A Message to My College Graduate Self (Ten Years Later)

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You did it! You survived four years of studio without noise cancelling headphones and managed to pull all nighters for projects without drinking any coffee. Your road to professional and personal success is only the beginning and you will achieve much more than you realize even when the odds are stacked against you.

I know you will harness your creativity and intellect to visualize beauty and function in the midst of seemingly impossible landscapes and you will produce ideas that not only impress others, but also surprise yourself. Like any professional creative pursuits, this will take time, patience, courage and a lot of hard work to get there, but the rewards will be immense for your career, as well as, for your personal endeavors. It will not be easy and there would be many times when you want to give up and cry in the office bathroom. It is okay to fail, as long as you get back up and continue to move forward. How do I know this? Well, ten years later, I am a forward-thinking landscape designer with a salary I wanted and working on projects I enjoy. And so much more.

I cannot tell you how I got to where I am today, but I can reveal this: continue to be your weird, unapologetic self and just keep going. Be original in your work because there is no one else like you. Also, have some fun when being creative and do not be so serious all the time. You can have a child-like mind when it comes to creativity, without actually being childish in front of people. There will be moments when you have no idea what you are doing, but you will figure it out eventually and be wiser than the day before. Learning new things will be scary, but you will be glad you did.

It will be a year later since the Great Recession ended. Times will initially be tough as jobs are slowly being recovered. Though, the bright side is that many landscape design firms will restructure their workflow and team sizes to become more resilient during economic downturns. Professionals in the field still reminisce about this period six years later during an office tour or eight years later in an interview. People never forget and are very understanding about the times that are bad in the past and will also be incredibly forgiving of any economic hurdles in the future.

You are stronger than you think because you have already accomplished one of the greatest feat in life, which is getting a college degree. That’s more than what Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, or Mark Zuckerberg can say. Now, these billionaires have also achieved beyond what most of us couldn’t thought was possible and yet they have made it happen. The final lesson here is to not be the next Zuckerberg or Jobs, but to be you and make your ideas happen. If studio classes have taught you anything, it is that you can make it work and pull off a decent, presentable project by the due date. You can do it.

You have come so far when you began this journey four years ago without knowing anything about the program or profession. Now, you have the foundation and tools to help provide creative solutions to real world problems. Your future success awaits and I look forward to seeing you do it.

(Note: I graduated from college in 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture. The ripple effects of the Great Recession remained in my industry, even many years after it ended. Many professionals in my field remember the tough aftermath and their proactive decisions then that have led them to be here today. While I know this worldwide pandemic has devastated our economy, do keep in mind that we will get through this and know that opportunities will come, just delayed for now. As we slowly recover from this, people will be very understanding about these unusual circumstances and be intrigued about your story on how you overcame it. Carve out your own story, as I have done, because it is the one thing you can still control even during difficult times.)

Make Work Interesting For You

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This can apply to any job that is inherently interesting or one that is dreadfully mediocre. If you have some flexibility to make work more interesting for you, then why not add some joy and enthusiasm to your work? This should not be reserved for a fresh grad from college and it is something I still continue to do in my professional job even after 10 years of graduating from college. It helps pass the time quicker and your supervisor may actually reward you for your newfound work ethic. As long as this is not offensive, unprofessional, or risk client confidentiality, then it may be something worth doing at your job.

I first did this when I volunteered as a gardener for a local cemetery while in college. My responsibilities were to help maintain the cemetery grounds by weeding, planting, pruning, and other light laborious tasks. I was tasked to help devise a planting plan for their annual bed mound. Although I could easily just come up with a bubbles of plant labels on a planting plan and call it a day, I decided to make it more fun for myself and, also, for the visitors. I came up with the idea to make a “volcano” concept: a metaphoric explosion of annual Iceland poppies with yellow and orange flowers snaking down like lava towards the bottom.

DESIGN CONCEPT

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PLANTING SCHEME

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The concept sounded absurd, but it was bold, different, and completely surprised my supervisor (in a good way). He loved the idea and believed it could really brighten up the space, providing a little bit of peace and calmness for visitors to the cemetery. It did, based on the feedback from visitors in the next couple of weeks after we planted the annuals. It was a great success in a way that it really did lighten up the area and helped create an inviting space for all, from a visitor to a passersby. It was a space not only for those who passed, but for those who are still living too.

FINAL GARDEN DESIGN

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If a 12 feet diameter planting bed can make such a big difference, then I believe you can too. Try and test if you can make the work you do more interesting for you, whether professionally or something so menial like a house chore. It does not need to be over the top and just needs a little bit of effort to go the extra mile. People, not just our bosses, can tell if we put effort in our work or not. For example, we can already tell whenever a chef puts love into the meal based on his or her presentation and taste, so any signs of apathy will be noticed. But if we go above and beyond our responsibilities, the rewards can be immeasurable.

Doing something fun, unique, and exciting in your work can produce big results. And big results can lead to bigger opportunities. Whether you are just starting an entry-level position or in a job for over ten years, you can make your work interesting and still maintain professionalism. I learned personally over the years that the more creative, original and bolder the design is, the more WOW factor and reaction I get from my supervisors and clients. And the feeling never gets old.