When I was a kid, more than anything, I wanted to be an astronomer. I would lay on the grass in the front yard of my parents’ house in New Hampshire, look up at the stars, and wonder what life was like away from Earth. Every Saturday, I would sit on the floor of my bedroom and eagerly flip through astronomy books as I learned about nebulae and red dwarfs; black holes and asteroids. At night, when I slowly succumbed to the sounds of crickets and the softness of the breeze outside my bedroom window, I would have dreams about discovering new planets. The universe was so vast, so inspiring, so… amazing.
I love telling my stories and I love hearing the stories of others. The woman you see walking her dog every day has a touching story from her childhood about loss. The student at your local coffee shop, who constantly wears headphones and is so focused on the screen in front of him, has as a tale with trials and tribulations that are hard to believe.
It’s always fun to hear the stories of the millionaires and billionaires, the celebrities and VIPs. But everyone has a story to tell, even if you don’t have the shiniest car or thickest wallet–and this inspired me to talk to the “normal,” everyday people around me; to understand what they’ve been through, what their early years were like, what path they took. Like everyone, they’ve been through good times and bad times, tough times and easy times. And I wanted to help them tell their tales.
Our first story begins with Alex Banaga, someone I’m proud to call a good friend.
Alex is an 18-year-old entrepreneur who’s one of the most inspiring, focused, and visionary people I’ve ever met. Having grown up in beautiful Temecula, California (a city known for its wine vineyards, about an hour north of San Diego), Alex decided to skip college, move down to San Diego, and jump right into the professional world.
As soon as you walk in the room, the first thing you’ll notice about Alex is his confidence and his maturity. As he speaks, people gravitate and they’re blown away that this kid–who’s usually half their age!–is accomplishing so much. When he casually mentions that he’s 18, he’s often asked where he goes to college. As he happily says that he skipped university to jump right into the working world people are taken aback.
“First off, my mom and dad never went to college,” Alex says. “So, people I looked up to at a super young age–and I looked up to my mom–hadn’t gone to college.”
“I’m a very ‘all-in’ type of person”
Hearing Alex talk about his college decision was pretty shocking to me. From a young age, I was raised to believe that college was just a part of life and I never, ever questioned missing out.
But, as we kept talking, I started to appreciate Alex’s view.
“I’m a very ‘all-in’ type of person,” Alex excitedly explains. “I’ve been that way since age one. College was a way to stay in that middle ground; it was a way to assure yourself that you’ll be in the middle class. That’s what my perspective was. At a young age, I looked around at the people that inspired me–high thought leaders like Les Brown and David Karp–all these people that were really good at one particular thing, and the funny thing is, they didn’t go to college. When I listened, they said the same thing: they just had to get their feet wet and dive in.”
Most older people I know are beaten down by life; resigned to their boring desk jobs that they hate, only there because of whatever… a lack of courage, bills to pay, family to support… you name it. But not Alex; he speaks with an energy that’s infectious, and he loves what he does.
As confident as Alex was about his decision to skip out on higher education, though, I was curious how his friends and family reacted.
“One thing that really stood out, I came back from spring break [my senior year of high school] and told my art teacher that I wasn’t going to college. She was always outside her class, and she asked ‘how was the art institute?’ and I looked her dead in the eyes and said, ‘I don’t think college is right for me, I don’t want to do it.’ And I saw it in her eyes, the disappointment I brought her; she didn’t say it, but I could hear her saying in my head that she thought I was making a huge mistake, that I wouldn’t be able to make a certain salary, and she wouldn’t want me to go down that path. Every now and then, she would say, ‘are you going to rethink it?’ and she wasn’t supportive.”
And what about positive reactions? Was anyone excited? Did anyone offer their support, or tell him to follow his heart? Here, he was reminded of his mom.
“My mom on the other hand never went to college, she wasn’t scared that I wasn’t going to college, but she was scared that I had never had a job before,” he says with a smile on his face.
“Like, two plus two equals four, and it never changes, and I felt the same with design”
Like the big decisions all of us face in life, some people are supportive while others are dismissive. But to Alex it didn’t matter; he had made up his mind. Now how was he going to put food on the table?
