Go ahead, do your own thing.

Creative Review dropped an emailer. Scanning through the promoted articles list, this headline caught my eyes, “blah blah self-taught career, blah blah creating meaningful work matters …”

I thought I heard a collective groan somewhere.

Another day, another creative conference. “Blah blah blah. Pursue your dreams. Do it now. Seize the moment.” I have attended too many design talks to be hearing these familiar stories on repeat. “I used to work in XXX but I felt that my job was meaningless. I decided to quit and pursue what I like. I started posting my works on Instagram and somehow, they caught people’s attention, and from then onwards, I get DM’ed for commissioned works, doing what I like. So yea, you can do it too. Believe in yourself.”

A group of the audience could be seen lapping this narration up. Another round of applause, please. And then, again I thought I heard a collective groan. Is this a good message to broadcast? Is his evidence of success (ie. 322K followers on Instagram and speaking gigs across the world) going to lead to one round of resignations amongst the audience?

Gather a bunch of studio founders/design leaders together and without fail, someone will start lamenting about the stress of going through another rehiring process. “Because that batch left to do their own thing – supposedly more meaningful things.”

Hold the thought there. I’m referring to studios that actually do interesting projects, and have respected and admired leaders. “Meaningful”, sometimes is not about drawing a line that separates Property, FMCG brands, Banks and Insurance, Grab and Swiggy buy-1-free-1 promo coupons vs self-published projects and zines, cafe branding, arts & cultural organisations and NGOs.   

I admit. It’s too easy to go on a Millenial/Gen-Z bashing mode and start a tirade of adjectives: Naive. Impulsive. Irrational. Overconfident. Unrealistic. Impractical. Impatient. Stupid life decisions. Someone said, “Don’t know which world these guys live in… there’s no hunger to make a career. They have learnt all the wrong words.. work-life-balance, fulfilment, happiness, fun..and stuff like that. They crib about everything, almost as if they are at war with the world!”

Sometimes. I forget I was once one of them. I was young and foolish and overconfident and irrational. I did my own thing when I was 24 – impulsive. No Plan-B. No “what-if-it-doesn’t-work”. No “staying-with-parents-until-things-work-out”. 

On reflection, I had my reasons for leaving employment.

I had to work at least one overnight every week, and my projects were all meeting production deadlines. Why is it that I am not fairly compensated for my hours, whereas I see my bosses upgrading from Toyotas to Mercs and SUVs? Note: My bosses were nice and decent people, not abusive. Also note: I wasn’t badly paid. On contrary, I was well-paid for being a capable freshie. It’s just that when you know you were instrumental in upgrading your bosses’ lifestyles, and you were waiting for that once-a-year 20% increment, it did feel salty. 

I had no autonomy over my work, as art directors and creative directors tend to exert control over what could be presented to clients. It got extremely annoying when bosses started to micro-manage, picking on things like fonts and colours (don’t they have a business to run?). I also tried to make peace with the fact that sometimes I did things unwillingly because I was supposed to be a team player, helping out my account-servicing colleague, who’s trying her best to keep a client happy (and who’s just too sweet and nice, and I didn’t have the heart to pick a fight). I felt like many times, I was merely a pair of hands attached to a machine to execute someone else’s vision, or to appease someone else’s whims. Running my own gig, would perhaps give me control?

I had no say in the kind of work that comes to the studio. I was a lowercase i in a multi-million company, working with a bank and 3 property clients. I couldn’t say no to another 5% Fixed-Deposits Rates announcement ad, or another exquisitely-uniquely-crafted-luxury-property campaign. Secretly, I yearned to do a small hipster cafe branding, a theatre group’s promo, an indie band CD packaging or a poster for Greenpeace. I will be honest, I wasn’t that noble. I knew my purpose wasn’t to save the world, to help NGOs, or to promote local arts and culture. It was all very selfish – I just wanted to be creative.

And I didn’t want to end up with a portfolio full of bank and property work. They weren’t terribly exciting. I was born to be creative!

I knew I have to pay my bills. That’s what a good-paying job gave me. In my case, the job gave me good bosses (whom I am still close friends with till today), good colleagues, and one hell of a learning experience, however short the stint was. But, I wanted more – more than what money could offer.   

That was 25 years ago. I know despite the 25-year-old gap, the reasons for quitting to pursue something more meaningful are still the same. It is still about self-worth and self-identity. It is about establishing who I am, and not who my employer wants me to be. That naive, impulsive, reckless move of the younger me turned out to be pretty ok, after all. So maybe I shouldn’t be dismissive when another one says “I’m gonna quit and do my own thing”? 

Go ahead, do it. If you need help, reach out. You have my number.

This is my reply.

Written with inputs from Arvind Agarwal, Eureka Alphonso, Harsh Purohit, Yah-Leng Yu, Thye-Shin Tan, Stuti Purohit, and Yuko Shimizu. Thye-shin’s “I was once like them too”, and Yah-Leng’s “If you don’t dive in, you may never learn” made me think hard. Thanks.

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