Torn between adventure and stability
June 3, 2012 7:13 AM   Subscribe

Graphic designer hoping to do something more (documentaries and photography) at 31 years old. I'm at a new chapter in my life but unsure how to write it: after a recent breakup, I realized I have to go after what I really want, not hope to rely on someone else to get me there. The only problem is I am now very torn between going the "expected", more stable, route and taking a risk and seeing what happens if I just do what I love.

I spent my 20's "lost" in LTRs where I shelved my real hopes and dreams in order to feel validated as an amazing girlfriend, only to learn the painful way that I couldn't be anyone's dream girl if I kept settling for less and not actually pursuing my dreams! This last breakup was my life's biggest wakeup call.

For the last 10 years, I've been working as a graphic designer, good, totally capable, but in the past I was not ambitious about it, content to just use it as a reliable source of income, while I dreamed of marrying the now-ex and traveling, with the vague idea that I'd "make it" someday. Now he's dropped me, and I have fully realized that I have to know who I am, know what I want, make WISE decisions, and just do it because I don't have a lot of youth left.

The thing is, I know who I am. Well, I know what I really want to be, the thing that I would regret forever if I didn't take the chance. I want to be a woman traveling through remote parts of the world documenting different cultures through film, photography, whatever media that makes this possible. I am also interested in making documentaries about social issues in general. I see plenty of women I admire greatly doing this.

Unfortunately, for me, I am 31 and it involves a career change. And it's a career change that would be less lucrative (from what I hear) and more of a struggle if I actually want stability & comfort. It's a career change that may net result in not much security for me in 10-15 years. I don't know if I'd be able to help my parents out. I don't plan on having a family, but not living a student life would be desirable by then.

My more realistic (married with kids) friends are telling me this is not a wise choice. That I have to think about the likely possibility of having little to show for that career change and it being a waste of 10-15 years that I could have put into saving lots of money from a lucrative corporate design position by the time I hit 40. If I stick with design for a few more years, and put my all into it, I could be making 6 figures, which would certainly help my dreams should I pursue them in my middle age years.

What I want to do for sure in my 32nd year is get a steady, stable job and save money. I freelance right now. But after that, do I pursue my dream at the age of 32-33? Do I halt my design career before promotion to the top in my field to run off to China or Africa and live with some tribe? Or do I put it off so that I can have a stable retirement fund?

Somehow the idea of putting my dream off till I'm 35 or older is distasteful. I want to go do it NOW, but I need money first. I can't give up my dream, but the dream sounds so difficult in reality. I don't want a struggling life where I can't help my parents out if they are in financial difficulty someday. I am not sure what to do -- but there must be a way to have both my dreams AND money in the bank?
posted by Sa Dec to Work & Money (21 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: If you haven't seen Neil Gaiman's recent commencement speech, go watch it now. It's been ringing in my ear a lot as I consider a major life transition. In particular this section:

Sometimes the way to do what you hope to do will be clear cut, and sometimes it will be almost impossible to decide whether or not you are doing the correct thing, because you'll have to balance your goals and hopes with feeding yourself, paying debts, finding work, settling for what you can get.

Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be – an author, primarily of fiction, making good books, making good comics and supporting myself through my words – was a mountain. A distant mountain. My goal.

And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain. I said no to editorial jobs on magazines, proper jobs that would have paid proper money because I knew that, attractive though they were, for me they would have been walking away from the mountain. And if those job offers had come along earlier I might have taken them, because they still would have been closer to the mountain than I was at the time.

I've been thinking a lot about my goals and whether I want to climb a "career" mountain that looms in front of me, or not. If I do, my next move is pretty clear-cut, but it will involve a lot of hard work and instability. If I don't, I can lead a very rich life, and climb some other smaller mountains (family, travel, hobbies), but I have to accept that I'm making a choice not to climb the big one.

In your case ("I would regret forever if I didn't") it sounds like you have a mountain you need to climb. Some of your worries about instability are about ensuring that you don't fail in the climb, and these are legit; you should be strategic. Others are fear about attempting the climb at all, and these are not legit; you should try to put these aside. It makes sense to work for a while and build up some savings, but maybe you could start pulling your career in a direction that sets you up for a next step.
posted by PercussivePaul at 7:29 AM on June 3, 2012 [18 favorites]

Best answer: Do what makes you happy but be smart about your move. You don't have to jump in completely. As a freelancer you have a nice setup already as it sounds like you are pretty well established. Buckle down for a few months scrimp and save and then tell your clients you are going away to work on a project. Repeat. It may not be ideal but thats actually how a lot of people working on documentary projects have to operate. You have to make a living so you can't be working on your personal project constantly. I know plenty of good documentary photographers that make most of their money shooting weddings or doing commercial work.

