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How I Designed My Career By Dreaming Big, Part 1

5 lessons learned as a designer, business owner, and a human: Part 1 of 2

Lesson 1: Be naive.

If you’re really passionate about something (in my case, moving abroad to begin my design career), you will find a way to make it a reality, by listening to the inner voice, that silently screams “Pay attention. This is it!”- even if you don’t know how to get there.

I uprooted my life and moved to Europe after college to start my design career. If I had to be an adult, I was going to do it somewhere special. Having studied abroad in Denmark for college, my Danish family suggested that I move to Amsterdam once school was over since it was a similarly small country vibe that spoke English and readily welcomed expats. After soul-searching for 8 months in San Francisco and with $800 dollars in my bank account, I headed to Amsterdam.

Lesson 2: Be confident in your failures.

Learn how to be confident about a portfolio that you’re not confident in. I had everything but the good work but I got the job for being confident in what I could bring. 

In Holland, I was living in hostels, pounding the pavement looking for work with my 25 pound portfolio in tow. Little did I know how difficult it would be to get a work permit. One day, while on my way to my dream dutch design office interview, I came to a fork in the road. I had a choice to make, take yet another shopping road or the road less travelled  — Embassy row. As fate would have it, I took the Embassy road where I saw a brass plaque for Mountain Design, a Design Embassy. Intrigued, I went in and asked for an interview and was granted one on the spot. You know that whole “fake it till you make it” mantra, well, I was becoming a master. I got the harshest reviews. I talked too fast. I was a transplant who hadn’t acclimated to the culture. This was my 16th interview. I didn’t get the dream job I was initially setting out for, but I did get the offer with Mountain Design — a team that would eventually teach me to live my dream life.  

Lesson 3: Ask for criticism.

When you start your career, don’t be afraid to ask for criticism. Be ready to hear it and ask questions on how to take action. It could take days, weeks or months to process who you are and how you function.

So here’s what to do and not to do when you get your first big break or design job. Don’t get so frustrated and throw fits at work because you’re not getting the projects because your work is not up to par. Do listen to your colleagues when they tell you how much you suck (in my case, I sat with 3 project managers sharing with me what I was doing wrong). Let me tell you, they TRIED to nudge me to move on, but I was too depressed to leave! Emotions with creatives are real, y’all. After the project-management-Alison-sucks meeting, I hung my head low but eventually it came to me. I listened, I worked. My work got better. After 4 months, I won a large Snapple job for the firm. Winning an American client because I understood American culture was the validation I needed to feel like a successful expat designer. I’m forever thankful to the entire Mountain Design team for building my character — as a human first and a designer second. 

Lesson 4: Adopt your new culture.

Getting out of my comfort zone allowed me to figure out what is important to me personally and professionally.

If you follow the seeds that have been planted, you eventually find a tree. Living and thriving in Europe allowed me to dream bigger than I could have stateside. I learned work/life balance. At the workplace, lunches were covered. They’d ring a bell at noon and everyone would gather for a feast. We took trips together. Ski trips to Switzerland, beach trips to Barcelona, 26 days vacation. All the perks. And yet, there was a strong boundary around work and life. I learned that although work became my family in Europe, I was not theirs. So I had to branch out and make my own. Life began to include cobblestone cafe meetups with friends, drinking beer after a round of Thursday night tennis, and visiting the best museums on weekends. I adopted the culture and became a dutch girl for 3 years of my life. I was an American expat who now spoke English with a Dutch accent.  

Lesson 5: Know when it’s time to move on.

The hardest decision to make is change.

So why did I leave? I got out of my comfort zone, launched my career and built a strong design portfolio, learned a lot, adapted to a new world and accepted who I was. But I also realized my place was home in the States and needed to go back. It took me five years of going through growth and accepting and surrendering to realize my home was with my family — which is why I left Europe.  

Alison chases the things she wants most — even if she doesn’t exactly know how to get there. And that’s exactly what brought her to creating SHELF Studio. But let’s go back to the start: It begins with her passion for packaging. "I’m a gift giver, and there is nothing more beautiful to me than a thoughtfully designed package."

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