the gift of starting over

Sometime this spring, I decided that instead of trying to make tangential career paths work for me, I was going to throw all of my energy into pursuing art and writing full-time. A few days later, one of my oldest design clients, Côte West, hired me to create a mural for their wine tasting room walls in Oakland, California. It felt like a great gift of encouragement from the universe, and I proposed something ambitious: a three-dimensional version of their wine labels (which I designed three years prior) that would span the entire ten foot wall.

The first time, I made it by hand. I didn’t stop and think about any other way, I just did it. I went to the art store and purchased thirty pieces of 30” x 40” foam boards, more spray glue than I could carry, and made a grand mess on the floor of my friend’s cottage in Long Island, where, in between NYC apartments, I was staying for the summer. I cut foam boards until I thought my fingers would fall off, and used so much spray glue I thought I would pass out from the fumes. I packed everything in two giant, platform TV-sized boxes and flew it to San Francisco with my boyfriend. The plan was to finish the project in a few days, enjoy a short vacation in San Francisco, then fly to San Diego for a wedding. We could barely fit the art into our rental car.

I worked twelve hour work days painting, cutting, and gluing. The day before we left, we stayed up together the entire night assembling and mounting the piece to the wall. We collapsed like zombies and woke up in San Diego. I didn’t feel that I had done my best work, but I thought I did do the very best I could. I was just relieved that it was done — the most stressful, labor-some project of my career.

Then what happened? Then I wake up from a sleep deprived stupor in San Diego. I was supposed to write a toast for my friend’s wedding. I check my inbox and find a lengthy email from my client. My heart sinks.


I’ve never cried about anything career-related in my life. Bosses can’t make me cry, co-workers can’t make me cry, even clients can’t make me cry. My own failed expectations can make me cry. I cried while I was in Long Island, cutting foam boards and feeling completely overwhelmed by the impossible task I had created for myself. I cried while pulling the all-nighter with my boyfriend in Oakland, California, thinking I couldn’t finish this without some divine intervention. And I cried after it was all over, when I woke up in sticky San Diego heat to my client’s email, saying that they were disappointed with the end result.

This was hard for me because I had gotten used to feeling competent at everything I attempted, and it was the first time I’ve felt defeated. I had just taken a leap of faith to pursue this career path, and I heard my fears whispering to me like sirens. After all that work, I had failed my clients, and I had failed myself. Who was I to call myself a professional artist? I think it all hinged on the fear that despite my very best efforts, perhaps I still wasn’t good enough.


Over the next few days, I realized that the bitter feeling of failure and defeat was a poison of my own making. Its paralyzing effects last only as long as I want it to. I went back to a core belief I had engrained in my mind, which is that the whole idea of “professional” begins and exists primarily in my mind. No matter what external validation I receive or don’t receive, nobody except me will make me feel like a professional. The same goes for the word “artist.”

I learned that knowing my limitations is simply the inverse of knowing my strengths. I am not meant to do everything and anything with ease (cutting, gluing, assembling twenty pounds of foam board), and that’s okay. I learned that when it comes to deadlines, err on the side of caution. I learned to keep the unknown elements simple, and the known elements complex. I learned to experiment with materials instead of going with only what I know. I learned that when I’m really stressed out, it’s even more important than ever to care for my mental, physical, and emotional health. I learned that my new lows are still, materially speaking, pretty good — it’s only my mind that makes it much scarier, darker place.

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A month later, I flew back to San Francisco for a week and redid the project. This time, I used a laser cutting vendor to cut the wood pieces, and I spent my time sanding, painting, and mounting. It didn’t feel effortless, but it also didn’t feel like an impossible task. At the end of it all, I didn’t feel a sense of pride or accomplishment — instead, I felt a deep peace. Peace, as in: this is how my work is supposed to be.

I’m acknowledging how lucky and grateful I am — to my clients for this amazing opportunity and for their tremendous patience, to my friends for cheering me on, to my boyfriend, for supporting me through the entire saga, and to my family, especially my dad, for backing me up when I needed it most.

Version 1.0

Version 1.0

Version 2.0

Version 2.0

One night, while dancing tango in San Francisco, someone asked me, Why are you visiting SF? And I said, oh, work. Oh, he replies. Nevermind. That’s not very interesting. And I thought to myself: Oh. I’m sorry you feel that way about work. Working for myself is what gives me my fire to do my very best, and to push myself to my fullest potential. I take all of the responsibility, all of the risk, and all of the reward.

One night in September, during my second trip, I ran through the open winery warehouse to catch a Lyft. It was twilight in Oakland. The air smelled like grapes, and my client and his assistant were hosing down the grape-stained floors while Jimmy Hendrix blasted through the warehouse. I felt a magical sense of joy — here I am, doing this, with people in love with what they do. I felt so lucky. This project wasn’t the gift from the universe I had imagined, but the experience, wisdom, and resilience it gave me was far more than I could’ve known to ask for.

JourneyKening Zhu