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“How was work today?”

An opinion piece (and love letter to Initiate) on finding joy in my career, and how you can too.

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    Christi Volden

Every single evening when I get home, my family asks this question, and every single evening I enthusiastically answer: “It was great!”, “It was so good!” and I mean it I came to this realization a few months into working at Initiate, and a year later there has been maybe one day that was just slightly less than great. 

How can that be? What makes every day so great? When I talk to friends, family, and new connections about my job, nearly everyone is surprised to hear that what I do on a day-to-day basis is primarily tech marketing design; surprised to hear that I find joy in designing things like trade show booths, white papers, and Linkedin ads. Most notably, surprised that I talk about my job and industry with passion.

To be transparent, that’s not all I design, but I’ve found that there’s one all-encompassing factor that makes my days great, and that is truly having found joy in what I do and where I do it. If you’re feeling a distinct lack of joy in your career, here are some things to consider both at work and outside of work.

Self-awareness is key

Everyone has different needs and expectations from their place of work in order to feel that sense of joy and fulfillment, but I’ve found that it all starts with truly knowing yourself. If you know yourself, you’ll be able to tell if you’re in the right place or not, and most importantly why.

Trying to find a career path

It seems like some people have known what they’ve wanted to be or do since they first gained consciousness, and have successfully dedicated their life to becoming that person. Others seem to be following the river of life, allowing it to take them anywhere. And of course, some fall somewhere in the middle. No matter which you best identify with, no single path promises joy. In my experience, I’ve been much happier in jobs or places that I intentionally sought out after considering what I truly enjoy.

When I was in my final year of high school I met with a guidance counselor to help me decide which path to take after graduation. I fairly impulsively decided that I wanted to become a Psychologist, and enrolled in the program at Carleton University to start that September. Not long after starting classes, I became overwhelmed with the academic aspect of this subject that I was otherwise highly interested in. Unfortunately, interest doesn’t always equal ability or readiness — I dropped out after one year. For 10 years I worked in retail, dabbled in Business courses at Algonquin, and finally found my way to Graphic Design in 2018. 
But how did I find my way to graphic design? It takes a bit of intentionality and looking inside of yourself to ask, “What really makes me happy, and what doesn’t?” “What are the things I’m most interested in?” and in my case at that time “How do I learn best?”

Navigating the self-discovery process

When considering what to study, I looked back on different periods of my life, had conversations with people who know me well, and considered what I did for hobbies as an adult. I realized that the high school classes I remembered most clearly — and that I enjoyed the most — were those that involved art and design. We specifically had a “Graphic Design” class, where I thrived. I consistently had creative hobbies throughout my life which always made me feel happiness. I realized that visual learning and practical application are what I excel at and that I have a lot of awareness and empathy. 

The downfall of these traits is that I can’t stand reading textbooks and writing papers, and I get easily upset and over-invested while listening to others’ problems. It’s no wonder that I was overwhelmed at the thought of a ~10-year University program that would lead to helping people with their emotional struggles full-time. 

Discussing your skills and personality with friends and family can be immensely helpful as these people have an outside view of you and may be able to suggest a career that aligns. A discussion with my partner at the time was what ultimately led me confidently into graphic design. After I submitted my portfolio and experienced one single day of class, I knew without a doubt that I was in the right place. What I quickly learned about graphic design is that it combines my favorite parts of psychology and art. As designers, we dive into the mind of the client or target audience to solve a problem. We communicate a message to someone on behalf of someone else. We change or create the ways that people see, use, and interact with anything and everything. And of course, design is almost entirely practical in application. A perfect fit.

What is a good culture fit?

Just because you know what you want you want to do doesn’t mean you’ll be happy doing it anywhere. Years ago when I was in school for graphic design we were told that sometimes we needed to try a few different places before figuring out where our perfect fit was. What I thought that meant was, “What type of work did I want to do and where would be the place that would allow me to do it?” Although that is an important factor, what I’ve come to realize from past experiences is that the work and the clients are mostly the same no matter what job you have. If you love designing and finding solutions to problems, you will be happy with the actual work you do no matter where you work. What I was finally able to learn at Initiate is that “trying a few different places” related more to fitting into an organization’s culture. This is far more important, and when you’re in the right place, the skills that you have will be leveraged, and the skills you want will be nurtured.

