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Wait, what did you just quit your job to do?

Hey there, design reader! I’m Thea. I’m a part-time student at Designlab’s UX Academy, Weingart cohort. I’m also a freelance writer/editor, apartment manager (of a really cool 111-year-old building in Seattle), a producer of a monthly comedy show at the Upright Citizens Brigade in NYC, and a hopeful UX designer. Whew, that was one run-on sentence!

This post is the first in a series of blogs I will be writing chronicling my experience going through UX Academy over the next six months. There’s no real set structure or agenda to these posts—instead these will be a more like a collection of musings, thoughts, take-aways, tips, reflections (and, let’s be honest, probably the occasional mini-rant) based on the journey itself. So buckle up or, rather, cuddle up close to your screens (especially if it’s snowing there, as it has been here in Seattle) ‘cause this is, hopefully, about to get interesting.

The who, the what, and the why

You’re probably wondering, and rightfully so, who I am and why I’m doing these UXA reflections. I’ll start by telling you who I’m not, and that’s any kind of authority on what a UX designer or student should be or look like. At least, not yet I’m not. I’m absolutely brand new to this stuff—so new, in fact, that I haven’t yet perfected my elevator pitch (i.e. explanation to my friends, colleagues and loved ones) on what UX actually is. It’s still hard for me to explain, and it’s clear to me that it’s equally hard for those non-designers in my life to understand (based entirely on the crickets heard on the other end of the phone when I told my friends, parents and coworkers I’d be going down to part-time work in order to take this course).

Helena Bonham Carter say whaaa?

Like so many of my fellow UX design students, I came to Designlab by way of another career, or several in fact. A writer both by habit and by choice, I studied journalism in school and spent the first few years post-college cutting my teeth as community reporter and tech writer. Then I started doing some marketing work, copywriting and dabbling in web design (where I was really just teaching myself how to break apart existing websites and repurpose the parts using good old source code).

When I’d burnt myself out on that, I tried something entirely new: I closed my laptop and uprooted myself and my cat and headed to New York City, where I signed up for improv classes and waited tables, and then bartended, taking on the occasional freelance passion projects and kicking around comedy clubs producing shows for free because it was fun.

Five years later I was back in Seattle working a full-time marketing job, managing an apartment building to pay the rent (half to three-quarter time), and running a side hustle (for those low-to-no-paying passion projects). I was also feeling pretty much dissatisfied with both the quantity (too much!) and quality (not satisfying enough!) of my work life.

It didn’t help that this was also around the time I turned 30.

Don’t take it from Jack from 30 Rock, who never ages. Take it from the rest of us who do.

A little dose of the cold, hard truth

It wasn’t the age that bothered me, so much as the expectations that came along with it. As a kid, I’d always imagined growing up meant you graduated into a time where you pretty much got to do whatever you wanted. Of course, even the immature child in me knew this was a fallacy, but the adult I became is still holding on to that exhilarating feeling of imagining all that my future life and career would one day be. There was just one problem: here I was in the midst of living that grown-up life, and feeling less than exhilarated about it.

As you may have guessed by now, I’m a bit of a serial careerist, and by that I mean that, in the last ten years, I’ve had quite a few of them. Spoiler alert: I’m the same way with hobbies, interests, books, TV shows, food, you name it. I like to think of myself as voracious, but it’s more than that. Yes, I have a lot of varied interests and I want to pursue them all, all the time. Apparently there’s a name for people like us—I’m looking at you multipotentialites! But I also just plain bore easy. Whenever anything starts to feel too redundant in the worst possible way—the menial—that’s when I start to run clear in the opposite direction, searching for something new to keep it interesting.

Run, Forest! Ruuuuuunnnnn!!!!

It appeared that no one thing was ever able to sustain me, and I spent quite a hefty amount of time (and emotional energy) blaming myself for it—and for all the reasons I’d never felt satisfied in my career. It was time to reevaluate. Gainful employment was important yes, but the bigger necessity—the big ticket item—had to be creative satisfaction. I needed to feed that perpetually hungry (for lifelong learning!) little monster inside me who was liable to rear her crazy in the middle of the boardroom if I tried to keep her stuck going through the motions for too long.

