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Imposter Syndrome with Carly Ayres

Posted by

Perrin Drumm

Published on

August 29th 2019

This time on Imposter Syndrome we're talking to Carly Ayres, a founding partner of HAWRAF, which she and her partners recently closed. She is a board member of AIGA’s New York chapter, and lives in Brooklyn.

Do you remember the first time you experienced imposter syndrome?

A really a moment that’s stuck with me was when I was accepted to art school. I went to Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) for industrial design, and part of the application process was the infamous RISD bike drawing, which I don't even think they have anymore. But at the time, you had to draw a bike on an 18” x 24” piece of paper, which you fold twice to show, of course, your humility as an artist. They put up a show of all the bikes drawn by the incoming freshman. I had thought my bike drawing was pretty cool. I drew all the spokes through moving water, which I thought was very creative.

“I was just like, I am so out of my league. What the fuck am I doing here?”

Then I walked into this show of all this work, and at the end of the hall it's fucking Jesus Christ carrying a bicycle like it's a cross. There’s blood coming through the thorned crowd and the spokes are cutting into his back, and I was just like, I am so out of my league. What the fuck am I doing here?

What was your arts preparation like before that? Did you come from a creative family?

Both my parents are creative individuals — I think most people are creative individuals — but both my parents come from medicine. My dad's a surgeon and my mom was a physician’s assistant. They definitely wanted me to pursue a line of work or study that had some sort of commercial value, so industrial design made sense. When it came time for college, I applied to 12 schools.  

Whoa, why so many? Were you extremely confident, or were you hedging your bets?

I was not confident at all. I didn’t think I would get into all of them, which I didn’t, and I wanted as many options as possible.

When you showed up at RISD, did you think you’d found the right place?

Well, I was definitely not the best. Throughout high school I was very coddled. I got great grades, I was class president. I was definitely an overachiever. Then all of a sudden I was not the best at pretty much anything — not even in my 3D drawing classes, where I thought I would really excel because it was more rooted in industrial design. One of the projects was to make a 3D sculpture based on the cross section of a vegetable, and I made an onion table.

What is an onion table?

It was papier mache and plywood, and it was so bad. I had always worked really hard throughout high school, and art school was a place where I worked really hard but it didn’t always pan out. I think there was also this feeling, which I still see now after college, that there's a scarcity. Maybe this is a gendered thing, but it’s this feeling that there isn't enough room or there won't be enough jobs or enough opportunities and you have to constantly be working so hard.

In school I definitely worked hard because I knew my work was not as good as everyone else's. In retrospect, I think we all kind of sucked. There were definitely some all stars, like Jesus Bike, but I also think I deserved to be there.  

Do you feel you deserve to be where you are now?

Yes, but then I do something like this: I recently took a writing workshop, and when we introduced ourselves I said how I studied design but was always interested in writing and had never taken a writing course. Later I got a message from one of the other students saying how she went on my social and saw that I had written things and it looked like I was an actual writer, so why was I taking the class? It was a great point. I guess it means I consistently feel unqualified even doing the thing that people pay me to do.

When I first met you, you were working as a freelance writer. Why did you feel you had to take that class?

That is probably a question I will continue to ask myself for the rest of my life.

Beyond working as a writer, you had a stint at Google Creative Labs before founding your own design studio, HAWRAF, which you and your partners recently closed. You checked off a lot of bucket-list items in a relatively short timespan. What set you off?

There was one pivotal summer internship between my junior and senior year that defined everything I did afterwards. I had applied to a bunch of internships — not 1 — and one of them was Procter & Gamble. It was a very traditional industrial design summer program where you stay in their campus housing, and to get in was the most rigorous application process ever. They even ask you for a hair sample. I had to go to some government center where they took a sample of my hair.

Red flag.

Right. I had this moment of panic, where I thought, I don’t really want to spend my summer CADing toothbrushes. It’s a fine thing to do, but it’s not for me. Of everything I had learned, it was what I was least excited about. I CADed sandwiches just to get through those classes in RISD.

Did you turn it down?

What I did was I cold-emailed Tina Roth Eisenberg to see if she needed help with Creative Mornings, which I followed online. And it turns out that at that moment she was just about to hire an intern.

Right place, right time.

I believe the word she used was “destiny.” We had a call and she offered me the internship on the call. So I spent that summer working for her and I joined full-time after I graduated from school. It was great, but after two-and-a-half years I eventually reached a point where I felt like I had learned everything I could, so I left joined a branding studio where I did not get along with the founders, and after just six months it was mutually decided that I should leave.

