This One Goes to Eleven (and Up)

The surprise announcement that I posted last week about bringing my career at The New York Times to an end took forever to write. I’m generally a slower writer than I’d like to be, and with something as tricky as that, it takes me at least a dozen drafts to even get the tone right.

There was a lot to fit in too, and in the end I edited out some thoughts that I originally would have liked to include. Mostly, I wanted to discuss why I felt it was time for me to leave. That’s a fairly big subject with several different facets, but I wanted to touch on one of those facets today, maybe the biggest motivation in my departure: my daughter Thuy is rapidly approaching her first birthday. In fact, yesterday she hit the eleven-month mark.

Year One

Most new parents will attest that the first year goes by very fast, but it’s really hard to appreciate how quickly it speeds by until you’re experiencing it for yourself. One day your daughter is this delicate little creature that you’re bringing home from the hospital for the first time. Then, all of a sudden she’s very close to standing on her own and trying every day to utter her first real words, and you’re talking about how to celebrate that big birthday number one. It all sneaks up on you. And of course, the weather outside today is more or less identical to the weather last August when Thuy was born, which helps create this bizarre feeling that the year went by in just a matter of days or even minutes.

I promise, this post is not just a parental indulgence. There’s a real design/business/career advice coming up.

Right: The reason why. Thuy at eleven months.

Time Is Not on My Side

This frighteningly ephemeral time scale made me think intensively about what it is I want to do with my life. As I’ve grown older I’ve become more and more aware that time is a precious commodity (maybe the most precious commodity that any of us have), but this really upped the ante.

Even though I felt then and I still feel now that being design director for was the best job that I’ve ever had, I’ve realized over the past few years that the job didn’t encompass everything I want to do in my career. I longed to do something smaller, scrappier and more entrepreneurial, and to be more creative in imagining what my career could be. Over the past year or two, what began as vague yearnings turned into an urgent desire for change, and I became frustrated on a daily basis that I wasn’t addressing it.

Daily Lessons

When your first child arrives, there’s a perfectly valid argument that you should hunker down in your job and emphasize stability. But I started to see it the other way: I started imagining what it would be like to stay in my job for years while also contending with all of my frustrated ambitions. And I realized that I’d be coming home at the end of every workday still bearing those frustrations as they slowly chipped away at my sense of self-worth and my happiness.

Were I to do that, I realized what a terrible example I’d be setting for my child. Plenty of parents make heroic sacrifices for their children, staying in whatever imperfect jobs are available to them so their children can lead better lives. But to stay in a job simply for stability when I knew I had the skill and more importantly the opportunity to try something different seemed like cowardice. I just couldn’t square the idea of the uninhibited woman that I wanted Thuy to grow up to be with the daily lesson I’d be giving her in suppressing one’s dreams. And I just didn’t think I’d be able to hide any of those feelings from her, no matter how brave a face I could put on.

What’s more, I realized that I have a relatively short window of time in which I could try anything new. Our current situation is this: my girlfriend is gainfully employed, we have a decent stockpile of savings, no mortgage on our backs, relatively paltry debts of other kinds — and our health too, thank goodness. It’s expensive to raise a child any way you look at it, but it’s a lot cheaper to pay for the things Thuy needs today than it will be to pay for the things Thuy will need in say four years — and it will only get more and more expensive beyond that. In short, my tolerance for risk is on a downward trajectory. If I was ever going to try this, the time was at hand.


All of this sounds incredibly self-congratulatory, I know, but I thought it was worth sharing for anyone who might still be having a hard time understanding the reasoning behind my decision, or who might be considering a similar change. Also, I have to admit, it’s helpful to me to write all of this down to remind myself of what the hell I’m doing. I have no concrete plan really, and though I resolved to basically take it easy this first week, I didn’t anticipate how frightening it would be to be sitting around at my leisure while potentially income-earning hours tick by without actually earning any income. I’m not freaking out yet, but the change has been more disorienting than I expected. As someone told me on Twitter though: “Being on your own is like diving into cold water on a hot day. Shocking at first but quickly refreshing.” I’m hoping.

  1. Hi Khoi, thanks for this post. I’m in a similar situation, but with slightly more monkeys on the back (mortgage, only one income, etc.) and your potential doors are surely open much wider — but still it’s reassuring to see someone take a big leap into the unknown. Best of luck!

