is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Principal Designer at Adobe, Design Chair at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. Refer to the advertising and sponsorship page for inquiries.+
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.
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.
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 NYTimes.com 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.
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.+