My career path has been anything but a straight line.
It’s more like a wobbly zig-zag, lurching forward only to zip off in a different direction.
I have sometimes felt like a failure and a quitter, but I’ve learned to think of these experiences as an iterative process of trial, error, and course correction.
Life is full of unexpected challenges and opportunities (global pandemic, anyone?) and I hope my story encourages you to be more open to where life might take you and less afraid to change your plans.
I currently work as a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) metadata consultant. That means I work with cultural heritage and media organizations to bring their metadata in line with goals for greater inclusion and better representation of marginalized people, communities, and cultural traditions.
Metadata is basically any data we use to categorize and find things, whether on the internet, in a library catalog, or in a digital asset management system. Some of my projects have included designing data structures that accommodate collaboration, making online images more accessible to blind people or people with low vision, and creating custom taxonomies that describe people and culture in more accurate and respectful ways.
I love my work, but being a DEI metadata consultant was never a goal of mine. Instead, it was the organic result of a lot of different fits and starts. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way.
Follow your interests in the moment, even if they don’t align with your plan
Of course you should have a plan, but be open to exploring what draws your attention at any given moment. We sometimes think of these interests as distractions from what we’re “supposed” to do, but such detours give you real information about what you like and are passionate about.
As a student, I was interested in art and social justice. I got an MFA in visual art, thinking I was going to teach art and expand the canon to include more women and people of color. But when I got in front of my first classroom, I discovered I was not a great teacher, and I didn’t enjoy it. At the same time, I was also taking a Photoshop class, and I loved that. So I ended up as a web designer, because digital technology was so seductively cool in those early days of the Internet, and it was an easier way to make money.
“Failure” is just more information
I worked as a web designer for about 12 years, and I was passable at it. I was always able to find work, but I began to notice that my friends and colleagues who were more excited and passionate about design were being promoted, while I seemed to be on a downward trajectory, working on projects that seemed to get more rote and less innovative. I felt like a failure, stuck in a dead end job.
But failure is just another type of information. After a while, I realized I wasn’t getting ahead because my heart wasn’t really in it. I was tired of working in advertising and marketing, where the goal of every design was to sell something. As the field expanded and got more specialized, I found parts of the work that I had enjoyed—information architecture and usability design—were no longer part of my job. I hadn’t failed as a designer; design had failed me.
When I realized this, I began to re-engage with the things that brought me to design in the first place: art and social justice. Instead of teaching, I started writing about art on the side, focusing on women artists and artists of color. But art writing wasn’t going to pay the bills, so I eventually quit web design and went back to school in library and information science: still working with art, information, and technology, but from a more socially conscious perspective.
Be willing to bet on yourself
I spent the next ten years as an archivist preserving entertainment history within institutions. I loved it, but then COVID happened. I was furloughed from my job, rocked to the core by Black Lives Matter and anti-Asian hate, and was grieving the loss of life as it had been. When my dearest aunt passed away the day before my 50th birthday, I decided I had to do something more meaningful with my career. A few weeks later, I struck out on my own to become a DEI metadata consultant.
This felt a little impulsive and was actually a big risk. Who starts a business in the middle of a pandemic? This time, though, I didn’t feel like I had failed. I didn’t need that information to know I wanted something better.
I’m a little over a year into my new role, and it has been great. I love having a flexible schedule and being able to choose my projects. I have been supported by colleagues and friends both old and new, and have experienced a lot of “firsts.” I taught my first online course. I ran my first focus group. And I made more money than I had in any of my “careers.”
But most importantly, my work now brings all of my interests and influences together: social justice, art, cultural heritage, digital technology, data structures, and organization. In my new role, I get to engage all of these skills and interests. I wouldn’t be able to do this if I hadn’t let my career path meander. Now I know that all those times when I failed or quit, it was an opportunity to gather more information about what I like and want to do. All those experiences weren’t dead ends; they were the building blocks that have enabled me to start my own business and do work that I truly love—for now. I don’t know what the next pivot will be, but I know I won’t think of it as a failure.