What Am I Going to Be When I Grow Up?

Now that I'm in my late 40's, I should probably already be doing what I'm passionate about. However, easier said than done! Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to be a commercial/graphic artist. I've done fine art, but I'm also practical—fine art is like singing or drama—you're not always guaranteed a job. But graphic design is a practical application, and I LOVE to come up with the idea and then really make it work. Perhaps that's the analytical/puzzle-solving side of me?

When I've done fine art, finding a topic to paint or draw was always harder. I like to draw by seeing, rather than make it up in my head, by my imagination. Give me a photograph and I can duplicate it in watercolor or pastel. My high school art teacher once said I wasn't creative, but I was good at art? I had an eye. My college art teacher challenged me to find varying subject matter. When I painted our women's fraternity house (a portrait of it—not the actual walls!), instead of the usual landscapes, she was excited because I had branched out. I had another guest professor at MTU for graphic design. She loved my work and even kept my newsletter piece to show others when she left. She also said I had an eye. When I do graphic design, my gut just knows how to do it, how to place it, how to balance the white negative space with the positive. It's all about feeling, gut. Eye.

But I'm a degreed mechanical engineer and I run an indie software company. So how did I get here??? Well, I was also good at school. All subjects. I have a photographic memory and I was a good test taker. If I was calm enough, I could literally read the textbook in my mind while taking a test. Or at least I could site what side of the page in the book the answer was, even if I could not read the text clearly enough. I used a lot of patterns to memorize things and I was a perfectionist—my Jr. High counselor told me if I got all A's in high school I could be valedictorian. So I did. I put my mind to something and I do it.

In elementary school, I wasn't good at athletics, or so I was told. So I avoided recess like the plague. I had a cool art teacher that allowed you to stay inside during lunch and 3rd recess to do extra art projects. So I did. And I got to compete in all the art shows. Back then they actually awarded ribbons and Best of Show, not just participation. I was proud to earn 3 Best of Show ribbons and many first place. I learned a lot about design and balance through my elementary school art teacher. I started entering logo contests, and even got one of my designs published in a Girl Scout magazine for Year of the Child back in the 70's. There were several rights of children and I took on Right to First Aid. I had a simple design, that also incorporated diversity. My design was a red truck with the Red Cross symbol on it, filled with children of all colors, all done in construction paper. It was simple, to the point.

By the time I got to high school, I took a drafting class. I LOVED it. I loved the precise line-work, the structured layout. And visualizing the 3D objects in 2D. Of course, this was before computers. I liked this class so much that I took it all 3 years of high school. I even took a summer US history class for credit so that I could fit in more drafting during the school year. But what would I do with this? I remember going to the guidance counselor and inputting all my skills into a primitive computer program and it would spit out “Architect.” That's it. Nothing more. So, I applied to the University of Michigan college of Architecture and got accepted. But my drafting teacher thought I should try engineering, along with other teachers. I didn't know what I was supposed to do! I just wanted to pick something that had a finite job after school, that made decent money. Some degrees were too abstract for me. Women who were good at math and science were often pushed to study for a “real” degree, a “real” job since we could do it. I aced science, but I didn't really like it. I took computer programming in high school, I loved the logic of it, but it still wasn't my passion. I was told I'd never make any money in art, so I had to put that on the back burner. I figured they all knew what they were talking about. After all, now women did not attend college just for a M-r-s degree any longer. I had to support my gender, right? I agreed to look into Michigan Tech. They offered me a full four year scholarship. That would be a good deal for my family (we didn't have a lot of liquidity in our finances). I visited Mich Tech during Winter Carnival and I loved it. I also love nature and had been fascinated with the U.P. (upper peninsula of Michigan). I was hooked. So I applied and was accepted to the Mechanical Engineering department. (I also got cold feet temporarily and reapplied late to Univ of Michigan ME dept and got accepted, just in case.)

I attended MTU and I will never regret my time there. I did get to take as many art classes as offered (counted as Humanities credits), and I learned a lot about leadership. I also got a job on the school newspaper as Ad Production Manager by the end of my freshman year. I was in heaven. I earned spending money doing what I loved—graphic design.

But I graduated with an engineering degree. By the time I hit my senior engineering classes, I really didn't like it. I got the grades, but never was passionate about it. I worked in airbags right after graduation, which was interesting because they were so new, but I quickly pushed to get into management—I loved organization, loved managing. Eventually I moved into Program Management, which I loved, especially some of the people mentoring, and started earning my MBA. I finally moved to Chicagoland to work in a plant as Plant Quality Manager, in pursuit of a career as General Manager or CEO even. I was focused....

