Discovering Difference with Jessie Lian

“As a child, I was always wanted to be different. But I was too afraid, because I cared a lot about what other people thought. I remember super vividly when people would make fun of me for being Asian or for not wearing some kind of Abercrombie clothes.”

Jessie Lian is like salmon.
Swimming upstream, fighting currents, and pushing up against everything for a purpose, even she ends up a little bruised and bloodied. She steps back, heals, then swims again. Resilient, fierce, multi-faceted.

In middle school, Jessie joined the step team, “because I was like no Asian is going to join the step team so I’m going to do so little things like that. It had a lot to do with my wanting to push against Asian stereotypes, so it was I’m going to be a writer or someone who is good at the arts instead of math.”

In college, Jessie pursued a degree in Management Information Systems, because everyone thought she would major in journalism. “And it was such a weird thing, because I think I was always functioning under, I want to do what people don’t expect, instead of what is actually true to me as a person, but at the same, I always talk about, oh in college, I wasn’t authentic to myself. But I was, based off of what I knew about myself.”

But Jessie was on to something. Inspired by Chik-Fil-A’s Truett Cathy, she saw him in the business world focusing on purpose versus profit. MIS became an avenue for social good and belief in potential growth.

It’s pushing back against expectations that took Jessie her from there to a business consulting group then graduating from General Assembly in UX Design.

What catalyzed the switch?
Quitting a job and making a bunch of mistakes while traveling the world on her own: 

“An example of that is… I went to Yosemite, and I backpacked by myself for a week. I didn’t know anything about backpacking and didn’t know how to make a fire and was really under prepared. I brought a 55 degree sleeping bag, and it was snowing. Also, I brought a little camp stove, but the entire park was out of fuel. So the only way to make food or be warm was to make a fire, but again I don’t know how to make a fire. And my tent was a summer tent.

It was just a series of so many mistakes, but it was one of those things that I learned to just make fun of myself and not take myself so seriously. 

At first, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, all of my pride is being shot right now. I didn’t even realize this, but I came on this trip because I wanted to show people again that I’m this great adventure woman, that I can do these things by myself, and I’m independent.’

But to have failed so miserably and then to still realize, ‘Oh I am still okay as a human being.’ In fact, I felt very joyfully liberated from having to do A, B, and C, especially when in the wild and there’s really no expectations except for just being with the trees and the mountains and survival.”

Jessie returned, and quit her job. After surviving the wild and her travels abroad, no fear seemed to hold up anymore. She finally pursued an inkling for design, “being confident in my creative ability and not always comparing my creative self to other creative people. Really, really trusting in the growth as almost the end goal and not the end goal as the end goal. 

I’m always saying I’m not there yet, I’m not there yet, therefore I’m not this or I’m not worth that. But to realize you’re probably never going to get there, that’s a beautiful thing.

I’ve always longed and ached for things, and I still do now. But I think it’s a beautiful thing to say okay, ‘Let’s take a step back and realize that what you’re going through with this growth, and this progress is you satisfying a bit of that ache.'”

How do you think this focus on being different helped you and hurt you?

“Hurt me in the sense that I was functioning off external factors, so I never really knew who I was, because I was always so concerned with who I was compared to other people.

But it was healthy in the sense of realizing that about myself recently, and kind of exploring what does it mean to be different, without necessarily letting it be dependent on what others are already doing. Just different in terms of Jessie-different, just as how anyone is different already by default, because they’re a human being. Living in that mindset, or else, it’s exhausting.”

What made you choose UX design from all of the options out there?

“Well it wasn’t until my first day of class that I realized how perfect UX design was. I just knew that it seemed like a good first step in getting into the creative space. But on the first day of class, I realized that it’s this blend between business and human behavior/psychology and research and data analysis and visual aesthetics and creating something that someone wants or needs. Doing something with purpose, which is something I’ve always inherently craved is doing meaningful work. By nature, UX is that but also a blend of all these interests and passions that I’ve always had, I just never knew that a field existed out there that could combine everything, so it’s awesome.”

You have just so many passions, but tell me about one of your recent passion: yoga. You’re now a yoga teacher!

“Yes! The reason I love yoga is because it forces you to be still and check in with your body and your soul and mind and make sure everything is still okay in there. My default is to function out of external factors, so it is so important for me to go into myself and practice a sense of balance as well, instead of being so extreme all the time in my emotions and passions.

To have a grounding place on my mat has been keeping me stable and sane in so many ways. Yoga gives you a sense of stillness. It aligns your spiritual, mental and body selves, so you feel a sense of wholeness by yourself. And for me, it’s been super spiritual, the Lord has been meeting me on my mat. It gives space for the Holy Spirit to begin talking to you, and your body is in a space that is more willing to listen and to hear.

Because you’re able to give yourself that space, you’re able to give people a fuller version of love, because I feel whole all by myself already, I don’t need anyone to fill that in me anymore.

It’s so healthy, and I want to share that by teaching yoga as well.”

Do you feel like because you’ve been battling seeking acceptance from external factors for your whole life, the battle has become one of your passions, and maybe your purpose as well?

“Ah, I actually have never made that linkage, so that is really awesome that I get to reflect on that now.”

It’s pretty clear!

“Yeah, that’s awesome, because I think that these past few months have been filled with so much self-discovery. And I think it’s time to turn that around, and be more outward again. Being internal is only half the journey, I feel.

I feel like I’m in that process of turning, and that is a really good little trigger. Because I do think, even in the church, as a mentor in high school and college, that was always one of the I wanted to tell the girls, your identity is in Christ. For me, that was such a big thing while not knowing who I was. As I’ve been stepping more into what that actually means, I think I’m finding my passions in helping other people find that too. Thank you for that discovery.”