  2. You’re definitely making the right choice. I had the sort of parents who worked crummy jobs to make ends meet, and they did for their children. While, I love them and they taught me great lessons about “the greater good” and love and sacrifice, it didn’t teach me to carve out my own path in the world. Given that I have the opportunity and privilege to do that (no debt, no kids, no mortgage), I’m succeeding but it took a lot of figuring it out on my own since I couldn’t look at what my parents had done.

    The way I figure it, you (we all) are making the right choice. Every choice we make is the right one if you look at things right. So good luck! Your daughter will have a lot to look up when she’s older.

  3. Great! I could have written this about myself because of similar experiences. I also made major life changes (twice, in fact) in the midst of having TWO daughters (and a mortgage). I’m a big fan of following what you believe in, even if you need to first leave something stable behind in order to clearly see what it is that you believe in. Best of luck.

  4. I’ve made a similar decision recently. I’m leaving the creative industry and focusing purely on software development from now on, new job, new city, new house but most important of all a nearly 5 month baby son and wife.

    I’m not a fan of the ridiculously long hours some people work or expect others to work in my industry, especially when it means working more hours, for less money and less time with family. It’s just not on no matter what the excuses in my opinion. For me the only occupation where that might be reasonable is the medical profession, but doctors get paid a relatively proportionate wage whereas most web developers and graphic designs perhaps do not.

    I start my new job in less than a week and am also planning setting up my own freelance photography business which I can work whenever I want or when money gets tight. Apart from that the one thing driving me the most is my son and wife. It’s good to see people putting family first.

  5. Even though I don’t know you personally, I found your post to be very inspiring. I believe you’ve made the right decision and commend you for demonstrating to child the importance of courage and following your heart. Best of luck in whatever endeavor you choose to pursue next.

  6. Better now than later, for sure. And what will our kids think of us if we don’t try?

    Good luck, dude. Not that you’ll need much of it.

  7. I feel you, Khoi. It’s a tough choice making that decision between freedom and stability, no matter what the socioeconomic straights we find ourselves in. I can honestly say that even in light of the hardships I still face as an independent, I do not regret taking the road less traveled. The allure of being kept is still a strong pull, but the freedom to be creative and to make mistakes and to try new things greatly outweigh the cons. I hope your decision brings you to the same conclusions. Take it light.

  8. I have no idea what you wrote on the post, Khoi, because the only thing I can see on this page is that photo of your beautiful daughter. As my daughter and son were about that age a week-or-so-ago and now they are 20 and 23, I know exactly what I think you wrote on this post — and agree. Enjoy every step of the journey.

  9. Your daughter is the cutest!

    I applaud you for this post and for coming to this conclusion. Although I don’t have children yet, I hope to set a similar example for my future children. Good luck to you and your family.

  10. Speaking as someone who’s freelanced for over 20 years, when you work for yourself, you’re always at work. My kids liked having me in the house, but that didn’t mean I was “at home”. I can’t comment on the “following the dream” stuff, as my dreams were to keep working and staying solvent.

    Good luck, I hope it works out, but please don’t think that having a “real job” means your a slave and that being on your own is a ticket to unlimited freedom and soaring etc. There’s pluses and minuses on both sides.

    And guess what–being a parent does include hiding one’s feelings sometimes. Working at something that’s not making you happy immediately isn’t a bad example of your kids. If you’d not had the NYT gig, you’d be unlikely to attract new clients (or even us readers.)

  11. P.S. Now that I’ve actually read it, I’ll add this: I started my company when my children were 4 and 1 (exactly Thuy’s age) and I was 37. At that time, I could have never written anything so insightful or thoughtful as this post. Nor would I realize how thin the ice was until later looking back at where I skated. In other words, for me, ignorance was bliss.

    However, I knew then as I know now, despite the highs and lows of the past 20 years, doing “something small” and independent was my calling then.

    There’s a “calling” to what you’re doing. It is not about taking risk (although I’ve found that having a high tolerance for ambiguity is a helpful trait), it’s about fulfilling ones potential – pursuing ones vision.

    As any one who has followed your career knows, your potential is boundless. I, for one, thank you for letting us follow along via this blog.

