Who Says Quitters Never Win?
There’s nothing more I’d like than to take a Sharpie and black out every last memory of 2017. Or at least the ones I haven’t already forgotten.
...Okay, so maybe that’s dramatic, but I come from a Hispanic background so of course I’m dramatic.
But if you consider the fact that my dream career exploded on me, then maybe I’m being a bit conservative.
Langston Hughes, in his famous poem, asks “What happens to a dream deferred?” I think I have the answer, but it was not what I expected. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
My story starts on a warm spring night in Azusa, California.
*Cue dramatic flashback music.*
IT WAS A DARK AND BALMY NIGHT
“Answer me this: If you had to wake up tomorrow, where would you be?”
“I feel like it’s Portland.”
“Do you feel that’s where God is leading you?” Nate inquired from across the table.
I, along with a few other students went to grab dinner after enduring yet another class session with Nate Lu. Nate, the terror of Azusa Pacific University’s Design Department, had been known to make students cry in project critiques. His high expectations had lead many already sleep-deprived college students to pull multiple all-nighters to simply keep afloat in his course. Long story short, I can pinpoint the start of my caffeine addiction to the 2016 spring session of Graphic Design Processes II.
“I can’t explain it Nate,” I repeated, “I really feel like I am supposed to be in Portland doing an advertising internship. But God has yet to open any door for me. I’ve applied for 10 internships already, and still nothing. How can I say yes to something that has not even come to fruition?”
Nate leaned back in his chair and looked at me. “Sophie, I’m not gonna even help you look for jobs down here in LA, or in Orange County. If God is leading you that direction, toward Portland, then He will provide.”
That night, I committed in my heart to keep pursuing a summer gig in the PNW. I tossed aside my half-finished application to Warner Brothers and brushed my teeth. Half of me wanted to scoff: how could something as intangible and immeasurable and invisible as a change of spirit really make a difference? The other half of me wanted to sleep. Twenty minutes later, that half won.
MUSTARD SEEDS GROW MUSTARD TREES
The very next day, I received a phone call about a graphic design internship in Portland.
“Hi Sophie, we received your application. Our executive creative director, and I are really excited about your portfolio. We would like to interview you for an internship position as soon as possible…”
And just like that, I was interning a month later for an advertising firm in the northwest district of Portland. Everything went like clockwork. I made new connections, learned new skills, and best of all scored free rent from my gracious aunt and uncle, which, in Portland is practically unheard of.
In fact, I had such a good time that the agency asked me to come back the following January to work full time. After returning to California to wrap up my last semester of college, I packed my bags and headed up north to make a life in the land of craft beer and vegan pizza.
SELAH, OR PAUSE
In the the Scriptures it says, “Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.” For years, this verse had a singular, myopic interpretation for me. I took Proverbs 19:21 to mean that God would always grant dreams with immediacy, albeit in unexpected ways. And for many of my aspirations, this has been the case. I have had desires fulfilled within months, weeks, days, and sometimes even minutes of initially petitioning God. However, after my year in Portland, I finally realized that this verse means exactly what it says. Our plans of what we think our life should look like pale in comparison to the designs God has for us.
BRITNEY’S… SOPHIE’S BACK
My first week in Portland was a blur. No, literally. There was a blizzard my first week back, so the office was shut down for 3 days due to poor visibility and icy roads. But I did not let that dampen my spirits. In fact, I tried to keep a lot of things from dampening my spirits.
You see, the second time coming back to Portland was wildly different than the first. To summarize, I was now living alone in an overpriced 440 sq foot studio apartment with no car, no initial church base, and only a handful of individuals to call friends. I also did not realize it at the time, but advertising agencies everywhere were forced to evolve at an exponentially rapid pace to keep up with the digital revolution. My design background and the company’s creative strength were in print production, but now clients were asking more and more for social media posts, motion graphics, and html5 banner ads. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent watching After Effects tutorials. Unless you work in packaging, print really is dead. Adapt or die, as they say.
As the challenges of living and working in Portland continued to grow, I kept trying to bury them deeply. I come from a pretty scrappy family, so the de-facto response is to just “toughen up and deal with it.” Working 11,12, 13 hour days? I’m just paying my dues. It’s 8 months in and I still don’t have any friends I can call up and go out on a whim with? It takes time to build relationships. Another cancelled coffee informational or network meetup? It’s okay, people get busy and forget. They don’t mean anything by it.
But at some point, there comes a need to demarcate what is simply the challenge of living and what are unhealthy living patterns. How do you objectively assess a situation when you’re in the thick of it?
For me, this moment came after working two 60 hour weeks in a row. I hadn’t touched a print campaign in over 6 months. I remember coming home on a Friday night, literally collapsing to my knees from physical and mental exhaustion, whispering out in prayer, “Oh God, I can’t take this anymore. I can’t spend my twenties stuck behind a computer screen. God, MY LORD, I am so alone. Why would you let me move 1,000 miles away to some foreign place if you knew it was going to end like this. Did I fail? Did I sin? WHY? WHY? WHY?”
My first time coming to Portland was so smooth and glorious, it felt practically ordained. How come the second time around, I wasn’t feeling the same? It wasn’t quite homesickness, but I felt ready to throw in the towel.
THE END IS NOT THE END
In my head, the thought of leaving Portland after one year was synonymous with quitting and giving up. I should at least stay 3 years, 2 at best. But a terrifying question kept knocking at the doors of my heart. Was it also time to quit advertising?
