What’s it like going from working in Silicon Valley to starting your own welding business? In this episode of Career Relaunch, Zai Divecha, a former software marketer turned metalworker and designer shares her thoughts on what it’s like to be “in flow,” how to prepare for a career change, and the benefits of connecting with liked-minded people.  I also share some thoughts on the difference between doing energy generating vs. energy depleting work.

Key Career Insights

  1. When you’re doing fulfilling work, a “flow state” can emerge, where you lose track of time, reach a state of extreme concentration, and you can actually enjoy thinking about your work at all moments of the day, both the weekdays and weekends.
  2. The emotional highs of running your own business gives you the fuel to navigate some of the inevitable lows.
  3. The fear of the unknown can actually help to force you to really hustle and quickly get the right pieces in place to create the career you want for yourself.
  4. There’s a difference between doing energy generating and energy depleting work. Taking stock of which type of work comprises your days can give you an indication of whether you’re in the right role or not.

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Resources Mentioned


Free Tool: Reenergizing Your Work Days

Mental FuelDuring this episode’s Mental Fuel segment, I talked about the importance of doing energising work. For some help in identifying some ways to do this, you can download a free “Reenergising Your Work Days” Worksheet.

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About Zai Divecha, Metalworker & Designer

Zai Divecha, Elektra Steel

Photos: Ellen Wildhagen, kindredweddings.co

Zai Divecha is a metalworker and designer who learned to weld at the age of 14. She first worked in the tech industry at Box before deciding to return to her metalworking roots in 2014, when she founded Elektra Steel. She now spends her days creating handcrafted steel art and home goods. You can check out more of her impressive welding on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. And to learn more about her story, check out this interview she did in July 2016 after being selected as “Featured Designer of the Week” by Deck Studios in London.

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Episode Interview Transcript

Teaser (first ~15s): The most surprising part is that I think about my work all the time now, and I love it. I love the fact that I wake up thinking about this. I think about it on the weekends. I work on the weekends. It feels like such a gift to be able to think about what I love most.

Joseph: Hello, Zai, and thank you so much for taking a break from your metalworking to join us here on Career Relaunch.

Zai: Thanks so much for having me.

Joseph: I am so excited to have you on the show. When I heard about you, I just had to hear more about your story. I got so many questions to ask you. I don’t even know how we’re going to fit it all in, but can you just start by, first of all, explaining what it is that you do?

Zai: I am a metalworker and a designer, and my background is in TIG welding, which is a specialized form of welding that allows you to weld different kinds of materials and of many different thicknesses. In the past, I’ve done some furniture, some lighting. I’ve done a number of welded, faceted, geometric stainless steel vases and planters and bowls and things like that. Right now, I’m working on a line of geometric wall hangings that are tiled mosaic pieces of steel.

Joseph: How long does it take you to do one of these?

Zai: The design takes either several hours or several weeks, depending on how many design revisions the client asked me to do. The actual cutting, sanding, finishing, staining, waxing, mounting, welding, grinding, all of that, takes about a week.

Joseph: How long have you been doing this?

Zai: I’ve been welding since I was 14 but as a hobby in my free time. I went to an amazing high school in San Francisco that taught metalworking, glass, jewelry, architecture, woodworking, and electronics, and every student had to rotate through all the shops to get a little taste of each one. I absolutely fell in love with metalworking as soon as I tried it. It was just a hobby until fairly recently. About a year and a half ago, I decided to quit my job to do it as a career, which is totally different than doing it as a hobby obviously.

Joseph: Zai, so you’re working on metalworking right now, but just a couple of years ago, you were doing something very different. Could you take me back to the type of work you were doing before you got into welding and metalworking?

Zai: I was on the marketing team at an enterprise offer company called Box. I was in charge of customer marketing, using customer stories to showcase the power of what Box can do for companies in a variety of industries. Literally no overlap with what I’m doing now. I loved Box. I loved the product. I still use it today for all of my work. I love the company. The people were amazing. It was a great community. It was comfortable. It was stable.

The one thing that really got to me though was that I realized that I was never in flow state. I was constantly toggling going between working on a PowerPoint here and doing this quick email, and someone would come over and ask me a question, and I dash to a meeting, and then I pick up loose threads on this project, and I get interrupted.

Flow state is that mental state in which you’re really in the zone, like you’re immersed and you’re engaged or highly focused. It’s often a joyful feeling. Most people experience flow at some point in their life, whether it’s in their gardening or engineers I talk to feel like sometimes they get in flow when they’re really in the zone working through a challenging problem. I definitely feel it when I’m working with my hands, whether I’m knitting or cooking or drawing, painting, welding, making jewelry. I’ve always done stuff with my hands in my free time since I was a little kid, and that’s when I feel the most engaged and focused.

