My Shadow Career

All my life I've attempted to exert a certain amount of control by compartmentalizing. Family. Friends. Dating. School. Work. Art. By keeping things in their boxes, I could thrive within multi-tasking. I could go easier on myself when one area was down, because others would be in stasis. Others would be full and balanced and gratifying.

Within the last decade of my life, I have done many things. I've lived abroad. I've traveled to Europe, Asia, and Australia. I've witnessed marriages, divorces, births, and deaths. I've fallen in and out of love. I've completed two post high-school degrees. Somewhere along the way I realized that I don't have to separate everything for my own safety and balance. I realized that the important people in my life were there in every part of it. That my identity is based on more than just one of these boxes or labels like "getting married" or "having a college degree". I found myself within graphic design, and realized that art didn't have to just be one separated part of my life, it could be part of everything that I did.

But the one part of my life where I couldn't seem to reconcile this is with my job. I left school with a clear vision in my head of who I was, the kind of work I want to do. I kept at it, going from job to job. Leaving some by choice, some because I had to. I continued to define myself by my job, even when I found it totally unsatisfying. I told myself (and was told by others) that if I just "toughed it out enough" I would "eventually" get to do "what I really wanted". And so when it inevitably didn't work out, it felt like wasn't working out. That I was broken.

What I've come to realize through this long process of ups and downs is that

1. There is nothing wrong about listening to your head and your heart about what it is you really want,


2. There is sometimes nothing more frightening in the world than doing this.

"It's Not How Good You Are, It's How Good You Want to Be" —Paul Arden


As I've noted in my manifesto on this site, I've been questioned many times about what I really want. I didn't fit neatly into many standardized roles. I felt that I knew what I wanted, how I wanted to work, and who I wanted to work with. The environment I want to work within is not some kind of "perfect job", but rather it is a fully realized vision to me. Above all, I have ideas and drive, and I knew that if the environment wasn't there, than I would create it. I wanted to create my own business.

But I didn't listen to myself. I pushed it off, convincing myself I needed to somehow be conventionally successful. I stayed in situations I shouldn't have. I got fired. I worked with dishonest people. One of my favorite pieces of advice from George Lois's "Damn Good Advice" (and one I wish I had taken to heart far earlier) is #54:

Never eat shit. (If it looks like shit, and it smells like shit, and it tastes like shit... it’s shit.)
If you’re in a relationship (with your boss, supervisor, partner, or client), and you suspect that you are continually being used and/or abused, admit it— you’re eating shit. Without the courage to put an end to it, you’ll never create good work. Put an end to it.


It takes courage to stop eating shit, as Lois notes. It also takes courage to stop being afraid of the unknown. And here's the crazy part: It takes courage even when you know the unknown is what you truly want. 

I've known all along I wanted to have my own business, but it is only in the last couple weeks I have become serious about launching it. Yes, I'm sure I will have ups and downs. Yes, I'm terrified. But I also feel alive. I'm tired of being "trapped in a shadow career" as Steven Pressfield calls it. I've know what I want to do. I may even say the words to other people. But do I have the courage to act on it?

Many artists are addicts, and vice versa. Many are artists in one breath and addicts in another. What’s the difference?

The addict is the amateur; the artist is the professional.

When we’re living as amateurs, we’re running away from our calling – meaning our work, our destiny, the obligation to become our truest and highest selves.
— Steven Pressfield, from "Turning Pro"

If you're still reading, thanks for sticking with me to this point. This is one of the most self-revealing things I've written in a long time.

I'll be updating this blog with my courageous adventures in freelancing in the coming months. Do you feel stuck in a shadow career? Do you have advice for breaking free? Share your thoughts and struggles in the comments.