Erica Manami is a bad-ass graphic designer, living out her creative dreams in San Antonio, Texas. She’s always been drawn to creative arts– sewing, drawing, photography, underwater basket weaving. However, her parents (specifically, her dear mom) knew she’d make an amazing doctor. From an early age, she was encouraged to pursue math, science and anything that would land her in a prestigious university. She worked her butt off, got the grades, and over-achieved all the live-long day. On paper? Erica was on the express train to Doctortown. In real life, she was miserable.
Here’s how Erica quit living out someone else’s dream & unearthed her passion.
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You describe yourself the first-born child of a Japanese Tiger mom. What exactly do you mean by that?
By that, I mean a couple of things.
1) Being the child of a Tiger Mom means I was pushed and held to a very high standard. The stereotype of asians is generally: smart (particularly math and science), plays an instrument, straight A’s, you get the idea. That is because we have parents that more or less forced us to be that way. Some out right, some in subliminal ways. All of these things are accurate for me.
2) Being the first-born of said Tiger Mom means I was held to the highest standard among my siblings. Imagine being the child singled out and expected to be brilliant, earn lots of money, and care for the family, then add in the details of item 1. That’s what I mean by “first-born child of a Japanese Tiger mom.” Don’t get me wrong, I love my mom and I would not be the person I am today without all these things. It just made my journey interesting.
Did the pressure of achieving overwhelm you growing up, or did it just feel “normal”?
Growing up I would say it just felt normal because it had just always been there. In a way it, was a magic eight ball making decisions for me. When choosing between the sleepover and studying for the test, I knew the ‘correct’ answer was to study. So I rarely bothered to ask to go to the parties. As I got older, the overwhelm started because that’s when you start making more decisions for yourself. Then I started adding all these ‘rules’ for myself, building more walls around those early parental pressures until I was trapped in my little fortress path of achieving.
A few years ago, you were a honor student on the path to becoming a doctor. What did your life look and feel like?
Up until 2009 (my freshman/sophomore yrs of college) I was the poster child for the dutiful first born. I was a full-time student at a private university, with a FULL course schedule taking all the required pre-med courses as well as a weekend, 20-hour job. Then there were the various organizations I was a part of, some required for my scholarship that I’d earned through hard work in high school. Others were to boost my resume for med school applications.
I had lived in the pre-med ‘Living Learning Community’ my Freshman year, so I got really lucky in building some amazing friendships with other pre-med students. Needless to say, I had cultivated the perfect incubator environment for carving my path to becoming a doctor and I was busy being busy.
Despite this perfect dome, there were cracks forming in the glass. While my classmates took the basic easy art 101 course so it wouldn’t get in the way of their Chemistry classes, I signed up for the labor intensive Film Photography course. Instead of doing the minimum to get a passing grade, and even the minimum to get an A so I could be at the Genetics study group, I was spending 20+ hrs in the darkroom. My genetics final project… yeah, I turned that into a stop-motion video project instead of a much easier poster.
My life pre-September 2009 looked like a dedicated pre-med student. But if you stuck around my dorm into the midnight hours to see if I was cramming for biology, you would have noticed I was actually using the 10pm-2am hrs for every last photo developing time in the creepy art building.
What pushed you to finally quit pre-med?
Until recently, I couldn’t remember the date that I made the decision to quit, only the dream that influenced me. Thanks to Facebook’s memories reminders, I apparently recorded it with a FB post in the days when you still had to write in third person (Ha!).
Sept. 28, 2009, I woke up from a night terror after spending the entire evening before cramming for an organic chemistry test. This dream was the kind where you wake up sweating and in tears, immediately psychoanalyzing yourself wondering if you’ve lost it for real this time. I haven’t forgotten the details of this dream. Since then I’ve learned to trust my dreams when they influence big life decisions. I’m a little ‘woo-woo’ like that.
But the details of the dream aren’t relevant for you all to know as to why I quit. That dream made me halt and recognize the building stress in my brain and body from my studies. I hadn’t been happy with the trajectory of my life in a very long time. I realized that I didn’t want a life/career that would cause me this much distress. I wasn’t having fun studying these topics like I had in high school, and that med school would be double this stress and a LOT more expensive.