  12. Khoi – I’ve been a reader of your site for years, however few posts have hit so close to home as this one. It is evident we’re sharing similar paths (except for the parenting part – at my age, I’m a bit jealous of you on that).

    In my case, it all began when I realized that slowly but definitely I had drifted from things I really love to do for a living to things that yes, do pay well, but don’t fulfill my personal happiness and passion anymore, and if they ever did, that was a long time ago when I was anything but the person I am today. Also, it seems that after you hit 30 you become instantly conscious that life passes by faster than you thought and that every minute is a precious commodity. So here I am now, saving like a maniac, almost close to kill all debts, and longing for the day I can finally be able to go my own way in life – because I know now I couldn’t really have it any other way for the rest of my days. Best of luck to you too.

  13. Khoi, thanks for sharing this and I can empathise with what you must be feeling, as Mark and I went through a similar experience last year. I had a year on maternity leave with Alys and was due to go back to my safe (unfulfilling) job at the BBC. I went back for 2 days and felt in my gut it wasn’t the right thing to do. I handed my notice in straight away with the vague plan of working with Mark. We haven’t looked back and whilst it’s scary knowing you don’t have a ‘safe’ income, the benefits far outweigh the pain points.

    Very best wishes to you and your family. I don’t doubt you’ve absolutely made the right decision. Follow your heart, take calculated risks and be happy. :0)

  14. This was inspiring to read. I perform a self-check at least once a month, asking myself “Are you doing what you are supposed to be doing?” I want to ensure that when I veer very far off course, I catch it in time to (hopefully) make a change. I applaud you for taking the plunge.

  15. Khoi, this is a stellar post. Even though you don’t know me, I follow your blog, and coincidentally you posted your “A Change” announcement a few hours after I posted sometime similar: The Big Adventure. The synchronicity made me feel like something was in the air.

  16. Sage advice. Congrats on making the jump and being honest w/ yourself. My son turns 4 this wknd & I agree that leading by example is the best way 2 teach our children. Continued success!


  17. nothing but support from this quarter. follow your dream and teach your children to do likewise. hope to see you all soon. xok

  18. Hi Khoi. We’ve exchanged a couple emails in the past. I have a similar name as your daughter, but I’m a male. First and foremost, congratulations. A very brave thing you are doing. Being comfortable and stability is what we all fall into. On my behalf, being a breadwinner of the family puts things into perspective. You have a choice and a very bright future ahead. Best wishes.

    “The time to take counsel of your fears is before you make an important battle decision. That’s the time to listen to every fear you can imagine! When you have collected all the facts and fears and made your decision, turn off all your fears and go ahead!”
    — General George S. Patton, Jr

  19. “Throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

    Good luck Khoi!

  20. Khoi it is very exciting to hear about this change in direction for your life and career. I still remember when you announced you we’re moving from the seeming comfy and safe DC design world to give it a shot in NYC. THE BIG SHOW! 🙂 You were never one to put limits on what’s possible. You’ve gone farther than I might have imagined back then, and I can say I’m proud to watched you grow professionally all these years. I look forward to seeing what the next chapter holds for you! Exciting times! 🙂 Godspeed my friend!

  21. Folks, thank you all for your thoughtful comments. I’m a little surprised — pleasantly surprised — to find that it struck a chord with so many readers. To be honest, I’d been sitting on this post for many days and couldn’t decide whether it would be of actual interest to anybody at all. A lot of the comments and stories people have written in response — both here and privately via email — really resonated with me, too. I’m just grateful in so many ways for the kindness you’ve shown as I go through this.

  22. Khoi,

    Thank you for this post. As you can see, it struck a chord with many readers and with me as well.

    Last year, I made a similar decision when I left high school early, (largely) because of a burning desire I had to follow my passions (obsessions) wherever they might lead me.

    My situation was far from comparable to yours—I didn’t have the major monetary commitment of raising a family—but I can still somewhat relate to the scariness that is jumping out into the world without a concrete plan.

    I did it because I couldn’t imagine maintaing the status quo, and, so far, it has proven to be rewarding (meeting you contributed to that) and everything looks like it’s going to work out. For someone with as much talent as you, I have no doubt that it will.

    Best wishes,

  23. Thank you for sharing. Actually, I’m in the middle of, well, the same situation at this moment. Your story of life has inspired me to make a change. I don’t have the guts right now, though, but your story is piling ’em up.

