Last summer I made the hardest decision of my life. It was tough, because I was a university dropout without any higher education qualifications: but for the first time, I took full responsibility for the choice that was in front of me, without letting others influence my thoughts. Although I had a lot of pressure from my family to stick with a safer choice, I was determined to do something that gave me challenge and satisfaction. Now, a year after I made the decision — to work with Hanno full-time—I look back and it seems very clear that it was the best decision I could have made.
When I finished high-school in Lithuania in 2011, I had to figure out my next steps. There was an option to apply for university in Lithuania, or I had the opportunity to go abroad. Since my family was already packing up their belongings to make their own move to Norway, I pretty much allowed them to decide on my behalf that I should go to Denmark to take advantage of the free education I’d be able to obtain there.
So I went to Ålborg, a mid-sized city in northern Denmark, and started my graphic design studies at the University College of Northern Denmark. Life changed, initially in a good way–I was on my own, far away from my girlfriend, my friends and family, and the change was a very positive one in the first few months. But I soon got bored: I didn’t feel like I was learning very much, since I’d spent the last 4 years freelancing while I was studying and had already taught myself a lot of the basics that the course was covering. And I also realised that the AP-diploma I’d signed up for was not as promising as I’d first thought — it’s not at the same level as a Bachelor’s degree, and isn’t recognised in most other countries. “Something is better than nothing, right?” — you’d say. But in all, I wasn’t satisfied, and I made the call to quit my studies after 5 months.
Once again, my family chimed in and I allowed them to help create another plan: this time, I would join them in Norway, find a job there, learn the language and in time, sign up for a better quality course.
When I moved to Bergen, in Norway, things didn’t go as planned. Since I had no higher level qualifications, the only option for me was to find an unqualified job like a cleaning position. But I found it really tough to make this compromise–I’d built up a pretty strong portfolio of identity design projects already, and I was determined to keep trying to apply for design agency positions. I also tried to get back to freelancing, but because of the high living costs in Norway (far higher than those in Lithuania), it wasn’t possible to make a living from the same type of international clients I’d been working with in the past. And because of the pressure from my family to succeed in their carefully laid plans, I found it tough to focus and do any productive design work.
After a few months of tough job hunting, I finally found a cleaning job in a school, and another job in IKEA, where I worked for 6 months pushing wagons, driving tractors and cleaning the toilets. There were even a few months when both of these jobs overlapped and I worked physically draining work for 12 hours a day. I had no life, not to mention, no energy or time to get back into designing.
I was totally miserable. I felt like my brain cells and passion for design were gradually dying, and I was becoming a dull person without the future I’d wanted for myself.
Heading up to the surface
Even through these 2 tough years, I somehow still managed to do some occasional design work for the guys at Hanno. That sole relationship I’d managed to maintain, was the one which gave me an opportunity that later turned out to be life-changing. One day, Matt (who had joined Hanno a few months earlier) mentioned that the team was planning to travel to Valencia, in Spain, and I was welcome to come along with them if I had any free time.
Guess what? I didn’t have time at all, but I made some. It was partly because I had enough funds to make a brief escape, and also because my parents were coming up with a new plan for me to obtain a bus driver’s qualification in Lithuania, which allowed me to spend a few months without working. But more than that, I was just extremely eager to finally meet these digital partners of mine, with whom I’d been working for several years at this point.
So the plan was to visit the newly enlarged Hanno team in Valencia for a week, and then go to Lithuania for the summer, where I was supposed to train for my bus driving license. At first, I saw my trip to Valencia as more of a temporary escape, though, and remained focused on my plans to get the bus driving license, which I would then be able to use back in Norway to (according to my parents) become an amazing bus driver! As always, their intentions were nothing but well-meaning —it would allow me to have a slightly cleaner job, and have more time for my studies while working.
Before leaving, my friends and family had plenty of fun teasing me about the highly unlikely possibility of me joining Hanno full-time and ruining their carefully made driving license plans. At the time, I don’t think they could have foreseen that it would be a very real possibility.
Things started to sound promising
The week that I spent in Valencia was something I’d been dreaming about for years. And it felt almost like a few months of creative satisfaction, because I enjoyed every single minute sitting in that co-working space, surrounded by creative people and doing design work with Hanno. At that time, suddenly anything seemed possible, and I had a blast of longly awaited inspiration. The guys saw how I worked, and I was similarly impressed by how they were working. And suddenly, after sharing my plans with them at the end of a great trip, Jon actually mentioned the possibility of trying to work together more often than before. That gave me some food for thought.
