Stumbling Upon a Fork in the Road

Photo by Pedro Moura Pinheiro

There comes a point in all of our lives when we have to make a very tough decision, often between one decision or another. The answers are unclear. The consequences of the choices we make are unpredictable. We fall into these situations by chance – rarely do we force this decision making times upon ourselves.

I may have made a mistake.

I discovered my creativity around the age of 12 or 13. I was never an artist by any means, but I began to care about making things around that time. My creative passion started out with capturing moments in time, photographing friends doing tricks on their skateboards. I was never really great at skateboarding, so I figured I’d do a better job capturing my friends at what they did well.

Shortly after that, I slowly grew out of photography – it was too immediate for me. Photography, while I enjoyed it at the time, didn’t really quench my creative thirst. I quickly moved into graphic design, designing logos for the bands that I played in. My logo designs eventually turned into merchandise design and even MySpace layouts. It was with these MySpace layouts though, that I began to learn how to code. I learned new things and was becoming a creative person who loved designing something and making it work.

Fast forward to Fall of 2011. I began my semester as a freshman Visual Communications student at O’More College of Design. At this point, you could say I was a “developer” (embarrassingly enough, I did), but my skills did not extend far beyond HTML and CSS. O’More challenged me in ways that I couldn’t have imagined. I worked two part time jobs while attending school full time, taking away from the time I could focus on my school work.

From the beginning of my college career to now, I have grown in areas I didn’t think I could ever grow in. Last week I was watching Andrew Nacin’s You Don’t Know Query and I understood it.

I have grown from being a young high school kid with a love for graphic design, to young college student beginning to truly build the things I see in my head. I now have a full-time job as a web developer at a small agency in my hometown.

Thanks for the life story. What does this have to do with the fork in the road?

Let me preface the rest of this with one thing: by no means do I think that higher education is a waste of time for everyone / anyone. I believe that college can be a place for students to have the time they need to discover who they are and what their passions are. College is a place of not just learning, but growing and discovering. Growing, learning, and discovering are all things that I have to do, but I’m not sure if continuing my college design education is where I can do those things.

I am tremendously in love with design. I live and breath color and typography and design history. I will always want to design and create things that look great. I also love writing code. I’m not very advanced (in my own eyes anyway), but I believe it’s an area where I still can learn and grow very much. That is not to say I’m a great designer who can no longer grow anymore – my fork is simply deciding which direction to grow in.

O’More has changed a lot since I started attending the school, and most of the changes are definitely for the better. I have changed a lot too though, as you can see. I have grown to love building things that look great. I am realizing that I don’t have to be the one who designs it to still feel satisfied.

I know that there are many, many areas that I can learn and grow and strengthen my skills both in design and development. If I indeed want to truly grow though, I need to make a choice.

If I want to grow as a designer, I will cut back hours at my job and continue my education at O’More (with more hours than I have currently been taking). I will draw and sketch more and spend less time in front of a screen and keyboard. I’m already two years into school, and only have a little less than two years left to go. If I am indeed going to get a bachelor’s degree, now is the time for me to do so.

On the other hand, all of the information I could ever need about writing code is a search bar away from me. If I choose to focus on code, I will leave O’More and continue to work full time. At some point, I will then take classes at Nashville Software School. I will continue to design on personal and freelance projects, but I will spend more time focusing on building (or learning how to build) what it is that has been designed.

This is probably one of the more difficult decisions I will have to make in my lifetime. I know that ultimately, I will be okay. As a believer, I believe God will provide for me no matter what decision I make. That being said, designing and coding make me a very happy person. I am humble and I know I have a lot to learn still. Many people get the wrong idea and assume that because I have a job now, I feel all secure and think I don’t need college anymore.

The truth is, I’m not sure I wanted or needed college in the first place. I don’t know, and that is what makes this decision so much harder.

