There are lots of things I went to school to learn how to do: I’ve learned about graphic design, typography, advertising and various styles of art—like paper making, sculpture and figure drawing—that opened up my imagination and allowed me to get my hands dirty. But there’s one thing you don’t learn in school that’s so, so important: How you can be you.
Learning how to be “you” is actually really hard. We spend much of our lives (if not our whole lives) trying to figure that out. Here are some strategies I’ve found helpful as starting points.
1. Learn who you aren’t
A lot of times, it’s easier to start with how you don’t want to be, what you don’t want your next job to be or how you don’t want to run a business. When I started as a business owner, I had no idea what I was doing. But I had previous jobs and experiences that stood out in my mind as what I didn’t want to do, so I carved out my path by a process of elimination. Similarly, as I’ve grown into my role as a boss, I often find myself thinking about my former boss, who made me cry almost every day. Now, 10 years into starting my own business, I’ve accomplished one of my biggest dreams: Having a product line sold at Target.
2. Let others inspire you, but don’t try to replicate them
It’s easy to see others who are successful, study their path and think, “Well, if I do the same exact thing, I’ll have success, too.” That’s usually not the case, though. Everyone is different, and what works for them might not work for you. Plus, don’t you want to forge your own path?
3. Don’t succumb to trends
As a designer, there are some years when what’s hot and what all of my clients want is a style I don’t offer. For example, around 2006, a year after I started my business, everyone wanted hand-drawn logos—something that wasn’t part of my arsenal. Instances like these are when you decide, “Do I evolve my style to be able to accommodate what people want, or do I stick to what I know I can do?” The answer is both. If you like what’s hot and you can do it in your own way, then sure, do it. But that doesn’t mean that you should completely change your style to fit this new trend that might only be around for a year or two.
4. If you hate it, don’t do it
In the early 2000s, everyone was telling me to learn how to program websites because the Internet was booming and everyone needed one. They said that if I could design them, it would be a really valuable skill to be able to program them, too. And yes, they were probably right. When I started my business designing logos and branding for my own clients, I could have made a lot more money if I also knew how to code the site. But the thought of looking at a bunch of letters and numbers that didn’t mean anything to me was the last thing I wanted to do. It wasn’t a skill that came naturally to me and therefore wasn’t something that I would have ever loved doing. So I didn’t do it. I met and worked with many amazing website programmers along the way who were happy to take my designs and turn them into functioning websites that my clients loved (and yes, I learned some HTML along the way, but I didn’t ever code a single website).
5. Think about how you want to be remembered
I hate to get morbid because I’m a generally very happy person. But if you’re really, truly stuck, one of the most powerful ways to figure out who you are (personally, professionally or in any other regard) is to think about how you want people to remember you when you’re no longer here. It helps you realize what’s really important and what’s not.
Joy Cho is the designer and blogger behind the Oh Joy brand. She has also authored three books and consulted for hundreds of creative businesses around the world.