How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more, perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.
The Sheltering Sky - Peter Bowles
As a kid I always felt unsettled. With an alcoholic dad and schizophrenic mum, home was a difficult and strange place. I needed an escape from the dysfunctional grown-up world around me, and I found it in books. Tolkien, Ursula Le Guin, Arthur Clarke, Alan Garner, Susan Cooper: the worlds these authors created captured my imagination and encouraged my dreams. As I dreamed, I wrote. I wrote crazy stories about silly things. At school, reading my stories in class was a special thrill. I dreamed of becoming a writer.
When sober, my father was a civil engineer. He indirectly taught me to appreciate beauty in good design. I discovered a love of architecture, especially the awe-inspiring buildings of antiquity. Egyptian pyramids and temples fascinated me, as did anything from ancient Greece, Rome or the South American cultures of the Aztecs and the Maya. I loved Lego with its limitless building potential and I spent happy hours building what I saw in my head: vast castles of weird proportions, strange buildings in gaudy colours, gigantic spaceships and tiny houses. I dreamed of becoming an architect.
Computers were my next love, but we couldn’t afford one. Friends had them, but I could only look at them enviously. Not to be left out, I joined the school computer club and became enchanted by the digital possibilities. I learned BASIC by typing in simple games from Usborne books . It was fun, empowering and enlightening. I wanted to build things with computers. I dreamed of becoming a games designer.
There and back again
Destructive forces were working within my family however, and my unstable childhood finally collapsed around me. That destroyed my dreams of going to university to study computer science. But I was lucky. A year at a local college and an early work placement got me on a path to a career in digital design. It was fun and rewarding and over the next twenty years I developed a diverse digital skill-set and a large portfolio. I worked on hundreds of projects and was creatively contented for many years.
But the more diverse my roles became, the less happy I felt. New roles took me away from the design-and-build that I so enjoyed. I became frustrated that the thing I loved doing was now slipping through my fingers in a flood of management and paperwork.
I tried to get creative control back into my work by going freelance. I was happy for a while but it wasn’t long before I felt lost again. I questioned my abilities and became very demotivated. I suffered debilitating depression. My mental health became questionable. My relationship with my girlfriend became difficult and I stopped seeing my friends and family. Somehow I managed to keep going and my clients were happy with what I produced, but I knew it fell short of my own high standards and my heart wasn’t really in it.
I felt that I should be doing something else with my life, but I didn’t know what. I kept returning to the feelings I’d had growing up: the pleasure of building, of writing, of creating, of taking the first steps in a world of limitless creativity. Creative hobbies outside work were now more creatively satisfying than the work I was doing for money. My career felt small and stifling.
I wondered if returning to team-working would help. I tried two different roles in two years but didn’t find the resolution I craved. One role was too diverse, the other too focused. I was also challenged by my own high standards: I had not yet found a team who really focused on product quality and I remained creatively frustrated.
I tried to understand what was going on. Maybe my work happiness had simply run out? Perhaps I needed to find something else to do? I knew that I loved creating things, but the appeal of creating for others was eclipsed by a desire — no, a need — to create for myself. I realised I wanted to create things that meant something to me, that I believed in, and that met my own quality standards.
My dreams from half a lifetime ago came rushing back. My passions for storytelling and my love of books had taken a back-seat for a long time. I wondered if that old dream still had any power. I started to write again for the first time in over twenty years. It felt good, really good. I wanted to explore this new path on my journey of finding my true creative self. Was it preposterous to think I might one day be a published writer? Probably… but I felt excited about a future that I’d forgotten I once craved.
The other fork in the road
It would be too risky to give up an entire career on the chance that writing might offer me a new one. I still took great pleasure in digital design and did not want to give it up. I decided to use my existing skills to keep an income, and I finally realised how I could do it. The recent trend for web-design to become flat and minimal had led to an unfortunate side-effect: many sites now lacked soul and it was becoming impossible to tell one site from another. This bothered me greatly.
I had also been considering creating web templates for a bit of “passive” income. These two thoughts merged together and I decided to start a new venture: create and sell web-templates that bring back a little bit of beauty, soul and personality to web-design. And so Arcodea was born, a confluence of Art, Code and Ideas. I knew this would be lots of work, and that writing would be a low priority while setting up my template business. Nevertheless I had a conviction for it and what is life without taking some risks?
I set about making a plan. I reasoned I’d need 6 months to build my first two products and get the business up and running. So I needed enough money in the bank to carry me through. I raised my rates, secured a few very good contracts, and worked hard for 6 months, earning what I’d previously earned in a year. In April 2015 I finished my last contract and started to focus on the business. Writing would have to take a back seat for now, but that was fine: I was under no illusion that in the short-term, building the template business would be taking most of my time.
What is happiness anyway?
Have I found creative happiness? I no longer think it’s a valid question. Happiness is a state of mind, a way of viewing the world: it’s not a destination. Creative happiness comes from recognising my talents and using them to define my own path. The important lesson I’ve learned is that staying creatively happy in my work is not something I can simply expect. It’s something I have to continually look for, and if it’s not forthcoming, then I need to step back and actively look at where I am right now, and where I want to be.
Wandering off the path of creative freedom is fine for a while, but if you don’t check where you’re going, you may end up completely lost. Reviewing my career, my skills and talents, and re-examining my interests were vitally important. The process allowed me to see what I had been missing for so long, and helped direct me towards a new future.
I can’t pretend I did it all on my own. Being supported by my partner was so important, and her belief in me helped me rise above the dark days when I thought I couldn’t change. I also had a long period of counselling to help me understand my problem and make plans to overcome them. Having undertaken psychotherapy and CBT in the past, I was very open to the outcomes of this particular counselling and it transformed the way I viewed myself and what I can achieve in the world.
Come on, let's go
This will be very hard work. It’s risky and it may not turn out the way I’d like. I have plans to write children’s adventure books (the first is already plotted), but whether I can write something good that people will want to buy is another matter entirely. But I’m not scared of trying. Trying is the only way to find out what I’m capable of, and as a creative person it’s vitally important to control the process. I’m no longer happy to have other people setting my creative goals: now it’s time to set them for myself — and achieve them.
I hope some of what I’ve written here may help you on your own path. Remember, the only person who can make yourself happy is you. Take charge of your life and control your destiny: no-one else will do it for you.
Creative happiness is out there to be found. Sometimes we just need to stop and look for it.
Note: This was an updated version of an article originally published in The Business Of Web Design: Experiences.