The long way is okay
On unintentionally taking the slow route, and what I learned along the way.
Growing up, our family room mantle was lined with rows of trophies. There were golden soccer players frozen mid-kick, silver batters tee’d up to hit home runs, and brass plaques boasting “Collins Cougars: First Place.”
My brother was naturally great at sports. I was a total klutz despite the hours of ballet, Chinese dance and tennis lessons that I stumbled through. But if you looked closely above the fireplace, you might have seen one lonely golden cup hiding way in the back. My claim to fame at 10 years old: “Vicki Tan. Best Painting.”
Throughout grade school my teachers said I was creative. I drew all over my homework assignments for added flair and made posters instead of filling out worksheets. For Twin Day, instead of going to the Gap and buying cargo pants like everyone else in the early 90s, my “twin” and I decided to design and sew our outfits from scratch. This was a time when baggy jeans were in fashion so we made our own jeans, channeling JNCO and FUBU. The best part? A custom name and an embroidered logo to boot. Yet somewhere in between that childhood and college, I lost that spark.
I suspect these passions went missing along with hobbies like making ceramics and painting watercolors. The focus had shifted to AP classes and preparing for college. Once there, I discovered psychology and found classes on things that I had always wondered about like happiness, emotion, and perception. Many of life’s musings were neatly explained by behavioral science and I liked the good sense it made.
After graduation, I faced with the decision that many liberal arts majors have puzzled over: What now? I considered the traditional options for someone who had studied psychology: Therapist. Researcher. HR something. Graduate school? While I had been enthralled by psychology in university, none of these job titles seemed particularly fitting as my life-long career.
Meanwhile, I had other friends who had studied graphic/interior/industrial design and were already off working in exciting industry jobs. I was intrigued and envious but in the back of my mind had always thought that those jobs were for the inherently “artistic” people. Because what point was there in being a mediocre artist? On top of that, culture and upbringing had long since convinced me that any respectable Asian kid would certainly become a lawyer, doctor or engineer.
For six years, I tried all of the psychology-related careers I could think of. I worked with the mentally ill, in research labs and in hospitals and medical centers. At the end of that time period, I had mostly learned a lot about what I didn’t want to do for the rest of my life. It was at that point I decided I needed to switch it all up. Amidst graduate school essays and applications, I reached out to friends and connections, racking my brain for all possible permutations of what else I could possibly do.
By some stroke of luck, with the help of a second degree referral and a resourceful recruiter, I ended up at a company known for making big bets. There I had an amazing manager who truly understood the value of uncovering and playing to our team’s strengths. With her support, I started off small, teaching myself to use digital tools while designing flyers and websites. Encouraged by positive feedback, I ventured on to more complex projects, design classes at night and hackathons with friends. After a couple years of exploratory learning, I was able to score an internship and devote all my time to understanding design.
It wasn’t until recently that I finally understood that I had it right in the beginning.
I used to think that design was reserved for the art school graduate with something inherently special unattainable by me. Now I know that anyone with a passion, fueled by hard work and determination, can be whatever they want.
Though the path I took to get here hasn’t been quick or straightforward — in fact, it’s taken ton of trial and error — it’s given me a remarkable perspective on everything I do. Today I’m very proud to be a part of an amazing product design team at a company called Lyft, working hard to change the future of transportation, one design at a time.