How To Succeed When You Accidentally Majored in Computer Art

I recently spoke at an Eta Kau Pi meeting at SUNY Oneonta. You might be wondering why. There are three reasons.

First Reason: I went to SUNY Oneonta. I started in the fall of 2001 as a music industry major. This, of course, was at the brink of the digital revolution and nobody in the world had any idea how to prepare for the onslaught of the mp3, let alone digital distribution or streaming. The iPod back then wasn’t a phone, nor was it even invented yet, and we had to listen to music on little plastic optical platters known as CDs. I quickly slipped out of that major and went next door and switched my major to music. Unfortunately, they didn’t have any courses for the accordion. I kept going through the Fine Arts building; drama, dance, theater, art, and then finally computer art. By then, the first semester was over and my advisor was really stressed out from all the paperwork and office meetings. I eventually met this strange, tall Hawaiian guy who had a lot of wacky stories and decided it was best to stick with computer art as my major.

Second Reason: I didn’t end up being an animator. I didn’t end up moving to Emeryville to work at Pixar. I didn’t end up being the guy who gets to create the emotes for Commander Zavala in Destiny or create the character models for the Bokoblins in Zelda. I don’t sit in front of a Cintiq all day painting kickass concept art or making slick logos. You are probably wondering “why the hell am I listening to you, then?” and I remind you that I’m hardly two-thirds through telling you why, so just be patient. I’m the president of a local marketing agency, Directive. We make websites, write content, build marketing campaigns, create videos, and write software to help businesses stand out and automate their marketing. When I started 10 years ago, it was just four of us, and it was just a little mom & pop IT company that also did some web design. After the first 5 years that I was there, we grew to about 40 people. There isn’t a single thing we do that I didn’t have to dive in and figure out at least in some way, and although I’m not an animator or an artist by title, I’m very fulfilled and get to take on creative challenges almost every day. I was a lot like many of you when I was here, and my career didn’t exactly go in a direction that I expect, but I think I have a lot of valuable insight for when you hit the real world.

Third Reason: Sven saw me at Hanniford the other day and promised me that he’d let me come to his house any time I wanted and play my accordion if I just came in to talk to you guys.

If You Have Time Before You Graduate…

Some of you are about to graduate, and some of you are lucky enough to still have some time left. Let me start by addressing those of you who aren’t about to teeter off the rocky cliff-face of College Beach into the tempestuously torrid, frigid waters of the Real World Ocean.

If you still have a few semesters left, the best advice I can give you is to work. You’ll never have more free time to hone in your skills, try new things, and make mistakes as you do right this very moment. You’ll never be around the same variety of talent and ambition. The moment you leave these walls and go home with your degree, you won’t have this lab. You won’t have the other students in it. You won’t have the awesome staff. If you are living on campus and you aren’t working 8 hours a day to pay your tuition, you get the opportunity to be here all day. This is an amazing opportunity all on it’s own and once you leave, things can get a little more challenging.

Now… for those of you who ARE graduating, I hope you weren’t listening. Don’t worry about any of that. Let’s talk about you now, but for everyone else in the room who still has time, you should listen in, because you’ll get there too. In fact, you should all be doing the same thing.

If You Are Graduating Soon…

Congratulations! You made it this far! You probably learned a lot too! However, you aren’t done yet. In fact, now is a great time to buckle down and work harder than you ever have.

Just at a glance, I’ve seen some very talented people in here. Way more talented than me. Some of you have busted ass to get this far. Some of you obsessively work on your craft and expand your skills as often as possible. That’s awesome. Don’t stop. If you are that kind of person, you need to keep it up. If you aren’t that kind of person yet, that’s okay. We have faith in you. If you look around you and see people who are creating things way cooler than you, you shouldn’t let that discourage you. They worked hard to get there, and you can too. They’d probably even be willing to give you pointers.

Let me show you something. During my first year here, when I took Computer Art 1 with Sven, here are some of the projects I did. Try not to be too ashamed with yourself:

Try to compete with that.