Yeah, of course. Along the same vein, how important do you think it is for someone to understand who they are? Because in this time where everything is so fast and asking us to define ourselves in 140 characters, we’re not really given space to ask, who are you really.

“Yeah, absolutely. It’s so funny, because I remember, in eighth grade on Facebook, spending so much time crafting that bio. And I would always go back and read it to almost validate myself.

I realized in college that I’m not going to do social media in the ways I’ve done it before, because it’s been so toxic of me, always trying to put out things always for the sake of being received.

I think it takes a lot of intentionality to understand, because everything is asking us what are you, what are you doing, blah blah. You feel pressured to come up with something quickly without taking the time to be still and reflect and have the courage to be by yourself for an extended period of time, and I think the fact that we don’t spend time by ourselves or even always posting on social media, ‘Oh I’m by myself right now,’ things like that. It just doesn’t make it easier.”

I feel like it takes courage also to say that we don’t know either.

“It’s so true. Ah, I think the older we grow, the more we realize that we don’t actually know who we are and the more okay you are with that space. It’s a goal for me to become that kind of safe space for people.

What do you dream for yourself?

“I know that before, my answer would have been very tangible things, but recently, I’ve been learning to let go of those very specific things. I mean they’re still there, but also being able to let go of what a specific dream looks like and just have a vision for what I want to feel, like I want to present all the time. I want to have a daily practice of meditation and yoga everyday, I want to value things that are truly important and be a citizen of my city. Very intangible but also things that I can walk toward and know that I’m walking toward them right now and be okay with that.”

What do you dream for the world?

“Oh man, that hurts to think about.

That question requires a lot of hope, that things can change in the world, and that I could have a part in it.

I know that I had that hope before, and maybe it was a very egotistical pride of I want to be able to say that I’m doing this for the world, but I think that recently it’s been hard to feel hope on such a grand level because of how hopeless I feel with the times.

In the space that I’ve been, I haven’t been reading the news, because I’m afraid if I look too long in the face of that I’m going to met with an abyss of empty darkness. I’m just too afraid to go down that path and then also, I’m afraid that it will be a trigger for depression if I’m not actively fighting it with the hope that I truly believe in.

I am currently trying to start small and thinking about the positive impact that I could have in the city of Atlanta and how to be a part of that and slowly making my way to thinking about the world again, because if I do that now, I will easily go back into depression. But also filling my heart with true tangible hopes and actually believing in them so that they’re strong.”

Yes, serving yourself well, so that you have space to serve others.

“That’s definitely the space that I’m in. My hope has always been to live in a foreign country, I’ve always had a passion for that to travel and know different cultures and maybe that is just in Atlanta and Buford Highway and things like that but maybe it also is going to China.”

So what are you struggling with right now?

“I guess, staying present. And not getting too ahead of myself to the point that I dismiss what’s happening right now and today.

I mentioned this, but with my new job, it’s really scary because after choosing to make so many changes in the world of my career, it’s like, okay I should’ve arrived at a certain place at this point. But I feel like I’m always evaluating, is this where I need to be to get to the next place and then get to the next place? Then I feel like if it’s not the right place, I get super anxious and reevaluate and then it turns into a weird going overboard, doing all these random things that aren’t helping anyone or become super melancholy, depressed and apathetic, or I just indulge in drinking and eating lots of things. I have such a hard time with balance. Just being present and being happy in that.

Being so inward, it’s important to have something to give again but also, it can feel so hopeless. It’s all the more important to see how light is breaking through everyday,

how God is breaking through and how he is working things to a greater purpose and fixing things. It can be so hard to see that especially if I’m not trying.

dear jessie,

whatever you do, don’t forget to hope.

whenever you get that achy feeling that makes you feel like an empty void, hope. whenever you feel like screaming into your pillow angry obscenities, hope. whenever you want to roll up in a useless ball in the corner of your room, hope.

whenever you feel discontent, hope. whenever you feel apathetic, hope. whenever you feel ashamed, hope. whenever you feel suffocatingly alone, hope.

hope in the strength of others to help you through, hope in the love of God to carry you past. hope in the simplicity of the present to bring you joy, hope in the expanses of this earth to teach you what’s wildly free. hope in what is lasting and infinite, hope in what is good and pure.

squeeze every ounce of hope out of your tiny little body, then plant it and watch it steadily grow into strong and organic joy. crush those fearsome weeds before they even take root, and let the fruition feed your hopes, and your hopes the fruition.

not everything needs to be so serious, jess, not everything needs such eloquent answers.

but hope.

with a love that I think is growing,


photos by Gina Yu ©2017

Jessie, you are luminous. Undeniable, catalyzing, dazzling, warm. Thank you for the ways you search yourself and then search the world— for meaning and for goodness. 

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One thought on “Discovering Difference with Jessie Lian

  1. I stumbled across this post while searching online for this quote by Richard Rohr: “Life is not a matter of creating a special name for ourselves, but discovering the name we have always had.” This post was one of the top hits and it looked interesting, so I read it. I’m so glad I did.

    Jessie, you eloquently articulated a lot of what I’ve been experiencing as a young 20-something who is utterly confused about my life direction. I love what you said about not comparing your creative self and trusting that growth is as important as the end goal. Your words about turning internal growth around to face outward again also really resonated with me. There was something uncommonly genuine and insightful about your words, and then I smiled big when I read that you’re a believer. 🙂 I love your story, and also, your purple hair is awesome!

    Gina, thank you for using your gift with words to relate some authentic conversations. I read your other posts, and you should know that an Internet stranger has been blessed by each one. 🙂


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