My Road to UX: From High School Dropout to Fortune 50 Thought Leader

Mikael Miettinen on Flickr

A couple weeks ago, I saw a question come up on a facebook group I participate in dedicated to design professionals in my city. The poster was a student, nearing graduation for psychology, but feeling the pull toward design and illustration. She wanted to know if she could break into the field, if she should finish her degree, if it would hurt or help her, and was asking for advice on switching careers. In this ever-changing economy, I think a lot of people are in her situation - stuck between what she's been doing and what she'd like to do, an amateur that wants to turn pro. I was there just a few years ago, myself. Perhaps my own story can help.

Dropping out
I dropped out of high school after my junior year. I had my reasons, ranging from my physical safety (live wires hanging in the hallways, dangerous CO leaks, asbestos, and mold), to a lifetime of relentless bullying, to simply not being challenged enough or stimulated by the curriculum. I also suffered from undiagnosed, untreated ADHD and EDS.

I wasn't sleeping anymore - I went 6 days straight without so much as an hour of sleep, staying up all night making websites, chatting online, and getting into cleaning fits at 4-5AM that would last until 8 AM, then having to drive 70+ mph on country roads to make it to school, and still arriving late. My ADHD and anxiety were wreaking havoc on my body clock and dashing any chance at focusing on class.

After leaving school, I spent several months unemployed living in my parents' house, occasionally doing an odd freelance job for a friend or acquaintance. I'd been doing websites, making posters, etc as a hobby since I was a child, but never wanted to pursue design as a career. I feared it would sap the enjoyment out of it, feared attempting to put a price on my work. The business side of things petrified me.

I obtained my GED and worked random jobs from Burger King cashier to sports bar dishwasher, Home Depot cashier to call center, and Help Desk for P&G. It was in the doldrums of Help Desk that I realized I was wasting my talent and problem solving skills staring at beige walls uninterrupted for 4 out of 8 hours a day. I desperately needed to change my life.

I was, though I didn't fully recognize it at the time, suffering major depression. I could barely get myself out of bed each morning - in fact, some days I couldn't, which led me to lose the call center job - and my bedroom was still unpacked after almost a year in a new place. It looked like a filthy storage room a junkie had been living in, with garbage strewn around and cups growing whole new ecosystems on top of their quite habitable contents.

Lighting the fire
After a year at that job, I was just bored enough to start designing study materials for myself while I attempted to learn Japanese in my copious free time. Just like that, my fire was lit again, and I started to cobble a portfolio together with the couple of freelance jobs I had done, plus some spec work I made up for myself. I sent a pdf to a bunch of different textbook companies (I was convinced at the time that my love of typography meant textbooks were my calling). Most didn't reply, and the one that did told me I needed a degree of some kind, any kind, to be considered.

I was disappointed, but still determined. When I heard a  friend was hiring a graphic designer at an agency that specialized in car wraps, I asked if he would help me create a portfolio and interview me for the job. He kindly did, and I brought my adorably inadequate portfolio, mostly full of spec work he requested, into his office. At the end of the interview, he told me in the kindest way possible that he could not hire me based on that book and my limited experience.

I was disappointed, but determined to take the critiques he gave me and improve my portfolio. I continued to pursue freelance work, but little came of it. I just wasn't as motivated as I could have been, and the depression was looming, a dark cloud drizzling rain over the precious little flame now burning in my belly.

All this time, I was doing things for family and friends. Little things, like customizing their xangas and MySpace profiles, making websites for the family tree or for myself, creating flyers for a friend's band. I didn't think of any of these little craft projects as anything worth putting into a portfolio - I was under the impression you had to get paid to put it in your book.

Out of the blue
Then one day, a friend of mine called me out of the blue and asked if I still did design work. I hadn't spoken to her in over a year, but she remembered the work I did on her MySpace profile, of all things. Her sister's boyfriend needed a designer fast to help with a rapidly increasing workload, and he was impressed with the CSS magic I had worked on her page. I had just decided to take a break from the job hunt and didn't have much of a portfolio, and I had just taken down my website the week before to save money. I scrambled that weekend to get a sample website up, complete with a custom domain name and a little splashy javascript to show everything I was capable of.

He was impressed enough to hire me, and I worked there for 5 years, learning on the job all the things one would learn in college, plus a few others you can only learn working for real clients. From there, I moved to my current position at Kroger - the first job I ever got without any nepotism, strictly on the basis of my interview, resume, and portfolio.

How did I get here? Letting the days go by, letting the water hold me down.
I got here with a mix of luck, skill, obsessive devotion to my craft, kindness, and pluck. I took a lot of risks and left myself open to criticism and the high likelihood of failure. I kept my ego (which is plenty big) in check enough to grow and improve as a designer and a businesslike person, and clung to it when I needed to be buoyed through the rough waters of disappointment and rejection. I struggled, but fought through the dark cloud of depression, disability, and pathological disorganization - I still fight through those clouds daily, in fact. But I wanted to do work I could be proud of, something I was actually good at, and I did everything necessary to get what I wanted.

Now, my fight wasn't that difficult in comparison to many. I happen to be very good at what I do, in large part because I was lucky enough to have access to a lot of software, equipment, and an internet connection from a young age. I got to become an expert in that wonderful, malleable time in my childhood and teens when I had seemingly infinite free time after school, on weekends, and in the summer to devote to learning to code and manipulate photos, text, and points. But I still learn every day. It is as much the unquenchable thirst to know more and be better that drives my career as it is the great privilege I most certainly received growing up the child of a Project Manager at AT&T, and the niece of a Xerox repairman (a job that came with perks such as free discarded Adobe software from the businesses he serviced).

But my story is proof that if you are good at what you do, try to learn from all of your experiences, are good to others, and always keep an eye out for that little sliver of opportunity, you can improve your situation. Know your strengths and play to them. Don't fret too much about your weaknesses - if your strengths are strong enough, people will forgive them. Grow a thick skin and don't reject the help that others try to offer you, however insulting it can sometimes seem. Even insults are often some kind of lesson. Look for the lesson in everything, question things, google every passing thought. You never know where that curiosity might lead you. If you have a big idea, find out how you can execute it rather than thinking of reasons you can't. I had plenty of reasons to give up in my life, but I didn't (for long).

The takeaway
Never give up. Take a break, sure, when you're exhausted and feeling burnt out, sometimes you have to try something else for a while. But you never know where you might be in a few years. I once thought I was never going to make it out of the service industry, could never possibly make more than $30k a year, but now I'm behind the scenes, designing the tools they use and the sites they support, and my skills and expertise are worth almost three times that now, and will only grow in time. You can get there too, if you are honest with yourself, leave yourself open to others, know who you are and figure out generally you want, then work extremely hard. There are no shortcuts to this sort of thing for most of us - you have to struggle through low paying jobs, frustrating circumstances, and disappointment and rejection to get what you want, but it's so worth every nick and bump along the way to have a job you enjoy doing.
My Road to UX: From High School Dropout to Fortune 50 Thought Leader My Road to UX: From High School Dropout to Fortune 50 Thought Leader Reviewed by Anna Willoughby on 11:30:00 AM Rating: 5

1 comment

  1. I absolutely LOVE this! Thank you for sharing, Anna!

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