Another way to support your work would be through grants. There are lots and lots of grants out there for this sort of thing and also workshops you can sign up for that tell you how to pursue such a plan.

If you are in the US check out the National Press Photographers Assosciation They have regular listings for workshops that they and others are putting on. They are also offering Short Grants which are small grants for quick stories.

It is a struggle to make a living as a documentarian. I have known some really well respected photographers who have taken to manual labor jobs to fund their projects. But if you have something in mind and you feel like it needs to be told, then do it.

I would also suggest, if you have not done so already, to hone the craft of photography and videography and field recording. Find local stories to do or just focus on your friends or family and shoot shoot shoot.
posted by WickedPissah at 7:33 AM on June 3, 2012 [4 favorites]

I want to be a woman traveling through remote parts of the world documenting different cultures through film, photography, whatever media that makes this possible.

One consideration is how physically difficult travelling in remote parts of the world will be as you age. If you feel a strong need to do this, you may need to start now, depending on your health and general physical condition.
posted by immlass at 7:33 AM on June 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Documentary film is a fairly unlucrative career, but that's not a reason to not try it. Do you have any experience at all in shooting, editing, interviewing, etc? you might want to try to get some sort of gig working for a production company before you launch your Kickstarter project. Making a film on any subject requires a lot of business and networking skills, so you might want to start meeting people in this field.
i don't think you're too old to make this switch, but I think you need to really clarify your golas. Traveling around, recording cultures is pretty vague.
posted by Ideefixe at 7:47 AM on June 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

The grants are highly competitive and you'll be going up against the best in the business. There's very little money to be made, or available, doing documentary work. Be prepared to spend most of your time not doing the type of photography you want to do in order to pay for the type you want to do. Or be wealthy. Or be willing to spend a few years in poverty (after spending many thousands on equipment).

It can be done, but it's one of the most difficult things you can try to do. Don't let age get the better of you, though. Many of the best photojournalists had successful careers in unrelated fields before even picking up a camera. I know of architects and economists and investment bankers and truck drivers and chefs who started taking pictures in their 30s and are now among the most highly regarded documentarians working today.
posted by msbrauer at 7:51 AM on June 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I don't have any experience in film/video and know very little photography. I know it's something I have to learn, so it's either I take classes or learn through an internship (there are plenty of great doc studios in NYC where I am).

I would love to do an internship 2-3 days out of the week, but that would mean keeping with the unsteadiness of freelance design instead of the more reliable, better paid full-time salaried position. I guess I could take night classes as a compromise if I felt I really needed the stability of a f/t job (since I'm going to move out of the house I share with ex in 2 months). I'm pretty scared I won't be able to pay the bills on time, if my (small business) clients suddenly stop having work for me or something.
posted by Sa Dec at 7:55 AM on June 3, 2012

Response by poster: If I didn't think about anyone else in the world but me, I would go for this career. I don't care so much about having to just get by, so much as making my parents worry or not being able to give them financial help or vacations, or generally being "pitied" by more stable folks, or maybe even not being able to hold onto a relationship because what do I have to bring to the table, other than that I have gone after my passions? I worry that financial instability at my age (and 10 years later) says something bad about me to others. But I'm pretty confident I have what it takes to succeed in this field and gain the respect of colleagues once I learn the trade. If success is not defined in terms of having plenty of money saved up.
posted by Sa Dec at 8:08 AM on June 3, 2012

Have you ever done any travelling? Take a vacation. Two weeks or whatever you can manage. Go to Vietnam or Chile or India. Bring a camera. Go by yourself. Stay in hostels or other affordable accommodations.

When you get back, reassess. Decide if you actually like this sort of thing, or if you jut like the *idea* of this sort of thing. If you really want to go back out and do more, figure out how you're going to pay for it then.

And stop worrying about what your parents will think. You're 31.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 8:37 AM on June 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: If you stay freelance, a way to get your toes wet might be to do some graphics for non-fiction video. Those shows on History channel and National Geographic need maps and diagrams and animations. When you say "doc studios" in NYC, what types of films/programs do you envision working on?
posted by xo at 8:52 AM on June 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Ah, and a link for you: attend DocuClub! A great way to see works in progress, meet filmmakers, and find out really quickly how people make it work (or don't): DocuClub.
posted by xo at 8:56 AM on June 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: As a graphic designer, you should take a look at the current state of the field. I recently changed jobs (I'm a designer as well) but not careers, but one thing I heard from people was that "You're taking a chance by leaving for something unknown." My reply was this - "Look at what's happened. I'm taking just as much of a chance as I would if I stayed."

