I Want(ed) to be a (Design) Rock Star

Once upon a time I was a graphic designer. Okay, I still am. But once upon a time I really wanted to make it as a graphic designer. In Chicago. Or New York. I wanted my work to be featured in Print or HOW. I wanted to be one of those people they profile in the “30 Under 30” lists. I wanted clients to ask for me. I wanted to be a rock star.
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Running on Fumes

I’ll just take few sentences here to acknowledge the tragedy in Boston. I thought about incorporating it into my post, but I think any comparison of the goings-on in my life to such a horror would surely come across as hollow and possibly offensive. Suffice it to say, I can’t imagine what the runners and their families and friends must be going through for such a thing to happen on a day that, for most, was the culmination of many months of excitement, anticipation and hard work.

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I’m burnt out. I’ve been burnt out for the last two weeks. This happens every semester. I seem to hit a wall about four weeks before the end of classes. It hasn’t helped that we’ve had nothing but gray, gloom and rain for the past two weeks to accompany my burn-out. I’ve attended lectures and taken notes, but I’ve barely cracked a book. We’re in the home stretch before finals and thankfully I don’t have any projects or assignments due between now and then.

This is what it has looked like outside for the last two weeks. There is no malfunction of the image. It's what it looks like – a gray square.

This is what it has looked like out the window for the last two weeks. Don’t worry, the image is displaying correctly. It’s what it looks like – a gray square.

So I’m coasting. Information that I didn’t quite understand during lecture is sitting in my notebooks. I had the greatest of intentions of going home and looking up those topics in my textbooks or online to find greater clarity, but I just haven’t gotten around to it. I don’t want to. I’m like a toddler pouting in the corner, refusing to put on her shoes.

But it’s time. I have two weekends left until finals. Not one to wait until the last minute, I’ll start studying heavily this weekend. I’ve already got plans to head to the coffee shop tonight to get a head start. I’m sure they’re wondering where I’ve been, the baristas who probably roll their eyes when I walk in, knowing I will order the same old thing I always order, peach tea. Or perhaps they’re delighted not to have to fire up the cappuccino machine.

Already I’m dreaming about all the free time I will have when classes are over. I’m mentally filling up the days with reading, catching up on TV shows, spring cleaning, spending time with friends and just relaxing. I know full well that in the scant twelve days that I will have between the end of spring semester and the beginning of summer I will get painfully little done. I will wonder where the time went and when I will ever really get a break (in three years…when I take off my graduation gown, right?).

But nonetheless, the anticipation is always better than the reality, so what’s getting me through these last two weeks is the sweet, rose-colored vision of those twelve days of freedom. And when summer semester does inevitably start, gone will be the mosh-pit feeling of loud, crowded hallways and packed-to-the-gills lecture halls. Summer on campus is quiet and casual. Professors walk around in sandals and socks (say it ain’t so!) and talk to us as individual people rather than an undulating mass of faces in stadium seating. Classes are small, the sun is out, people are generally happy.

Oh no! Oh yes! It's summer in the engineering building! Photo by Sarah Lee for The Guardian

Oh no! Oh yes! It’s summer in the engineering building!
Photo by Sarah Lee for The Guardian

I haven’t composed any words of wisdom this week or come to any grand conclusions about hard work or confidence or the joy of learning. I’m just happy the sun has finally come out and flowers are pushing through the soil. I’m happy there will soon be beers on the patio and barbeque on the grill. Spring reminds me that time marches on, snow melts and birds return. I may be running on fumes right now, but I’m still moving. I can see the destination just ahead…I think I’ll have just enough momentum to roll in.

Waiting For the Other Shoe to Drop

So I can’t quite decide how to approach the topic du jour, so I’ll just dive right in and see where it goes. I have a high GPA. I won’t include it here, but it’s high. I had a high GPA the last time I was in college. But as much of an accomplishment as that was, I tended to discount it. I was, after all, an art major, and what does a high GPA mean for an art major? It means I got lucky. It means I was a brown-noser. It means my professors liked me, for whatever reason, during those critical moments when grades were being handed out.

My former photography professor, with whom I’m still good friends, reminds me of all the other reasons I might have gotten good grades in my art classes. Talent. Skill. Attention to detail. Doggedly hard work. I’m certain that, at least to some extent, he’s right. I did work really hard in art school. But the fact remains, there are no right answers in art. The grades are always going to be subjective. Which attributes are weighted most heavily? Talent and skill? Hard work and perseverance? Idea and concept? It depends on the professor. I had one emotionally volatile professor who I was convinced could as easily have given me a 2.0 or a 4.0 depending on what mood she was in when she graded my drawings.