This might be some reality-crushing news to some of you, but what you produce in college might not make much of a difference when it comes to how successful you are later on in life. Of course, you could be like me, and peak in college with that wall of cheese, but let’s assume that isn’t the case. Let me tell you what you can, and absolutely should be doing right now and at all times to really ensure you are successful when you dive into the Real World Ocean without hitting your head on any of the jagged rocks on the way down.

Keep Promises To Yourself Over Anything

Aw shit. This just went into the realm of inspirational posters. Honestly, most modern self-help books are chock full of feel-good garbage that might motivate you for a day or two, but aren’t usually going to change your life. That’s because they are written to sound good, and they are based on quick, easy fixes. Improving yourself, growing as an individual, and tackling difficult challenges isn’t meant to be quick or easy. If you want to go far beyond your skill set now, you need to work hard to get there.

Sure, it might feel a whole lot better to sleep in, play video games, and binge Netflix instead of taking on personal challenges for yourself, but the end result is much more rewarding. Put time to the promises you make yourself, no matter what they are. It’s so easy to make excuses and put off the things that matter to us most. It’s easy to postpone your goals because you are too tired, too busy, or you can’t afford the most expensive camera or software that would help you get the job done. Push through it anyway and make stuff. This doesn’t just apply to art either; if you want to lose weight, quit smoking, or be a better significant other to your partner, you won’t do it by putting it off.

Humans are interesting, because we’re the only species on Earth who are aware enough to examine our own character. We can look at our behavior and take it apart and change our priorities. It’s up to you to prioritize yourself. You need to recognize your responsibility to take action regardless of your environment, situation, or any other external stimuli. Look up Viktor Frankl. He was a neurologist in Vienna in 1942. He was arrested and taken to a Nazi concentration camp with his wife and parents. He endured some of the most terrible experiences known to a man. His wife and parents didn’t survive. During this horrific time, he came to the conclusion that regardless of what is happening around a person, no matter how awful the environment or situation is, there is something that can never be taken away. There is this tiny little space between a stimuli and your response, and that space is your power to choose how you respond. That’s a freedom that we all always have. People who don’t recognize this freedom to choose their response tend to be reactive and blame their problems on their environment or the people around them. They don’t feel they need to work on themselves, but instead think that someday they will happen upon the perfect situation where everything will finally go according to plan. Someday they’ll have the opportunity to write that book. Someday they’ll have the inspiration to finish that project. They can’t do art right now; they are kind of tired and there is stuff on YouTube and they can’t miss it but maybe there will be a better time tomorrow…

People who recognize that power to choose how they respond aren’t necessarily shunning all leisure from their lives, they just prioritize on the things that truly matter to them first, and they actively keep their promises to themselves.

Just remember, you are the creative force in your life, and the only thing that is really preventing you from doing what you want to do is yourself.

Avoid Getting Caught Up in the Busyness (and Distractions) of Life

You might not walk out of here with the dream job you want. I sure didn’t. After college, I went back home to live with my parents for a few months. I was toying with the idea of starting a print shop/design firm while working different jobs. I worked at grocery stores. I was a floor salesman for a really crappy electronic store that sold those big bulky rear projection TVs in a time when everyone wanted LCD and plasma, and it was my job to rip them off. I sold $2000 vacuums door to door. Then I got into IT… I think you get the idea. Sometimes it can take a while to find exactly what you are looking for, and you’ll feel busy.

Sure, we have to work and get that paycheck to pay rent. You might need to shop around for jobs and work on your portfolio for a while before you land the right one. You might even need to work a 9 to 5 job and go home each night and work on what you are passionate about for 8 hours. If it truly matters to you, do it. It might take a lot of willpower, but sticking to your values and prioritizing them over your impulses will ultimately bring you more fulfillment in life.

Build Mutually Beneficial Relationships

I was going to mention social media before, when talking about the distractions of life, but I wanted to save it for this. Social media sites, like Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, and Reddit are all awesome platforms, but only if you use them correctly. It’s pretty easy to get sucked in and waste time with them, but they are great tools when it comes to building relationships with other people in your field. Look for active groups and forums to join and add to the conversation. Ask and answer questions, share stories and feedback, and build mutual relationships with people that you come to respect.

