Nobody knows what your purposeful, meaningful, and passionate work and life look like better than you. - Nina Huang
In early 2013 I made the toughest decision of my life. I decided to leave the Sociology PhD program I was in at Harvard University, after 5 years of passing exams, writing papers, doing research, and teaching. I was in the dissertation-writing phase and about 3 years away from completing the program and getting a PhD. My funding was guaranteed. All I had to do was finish.
It had already been a long journey, getting to the dissertation phase. I think I knew that graduate school wasn’t where I truly wanted to be since the first year. But it was such a prestigious and competitive program, with great funding. My family was over-the-moon that I got into “the best school in the world.” My dad bragged about me at every opportunity. Social approval and respect came so easily. Everywhere I went, people gave me benefit of the doubt because I was going to Harvard.
Yet, there was a small and persistent voice inside me that kept saying “this isn’t what you really want.” I looked to the faculty members, and realized very quickly that I didn’t want anybody’s life here. I felt disconnected from the scientific method in my research and the discipline at large. Is this really the best way for me to know the world? I wasn’t convinced that the academic path holds the answers to my deepest and most important questions. Every day I spent in graduate school, I felt further and further separated from the social activism that inspired me to become a sociologist in the first place.
Plus, there was another dream of mine that kept tugging on my heart strings. Since I was a very young girl I had this strange fascination with colors and papers. I was more into office supplies than dolls and dresses. Whenever I had extra money, I would add to my collection of pens in different colors. Before bedtime, I would lay all my pens out on my pillow and bask in the magic of the colors. In my early teens, this fascination turned into a passion for painting, and I attended drawing and painting classes during the weekends. In high school, I prepared an art portfolio for applying to art schools.
When my first-choice art school (Emily Carr) didn’t offer me early acceptance or even invite me to apply after Portfolio Day, I was convinced that I didn’t have any talent. I believed in the faculty member who didn’t see any merit or promise in my work. I didn’t even officially apply to any art school before I threw in the towel and gave up (and this is the first time I am admitting this in writing). I was humiliated, disheartened, and totally defeated. I couldn’t stand the thought of having my dream crushed. It would be less risky to just not pursue it at all. Sometimes, our dream can feel so precious and vulnerable that we don’t dare speak its name. Our dream can feel so surreal and amazing that we don’t think we can possibly be worthy of its actualization.
Being an artist became this forbidden fantasy for me. Lofty, grand, and totally out-of-reach. It was for others who had more creative talent. I was perhaps more suited to a conventional path. I put my artist dream away, and went to a traditional university instead. As an undergrad, I was the top student in my program. In my last year, my professor encouraged me to pursue graduate school. He told me to shoot for the moon. I had no idea that I would get into Harvard.
So there I was at Harvard, mostly sifting through what I didn’t want. I started painting regularly again. I took classes, went to workshops, and found solace in my creative practice. I felt reborn with a commitment to my art. A line of fresh colors still delighted me like nothing else. But could art support me? Could art really be a viable alternative career?
I worried and stressed incessantly. I lost sleep. I became depressed. And each day that I refused to follow the path of my heart, I died a little more inside. Like I said, leaving Harvard was the toughest decision I ever had to make in my life. Nearly everybody I consulted told me not to do it. Even my therapist said that I was so close and that I should just finish (I’ve since stopped seeing her).
I still remember the moment the decision became final. It was at the end of a hot flow yoga class, and I was in the final resting position on my mat. My mind was clear and calm, as it often was after yoga. Then, out of nowhere, I burst out crying in the middle of the silence, in a room full of people. The answer appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, with such power and clarity. It was time to leave. Nothing could keep me any longer. Not status, not security, not approval. And I haven’t looked back since.
Breaking the news to my dad was awful. Informing my advisors was awful. But everything else, my friend, was exhilarating. Much to my surprise, I was able to make a profit from art sales almost immediately. Fast forward a year to early 2014, I now run a profitable and blossoming art studio in Portland, Oregon with my husband. I am a published author and illustrator. My work has been featured in newspapers, magazines, and prominent blogs. I am working on my second book. Most of the paintings I’ve created in the last two years have been sold. The growth in the first year of my art business has been phenomenal and nothing short of miraculous, and the first year isn’t even over yet! But most importantly, I cannot wait to get to my work every morning. I cannot believe how blessed I am to be a working artist. I give thanks every single day. A line of fresh paints on my palette still gives me butterflies.
I want to share three things I learned from my transition from PhD candidate to artist entrepreneur. I hope they help you find some clarity.
1. Nothing was wasted.
Please, please, please don’t stay at a place you don’t want to be anymore because you’ve already invested x number of years there.
When I was deciding to leave Harvard, this was what everyone told me. “You’ve already done your time for 5 years, what is 3 more?” Or “If you leave now without your PhD now, everything was wasted.”
None of these statements are true. If you’re paying attention and learning, nothing you’ve ever done or will do is ever wasted. Sure, I didn’t get my PhD from Harvard, but I did get my Master’s. I did grow significantly in my critical thinking and writing skills.
I met some of my closest friends in graduate school. I met my husband in Vermont, where I wouldn’t have been if I wasn’t residing in Massachusetts. I discovered my great passion for teaching and helping others, which plays a big part in my studio practice today. And the flexibility of graduate school allowed me to grow my creative practice on the side, until I was ready to make the transition.
The truth is, I am glad that I didn’t go to art school. My path was a little windy, but I am certain that it maximized my learning and allowed me to accumulate a diverse array of skills. My creative voice is unique because the path I’ve walked is unique.
You need to trust that you are where you are for a reason. You came to learn, you came to explore, and it’s perfectly reasonable to decide that you’re ready for a new adventure. And on your next adventure, you’ll have a toolkit of everything you’ve learned from your last.
2. No one else really knows.
During a time of transition and change, most of us love to ask everybody else’s opinion. We want to know we are doing the right thing, we want to cover all our bases, and we want to study the problem from all angles.
But nobody knows you like you know you.
We’re all so different. We have different dreams, aspirations, and past experiences. Somebody said that it was ridiculous for me to leave Harvard because some people would kill for the same opportunity. Well, that might be true, but clearly I am not wanting the same things as those “some people.”
Nobody knows what your purposeful, meaningful, and passionate work and life look like better than you.
And if you say, “I really don’t know, either,” then I invite you to spend some quiet contemplation time with yourself. Because I guarantee you, no problem ever presents itself without an accompanying solution. The moon appears when the water is still. When you quiet your own internal chatter and everybody else’s opinion, your heart and your intuition will guide you.
3. Follow your heart.
Once you know what your heart wants, it is my sincere hope that you become a loyal servant to your true desires. Pursuing your burning desires with gusto and commitment is the only path that will satisfy you on a deep emotional and spiritual level.
If you do in fact know what your heart desires, but cringe at the thought of just going for it and failing miserably, I want to tell you that you absolutely have what it takes to make your dream a reality. You start by believing in it fully. You continue by aligning your thoughts, feelings, and actions with your dream. You treat every obstacle, challenge, and setback as temporary stops on your way to inevitable success. As best as you can, you stay hopeful, optimistic, and positive.
This is how every remarkable person has accomplished their “outlandish” dreams. They see their visions so fully, with so much conviction that sooner or later, reality, time and space bend to accommodate them. Your heart holds this magic. I believe this is the creative power in all of us, and I also believe it’s time more of us start to exercise this power.
For more information on Nina Huang's beautiful dog portraits and children's book, please visit ninahuangart.com.