Yes, You Can Change Careers in Your 30s: Here’s My Story

This is a story about doing what you were meant to do and not what you think you should do. Sylvia Nguyen Dang is an Interaction Designer from the M.Des program at California College of the Arts (CCA). After 8 years in the business world, she quit her job to pursue a more creative career path.

What’s in a Name?

I was born Sylvia Van Quynh Nguyen Dang. Yes, it’s a mouthful with several befuddling silent letters. “Van Quynh” means heavenly flower in Vietnamese. Quynh is a special cactus flower that blooms only at night and is pollinated by bats. The petals blossom in magenta or white and my parents grow several in their backyard. I grew up being told that this flower was special and different from all the rest. Therefore, I had to be special, too.

Like many children of Asian immigrant households, I was expected to take after my parents and pursue medicine, or an equally respectable field.

So I did…for a while.

Pursuing the Shoulds When I Shouldn’t Have

It was exam day; the day of the MCATs. After four years of Pre-Med at Stanford and six months of studying, I arrived to the test center after a night of barely sleeping.

I gave my name and ID card to the person at the registration table. She skimmed through various documents, looked at my driver’s license, frowned, and ruffled through more papers.

After a lengthy pause, she looked back up at me and with a blank expression declared: “The name on your driver’s license doesn’t match the name on our records.”

My heart sank.

“You can’t take this test today. Sorry.”

It felt like the floor suddenly pulled away from me and my knees buckled in. My cheeks burned with confusion, outrage, embarrassment, and disbelief. I had no idea what this lady was talking about. I ran from the testing site and called my parents in tears.

They confirmed it was true. I had an extra last name on my birth certificate, a mysterious “Wyndan” that appeared out of nowhere. I was actually Sylvia Van Quynh Nguyen Dang Wyndan.

My parents gave me an extra ethnically ambiguous last name when I was born so I could pass as white on paper to avoid discrimination by future employers. But my given name prevented me from taking the MCAT and following the path my parents had prescribed me.

Talk about an identity crisis.

Prototyping Careers Helped Me Learn to Trust My Gut

Being rejected by the MCAT was a blessing in disguise. It gave me permission to allow myself to explore my passions and discover new opportunities.

It dawned on me that my heart was never in medicine in the first place. I scrapped the whole Pre-Med thing after that. (I also legally removed Wyndan from my name.)

I sought something that would stick: a career and lifestyle that would make me excited to get up every day and do something that mattered.

I spent my twenties prototyping careers, which is another way to say I tried a variety of random jobs to find out what I liked and didn’t like. I worked for the Environmental Protection Agency, a public health nonprofit, then a carsharing company.

Then, I took time off and moved to Bologna, Italy, for a year. I studied architecture, made pasta, and traveled Europe. And, I rediscovered a childhood fire I had for drawing and painting.

I returned to San Francisco and landed a role on the marketing team at Uber. Suddenly, I was part of “the hot new startup everyone talked about” and I drank the Kool-Aid, back in a familiar bubble of seeking status and approval from my peers. After 3.5 years, the novelty waned and I was now swimming in contract legalese in the business development world, yearning to be challenged creatively and seeking a more collaborative culture.

However, the voice in my head plagued me with guilt and pressured me to stay: “I should be grateful for what I have. Other people would kill for this job!”

Yet the voice in my gut countered with the simple truth: “No. This is not you.”

That’s when I started to pull the threads together. The passion and fire I felt in Italy while studying and making art, the hours that would fly by doodling as a child, the fact that my favorite class in college was creating a graphic novel…

That’s when I made a determination to pursue the strong inkling embedded deep in my gut; to say goodbye to a “sexy,” but unfulfilling job.

I started talking to designers.

Talking to Others was the Best Way to See Myself in Their Shoes

My dozens of chats with graphic designers, UX/product designers, design managers, and freelancers unearthed my own desire to do something more creative in my career.

I was inspired by the passion in their voices, and our conversations on design thinking and the design process really spoke to me. My inner art student, long dormant and silenced for years, woke up and wondered why I didn’t go to design school in the first place.

After debating in my head for several agonizing months, my gut finally declared I wanted to be a designer. I researched grad schools and discovered CCA’s one-year Masters in Interaction Design. It was exactly what I needed to get the education and training to launch my new career in design. So I took a leap of faith.

I quit Uber. I said goodbye to a stable paycheck and yes, some nice stock options.

But, in that moment, I also decided to pursue a career that actually meant something to me. So I applied to CCA and I haven’t looked back.

“I am the Captain Now.” Owning My Name and My Destiny

I recently graduated with my MDes degree. It’s the first time I’ve chosen to go by Sylvia Nguyen Dang at school. In all my past jobs, I’ve always used Sylvia Nguyen. I’ve fully accepted my name and take ownership of the direction of my life. For the first time ever, I feel whole.

I realize that all that pressure I put on myself to pursue what I should do will never match the fulfillment of going after what I actually want to do.

People often ask me if I would change anything if I could go back and do it again. Sure, it would be easy to say I wish I chose a different major or I wish I found interaction design sooner. But I wouldn’t have gotten to where I am today had I not taken my particular weaving path.

I’m thankful for everything I’ve learned so far and for everyone who has helped me along the way. I’m also grateful that I still have so much more room to grow.

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Life Lessons that brought me to Interaction Design:

  • Stop pursuing what you think you should do and start pursuing what you want to do.
  • Prototyping careers can help you decide the best path for you.
  • Talk to people. Gather feedback from others in the field to help you see yourself in their shoes.
  • Believe in yourself and go for it.