I was thinking like, ‘I wonder if I could create a job for myself where I’m in flow for, if not the day, at least some part of the week would be really, really nice.’

Joseph: I know you mentioned that you started welding when you were 14. Did you ever consider just jumping right into it? If not, what stopped you from doing that?

Zai: Great question. In high school, I had many people ask me, ‘Are you going to apply to art school? You should definitely go to art school,’ because I was already making furniture and art, and I already knew that I loved it more than anything. At the time, I had this naïve impression of what it would mean to be an artist and the kind of life that would involve, and I felt like, ‘I have so many other interests. I have so many other ways that I want to use my brain. Creating art is just one part of how I like to use my brain.’ I didn’t think it would be satisfying.

I went to a liberal arts college. I went to Yale. I studied completely other things in college and in grad school. It wasn’t until pretty recently that I had this somewhat obvious epiphany that being an artist or making something physically with my hands also involves a whole business side of it that I did not even realize. I didn’t realize until I worked at Box that I actually really enjoyed thinking about business strategy, that I would enjoy the marketing, that I would enjoy the sales, I would love figuring out how to run a sustainable business.

Once I realized that there’s that whole side of it, I was like, ‘Maybe this actually would really satisfy my brain in a lot of ways. I would get the creative engagement of working with my hands and designing something aesthetic and visual, but I would also get to switch gears and figure out my marketing strategy, update my social media stuff, figure out what my sales channels are, working with clients, all of that stuff.

Joseph: Can you take me back to the moment right before you made the decision to leave Box and start your own metalworking business? What was going on for you at that time?

Zai: I knew I wanted to leave. I knew I wanted to work for myself. I knew that I wanted to be creative, but I didn’t have an exact plan. I spent about a year getting all my ducks in a row.

I talked to every metalworker that I could get my hands on to ask some questions about their career, how they got started, whether they thought I needed any professional training. Did I need to go to school for this? Should I train under someone else? Should I start my own business? Should I just dive in? Then also about what their sales strategy was, what their business goals are, what the hardest parts were, what the most rewarding parts were. I tracked down every welding instructor that I’ve had to get their advice. I got introductions to metalworkers in LA and visited a number of shops down there. I read books on how to start your own business.

There was an epiphany moment of like, I don’t think I want to be doing marketing at a tech company for the rest of my life, but then the transition spread over at least a year.

Joseph: During that year, you mentioned flow state before and that you were feeling out of flow when you’re doing your previous work. What was that year like for you to continue to be working in a job where you felt like you were out of flow?

Zai: It’s really hard. Whenever you have one foot out the door but you’re not through the doorway yet, it’s hard because you’re focused on the next thing, you’re excited about the next thing, but you still have responsibilities to your current situation. I think that’s whenever you leave a job.

The way that I looked at it was like, ‘I’m at this company. I’m committed to seeing this through.’ I wasn’t leaving because I was unhappy. I was leaving to pursue my passion. It was something that a lot of people, I think, were excited for me, and so I think it made the transition a little bit easier because I could just be really honest with people. I can say, ‘I love this job, and I love what I’m doing here, but I think I could be really fulfilled if I could do this other thing that’s totally unrelated.’

Joseph: Obviously, you had this passion for welding and metalworking, and yet you were continuing to explore and think about whether or not this was going to be the right thing for you to pursue. Was there something in particular that held you back from making the leap sooner? The reason why I ask is because I talk to a lot of people who have this sort of dormant interest or this passion that they’ve been wanting to pursue, but they can’t quite bring themselves to do it. I’m just curious what held you back from making the leap sooner?

Zai: I think a couple of things. One was that I don’t think I would’ve known that I wanted to do this without having worked at Box. There are couple of parts that my experience at Box helped to directly lead me to this. One of them was the interest in marketing and sales. I had only worked at non-profits before this, and so I’d actually never worked at a for-profit until Box. I don’t think I would’ve thought that I had it in me to be an entrepreneur or a small business owner without having grown up in that kind of business setting.

The other experience at Box that I had that helped motivate me to do this was that I ran our company’s cycling team. I started our cycling team to participate in AIDS/Lifecycle, which is a seven-day fundraiser bike ride from San Francisco to LA. It happens every June. It’s 545 miles. We raise money for the San Francisco AIDS foundation in the LA LGBT Center.