    Thank you.

  24. Thank you so much for this post Khoi, my friend Jesse sent me a link to this on twitter! Thanks also to “Wilson Miner” for quoting INCEPTION! NICE!

    It is really inspiring to see someone at the top of something so corporate and structured is walking away to go for it and really go for it, whatever that it is

    I really appreciate all the readers for contributing to this too.. all of the feedback is so helpful it’s beyond articulation. Khoi I wish your family well…it takes a lot of guts to tear away from the stability and go for it! you can do it.. your spirit is telling you basically you have no choice. I know that feeling you are talking about…frustrated ambitions… Thank you for mentioning this.

    You have a clean canvas now.. paint something amazing!

    I got laid off last November because my day job moved to another state. I make music and create art …I had the chance to go for it full time. 2 months after getting laid off, I moved to Tokyo for 3 months and jumped in the scene there.. performed at over 15 shows, got sponsored ($2000+ worth of clothing) by a japanese clothing brand and featured in some magazines modeling! I’m no model here in the USA but Japan made me one! I am back in NY and struggling but I realized I am not trying hard.. I’m not working hard.

    My lesson learn is I have to put the work in.. I put the work in in Tokyo! But when I got back home to NY, I was jaded and stopped working. Work doesn’t have to be long hours.. It just has to be a focused organized effort to creating something.. I feel like if you built it they really well come (just like the old saying..field of dreams style)

    I wish everyone here much success…peace and love
    Khoi do your thing!

  25. I don’t think it’s ‘self-congratulatory’ at all want to spend more time with your child. There are few activities more selfless than to give your child the gift of good attachment. I have a 20 month old who, we believe, has good attachment. He favours neither of us and doesn’t have a meltdown when one of us leaves the house for the day. Daughters seek partners who, subconsciously, are most like their fathers, sons choose those who are like their mums. Good role-models are hard to come by.

    Kids don’t care where you work, what you do or what you earn. They just want you to be there for them.

  26. I was raised my parents whose lives went from feast to almost famine in a fairly short time. My brothers and I were brought up with the message that it was better to have a steady job than a job that one loved.

    That, I suppose, is one of the primary reasons I stayed at the NYT for 22 instead of 5 years. Around the 10 year mark, it should have been clear to me that I would never be anything more than a news assistant, but I stayed.

    I left the Times with the last round of buyouts in December and it was one of the better choices I’ve made in my life. There will be struggles as an older student pursuing a degree in nursing, but the end result will be worth it.

    My best to you and yours always,

  27. I recently had to decide between a 2-year programming technologist program and a 4-year music and computer science degree. My son is almost two and I’m no longer with his mom.

    I decided to go for the longer degree (which I think will make me more well-rounded) because of all the reasons you gave.

  28. Best to you. I’m trying to follow my dreams and it;s financially very trying and difficult, and every day I wonder if I should stay in a job just to make ends meet. But I keep coming to the same conclusion that I have to give it a try. I don’t have your talents or as many options as you, but I’d rather try and fail than not try at all.

  29. Having no kids but similar decisions to make, I salute you! The future for someone talented like yourself is very bright. And your daughter will be so grateful when she’s grown up reading this sweet post about her dad. Bon voyage my friend…

  30. Congrats on the change! I always found that working at a job in a large-established company, over time, imposed a more rigid idea / definition on my life in terms of “*this* is what you do — only *this*.”

    The version of work / jobs that’s a smaller / scrappier being on one’s own-type approach can give you a surprisingly dynamic context in which you find out more about what you do / are doing / can do. It’s often uncomfortable and/or kind-of scary, but that’s part of the excitement.

    And, I think it’s apt to see this in relationship to a developing child: their growth is so dramatic and inspiring, why settle for less yourself?

  31. Khoi I wish you luck on this new chapter of your life. I definitely understand where you are coming from because I’m in a similar situation right now and I’d have to leave something relatively stable for the unknown. It’s scary but I may just do it. I don’t want to look back on my life 20 years from now and think to myself, “what if…”.

    Good luck with everything.

  32. Take heart, as you go forward, in the likelihood that Carl Jung would approve your decision, based on his statement that “nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment, and especially on their children, than the unlived lives of the parents.”

    Awesome post.

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