Jillian Schiavi is a freelance illustrator, calligrapher, and yoga instructor. While working in publishing straight out of college, she realized that her dream job actually resulted in a life that she found to be unsatisfying. With a little help from circumstance (and the universe), she built up enough courage to quit her job and return to school to earn an MFA. She opened her etsy shop in the midst of an epic snowstorm in Chicago in 2012. Since then, she has been designing tattoos, illustrating, and hand lettering for people all over the world. She met with me over hot cocoa to discuss living free of expectations, listening to your gut, and making peace with your gremlins.
As an undergraduate at NYU, Jillian Schiavi thought she had her career mapped out. After cycling through internships at a PR firm, a photography agency, and a literary agency, she decided on publishing as the logical extension of majoring in English and minoring in creative writing. Once she landed her dream job at Random House, however, doubts began to creep in. “It seemed like the perfect dream job for an English major. I think at that point, though, I was a little nervous because I had sort of pigeonholed myself into this one career path.”
Her doubts intensified once she had the opportunity to preview her life down the road, by observing her colleagues. She found herself inspired instead by a woman she met by chance in a movie theater, who built a career through curiosity and happenstance. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘how do I do that? How do I get a life like that?’ Where, it’s instances and moments and you don’t know what the next thing is, but the next thing could lead you to something amazing. When I was working at Random House, I very clearly remember being at my desk in my cubicle, and thinking, this is not going to get me there. I know exactly what this life looks like, because the person in the office across the hall has it, and that is not as inspiring to me.”
After assisting with an illustration project and finding the work to be fulfilling, she began researching graduate programs in the arts and found an interdisciplinary program that would allow her to explore other media while pursuing her love for writing, at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). At the same time, she decided to pursue her passion for yoga and undergo teacher training. Her next challenge: Quitting the job she new would not lead to further happiness, before she knew her next step.
Fortunately for Jillian, the universe helped. Two days into her yoga teacher training, she arrived at work to find that her department had been dismantled. This was 2010 after all, and the economy – and specifically the world of publishing – was definitely changing. When the company offered her another position and she refused, they gave her 6 weeks severance pay. This allowed her to complete her teacher training without having to simultaneously work full time. A week later, she received an acceptance letter from SAIC. The fact that her lease ended the same day as her teacher training, contributed even further to Jillian’s ability to make a clean break. “It was as if the world had decided to close that other chapter and start an entirely new section of a book.” Her conclusion from the experience? “I really do believe that when you lean into those moments of discomfort and you’re not sure where the clarity is or what the path is going to be that you’re taking, but for some reason it feels like the thing you need to do, then it works out.”
Six months ago, Jillian made another bold move, to California from Chicago. Building her business back up in an entirely new place has not been without its challenges. As Jillian explains, she has been “getting hung up on a lot of interesting setbacks, or pauses. We’re such a weird society right now, where pausing is for some reason not a good thing. It’s really uncomfortable, you’re just waiting for the next thing. And I kind of had to live in that space. I had to totally live in that weird pause of, I’m not doing crazy amounts of work yet. I don’t know if I will in the future. So, I have to live here and be here, embody it fully. I can’t move forward unless I’m here right now.”
Part of what has propelled her forward is a fear of slipping back into what is known and comfortable, but not necessarily right. “I guess for me the either / or is you abandon the thing that you’re trying to build up, because you’re not sure if it’s going to work. [But] then there’s a bigger fear in slipping back into something that was ultimately not making you happy. For me in particular, moving out here, I wanted to do whatever I could to not get a full time job. I knew that that was not the situation or circumstance or space that I was going to thrive in. So, taking on the role of entrepreneur and self-sustaining business person – even though I’m still learning how to be a business person – the fear of slipping back into something that was comfortable was greater than the fear of failing at doing my own creative thing.”
When I asked Jillian what helped her through these pauses, she championed her support system. “I talked a lot on the phone to my support system. People who wouldn’t tell me, ‘oh, you can just go get another job!’ Because there are people in your life that will say that. I know who those people are in my life, so I couldn’t talk to them. They would not have told me the right thing to do. I think [what’s important] is understanding who is your cheerleader, who understands what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Not necessarily how you need to do it. I don’t think that’s the most important thing. I think the most important thing is the what and the why. And then having someone to reflect that back to you. So I talked a lot to my sister, my best friend, and my boyfriend.”
She also advocates for listening to your gut when figuring out what is the right thing to do. “There’s a philosophy that your second brain is in your gut. The brain that’s in your head is very logical. It will tell you what’s working, what’s not working, why something won’t work, and why it might work. The brain that’s in your gut just tells you if something feels good or not. When you start to listen to that more, it speaks louder. So my personal philosophy is, listen to your gut first, and then figure it out with your brain. Even when it’s the hardest thing in the world to do. Even when there’s evidence to the contrary and someone asks you why, and you don’t really have an answer. I think that’s completely fine. You don’t need to articulate it right away.”
I asked Jillian whether there were ever times where she lost touch with her gut, and if so, how she reconnected. She said that when she finds herself veering from her path, it is most often due to a finance-related fear (e.g. looming student loans to repay), and that the best method she has found for combatting these fears is to not try to fight them at all, but rather to notice them and keep moving. “Financial obligation I think is a huge thing that gets you off track. And I think recognizing that and accepting that this is something that will be a part of my life forever has been the one thing that has brought me back. Instead of trying to fight this thing that I know is there, and that I don’t want to be there, I’ve accepted it and invited it to walk next to me. Brene Brown talks about this a lot in her vulnerability and shame work. She talks about something like that being your gremlin. It’s literally sitting next to you all the time, and it’s yammering on in your ear about all the things you need to do and all the things you haven’t done, and all the things you’ll never be. Instead of spending so much time trying to silence that thing, and put tape over its mouth and kick it away – because it just boomerangs back – instead, the helpful thing to do is to acknowledge that it’s there, and then choose to listen to something else. To trust that the thing that I will do will ultimately take care of me, because I’m taking care of it.”
Lastly, Jillian explains the importance of her yoga practice for her creative work: “I think as a creative person, you need to take breaks from the actual creative process. When I was in graduate school, one of my favorite professors talked a lot about taking walks. Literally taking walks. When you take a walk, the activity in your brain starts to speed up a little bit, and slow down at the same time. So the stuff that you don’t need starts to fly away, and the stuff that turns the gears of the creative motion starts to oil up and move a little bit. You’re allowing things to formulate in your brain, so that you can pour fresh ideas out onto a piece of paper. Yoga, in that way, helps me clear some of the clutter away, empty out the space, so that I have a fresh vessel to fill with new ideas.”
In general, Jillian adheres to a three-fold philosophy: “The first part is just to be bold. Just do it. The second part is to live and move from a place of intuition. And the third part is to live free of expectation. That is the hardest thing to do. Especially when you start something new. You have all of these ideas about what’s going to happen and how things are going to look, how you’re going to feel. But the most important thing you can do for yourself is to let all of that go and just do the thing. Because the world will give you so much more than you could have ever expected.”
Thank you Jillian, for sharing your boldness, your wisdom, and your faith. I am looking forward to continuing to observe how you forge unexpected offerings of the universe into gestures of joy and beauty.