“Push yourself out of your comfort zone as much as you can…those are the opportunities where you will learn the most.” – Su Matthews Hale

This quote has been lingering with me since last Wednesday night. Probably because I have found myself struggling lately with this very problem. I’m super comfortable where I am right now. I love my day job as the manager, and barista, of a local coffee shop / art gallery / bar. Anytime I mention this, however, you can imagine the responses, and expressions I’m met with after people learn that I am a graphic designer. “Why are you working at a coffee shop?” or “When are you going to get a real job?” are some common questions, accompanied by a furrowed brow and a, albeit polite, questioning tone. My answer to them is usually quick and to the point; “I’m comfortable here!” I say. Or, rather often, I tell them “This is a real job, with demanding work hours and responsibilities.”  But, I can’t blame them. My day job is fantastically disguised as a cake walk to the naked eye. At the same time, though, they’re sort of right. Right? Look, I love my job. I’m not ashamed of that. I can sling lattes, pour beers, and sell art with the best of ’em. But, make no mistake, I’m not wasting my time there. And I’ll tell you why:

This week I had the pleasure of attending my first AIGA meeting as a registered member of the local Charlotte chapter. AIGA offers an abundant amount of resources to designers and other creatives in the form of social gatherings, portfolio reviews, discounts, etc. One thing I believe is greatly beneficial to being part of AIGA is the opportunity to hear experiences, and advice from our peers at the top level of our industry. At this most recent chapter meeting, one of those top level designers, Su Matthews Hale graced us with her presence and delivered an insightful talk.

Su is a brilliant designer, mother, and overall powerhouse in the design industry. Not to mention, she’s the current national President for AIGA. I’m not going to pretend I know everything about her, so I won’t even try. But one thing that I do know, after just one experience of hearing her speak, is that she offers immeasurable knowledge for all those seeking a successful career in design. One of the things that stuck with me, besides her aforementioned fabulous quote, is her opinion on diversity in the work force. It offers chance for change, improvement, and brings fresh, unfiltered ideas to the table. Isn’t that what we want as creatives? A chance to redefine success, challenge standards, and create innovative works of art?

In my opinion, diversity in the workplace goes beyond the literal assumptions of race, class, sexual orientation, gender, etc. and reaches into our past experiences. The things we’ve accomplished, the times we’ve failed and succeeded, along with situations in which we were forced to question our motives, are what make us better as a driven, creative force. This is why I do not believe my time managing a coffee shop is a waste.  My time at the coffee shop has taught me a number of soft skills that I feel will offer me a chance to provide diversity in my future design career.

I believe that when the time comes, and I have to leave the coffee shop behind, that I will be a better person because of it. The people that I’ve met, and the experiences made there have given me confidence to be who I truly wish to become. No, it’s not a fast track to a multimillion dollar executive career, but it does offer me the opportunity to grow as a designer in my own time while still supporting my family. I try not to view my pursuit of a career in design as a sprint, but rather a marathon. (My partner is a high school cross-country and track coach. Forgive the corny metaphor, okay?) I am fully aware that I am comfortable where I am right now, I said it earlier after all. However, I also know that my comfort comes with a price. (That sounded super LOTR lore related, but you get the picture) Even though I know that my first day of my new job, at a fantastic design house, gets pushed further and further out each day longer I decide to stay at the coffee shop, I’m just not ready for my last day there yet.

I still feel there is something I need to learn by staying there. Something, maybe minor to many, that keeps me from completely moving on. I’m the kind of person who doesn’t like to quit until the job is done, and until I feel I’ve reached that point I doubt I’ll be rushing out of the door anytime soon. That is what makes me most uncomfortable; Knowing that I’ve left something unfinished, or incomplete drives me crazy until it’s done.

But, after saying all of this, I’ve realized that, this very idea of being uncomfortable with completeness, is my comfort zone. I don’t like saying that something is done, because when it’s done that means it’s over, and I hate saying goodbye. I need to learn that the end of something, is the beginning of something new, and that’s okay. Starting over is the scariest part, but it’s so very necessary once you’ve learned all you can.

I suppose my piece of advice for you after having read this, is to get acquainted with your comfort zones, challenge them, and to not be afraid begin.