• Abigail Shea

Coming out Creative

Our earliest career aspirations are pretty predictable—if we all stuck to those goals there’d be a TON of vets and doctors and teachers out there. As we start to form individual identities, our goals diversify, and we actually consider what feels right and exciting for our developing personalities. The sportscaster, lawyer, marine biologist years. I think these are some of our most authentic aspirations—we’re old enough to realize what brings us joy, but we’re still untroubled by the pressures and realities of the adult world. I wanted to be a designer. SO BAD. 

I really wanted to be a fashion designer. I drew shoes and dresses and purses in the margin of every notebook and on the back of every restaurant napkin. I wore my mom’s clothes constantly and dreamed of someday being big enough to have a wardrobe like hers. One day I realized that people designed spaces too and I was determined that was what I would do. From the time I was eight to probably 15, all I wanted to do was be and interior designer.

As I grew up my love for fashion and interior design was constant, but I started to form a new identity. I was doing well in school and was put in a gifted-and-talented program. My life became less and less creative and eventually I abandoned my goal of being a designer. I convinced myself it was silly and frivolous. I was excelling in and genuinely enjoy my science classes, so I stuck with that.

I finished high school and studied Neuropsychology at Colby College. I worked as a research assistant, then a medical research intern at a local hospital, and finished my college career with a year-long thesis. I really did love what I was doing and was excited to pursue medicine or neuroscience as a career. 

After graduation I moved to Montreal to work in a neurobiology lab at McGill. I was working with some of the finest neuroscientists in the entire world. My colleagues were amazing, I made my own hours, and was earning good money right out of school. For someone who really loved science, it was the perfect gig. For me, it was less than six months before I got that deep, pit-of-your-stomach anxiety that told me something was really wrong.

It was so hard for me to admit, but I was falling out of love with science. Or, had I ever even been in love?? It really did feel like a break-up. So much of who I thought I was was wrapped up in my academic career. My parents are both academics and share FIVE graduate degrees between the two of them. We were raised to be critical thinkers and good readers and were always told that education was vitally important --how was I supposed to abandon that?

And to be clear, it’s not like I didn’t know why I would be leaving. It wasn’t like I knew science was wrong and I thought I'd try the private sector, join a non-profit, or go back to school. I knew that I had a creative energy that I needed to explore, and I knew that if I didn't do it now I probably never would. Even with such clarity, the decision was impossible. 

I agonized over the decision for an entire year. As I allowed myself to honestly consider leaving science, a creative career started to feel so right and so exciting. I was a terrible employee that entire year, I would sit at my lab bench in my knee-length white coat dreaming of working with clients and creating spectacular homes. I came in late, left early and spent every spare minute I had educating myself about interior design. 

It was like chipping away at the Hoover Dam—the more I let myself think about it the more my creativity poured out of me. I started dressing how I really wanted to and stuck out like a sore thumb in a research hospital. I advertised myself as a designer and took a few clients--I was a neuroscientist moonlighting as an interior designer, often working 18-hour days to fit it all in. Even still, I couldn't fully let go of my academic path. I even considered getting an MD or PhD to have as “backup” and then starting a design career, which is obviously INSANE. Why was I so afraid to be who I wanted to be? Years of traditional education and an industrial, capitalist economy? Yep! I knew all that. But those truisms run deep and knowing them didn't make my decision any easier.

Finally, I realized how narrow-minded I was being. I was an intelligent, dedicated, hard-working person with a deeply creative soul and there is nothing wrong with that.

In fact, it’s pretty awesome.

The day I finally decided to leave science was really one of the best days of my life. I cried and laughed and literally jumped up and down. It was the purest and happiest I have felt in a long time. As so many of us unfortunately know, concealing your true self is terribly painful. My creative soul is so beautiful and has always been one of my favorite parts of myself and I was so blissfully excited to let it shine. Six months later I am still just as excited. 

I think back to my childhood a lot these days. It feels surreal that I knew what I wanted at such a young age, and that without evening knowing it the pressures and realities of our world so strongly influenced my identity. This early in my career, I still feel very unsure. I have no idea where this will take me, if I'll be successful, or even if this life will make me truly happy. But the most important thing I've learned this past year, and maybe even in my entire life, is that there's nothing more beautiful than being exactly who you are. 

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