Why I Quit My Six-Figure Job to Be an Artist

So many of us dream of having a six-figure salary. Lots of money is #goals, right? But what happens when you get there, and it's still not enough? That's exactly what happened to Laura McGuigan.

Here's the story of how (and why!) she quit her six-figure job to follow her lifelong passion for art.

Hi, Laura! I am seriously inspired by your story. Can you tell us a bit more about your background and what made you originally get into design?

Hey Bianca, sure thing! I’ve been a designer for the last ten years professionally, starting in graphic design and moving into interactive design and user experience. I worked in house and at small design agencies helping clients communicate their messages digitally, before taking the leap into the startup world. I was the first designer and fourth employee at my last company and built out the design practice, philosophy and the team there.

By the time I left, I held the position of VP, Design, sitting on the executive team of a 90 person company. I have always been a creative and hands out individual; spent all my life drawing, painting, creating. I enjoyed and excelled at classes in school that allowed me that opportunity. While painting and sculpture in high school were super fun, it was a Graphic Design class and a vocational technology school program in Design and Press Production that led me to pursue design over art; I thought I’d be able to still create art in an abstract sense and make better money than being an artist.

After 10 years of building a career on design and never really feeling satisfied, I determined my happiness was more important than the money and left to focus on being my own boss, and pursuing my art.

Your career trajectory is impressive - you worked your way up to hold senior, six- figure positions in design.What is some of the best career advice you ever received?

While there was no specific quote, what became increasingly clear as I worked up in my career was that listening to your gut is underrated. You form opinions around situations based on past experiences, and to me, following that instinct is critical. Unfortunately, in the ‘business world’ you see that not followed as much, and I found myself drawn towards opportunities and experiences that allowed for that instinctual reaction to take precedence.

You recently left your job to focus on Atypical Notion. What inspired you to take the leap, and what have you learned about yourself in the process so far?

I actually have a blog post that describes it in a bit more detail. But for readers interested in the short version:

I was becoming increasing stressed, depressed, anxious and unhappy in the type of role I was in and knew I had to make a change, if for no other reason than my own mental health.

I came across the story of Elle Luna, who was a product designer much like myself who found herself at a crossroads and took the leap to follow her “must” instead of her “should”, leading her to a sabbatical and a career in art. I was really moved by her story about 2 years ago, but sort of left it be until I read her book ‘The Crossroads of Should and Must’ while on a trip to Mexico back in February. The opportunity to make this dramatic shift came up a bit sooner than I had anticipated, but I knew if I hadn’t done it then, I probably would still be unhappy, depressed and stressed. I’ve learned a few things in this process.

First, similar to what I said above, I followed my gut. I *knew* I had to do something to fix how I felt, and I did what felt right: answering the call to pursue my art. Second, I am much happier when I have full control over my schedule—I like knowing that if I don’t sleep well one night, I’m not forced to wake up and go do someone else’s work; I can ease into my day; or if I’m not feeling particularly creative I can pause on painting to take care of some administrative items. I really, really enjoy that flexibility and have been told several times over the last 2 months that my personality shift has been so noticeable. Oh, and finally the thing that truly gave me the opportunity to take my leap was my savings.

I put about 20k in the bank over a few months (I was fortunate to have a high-paying job that allowed for this) in preparation for this shift. So definitely start saving now if you’re interested in making a leap to follow your heart.

Was the decision, in part, because of the creative frustration that comes with working in a corporate environment? How did you navigate that?

Being a designer is difficult. Design is subjective, but designers are taught and exposed to methods and ways of thinking that allow them to make better decisions. Unfortunately, a lot of the time, it doesn’t matter because as they say ‘the customer is always right’. While I don’t disagree fully with that, I felt a frustration over being in a position of power within my company and not feeling like I actually had that power. I was so fortunate that the focus on design was one of the core tenants of the company, but I think as it grew, that got lost in translation.

As a result, my job became explaining the same things over again to deaf ears. I didn’t feel like I had a partner in ensuring my team put out great work. My focus became reading and learning as much as I could— 99U, Harvard Business Review and more became daily reads for me to understand others experiences in navigating the intersection of design and business. Unfortunately, my heart wasn’t ultimately in it. I’m an introvert and I could only play for so long, so I made the call to do what my heart wanted me to do and left the job to pursue my art.

You’ve already had a great start with your business. What are your plans for Atypical Notion? What are you most excited about?

I’ve been extremely fortunate that friends and family have supported me as much as they have. I sort of launched the store on a whim after working on pieces for a month and getting a lot of positive response from the Instagram community and my personal community. Now I’m just trying to figure it out. How to prep artwork for shipping, how to balance painting, admin and other creative endeavors, how to make sure my house isn’t always a disaster, haha. I’m looking for studio space now, but in DC its really expensive as there aren’t many industrial properties that fit the bill. I also want to balance the paintings with jewelry work that I’ve been doing for myself on a larger scale. And I’d like to start selling prints of the work I’ve done. It’s all a jumble right now and I’m trying not to get overwhelmed by the options I have. I think I’m most excited about the possibility of a studio—the freedom to make messes, talk with other artists and makers and learn. My hope is in 6 months I’ll have a wide breadth of work that appeals to a range of people, while still holding true to myself.

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