Today marks my 1 year (full time) anniversary with The Lettered J! I’ve been flooded with so many emotions and thoughts as this anniversary has approached, and I thought it fitting to make this reflection my very first blog post. I challenged myself to be honest and vulnerable in this reflection, and if you make it to the end—kudos, it’s a long one.
Let’s take it back to 2017. I had a good job. A great “job.” A job where I was in charge of a department, where I made important decisions, created processes, directed a small team, was respected, made my own schedule, and was part of a great group of like-minded achievers. I worked long hours, I solved problems, I saw the results of my labor, and I was paid well. But, at the end of long days, I felt drained, completely spent, sometimes underappreciated, and ultimately like what I did for the entire day didn’t bring me an ounce of personal fulfillment, and that I missed having a creative outlet. I decided that my personal goal for 2017 would be to begin learning and practicing calligraphy as a way to infuse more artistic creativity and practice into my days, and as a way to decompress after a long work day. I researched, I practiced, I researched more, and I practiced more. And, I slowly began to book calligraphy jobs. They weren’t the prettiest, and I did a lot of work for “exposure” (read: free), or for realll cheap, but people loved it, and it fueled me to keep going.
In 2018, I began to take more risks. I began to take on projects that I thought might be too big or challenging for me, but I tried them anyway, and they expanded my skillset and confidence and most importantly, they sparked a tiny flicker of hope in my heart. A tiny hope of a dream that seemed too big, seemed too impossible, seemed too unattainable, started burning in my subconscious. This little hope lived with me through the difficult and long work days, it breathed in me as I took on more jobs, and it settled in and expanded with my lungs when I took a long, overdue vacation with my husband.
This vacation was to my soul what a drink of iced water is on a hot summer day. We did a lot of walking and gazing, and breathing fresh air and slowing down on this trip. We walked the long boardwalk to Mont Saint Michele, and wandered its cobblestone streets up to the chapel where we listened to monks and nuns recite and sing during their daily rituals. We gulped up the fresh Alpine air while hiking in view of the Matterhorn, and enjoyed cool nights in the quiet car-less towns in Switzerland. We gasped in awe of the Bavarian castles and at the views afforded from within their walls. These breaths expanded my lungs and quietly expanded my thirst for that sense of peace and quiet contentment in my everyday life.
Two days after I returned home, with this fresh breath in my lungs and thirst in my soul, I was part of an all-hands meeting that got a bit toxic and ended with a coworker in tears. Though I wasn’t directly part of that toxicity, it hit me hard, and I found myself contemplating the dramatic difference my environment and mindset had been just days earlier to present day. For days, on my drive to and from work, I would hear my heart whisper to me, asking me what about this other thing I’d built? What about calligraphy? If I spent the amount of time I did at my current job perusing wedding and event calligraphy full time, what might happen? Was I good enough? Was it good timing for a change? A million questions raced through my head, keeping me mostly anxious, but also hopeful—a tiny voice kept reassuring me, you’re good enough. What time better than now? Why not you, why not now? And in possibly the most impulsive and selfish thing I’d done for myself in a long, long time, I put in my 4 weeks notice with not much of a plan except that I could use the time to pursue calligraphy full time, and if it didn’t go so well, I’d find something else.
The first two months going full time were just as I expected—I was completely swamped with jobs, and made more money that I would have at my former well-paying job. I had a wonderful Holiday season, then… January hit and it was dead. I’d known and planned for January-March to be pretty slow, but knowing it and living it are two very different things. In fact, it was really January - April that were achingly slow, and I struggled. I struggled to understand why strategies that I was using to optimize my website and social media weren’t working instantaneously. I struggled as the orders barely eked in and I saw the numbers dip lower in my bank accounts. I struggled with this unknown feeling of being unsure when my next “paycheck” would be, and I struggled with not providing for myself and my husband the way I used to. I fully acknowledge here that this wouldn’t even have been possible had I not had my husband, who supported my decision, and whose insurance would cover me, and whose paycheck could cover our bills and payments if I couldn’t bring in the same as before.
