At seventeen, the future terrified me.
Artsy, sheltered, rural Mid-American me was not ambitious. I didn’t have Big Plans for my life. I knew I was going to college because that’s just what you did after high school in 2001, if you expect to make any kind of living. As a kid I’d run the gamut of Dream Jobs, from ballerina to fireman, marine biologist to zookeeper. I had a bent towards creative hobbies; I wrote, I read, I sketched; I painted ceramic ornaments from Wal*Mart with Aleene’s Acrylic Paint (Great stuff, long gone. Sigh.) By the time I walked up to shake hands and get my diploma, I had some rough ideas about being a journalist. Maybe? Sort of? Honestly the thought of asking strangers questions for a living tied my stomach up in knots. But my little moral compass (and motivation from a favorite teacher) was ticking towards using my words for good and not evil.
Well, less for evil, anyway.
I went to community college for my first two years. The counselor – bless him – wasn’t super sure what to do with me. I was a teacher’s pet! I would be A+ perfect because that’s what I do! Just tell me where I’m supposed to go and I’ll go do whatever in the most kickass way possible! Just tell me what to do!
I needed to figure out what to do for the rest of my life so I didn’t, you know, waste my entire education and end up destitute. Because really, when you’re seventeen and sheltered and the Internet is mostly a place to check your Hotmail, that’s all you know. You know you have to do this College Thing correctly or risk destroying the rest of your life. (News flash: going to college for something other than what you end up doing won’t ruin your life. Although crushing student debt is another story. But I digress.)
I was pretty sure I couldn’t sketch unicorns for a living (although someone probably is, and doing fabulously) but a journalism career still made me want to puke from fear.
I took the basics for an Associate of Sciences degree, dug into Statistics and Music Appreciation, US History, World Civilization and College Spanish I, and tried to pretend for a year that I knew what I was doing.
The next meeting with my counselor, however, was a little less frightening. “You’re transferring to Western Illinois University after you graduate here, right?”
“Yep!” Hopefully the panicked light in my eyes just looked, um, perky.
College Counselor scanned my credit hours. “There’s a brand new major up there called Graphic Communications. I think you might consider it.”
Me, just glad to have someone tell me to do a thing, while having no idea what ‘Graphic Communications’ meant: “Okay!”
We bumped journalism to a minor, restructured my classes to fit WIU’s Graphic Communication major, and off I went for my sophomore year. By the time I transferred, I had an AS, a vague idea of what jobs might be out there, and hope.
I picked up my textbooks for my first semester. One of them was Photoshop Down and Dirty Tricks by Scott Kelby.
I went through all the tutorials in a week. Before class started.
I couldn’t stop. Typically, I struggle to maintain the patience to acquire and improve a new skill. Yet here I was, hungrily soaking up drop shadows and pillow emboss and outer glow and layer effects and gradient overlays. Something in my brain clicked to this wizardry. I was gonna be the muthafuckin Gandalf of Photoshop.
When classes began, the work got significantly harder. I loved it. It was one of the few times I’d encountered an activity that lit me up. Graphic design makes my soul sing, in the way very little else does. We designed logos, recreated tax forms, screen printed tee shirts; made calendars, newsletters, and notepads.
I knew what a corporate identity was. I was the new queen of consistency.
Up until my junior year of college, school was the thing I went at with the intent to make other folks happy. My professors, my parents, my extended family – I’m a recovering people-pleaser, and back then I shoved myself into the expectations of every single person I valued. Was there anything else? I wasn’t ambitious. I didn’t have strong dreams of the future.
My story of college education is not a checklist for success. I was supremely lucky, to land in a career path that worked so well for me by utter accident.
Graphic design was not my #lifegoal. But although I fell into it by accident, it opened up the concept of loving my job; striving to improve at things I feel passionate about. It showed me that I was allowed to have life goals in the first place.
I mean, I’m still not an ambitious person. But I’ve learned how to direct my own life.
Still not Photoshop Gandalf, though. Working on that.