8 comments

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  1. Dustin Cartwright · November 11

    Continue your education in design. As someone who is currently job hunting after THREE plus years of freelance experience and being self taught… A degree will get you so much more. And what’s more, who’s to say you can’t get your education in design and then take the Nashville classes as well later on? Why opt for either one when you could have both? :)

    • Alex Patin · November 11

      Thanks Dustin! The reason I am wanting to choose between one or the other (right now) is because I want to put all (or a majority) of my time / attention on it. Working full time takes away from focusing on my design education. My design education takes away from my development education. I think I’m tired of half assing my school work – so if I want to stick with design, I want to commit to it fully. I hope that makes sense!

  2. Michael Head · November 11

    I understand where you’re coming from, Alex. I just started graduate school this semester and I very often find myself second-guessing the decision. However, I’m confident it will pay off in the end, so I stick with it.

    The advice I can provide is to be patient about getting the skills you want: as you said, if you want a bachelor’s degree, now is the time to get it. Re-enrolling years down the road, if you decide to ever finish the degree, is very much a pain and can add on to your years left (if you go somewhere else or your credits expire, etc.). If I were in your situation, I would stay in school and see it through.

    That said, I just started reading the book “Don’t Go Back to School” by Kio Stark, which I recommend if you’re having to make this kind of decision. It has interviews with some people who have “made it” without relying on school to get there (though many in the book did get a bachelor’s degree, just not in the field they ended up in).

    Best of luck with your tough decision.

    • Alex Patin · November 11

      Congratulations on your decision to continue in grad school Michael, and thanks so much for your perspective. I have yet to hear many developers say to stick with it, but maybe it’s because developers are in such high demand right now. And patience. That one is tough. It’s hard to be patient – partially because I love learning, and I want to be as skilled as the other designers and developers I see all over the web. Especially when I have been so passionate about it for what seems like forever.

      I will definitely have to give that book a read. Hopefully it will give me another point of view. I truly applaud people such as yourself who decide to stick with it, thanks again for your input, it truly is helpful.

  3. nathan · November 11

    You’re a tough fit for an agency if you don’t choose one or the other (they don’t know what to do with a designer+developer). But, that makes you perfect for your own studio. ..doing both, that is. Seems like this comes down to what you enjoy most. It is easier to stay on the bleeding edge BY FAR in design than development. So if you’re not a complete freak about front end technology, stay in design, get awesome, and stick with what you loved originally and become excellent. You are young enough to put 10,000 hours into both! Just pick which one you want to do first, not ‘ever’. Be a renaissance man!

    • Alex Patin · November 11

      It’s hard to tell which I prefer more. They are both things I’m extremely passionate about, and I value both equally. I have thoroughly enjoyed development more, but perhaps that is because it is a majority of what anyone has asked me to do over the past year or so. It has been a dream of mine to start my own business, so both skills will benefit me in the end – especially when it comes to hiring.

      I think what appeals to me about being a developer is that you really do have to stay on the bleeding edge. The fact that there will always be something new to learn is just awesome. I think if I always stick with that, I will be in a safe position. Thanks for your comment Nathan :]

  4. Anon · November 11

    I understand the pull towards doing one or the other, but it doesn’t have to be so black and white. I argue that it’s not the idea that you have two very different routes to choose but that you feel you don’t know how to balance both great opportunities at once. In fact, you have and this post is evidence that you’ve accomplished a great deal doing so. You are young, and school is only two more years…not exactly an eternity in the grand scheme of things.

    If I were you, I would stick both out and just adjust your perspective slightly. Rather than think about what you could be doing professionally (while at school) and academically (while at work), put both feet in the respective pool and dive in! As a small business owner myself, being successful is as much about being able to capitalize on as many opportunities in front of you as possible and not focusing on only one, in my opinion.

    Why does this have to be a fork and not a pair of chopsticks where both come together to get you what you ultimately want?? Some damn good sushi.

    • Alex Patin · November 11

      You’re right exactly. After having a few other conversations with people, I have realized the problem isn’t school or work – it’s my perspective! I have spent the last two years of school trying to get out of there, instead of focusing on my school work and putting 100% effort. You’re absolutely right, two years isn’t very long at all. I’m just really impatient :p

      That being said, Sushi is really awesome. I would rather have a strong diverse skill set then stop now and only be a good developer with mediocre design skills. Thanks for the advice anon.