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  • Writer's pictureHilary Kelley

trust falling

"Till the fire goes out" watercolor, gouache and ink 2019

I tend to eyeball things.

If I need to measure anything I’ll stare intently at the object and its surrounding negative space and make the call on instinct. This goes for leveling, baking, finding midpoints, discerning character, and color-matching. And I usually nail it. Most of the time.

I'm building a design portfolio for my UX Design course at General Assembly and reflecting on everything it took to get me here. 2019 was a polarizing year. Many of my friends made life-altering decisions like getting out of toxic relationships, building businesses, or moving across the country, while others suffered a series of tragedies and disappointments that left them depleted by August. Something we all agree on is that these events made us push ourselves into unknown territories and figure things out in real time.

February of 2019 marked three years of freelance illustration for me; the point at which most entrepreneurs say will either make or break you. I had been struggling with the creeping sensation that maybe I just didn’t like being a professional artist (but still loved making art), and then coping with the accompanying guilt that I was letting either myself or others down with these feelings. According to my arbitrary rules, because I had publicly declared "I am an artist! I even do it for a living!" that meant if I gave it up, I was forfeiting the identity.

So who am I if I’m not an artist? What else could I possibly do? There were things I considered my truths: I had a hard time paying attention, I had to be on my own schedule, I could work myself to death. I was too often mired in my own perceived tragedy: my family drama had caused a chain of events that led me to scrap my way through life, never really coming to rest on any one profession. I resigned myself to a lifetime of discontent and questioning.

a plumb bob, used in construction to find true vertical lines

I can’t say that any one thing precipitated my reaching out for help, but finally realizing that this story that I insisted was my narrative wasn’t helping anyone (least of all me), was huge. I sat with the knowledge that I’d always settled for fine and okay, meanwhile being my friends’ biggest champion and never giving myself the same encouragement. With the help of those friends and my husband Kyle, I tried the thing I hadn’t tried yet and started the journey into improving my mental health.

Things began to clear up. Getting on medication for anxiety and depression was like walking through a door in my own house that I’d never seen before. My worldview flipped and suddenly everything impossible was manageable. I acknowledge that the road isn’t often as straightforward for everyone, and I’m grateful that I am able to work with a doctor who is always willing to listen and try things.

With the new outlook, I decided to tackle one of the biggest oppressors in my life: the uncertainty of my career. After testing the waters with a handful of random interviews at companies where I would have done fine, I wondered if maybe I didn’t just want fine, maybe I wanted to get a job in something that I was actually interested in.

Previously, I would have felt that at 36 years old my chances to learn anything new were rapidly diminishing. But with the detritus of anxiety quieted for once, I wanted to see what was possible.

The idea of UX Design materialized slowly; I kind of knew what it was, I have friends in the industry, my own brother was a practitioner for a while. It just kept floating in and out of my view. I wondered if it would be a good fit, I am a jack of all trades and didn’t think that my combined experiences would necessarily help me along, but a friend encouraged me to examine the path that I’d taken more carefully:

I went to culinary school in my 20’s and ended up working in fine dining and kitchen management for a few years. From there I moved into the coffee industry and focused on customer service (and more management). I dipped briefly into video production and web design, where I quickly learned new software and even (now that I look back on it) some key principles of UX Design. And throughout all of this I was making art, until I finally went freelance with illustration a few years ago.

With my "story" in place, all of these translated into better truths: I love managing a team, I love talking to people, I can be mechanically-minded, and I have an innate talent for visual design and storytelling.

So then suddenly I had potential. UX Design began to make sense. I started talking to different schools and bootcamps, and finally settled on General Assembly, whose classrooms are located at Ponce City Market. I was amazed at how quickly things began to fall into place, and on November 12th I walked in as a new student along with 17 other designers.

It's been hard, to be sure. There are days when I walk out feeling like my brain is completely full and couldn’t take in any more—and then I go back and do it again the next day. My free time is finite and I've had to discipline myself to get to sleep early. I wear my glasses a lot more now. I miss cooking dinner. I have a well-rounded case of Imposter Syndrome.

we'll endure a lot for free food

But there are things that I adore: I have wonderful instructors. I'm learning something new every day, which is my favorite thing in the world. My cohort is made up of some of the wildest, most thoughtful and good-hearted people I’ve ever met, from all walks of life, with an age range that spans over 25 years. I get so excited whenever they get up to give a presentation because I know how hard it is for some of them (self-included!), and I find that myself bursting with pride at the effort we all put into it. When we build working prototypes and go out to ask complete strangers to test them, you can hear us all buzzing with curiosity.

I look at how much my life has changed in just two short months and wonder how I ever lived without this kind of push.

lately, doing a-ok

It's still daunting when I think about the process of getting a job in my new field. There are still parts of me that fear being rejected, or that I'm not good enough, and I have to remind myself of my value.

I still feel like I have good instincts, and they rarely lead me astray. But if this past year has made anything crystal clear, it’s the necessity of using the right tools and asking for help. I had to challenge my instincts to make things better, I have to challenge my own self-perception to move forward. If the narrative's no good, it's gotta change.

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