When I arrived in Lithuania, getting the driving license turned out to be far trickier than we expected. It was still possible, but in order to get it, I would have to stay for a few months longer.
Then I realised it was the right time to save myself from tractors and busses. The possibility to start doing what I liked was close at hand.
I won’t hide it: I was secretly glad that things with the driving licence were more complex than we thought—it gave me an excuse to change my route. I had a secret desire to dedicate my time to working with Hanno, instead of wasting more time on what seemed to be another life-security plan that would take me further away from where I wanted to be. But I knew the risk as well. I knew that if this failed, even more time would be wasted, which would be very painful. And committing to Hanno would mean saying goodbye to the prospect of further education for at least another few years, which might leave me in a tricky position later on.
But this was it—I decided. I called my parents, explained the situation and told them about my new opportunity. Their reaction was just as bad as I expected–but I was ready for that–I’d prepared myself for a long and very intense battle with anyone who was against my new venture. I wouldn’t dismiss their opinions entirely, but I knew that I had to hold firm in order to avoid being tempted off-course again. Fortunately, I had my girlfriend close to me, who’d supported me from the very beginning and helped me to open my eyes.
At the end of summer, I travelled back to Norway, where I moved into The Hub, a co-working space in the heart of Bergen. While Hanno had taken a gamble and committed to sending work my way, since they couldn’t initially send enough work for me to live independently on, given Norway’s high cost-of-living, I still needed some support from my parents. Fortunately they were OK with supporting me financially, but of course, by being under their roof, I had to learn to handle the huge pressure from them to give up on this risky route, and take the safer option. I kept telling myself that “everything will eventually be great”, and that it’s only a matter of time before I would get there. I worked hard and tried to improve my skills as much as I could. With the more regular, full-time work, it didn’t take long to improve, so the next stage was stepping up and taking more initiative, which helped me to become a more valuable part of the team and left them more confident about sending more work my way.
It was still difficult to focus on improving my skills and becoming a better designer, with all the pressure I was getting at home, but a little while later, things started to get better. After the initial trial period we’d agreed on had ended, my teammates Jon and Matt visited me in Bergen. We worked together for a week and they even came to meet my parents! Weirdly this was almost like that point in a relationship where you first introduce your new partner to your family.
On the deck
Since I’m writing this right now, you can probably guess that the encounter went well, fuelled by plenty of homemade kugelis (Lithuanian potato pudding) and some delicious home-brewed beer.
Almost a year later my friends and family are finally comfortable with the decision I made, and can see the change I’ve gone through and respect my choice. They now see the output from what I do, where I am, and the way that my life is now completely different from the way it was back then. Right now, I’m really enjoying working at Hanno, and a big reason for that is that I’m doing something that challenges and stimulates me.
Even though I spent a couple of years wandering in the darkness, I wouldn’t say that time was wasted. I’m actually really happy that I worked in those tough, dirtier jobs, because it’s a big learning experience. If you can make it through them, you learn that tough conditions can help you to realise what you actually want from your life and push you to go for it.
Opportunities (most of the time it’s people) are the things which allow you to radically change everything. And sometimes taking a little opportunity means taking a big risk, as it was for me. But calculated risks can pay off, sometimes. Everything can change if you make the most of your opportunities, even if there’s a risk involved. But only you know which is the right decision for you.
When I first looked back at my journey and tried to figure out what led me here, I put it down to luck. I was lucky enough that my parents kept pushing me to keep striving (even if it was in the wrong direction); I was lucky enough that I managed to keep hold of the relationship with Hanno even while I was going through a tough time working my many manual jobs; I was lucky that the circumstances allowed me to take that trip to Valencia, and even that the trip happened at all. But I’m starting to realise from other people that while I’ve definitely had some luck, that’s not the full story. As my friend Sergei said to me over a delicious lunchtime sandwich while we were in Hong Kong:
It's not just luck. You're responsibile for what you do and why you’re here right now.
I can’t say I regret making any of my previous decisions, even though those were initiated by my parents. I’m glad I had a chance to live in Denmark for a while and got to taste the life of a student. I’m glad I entered the work industry so early, when people my age were still studying. I really feel that the best decisions for you, however, are always the ones you genuinely make on your own.
As I write this, I’m what you might call a “location-independent nomad”, living in Bali, Indonesia. I’ve made another decision of my own right now: I’ve signed up to stay here for another year. Right now, I think it’s the right decision for me–but even if it’s not, at least it’s one I’ve made by myself.