This is part of a series of conversations I have with ambitious, purpose-driven professionals who have created fulfilling careers. My goal is to tease out the lessons learned during the ups and downs and twists and turns of their career journey so that you can gain ideas and inspiration on how to design your own fulfilling career.
10 years ago Monica Shulman "officially" started her career as a photographer. But she has been an artist her whole life.
Growing up with a father who was an amateur photographer and a mother who was an avid art collector, Monica caught the artist bug at an early age working with various mediums.
Today she is an award-winning photographer and mixed media artist. You can find her work at Monica Shulman.
But before the artist career, she was a corporate lawyer in NYC living the big firm life.
In this conversation, we talk about her career path from big firm corporate lawyer to photographer and artist, how she made the switch and what she learned about herself and finding career fulfillment along the way.
Q: As someone who grew up with a love for the arts, what made you choose law as an early career path?
A: Like so many things in life, my career as an attorney just came to be because of choices that I made - some with a lot of thought and some that just transpired because of circumstance.
Art was a hobby for me growing up and my parents really fostered my creativity and encouraged me to express myself through photography and painting. I took classes at a local art studio for years and by the time I was applying for college I considered art school but opted to go to my first choice and dream school, Boston University, where I went to the College of Arts and Sciences.
As a freshman, I had no idea what I wanted to study but I honestly thought I had the best chance of figuring it out at a school with so many options and, because I always loved humanities, language, and the arts, it made the most sense. In the end, I graduated with a BA in Political Science with a minor in French. I chose my major because I really liked the classes and my professors were brilliant and engaging. I had been studying French since junior high school and loved it (I am also fluent in Spanish so admittedly it came easily) and another reason I chose BU was because of their foreign language and study abroad program (I went abroad to Paris).
Law school wasn’t an obvious choice because I really did have so many interests but it was in the back of my mind because so many people in my major were going straight to law school after graduation. I decided to take some time off after college and went to a large firm as a paralegal and it sort of spiraled from there. Art, mainly photography, was a serious hobby for me but again I never thought about it as a career mostly because I didn’t really know how to go about doing that. I ultimately applied to law school and ended up doing really well. After I graduated I was offered a job as an associate in the corporate finance department at my firm where I worked out of college.
Q: What was your experience in law school like?
A: That’s a loaded question! Law school was awful and amazing -- sometimes all in the same day. The work was hard and very challenging. Some days I felt brilliant and other days I felt like I wanted to quit. Now that I’m no longer practicing and I have a completely different career, it sometimes seems like I was living someone else’s life. Still, I wouldn’t change that much about it - I made wonderful, lifelong friends, I had incredible professors including the then-president of the ACLU, and I was an executive editor of the Law Review. I am a really passionate person and I tend to throw myself into everything I do because it’s just a part of my personality and I definitely did that when I was in law school.
Q: So where did photography and art fit into your life when you were practicing law?
A: At first it didn’t. I had no time for anything other than work when I was practicing law. I was also a newlywed so whatever time I had off, I just wanted to be with my husband and to see my family and friends. I lived in Manhattan and every weekend my husband and I would go uptown for brunch and walk the Guggenheim or the Met just so I could be with art.
Early on I was desperate for a creative outlet and then my parents gifted me my first digital SLR and everything changed. I was hesitant at first because I loved shooting film but having a digital camera, and then later teaching myself photoshop was like flipping on a light switch I never knew existed. I took photos and started sharing them anonymously on Flickr, which was a relatively new community at the time, and later I started a blog to share my images as a fun, side project. I was nervous to share my photos but I was also so happy to have this little thing that no one knew about. Some of the pictures are so bad but I laugh about it now and I still keep them up online on my old Flickr account because I really believe that you will never know where you can go unless you acknowledge where you have been.
Q: At what point did you make the decision to leave law and pursue photography?
A: I was a junior associate and had been working at the firm for about three years. Even though I felt exhausted I admittedly liked the work (most of the time) because it was exciting and I was learning so much. Plus, I had great friends at my firm. I was working so many hours that I didn’t have either the time or the emotional capital to think about making any major decisions. It was going to be such an enormous change on all levels, most importantly financially, that I was terrified and so anxious. I was feeling burned out from the long hours and stress of the job and started thinking about what else I could do. I saw myself as a lawyer (mostly because I hadn’t really done anything else) and trying to work as a photographer and an artist still didn’t feel like an option. I look back now and realize that I didn’t have a real plan. I gave my notice and I took a job working with my family's real estate company so I could take some time to figure it out. I also feel really lucky that I have a supportive spouse who pushed me and helped me to believe in myself.
Q: How has your career as an artist evolved over the years and what have been some of the challenges you've had to overcome?