As planned, I used this time to work on various business development tasks. I built a website. I researched and implemented various SEO and marketing strategies. I created content. I networked, I reached out to so many potential clients. I practiced and learned more skills. I set up systems, I created processes, I researched trends, I honed in on my pricing, I honed in on brand values, I researched and implemented new tools, I got my finances set up correctly.
I had known this was coming, I had planned for it, but let me tell you it was hard AF. I watched every penny, cut our budget for dining out and other activities, and didn’t buy a single piece of clothing for 8 months straight. Well-meaning people in my life would ask “are you doing anything on [weekday]?” which I took to mean they assumed I wasn’t doing a darned thing while I was working at home. Other well-meaning people would ask “do you have any jobs coming up?” which I took to mean, are you just sitting at home doing nothing? I’ve learned to take these little comments in stride and at face value, and have learned to answer as if they’d asked instead, “what projects are you working on that you’re excited about?” There’s so much that goes into running your own business as a solopreneur, so many little tasks that people don’t realize, and I took it so personally when I thought people didn’t consider those aspects “work.”
I’ve also learned how to say no and how to establish boundaries. I’ve learned to decline working for “exposure” (read: free, or sometimes even where I have to pay) when the opportunity clearly has no benefits or interest to me. I’ve learned to charge a fair price for my work and not feel guilty when people say I’m out of their budget. I’ve learned to ditch feeling the need to defend myself when friends or acquaintances ask questions like “how much money do you make?” or “what if you fail? Then what?” I’ve learned to tell friends how much it will actually cost if they ask for “just a small favor to do this [calligraphy project] real quick”—I’ve learned that if someone assumes I’m “cheap” it’s my job to educate them. It’s a bit absurd, really—what other professions are there where people will just assume you will work for them for free since you are acquainted? I would never walk into a car dealership and assume I could drive away in a free car of my choice, or walk into a dentist’s office and assume I could get a dental implant procedure for free, or walk into a department store and assume I can walk out with a free designer gown. I also wouldn’t ask these people how much their annual salary is, or what their statistics are for the year. Boundaries.
In the meantime, I’ve worked with the best clients this year. I love the practice of what I do, but even more so, I love that it helps people celebrate important moments. That some envelope calligraphy can convey to a recipient that my client thought they were valuable enough to invest in a beautiful piece of art to accompany an invitation. That commissioned wedding vow calligraphy can be framed and hung on a couple’s wall, reminding them of their promises exchanged on their 1st wedding (paper) anniversary and beyond. That engraved calligraphy on a perfume bottle can say something like “it was always you” for a groom to surprise his bride with on their wedding day. That a calligraphed quote, hung on an office or home wall, can remind the viewer of the important things amidst the bustle of the day. That wedding calligraphy on a beautiful mirror of the couple’s favorite quote can help their personality shine through and reveal some of their soul to their guests. It’s an art, what I do, and I put so much love into it, knowing that on the other end, someone will pick up the piece or see the calligraphy, or run their fingers over it, maybe gasp a little, but most importantly, will take a moment to really appreciate the thought and love that started with my client, brought forth through my hands. It’s been such a great lesson this year, finding and understanding my WHY. My mission is to help people celebrate, help them connect, help them express love and consideration with each other through calligraphy and words and art.
I’ve also learned that I’m capable of so much more than I dreamed of when I started. I set some goals for myself when I quit my job and started this FT, and I’ve proudly crushed and surpassed some of those goals while letting go of others when their importance faded as the business developed, but that tells me something valuable—I wasn’t aiming high enough or challenging myself enough.
Moving forward into my second year, I’m challenging myself to step out from fear and aim higher. To continue challenging myself to learn more, develop more, and also to continue to give myself the freedom to continue exploring and refining what I offer.I feel incredibly blessed and so, so grateful to be able to do this as my job. I’m so thankful for every client, for every connection made, for every referral, for every encouragement, and for every lesson along the way. It’s been real, year 1—I’m so excited to see what this next year brings!