Thinking back on high school, the most prominent element of the entire experience seemed to be pressure. Pressure tied into everything high school had to offer: the academics, the sports, the clubs, and even the social aspect. There was pressure to fit in, pressure to get good grades; but the most lasting pressure seemed to be the pressure to decide what you wanted to be when you grew up. Sure, you might not have full autonomy over when you use the restroom, but you need to decide your future. Now. Forever.
I remember being told that we should know what we want to do by the time we’re in 7thgrade, and the classes we take in high school should reflect that and train us for the real world. However, I grew up in a small rural community where I graduated with about 25 other kids. We had a couple agricultural electives, a drawing class, and chorus/band, but that was it for electives. The only business class offered was economics, and that lasted only half a year. Everybody had a fairly similar base line.
Still, that pressure to make a life-long decision seemed to be universal. No matter what high school you went to, every student I’d ever spoken with was absolutely frantic with trying to figure out how they were going to spend the rest of their lives. What would you be happy doing? What are you good at? What are your options? What would allow you to pay your bills and be an independent individual? All this came about with very little guidance or direction, let alone time to explore your options.
I was a top student in my class and I did well in school, but I still felt lost. Being smart wasn’t an automatic pass to understanding how to spend my own future. I never really needed to study to get good grades, but I didn’t enjoy school very much unless I was in the art room. I thought to myself, ‘well there’s no way I can go to school for art, that would be a waste of my intelligence.’ Somehow, I had tricked myself into believing that only stupid people went to school for art; almost as if only stupid people followed their dreams and the rest of us had to be miserable in order to make money. I continued painting as a hobby, but I was conflicted. I think I had known in the back of my mind what I wanted to do, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell anyone. It felt shameful to want to create art for a living.
When I was in 11thgrade, my English teacher gave the class an assignment: each student had to individually present our life goals and aspirations and explain in detail how we would reach that goal. We had 24 hours to plan before presenting. The idea of telling my class that I wanted to “throw my life away and paint forever” was mortifying to me,but it was my dream. It didn’t matter how wild it was, the point of this assignment was to recognize that sometimes our dreams are out there, and we need to figure out a way to reel them in and make them attainable.
Except it didn’t work out that way.
I got up in the front of the class and told everybody about my dream with the most detail that I could possibly muster for somebody who had only let themselves think about this for 24 hours of their entire life.
I told them I wanted to live in the middle of nowhere on a small subsistence farm where I would spend all of my days painting. “How will you achieve this?” they asked. “How are you going to be able to purchase farm land, or keep up with bills?” I made it up as I went. “I wouldn’t have to worry about groceries because I would can and preserve the crops that I grew. I could sell or trade the excess. As for purchasing the land, I could uh… I’d be selling paintings or giving painting lessons.” I was shaky in my answers because they were such new ideas to me. I hadn’t thought about letting it become a reality. I wasn’t even sure what I wanted yet.
The reactions were less than pleasant. My dreams were totally unrealistic or unreasonable, and my English teacher made sure that I knew that. I was terrified now. It was the first time I had spoken about what I wanted to do out loud to anyone. Still, it gave me a base to build off of. What would work? What were my options with art? How could I survive doing what I love?
However, even as my ideas grew stronger and more realistic, I seemed to be pushed away by everyone. Even my art teacher at the time advised against studying art. Time and time again, I seemed to hear something along the lines of: “keep it as a hobby.” Coming from a family of engineers and entrepreneurs, I heard a lot of “you don’t have to love your job. Your life is not your job. Your life is what you choose to do with your time off of work, and you’ll have more time if you make more money.”
Because I was wavering in my future, my guidance counselor, my mother and I all decided it was best that I chose to study at the local community college. It was financially the best choice, and allowed for more freedom of exploration, which was exactly what I needed. I put “undecided” as my degree program choice.
Towards the end of my senior year of high school, I had gotten my first painting commission. My aunt wanted me to paint her pet boxer for her. I only charged $35. It wasn’t my best work for sure, but it gave me so much confidence as an artist. Something inside of me clicked. I realized that my art couldbe something people would want to spend money on. An ounce of support gave me the boost of a lifetime. A week later, as I was signing up for classes at the college, I changed my degree path to Media Arts on a whim… with a certificate in marketing and entrepreneurship, just to be safe.
I didn’t really know what to expect at all. I had never tried graphic design. I just knew that the program had the word “art” in it, and graphic design seemed to be a pretty stable field in the realm of creativity. On the first day of classes, I was terrified. I started with a marketing class, and quickly realized something was wrong. I left the class with a sour taste in my mouth. What had I signed up for? Were all of my classes going to be like this?
Three hours later I had my introduction to graphic design class, and it was a massive sigh of relief. The environment was so much more relaxed and comfortable in this class than I was expecting. People actually talked to each other rather than avoiding eye contact with their classmates. My professor requested we call him by his first name. Everything felt natural, as if this was the exact type of climate I was looking for. I swapped my marketing class to online to really ensure I was happiest in my college setting.
For the next few weeks I went to school daily and kept on top of my classes. I allowed myself the time to adjust to college and figure out what was expected of me. That was just it, though: this wasn’t high school anymore. Nothing was necessarily expectedof me. It was up to me to live up to my own expectations, however I chose to set those.
As I got more comfortable with the college life, I started putting in more effort and branched out. I ended my first semester with a GPA of 3.8, and I felt better than I ever could’ve imagined; but more importantly, I had knowledge and confidence. In the second semester, I took more business classes, and I noticed something that changed my entire outlook: there was a substantial number of adult learners in my classes. They were all people who decided to return to school to fulfill their dreams, without caring about what age you’re “supposed” to be at when you’re in college.
This brought me back to high school, as I thought about how forced we felt to come up with a permanent plan at such an early stage in our lives. It seemed ridiculous now. This sense of freedom I gained when I realized that success doesn’t have a time limit allowed me the ability to fully change my attitude about what I was studying. So much of the negativity I received about how I should keep art as a hobby remained in my life at this point; but seeing that nothing was really as permanent as I was taught to believe allowed me to focus on what I loved without regret.
Almost instantaneously my skills grew exponentially along with my positive attitude. I gained so much confidence and excitement. I decided I wanted to do better in my business classes as well. I pushed myself to stick with it, because I knew that even if it wasn’t my passion, I could use it as a tool to improve my passiondramatically. Marketing classes in particular helped me with designing advertisements and assessing what type of aesthetics would work for specific demographics. Entrepreneurship classes gave me a handle on how to freelance. I actually started my own painting and design business.
I put myself in the mindset to be successful, because I ignored the people who told me that I should do anything other than follow my heart. However, I also made sure to follow logic. I took the initiative to get myself organized and assess what I had to do in order to maximize my chances at success. I had to come up with a logical plan to make my dreams happen, just like in my high school English class.
Am I saying you need to go to business school to figure out how to be successful? Of course not. I’m saying you should give yourself the ability to dream without holding back and come up with a plan to make it happen. Visualize it and put yourself into action. Put in the extra work and obtain your goals by force. And if you don’t have a clear idea of what you want to do yet? That’s okay. There’s no time limit; certainly not by high school.
Today, I’ve graduated with my Associates in Media Arts (Graphic Design,) and am currently taking a semester to focus on building my portfolio and take a step back. I’m continuing to learn more about my field, and more about myself. I live with my wonderful boyfriend (Joey, who is also an artist) in Albany, NY, and together we have a lovely pet cactus named Prick.