Exactly one year ago today, I left my job to pursue independent consulting full-time. I took a big leap of faith. I had faith in myself that things would work out. I had faith that even with the odds stacked against me, I could pull it off.
I stepped out on my own because I knew that I wanted a different lifestyle; in my heart I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to fulfill my true calling while working for someone else in a traditional corporate environment.
It was entirely possible that I would fall flat on my face. I had saved up about three months of expenses and had a decent pipeline of work, but it was at a time when we were staring at the beginning of the worst recession our country has seen in more than half a century. I told myself that if I couldn’t find user experience work, I’d just go get a part-time job at Barnes & Noble and do whatever it takes to make ends meet. Total failure just wasn’t an option.
Less than four years out of college, some people might have said that I lacked the experience necessary to be a successful business person, that I still needed to work within a larger team in order to continue my growth as a practitioner, to have direct supervision and built-in resources, that I’m just too “junior” and wet behind the ears. In fact, they did say it. I still have detractors. Some of them tell it to my face, and others hide behind pseudonyms and anonymity. What I don’t think they realize is that they give me even greater confidence to trust my instincts.
The past year has been a roller coaster, but throughout it all one thing has remained clear: I am meant to be doing this.
Quitting my job — a steady paycheck, amazing benefits, a hefty semi-annual bonus, an annual $2,500 “professional development” budget, mentorship from a manager and peer designers, access to a wealth of resources, and fascinating design challenges — was far and away the best decision I have ever made.
My life couldn’t be more different than it was a year ago today: My schedule is a war of attrition. No two days are alike. I’m in constant selling mode just trying to keep my pipeline full. At any given time 15 things are dividing my attention. I’m almost fully booked for three weeks out, but I couldn’t tell you for certain where I’ll be in three months. My expense report would scare small children, and my timesheets would knock them dead. I chase down money like a mobster. I clock more miles around New York City than a traveling salesmen, and yet I probably spend more time at home than anyone else in my building. I don’t have a boss and yet I have more people to answer to than ever before. I’m constantly doubting myself and constantly reassuring myself and constantly thinking I’m insane and brilliant and insane. I feel like a shark that will sink if it stops swimming. Manic doesn’t even begin to describe my state of mind.
And yet despite it all, the craziness and insecurity and instability and vulnerability and doubt and total disarray, I am unequivocally the happiest and most at peace I have ever been in my entire life.
Looking back at what I wanted then, I’m amazed at how much of it has come true in such a short period of time. I wrote:
I don’t want one or two clients. I want 50! I want to be involved in as many domains and as many product types as possible. I want to design for the web, for the desktop, for mobile devices, for household gadgets, for kiosks and touchscreens and interactive billboards. And I want to have ownership over my designs, involvement in the strategic process, collaboration with the most influential stakeholders and the guys on the production line.
In the past year I have worked with 17 clients, in finance, healthcare, entertainment, media, marketing, publishing, education, and non-profit spheres. It’s a staggering amount of work that I’m only now looking back on as a whole. I’ve worked with Fortune 500 corporations, well-known agencies and little-known startups, conducted intense research projects and scrappy usability tests, set new strategies for companies and developed their first-ever products or revamped existing ones that were in much need of some love. And most importantly to me, I’ve positively impacted tens of thousands of users’ lives.
None of this would have been possible if I were still sitting behind the same desk, just a cog in the wheel, doing the same old routine.
Reading the end of my August 22, 2008 post, I’m actually moved to tears.
I know it’s going to be amazingly difficult. I know I’m going to have periods of self-doubt and insecurity. I know that some months it might even be a struggle to pay the rent. But in the end, I’ll have no one to blame but myself, and no one to thank but myself. Independence will bring strength, greater influence, greater competency, and most of all, pride.
I’m young and I have a lot to learn, about the world and about myself. But failure simply doesn’t exist. Every mistake I make along the way will be a lesson. And every disappointment will be an exercise in humility and courage. Failure is doing nothing when your heart is telling you exactly what you want.
So I’m doing it. I’m cutting the cord, and I’m ecstatic for what’s to come. More of the same will get you nowhere. So here’s my message to the universe: shock and amaze me. Make every day different. Create hurdles and boundaries. I’ll never give up on myself, and you’ll help me prove it.
