Asking Not Asking #3: Exhausted
TINA ESSMAKER / Creative Coach
What should I do when the uncontrollable things in my life have so many effects in my life?
I graduated from an art school in the South pretty recently. Before graduating from college, I took many internships, 4 in total. I was a student ambassador, a summer program assistant, an international orientation assistant, and a secretary of AIGA for my school. I balanced everything on top of my schoolwork. I tried to do my best to stay on top of everything because those were things I could control. I could control the amount of effort I put into my work as well as the amount of effort I put into my extra-curricular works. I worked hard to the point that I developed stress-induced arthritis in the middle of my junior year, which wasn’t fun.
I am also a non-US citizen. I moved to the US about 5 years ago initially to pursue a degree in art. Because I knew that my status will give me a lot of challenges after I graduate, I worked very hard before graduating.
But things have been really challenging in terms of this visa situation.
I still remember the morning of November 9, 2016. I could feel my heart sinking to the bottom of this bottomless pit when I saw the news and thought about all the things I could potentially face as consequences. But I still tried to do my absolute best on things I could control—portfolio, job search, on-campus jobs on the side, freelance gigs on the side, finishing up my studies—until I graduated and found something after graduation.
I secretly hoped I could find a full-time job after graduation because I had many internships before, but things didn’t work out and one of many places I originally applied for as a full-time designer offered me an internship a month after graduation. I moved to New York to do another internship at a small branding agency specializing in motion graphics and experiential design for broadcasting clients. I've never been to New York prior to that, not even visiting. A part of me was scared and wanted to stay in the South, but a part of me was excited because it’s a place where a lot of legendary designers live. My internship ended in October and the company didn’t offer me a job in the end because they didn’t have any openings for junior designers.
I found a freelance job at a startup company and worked there a bit. It was very positive and I loved going to work every day. I wanted to see if I could continue to work there and I asked the manager whether the company sponsors visas. They told me they do, but only for senior levels, not junior or mid-level.
So I had to look for a different opportunity. The timing was weird at that point, too. It was almost at the end of October, most of the companies were looking for senior designers or creative directors, but not junior levels. I assumed that a lot of the companies hired their summer interns as their junior designers so that’s probably why they didn’t have spots open. And not a lot of companies were hiring at that point. I assumed it was because it was holiday season.
And a lot of companies were unwilling to hire internationals because of visa sponsorship. I heard they are unwilling to do so because it’s costly and they’d have to go through a quite a bit of process. Also, the political climate and many reforms in regards to visas made the companies even more fearful to hire internationals.
I've really wanted to get a job where I could work with a wide range of disciplines—branding, digital, environmental, print, packaging—and create award-winning works. Companies reached out to me saying that I have a great portfolio, my experience has been excellent, and asked me mostly about freelance positions. But when it comes to talking to them about my visa situation and a potential full-time opportunity, most of them ghosted away.
Although I didn’t experience it directly (like being yelled at to “go back to your country”), I started to feel like I may not be welcomed here. I feel like I’ve done all I can to create an exceptional portfolio and build up my resume with many extra-curricular activities related to my field. But I feel like somehow I can’t move forward. Did I not work hard enough? What can I do to make this situation better? What should I do when the uncontrollable things (in regards to the current political climate, law reforms, etc) affect so much in my life?
A few weeks ago, I rode the train uptown to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) where I stumbled upon an exhibition called Bodys Isek Kingelez: City Dreams. An expanse of vibrant sculptures crafted from everyday objects like paper, soda bottles, and commercial packaging filled the room to create a city—the artist’s own utopic version of a society where everyone belongs, where everyone lives together in harmony.
Deeply concerned with social issues, Kingelez was a native of Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. With a history of unrest, genocide, and political turmoil, the country’s reality was far from the fantastical sculptures that reflected Kingelez’s dreams for his homeland. In fact, in video footage played as part of the exhibition, he made note that he did not include any police stations or hospitals in his utopia because they were not needed.
The playful whimsy of the colorful pieces surprised me and caught me off guard as the deeper message of the work emerged. Kingelez had dreams for his country. He had desires for a different experience, and he is not the only one. I, too, remember waking up on November 9, 2016, wondering how Trump’s victory would affect the nation—my home—but also the lives of my friends who were non-US citizens.