A company’s culture is what makes a big difference in the amount of joy it’s possible to have at work. It’s important to remember that if you don’t emulate the qualities you’re looking for in your place of work, you will likely need to adapt to become that way or understand that you may not fit in as well as you hoped. 

When considering what type of workplace environment and culture I needed to be in to succeed and feel joy, here 8 of the qualities that I was looking for, that I found in Initiate:

1. A leadership team that actively supports my growth

I have quite simply never felt as supported in my growth as I do at Initiate. In the short time I’ve been here, we have attended a design conference in Nashville as a team, I have improved my skills in WordPress, and got certified in Webflow. I was given the opportunity to refresh my animation skills, and am given weekly time to participate in self-directed learning. This isn’t the type of place that “gives you time” and then guilts you for spending billable hours doing it. Of course, client work is prioritized, but the workload is manageable in a way that allows scheduling of learning time.

2. A “feedback over criticism” culture

It is important to me that I work in a place where I’m not criticized if I miss the mark on a design, but rather a respectful conversation takes place to discuss where I need to take the design. In turn, I listen attentively and hold myself accountable for improving after receiving feedback.

3. Honesty and transparency

I feel at ease when I don’t have to question where I stand or where the company stands. For example, this is the first place I’ve worked where, when it came time for my 3-month review, I was informed far in advance that I had nothing to worry about. It’s such a simple thing, but everyone here is transparent about what’s going on. Leaders at Initiate are quick to bring up any issue big or small, so that it can be addressed immediately, to keep things moving smoothly for everyone. As a whole, honesty and transparency are among the company’s core values and it shows.

4. No big egos

Initiate is not a place where anyone has the attitude that they are “better than”, or have nothing to learn. While we all have different levels of experience and skills, we all learn from each other and have no problem asking for help. We don’t hesitate to share industry news and information with each other, and there is an excellent amount of collaboration that happens studio-wide.

5. Embracing new and emerging technologies

I value being at a company that isn’t afraid of the future, but dives headfirst into it. This looks like constantly improving processes and evaluating the tools we use, embracing new web apps like Figma, and most recently, experimenting with AI to see where it could help us.

6. No Sunday Scaries

I’ve previously spent a lot of Sunday evenings dreading Monday (or whichever day came after my retail days off). This is something I didn’t know I was looking for, but is something I’ve grown to discover about working at Initiate. Not once have I dreaded the workweek ahead of me, and I believe this comes down to the support we all have here, the reasonable workload, and really, that we like working with each other.

7. A variety of work in my day-to-day

Figuring out what I specifically wanted to work on every day is a larger piece of the self-awareness pie that I’ll touch on more below, but at Initiate, people’s interests and skills are considered and respected. We have a wide variety of clients, and work that we do, so it makes sense that our skills are leveraged to put our best foot forward individually and as a company.

8. Respect and feeling valued

All of the above points are demonstrative of some of the ways that I feel respected and valued at Initiate — as a person, and as a designer. Every day, I find myself in a place that isn’t shy about offering compliments on a job well done, with leaders who care about my well-being both at and outside of work. 

What type of projects do you want to work on?

There isn’t always an exact order in which you discover the type of work you want to do and the culture you want to be in, but I strongly believe that being a culture fit is more likely to lead to overall fulfillment.

When it comes to considering the type of work you want to do on a day-to-day basis, the answer may not come as quickly or as easily as knowing the kind of culture you’re looking for. You might need to work on a few different projects or in a few places before you get the experience to truly know this about yourself. It’s also possible that you could be happy doing a variety of things, or things you wouldn’t have expected, as long as you’re in the right place. 

This aspect is not always relevant to every industry, but in the design industry, there are many branches or paths you can take. Print design, web design, UI or UX, video, and now more emerging branches like voice design and instructional design. The thing is: almost everything people experience has been designed by someone, so the options are nearly limitless.