The part that was a really important feedback for me was that the fervor with which I dealt with even the most tedious logistical details in running this team made me realize that I am so happy and work so much harder when it’s my own vision. I was coordinating corporate sponsorships. I was hosting events. We’re doing fundraisers. I was organizing training rides, overnight weekend trips, and dealing with all the minutia of getting 26 people prepared to bike and camp for seven days in a row.

Once we’re back, I was like, ‘Wow, I am working really hard, and I wish that I have felt this sense of fervor for what I’m actually getting paid to do.’ That’s when I was like, ‘Maybe I should work for myself.’

Joseph: I know you mentioned you went to Yale for college, and then I know that you went to the Yale School of Public Health for grad school. How did people react to your decision to pursue what you’re doing right now? I guess what’s behind my question is I also went to a school. I went to Northwestern, and there’s a certain amount of expectation about what your career should look like after you finish those types of pre-professional programs. I’m just wondering if you ran into any sort of skeptics or critics along the way.

Zai: Absolutely, at every turn, people are like, ‘You’re going to quit your job to do what? What’s your plan?’ I explained that I tracked down mentors and did inferential interviews and read books on starting a business, that I was really doing my homework and putting together a plan. There’s one more thing that helped with the skeptics. I showed them pictures of things that I’d made, and that often helped change people’s mind faster than anything else because they would say, ‘Oh, wow! That’s actually really good. I would totally buy that.’ I’m like, ‘Okay, good. I’m putting you on my future newsletter list.’

Joseph: Do you feel like people were questioning the type of work that you wanted to go into or were they questioning how good you’re going to be at it? What do you think was behind why people were skeptical?

Zai: It was a total mix. I think they’re skeptical that I could turn this into a sustainable business. They were skeptical that I was going to a career that was very non-traditional. I recently went to my five-year Yale reunion, and I was sort of nervous going into it. I was like, oh my god, I have this Master’s degree that I’m not using at all, and nothing that I’m doing is related to what I was doing in college. Meanwhile, most of my friends, many of them are already practicing lawyers. Many of them are medical residents already. They’re already doctors.

I’ve learned that some people are also skeptical because they wish that they were doing something that they cared about as much as I care about what I am doing. I think many of them express skepticism because they’re like, ‘I have a dream and a passion, but I’m not doing it. What’s stopping me from doing it?’ or, ‘Could I do this?’ I think it makes people think about how much they care about what they’re doing and whether it’s really in line with their values.

I totally recognize that a very small percentage of the population has the financial freedom to be able to take this kind of risk. This isn’t for everyone, and I definitely don’t think that everyone has the ability to just drop everything and start a business based on something that they love. That’s not an option for many people.

Joseph: The idea of going through a reunion is really interesting—I’m actually going, coming up myself—because you’re going to go and see these people who you went to school with and then you’re reconnecting with. I would imagine everybody wants to come across at least seeming like they’re happy with their lives. Was there anything in particular that you observed about the people there in terms of the types of professions they were pursuing and their level of happiness with their work?

Zai: I went into it thinking that I was going to have to prove myself and show off that this is a successful business and prove that my non-traditional path is worthwhile or respectable, but when I got there, it was much more relaxed and genuine, and I felt like people were really authentic about what they liked about their job, what they didn’t like about their job. I definitely connected strongly with the people who had also taken a non-traditional career path. We’re like, ‘Oh my god, you’re also doing something totally crazy that you don’t know anyone else is doing this kind of thing? Cool, let’s talk about it.’ It was fun and people responded much better than I expected to what I’m doing.

Joseph: What do you think has been the toughest part of making this career transition?

Zai: The hardest part has been the emotional rollercoaster. I know that anyone changing careers goes through an emotional rollercoaster, and definitely, anyone who’s trying to start their own business has felt that. Also, I think most creative people feel the emotional rollercoaster as well.

Joseph: Why do you think that is in the creative industry in particular?

Zai: Because there’s some degree of your work that’s your heart and your soul and your vision, and other people may not always like it, and I think there are some element that you feel like your heart’s on the line a little bit. I think the highs are obviously exhilarating, like selling a piece to someone who loves your work and getting money for it. That’s an amazing feeling, but the lows are also pretty low as well. I’ve had some weeks or months that were really hard where I felt a crushing amount of self-doubt or even paralysis.

Looking back now, I can see that those phases were all precipitated by specific events. An especially tricky client project that was really far outside my comfort zone, technically changing metal shops a couple of times. It’s hard getting used to a new environment and a new community. I can see now that they were just growing pains, but at the time, each one felt like a crisis that made me question my decision to do this, like, ‘Can I really do this? Did I make the right choice? I’m never going to make it. I’m never going to make money. This isn’t going to work.’ I took them very personally. Now looking back, I can see that obviously, these were growing pains, and I’m stronger for having gone through them.