My point on this is that you're never as stable as you think, especially in a field that's currently as volatile as graphic design. Outsourcing, consolidations, massive job cuts, a flood of designers entering the market from school every year to compete with those who lost design jobs over the past few years, and many other factors mean you just can't get too comfortable with making this your life's career.

What to do? It is a tough world out there, after all. But you can use your current situation to your advantage. You have money to get a video camera if you don't already have one. You have money to get video editing software if you don't have it. This is a time for you to put in some practice and see if you really like it. Task yourself with making a documentary of something, even if it's just a short film about the biggest ball of twine in the state. Go take lots of pictures. If you end up taking a vacation, treat it as a shoot and get lots of material to work with. Basically, try it before you buy it as far as a career change goes. Most importantly, make as many contacts as you can. It may turn out you can't do this as a career, at least not for now, but you might be able to do it as a sideline.

Whatever the case, look at your fear of change and then look past the fear part of it. You could be taking a big chance by making the leap. But you could be taking as big of a chance by not doing it. The funny thing about life is that you never know.
posted by azpenguin at 8:57 AM on June 3, 2012 [4 favorites]

Most production outfits are leery of taking "interns" who aren't going to get college credit. But why not branch out into graphics (GRFX) for video? Learning the software and the edit programs would probably be pretty easy for you, and it's an entry point into the world you long to be a part of. Helping your folks is commendable, but you have to put your own oxygen mask on first. Do they have cultural expectations of your supporting them or is this just your own feeling?
posted by Ideefixe at 9:15 AM on June 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I definitely recognize that I sound vague -- because I am honestly quite naive to this whole field. As for travel, I have done some of that, but never totally solo. I loved it and was totally bitten by the travel bug (for places that are out of the beaten path).

The types of films/programs already out there that I wish I could have worked on: docs on conservation: the impact of modern/western/globalization on traditional and indigenous cultures, human/women's rights issues: (war vets and PTSD, sex slavery, bride kidnapping, etc), travel-oriented (Globetrekker-style), biographies of interesting people, maybe something that explores certain post-modern phenomena.

I definitely have to give it more thought and do some research. I'm not even sure how people/journalists go out and find interesting stories to tell. (Being that I'm a shy introvert -- I have to just get out and talk to people to start!)

Is going to school for documentaries even worth it? Should I just plunge right into trying to make something with help from others?
posted by Sa Dec at 9:27 AM on June 3, 2012

Get a camera, an idea and push something up to youtube. Today.
posted by sammyo at 9:30 AM on June 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Ideefixe, yes, it's an Asian cultural expectation thing. My parents can tell me that they just want me to be happy, but I'll STILL feel guilty, I think, if "other daughters" are more whatever they consider ideal (nice house, husband, kids, great career).

That's a good idea to learn Final Cut Pro, etc. Then I can get somewhat paid as well while getting closer to my goal. I suppose I just have to relax and realize I WILL eventually get there when I'm supposed to as long as I keep taking steps toward it not away, and never lose sight of it like I did in the past.
posted by Sa Dec at 9:33 AM on June 3, 2012

Your dream is indeed very difficult. That career does not create financial stability or a retirement fund, even for people who are successful. I would continue in your freelance mode because it reliably supports you and gives you spare time to take classes and make small projects. Don't go all out for higher paying graphic design jobs because you need the time and energy to develop your skills and your personal projects.
posted by conrad53 at 10:28 AM on June 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Why not start small and gauge your interest based on actual experience making videos? Find a local story: bodega cats, coffee cart guy 5am, mysterious old lady in the park, mom and her secret recipe. Shoot with your iPhone, edit in iMovie. Try to make something that's 1-2 minutes long, aim for 2-3 on the next. Make some low-stakes mistakes & learn from them. Are you falling in love with telling stories in a doc style yet? Great, maybe it's time to look for a class. Not loving it? Just saved yourself 10 G's in gear & who knows how much time and energy.
posted by FeralHat at 10:40 AM on June 3, 2012 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Here is my suggestion: start networking. Get involved with people who are doing what you want to do. Start small - because you will have to. No one will want to give you any responsibility to do anything (even for free) if they suspect you might not follow though. Here is a sample way this could go:

