing something completely different for a time helped me discover what kind of challenges pull me in and keep me engaged. I found that I no longer needed that outlet to feel satisfied with my work.

Nearly three years later, I am happily employed full-time as a product designer. I see no signs of the burn-out I experienced before; everyday I am challenged in the ways my brain likes best.

I can’t advise you to do something brash like suddenly deciding to go back to school pursuing a completely different area of study (indeed, I realize I was privileged to have the personal and financial freedom to do this).

But I can tell you, if you are feeling uninspired and listless with your work, consider trying something completely different in whatever way you can. What you will uncover may surprise you.