Creative Emptiness: How dropping out of school made me realize what was missing

One year ago, almost to the exact date, I was sitting in my off-campus apartment bedroom, applying for product design internships. At the time, I knew very little how important that future internship would be, not only for the summer, but for the rest of my life. I was in my third year of college, attending The Ohio State University, and things were going incredible; I had an amazing group of friends that were like family to me, my classes were more-or-less painless, and my gymnastics teammates and I were getting ready to enter our conference championship-winning season. Life seemed pretty amazing, except for one thing; I was creatively empty. This is my story.

Back in high-school, so much of my time was focused on design and creating. Side projects, freelance work, photography, reading every design book and article I could get my hands on, you name it. If it was fueling my creativity, I was immersing myself in it.

Fast forward a couple years into college, and it seemed like my life had done a complete 180º turn. Looking back, the disappointing part is that I wasn’t even upset by it at the time, nor did I even realize what was happening. It was almost as if the puzzle of my life was getting put together, but I was so focused on the one little piece of being a student-athlete, I couldn’t see the larger picture being formed. I must say though, that one little puzzle piece was a pretty great one in the moment.

Photo from my routine at the 2017 Big Ten Championships

When I was at school, it almost seemed as if life didn’t exist outside of the college bubble. Even the times I would visit home in California during the summer or winter break, my mind would still be focused on Columbus, Ohio. It eventually dawned on me though; I needed to figure out what my plan was for the following year, after I was expected to graduate. I searched for different internships in San Francisco and New York City, and reached out to some of my connections, looking for as many options for opportunities that I could find. It was an exciting process, but it quickly made me a realize an alarming fact; the version of myself with the extensive design portfolio, some great connections, and the creativity-fueled mind had gone missing for the previous three years. My portfolio was outdated, my contacts I could reach out to for advice and opportunities were sparse, I wasn’t as in touch as I once was with what was going on in the world of tech/design, and the application process was becoming increasingly difficult. This was around the holidays last year, and I needed to figure out a solution.

I set a goal for myself; make something. Just make something.

Using the time of winter break, I tried getting back on track. I completely thought through a product idea I had, designed the entire thing, and put together a case study. This was really satisfying. For the first time in years, the feeling of having a super power was back; the ability to think of a problem in the world, and build a solution.

The project was called Ally

I was fortunate enough to put something together enough that, combined with my past work and experience, completed a pretty good portfolio. I interviewed with a couple different companies, some small startups and some much larger companies, the latter of which being the path I eventually ended up on. I was offered, and I subsequently accepted a Product Design Internship at Square, a company I had long-mired for it’s attention to design throughout their entire company culture. I could go on and on about the reasons, but it’d be hard to describe just how perfect of an opportunity Square was, and how gratefully excited I was to to be joining for the summer. I was pretty nervous before I starting, but that feeling pretty rapidly went away once I got settled in to my internship and NYC, which I had never even been to before.

I felt alive. I felt like for the first time since beginning college in August of 2014, I was back. My passion for design and creativity was set afire yet again, and the incredible energy and culture of art in this city can only be described as adding even more fuel. I was blown away by the incredible things I was experiencing over the summer. Work was amazing, I was enthralled by the exuberance of New York City, and for a lack of a better term, life was good.

New York City. Photo credit: Anthony DELANOIX

Then things got suddenly became difficult yet again; An opportunity got dropped in my lap. An opportunity to work full-time at Square, drop out of school, and move to this city I had grown so fond of. I had never really been faced with a decision like this in my life before. I was so thrilled to have an amazing opportunity as an option, but it meant giving up so much. I could write a whole post just on the pros and cons of taking such a big leap, but you’ll hear lots more about that in the podcast episode. Instead, I want to share some of the things I thought during my decision.

When I first started thinking abut which path I wanted to choose, I immediately jumped to what I’m sure a lot of people would go straight to. The good ol’ pros and cons list. This can be helpful is some situations but I’ve found Rather than writing out the standard pros and cons list, find the attributes about each option that make them enticing. Which of those are more intriguing? You’d be surprised how your mindset changes when you look at the potential opportunities through this framing. Something I struggled with when I was making my decision, was that I started by trying to make the decision for my present self, and my present self only. Sure, it’s an important thing to think about but a decision of this magnitude required a more forward-thinking approach. I took some time to write some goals for myself for the next 1 year, 5 year, 10 year, and 30 year periods of my life. Not just goals solely relating to my decision, either. Goals I have in every aspect; career, education, friendships, relationships, family, finances, faith, everything I could think of, I wrote out goals for. I then looked at my options and figured out how each of them fit into those goals, both short term and long.

Thinking about all of the variables from the possible scenarios was a really beneficial exercise. I often found myself thinking about all outcomes of my decision, but a lot the time, they were the most ideal versions of those scenarios. I began to think about all of the stuff that would be out of my control. If I went back to school, would I have to take out more student loans and get more debt on top of my already-existing total? Would I enjoy the classes I was taking? Would I continue having success in gymnastics? These were all things that were mostly out of my contol, but they played a crucial part in my decision. On the contrary, there were plenty of similar unknowns about the idea of dropping out and moving to the city. How would my social life be in a mostly-unfamiliar city? Would I be able to get a hold on a solid work/life balance? Would my finances put me in a comfortable enough position for both short-term and long term? Searching for the answers of these questions, the daunting ones on both sides, really opened my eyes to find the right path.

I really don’t want this post to feel like I am against college. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. There were countless benefits and value that I gained from my experience, the three years I was there. Every week, I feel like I hear from someone who is dropping out of school or deciding to skip it entirely, just so that they can become the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. It doesn’t work like that. It’s not a binary thing where you either go to college and don’t accomplish your goals, or you drop out and become a huge success. As a matter of fact, it can be quite the opposite at times. We all have our own individual goals, hopes, and dreams. It’s all about just finding the right path that will help us reach those points. For me, that meant continuing at Square full-time, rather than going back to school for my last year. By no means does that mean it would be the right solution for somebody else. You have to do what’s best for you, nothing less.

Photo credit: Nick Morrison

If you are a designer or any sort of creative that’s currently in school, and you feel like you are experiencing some of the things that I did, it’s very possible to fix without dropping out. The very fact that you are noticing that while still in school mean’s you are in a good spot. What I wish I had realized while still in school is that creativity is like a muscle. Just like you have to work out to keep your muscles in shape, you have to work out your creativity. You have to push it’s boundaries, and “wake it up” on a regular basis. I feel that there’s a common misconception that in order to work on a side project, or freelance work even, you have to dedicate your entire nights and weekends, but it’s definitely doable without doing so, if you have the right mindset. Taking 30 minutes, or an hour, whatever you have really, and setting it aside each day to focus on on design can go a very long way.

It can be easy to let your passions slip under the rug while you are focused on something else, especially when it’s something new and different than what you are used to. Remember though, it’s always there, you just have to create an environment for yourself that it can be reached.

I am more than happy to help with anyone dealing with similar situations, so please don’t hesitate to reach out on Twitter (my DMs are open).


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