I’ve done myself proud and I’m not too shy to admit it. Mostly because I know in my heart that I’m exactly where I’m meant to be. I still have so much to learn, about my profession and myself, that I’m humbled by how far I have to go. But I’m going there. I’m always going there. And I know I’ll never get there, but I’ll never stop trying. That is what my life has become. No more plateaus. No more easy comforts. It’s a constant climb. My mind aches and my body aches and I can hardly see the rocky, steep path above me, but I know it’s there, and I know my legs are strong enough to carry me no matter what terrain lies ahead.
I strongly encourage you to find your mountain and never stop climbing it. Life has never felt so grand, and my biggest wish is for you to feel it, too.
May the next year be more challenging, more rewarding, more frenetic, more strategic, more delightful, more frightful, more impactful, more extraordinary than ever.
All I want less of is fear.
Thank you for being here through it all.
- The 5-Year Anniversary of My LLC August 4, 2010 | 10 comments
- My 2nd Indie Anniversary August 23, 2010 | 13 comments
- Strategy Starts with Honesty July 20, 2009 | 12 comments
- I’m going solo August 22, 2008 | 28 comments
- In 2008, You Changed Me January 3, 2009 | 7 comments
Orian Marx says
Whitney, your words as always are a true inspiration. Congratulations on reaching this wonderful milestone, which will one day be but the smallest of steps in your amazing journey.
Inspiring story… Good luck and hope to see you scale new mountains :)
Collier Ward, AIA says
God's best to you in Year Two!
Jeffrey Zeldman says
Go, Whitney, go!
Greg Palmer says
Very inspiring post, Whitney. Congratulations on your first year of independence!
Matt Zarzecki says
Terrific story and inspiring. Congrat's to you Whitney. I found your story via twitter and glad I did.
Congrats, Whitney! Taking that leap is scary, but you've clearly executed it quite beautifully. Best wishes for continued success … :)
Congratulations on Year One, Whitney! In a “cubicle farm” job, you have a mandatory performance review once a year (that most people dread doing). You, as an independent, did your own year-end performance review because you *wanted to*.
These are the things that make you awesome (and successful)!
Whitney Hess says
That's actually a killer idea. I should do a real performance review. In fact, I will.
Tejas Shukla says
Truly inspiring. Congrats Whitney and good luck for the road ahead.
Simon Owens says
This is great. I too quit a secure job back in May to go full-time on my own, and though the first three months were incredibly frustrating and sometimes downright terrible, I've finally picked up enough of a client load that I think that the ship has almost righted itself. I hope that within three more months I'm at a very happy place in my career.
Melanie Notkin says
Mazal Tov, Whitney. You articulated so beautifully what I keep telling friends and acquaintances who are also thinking about becoming entrepreneurs… You just don't know your potential until you take the risk to discover it.
All the best on your first year and keep going!!
Marcelo Shinkar says
Great Post @whitneyhess !!! Congrats on your first year solo !!! Your post is really an inspiration !!! A MUST read : http://bit.ly/16Ko4V
Congrats. Looks like you've made it and no doubt its due to hard work and energy. Reading it actually made me think how I have no right to be in this UX business. Sadly its been an eye opener for me too really.
Don't fret on the fear.
Fear can be the motivation to do amazing things. It's the low level worry that drains the colour out of life.
Looking forward to next year's post.
Craig Tomlin says
Congratulations on a successful year and I am sure you'll have many more, especially with that positive attitude of yours! Keep it up!
Matthew Knell says
1 year of what will clearly become a successful career of 20 or 30 years. You are a rockstar and only the sky is the limit for you.
Never been more proud of someone who took a chance like this. You deserve all you get.
Liz Greene says
Powerful story, thank you for sharing your journey!
Brian Artka says
Thanks for these inspiring words Whitney. Hearing things like this do wonders for one's own planning.
Sean King says
I've been following you more and more over the past few months, and the story is truly courageous. Taking the risks you have, following your instincts, and sharing the pain and rewards of your journey with the rest of the world is a truly motivational story.
You provide hope to many of the cubicle-chained looking for something more. Thank you for sharing.
Congratulations, an inspiring real-life story. To continued success.
“I’m constantly doubting myself and constantly reassuring myself and constantly thinking I’m insane and brilliant and insane.” This perfectly describes what every single day is like on this journey.
Also, yes, this is what happens when you post online. Someone will be inspired from it 4 years later :)