April 11, 2018

What My First Jobs Taught Me

My dad has a saying, “You can learn something from everyone”. He’s repeated it throughout my life, and it’s a lesson I’ve really embraced because it’s true. You really can learn something from everyone, and the unsaid but implied message is also, “and you should be receptive to hear what that is”.

As a bright eyed illustration graduate, I couldn’t have imagined the course my life would take professionally. Living up to the cool things my fellow graduates were doing, the debt I needed to pay off, and aspirations I had for my own life and career were all factors that lead from one job to another. Some of those pressures were certainly exaggerated in my mind from what they were in reality, but there they were for years. It took awhile, but I’ve finally been able to see the path that happened as a result of those decisions, and the lessons that each perceived “detour” had to offer me. Some of the lessons I count as invaluable now, and I don’t know what I’d do without the bits of knowledge I’ve gleaned from each of them.

To those, especially any designer friends, whose lives haven’t followed a nice neat path, I thought it might be helpful to list some of the titles I’ve had over the last almost decade (yikes!!!!). I do this in an attempt to share my own lessons for you, and maybe as an opportunity for you to dig down into your own life currently and find the lessons that are there for you as well.


Job: Michael’s Store Associate


Getting to see new inventory and imagining how I could use the materials- being inspired daily, in ways I didn’t always expect.


Stifling, rigid work environments can be the opposite of productive. I want to be helpful, and when systems are in place such that there is absolutely no thinking outside of the box, being helpful almost seems unwanted. Also, be prepared to be covered in glitter. Because you will be. Daily.


Job: T Shirt Designer


The work was often irreverent and funny. I saw some crazy requests for t shirts, and I had to make them happen. Like that time I needed to illustrate a cartoon shamrock wearing a Native American headdress as he was playing beer pong… oh, and it was Hunger Games themed.


Organization is so important. I ended up creating some new systems because of redundancies in our workflow due to in-organization. Also, being respectful of everyone, no matter what position you hold in the company. Everyone deserves to be treated with respect and like a fellow teammate, even if someone is unhappy with the current results.


Job: Freelance Layout Artist


Being able to solve peoples’ problems with the visual solutions they need.


Don’t be afraid to step up and take charge, even if you’re the small fry in the room. Great ideas don’t always come from the most senior players. As Sheryl Sandberg says in her book, Lean In, make sure that you leave yourself a seat at the table.


Job: Artist at an Event Collateral Production Company


Feeling like a valued member of a team, and getting to work with other young professionals. I had a really cool tribe there, and some true friends.


You’re capable of shorter deadlines and bigger projects than you might ever believe, until someone asks it of you. And when you accomplish those things, it feels really empowering. Another lesson would be that open and honest communication is always better than any other alternative. We’re so capable of assuming the worst and filling in gaps in our understandings of someone’s behavior. Spoiler alert: it’s never helpful.


Job: Odd Jobs From Online Freelance Sites


Enough money to buy coffee three times.


It’s very, very, rarely worth it. These sites exist because people are already price shopping and looking for a deal, not because they actually value your services. Just stop.


Job: Owner of Emily Burton Design


Getting to explore where I’d like to professionally, whenever I’d like- like this illustration style, which admittedly, I don’t love now that I’ve finished it. However, I did have the time to explore it, and that’s important! I also love the ability to truly schedule my own life as projects come in. Being able to finally say I started my own business.


It’s a scarier leap than I ever thought it would be, and that feeling was harder to push through than I expected. A real support team of family and friends is extremely necessary in order to make that leap, and I’ve been humbled by their support and the entire experience.


What are some lessons that you’ve learned through the years? Either surprising ones, or ones that snuck up on you later, or hard earned ones? I’d love to hear in the comments below! Remember, “You can learn something from everyone.”




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