A: My career as an artist has evolved tremendously. There have been a lot of ebbs and flows. When I quit my job I was working only as a photographer and my path back to painting did not happen for more than five years. I pretty much took any job to help finance the fine art side of my career which was my passion. I did a lot of work for free because I thought it was important to just have my work out there and to meet as many people as possible. I started to have some small shows everywhere from a local bar and even a beauty parlor to the New York Mercantile Exchange and international art fairs. I networked a lot and I started to leverage existing relationships to get my work in front of as many people as possible. Looking back I really had no idea what I was doing and was just sort of making it up as I went along. I second-guessed myself a lot during that time but I just kept going, didn’t give up and tried everything.
Then I became a mom and everything shifted and was put on hold because my kids became my priority. When they were really little I would take small freelance jobs here and there shooting things like backstage at New York Fashion Week which I loved, headshots and family portraits. I was also writing and starting to monetize my blog that had evolved from a niche art and photography blog to more of a lifestyle blog.
Then, everything changed again when my husband and I decided to move our family from downtown Manhattan to the lower Hudson River Valley. At first, I felt like a fish out of water but I quickly became very inspired by the local art community, our new space and living in nature. It sounds cliche but one day I bought a few sketchbooks, some canvases and paint and I began to pour out everything that had been inside of me in the years since I stopped making art. This was a turning point. I dug photos out of my archive, started to take my camera out for personal projects and started painting every day. I came up with a plan not just for my creative work as an artist but for my business. I really took my time to think things out, I made and executed a plan to relaunch and rebrand my website, and I started to share more on my social media. I have never felt so inspired, energized and motivated. Late last summer I opened my studio and it has been such an enormous shift creatively. These days I am very selective and protective of my time because I am working and raising my children so I only take on work that feels right. My career has grown organically through hard work and passion.
Sometimes people will say to me that they can’t believe how my career happened “overnight” and I have to laugh out loud because nothing about this has been overnight. It has taken me over ten years to get to this point and I am nowhere near where I hope to be in terms of my goals and professional aspirations. Just like when I was in law school and when I decided to leave my career as an attorney the first time, some days I feel amazing and other days the self-doubt is crippling. It’s especially easy to fall into the cycle of comparison and insecurity because there are so many incredibly talented people doing so many great things online. But, I just keep doing what I am doing because deep down I love it and I really believe in the work. I feel so lucky to be where I am and a lot of what has happened and the growth and change and challenges feel like a bit of a blur.
Like anyone else I struggle with worrying about what others think of me as a mom or as an artist, and what they think about my work, but I just try to do the best that I can, learn from all the mistakes I’ve made, work from my heart, shut off the noise, and trust the process. I also want to be a good example and show my children that you can do the thing that scares you, sometimes get it wrong but grow and learn because you took that risk.
Q: What career advice would you give your 20-year-old self?
A: I would give myself the same advice I give myself today. First, stay focused and know your “why” - knowing your “why” and your reasons for taking the steps toward your goals will guide you. Second, it’s not about being fearless -- it’s about acknowledging the fear and battling through it anyway. I always thought I needed to just buck up and not be afraid, but fear is an important emotion and motivator. If I didn’t do something every time it scared me I would not be in this moment right now. Going away to college and leaving my family was scary, law school was downright terrifying, working in a firm and sometimes messing up or being the only female associate in the room was nerve-racking, becoming a parent and raising my children has been both my greatest joy and biggest challenge. Just do the thing that scares you and face your fears.
Q: How do you deal with fear at this stage of your career?
A: It’s very hard but I try to no longer let my own fear stop me or influence me in the same way that it has in the past. I am a worrier and have anxiety like everyone else but the difference now is that I’m no longer focused on pleasing others through my work and actions and I'm driven by wanting to do what inspires me and makes me happy and more productive. I am working on trusting the process more but I don't want my own fears and insecurities holding me back. Success is measured in so many different ways but whether you’re successful at something or not, you will learn and grow from the experience and even the tough lessons and the difficult moments are worth it.
Career Design Lessons
In this interview with Monica, I want to highlight some of the key lessons that you can apply to your own career journey.
- You can turn your hobbies and interests into a career. How could you start small with a side hustle and grow it into a viable career option? (P.S. That's how changed careers to become a coach.)
- Questions your decisions. Are you making them out of fear? Are you choosing the safe option versus the one that feels right but a little scary? Investigate all your options before you make a choice. Which option feels exciting to you?
- If you want to make a career change focus on what is important to you rather than worry about what other people think of you.
- Be patient with yourself. Timing plays a big role in changing careers. If now is not the right time it doesn't mean things can't work out later.
DOWNLOAD THE CAREER DESIGN GUIDE
If you would like to learn how to design a more fulfilling career you can download the Career Design Guide below.