* This is part of a new weekly series I’m doing on Getting Started In User Experience.

Like most people, I couldn’t stand my corporate job. It was routine. It lacked challenge. It didn’t have any soul — didn’t align with my passions. It wasn’t very creative. And, I definitely didn’t fit the culture. But, I had a window office all to myself, there was a conference budget, the campus was immaculately groomed, they gym had trainers and yoga, and at 2pm every day a lady came around with a snack cart. After initially thinking that at 21 I had somehow achieved some big “I’ve made it” milestone, I realized I was very wrong.  

I figured out how to do my job very quickly and efficiently. In between attending to my normal responsibilities, I used every spare moment during the work day to immerse myself in design.

Since I didn’t study design in school, I made a point to read every design blog I could find, identify who I could learn from, and be a sponge for information and inspiration. I read magazines on design, architecture, business, industrial design, and art. I joined design websites and online communities and I had the most coveted list of website bookmarks amongst my designer friends.

On my lunch breaks, instead of going to the fancy corporate cafeteria and having one of the chefs create some made to order dish, I would go find WiFi at the local library or a coffee shop and work on my freelance projects. I squeezed every second of free time out of my day and used it to practice, learn, and become the best designer I could possibly be.

I’m going to sound old now, but back then I wasn’t on Facebook and Twitter didn’t even exist. I think that’s a big reason why I was able to make such great use of my time at a corporate job. Today, people just waste hours of their day mindlessly refreshing the browser to see if there’s any new “information” about their “friends”. Such a waste of time and yes, I’m guilty of it too. But, if you’re in a corporate job (or any job) that you don’t like, then figure out how to free up some time to get on the offense and start being proactive. Stop numbing your mind with photos of people you haven’t seen in 8 years, stream of consciousness status updates, and celebrity tweets. Instead, use that time to explore, learn, and figure out what you might want to be doing.

I always dreamed of having my own little design company. At night, in addition to finishing my degree, I did a lot of freelance work for friends and soon their friends as word spread. I would hang out in the design section of Powell’s books in Portland, Oregon searching for inspiration and secretly some insight or quote that would push me off the edge and give me an out for the corporate job. I went to design meet ups at places like Wieden + Kennedy thinking that I’d meet someone who would want to hire me or would hear someone speak who would say something that would just “click”. I worked on coffee shops on the weekends and imagined that I could do that during the week too.

But the truth is, I was in that dangerous place called comfortable.

Comfortable is a funny place. You believe that comfortable is the destination you’re working so hard to reach. To reach that place, you end up settling and compromising on how you get there. In order words, you let the money or title or other things be what you chase at the expense of what you actually like to do — what fulfills you most.

I quickly (and thankfully) realized that there is no proverbial “there”.

Years into the corporate chapter of my career, in 2006 the documentary The Sketches Of Frank Gehry came out. Since my aunt worked closely with him for many years, I was curious to watch it. In the final scene, director Sidney Pollak asks Gehry, what’s next — what hasn’t he done yet? Gehry responds:

When you’re a younger architect starting you’re seeking impossible perfection. 

You could spend your life thinking about this ephemeral building that would be great to do. It would be the capstone of my career. 

You realize as you mature that there’s no there. You ain’t going to get there.

Focusing on that impossible perfection – that proverbial destination –  will always result in putting that destination before your passion. Instead, you have to put your passion first and let everything else follow.

I admit, that is easy to say and very hard to do.

I had every excuse in the book for staying at my corporate job and not quitting. What if I can’t pay rent? What will I do about health insurance? What if I can’t find clients? And the worst one of all, what if I’m not good enough?

The other truth is that most people can’t see through the comfort. But, the people you let get to know you best always can always see through it.

In Portland, one of my friends and I used to meet up for green tea every Monday morning where we would talk about design catch up on life. One day in May, before I could get a word out they said “When are you going to quit your job? You’re miserable.”

They were right. Unfortunately, I knew that none of my excuses would stand up to that truth. So without thinking, I blurted out “I’m quitting by July 15”. And I remember thinking that it would actually happen. I had no idea how.

But, a month later I quit my job. Two weeks later I was on a red-eye to New York City to join a start up.

Next week I’ll share the story of my naive jump into the world of start ups.



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