What does career success mean to you? Not what you’ve been told it looks like, but what does it feel like to you? Happiness? Freedom? Creativity? Money? Power? We spoke with interdisciplinarian, Seher about the power (and importance) of pivoting careers.
Please note, this interview has been edited and condensed from an audio recording.
What’s your personal brand elevator pitch?
I’m moving from being a photographer to being an interdisciplinarian. I’m hoping this will be my new nebulous job title. I’m diving into the intersections of art, media, culture, healing, and social impact.
You started your career in corporate marketing. What made you realize you needed to move on?
I started college as a computer science major in the tech boom. Coming from a protective, mindful immigrant family, the plan was to study computer science, work as a programmer, complete an MBA, work in Silicon Valley, and make a billion dollars. I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do. So I changed my major to business (it sounded more like something I wanted to do) and ended up at Wharton (I was only allowed to go away for college if it was better than what’s local i.e. Berkeley and Stanford, so I worked hard and got in). That was my first pivot.
My dream was to move to New York after graduating and work at an advertising agency, in magazine publishing, or in the music business. But I ended up back in the Bay Area because my traditional parents told me that I had to live with them until I got married — things have obviously changed since then. I reluctantly sold my soul to the highest-paying job I could find: marketing analytics at Williams-Sonoma.
The day before I started my new job, mom asked if I was excited to start. I wasn’t. It was just a paycheck. My goal was to save enough money and get enough experience to go after the job and life I wanted—I went into a career to save up for a career pivot.
But the recession hit. Finding a job was hard. My bosses made me promises, so I stayed put. It turns out they played me. The promise of moving from analytics to strategy didn’t happen. I was crunching spreadsheets forever. I didn’t like the work, my manager, or the culture.
After two years at Williams-Sonoma I hadn’t done anything I’d been proud of or excited about. I felt burnt out. I hated it.
In comparison to my day-to-day, I had lots of friends in the music business. They were all so passionate about their work, and I wanted to feel that. I’ve always been creative, but I couldn’t think of a specific thing that would be my passion. So, I revisited things I used to enjoy: acting, singing, and design. And I wanted to try photography.
I did some acting (but I didn’t have enough time or energy to commit while still working). So I slowly transitioned to graphic design while waiting backstage. And finally, I took on photography...
I wanted a DSLR (without knowing what that meant), so I picked a model and started dreaming about having it one day. I didn’t have the money, wasn’t great at saving, and simultaneously felt like I needed the camera yesterday — I had no idea how I was going to make that happen. One day after work I spontaneously walked into a Ritz Camera to look at “my camera” and saw a sign about a 12 month no interest credit card loan. I’d never bought anything on credit before and was clearly in some sort of “Just do it” Nike mentality. Fuck it. I bought the camera.
The first thing I ever shot was a concert on program mode. I didn’t know what shutter speed or aperture were. A friend of a friend spent 20 minutes in a bar showing me the basics and that was it. That is my foundational photography education. From there I just made it up as I went along and figured it out. I learned that you indeed have to fake it ‘til you make it.
In my last two years at Williams-Sonoma, I spent most evenings and weekends shooting concerts, editing photos from concerts, and finding out who I needed to bother to give me a press pass to the concerts. It started with friends’ shows, people liked my work, and it went from there. The first big show I did was Diana Ross. I was totally unprepared and knew nothing. I had to stand behind the audience and didn’t have a zoom lens or a stool, so I stood on a metal gate, stretched up as tall as I could, and did everything I could to get a clear shot. Luckily, the editor loved it. My opportunities to photograph shows grew from there: I built my portfolio, gradually got more gigs, and kept doing it.
When I was fired from Williams-Sonoma (more on that in a moment!), I moved back home, and pursued photography for a while. Surprisingly, my super traditional Pakistani mother saw how much agony my job had put me through and told me to just try it out and do it. So I did.
I always knew that photography wasn’t my life passion. I like it a lot. It’s a means to something I am passionate about: working for myself and being creative. But photography isn’t the thing that’s going to keep me happy forever. If I decide I want to be a kindergarten teacher next week (which I’ve thought about) I’ll do that. I’m very committed to personal growth as a lifestyle, so there will always be shifts. Now I’m amidst a career pivot again, exploring what it means to be an inter-disciplinarian and how that might look in a way that is simultaneously fulfilling, boundary-shifting, and sustainable.
