I’ve always been someone who attacks what others don’t think I’m capable of: I worked construction with my dad starting at 10 years old, became a raft guide at 18, moved to Alaska at 23, lived alone at -40 degrees and learned to run sled dogs.
When I applied for my Masters in Fine Art at the Academy of Art University (with an undergrad in Environmental Education, not art), they informed me that although I was accepted, they expected my journey through the program to be difficult. At the time I laughed to myself, thinking that I have heard those words my entire life and had never let it get in my way, so why start now? I had always excelled at academics, and before graduate school, had only suffered through one “B” with otherwise straight A’s.
The next four years, I toiled toward an online graduate degree in graphic design. Mind you, I was living in a tiny cabin (with no plumbing and shitty internet) in Northern Interior Alaska; far from the San Fransisco school location, metropolitan area, urban progressiveness, or proximity to a strong design community. Still, I knew that I wanted to pursue creating a design business and I chose the route of a MFA to get me qualified and confident. I have since burned my entry portfolio, embarrassed that I ever submitted that rubbish to an art school in the first place.
I have to give AAU so much credit for improving my design aesthetic, teaching me how to give critiques, giving me constant (sometimes too constant) “constructive” feedback, and lots of homework. I fell into a lifestyle of never feeling fully finished with anything. Over four years, this became a defective mentality that I allowed myself to wallow in. Any “free time” that I took, felt like I was stealing it from my program. My then boyfriend finally got sick of sleeping without me, and I was left only to cuddle with my computer at night. Some act as though this is a normal academic experience, and others criticize the lack of self care. I felt stuck between the desire to support my physical and emotional well being, and the commitment I made toward the progression of my degree. Not to mention the financial investment that was edging up my debt. In four years, I grew out of the girl who originally applied for the program, yet I was still living out her choices.
Malcolm Gladwell speaks to the academic paradigm in his book “David and Goliath.” Is it better to be a big fish in a small sea or a small fish in a big sea? Well, the interesting dynamic, is that I was a big fish in the sea of Alaska design with an emerging freelance career in a place that desperately needed aesthetic support. But I was also a tiny spec in the sea of AAU and the saturated San Fransisco design community. I found myself more attracted to my freelance clients at the time (no matter how poorly paying) because they were positive or at least utilizing my design work. I felt like I could make a real difference with my clients. In contrary, I felt constantly… yes, constantly… beat up by the AAU design program. And the amount of “fictional” projects really frustrated me and felt like a waste. Was it a weak mindset that I had? Perhaps a guilty conscious that I have developed from my Catholic upbringing? Or an unrefined “shame resilience,” as Brené Brown would call it. Was it courage or discipline that I needed to foster within myself?
I get it.
You think I’m weak or afraid of feedback or lazy.
Well, check out my Instragram feed (@adelelivelarge and @livelargedesign) or some of my other accomplishments, and I assure you, that those are not my problems. I mean, I did live alone without indoor plumbing for 6 years in Northern Alaska and subzero temperatures. I’m not going to convince you of that here, so I digress. I do admit that I allowed myself to live in a downward spiral during that time. By the end of my program:
- I lost 10 pounds (with not that much available to lose)
- I worked a straight 24-hour shift at my computer
- Lived solely off string cheese for 3 days
I’m absolutely not looking for sympathy here, but I am interested in what builds us into becoming high achievers.
I’m intrigued by what supported me to complete my program and eventually build a design business that has given me complete freedom in my life.
I now get to travel the world, working in a variety of international co-work spaces. I have built communities in Bali, Portugal, Morocco, Spain, and the list is growing. I now have friends from around the world and get to pull inspiration from dynamic international experiences. I literally could not be more excited about the life I have created for myself, and surely AAU played a substantial role in helping me to get here. That said, I still am plagued by dreams of failing my final review or not submitting my homework on time. Will that feeling ever leave me?
Researcher and writer, Dr.Brené Brown says that we are all wired for connection (if you are a creative person in any way, do not miss her talk: Why Your Critics Aren’t The Ones Who Count). I think the instructors who aligned themselves with me—who saw me as a person and knew my story—were the people who partnered with me in powerful ways as I trudged up the mountain of my MFA. Don’t get me wrong, these same people also gave me hard and critical feedback, but I knew that they were also cheering me on. They were my boxing instructors in the corner, helping me stop the bleeding between rounds, and then they told me to get back out there and give it my all.
