Home studio for a dedicated creative

Surviving the Wildcard Career when you realise you have one

Ever realised one day that you didn’t like your career? Yeah. Not always a great moment, is it? It can either free you to pursue the epic dream job you always wanted or deflate you because you don’t know anything else. Not to worry! Maybe you just need to hear a different perspective from someone else and rediscover what drew you to that career in the first place.

I never wanted to be a graphic designer. Or at least, I didn’t think I did. And I know in the post about Everyone has to start somewhere! I gave a little bit of advice about how to get started in a creative career, but I have a another option, especially if those tips aren’t feasible.

The hard way

This is what I call the Wildcard Career. The one you didn’t expect, the one you perhaps didn’t want but realised halfway through you had it. Or the one that you wanted and had to work your guts out to get because you couldn’t get it the conventional way.

I did go to university; I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts, majoring in Photomedia. While photography was the tool that was used to bring me from teenager to young adult the thought of a career in it left me cold. I liked it, for sure, but I didn’t love it. And I was fine with that, formal training had had its purpose and I acquired what I needed to grow, which is why I recommend any kind of formal training. University didn’t teach me what to think, it just taught me to think in the first place.

So if not photography, what else?

My Dad is a full-time artist with a side career in freelance advertising – he has over forty years experience in advertising – being an illustrator from back in the pre-computer days who then upskilled himself when computers did come in. After uni I worked for him, at the time he had a couple of property developer clients who needed brochures and the like designed up. Nothing like dabbling in something you barely understand!

The first job

The realities of having a real income meant that eventually, I needed a proper job. The only thing I had any skills for was entry-level designer, a junior. So I applied, had some interviews, then – amazingly – got one as a finished artist/graphic designer in a small advertising agency. I am amazed I got it, I didn’t even know what crops and bleed were, which for the role I was expected to do was like not knowing how to switch the computer on in the first place!

It was hard. I had no formal training in the field, it was my first experience of full-time work and I didn’t know what I was doing. There’s nothing like working day after day at a job to get you finding out what you don’t know, is there? Pretend like you know everything but keep your mouth shut in case you get asked about it.

When you aren’t sure about your skills and the extent of your creativity, you tend to slip into comfort zones to stay safe. That deep-end brief gives you the cold sweats. Software problems have to be solved otherwise you won’t be able to move on and get it done. How do you insert a table? What, for goodness’ sake, is leading and kerning? And style sheets? Think I’ll avoid them AT ALL COSTS. And please, do NOT ask me to make that in Microsoft Word, don’t you understand that That Program is the natural born enemy of graphic designers? Don’t even mention Powerpoint. Just don’t. Does this need to be RGB or CMYK and if you can tell me that, can you tell me the difference? What – spot colour? Does that have anything to do with PMS colours? Oh, they’re the same thing? Great…

Google – my career, I fervently admit, is based on you. Searches, searches, searches. I get why people freak out at the thought of Photoshop, InDesign, or Illustrator. Learning them is like being placed in a foreign country and needing to learn the language by osmosis. You just have to use them, use them, and use them. How is that fun if you aren’t doing it for fun!? It’s not. I’m telling you. Okay, maybe it’s a little bit fun, like when you create a masterpiece- but! Don’t expect me to be over the moon about it because tomorrow will throw up another challenge. There’s a knack to asking your co-workers ever so subtly how to do things and open yourself vulnerably up as technically-challenged. Ever tried that? Asked a stupid question that you just knew you were already supposed to know? The irony is, not every designer knows everything anyway but you don’t realise this in your twenties. I was the type of person who didn’t really enjoy tasks unless I knew what I was doing. Adventure of the unknown didn’t appeal to me. It sucked.

But, another part of my personality is stubborn; never ever ever ever would I say I couldn’t do something unless it was genuinely out of my scope of abilities, and even then I would give it a bash. This is what I call the hard way. I had no design theory, no technical training, no idea what I was doing. But I had to figure it out if I wanted to pay the bills.

Now, you may be thinking, no big deal! Kate, you’re a self-made person, you built your own career, plenty of people learn how to do their job on the job. Sure, I would reply. Let me see you that point and raise you another Wildcard:

The diagnosis

Unexpected things happen when you’re a young adult. Well, anytime really. And when you are slowly becoming sicker and sicker with a chronic illness without you knowing it, it can also be pretty confusing. A year after I finished uni I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. Not a fun illness, it can at times be subtle enough to vaguely ruin your day, and other times not so subtle at all. Pills, downtime and excellent parents. Very helpful. But not so helpful to your career when you haven’t even started it yet, or know what you want, or are essentially physically unable to start one at all. It was a difficult time.

That first job I worked at, the one with all the Google, I was really only just able to work and while it was after my initial recovery phase, colitis is a lifetime illness with unpredictable cycles. I was going through medication changes and when I reacted to them – usually with headaches, sometimes nausea – it was while I had to work full-time. So let me supplement the above work challenges by saying I had zero enthusiasm and motivation because I often had zero strength. Chronic illnesses are emotionally draining, physically draining and just draining. I toughed it out, refusing to be beaten by such a ridiculous situation, determined to be well; it was just one of those seasons in life that shape your character and I don’t regret a thing or look back on it with self-pity. I know I have been very blessed, if you know anything about colitis you’ll know that there’s a chance meds aren’t that effective, that it can progress to surgery and a lifetime thereafter of other sets of problems. But that wasn’t my story. By the grace of God I made it through.