What were the biggest challenges you faced in making this career change?
Breaking away from expectations.
There have been many challenges. My career path hasn’t been linear or easy. My parents are traditional, conservative Pakistani immigrants. Growing up, I had the choice between their holy trifecta of jobs: doctor, lawyer or engineer. The stepchild was business.
Breaking away from their expectations and the socio-structural bullshit we’re all surrounded by at large has been a challenge. Before I’d even applied to college, my parents’ friends would always ask what I wanted to study at grad school. It really annoyed me. So, I decided to adopt a mini silent revolution against grad school and so far, I’ve stuck to it.
Four years into my job at Williams-Sonoma, I hated it and did as little as possible. But I hadn’t been laid off when the recession hit, as lots of my colleagues had (including people who’d been there for 20 years and loved it), so I knew I was an asset. Even when not at 100% capacity, I was of value to the team. So I stayed. I had a review every year, met their expectations, and didn’t have any red flags.
But towards the end of my fourth year, they put me on a disciplinary review. They sat me down, told me this type of review process could technically end in termination, but they didn’t want to do that. They said they wanted to help me with my pain points. I thought that was fair enough, so I took ownership of my job, put my freelance photography business on hold, and focused on my job. That was my livelihood. I didn’t want to lose it.
However, it soon became clear that they weren’t being completely forthcoming with their evaluations of me. They gave me limited information. When it came to a major review, they’d bring up all this stuff they’d never previously mentioned during my smaller weekly reviews. So I asked for a weekly written report to supplement those meetings, but my supervisor didn’t hold to it. I was the youngest on my team but seemingly played the adult in this situation. The entire ordeal was about three months and was super traumatizing.
They made me go crazy: I checked every email campaign 10 times before I sent it out. They searched for anything to get me for. I was stressed and it was clear that no matter what I did, I was going to get fired. I couldn’t quit because then I wouldn’t get unemployment. So I stuck it out. I ended up asking for my final review to be brought forward sooner, and thankfully they did: I basically asked to get fired. I couldn’t cope with the bad energy anymore. And when they fired me, I was chill. I just said “Okay. Sounds good. Thank you. There’s my badge.” I’d already packed up my desk and taken everything home the night before, so I walked right out and left. I got in my car and screamed for joy at the top of my lungs. It was one of the best days of my life.
Moving back home.
I took the plunge of moving back home to save money for 6 months with the intention to move to New York afterwards. I sold stuff, scrounged whatever money I could, and six months later held to my promise to myself to move to New York.
Can you share 3 essentials for people who want to make a career change?
Your career might not be forever. A lot of people assume that if you’re relatively successfully in a competitive, coveted profession i.e. being a freelance creative, it must be your passion. But photography isn’t my passion per se. I like it a lot.
We’ve been socialized to believe that happiness is reaching the pinnacle of a certain trajectory. But in fact, even in high school, I was able to distill, and then further distill post-college, that success was happiness. And what makes us happy itself is constantly shifting and changing as we grow.
Fake It Till You Make It. I think that explains itself. You can learn almost anything on the internet.
Do Something Everyday. When I’d decided I needed to be more creatively fulfilled, my motto became: “Everyday, do something, even if it’s the smallest thing, that makes you feel like you’re moving forward. Every week, every month.” Always try to feel like you’ve done something tangible towards your goal.
What one piece of advice would you give your younger self about working life?
Create your own personal value system (which I did) and then tap into it. I realized I didn’t have one passion, instead I have lots of values which are important to me: community building, personal growth, social change, multiculturalism, sharing your journey with your community.
What’s at the top of your goal list?
To continue my exploration of what’s next for me in my journey of stepping into my purpose and my power with fullness and courage.
What are you not sorry for?
Even though I broke my parents’ hearts in a lot of ways by individuating and breaking the cultural mold, I’m not sorry that I did what I needed to do. I’m sad it needed to happen, but I’m not sorry for it.