My mom’s mantle is lined with rows of my brother’s sports trophies. There are golden soccer players permanently frozen mid-kick, silver batters tee’d up to hit a home run, and brass plaques declaring “Collins Cougars: First Place”!
My brother was that kid that was pretty great at all sports. On the other hand, I was a bit of an athletic klutz. But if you look really hard, you’ll find one golden cup hiding somewhere way in the back row. My claim to fame: “Vicki Tan. Art Class. Best Painting.”
Throughout grade school my teachers always said I was creative. I drew all over my assignments for added flair and made posters instead of filling out the worksheets. In junior high, instead of going to the Gap and buying cargo pants like everyone else, I sewed outfits for Twin Day. That was when extremely large pants were in fashion so of course I made my own custom baggy jeans with an embroidered logo and all.
But somewhere in between childhood and college I lost my calling.
I suspect these passions went missing along with some hobbies like playing the piano, painting and sewing; these were replaced by reading, studying, and the ever important “hanging out”. In high school, cars and cigarettes became cooler than quilting. At the same time my mom encouraged me to take AP classes, focus on debate club and prepare for college. And while I was always sure to take a ceramics class to fulfill the requirement, the activity was limited to that hour.
At UCSD, I tried chemistry and changed my mind. I majored in biology and struggled. Then I became intimately involved with a new discovery — psychology. I took classes on things like happiness, emotion, and perception, and I loved every minute of it. All of life’s mysteries were suddenly explained by behavioral science and it made perfect sense.
Then graduation happened and I became an adult faced with the decision that many liberal arts majors have puzzled over: What do I want to be when I grow up? I considered the traditional options: Psychologist. Researcher. Human Resources. Professor.
I had friends who had studied graphic design, interior design, product design and so forth. And in the back of my mind I was envious of those friends, knowing that those jobs were for the truly talented, inherently artistic people. What point was there in being a mediocre artist? On top of that, my family had long since convinced me that one must become a lawyer, doctor or engineer to earn a respectable living.
So over the last six years, I tried my darndest to give all of those option a shot. I worked with the mentally ill and went to my first set of Narcotics Anonymous meetings. I ran tests with college students, feeding them pure ethanol until they were drunk (in the name of research, of course). I collected neonatal tumor tissue and drew blood for war veterans. In the end, I learned a lot about what I didn’t want to do for the rest of my life. And it wasn’t until recently that I discovered, in the most roundabout way possible, that I had it right 20 years ago.
Rewinding back three years ago—by some stroke of luck—I started working at a technology company known for making big bets. I joined Google on a pilot team that was tasked with running innovative experiments in hiring. My lovely manager truly seemed to understand the value of playing to our team’s strengths, and allowed me to cautiously flex my long-lost creative wings. I started designing flyers and learning new tools on the computer. I got positive feedback and ventured to try bigger projects that stretched my abilities. And slowly, over the last two years, I remembered where it all came from. The 7-year old kid that insisted on painting murals on her bedroom wall was back!
I used to think that design was reserved for the art school graduate and that I’d never be able to catch up because I wouldn’t ever be as technical or proficient. While it hasn’t been quick or straightforward — in fact, it’s taken a ton of trial and error — I think I’ve come full circle. When I left my last team, I got a card that read: “Vicki, you are our creative unicorn.” Thanks to the support of a few risk takers and pats on the back, I finally feel confident calling myself …a creative unicorn.