Many of the internet’s most successful and influential trailblazers are about the same age as me. They forged new things in the early light of an infinite landscape. Some of them got obscenely rich and all of them made something that would inspire future pioneers.
I did none of those things.
I was tying up our home phone line instant messaging friends, playing shareware games that came in the mail, hacking together scripts that’d click web banners to win a few illegitimate bucks.
My privileged upbringing came with collegiate expectations so I thought I’d leverage my artistic talents and computing enthusiasm by studying graphic design. I’d graduate and go to work for a small interactive studio, leaving after a few years to try running my own business as a designer slash developer. I wasn’t blazing trails on either front, but it was a fun and lucrative combination at the time.
I’ve known many with similar trajectories, and lately it seems a lot of us are the polar bears of our current age.
It’s cliché to point out that the internet revolutionized how we think and live. A domain name may now belong to a multi-billion dollar company or a personal blog. Back in college, “web design” was dismissed by my old-school professors as not being “real design.” Now the term encompasses many fields of rigorous study, and I’m not sure there’s any form of design without some direct relationship to the internet. Whole teams of talented, specialized people design and build and maintain the sites and apps we interact with. The patch of ice supporting the do-all-the-things designer/developer is shrinking, and it seems increasingly risky to assume we’ll always have solid ground.
Some have abandoned their solo efforts for larger agencies or internal teams. Some have grown their studios to take on bigger work and a bigger payroll. Some others proceed naively or angrily as business slows and they refuse to change course.
I’ve not decided how I’ll adapt. Being a generalist is harder and more fun as things evolve. Daily updates and ever-improving tools are like a dopamine buffet, with no shortage of things to investigate and adopt. But revisiting a project six months later can feel like opening a time capsule, or like having to redo a car’s wiring before getting to the oil change.
The constant change and learning opportunities can be invigorating one day and crushing the next. The rough days feel like being broken down on the highway, watching everyone else speed by and wondering how long it’ll take to get moving again.
Thankfully I just got back from Dot All in Montréal, which was nourishing for my soul. I was inspired by the work people are doing and the infectious enthusiasm they have for experimenting and making new things. It also helped to chat over drinks and remember that we’re each adapting in our own way to an always-changing landscape.
I started writing this post without an end in mind, and I’m often haunted by the fact that I don’t have a specific target in mind for my career, either. But after this past week I think maybe it’s just a matter of getting reacquainted with what’s guided me all along: the desire to make new things, enjoy what I’m doing and see what happens next.