For months, I wrestled with this question. Answering yes would feel like admitting I was wrong. Or at least everything I knew about design was now wrong. Years of interning for marketing and entertainment agencies, reading up on advertising trends, studying the best commercials gone. All down the drain…
Before I knew how to read, I would flip through my mom’s Better Homes and Garden magazines and look at the ads. I liked the colorful and often clever pictures. A whole idea simplified to a single page. That desire to create colorful and clever content never left me. Until I saw how exhausting it was. Until I realized advertising is absolutely nothing like Mad Men. Until I realized I had no idea what I was going to do next.
WARNING: HAZARDS AHEAD
If I thought the decision to leave Portland was hard enough, then I surely sore when realized it was only the beginning of my challenges. Applying for a creative position in Los Angeles when you live 1,000 miles away is no walk in the park. I was so feverish to move back that I applied to at least 40 jobs. I was that desperate interviewee that LinkedIn warns you not to be. At one point, I even considered quitting and just freelancing.
Fortunately, so many good people around me told me to just be patient. After a month of applying, the floodgates opened. Soon my email and voicemail were piling up with phone interview requests, then in-person interviews, and eventually a handful of job offers.
However, the job I ended up taking was the one I did not even apply for. Do you know how humbling that is to me, a designer who thrives on ambition and achievement?
Nate Lu, the very professor whose class tormented me, reached out about a UX design position with an e-commerce ticketing office.
“Hey Soph, I got a job for you with my company. It’s a different design position than advertising, but you would be essentially getting paid to learn UX/UI design. You would need to learn a new software application called Sketch, but I know you would be a good fit.”
“I don’t know Nate. I can do web design, but it’s not my forte. It’s not what I studied. I just don’t think I’m qualified.”
“Well of course, if anything, you would actually be the least-qualified person on the team. There’s definitely a learning curve but I would view it as a challenge to grow. But you a strategic designer and a quick learner. I think you would be a good fit.”
The next day, I had a video interview with Nate’s company. It seemed to go well, because they sent me an offer.
I now had three offers on the table. Two were for advertising positions, one was for UX/UI design. Two jobs were right up my alley, one would require me to rebuild from the ground up. Two jobs I had already visited the office in-person, one job I had not even seen the facility.
I had no clue what to do. So I did what I always do whenever I am in a bind. I prayed. And prayed and prayed. And the answer came like a vision.
I opened my eyes, took a deep breath, and quit advertising.
A DREAM FULFILLED
I cannot tell you how incredibly hard that first step was.
Because it took faith. I had no idea of what lay on the other side of leaving Portland and advertising. Would failure greet me again?
However, I can confidently say it has been bliss ever since. Living and working in Los Angeles is so exciting. On the train ride into the office, I hear and see people of every tribe and tongue. A stroll through downtown and I’m greeted by scores of murals and street art. At work, I’m learning industry-changing skills. My coworkers and I eat lunch and play board games together. We host meetings where we debate for thirty minutes if the font size should be 12pt or 13pt. Other employees exclaim, “You’re on the design team? I’m jealous; you guys always have so much fun together.” On the weekends I go hiking, drive my new yellow Beetle convertible to the beach, or grab coffee with college friends. My life has been so rich, I wake up every morning stunned; can’t believe I get to live this way.
Now let me be abundantly clear: My deep joy does not come from the fact that I have a fancy new job, or that I get to drive my new ragtop slugbug to Malibu. A job can bring you happiness or sadness, but it will never bring you fulfillment. My truest joy comes from the fact that I took of step of faith, and that God rewarded me abundantly. These days, I view my decision to leave advertising as less and less of a failure, and more as the fulfillment of God’s sovereignty.
Sometimes, a dream deferred is the best thing that can happen to you. When I had to admit that I wouldn’t make it as an advertiser in Portland, I was crushed. I thought ALL my career dreams died. Not to mention, I had to confess that I had fallen for the Instagram lie that Portland is a hipster paradise.
But you know what a dream deferred looks like? It looks like going out and karaoking for three hours after work with your colleagues in Little Tokyo. It looks like being bombarded by friends and family at all times. It looks like having your faith sharpened and continually renewed by being surrounded by other believers. It looks like trusting that God has the best intentions for you, always.
Oftentimes our dreams don’t take the path we would like, but we have to remember we serve a sovereign God. His plans for us often take longer, are insanely harder, look wildly different, but are ultimately better.
Two months before I left Portland, I brought my dilemma before my church small group, requesting their counsel. They prayed for me aloud, seeking wisdom and words from God. I still get chills from some of the visions they spoke over me.
“I just had this image of you standing in a field. Hair down, just beautiful. And it was a moving picture of you picking a flower and smelling it, and you had this sense of just pure joy.”
“I had a similar vision, actually,” shared Liana. “I had an image of this girl in the field. Beautiful girl. And she was running in a field.” Liana began crying, “but she stops running and looks back.” Liana’s face brightens, “But then she looks forward and keeps running.”
It became eerily clear that starting again in LA was ordained. Before moving back, I applied to a junior art director position in Portland as a last ditch effort to stay in advertising, but to no avail. Deep down the direction of my heart was already set on a new course. Never once in the three months we had met, I’d told my small group that my my home in Los Angeles was in a rural area...our backyard is a giant field.
Who says quitters never win?