The highs and lows of working for yourself, it’s pretty hard because you’re making the decisions. Everything’s up to you. Whether this business succeeds or fails, you’re running the show, so it’s very personal.

Joseph: I think you’re absolutely right, Zai, about when you’re working for yourself, you are definitely putting yourself out there. When people don’t either want your services or they don’t want your products, it’s hard not to take it personally. In those moments where you’re going through those lows, how did you get through that?

Zai: I’m an extrovert, and I’m also an open book, so my strategy in any difficult situation is to connect with people around me, let them know what’s going on, and get their advice. The more I share about what I’m struggling with, the more support I’ve gotten from people around me.

A good example is, last summer, I had an especially tricky client job. It was really outside of my comfort zone. It was technically challenging. The client had high expectations. We also didn’t have a contract in place. I’d never had a contract with anyone before. I talked to a handful of friends who are also freelancers, and every single one of them has faced a client like this, and they all gave me great, practical tips for getting through, what I should do next time. Many of them sent me their sample contracts to show how to set expectations. It was such a lifesaver, and I am so much more prepared for that kind of situation now. I really couldn’t have gotten through it without the support of other creative freelancers.

I think I’ve made a pretty big effort to specifically seek out friendships with other makers and creative freelancers and entrepreneurs. They’ve become a major, major source of support for me.

I have a weekly call with a friend of mine who runs his own wood and metal furniture company. We literally talk through our week’s to-do list. We proofread each other’s newsletters. We problem solve fabrication challenges. We hold each other accountable for setting and reaching our goals. We’re both extroverts who are running our own companies ourselves, and so these weekly meetings have been critical in both of us feeling reenergized, refocused, and not so alone.

Joseph: So you go into starting your metalworking shop, what has been the most surprising part of transitioning into this line of work for you?

Zai: The most surprising part is that I think about my work all the time now, and I love it. At my last job, I used to clock out at the end of the day and try not to think about work as much as I could until I had to. It’s such a joy to care so much about what I’m doing that I’m constantly thinking of either new pieces or new strategies or wanting to learn new skills or getting advice from people. I love the fact that I wake up thinking about this. I think about it on the weekends. I work on the weekends. It feels like such a gift to be able to think about what I love most at all moments of the day.

Joseph: I think that’s amazing because I think it’s really nice once work doesn’t feel like work, and that separation between going to work and having to deal with it just goes away, and it just becomes part of your life, which is a great place to be.

Zai: I want to be clear though that that does not mean that it’s easy or that it’s fun all the time. I want to dispel the myth that being a maker, running your own business is like roses and sunshine all the time because there are many parts of it that are not fun, but the parts that are fun are so worth it and it’s so rewarding that it gives me the fuel to get through the parts that are tricky.

Joseph: In those moments when it is fun, I’d love to just go back to that concept you talked about of being in flow. We’ve talked about being out of flow. Sometimes, people ask me, ‘How can I tell if the thing that I’m doing now is or is not right for me?’ I’m wondering if maybe being able to understand when you are in flow could help people understand when they are doing the right thing. Can you take us through what it’s like for you now to be in flow each day? Can you describe that experience?

Zai: My week is typically broken up into business and computer tasks and then metal shop tasks. My days are kind of every day different. If it’s a computer day, I’m doing design, website updates, product photography, sketching, computer design, things like that. Then I have days where I’m in the metal shop wearing workshop clothes. I’m cutting, grinding, welding, sanding, that kinds of thing. I find that I’m most in flow either when I’m sketching designs or when I’m actually welding or doing metalworking.

The feeling of flow, there’s something really meditative about it. I notice that I’m in flow when I realize like it’s 3:00 or 4:00 p.m., and I forgot to eat lunch. If I’m not in flow, I get hungry very, very, very regularly, like, ‘Okay, it’s lunch time. Got to go eat.’ When I’m in flow, my body is like, ‘What? Oh, we forgot about that. That’s not important.’

Joseph: ‘Forgot to go to the bathroom. Doesn’t matter.’

Zai: When I step out of it and I look back at what I’ve accomplished, I look back at either all the pieces that I’ve cut and sanded and welded, or I look back at the finished piece and I step back, I think like, ‘Wow, this is cool. This is what I envisioned. A few weeks ago, this was a design in my notebook or at a computer, and now, I’m physically holding it.’ I love that moment. It’s very magical. The flow feels like a time warp, like when I’m working and time passes. I just get lost in it. It’s such a good feeling.

Joseph: One of the things that struck me before this call was watching one of your time lapse videos. One of the things that really stood out to me was how singularly focused you were on the object in front of you. I think it just seemed like your eyes didn’t go anywhere else other than on the thing you were working on. It was just a really interesting thing to watch.