1. You find that a local indie filmmakers is soliciting volunteers for a project.
2. You contact them and say, "I am interested in helping with your project as a volunteer for X reasons. I have Y experience. I am prepared to commit Z hours a week to the project for K number of weeks. Can you use my help?"
3. If they say yes, hammer out the details, then FOLLOW THROUGH ON YOUR COMMITMENT. You cannot bail. These communities are close, people talk. For this reason, start small. If you promise to help with a certain project for one two-hour session, and you do, this will look way better than if you show up for seven hours but had promised ten.
4. Be very open about how you can help. If you are just getting started, basically anything you do to participate will teach you a lot about the whole process.
5. So your participation on that project is finished? Great, let them know that you had a good time and to let you know about future projects. (If this is true.)
6. Repeat a couple times.
7. Wow! Now you are probably getting emails from strangers or people you met briefly on those prior projects asking you to help with another project! Wonderful! ONLY COMMIT TO WHAT YOU CAN FOLLOW THROUGH ON.
8. This goes on. You'll be getting more experience, meeting more people, and getting more drawn into the community.
9. Now maybe someone is asking you to take a credited role on their project, unpaid. Real responsibility! Great! Make sure you only take it if you believe in the project and no one else is getting paid either. This is the tricky stage: you only want to do one or two projects unpaid where you have a lot of responsibility, because, well, if they value your skills enough to give you that responsibility, they should pay you, but, also, you do need to prove you can stand on your own two feet before people feel comfortable paying you.
10. Ok, you took those roles. Put them on your resume. You've been documenting everything you've worked on, and your role, right? Now you can apply for paying jobs! You'll probably get them if you've been good to work with and follow through on your commitments, because remember, everyone talks.
11. Okay, now you are getting paid work, but still exploring your skills and talents. People are probably still asking you to work for free though - I would politely decline unless it is a personal favor with clearly defined limits. You're a professional now, but not a highly paid one, so people should understand if you are not able to donate your time.
12. From here it can go so many ways - but hopefully you are always following your passion, and finding things about the work that you love, and also getting by.

You will need another job while this is all happening. It is very very ideal if you have a job with fixed hours, or freelance works because you make your own hours. It is very difficult to work with a variable "day job" schedule and a production schedule, because your boss doesn't care about your "hobby" and while the production you made a commitment to might understand if your day job schedule upsets your commitment, they might not call you back.

But, if you start small, maybe eventually through networking you can find a new day job in the industry that is not something you enjoy, but is something you would be willing to do if paid, and also gives you the set schedule you need to follow your passion.

By the way this is a TON of work. You really have to love it. And have good people skills. And recognize that until you are a professional working with professionals exclusively a lot of projects might be super messy and unorganized and frustrating because creatives are, well, creative.

I'm coming from experience in the theater, and a bit of film, so some of this might not be quite right. Hopefully someone else will correct me if I'm way off, but in general, this seems to be a way to "get a foot in the door" without totally jumping in head first.
posted by newg at 10:40 AM on June 3, 2012 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you, everyone... every bit of advice is invaluable. Particularly the more concrete and specific ones that lay out a working plan that sounds *gasp* plausible. It gives my hope for a better future something to really hang onto and work toward. It's a pretty dark period for me, trying to figure out where I should go, how I'll transition into a newly single life, while living very awkwardly with an estranged, insensitive ex in the same house (until July-ish). This is giving me something I can feel good about. Thank you!
posted by Sa Dec at 11:13 AM on June 3, 2012

Best answer: Everyone has given you great advice about how to get started. But also consider that a lot of your desires could be fulfilled if you simply made enough money to take a month or two off every year and travel someplace exotic and off the beaten track and developing your photographic and documentary skills as an amatuer. Professionalizing a hobby can suck a lot of the enjoyment out of it.
posted by deanc at 11:49 AM on June 3, 2012 [6 favorites]

The other thing you can do is start watching these films, as slowly as possible. See how they set up the shots, how the shots are edited together, what the transitions are like. There's a lot of pretty bad docs out there, but there are many very well-made films. Yes, it's like film school, and sometimes analyzing the hell out of something is a great way to kill enjoyment, but it's also a good way to see how all the pieces fit together. There's a number of Asian American film makers, women included--you might start looking at those films, like Jessica Yu's Breathing Lessons or Grace Lee's The Grace Lee Project or Debbie Lum's Seeking Asian Female.
And going out with the camera and shooting the hell out of something is the easy part of making a doc.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:51 PM on June 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

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