But I discovered during maternity leave that I actually did like kids. My own. And I did not want anyone else to raise my kids. I fell in love. I could not work and travel to keep on my career goals, without practically abandoning my kids, so I decided to take a leave and stayed home. We did art, we did projects, I taught them and exposed them to the world. I had my second quickly after my first, in anticipation of resuming my career at some point.

Then the internet happened. My husband's dream was to run his own business. I had taken some entrepreneur classes when I finished up my MBA so I had an idea of how this was done. I had a project now. While on maternity leave I looked into it. After the internet exploded, I found we could do this from home, being connected. I self-taught myself to learn web coding and designed my first company website. I designed our logo. I was having fun! My program management experience and my masters in business helped out and I was running our company! My husband loves coding, so more power to him. We started writing apps for Palm PDA's and smartphones and were starting to bring in good money. So here I was, essentially CEO of my own company, I got to do all the graphics for our apps, and it was chugging away. He eventually quit his job and we moved onto Apple iOS apps.

I would do all the app UI/UX (user interface/user experience design)—another passion—and he would code like crazy. Then we had to start picking up some contract work, to supplement our app sales. It's not easy surviving on just apps, especially with a family of five. Contract work is a catch 22. The more you work, the less time you have to do your apps, the more you need to work because you don't have time for new apps, etc. We went from a 60/40 to a 90/10 income relationship, contract/apps.

To free up time for my husband, I kept the family going, with all the “mom” tasks of chauffeur, laundry, grocery shopping, plus cashflow balance and bills. I am in charge of getting our health insurance, doing accounting, doing taxes, all the business stuff. I couldn't do as much marketing, because no new apps. I did a bunch of app designs, and updates, but alas, the coding got backlogged.

My programming skills are old—I'm great at FORTRAN, but Objective C is a whole different structure, object oriented. I still love the logic of it all, but not knowing the syntax is frustrating. But I needed to shore up our backlog of projects, so I am self-teaching myself coding. With all the interruptions of being a mom, and not having the passion my husband does, it has been very slow going. I've learned a lot, and I can fix some bugs, can start some projects, but I'm not quite there yet.

But getting older, your mind also starts to wander to what should I have really done for a career? I'm running out of time! Do I want to pursue programming? What is my passion? What is MY dream? Do I want to settle? What did I love doing? Commercial art. What I wanted to do when I was a kid. I had been steadfast. Graphic art. I love it. I also love management. I love mentoring. I get to do this a little with my kids. I think they are turning out pretty well, though my youngest still drives me nuts sometimes.

Graphic art. Should be easy on the internet, right? Maybe. I have the artistic skills. I have the eye. I have the passion. But I don't always have the right tools. I find it hard to draw on the computer. I want to do everything on paper. (Old school.) So it's hard to start. I also use GIMP and Linux (ok, I married a computer geek). It's hard to create the final deliverables for a project with GIMP. I remember designing print ads for one of our Palm apps that needed to be delivered in CMYK and that was next to impossible to get right. I also am more proficient in pixel designs, rather than vectors. So I need to update my skills in using vectors, along with finding good Linux software to work with. Yes, I have Inkscape, but I have to revisit it. I'm so proficient in GIMP right now that I am hesitant to tackle Inkscape. Maybe it's the “old school” in me...?

One of the most frustrating things about freelance work is the idea of how much things should cost, on both ends. How do you get the right project via the internet? There are a lot of people out there who want something for nothing, or are unrealistic in the time involved. We've quoted numerous programming projects and we've either grossly underquoted, or we've not been awarded the business because we projected accurately and our price was too high.

So here I am. I have skills, I'm artistic, I can manage, I can mentor. I need to brush up on some ancillary skills, like software. Is graphic design where I want to be? Or should I have gone down another path? I don't want to go back to school, cost and time, plus I already have a BSME and an MBA... I'm an ENFJ. What does that tell me? Tell others? I don't really want to work at a 9-5, after dozens of years of running my own business from home. How do you know? How do you decide? Is it too late? Why am I, at this age, still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up?!?

I'm on twitter, please feel free to comment @justinepratt or send me a DM. Thx for reading!