When you look back on your career change, what’s something that you wish you had known that you now know?

Zai: Part of me wishes that I could go back and reassure myself that this business is totally going to work, people are going to love your work, you’re going to find customers, they’re going to pay you money, you’re going to wake up every day loving what you do and caring what you do, but I think if I’ve gone back and actually told myself that, I would’ve gotten complacent, and I don’t think I would’ve worked as hard.

The fear of the unknown and the anxiety that I had about whether or not this could work and how it would all work and how the pieces would fit together, that motivated me to learn everything I could, to be really, really prepared, to do my research, to do my homework, to get all my ducks in a row. I think it pushed me much harder, so if I could have the chance, I’m not sure actually if I would go back and reassure myself that this could work and that it could be a fulfilling form of work for me.

Joseph: I also was just curious, what’s the best career advice that you’ve received?

Zai: Do your homework. Talk to as many people as you can who have made this kind of a jump, and ask them the hard questions, ask them what the least favorite part of their day is, ask them what the biggest hurdles have been. Make sure that you go into it with your eyes open, knowing both what the potential is for the benefits and the amazing thrill that you can get from this switch but also the part that’s just really hard work so that you know what you’re getting yourself into.

Joseph: Has there been any particular way that you’ve gone about your days that has worked especially well for you? Has there been anything in particular that you’ve done that you feel has been one of the secrets to you succeeding in this line of work?

Zai: Whenever I come up against something where I’m like, ‘Oh my god, I have no idea how to do this,’ I think when I first started this business, my attitude was like, ‘Oh no, maybe I’ll never figure I out,’ or like, ‘This thing’s really hard and complicated.’ Now, my attitude is, ‘There are thousands of other small business owners. They’ve figured it out before me. I’m sure I can figure it out too.’ I think that confidence has given me a scrappiness that helps me get through a lot of the challenges now.

Joseph: I’ve got to wrap up here by talking a little bit about welding. The reason why is because I just know absolutely nothing about it. I very rarely come across people who are in this line of work, so I’m wondering if you could just tell us a little bit about the process of welding. How do you go from an idea to a finished product?

Zai: I design the piece using CAD software. I make a 3D model of it. I unfold it to get what each of the facets is going to look like. Then I have those parts laser cut so that the parts are really, really precise. I set up the welder. I prefer a method called flash tacking where you just hold the piece and then do a quick spot of heat to fuse the two parts together at one spot. Then I go back and weld all of the corners to seal all the corners up. Then I really get in the zone and just run long welds along each of those edges. The puddle of molten metal is very small. It’s a very precise movement, sitting very still, guiding that little puddle across that seam.

Joseph: Wow, very interesting.

Zai: It’s cool. It’s pretty magical.

Joseph: Do you have a favorite thing to weld?

Zai: I love welding 16-gauge stainless steel. It’s thin-sheet steel. If you’re doing it right, it makes this nice, little rainbow color. It’s very quiet. It’s very smooth, very clean. That’s my favorite material to weld.

Joseph: I watched a video of you doing some of this welding on your website, and I know part of it involves putting on a lot of protective gear, so it’s not for the faint of heart, I think, doing this kind of work. Very interesting. If people want to find out more about you or the work that you do, where can they go?

Zai: They can go to my website. It’s ElektraSteel.com. If you’re interested in seeing behind the scenes photos from the metal shop and from my process, from sketching all the way through to fabrication, Instagram is a great way to stay in touch with me. I’m just @ElektraSteel on Instagram.

Joseph: I can definitely highly recommend that people check out some of your time lapse videos online. They’re mesmerizing to watch. Thank you so much, Zai, for sharing your story with us, talking about flow, how you made this business become a reality and also the importance of doing homework and also teaching us a little bit about welding. Thank you so much for your time.

Zai: Thank you so much for having me, Joseph. This was really fun.

About Joseph Liu

Joseph Liu is dedicated to helping people relaunch their careers and have more meaningful careers. As a public speaker, career consultant, and host of the Career Relaunch® podcast, he shares insights from relaunching global consumer brands to empower professionals to more effectively marketing their personal brands.

About Joseph Liu

Joseph Liu helps aspiring professionals relaunch their careers to do work that matters. As a keynote speaker, career & personal branding consultant, and host of the Career Relaunch podcast, his passion is helping people gain the clarity, confidence, and courage to pursue truly meaningful careers. Having gone through three major career changes himself, he now shares insights from building & relaunching global consumer brands to empower professionals and business owners to build & relaunch their personal brands.