“My grandma was a manager at an AT&T store, ” Alex recalls. “She won a contest, got an Apple laptop, she gave it to me, I started exploring. I don’t know, but I started looking into the web industry and saw how much money was there. I started doing stuff, it came easy to me–I don’t know if it’s a talent or what–but I rode that ship. My brain works a little different. It’s easy for me, web design, I always just knew it. Like, two plus two equals four, and it never changes, and I felt the same with design. There never were any doubts.”
And about six months after Alex graduated high school, his hard work paid off: he was offered a design role at Digital Telepathy, one of the most exclusive and well-respected design firms in the US (you may recognize them for designing Tim Ferriss’ 4-Hour Body and 4-Hour Chef websites). And, if Alex was like most people, it’s here that this story would end.
But Alex isn’t like most people, and six months after joining Digital Telepathy, he quit. A company that people twice his age would have killed to join, a company that gave him a raise three months in because he was doing such great work, a company where he might have been a director if he stayed till 22 (which, as a reminder, is the age most people graduate college)… and Alex left. Why on earth did he quit?!
“I was unhappy. At a young age, there’s a jail we put in our heads. The worst thing to me would be comfortable being unhappy,” Alex says simply. “I was unhappy at DT for five days, and I was out, you know what I mean? And I started feeling how it felt to not be excited about the day; that was a bad feeling I felt in my gut.
“It happened when I couldn’t be myself around my peers and coworkers, and even if that person I was being was someone that people didn’t like, I was happy. I wasn’t being myself, I was unhappy, I was quiet. I gave a speech on Friday [before I quit] to my old high school class, so I felt like shit on Monday, then quit Tuesday, then was out on Thursday. It has to be the fastest leave in history,” Alex says with a laugh.
“But to be honest, I had other stuff. It’s not like I quit and nothing was coming in. I had a lot of other job opportunities, so that was in the back of my mind too.
“So really, a mixture of things: I couldn’t be as creative at DT; I missed having the ability to control my time; I had other opportunities so I wanted to play with those. I had been there for five months, I understood the highest thing I could be there was an art director and that just didn’t excite me.
“I don’t want to sit there for six more months and wish I would have quit five months ago. I had an opportunity to make a little more money working on my own and I said, I’m going to do it.”
“Go where you’re celebrated, not tolerated”
Over the past year, Alex made a few unpopular decisions: first by skipping college; and second by quitting Digital Telepathy. In a world filled with so much negativity, I was insanely curious how Alex kept those negative thoughts at bay. How did he re-frame any self-sabotaging thoughts? How was he able to stay focused and ignore the noise around him?
“To get out of negative thoughts, I look at who I’m surrounded with at that point and ask myself, do I want to be where anyone is at at the age they’re at? If I didn’t want to be in their shoes, right?” Alex says slowly, paying close attention to every word he’s saying. “Another thing is to go where you’re celebrated, not tolerated. At [Digital Telepathy] I was tolerated, when I met my [new freelance client], I’m celebrated. Am I going to stay somewhere where I’m constantly critiqued?”
All in all, it’s been about a year since Alex graduated from high school. As so many of his friends are partying in college, or about to take summer vacations to exotic locations in Europe, Alex is grinding away and molding the next chapter of his life. What’s his next big step? What’s he doing now that he wasn’t doing a year ago?
“A year ago, I was studying what made designs pretty and stand out. I understand that at a level now where I’m comfy where my designs are as far as prettiness. What can I design now that can be scalable? A year ago, I saw it as an art. Today, still as an art, but I’m pushing myself to understand it as a business.
“I would also like to learn how to be more creative. It’s not a skill you learn from someone else, it’s a skill you just have to play with. When someone says, ‘Alex, I want this’ and they know exactly what they want, and they do a really good job communicating, when they have a good idea, I want to do a better job at getting it from my brain to the canvas. If I do that it makes me a better designer.”
If the past is to believed, Alex will have no trouble making an impact on the world; whether it’s unpopular or not. And I can’t wait to see what he does.
You can find out more about Alex on his Dribbble account. Special thanks to Alex for agreeing to sit down and have this interview.
QoD: Do you know anyone with a great story? It could be the lady in the apartment next door, your local postman, or someone else. What’s their story?
 This was the craziest thing to me: Alex recognized he was unhappy, and then five days later he quit. No hesitation, no doubts, Alex’s gut instinct and threshold for doing uncomfortable things is insanely high.