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Personal Growth

When the Personal Shapes the Professional

From family challenges to becoming a parent to divorce, creatives talk life-changing experiences that shaped their work and what helped them to the other side.


We show up to our work as whole people, unable to compartmentalize our lives into personal and professional. Our careers influence our relationships, mental and physical health, social lives, and personal decisions. The inverse is also true. Personal experiences shift the way we view ourselves as creatives, how we show up to our work, and why we work.

Here, three creatives open up about life-changing experiences, how they navigated them, and how their work transformed on the other side. 

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Designer and creative director John J. Custer’s family struggles led him to find stability as an independent creative.

John J. Custer’s college graduation was a milestone marked by complicated emotions—his mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer during his sophomore year. Motivated by a desire to impress her and fear she might die, John put extra pressure on himself to succeed. It paid off when he landed an internship at Nike and graduated with a top portfolio. Post-graduation, he moved home to help support his family while his mom continued treatment and his dad searched for employment after being laid off in the 2008 recession. 

Back in Dallas, John accepted a full-time role at creative studio Tractor Beam. Then a mentor suggested John intern at Pentagram in New York. John’s application was accepted, but he turned down the initial offer. “I felt it was my responsibility to stay in Texas. I was the only one in my family who was healthy and had a job.” John later reapplied and was accepted. He moved to New York City sight unseen in the summer of 2010, but it didn’t turn out to be the dream internship he’d hoped for. Instead, his responsibilities felt like a step back from his internship at Nike and full-time job at Tractor Beam.

When the internship wrapped, John stayed in New York and worked as a production designer at a bold-name agency. He was told he’d be creating graphics for commercials and ads, but after a change in clients, the role became less creative. Six months later, John quit after pulling yet another all-nighter. A friend reached out for freelance help, so John took the contract. He never looked back. Since then he’s built a freelance career working with clients like Collins, Dress Code, Fahrenheit 212, and Oliver Munday. 

John C. Custer by Sam Weber

John J. Custer’s path to a successful freelance career involved family responsibilities and several setbacks. Photograph by Sam Weber.

After his family’s situation improved, John focused more on himself. “I went through a big breakup and then got serious about therapy. It helped me connect the dots between my parents’ experiences and my choice to go the independent route.” Now he uses his position as an independent creative to speak up in hopes that his peers won’t be taken advantage of. “When we’re told, Do what you love, but I need you to do it at this pace for this price, it ruins what you love.” John urges his peers not to agree to ridiculous situations, timelines, and budgets just to get by because there are many paths to success.

Artist Mandy Blankenship’s complicated journey into parenthood helped her embrace imperfection.

Greenville-based artist Mandy Blankenship majored in English, was trained in photography, and now works with textiles, using her own natural fabric dyes. Her path as an artist has evolved as has her path has from daughter to sister, partner, and mother—the new role which she says has taught her much about herself as an artist. After trying for four years to become pregnant, genetic testing revealed her baby would likely have Turner Syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects about one in every 2,000 baby girls. A girl with Turner syndrome only has one normal X chromosome, rather than the usual two.

Mandy reflected, “I was shocked and felt like a different kind of failure, but then I dove into research and realized it wasn’t my fault. We had looked forward to our dreams coming true and then it was doctors, doctors, doctors.” Mandy developed preeclampsia at 34 weeks and was rushed to the hospital. Her daughter Etta was born at 3lbs 10 oz. “Hopes were dashed, but also fulfilled. It was complicated, but the fact that she’s alive is a miracle,” says Mandy. 

Black and white portrait of Mandy Blankenship.

Artist Mandy Blankenship’s journey to motherhood shaped her artistic practice in unexpected ways. Photography by Mollie Greene.

After a month in the hospital, Etta joined her family at home as they navigated their new life together. That’s when Mandy realized she was struggling with postpartum depressed and sought counseling. “I didn’t know I could be in such a dark place or have that level of sadness. It was circumstantial and hormonal.” Counseling was critically important for her: “All of these things were unlocked. Suddenly I was walking in freedom and clarity. I felt better every time I went.” As she was ending therapy and weaning Etta, a surprise hit—she was pregnant again. Mandy said her second pregnancy was a dream and she gave birth to her son, Moses, 2 years ago.

Mandy has returned to her work with a different approach. Mandy draws inspiration in the language her daughter Etta’s uses, the way she makes marks on the page, and how she dresses up as a princess in scarves and random found garments. Mandy says, “I’ve been on this trajectory of asking what I can do with what I already have rather than thinking I need new stuff to make the work. It’s become more about the process rather than coercing perfect outcomes.”

