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When Dreams Die

When Dreams Die

by Ana Wang

January 06, 2016

There's a certain kind of synchronicity that happens when suddenly everything you believed in all seems come to a halt, in a way that feels too real and visceral to be referred to as an over-dramatization of the situation. That happened to me in the last quarter of 2015. Well, before that happened I had to hit rock bottom to even begin to notice the reasons why nothing was working. It's why I started to ask the question publicly on this blog about 100 days ago: is it ever too late? To be clear, that was before the rock but even I could sense I was closing in, quite unlike the Titanic, where it was a bit of a surprise when it happened.

As I wrap up this year I've come to see it as being one of the pivotal years of my life where past meets present meets future and I see myself, if this were the trajectory of my life, I'd be at the train station, about to get onto the next stop.

I joked about this year a few times, nervous but lightheartedly. "You know, this is a tough year for a lot of creative people", I'd say, as I came to the age in modern adulthood where you're no longer supposed to be phasing out of college and being a noob at life - they even have a club for this age where rock stars and artists seem to die (a myth, nonetheless). And as a creative, you're supposed to be starting to get it, whatever it is. 

I didn't seem to be getting it, no matter how many things I tried.

On top of that, so many things have happened that challenged everything I believed about the world. It rocked me so much that in a recent job interview, the first thing that came to mind when I was asked "Who are you?" was not something cool, or funny, or factual (well it was true, just not a quantifiable fact). It was something along the effect of: I'm someone who is changing, who had so many core beliefs challenged this year. Either it worked or I was going to pass anyway. (Spoiler: I got the job.) I could've said anything else - my brain was thinking in that half of a millisecond: say something funny, they like that kind of thing, everybody likes funny - but all that came out was the truth that I didn't know who I was, because all I knew in that exact moment was that I was changing.

These are the beliefs that I've had challenged in 2015:

1. People who say marriage is hard clearly just married the wrong person.
2. If you work hard people will give you what you deserve.
3. If you follow the rules, you will get something in return.
4. If you have a good idea, execution is all that matters.
5. Building a business on passion first is the best idea, because passion is what'll keep you going.
6. I know what a challenge is.
7. If you didn't learn to swim before you became an adult after 5 years of lessons, it just means you were never cut out to swim. Tell that to my husband who has dubbed me the "mermaid sloth" after I successfully snorkelled my way in Cuba. 
8. I'm only happy working for myself.
9. A prelaunch is the precursor to a successful launch.
10. People who care about ethical business are naturally ethical businesspeople.
11. If there's a market for something, because there's a market for everything, you just need to add great marketing.
12. iOS > Android for life.

If you're on the other side of any of those beliefs, you're probably chuckling to yourself, because you know. I didn't.

When I was young, I had this idea about life that while we do a lot of growing and growing up, that essentially we're the same, that people don't really change. They grow and develop and get better if they want to, but they don't change. Cue Helen and Annie's "Do people really change?" scene from Bridesmaids.

My optimism leaned towards the idea that huge growth was always possible, and that growth can lead to change in your life, but it doesn't essentially change you as a person.

But all that had happened this year, all those beliefs that got broken, it was starting to make me doubt my beliefs about my ability and resolve to change my life. Maybe things aren't as sunshine and roses as I had thought. Maybe hard work isn't enough, not even close. I started to believe that big change? Well, that's best left to fairy tales and well-spun PR stories, but not for real people. And, well, maybe after years of pretending that real is just a foil for extraordinary to those who believe it work for it and have it..maybe I needed to get real.

But if we look at all stories, the ones around us, in our real lives, we can see the fairy tales sneaking in amidst the gritty, hard truths. The only sobering thought is that fairy tales always end on the highest note leaving no room for real. Except if we look, the magic, the home run the high notes, the happily ever afters, they exist everywhere, all the time. In real life, especially. Thing is, the story has to keep going, so a new story has to begin. 

And I was resisting that new story, holding onto an old one, trying to fill in more pages to resist venturing into parts unknown.

I am not starting over giving up or buckling down..I am simply changing, continuing. As people and the world ever only knew how to. If you lose that desire to survive, to keep going, to become who you imagined you would be, you figure out where it will show up for you next and you keep doing that over and over again because that's what life is. A series of stories run back to back to back. And this, I suppose, is maybe a good place to start my next one. Because I am amazed to learn that after giving up my childhood dream, I am seeing something way more exciting beyond that. And why not? The world has changed so much, too much, since then for me to be holding onto a vocation that caught my attention for a fleeting moment of my youth, one that I could not predict back then would turn into what it is now: a regression of the term "design", for the most part. 

