Defining your own career path

Illustration by Mariah Barnaby-Norris for this article.

"If you want to be a better contributor to the human condition, you have to understand that the most powerful thing you can be is yourself.” — James Victore

At some point in your career as a designer you might find yourself asking some hard-to-answer questions. Questions along the lines of: "should I learn to code?” and "even if I wanted to learn to code, what language should I focus on between Python, Swift, Kotlin, Java, Javascript, TypeScript, Ruby, C, or something else?” You'll probably end up asking questions about industry and craft too, questions like: "Should I focus my work in blockchain or self-driving cars or virtual reality?” Or "Should I focus on visual design or interaction? Should I host my portfolio on Instagram or Behance or Dribbble or a custom hosted website? Should I start a YouTube channel to grow my reputation? Should I be using TikTok for growing my network? Should I be concerned with neumorphism… is that even a real thing?”

For all the questions we find ourselves asking over the span of our careers I have come to learn the only truly appropriate response to each is: it depends.

Experienced designers love to use "it depends” as a response to questions because the reality of the world we live in is there is no definitive answer to anything. There are only appropriate answers to questions as dependent on things like context, needs, constraints, and resources. To quote Albert Camus from his essay The Myth of Sisyphus: "There are truths but no truth.”

Because the answer to any of the career questions we face is inevitably "it depends” we are then led to ask ourselves what our personal, individual answer would, in-fact, depend on. And in my experience there is really only one dependency to keep in mind when it comes to the work you do and how you do it: who is it you want to be?

That's it. That's the top of the hierarchy of career questions in terms of what's going get you the most return on investment. Who do you want to be? Such a critical question often leaves those it's asked of paralyzed with indecision. Unless you already have a clear vision of who it is you want to be, how do you even begin to conceptualize who it is you could be? Faced with this existential mirror of defining who we want to be, we turn to the world outside ourselves in hopes of uncovering inspiration.

We convince ourselves that anything that might help us answer the most important question about ourselves is de-facto "good.” We look to others in places like Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, and Dribbble, for inspiration. Each corner of the Internet rife with small nudges of who we might possibly want to become in our career.

Yet what we see through these channels are not realistic versions of anyone or any career; they're each meticulously curated feeds of idealized realities, not reality itself. The work posted by designers to Dribbble is rarely, if ever, real work. Instagram is famously where people go to share altered images of their otherwise imperfect lives and careers. The thing about looking to the Internet for inspiration is that it's all just carefully curated, manipulated, and intelligently selected thoughts and images of a fake world nobody lives in.

So here we find ourselves in pursuit of the unrealistic, overly trendy, and ultimately foolish. Many who go down this route often end up being unhappy with themselves and their decisions. And, again, it's no wonder why: when we look to the Internet for inspiration for our careers what we're really doing is looking at a made-up reality nobody could ever live in. We inevitably end back right where we started: uncertain of who it is we want to be.

The reality is that in listening to these digital sirens we not only betray ourselves and who we really are, we deprive the world of something it greatly needs: our true selves. By trying to pursue interests that are not our own—but instead belong to the algorithms and celebrities of the digital realm—we deprive the world of our real, true selves. Our authentic, wacky and weird, sometimes broken, often afraid, selves.

This is a hard lesson to learn, but it's true. It's taken me a good decade to come to the realization that I'm valued not because I follow some trends or because I work in a specific industry. I'm valued in my work because I'm wholly, authentically, weirdly, me.

If you find yourself pursuing trends, you're going to be disappointed when they fall short of expectations or otherwise don't pan out. If you're pursuing the career path someone else has taken, you're going to be frustrated when you don't get the same opportunities they did.

If you want to define a life that makes you excited to wake up every morning, that challenges you and propels you to stand out from others, that gives you a long-lasting and fulfilling life of work, the way to do that is to focus not on externalities, but to focus inward on yourself. The solution to defining your career is to create it for yourself. Through experimentation, play, and yes: failure.

Do not worry what others will say or think or whether you'll get more likes on your Instagram story one way or the other. Discover who you are, who you really are, by experimenting, by making things (including mistakes, as long as their mistakes on your own terms and not somebody else's).

Start side projects, not because they'll turn into a billion dollar business but because you are curious about how to to do the work. Go to local events in industries you're curious about, not because they're trendy but because you have a passion for what goes on there. Design in the styles and with the foundations you grok best, because that's what's going to set you up for success down the road.

In discovering and embracing your true self you will find some people won't like that version of you. Some people will be afraid, will talk down to you, or even blatantly reject you. That's ok. The world is an extremely big place and thanks to the Internet we're more connected than ever before. If you be who you really are what you'll find is others like you will inevitably connect with you. Then all the haters simply won't matter any more.

Worry more about moving and less about where to place your feet. That's how you create value for the world and happiness for yourself.