Start Fresh

Life is about change. While we’re usually focused on the shifts of home renovations around here, we know that change occurs in many forms: relationships, careers, and neighborhoods are but a few. In a monthly series called “Start Fresh,” we’ll explore the different ways someone can put a new coat of paint on their life, and how that decision shaped their current reality.

I have given myself permission to remake my life three times. The first time, I left my identity behind. The second time, I said goodbye to financial security. And the last time, I embraced creativity above all else. 

My first identity was cultivated immediately after college, when I spent 14 years operating and then owning the independent San Francisco record shop, Aquarius Records. My employees and I evangelized the music we loved—Ethiopian jazz, Jamaican rocksteady, Brazilian Tropicalia, and even Norwegian black metal. Building community and providing a space for good music to thrive was enormously satisfying, but after all that time, I was increasingly curious about how the rest of the world lived. 

Nevertheless, I couldn’t let go of my first identity easily. Almost two decades of my life were wrapped up in being “Windy from Aquarius,” who knew all the ins and outs of the indie music scene. This person was my first adult self, and she helped me express not only what I cared about, but who I wanted to be. It was everything I knew at the time, and it’s scary to walk away from the familiar. But in order to leave the record shop, I had to let that identity go. 

When I sold the record store, I made a deal to receive the payments divided into twelve monthly installments. I had no idea what to do next, and this plan bought me time. Careful planning in the beginning of a new venture can ease the fear of not knowing what comes next. After all, there’s an unrealistic amount of pressure placed on people to figure out what they want when they’re busy working full time.

It was everything I knew at the time, and it’s scary to walk away from the familiar. But in order to leave the record shop, I had to let that identity go. 

The record store was one of my dream jobs. But I was also a massive Apple fan, so I was thrilled when another dream job came into view at that very company. It was the early days of iTunes and Apple needed experts—people with deep knowledge and passion for music, like me—to build the store. I got the job and started producing iTunes Essentials, which was basically the Apple version of a mixtape. Eventually, I worked for the largest campaigns and brand partnerships at iTunes before moving on to the App Store once the iPhone debuted.

I loved working for a company whose mission and products I believed in (and still do). But after eight years, I realized that I was gazing longingly at the tangible objects people were making and posting on social media while I toiled at a computer keyboard. I was envious. The fatigue of working for a large company had set in, and my satisfaction had eroded. 

One day, while at work, I had a moment of clarity that explained my feelings of envy. I had spent both of my careers supporting the creativity of other people, and almost no time supporting my own. I gave notice not even a month later, and said so long to my second life of financial security. 

Eight years is a long time to get a steady, fancy paycheck. And obviously, financial security is a big deal. I come from a middle-class family of immigrants. My dad and brother joined the U.S. military and I worked to put myself through college. The record store had been a labor of love with colleagues—which is code for I never made much money. But my heart wasn’t in my job anymore. I remember thinking that a job is like a relationship: I shouldn’t cling to it when I’ve fallen out of love. I knew my boss was never going to invite me to quit. My parents were never going to say, “Why don’t you stop collecting that paycheck?” No one was going to give me permission to leave this “impressive” existence. I had to give it to myself.

close up illustration of white knot

My third life would prioritize my creativity above all else, and I would figure out how to make a living at it no matter what. 

When I told my risk-averse Chinese parents I was leaving Apple, I could have lost their approval. Was I scared? Yes, but only because I didn’t know what was next. I found some comfort in knowing that my decision to leave the record store had led to my second life at Apple, and I assured myself that I could do it again. My third life would prioritize my creativity above all else, and I would figure out how to make a living at it no matter what.

The following years of creative exploration took me to a lot of new places—mostly art classes, teaching woodcarving, and making functional products—and then my “lightbulb moment” happened. I had the idea to teach myself one new knot every day of 2016, and then share my work on Instagram. By the end of the year, I had attained fluency in the universal language of knots, honed my artistic voice, and created a monumental installation of 366 knots that stands on its own as a single work of art. Last year, my book, The Year of Knots, was published. 

Today, making art full time provides me with an abundant livelihood in the most expensive city in America. I’m grateful for the small steps and gut-decisions that brought me to where I am. Knot by knot, and day by day, I created the three biggest chapters of my life. And this current one could be my best yet. 

About

Windy Chien

Artist Windy Chien is best known for her 2016 work, The Year of Knots, in which she learned a new knot every day for a year. Following careers at Apple and as owner of legendary music shop Aquarius Records, she launched her studio in 2015. Select clients include IBM, the National Geographic Society, and the Kering Group, and her work has been covered by Wired, The New York Times and Martha Stewart. Windy’s book about her work was published by Abrams in 2019.

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