Windy Chien has crafted a magical career guided by her curiosity and passion. She has gone from an introspective student filmmaker (whose thesis film was shown at the Sundance Film Festival in 1994) to the owner and operator of one of San Francisco’s landmark record stores, Aquarius Records, to managing the iTunes and App stores at Apple. While most would consider working for one of the world’s top companies a career pinnacle, Windy’s tale doesn’t end there.
She reinvented herself again, putting her creative vision to work as a fiber artist. Her acclaimed The Year of Knots project, in which she learned a new knot for every day of the year was featured in the San Francisco Chronicle, the New York Times, Wired, Martha Stewart, and has even had a new edition custom installated at Facebook’s corporate headquarters.
During our interview for Making Ways, the podcast all about finding your unexpected path to a creative career, Windy shared her experiences and walked through her process for discovering, evaluating, and pursuing new creative endeavors and paths.
Here are four highlights from our conversation, with tips on how you might guide your own self-exploration when it comes to pursuing the creative job of your dreams.
Stay curious and try all the things
There is a fearlessness in Windy’s approach to jumping in and trying new things. Windy notes that, even today as she pursues her new career as an artist, she is still driven by curiosity and is always open to trying new things. That same curiosity also aided Windy after she left Apple not quite sure of what would come next. She explains, “I knew I wanted to be creative and make artwork with my hands, but I didn’t know what form it would take. So the first thing I did was take a bunch of classes… everything from printmaking to weaving to LED lighting and interior design to ceramics.” During that year of exploration and curiosity some things came into sharper focus for Windy; as she pointed out, “The only two things that stuck were woodcarving and macramé.”
There may not be a scientific formula for finding the things you love, but taking the time to explore new things is a good start. Windy says, “You kind of know within the first 10 minutes, half an hour, whether or not you like something or not. And if I liked it, I came back and just went further down the rabbit hole.”
Look out for moments of flow
While you are off exploring, be sure to look out for those moments when something feels just right. For Windy, it was when her hands began knotting rope and carving wood. Windy is guided by the question, “Do you love the feeling of the doing while you’re doing it?” She describes “that feeling of working at the very limits of your ability, very intensely focused on what you’re doing and feeling an intense pleasure from the activity itself” as flow and says, “If I’m doing an activity and it takes me into the flow state, I know that I should keep doing it.” And, Windy explains, flow can help jumpstart your daily creative practice. For you, that moment may be meditation, a good run, a doodle, or another self-oriented habit that, as Windy relates about her own experience, can “set the tone for [the] entire studio session each day.”
And if you aren’t feeling that flow, even if you are successful at the work you’re doing, maybe it’s time to start exploring new opportunities. Windy, for example, set aside a burgeoning career in filmmaking after college. Looking back, Windy says, “I didn’t really love the process of making film. . . .What I’m doing now, when I’m knotting every day or when I’m carving wood, I actually love every moment in the process and every stage in the process—not just the result.” That’s the key piece of advice she gives to her students and friends: “Make sure that you love every part of what you do and not just how it looks when you’re done—not just the result, but the process itself. That’s a clue that you should keep doing it.”
Give yourself permission
There’s often a barrier in making a gigantic career leap. Changing industries, changing coasts, going independent––these kinds of career or life shifts can come with a heaping serving of contemplation and fear of failure. Windy says people often hesitate to make these changes because they are waiting for permission, for someone to tell them “you can do it,” “you should do it,” or “you are qualified to do it.” And simply put, that’s nonsense.
Windy argues that this need for permission starts when we are youngsters: “We’re taught that if you do A, B, and C in your life, then you’re going to be ‘successful.’ And I say that with quotes not knowing what that means because it’s different for everyone.” As most of us know, that’s rarely the case. There’s no checklist for happiness or professional success or a magic wand to bestow upon us the strength needed to make changes to improve our positions. Windy says you have to realize that waiting for permission is a one-way ticket to a stationary existence. She says, “No one’s ever going to give you permission to quit your job; your employer isn’t going to invite you to quit your job; your parents aren’t going to be like, ‘Why don’t you just stop with that paycheck thing and do something else.’” Windy explains that the solution is to simply “be comfortable with giving permission to yourself. . . . You’re an adult who is capable of making sensible, practical, and smart decisions!”
Giving yourself permission will dampen the volume on the annoying inner voice that always seems to be shouting, “Be afraid.” But Windy has another piece of advice to help put the kibosh on that feeling of the ceiling closing in on your career or creative options: “Worrying about things is failing in advance––and you don’t want to fail in advance. That’s crazy, right? What you should do is succeed in advance. You should picture yourself succeeding and doing a really good job and then do that.”
Work ridiculously hard
Windy’s first foray into the art-and-craft world with Year of Knots received a wonderful amount of attention. Wired discovered her project, which led to a cascade of attention from the nation’s most popular publications. However, Windy’s success was built on a foundation of incredibly hard work. And it started with a moment that Windy has never forgotten.
Windy says, “I literally had a light bulb moment on January 4, 2016. I realized as I was sweeping up the leaves in my backyard that if I want my work to really express who I am, I need more tools in my palette… and I realized I just need to learn all the knots. So in a flash, I intuited the self-imposed design restrictions around the project that I would post each knot everyday to Instagram to keep myself accountable but also to build an audience and build a dialogue with other people who were into it.”
In a single moment, Windy had given herself a project that in and of itself was a learning exercise, imposed restrictions in scope, and gave her hard deadlines. And she also had in mind that this would help expose her work to more people through social media. Windy says that when she “started the project, she thought of it as a daily commitment and a kind of performative art ritual done over the course of a year.”
The fruits of incredibly hard work, daily deadlines, and self-imposed restrictions had borne fruit. Windy had followed her flow to a project that grabbed the imagination of Instagram followers, press, and patrons alike. So whether you envision a large-scale project off the bat or simply give yourself an assignment that may inform a future larger project (or accidentally become one), the message is clear: work your ass off. Your skills will improve faster than ever; you’ll show commitment to your audience, and you just may end up with a body of work that redefines your portfolio and your résumé. This can set you on a course for a new, fulfilling creative role you may want to occupy for the rest of your days—or at least until your curiosity inspires your next bold move.
So stay curious and try all the things. Sign up for a class. Take a friend for coffee who works in a field that might interest you; go see speakers; check out meetups; or create your own experimental projects. It might take weeks, months, or even years, but if you keep trying new things, you’ll find your passion.
To check out Windy’s work, visit her website and be sure to join her journey on Instagram too. To hear more of Windy’s insights and her amazing career journey––listen to her episode of Making Ways podcast.
[feature image: Molly DeCoudreaux]