Then it came

My mid-twenties-life-crisis. There I was, sitting at my desk when it hit me.

I’m a graphic designer.

How did that happen?

Is this my career? Is this the rest of my life? Learning everything on the job, having to work extra hard, freak out at briefs where I have no idea where to start, have to google everytime I don’t know how to do some stupid thing in InDesign, work with hard to work with people? Really? I didn’t want it. I had never wanted it. I was only there because I needed the money. I had to admit to myself I did have the ability, but I didn’t have the heart. Not always. Sure, I liked it, of course I did! There’s no way I could have survived if I didn’t. It was just hard. I just wanted to be able to look after myself and that wasn’t always possible with the lifestyle associated with working at advertising agencies, a.k.a. long hours. I just couldn’t do them long term.

I had considered other options; stock illustration, photography (again), 3D modelling (random, but I thought a career in movies would be cool. It would be, wouldn’t it?). But no. Some good ideas are not great ideas. All roads led back to design.

A few years passed, and as is the norm in the industry I changed workplaces, switched between full-time and temp and back again depending on the circumstances of my life – for instance, I moved to a new city and it temping was a good option for me to get to know the local industry a bit. That was perhaps the best strategic move I had made; my new city was less stressful and my health went through a vast improvement.


I settled on just being a temp rather than looking for work for a while and something shifted. As a temp, I began to realise my worth. Hear me, I just mean that coming into contact with loads of different people, be thrown different kinds of work, made me understand what skills I had because I became the temp of choice for a few ad agencies. I was made for agency work. I was fast, I was efficient; the perfect studio grunt. I specialised in studio grunt or in industry terms; finished artist. I was even offered a couple of permanent roles. Except for my loathing of the predictable long hours, I would have taken one in particular, but I was happy to be sent home before they were charged overtime and leave the extra hours to the permanents. Regardless, my confidence was boosted and my skills further improved. You shouldn’t compare yourself to others but in this instance I was able to gauge where I was at, professionally, and realised I wasn’t where I thought I was, I was more. Then I was thrown some freelance work by a friend, given the scope to do whatever I wanted and I did, and easily, and I couldn’t believe it.

What is this feeling? Am I- could I be- am I enjoying this?

Gone was the dread of the brief. Having to figure stuff out that I don’t know how to do? I relished the challenge and loved learning new things, as I could see clearly how it helped my workflow. Keyboard shortcuts are my most favourite thing in the world. What’s happened to me? Is it that hard work and sticking with this has meant that now I can find satisfaction in my work? Can you actually do that?? And are difficult personalities just puzzles to solve and be handled one way or another?

I found my love for design because, as it turns out, I worked myself out. Wow, that sounds weird, doesn’t it? But seriously, it has taken me over a decade to come to terms with the fact that I am creative. I never felt I was. I’ve always had to work hard to be that, because I had other issues to deal with at the same time. Every skill that I have came at a cost. No, I didn’t enjoy it at the time, but I am enjoying it now. There’s nothing like sticking with something difficult and breaking through that wall eventually. I’ll amend that – some days I didn’t work that hard, I just turned up, doggedly sticking with it until the next bout of hard work. I then shifted from surviving into conquering.

End notes

For those who have – dare I say it – succeeded in their chosen career without the need for formal education but rather, life education, I applaud you. You have my respect and if I ever met you, I would nod my head in understanding. That’s the Wildcard Career, the one that is unpredictable, that takes you into strange places and situations that you could never prepare yourself for because you had no preparation. The career that you have to go after with gritted teeth, not caring whether you enjoy it or not, it will be done. I eventually started to enjoy mine, perhaps it’s a combination of a number of factors, but the main takeaway should be that hard work does eventually pay off, so try to find your confidence in each victory you have, in each skill you pick up, in each little lesson you learn. When you hit your stride, you’ll feel like a professional even if you still reckon you have a mountain of stuff to learn. You always will.

I almost didn’t share the health bit of my story, maybe I feel that my career would have been similar anyway, I’m not sure, but I’ve always had the approach that it wasn’t going to get in my way. I don’t want any sympathy or pity, I just want you to understand one of two things; if you’re facing tougher challenges than normal in your life then stick it out, you’ll break through that wall eventually so keep chipping away at it. Secondly; if you aren’t facing abnormal challenges but are still struggling, pull yourself up taller and forget any limitations you might have put on yourself because you don’t need them, work out how to break through them instead. Because you can. On both counts.

No earth-shattering observations, I know! But sometimes we all need a reminder of the straight-forward things in life. My career path was one of becoming familiar with the deep end and I know it like a brother. Nobody granted me any favours. I earned them. And I’ll keep having to do that, no matter what creative project I am interested in. And I rejoice in that. It means I’m living my creative life out as intended.

So. What’s stopping you?




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