While I was thinking about what to say to you, I saw a friend’s tweet that read: “After finishing university, 19 years ago, I excitedly moved to NYC. I worked hard, built a beautiful life and made it my new home. If I was graduating today, I would no longer look at the US to live my dream. My heart aches.” My heart aches that this is the reality we live in.
Your exhaustion is tangible in your words as you recall everything you have done to build a foundation for your career to bloom. You have dreams and aspirations. And yet you are right: there are variables outside of your control which are affecting those dreams. But please, please don’t give up on your dreams.
You are resilient. You moved to a new country for school, balanced a multitude of extra-curricular responsibilities and internships in addition to college coursework, moved to New York site unseen, and have received positive feedback about your portfolio and performance at work. Don’t underestimate yourself. You did work hard enough. You have done so much already.
But there is more work to do.
I want you to try something. Take out a piece of paper, set a timer for 5 minutes, and write. Write down what you imagine for your life in 5 years: What kind of work will you be doing? What milestones have you completed? What kind of company do you work for or do you work for yourself? Who are your clients? What tasks do you do during the day? How do you feel at the end of your workday? Make it as detailed as possible and give yourself permission to write whatever comes to mind. There are no rules.
Now, take another sheet of paper and draw a pizza pie, a circle with slices—you can make as many slices as you want, but I prefer 8. You just imagined what your life could look like in 5 years, and now I’m going to ask you to consider that there is more than one way to get there. In each slice of the pie, write down one path—don’t think about consequences or outcomes. Just write.
Okay, now that you’ve written down some options, imagine how each scenario might play out: Is it realistic, do you have the resources, is it within your control, will it get you closer to what you want? Prioritize the slices in order of preference. You can number them if you like, with 1 being your top pick and 8 being your last choice.
I know you wrote to me looking for answers and I am asking you to do more work. But as a coach, I don’t have the answers. I am only a guide. I can’t tell you what the options for your life are, but you can. No one knows your dreams, struggles, hopes, and fears more than you do. Ultimately, how you proceed must be your decision.
Like Kingelez had a dream for his country, you have a dream for your life. The landscape of your life will be dotted with triumphs and struggles, with light and dark, with hope and fear. You are not where you want to be now, but you can move forward. Your life might not yet be the dream you had envisioned, but it can be the dream you choose.
This week I wrapped with one of my coaching clients after a few months of working together, and in their reflection of the journey they had taken during the process, they shared lyrics to a song by Trevor Hall called “Everything I Need.” The lyrics are simple, but they struck me:
Mmh, I have everything I need
I have everything I need
I have everything I need
Mmh, from the mountain to the sea
All of this is new for me
I have everything I need
The fruitful darkness
(Don't be afraid)
Is all around us
(Don't be afraid, don't be afraid)
I know you are fearful about your future. There is so much that you cannot control, and it is affecting the choices you have to make about your career path and, ultimately, your life. I have not walked in your shoes, but I do know what’s it’s like to be afraid, to wonder if I can really have what I want, and to worry that maybe I don’t deserve it. And there are others. You are not alone.
Exhausted, you have everything you need. You have a solid education, multiple internships under your belt, positive professional experiences, and a great portfolio. Beyond that, you are determined, thoughtful, and introspective. Your words mirror how much you care, and how much you want for yourself. It’s okay to want those things. You are worthy of wanting them.
The things you want might not happen how you had hoped, but I have no doubt that if you continue to persist, you will realize your dreams. Be open to how the path between where you are and what you want might unfold. It could surprise you, just like Kingelez’s bright city surprised me when I walked into his exhibition at MoMA. Sometimes you can’t see what you’re building while you’re building it, but then the pieces come together and fill the room of your life in the most vibrant, colorful, and beautiful way.
To the unfolding of our lives,
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Asking Not Asking is a bi-monthly column written by Tina Essmaker, a New York City-based coach, speaker, and writer who helps others live into their possibility. To be considered for the column, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with a short note about where you're at and where you want to be, and make sure to include the following:
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