Writer and podcaster Jennifer Newman’s divorce challenged her to realize moving on isn’t a bad thing. 

Sacramento-based Jennifer Newman was ready for a change, but it didn’t happen how she planned. After building a business for seven years, she planned to look for full-time work. “My business was doing okay, but not awesome. It was time to figure out the next step, but I intended to do it slowly to make sure it was aligned with what I wanted.” And then her marriage ended abruptly on a Friday night. Jennifer began applying for jobs the next day. “I wasn’t just figuring out what my new life would look like, but what my new normal would be from a career perspective.

Jennifer’s main goal was security—she wanted to know she’d be okay financially. During her fifteen-year relationship, nearly ten of those married, Jennifer’s husband made more. She was also on his health insurance. Jennifer said she had fallen into a pattern in her relationship and had convinced herself she was small. Yet she promised herself  to stay focused and keep moving forward.

Portrait of Jennifer Newman.

After a difficult divorce, Jennifer Newman’s approach to life and work shifted dramatically. Photography by Jonathan Herre.

Soon after, Jennifer landed her first day job in seven years as a director of brand marketing for a statewide nonprofit. The lead came through a guest she had interviewed for her podcast, Creating Your Own Path. It was a huge shift and culture shock to go into an office every day after working for herself so long, but the financial stability she was able to provide for herself was worth it. It also allowed her to afford support through therapy. Jennifer said she sees herself having a day job for the foreseeable future and that as a self-proclaimed entrepreneur, this path is okay. There’s no shame in having a day job. 

Jennifer now carves out time before and after her nine-to-five to work on her business and publish new episodes of her podcast. Her approach to this work has shifted: “I talk about career paths on my podcast. Now I’m opening up the narrative to include more people who work for companies and are perfectly happy. We don’t all have to be entrepreneurs. The way I want to have conversations about careers has changed.” And so has her perspective on transitions and letting go. “Moving on isn’t a bad thing, whether that’s divorce or grieving the loss of someone or letting go of a career path for something new.”  

What helps to thrive on the other side:

  1. Let go of what you can’t control. 

Mandy noted letting go as a foundational step. “I always want to get in the future and figure out what’s going to happen. But that’s not how life works. It was a deep time of learning how little I can control and how my response to things is critical for my sanity.” Jennifer’s experience was similar as she wanted to control the narrative and her trajectory. “We can obsess over the next move and worry if it’s the right one.” Instead, she said yes to a job opportunity that was right for her at the time and helped her move forward. 

  1. Reach out for support. 

John, Mandy, and Jennifer all turned to professional support in the form of therapy. Additionally, they reached out to their communities. John’s friendships carried him through a period when family wasn’t able to offer as much support. Out of this came a close-knit creative community and his involvement in Maker’s Club, a free monthly meetup hosted at spaces around New York. Mandy sought support from her husband, had regular video chats with family, and enlisted her in-laws to babysit regularly so she and her husband could enjoy kid-free date nights. For Jennifer, family and friends provided emotional support, but also helped with logistics of rebuilding a solo life.

  1. Care for body, mind, and spirit.

Jennifer turned to reading and journaling as a way to reflect and process. John used the Headspace app to start a meditation practice, which helped him recognize and accept what he’s feeling. Hailing from a religious background in Texas, which he no longer practices, John said, “This is what prayer is supposed to be.” For Mandy, her faith was vitally important as was yoga, “I never liked sports because I’m a perfectionist and I didn’t like losing. Yoga is me against me. I can go to whatever level of intensity I need that day.”

  1. Be open to how your work changes. 

“I’m still getting over the idea that this wasn’t what I had planned, even though it’s arguably better,” said Jennifer, “But now I’m able to separate who I am as a human from my career. I couldn’t do that prior to my divorce.” For Mandy, the journey to parenthood has transformed the images she created in her artwork, expanding the iconography she’s interested in. “Last year was one of contentment,” said John as he noted that he had paid off debt, started to date again, was nurturing family relationships, and felt more like himself. “Now I want to figure out how to work and play,” he said.

When life-changing moments happen—and they will—it can be tempting to try to control the outcome for our work and lives. But the more helpful approach is to embrace the process rather than attempting to coerce perfect outcomes. We don’t know how things will turn out on the other side. Instead, we can let life shape us into the people we need to become, transform our work, and leads us into new possibilities. 

 

Tina Essmaker

Tina Essmaker is a New York City-based coach, writer, and speaker.


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