In praise of the unplanned career

Illustration by Danielle Meder

[O]ne of the few things I miss about school is the comfort of always knowing what’s coming next. At the beginning of the term they hand you a sheet of paper that tells you what you’re going to be doing, when you’re going to be doing it, and where.

A bit stifling to be sure, but also reassuring. You don’t have to face the dizzying infinite sky of choices until you approach graduation. Before that happens, sure, you’re stressed about major projects and exams, but these are simple, concrete issues to deal with. Fielding that frequent inquiry, “what are your plans after graduation?” can be much more difficult.

Maybe you love that question, maybe you are the rare sort of human who always knows what’s next. Some people are born to plan. Their notebooks are full of lists and their goals are clearly defined. They settled on a path when they were small children, and the rest of their life is simply taking steps towards that destination.

For those of us without a clear vision of the future, conventional advice to follow your dreams and plan for the future is more frustrating than helpful. How can you follow your dreams when you don’t know what your dreams are? What is the point of planning if you don’t know what you’re planning for?

I felt lost when I graduated. I didn’t have a clear idea of what to do next. I half-heartedly looked for a job because I knew that was what was ‘supposed’ to happen, but I self-sabotaged myself in various ridiculous ways… writing the wrong company’s name on my cover letter, asking for way too much money for entry-level positions, blithely displaying a complete lack of social skills to my interviewers. I couldn’t place the blame for my failure to launch on the economy or any external factor… it was genuinely all my own fault. I had never had a full-time job in my life, and it looked like I was never going to. While going through a post-graduation existential crisis is a totally normal thing, I felt like I was all alone, floating in a void of equivocal possibilities without a sure thing to grab on to. After years of scheduled schooling, this was incredibly disorienting.

Gradually, my life half-filled up with incidental occupations. I got a part-time job as a sales assistant, a job that I found pleasant, which sustained me financially, while keeping my options open. With all the time on my hands, I kept plugging away on the fashion blog that I had started while I was still in school, continuing to read, draw and write, and take on random freelance projects, as I always did. And for that time, I became content with the present. Even though admitting my situation to my former classmates made me feel like an unambitious loser, the truth was that I was content for the moment, getting used to living in limbo.

Into the emptiness, something magical happened at that time. I had been posting my illustrations on my site for some time, and occasionally I would get an inquiry from a potential client for this little job or that little job. A couple hundred bucks here or there. These little trickles of opportunity were so infrequent, I never seriously considered illustration as a career. But then I got a large project from a client, enough work to keep me busy and pay my bills for a couple of months. I was wondering how I would fit it all in with my part-time job, but just like that I happened to get laid off of my retail gig. It felt like fate had figured out a plan for me to follow, like destiny had finally given me a ‘dream’ to pursue.

On those tentative circumstances, I decided not to look for another job and launch myself into the career of a full-time freelance illustrator. Which, rather than writing up a business plan, pretty much consisted only of printing up some business cards that said “fashion illustrator” on them. I had the vague sense that I would figure it out as I went along.

I’m very lucky that I have parents who are also self-employed, so when I told them what I was doing they offered their support and encouragement – I know most parents are not so thrilled to hear their child has decided to become an independent creative careerist. In any case, as a child of fellow bohemians, I couldn’t depend on their financial support, so in those first few months – okay, years to be honest – I wobbled between feast and famine.

I’ve just passed the five year mark of being a fashion illustrator… but it hasn’t felt so much like climbing a mountain or embarking on a quest as it has like spontaneously following a rabbit down a hole. I’ve met a lot of strange and wonderful characters but never a mentor or a guru. I’ve rediscovered again and again that I don’t get as lucky when I push for things as I do when I relax and allow opportunities to reveal themselves when the time is right. So, I have become an advocate for the unplanned career.

The essential element of the unplanned career is embracing the emptiness. When you are in school and every second is scheduled, you are taught that unoccupied hours are wasted hours, that allowing downtime between life’s events is unwise. Having gaps in your resume is considered undesirable. When people ask you what you’re doing, it is implicit that “nothing” is not an acceptable answer. Yet your life’s purpose won’t reveal itself to you when you’re constantly in the midst of mundane tasks or doing things just because you’re supposed to. You might think that if you enter a lull you’ll become indolent, but for most human beings indolence quickly loses its charm, and in the absence of obligations you’ll find yourself naturally gravitating towards your real desires, even if you didn’t know what your desires were before.
Even though attempting a creative career is a precarious proposition, I’m very glad that I took that route. While I’m not as secure as most people my age, I have the great privilege of getting to do what I love almost all the time. In retrospect, having observed the careers of my contemporaries, I managed to avoid a few pitfalls of over-planning that hadn’t occurred to me at the time.

One downside of the practical planned life is deferring the dream. Instead of launching the career you desire right away, you do something more conservative – get a ‘good’ job, establish stability. There is a lot of good reasons to do this – student loans, wanting to start a family or buy a home, pleasing your parents by making the more mature choice. Which is fine if living a conventional life is what you desire most – for many people it is, that’s why it’s called conventional. Which is fine – we need lots of ordinary people, or civilization would collapse – so don’t discount the unfashionable idea that you may be ‘normal’. The thing is, if you’re not a normie, practical justifications won’t ever satisfy the irrational yearnings of your heart. If what you truly want is something different than what is expected of you, being sensible and responsible will make you miserable – worse, it will make you comfortable.

With comfort, comes complacency. Once you have some things, you have some things to lose. Once you’re used to little luxuries and a sense of safety, giving all that up for the more intangible benefits of mad rabbit-chasing will be more difficult than you ever thought. I’m very glad that I screwed up scoring that full-time job. I have never had the stability of a steady pay check, so rather than taking a huge hit to my quality of life once I began freelancing, I just continued living hand-to-mouth like I did when I was a student, improving my standard of living very gradually as I became more accomplished.

For my friends that started working full time jobs straight out of school, quitting the planned life and chasing their white rabbits is a much more terrifying proposition at 29 than it was for me at 24. They are understandably reluctant to knock five-plus years off their lifestyles, and compete at the same level as recent graduates. I’m very proud at the cusp of 30 to say I have over five years experience in the field I want to spend my life working in. I’m excited to think that at 35, I’ll have over a decade of experience doing what I love, and I won’t ever have to start at zero years of experience again. Beginning at zero is very difficult to do at any age, at least if you do it when you’re still in your early twenties you’re mostly ignorant of how tricky it will be so fear won’t paralyze you. Plus, struggling at 25 is much more acceptable to society than a struggling 35-year-old. You can never start doing what you really want too soon – you only get to be in your twenties once, so don’t waste them by being boring.

Life is how you spend it – milestones only last moments, and what then? Why not, instead of only valuing achievement, you embrace the process? Try to calibrate your life so you thrive on the things that you do on a daily basis, rather than chaining your satisfaction to a single pinnacle. There is no need to plan for the future, if you can be present for now.

Danielle Meder (Fashion Design ’06) is a fashion illustrator and self-dubbed “trend theorist” who lives in London, UK. Specializing in designer paper dolls, live runway illustration and technical drawing, she’s worked with many international clients including Bloomingdale’s, The Hudson’s Bay Company, and Dr. Martens. You can find Danielle’s work at