There's a Chinese fable I learned when I was five, and it's one of my favorite stories ever. There's a frog who lives in a well. He has lived all his life in the well and finds much to appreciate and marvel about it. One day, a turtle comes along and the frog invites the turtle into his well, telling him how wonderful it is. Of course, the turtle can't quite get in, so instead he spews wonders about the sea, and only then does the frog realize how ignorant he has been of the outside world, how vast life was beyond his little well. And how shallow his life, literally, has been. 

That's what magic feels like. When you get out of the well. And maybe, if we're lucky, our lives are a series of wells, like the universe's metaphorical matryoshka dolls.

Of course, I, and many people around me, wonder if I wasted all of my time pursuing something that I'm pretty sure isn't my end game anymore.

But then I think: when the frog does get out, it's not as if he suddenly develops amnesia and forgets the life he's lived in the well. He may even seek the same pleasures outside, in a much larger world. 


So, hello world, I'm Ana. I was a fashion designer who loved to tell stories and build things and did that for many different companies while working on what I had always thought was my end game. I thought that I was working towards designing clothes - after all, it had been my glorious, sparkly childhood dream - but it never worked out, however many times I got close, and this year I started something that I thought would lead me there or at close to it until that sort of faded away for me too.

I had to ask myself: if chasing my dream no longer felt worth it, no longer felt like the one thing I wanted to do forever, then what was I doing? Where was I going? Who was I?

I had to start to entertain the idea that my curiosity to learn and grow was eclipsing my desire to work for myself, to become this caricature of a vocation I learned about when I was seven.

And that's when it all changed.

As someone who has always felt so linked to the act of pursuit and of creation, losing that felt very much like losing myself.

For a few really bad weeks, I'd lie awake in the middle of the night for hours, my whole mind a blur of anxiety, doubt, fear, failure. I didn't realize how many months I spent on this process of letting go. And why wouldn't I? I've spent a long time with my dreams, longer than I have with anything or anyone except my family. It took a lot more than one setback, but one setback is all it took.

For a long time, I suspected that maybe there was something else out there for me, but if there was, I couldn't see it.

Then, over the next few months, the whisper became louder, and if you're skimming this, you might even miss it as I so many times did when it tried to speak to me over the last 15+ years: I'm very, very curious about technology.

At first I dismissed the idea, pocketing it away as not a real possibility, but a lifeboat disguised as an idea for me to hang onto only because I felt like I was sinking. In other words: I thought I was just looking for an easy way out.

Ha! Easy?

I started to realize that there was a reason why nothing ever stuck, that even though I had lots of ideas I could never stick with them. Because in the 90s, when I first settled on this dream, fashion was all about what was new and exciting. It's not really like that anymore. I mean, I still get excited about companies I discover, and new things that I like, but I see so much out there that I feel like there's nothing new I can add to the noise that somebody else can't already do better. Not a problem for anyone else, for people who like to do things just because they like to do things, or to make money, but I seem to harbour an obsession with novelty that has always screamed louder than either of the above. 

Today, the problems fashion designers are solving, for the most part, seem redundant and excessive. In fact, most fashion designers are no longer solving problems as they once did when women like Coco Chanel made clothes so that we wouldn't have to feel constricted and limited to corsetry. Chanel the brand today is solving problems most people don't care about. They are creating art, beautiful things, sure, but as society changes over time, it's time to let go of the idea that the same luxury brands who changed our worlds in the last century should remain the same leaders and innovators we should be looking to today. They got there by default, inheriting legacy and power. And that makes them content to solve problems only of a financial nature. What so often happens is they separate their businesses into branches: one that keeps their legacy in tact, the other that keeps their power in tact, because they can't find a way to do both together. 

I think a lot of people in fashion are feeling this. A lot of people outside of fashion have already felt it and moved on, dismissing clothing, style, dress as an out-of-touch instrument of frivolity and shallow-ness. 

I always think about it this way: If Coco Chanel were alive today, what kind of a company would she be running? I doubt very much she'd be helming her namesake as it's become, no matter how beautiful and glorious the creations are. (And oh yes, they're still beautiful.) 

The larger problems - things about fashion that relate to not just where people can buy things, but how they sell, why they sell, how to make things easier, better, more beautiful - are solved not by making more clothes, but by building new technology, building new companies from the ground up, and reinventing the many flawed systems driving the fashion economy today. 