You should be building relationships with others offline as well. Look around you, there are talented people in the computer art lab that you could be talking to, learning from, and teaching. These people aren’t your competition. There’s an abundance of opportunities out there, and you have nothing to gain from solitude. I encourage you to talk to someone in Eta Kau Pi or in one of your classes that you’ve never spoken to before. Talk to someone who you think might be on a totally different level as you. That’s okay, because I guarantee you both will learn from it.

So for everyone in this room, right now, you are probably thinking that it will be awkward to just go up to someone and strike up a random conversation about Photoshop brushes or Maya tips. It’s going to be weird, right? You don’t know this person, they don’t know you. Why are we breaking social conventions and doing this? What if you look stupid?

There is no better analogy for plunging into the Real World Ocean than approaching someone for no damn reason and seeing how you can both walk away unscathed and possibly better off for it. So with the power bestowed upon me as president, and as being a totally terrific motivational speaker, I hereby lift all unspoken social laws and constructs while in this computer lab. From this day forward, it is everyone’s sacred duty to network, feed off each other, and genuinely be interested in what your fellow students are doing. On top of that, everyone who is in here right this moment has a sworn responsibility to spread this paradigm shift to all other occupants of this computer lab who aren’t here tonight. If anyone gives you any weird looks, remind them that one of the most untapped resources you have are your fellow classmates, and we can all learn from each other’s successes and failures.

If you get approached, hang in there. I just told everyone in the room to start talking to you, so it’s okay. Be warm, be inviting, and struggle through it. It will get easier as it becomes normal.

Don’t be concerned with their level of skill, or your own level of skill, when conducting this networking. They could be years ahead of you, or years behind you, as far as their capabilities go, and that’s okay. Seek to actively learn and support your fellow students, because in this case the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Do More

I can’t stress this enough – just do stuff. It’s as simple as that. Do stuff and publish it, and keep moving.

Getting a Job

If you are breaking into a career where a big part of your job will be design or other creative skills, you’ll need to be able to provide proof that you can do it. If you want to build websites for a living, build websites. If you want to create animations, do that. Expect to do it before someone hires you.

Sweat the Details

Pay attention to all the minutia of your work. Learn every aspect of the software you use. Later on, when you find your grove in the real world, you’ll figure out there’s about 20% of any given thing that you do that can be ignored, but right now, put in 110%.

I look at resumes of web designers all the time, and a big deciding factor is whether or not the applicant has good attention to detail. If your own website has broken links, terrible color options, or looks like it was made in 1996, to me it will look like you might not be able to give my customers what they expect. It appears instead that I’ll need to teach you how to pay attention to details. I’ll look for details that show me that you are a cut above the rest. I’ll try out your site on my phone, and in a bunch of different browsers. I’ll run a Pagespeed Insights test on Google to see how well-optimized the site is for performance. I’ll check to see if you compress your images before uploading them. I’ll spell check it. Seems kind of anal, right? Well my customers pay a lot of money to get professional work done, and I can’t slack on the details, so neither can the people I hire.

If you are handing a portfolio of photography to a potential employer, what would make him or her take you more seriously? A stack of regular printer paper that you quickly printed your work out on, or a bound, matted portfolio on nice, heavy, glossy paper? This leads us to the next topic:

Become a Marketing Expert

You might not be going into marketing. You should, it’s way more fun than it sounds, and we’re usually hiring. However, even if you don’t want to do marketing, you should always be marketing yourself and your skills. Being able to pitch yourself confidently will make a big difference when it comes to getting the best positions at the best jobs.

Build A Website – I know I mentioned this briefly above if you want to become a web designer, but even if you don’t, you should roll out a website. There are sites out there that let you put together a portfolio or host artwork, but you should be really picky about what you end up using. For example, Deviantart might be a good community for graphic designers and artists, but an employer doesn’t want to fish around your Deviantart page to see what you can do. Purchase a domain name for a few bucks a year, and a hosting service for a few bucks a month. I recommend, and they will usually throw in your domain name for free. Install WordPress or Joomla and spend time designing your site. You could also use one of those prebuilt website builders like Wix or Squarespace, but just make sure you get your own domain name for it. If you want to reach out to me directly before you dive in to building your website, I’d be more than happy to talk to you about it in depth.