Are you maximizing your strengths?

To begin, consider whether you want to do the same thing every day, or if you want a variety of work. For example, in our office, we have people who specialize and do mostly the same type of work every day, be it print design, video editing, or otherwise. I’ve been fortunate to have worked in a few different design jobs where I’ve been able to discover that I’m the opposite — I find the most joy in my work when I’m able to do a variety of work that includes print, web, and UX. This week I am working on UX for a form, writing (hello!), web design and building a site in Webflow, and working on a tradeshow design that will go to print. Though I’ve never been happier, this might sound like someone else’s absolute nightmare due to all of the context-switching. This is where having the support of your employer comes into play. They give me the opportunity to work on projects they know I’ll love. Both of us benefit from this — they get me at my best when I’m happy in my work. 

If you find that you’re not fulfilled with the work you’re doing, you’ve had a conversation with your employer about working on other types of projects, and the opportunity isn’t there — it may be time to move on. It’s important to push out of your comfort zone to try new things and to discover what works and what doesn’t.

Then and now: before and after workplace self-awareness

It can be difficult to navigate all of this self-awareness. You don’t become self-aware overnight, and usually, many different life experiences are required to get to this point.

 I want to briefly discuss my previous work experiences as examples of what was lacking for me, and why I needed to move on each time.

Feeling a sense of purpose

While working in retail I felt a distinct lack of overall purpose. Not every retail worker feels this way, but day after day I was doing the same thing and feeling I wasn’t making a real impact. Selling the same type of product to the same type of person (because target audiences are real). Where I found the most satisfaction was when new Nixon product catalogs came out (my love of print design), when I was creating jewelry and watch displays (making things look aesthetically pleasing), and when I had truly meaningful interactions with customers (building client relationships). Evaluating these things made me realize that there was not enough variety in my work, and I was just not in the right industry. There are many similarities between working in retail and as a graphic designer that in particular helped me to be very successful as a Shopify store designer.

The importance of connection

There have been a few jobs I’ve held as a designer where I’ve felt very isolated. COVID-19 lockdowns didn’t help, but in most cases these jobs were remote. I strongly believe in the option and opportunity for remote work as it allows some to thrive, but for me, I learned that I need to work in an office that’s separate from my home. Somewhere where other designers are nearby that I can collaborate with. To me, that also meant I needed to work in a design agency, instead of as a company’s sole designer. I craved the mentorship opportunities, collaboration, communication, and understanding that happen not only in an office but in an office full of other designers.

The need for variety

I previously worked at a company where I was lucky to design for and create relationships with many types of clients, but there was a cycle of projects, processes, and skills I used every day that were the exact same from one client to the next. Based on what I’ve said above, I’m sure you can guess that this was not ideal for me. I became very skilled in this niche industry, but as a new grad I wasn’t expanding my overall skills, I was stagnating. I loved working with the clients and always gave each project the same care and attention, but I’ve since come to realize that the work itself was no longer fulfilling for me on a personal level.

The missing piece

Regardless of where you’re working or what your industry is, if you feel like something is missing, I recommend taking a really deep look at what your day-to-day looks like.

 Look at it over a period of time. Compare it to other jobs, and if you can, different industries. What have been the most frustrating or defeating moments, and what have been the most rewarding moments? Is there a pattern? 

Maybe you already work in a field you love and don’t enjoy it anymore. Maybe you’ve heard people say that you shouldn’t do what you love as a career because you’ll grow to not love it any more simply because it’s “work.” While this is always possible, I believe it’s not as simple as that and the above points should always be taken into consideration. If you do the tasks that you love but don’t have the support you need, don’t have an employer that cares about your growth, don’t have variation in your day-to-day, or don’t fit in with the office culture, you may mistake one of these things for no longer loving what you do. Sometimes it takes a move within your current industry to finally find joy in your career, like I’ve found at Initiate. 

If any of this resonated with you, you might be a great culture fit at Initiate. Check out our Careers page and let us know who you are!