Things On My Mind Lately.

From Debbie Millman’s, “Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design”—

For most of my life, I followed a safe path. I remember in vivid detail the moment I began the journey. August 1983, the hot, muggy summer of “synchronicity” and “modern love.” A few months out of college, I stood on the corner of Seventh Avenue and Bleeker Street in New York City wearing pastel-blue balloon trousers, a hot pink v-neck t-shirt and bright white Capezio Oxfords.

I lingered at the intersection peering deep into my future contemplating the choice between the secure and the uncertain, between the creative and the logical.

The Known.

And the Unknown.

I dreamed of being an artist and a writer, but inasmuch as I knew what I wanted, I felt compelled to consider what was “reasonable” in order to safeguard my economic future. Even though I wanted what my best friend once referred to as “the whole wide world,” I though it was prudent to compromise.

I told myself it was more sensible to aspire for success that was realistically feasible, perhaps even failure-proof.

It never once occurred to me that I could have it all.



As I look back on that decision 20 years later, I try to soothe myself with this rationale: I grew up in an atmosphere of emotional and financial disarray, so my impulse as a young woman was to be tenaciously self-sufficient.

As a result, I have lived within a fairly fixed set of possibilities. I am not an artist, I am a brand consultant. I don’t work alone painting canvases and sculpting clay in a cold and quiet studio. I work in a bustling skyscraper and create logos for fast-food restaurants and packaging for mass-market soft drinks, salty snacks, and over-the-counter pharmaceuticals.

I am not profoundly unhappy with what has transpired in the years leading up to today; most days I consider myself lucky that I have a fun, secure job and a good paycheck.

But I know deep in my heart that I settled.

I choose financial and creative stability over artistic freedom, and I can’t help but wonder what life would be like if I had made a different decision on that balmy night back in the West Village.

I’ve come to a realization over the years: I am not the only person who has made this choice. I discovered these common, self imposed restrictions are rather insidious, though they start out simple enough. We begin by worrying we aren’t good enough, smart enough or talented enough to get what we want, then we voluntarily live in this paralyzing mental framework, rather than confront our own role in this paralysis. Just the possibility of failing turns into a dutiful self-fulfilling prophecy. We begin to believe that these personal restrictions are in fact, the fixed limitations of the world. We go on to live our lives, all the while wondering what we can change and how we can change it and we calculate and re-calculate when we will be ready to do the things we want to do.

And we dream.

If only.

If only.

One day.

Some day.

Every once in a while—often when we least expect it—we encounter someone who choose to strive for that which (to us) seemed unrealistically unattainable, even elusive.

And we marvel.

We swoon.

We gape.

Often we are in awe. I think we look at these people as lucky. When in fact, luck has nothing to do with it. It is really all about the strength of their imagination; it is about how they constructed the possibilities for their life. In short, unlike me, they didn’t determine what was impossible before it was even possible.

John Maeda once explained, “The computer will do anything within its abilities, but it will do nothing unless commanded to do so.” I think people are the same—we like to operate within our abilities. But whereas the computer has a fixed code, our abilities are limited only by our perceptions. Two decades since determining my code, and after 15 years of working in the world of branding, I am now in the process of re-writing the possibilities of what comes next. I don’t know exactly what I will become; it is not something I can describe scientifically or artistically. Perhaps it is a “code in progress.”

The grand scheme of a life, maybe (just maybe) is not about knowing or not knowing, choosing or not choosing. Perhaps what is truly known can’t be described or articulated by creativity in logic, science or art—but perhaps it can be described by the most authentic and meaningful combination of the two: poetry. As Robert Frost wrote, a poem: “begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness. It is never a thought to begin with.”

I recommend the following course of action for those who are just beginning their careers, or for those like me, who may be recognizing midway through: heed the words of Robert Frost. Start with a big, fat lump in your throat, start with a profound sense of wrong, a deep homesickness, or a crazy love sickness, and run with it. If you imagine less, less will be what you undoubtedly deserve. Do what will be what you undoubtedly deserve. Do what will you love, and don’t stop until you get what you love. Work as hard as you can imagine immensities, don’t compromise, and don’t waste time.

Start now.

Not 20 years from now, not two weeks from now.


In life there are two important moments. The day you are born and the moment you realize why.

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Emily Chen

Food, travel, design, culture, creative storytelling & creating impact. Passionately curious, naturally nomadic.