Suddenly, my life was black and white. It became crystal clear that the path I was on was one I had crafted for myself around those early childhood influences of my mom. I made the decision to make my life mine, not what my parents expected. I walked in and did the best I could on the exam, knowing the results no longer controlled the destiny of my life. Talk about a relief!
Was the decision scary for you? Why or why not?
Honestly, the decision wasn’t scary because it didn’t feel like a choice as much as an epic ‘Ah-ha!’ moment. And really the scary part was realizing what could have happened. I could have had this moment years down the road in the middle of med-school with loads of debt or in my career realizing too late that I’d just followed what I was told instead of what was best for me.
How did your parents react when you told them you were switching to a Design Arts major?
I would say my dad was definitely more accepting of it, and if anything wasn’t really surprised. He had probably already recognized he’d raised four creative souls long ago, especially considering my parents are creatives, too. My mom, on the other hand, didn’t quite understand. Or at least that’s how it felt to me. To this day, I think there’s some part of her that thinks I might still become a doctor. I need to work on those Braid worksheets of “How to Explain What You Do” just so my family can figure it out finally.
Which was harder: quitting, or telling your parents that you quit?
Telling my parents was definitely the tougher thing to do. Telling my parents was me facing the Goliath of my own making. The beast that was my mistaken self identity, family pressures and personal fears rolled into one. If I’m being honest, while writing this and remembering this growth stage, this interview brought back all the feels. Quitting wasn’t really a choice as much as a moment of clarity. My friends saw it as an ‘Oh duh, Erica’ moment because they knew me better than I knew myself then.
In retrospect, do you think you’ve always known you were an artist at heart?
Yes. Hindsight is always 20/20. Every summer since elementary school, I’d looked forward to the local art camps where I learned to weave a basket and caste a mold of my own hand. I’d been sewing since 3rd grade making hand sewn clothes for my Barbies and doing some sort of knitting/crochet. It should have been obvious when my own sisters nagged on me for DIY-ing too many things. All of these creative outlets kept getting squeezed out of my life, and yet I’d still make time for it.
Happiest moment since deciding to pursue an arts career? most frustrating?
I don’t know if I could pick a happiest moment. Once I made the decision to quit, every decision has made me happier than the last. That had been missing from my life. Frustrating? The little moments when I almost gave up on myself and my pursuit of being a creative.
How has quitting changed your life?
Short answer: Epically. Let’s see the differences. If I hadn’t quit, about now I would still be in MO (most likely), starting my med school residency, be severely in-debt, rarely get to travel and learning to live on a consistent level of high stress. But I did quit! I am fantastically busy building my dream creative life as an in-house designer for a local studio to support my side hustle (manamidesign.com), just got married in July, living in TX, and building our custom house (another side project (buildingrosewood.com).
Advice for someone afraid of letting down their parents?
Deep down, your parents want what is best for YOU. It just might take a while for them to accept it. The dreams they had for you might be the dreams they had had for themselves and hoped to live out through you. But in the end, they’ll realize you are making the choice they weren’t brave enough to make. And if they don’t understand, then they’re still in the midst of their own choices, and that’s not your problem to deal with.
What are the three most important things you’ve learned since quitting your parents dream?
You have to make decisions for yourself. In the end, it’s your life to live. You can take steps back, have down days, and change directions, just don’t quit on yourself.
The woo-woo lesson: Trust your dreams/nightmares. Most are simply helpful for processing day to day life, but the big epic dreams are worth investing some think time on.
Advice to someone who’s thinking of liberating their life?
The decision doesn’t need to be swift. Take some time to think it through. Do the pro/con list if necessary, pray, talk it out with a friend, go through your process. After a week, you’ll know in your heart regardless of the results of the list, what the right decision is for you.
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Learn more about Erica on her website, Manami Design as well as Instagram.
Have a great quitting story? I want to hear it! Send me your story at heyeleanorproject [at] gmail [dot] com.
Other creative quitters? There’s Ruth, who quit being a lawyer to write romance novels and act. And how ’bout Matt & Megan, who quit their day-to-day gigs to start a secret supper club?
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