A little over three years ago, on the first working day of 2011, after twelve years working on retainer with a high-end optical manufacturer, I resigned the account. I resigned an account that I “grew up” with as a designer. An account that paid me handsomely. An account that could’ve been mine for twelve more years to come. An account that, over time, became family. But it was a dysfunctional one.
This move meant my studio lost 75% of our billings and 50% of our household income. I know. Major. But it got to the point where the hit my bank account would take became less a sacrifice, and more a temporary part of a smart life strategy. Or so I was trusting. This decision wasn’t an easy one to make. I was reminded by my husband (and my designer and some girlfriends and the local barista… I kid) that I tried to resign the account two times before. But the ‘golden handcuffs’ kept me seated firmly in my Aeron Chair.
WHY I STAYED
As you can imagine, there’s a lot of backstory in a twelve year relationship. A lot of work was created. Reinventions, refinements, redos. I cannot count how many times I’ve played the highs and lows around in my head—or on the shrink’s couch. There were glorious times of creative fulfillment, strategic bliss and symbiosis between personalities and goals. There were also passive eye rolls and very inappropriate yelling at each other. I was my best and worst with this client.
When I was killing it, balancing efficiency and creativity with strategic brilliance, I felt potent. I was in service. My work had meaning, function, and delighted me to no end. But my passion was met with a non-plus attitude. Nothing registered high on the charts for this client. She played mid-range and lower. She could never ascend. This lack of mutual engagement in our collaboration dulled my shine. I would disengage and slowly descend, all the while producing good work—my baseline. Eventually, I would hit a breaking point followed by feeling shame for being out of integrity with my attitude. And I admit, sometimes I lost my shit. Like I said this client was (a dysfunctional) family. However, the handful of unprofessional exhibitions shook me awake. Set the stage for me to be über clear and productive. I rededicated. I was going to wash away my inappropriateness by being better.
Sure, I didn’t leave because of the money, the retainer was the bulk share of my income, but I stayed to play out relationships that needed healing. To ‘grow up,’ emotionally.
IT WASN’T OKAY ANYMORE
For the last seven of twelve years I was unhappy working with this client. But the steady income and continued success my studio created for the company kept me warm. Until it didn’t. Then again, the client afforded me the opportunity to work with high-profile talent, such as Rachel Zoe and Cynthia Rowley. I endured. The internal bargaining continued. As did my bi-monthly visits to my therapist. And while the inter-personal dynamic was cause to resign the account, like I said above, that was the reason I stayed. What made it not okay to keep the client, was it wasn’t acceptable for me, anymore, to keep on keeping on.
Creating good enough, wasn’t good enough.
The ease that came with knowing exactly what the client wanted, and delivering that, became less attractive to me. I wanted more for the client and myself. I saw opportunities and places we could play the edges, but that was not of interest to my client.
Doing solid work, and more than what was required, made my client happy. I over-achieved and over-delivered. And I didn’t find satisfaction there. But I was able to play those edges and get strategically creative through my emotions. They wanted to be heard. So I exercised my truth, some would say recklessly.
Then again, it was good, “easy” money. The security that came with the (always renewed) retainer contract continued to be my albatross.
I CHOSE JOY
The final straw, surprisingly, wasn’t a dramatic episode at all. It came to me quite clearly, peacefully, in fact. A culmination rather than resignation.
It was when I finally felt liberated inside, I was able to walk away.
Each event, episode, win—all the daysweeksyears—wrapped around proposals, projects, and people delivered me to this moment.
I gave my client four months’ notice. Over a decade of work means there was a lot to tidy up and transfer over. There were tutorials galore. I was effective, efficient, kind and feeling a spaciousness in my days that hadn’t existed for a long time. Any fear I had about resigning the account was washed away simply by declaring joy, not security or a big paycheck, as the foundation of my professional practice. I thrived like never before. Walking away from something that was “secure,” “good enough” and “lucrative”—but ultimately hurting me—turned out to be a great personal boon.
Not surprisingly, as these stories go, in the first four months after my last $100k per year day, I doubled my income. However, what I value most from my abandon, and what endures, is my finding liberation.
Big leaps + trust = can’t lose.
I’m Jennifer Elsner. My studio, Viewers Like You, delivers Creative Direction, Brand Development and Graphic Design to a select number of clients annually. This allows me to sustainably grow my clients’ business in the very best direction: deep. I believe that design is visual, structural, navigational and emotional. It’s moving, it’s systemic, it’s relational—in many ways, it’s an evolutionary organism. I recognize the dynamic nature of problem spaces and design opportunities, and endeavor to create offerings, as opposed to solutions. I’m deeply committed to my client’s needs and only partner with those projects that buoy my spirits, enliven my mind and challenges my practices. You can find me on Twitter or Instagram.
I’m so excited to debut the Life Starter’s Blog Series. I have had the greatest honor and fortune of hearing your powerful stories of personal transformation and I wanted to share them all. Because I know that together we can help support, inspire and lift one another. Every Tuesday, we will proudly feature your stories. If you’d like to submit a post, please go here for guidelines and more info. Happy reading!
Image courtesy of Stuart Williams.