When I first decided at the end of last year that I wanted to become more involved in the technology field, the response was sort of like: Ew, really? Out of all the things a fashion major with a number of transferable skills could do next, that's what you want to do? Learn something from scratch and not work with pretty clothes? But why!?! Um, okay. But aren'tyou the one who's always going on and on about doing what you love? (This, from people who couldn't understand why anyone could love working with computers and math and stuff like that all day, especially if they picture you working with pretty things and pictures and fun stuff all day.) (I also learned that tech and startups are very sexy to some people, but don't mean much else to a lot of other people, unless you reference Facebook, Google, or for my Asian relatives, Alibaba. No sorry, great-uncle, I'm probably not going to build the next Alibaba, but I'm glad you think it's possible for anyone.

I had to ignore all of that. Nobody was saying: Wow, cool, good on you for following your dream. They took it as me giving up, a mixture of sadness and relief. And for the first time, I started to appreciate that there is a placer deeper, more fulfilling and more concrete beyond dreams: that place is what I call the magic. And magic, as we all know, happens everywhere, in all places, in dreams and in waking. 

I don't really know what I want to do with my very vague idea that what's next for me is learning to program, if I'll ever even get good enough to get a job as a developer, or if I'll want to, to be honest. At this point, I have no idea or grasp of even how this relates to anything I believe about fashion, except I know that technology is a big part of how we will change it, and we need more people to be working on the problems facing fashion today, people who care about sustainability, about ethics, about accessibility, about quality, about design, about how people live their lives, and of course, beauty - but they cannot care onlyabout beauty. 

I don't know anything about anything, and that's exactly what excites me right now.

I'm also scared: my dad told me just last week that if I want to go back to school and learn this, to do it as soon as possible, because when he was exactly my age, he went back to school and couldn't figure out chemistry and never finished his engineering degree. And that was probably the exact year that his dream of building things went to die. 

I'm also the only person in my family to have never taken a calculus class. I don't even know what calculus is, really. It's a kind of math, right? Is it even that? I don't know. But I do know that there's a lot of stuff I'm going to have to wrap my head around that I don't even have the slightest concept of because I don't just want to learn how to code. I want to learn the science, the magic of what goes on underneath and behind it. And yes, I also want to code because I really, really want to build more things in the way I've always loved building them the most: with as little as possible.

My optimism leads me to believe that however one might perceive it, technology is a highly accessible tool that can build a limitless number of things, and while we can blame technology for many of our problems as we often do today, it can also be the key to a more positive and human experience, compounding what already exists and making it better.

After five years striding the line between the old school view of fashion design and the new school view of design for fashion, I see what it is I loved and what it is that I don't, about fashion, design, all of it. And everything I love about it is what I love about technology. The absolute and pure creativity, the constant change, the ability to touch people, culture and the world. Not to mention, more and more, tech is seen as the glittery facade of modern society, underneath it, where the real, gritty, boring work gets done. How appropriate for me. 

As the thoughts of this newfound dream's existence as a real possibility untangled, it seemed clear that I could not even be entertaining the idea if I didn't feel a deep, longing call to follow the magic.

But that question had already been answered a long time ago when in fashion school, I was skipping out on making clothes to build things on the internet. The real magic was always there; I just didn't see it because I was too in the zone to notice it was happening. Since graduating, I can count on one hand how many clothes I've sewn (and most were for other people), and I'd need to get more hands to count how many ideas I've had that I've spent hours and hours on trying to build, in front of my computer. I had the flow and I didn't even know it. 

About that synchronicity: At the same time that I was playing around with this idea, I applied to a job on an absolute whim that popped up on my Facebook feed, on the rare day that I was even on Facebook. In fact, at first I tried to pass it off to someone else to apply, until I started reading the job description and realized it was 100% my job. And even then, even when I had already thought of leaving for so long, even then, I hesitated. Because I couldn't believe that the perfect job had just literally landed in my lap. 

Anyway, as of December, I work at one of my favorite companies to exist that also happens to be Canadian, one I've become very familiar with over the last few years, and whose mission and interests very much align with mine at the intersect between commerce and technology - although, unlike my previous job, I'm able to touch many businesses, not just one.

In the right place, it feels like the possibilities change, they become wide open. It's in stark contrast to where I was last year: excited about growing, but unsure if I'd ever change, if I ever could. 

But after thinking about this, maybe I'd agree with Kristen Wiig's Annie: people don't really change, even if it feels like everything is changing.

We only become more of ourselves.

This very long post is just me saying here I am, this is what I've been thinking about, and here's what's happening next. It's been way too long since I've written one of these (thus, the tone of "letting it all hang out"), and I feel like going forward I'll have to do more of it, because all the magic I've experienced so far always had something to do with me sharing something not just about what I think, but about what I feel. 

Except I haven't really gotten to the "next" part yet, have I?

Naturally, that's coming up next. 

Photo Credit: New York Magazine

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