Why didn’t it work out?

So many reasons. I was so eager for a new opportunity — too eager. And I just jumped into it without thinking it through. There wasn’t a ton of structure, I was doing lower-level type of work, and I wanted to be doing a lot more. It came down to very misaligned expectations.

Did it feel like a mistake?

Absolutely. Not now, of course. But when things don’t work out it’s so hard not to take it personally. Leaving Google felt that way, too. I didn’t leave there willingly. I was abruptly told that my services were no longer needed and my contract was cut short. After both those jobs there was this downward spiral of, how did I let this happen again? Why didn’t this work out? Why was I not the right fit? Was I too this or too that? Why couldn’t I have talked less? Why couldn’t I have just been happy with what I was doing? Why couldn’t I have just gone along with what they needed me to do, and shut up and do the work versus being abrasive or too loud?

You felt like you should have faked it to fit the role?

Yes! Why couldn’t I have just sucked it up? And instead of thinking about whether I’m too this or too that, maybe the reality was it was just time to move on. Maybe it’s really an opportunity to do something new. It’s not like “I failed here,” but more like, “My time is done here. I have done everything I came to do.”

Do you think “sucking it up” or “faking it ‘til you make it” is a professional skill people actually need, to some degree, at any job, or is it a weakness?

That’s such a complex question. I will say I think Gen Z is really good at raising their hands when something is not okay — if they don’t want to work late or if they want a job with real benefits. And it's often the older generation that didn't have access to those things who are like,“No, you have to work hard. You have to earn it. You have to earn these merit badges so you can be where I am.” Power to Gen Z for doing that. I think that’s the hope for our future, where people don't have to do things they don't want to do. An unfortunate reality is that you often have to do things you don't want to do.

“I will say I think Gen Z is really good at raising their hands when something is not okay — if they don’t want to work late or if they want a job with real benefits.”

Do you mean the lacklust grunt work?

I was recently on a panel at Pratt, which included Natasha Jen, and one of the things she said — and I’m paraphrasing — was that you just have to suck that shit up. She said people said offensive things to her all the time in her early career. People threatened to deport her. That’s so not okay! I'm so sorry that happened to her. No one should have to go through that, and no one should make anyone feel that way. And Natasha totally disagreed with me.

That goes way beyond “paying your dues.” And there’s obviously a line between not wanting to work late all the time and straight up abuse or threats.

I couldn't agree more.

And it’s also something you didn’t have to do anymore once you founded your own studio. When you started HAWRAF, did you feel like you knew what you were doing?

Absolutely not. This might sound like a shitty mantra, but something that gave me a lot of solace in those early days was thinking: Lots of people start studios. If they can do it, then we can, too.

“Lots of people start studios. If they can do it, then we can, too.”

There were lots of things I didn’t know how to do and once I figured them out they were immediately replaced by something else I didn’t know how to do. There’s always a next thing I don’t know how to do, and that state of not knowing makes me question everything about what I’m doing and why I’m even here. But then I do it. And then all of a sudden I’m on the next precipice.

With HAWRAF closed now, what’s next? What’s the next thing you don’t know how to do?

I don't know how to figure out what I'm supposed to do next. I've been in this situation many times before, so it's not quite as scary. I'm not pulling my hair out or having a total meltdown every day. A meltdown every other week is my current meltdown status. But I don't know how to decide what direction to go in. I know how to have informational interviews and conversations. I know how to reach out to people and get my foot in the door at various organizations. I'm not totally sure what’s next, but I know I can figure it out.

You’ve come a long way since you too-eagerly jumped on that studio job that fizzled out in six months, though. Are you better at assessing opportunities and guiding yourself now?

For sure. There are things coming my way now that I would have committed all sorts of heinous crimes to do earlier in my career. I can spot the red flags now. One of my favorite metaphors is Tarzan swinging through the jungle. In the beginning you're grabbing every fucking vine, but over time you learn that there are a lot of vines and you can be a little more selective and wait for the bigger ones to come along. I feel that now.

If you enjoyed this check out Skill-up + Grow with SuperHi. Also in this series, our interview with Eric Hu, former Design Director at Nike and Jennifer Daniel, creative director for Google’s emoji program. More coming soon!

If you liked this series, have a read of our 4-part article about exploring, planning + sticking to your career goals.