Enter UX design

And just like that, the path revealed itself. I was working a marketing job that was one part client communications, one part research and writing, two parts design, and three parts organizational master class, in a tiresomely niche market, rife with gray cubicles and fluorescent lights. There was a lot to be learned about time management, client management, and corporate professionalism, but the work itself was lacking in all the worst ways—it was, essentially, repacking the same product over and over again, wrapped up nice and neat in a slightly different Photoshopped bow. It was soul-sucking stuff to the creatively inclined (and eccentrically dramatic!) types, of which I am both.

Peter from Office Space knows what that’s like!

I began searching, yet again, for something new to feed this need. And by some sort of serendipity, the universe thrust two friends, both of whom I’d known for quite a long time, right into the forefront, lighting the way like two air traffic control beacons waving me in for landing. One was a longtime UX designer who loved her job and had all of the autonomy, creative satisfaction, freedom (and vacation time) I’d been both dreaming of and lacking for years. The other was a student who was just about to start studying UX at Designlab, and like the true friend that she is, very generously let me creep over her shoulder, watching her experience as she navigated the program and pestering her with unending questions.

The more she told me and the more I learned, the more obsessed with UX I became.

New path, new problems (and more of them!)

Once that UX bug was planted, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was where I needed to be. Like the best of callings, it appeared to be the intersection of all of my favorite things—design, research, a little bit of psychology… Hell, there were even jobs out there specializing in UX writing—it was storytelling, my first love, transformed by way of modern, digital interactions, with the added bonus of the potential for gainful employment (something most writers start out their careers having already given up on). Really, I thought? This could be my job—really?!

I haven’t been to the dentist, but I totally get this kid’s whole philosophy right now.

All I could think was, sign me up!

But despite my previous tendency to bounce in and out of varying career paths (oh, us millennials!), I didn’t take this jump lightly. I didn’t want to be a serial career hopper. I wanted to find a career that could give me variety, creative expression, and the satisfaction that comes with building something new and interesting, that has the ability to solve real world problems and continue to do so as they evolve. And UX is just that—“design thinking” that Tim Brown says should enable and encourage designers to truly “think big!”

I started by dipping my toe in, and was immediately hooked. I made the arrangements: decreased my working hours, cleared my freelance calendar, and applied to the Academy. When I got in, I cleaned off my desk and set up a schedule, and tried hard to force myself to stick to it. I didn’t, of course. I completely failed to factor in what I would come to call the “newbie’s curse,” and multiply the allotted time for project perfecting and note-taking by two, or three until I found my rhythm.

Midway through week two, I was still finishing up my coursework from week one, and revising my calendar for how to proceed. It only took one day, however, to be sure this was exactly where I was supposed to be. If I could take my first try and, revise, and iterate it right, I may just pull through this thing with a whole new career on the horizon. But that would require breaking old habits that hadn’t been serving me well. That was the biggest part of my first UXA lesson: this was a whole new world that demanded a whole new set of tools and hell of a lot of discipline.

So true, man. So true.

I took to taking substantial notes. “Break bad habits or bust,” became my mantra for the week as I worked my way through the introductory units, connected with my fellow students on Slack and in group crits, and spent an hour picking the brain of my mentor via Skype, me from the comfort of my desk (and my pajama pants), and he from the lobby of a tech conference he was attending.

The things I’ve gleaned from the first two weeks of the UX Academy will be the focus of next week’s post, and spoiler alert: there’s a lot in there about time management through the program and side hustling your side hustle. But for now, I’m off to break another one of my bad habits—burning the midnight oil and sleeping too little, one of the many things I’ve lost my resilience in since transitioning over to “full ass adulthood.”

For now, thanks for reading my inaugural post. Come back next week for some more focused musings on this crazy design life, which I promise to back up with some actual design work (from my homework file—get ready for it) and just the right amount of personal anecdotes (i.e. a little less).

In the meantime, happy designing, folks!

Read the next installment! Week 2: A Masterclass In Schedule Agility

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