04/12/2012 05:37 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Design a Creative Life -- Balancing Reality and Aspirations

Co-written by Grant Wenzlau


Building a career in the creative economy is a deliberate choice. How does one decide to focus on becoming an expert in a profession and how does one plan the course and take action? If you only have one shot at life, what do you do?

Grant Wenzlau is twenty-two-years-old, about to graduate from college and trying desperately to find a job and decide what to do with his life. He shares his thoughts on how to get started in the real world: "I want to change the world, make it a better, more beautiful place. But if you ask me how that translates into a job, I don't have an answer yet." Like most students, he has spent pretty much his entire life preparing for this moment -- thousands of hours studying the past so that one day he can shape the future. But the very thing that will excite him enough to make his mark on the world may not yet be in existence.

He says: "As graduation day approaches, I try to gather all of the things that I have learned, I try to remember all of my schemes and all of the things I want to be. This is what I know: I am going to put a ding in the universe. But this conviction is not very convincing to employers. My only offers have been minimum wage internships. I keep hearing that the economy is bad and I should take what I can get. But how do I live up to my own expectations and aspirations while reality is begging me to compromise? Am I compromising by taking a bad job? Or am I compromising by not taking the job and living at home while I work out my search for meaning? I have spent so much time in expectation of this moment, and now that it's here, I am not sure what to do. I am crippled by the fear that I may not get what I want -- that I will succumb to external forces and not be what I want. What is it like to get it right? To be established and have a career you are proud of?"

When I hear questions like these, I remember when I started out on my own journey into the unknown future. My strengths happened to be in mathematics and physics and my love of sports cars led me to pursue a career in mechanical engineering. Very soon, I discovered engineering design and industrial design and enjoyed sketching and building computer models. I eventually left Denmark and came to California to study car design, and after ten years of amazing experiences in design, I started to ask the question, "What's next?" It was then that I decided to get my doctorate and find a way to improve the product development process to enhance performance as well as making the life of designers more sustainable.

All of my experience tells me that you can achieve success by leveraging your natural and learned strengths in the job market. By focusing on your goals and being open to unexpected opportunities, you can achieve much more than you originally thought you could, and a good attitude definitely matters.

So, if asked for my advice about how to embark on a life of design, it would be to trust the process. You will constantly be balancing your reality with your aspirations and as you grow, you will get a better sense of both.

A Zen saying that comes to mind is, "Before Enlightenment chop wood carry water, after Enlightenment, chop wood, carry water."

Special thanks to Grant Wenzlau for researching and co-writing this article.