This story may sound all too familiar: you earn a degree, amass student loan debt, and still can’t find a job in your intended field or just aren’t fulfilled in your work. If this sounds like you, we’ve got great news.

You can reroute your career to something you love, and you can do it without an additional degree. Just ask Mimi Chao, a former attorney turned freelance illustrator.

Mimi’s Creative Journey

Mimi followed a traditional education path, but found that her law degree didn’t align with her true career aspirations. After spending four years in a law firm, she was unfulfilled. Mimi wanted to flex her creative muscles in some way. Her first step towards her creative career was applying for and landing a management job at a design agency. It’s there where she became immersed in the world of digital design, quickly learning about design and development despite having no prior experience. Being surrounded by creatives opened her eyes to the possibilities of a creative career. Around the same time, she picked up her childhood love of drawing again, and began to incorporate a daily practice into her evening routine.

As she continued to draw more and more, others online took notice and she received commissions for her work. Finally finding fulfillment in her creative side project, Mimi dove head first by taking six months off to focus exclusively on building a freelance illustration career. “I studied books, online tutorials, watched videos, and supplemented with a couple in-person classes at my local art school. Six months turned into a year and from there it just kept going. Before I knew it I was realizing a dream I didn’t even really dare to admit to myself I had.”

“Yes. Many steps along the way were scary and many well-meaning people discouraged me, but it has been so worth it for me.”

While Mimi had achieved success as a freelancer, she still didn’t feel qualified enough to call herself an expert. That’s what lead her to teach on Skillshare. “One thing I really appreciate about Skillshare is that it positions itself in a way that is welcoming to non-traditional artists and designers. People who might otherwise feel unqualified to “teach art” are more emboldened to simply share a skill or project they know how to do. I thought hey, I can do that. I’m just doing a project in video form.”

Teaching on Skillshare has not only given Mimi an additional income source, which is crucial for a freelancer, it’s expanded her overall reach. “Skillshare has acted as a new channel for people to connect with me and my work. I used to only really be active on Instagram so it’s nice to have another community I can authentically engage with others through.”


Mimi’s insights into starting a creative career

“Be excited, not discouraged! We live in an amazing time where you can literally make your dreams come true as long as you have the self-motivation. Take advantage of all the resources the internet has to offer. Going to school is great if you can afford it. But school is incredibly expensive these days and living with a huge debt burden can really hinder your creativity in the future.

Take comfort that many successful artists are self-taught. This field is thankfully merit-based and an amazing portfolio speaks for itself. I’m still on my own journey and learning everyday. It does take a lot of effort and sacrifice, but I just see that as life’s test to see how badly you really want it. Other than that, be kind to people, be kind to yourself, and things will come together!”

Note: this story was republished with updates.

Written by:

Mary Findley