To this day, I still believe my art school GPA was equal parts hard work and just getting damn lucky. So I was understandably freaked out stepping into my first class on my way to getting my engineering degree. It was chemistry and I was terrified. I hadn’t been in school for eight years and even then, I was “just drawing pictures all day.” I had no idea what would be required of me to do well in a college-level science class. So I set out to work my tail off. I showed up in class every day. I memorized everything I was told to memorize. I did every problem in the assigned homework. I read the textbook chapters that went along with the lectures. I couldn’t let my guard down for a second or, surely, I would fail.

Yay chemistry! Test tubes! Red and blue stuff!Photo courtesy of Horia Varlan’s photostream on Flickr.com

Yay chemistry! Test tubes! Red and blue stuff!
Photo courtesy of Horia Varlan’s photostream on Flickr.com

I hadn’t yet learned how to manage my time doing both work and school. My apartment rarely got cleaned that semester. My gym schedule suffered. I didn’t make very many social plans. But dang, did I know chemistry like the back of my hand. I got an A and was thoroughly relieved.

My relief was short-lived. Since I’d finally tested into calculus, I was able to take two classes the following semester. Again, terror set in. How could I possibly work full time and take two classes without dooming myself to failure? Again, I worked my tail off. I did all the homework, all the practice problems, all the reading. I was managing my time a bit better and, thankfully, my apartment stayed a little cleaner. I pulled off two more A’s.

The following semester I started the first of two physics classes and continued on with higher-level calculus. I had bad memories of physics from high school. I hadn’t liked it. I remembered a lot of obscure formulas and messy calculations. I was, again, terrified. Again, I worked my tail off. Low and behold, I ended up enjoying physics. The formulas were not obscure. In fact, the way they so accurately and succinctly described the world, I’d almost call them beautiful. I passed “Go”, I collected my $200 (or my two A’s, if the Monopoly metaphor annoys you).

Latest Monopoly news: they've ditched the iron for a cat!Photo courtesy of Steven Senne, Associated Press

Latest Monopoly news: they’ve ditched the iron for a cat!
Photo courtesy of Steven Senne, Associated Press

Fast forward to my first semester after transferring to my university. Lots of A’s in my pocket. Can you guess how I was feeling? Surprise! I was terrified! This was a huge engineering school. Not the happy little world of my community college. I was sure to get pummeled. The standard narrative ensued: fret, panic, work tail off – do well.

At the end of every semester I feel like I’ve narrowly missed being hit by a bus. No matter how many times I’m successful, I can’t help feeling I’ve somehow gotten lucky. I ignore the “work tail off” part and focus on the test that was generously graded, or how fortunate I was to have this professor rather than that one, who everyone says is a killer.

At the beginning of every semester I wonder if this is the semester when the other shoe is going to drop. Is this the semester when it’s all going to fall apart? Is this the semester when I will fail – when I will finally realize that I’m too stupid to be an engineer?

Why is it that, despite doing extremely well in one of the most challenging majors on campus, I still feel like luck has played as much of a role as hard work and dedication? I’m a member of the Society of Women Engineers, and they often do webinars about various topics of interest to their membership. Last year they had a webinar about Imposter Syndrome. I finally had an explanation for my bizarre fears –

“Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the [imposter] syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.”

Of course naming something doesn’t actually fix it. I just signed up for my next year of classes. They will be the hardest set of classes I’ve dealt with yet…classes I’ve been warned about by those who have gone before me. Classes where everything might fall apart. I am, you guessed it, terrified.

Okay. But what would I tell my best friend if she were me? I’d be nicer to her than I’ve been to myself. I’d tell her, look, you’ve proven you can do this. You’ve gone into every class with grit and determination. It’s not about brilliance or extraordinary intelligence, it’s about working hard, getting help when you need it and not accepting failure as an option.

Working your tail off makes more sense if you have a tail...like this cat...using a graphing calculator!

Working your tail off makes more sense if you have a tail…like this cat…using a graphing calculator!

So I try to be my own best friend, and bit by bit, I am gaining a little more faith in myself. I’m slowly learning that succeeding in a “hard” major is more about wanting it badly enough and less about being a genius. So that’s what I try to tell to myself and that’s what I’d tell anyone else who wants to try something they fear is too hard. In the words of Thomas Edison, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” Turns out, it’s true.