I think he simply cared about me as a human being. Eventually, he even traveled to Alaska to speak for AIGA Alaska and I shared my world with him. I watched him unapologetically live in his essence, and also simply shared a meal with him while listening to his stories of tribulation and triumph. Isn’t that the essence of design after-all: stories! It’s the grit of someone else’s journey that will always inspire me; the opportunity to see life through another perspective.
In time, I also ventured to his home in Driftwood Texas, where I visited his art studio and ate damn good BBQ (luckily I went there before I became a vegetarian). We have since met up at the AIGA conference in New Orleans. Marc has talked me though choices in my design career and where I was heading after AAU. Living in Alaska surely limited my opportunities, and he was a big help in me forging a conscious path for myself as a designer while understanding the limitations and benefits of my route. It became clear that running my own agency was going to be the best way for me to build the life I desired. That also meant giving up dreams of working in hard hitting design agencies located in prominent cities.
Marc has a love for writing and sharing. He had an ability to see when my work was off and the insight to inquire what was going on, versus plunging me deeper into despair with simply a harsh critique. As I have grown in my skillset and mindset, I no longer need this same level of counsel. I have learned my worth as a designer (and perhaps chosen to live with the knowing of my worth as a person), so I’m no longer so swayed by that which is outside me. But at the time of my academic career, I desperately needed this support.
I thrive off the connection. Tony Robbins speaks about the six human needs: “love and connection” being one of them, and probably the biggest motivating factor in my life. Marc simply offered me an outlet for connection in a very real way. He lived outside the otherwise cold academic experience that I had. I know that the academic route is probably suppose to be logistical and objective, but what about for a feeler and connecter like me? Did it make me a better person or worse person? I believe that we are either walking toward our higher self, or away from our higher self, so nothing is neutral. I will never regret my journey, but I do wonder about the implications of my graduate experience, and the debt that I am still paying back.
Our program director, Anitra Nottingham, was another beautiful interaction throughout my time at AAU. She had an air of approachability and kindness that I will always appreciate. I have not (yet) had the chance to meet her, but I hope to when I travel to Melbourne, Australia. When I first started my program, I had no idea how to address my instructors or program directors, but I found Anitra to be supportive in helping me to show up. I sometimes received feedback that I had a “hiding” tendency (I didn’t like interacting much if I didn’t have my homework compete), so slowly I started to learn to share my world and thoughts. I found it hard in an online environment, when so much of who I am and how I show my personality is through personal contact, stories or experiences. This has since given me a lot of insight into how to present myself. I now lead very heavily with my personality and outwardness, and I don’t find myself reserved in the least.
A great joy of my current creative agency, Live Large Design, is that I have a really amazing location-independent team. I have built out a development team, admin team, and design team. I have done my best to take the skills and experiences that I learned from AAU into my business and thoroughly enjoy being a creative director within my own business. My design team is full of talent, and I watch us have a really amazing, productive and positive experience together. I feel supported by them, and they feel supported by me. I wonder if I would have had the confidence and authority to create this dynamic without AAU… and the answer is probably not.
So, what is the take home message that I’m getting at or overall conclusion from my experience? I don’t think anything is black or white, and I do believe that learning can come from all experiences. I’m honestly not sure I would suggest my route to others, but I also wouldn’t change it. I think fostering a strong design community is essential, and people in which you feel safe to share your work, thoughts and feelings. Graduate school asks for a level of focus that my natural “jack-of-all-trades” mentality certainly resisted, especially in the isolation of my Alaskan life.
Everything that comes before is a necessary ingredient for what comes after.
These days, I always strive to be inclusive and supportive. That doesn’t meant that I don’t give strong critiques (ask my design team!), but I do it in a way that ensures they understand that I’m supporting their growth. I think I have overcome my initial inability to translate in a distance or online environment. With the help of technology (webinars, project management tools, and chat systems), I have a lot of regular interaction and “face-to-face” interactions with my team and clients. I have learned to over-communicate versus under-communicate. And somehow, I get to write this post from a roof terrace over looking the ocean in Taghazout, Morocco. It now feels like the world is at my feet!
I think Brené Brown would agree that I have gained the courage to show up authentically (if not imperfectly), and I think Malcolm Gladwell would agree that I slayed my dragons on some level. As for Marc? He’s still giving me the best advice and insights into traveling the world and unique experiences, with the Sahara on the horizon. I suppose you could say we are kindred spirits, and I’m grateful.