Populate that website with your resume and examples of your work, and again, pay attention to detail. Test the hell out of it, and remember that sites load differently on mobile, but should still be easy to view and navigate on phones.

Get an Email – Please, for the love of Neptune, abandon your bigvanillathrilla6868 at yahoo dot com email address and get something better. Avoid Yahoo anyway since all Yahoo users were hacked over the last few years. Gmail is a little more professional, but if your website hosting also lets you set up email inboxes (most of them do) then set one up there. For example, mine is Chris at Lynk dot WTF. That’s… reasonably professional, right?

Come Up With Your Strengths – This should be on your resume, your website, and on your mind when walking into a job interview. Think about what values you would bring to the table for a business. Be careful not to come up with a strength if you really can’t back it up. If you tell me you have a strong attention to detail but there are 4 links on your homepage that are broken, I’m going to be skeptical. If you tell me that you love clean, modern design but your website looks like it was made in MS Paint, I’m going to be concerned with your integrity. Your strengths don’t always have to correspond directly to your job either. Maybe you are always a positive person, or you love a good challenge, or you don’t get stressed out over deadlines. Your strengths can also be your passions. You might not have professional experience, but you love learning and exploring new avenues to improve your skills. It sounds corny but if you legitimately feel this way it can help carry you a long way.

Come Up With Your Weaknesses – What’s your kryptonite? What are you still working on as an individual? Being transparent about this can go a long way too. If someone looked pretty good on paper but they told me they were disorganized, I might get a little nervous. If they told me they were disorganized but they were working on it personally, I’d feel much better. I’d even relate to them. Look at those weaknesses and try to iron them out, but don’t be ashamed by them.

You Probably Won’t Just Be Working For A Boss – Most of the time, the end result of all our hard work at a job isn’t just to get a paycheck. You aren’t there to work for your boss. The job you end up working for will have a client of some kind. That might be an audience. That might be advertisers. That might be other business owners or customers. Always try to think beyond your work and your paycheck. If you are building websites for customers at a web design firm, you should look at the impact you can have on them.

If you step into a job interview and tell me that you just want to sit at your desk and make websites and pretty graphics all day, I’ll keep that in mind, I guess. However, if you come into that job interview and tell me that you want to build websites that my customers will love, websites that will help them really showcase their business and drive more sales, you’ll be a much closer fit to what I’m actually looking for.

Build Your Elevator Pitch – An elevator pitch is a quick 15-second sales pitch that is supposed to be enough to catch someone’s attention and get them to remember your product or service. Develop your own elevator pitch that covers your strengths, personality, and desires in a way that will be memorable. Most interviews start with the question “tell me a little about yourself” and your elevator pitch is a great way to start. It’s okay to be bluntly obvious. “I’m a dorky, quixotic nerd who is obsessed with making websites that people are proud to use to represent themselves.”

The Interview

Just Google how to prepare for an interview. Here’s the most important though:

  • Show up a little early
  • Give yourself plenty of time so you don’t appear to be rushed. Long interviews are a good sign
  • Look presentable and well rested
  • Smile, be warm, and bring a polite sense of humor
  • Study up on the company ahead of time
  • Practice your elevator pitch ahead of time
  • Don’t smell bad

Always Work On Yourself

As I wrap this up, I can’t stress enough that you should always be working on yourself. You are all creative people, so this is something you signed up for when you decided to opt out of a law degree. Creative people should always be working on themselves. You can lock yourself away for a little time every day and dedicate that time to yourself, or you can agree to work with others and have accountabilibuddies. You won’t always succeed, but progress is progress. There’s no shame in finishing something and filing it away in the bottom of a drawer for alien archeologists to find long after our civilization has passed. However, the more you work, and the more you learn, the more successes you’ll have.

One more thing… Read. Read a lot.

Another thing… Watch and learn from other people who are successful.

Finally, last thing… Try new things.

Q&A – Ask Lynk All The Things

Twitter: @Lynk


Email: [email protected]










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