I was invited to speak with the students at Brigg's High School in Norwalk, CT last week. Basically, all of these kids have unique and challenging situations that they deal with every day. From living in the projects, getting flunked out of every school, being in abusive environments, the list goes on. Brigg's is a school where these students receive specialized attention to see the potential in themselves and succeed. I was asked to talk about "succeeding despite my situation growing up."
For my talk I didn't want to focus on just graphic design, illustration, or freelancing. I felt that what it all comes down to is being a person of character. Being a person who breaks through and thrives despite challenges.
Now, I don't know much about REAL adversity, but I did work hard to get to where I am without the cushions of a well off family, great name of a university, or connections. I had nothing close to any of those. "Oh, you went to the University of Bridgeport? I'd never dare get off that exit!" (Yes, that is an actual quote from an interviewer)
I grew up in a town that has been virtually unheard of until Forrest Gump hit the screens. I am from the same town where Bubba's from... Bayou La Batre, Alabama. And yes, shrimp was my life.
My dad, from Germany, worked on a shrimp boat, and eventually became a shrimp salesman selling to restaurants nation-wide.
Mom, although having a degree in Biochemistry from Paraguay, had co-founded a school in the area and she was a teacher... and you guessed it, that's where us kids went to school. This school was constructed basically by converting trailer homes into class rooms. Very much like a mom and pop type of school with about 7-10 per class at the most. I dreamt of going to the type of schools you see on TV.
But I did have a big advantage though, I grew up in a multicultural community where I learned how to read Korean, how to choose teams in Vietnamese, eat Japanese rice balls with dried anchovies for snacks. The food was the best! It was such an enriching childhood. Best of all, I didn't get a southern twang because of it ;)
Although rent was merely $70 a month, it was still tough to make ends meet. My parents never got lazy or gave up. Both of them have an incredible work ethic and integrity with everything they do. They were always active in the community and always up to something.
Mom one day received a phone call from someone who she had met at a conference. He had remembered she was from Paraguay and asked if she would consider being the branch manager of a newspaper down there. She had never studied journalism, but she knew how to run a tight ship. (now, my mom is one of the biggest success stories I've ever heard, from where she started to where she is now. Story for another time)
We moved to South America when I was ten years old without speaking a lick of Spanish. My extent of Spanish was counting to 6 and knowing how to say "bebe," which means baby.
I was used to a pretty simple life, so moving to a third world country wasn't a huge deal. I didn't mind the rickety buses, the consistently moldy walls in every building, basically the external stuff (the power outages got annoying though) because it was the people who were so inviting, loving and charismatic that made it so awesome.
I went to a Jesuit school while down there and I had friends from all different backgrounds. From 'really well-off, nice house' to 'dirt floors, not knowing how much I'll eat tonight.' But what your background was didn't matter when it came to making friendships ... it was who you were as a person that counted.
I was always drawing, but it was just for fun. I never had any drawing classes nor was I surrounded by people who drew. I never thought much of being an "artist", never thought it would actually be a career worth pursuing. I was into sports and sciences. I wanted to be of help to other people. But it was a teacher who saw a doodle of mine and asked if I could draw her children. BOOM! First portrait at 13 years old and then people started asking me to do posters, banners, logos, illustrations for pamphlets, etc.
When we thought about college, none of us kids wanted to stay in Paraguay. We all aimed to go to school in the States. It never came up how we were going to pay for it, because we had no clue but it was a no-brainer, we were all going to college. Luckily, my mom got a job at the University of Bridgeport and it put all four of us kids through college with close to no debt.
It surprised me though. Even though I was going to school for free, there were so many people -paying full tuition- and not putting the same or close to any effort into our classes. So I decided my professors were my competition. I aimed to be better than they were. And that's what drove me to be the top of the class and the university (Valedictorian and recognition in the State of CT's parliament building, kind of surprising). In school, a professor took notice of my work, then the vice-president of the University, and that's how things kept rolling.
After school I didn't want a job that was doing the same thing every day for the next 10 years. I needed variety and a big problem was... I didn't want to settle anywhere. Dad hated that I was just a floating vagabond designer, but then I realized that freelancing was an actual thing. I felt I had the chops to have my own gig, so I did it. I was organized, good work ethic, eager to please, good at math -still need to work on accounting- but hey! I felt I could handle it. And of course, it's been a HUGE learning process, but I'm better for it.
AT THE END OF THE DAY
1. Don't identify with the labels people or society put on you. No one can tell you what you can or cannot do. Break out of that box
2. There will always be barriers, but the real barriers are:
- Lack of commitment
- Getting overwhelmed
- Getting Frustrated
3. You're going to suck at first. Sucking... sucks
Uncertainty > Stress > Quitting
4. Learning ≠ Mastering.
- Learning is an ongoing process.
- Criticism? Learn from it. "What didn't you like about it?"
- Become better. Be Better
5. Figure out what you're ultimately aiming for. "I don't want a desk job doing the same old stuff for ten years. Flexibility. Creative ownership" GET CREATIVE with how you approach your life
6. In everything that you do... EXCEL. Excel in your talents & skills, excel in your job, excel in your relationships, excel in life.