When you’re not where you want to be

Pulling a Plant - Eleanor Taylor

The thought about being a landscape architect never once crossed my mind as I was growing up.

I didn’t spend my younger days thinking about how great it could be if I could be one – to spend my time designing gardens, parks and pockets of greens; carrying T-squares, measuring tape, wearing a hardhat and safety boot and all. So what made me write that down when it came to choosing what I wanted to do in university?

It was simple – I didn’t want to be stuck in a lab doing experiments (that’s all I thought scientists-to-be did back then). And I didn’t want to spend my time purely in lecture halls hashing out theories and being spoon-fed formulas. I wanted to learn about art and design, and that course was my one and only ticket.

Oh sure, I could hear you ask – why not just go to a college where you can pay to learn exactly what you want? I got an entry into the local university; and where I come from, to get that was as good as if you had struck lottery. The price of a degree at a private college could cost up to 10 times more than it did at a local university. I wasn’t about to go in debt by choosing to go to a private college, and I didn’t want to let my parents worry about funding expensive tuition fees only to get a piece of paper I might not end up using in the end (I was being realistic).

So I chose the best route to go about it. I knew I liked art and design – and if I were to chose a course within that university, the only one that was available to me was landscape architecture. I could learn about the fundamentals of art and design in a studio environment, I had access to art teachers and designers, I had more flexibility in how I scheduled things (studio-based classes meant that you had plenty of time to experiment with ideas); and I didn’t have to worry about money so much. I told myself I would figure out the rest later.

Four years later, when it came to deciding what I wanted to do after I graduated, I gave myself 6 months – it was when we had to be an intern at a real consultancy firm. The rules I gave myself were simple: give it my best shot, and if I still didn’t feel that it suited me, then I’m free to do whatever that I wanted. Six months passed – the boss’ firm passed me with flying colours and told others that I was one of the best interns he’s ever worked with. I left, happy.

It was also the last time I was a landscape architect.

“Why did you give up your degree?” was the common question I had in that first year after I graduated. “It was four years – all wasted, down the drain,” said others. Even my father was at a loss – he couldn’t understand why I would give up being a landscape architect. I could have a good job, a stable career. A title. I could be a professional. I could be Amy Ng, the Landscape Architect. I didn’t blame them at all – they didn’t know why I did it.

But I did.

Because when I went into the university to do a course on landscape architecture, I wasn’t looking to just be a landscape architect. I was looking to learn. I absorbed everything like a sponge – even the stuff that people didn’t care about. I inhaled snippets of knowledge and sniffed it out whenever I could. Lecturers were held hostage as I left them a barrage of questions. Little wonder that when it came time to decide to narrow down a focus for my final project, I went with campus design. I loved learning that much.

I went to the library often. I didn’t just go there to scoop up the latest architecture tomes – I went in to borrow books on art, illustration, cooking, exercise, writing and technology; all because I was curious. I maxed out my book limit every time because I there were so many things I wanted to know. I didn’t know where all of this digging would lead me, but I knew that deciding on a destination just because I was handed a ticket seemed silly.

Instead, I wanted to make my own fate. I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. And when I look at myself right now I’m still figuring it out – just like everyone else. I try hard to not confine myself to anyone else’s definition of success, and to stay true to myself by constantly asking myself what I want. Being happy was always my goal – and I’ve been incredibly lucky on that front. Somedays I still pinch myself to see if I’m dreaming.

So for those who feel as though they’ve been handed a curveball in life, or that they aren’t in the place that they want to be – I want to tell you this: you can’t control the cards you’ve been dealt, but you sure can change how you choose to deal with it.

Oh, and no one ever asks me about that degree anymore.

SHARE WITH ME:

Have you ever been in a less than ideal situation? How did you make the best of it? Share your story with me below in the comments! 

** NOTE: This post isn’t mean to discourage people to not go to private university or art school – I think that if you can then it’s great, but more importantly, for whatever reason at all that you can’t, it shouldn’t be the excuse that you use to not be able to get ahead. My experience and my views are strictly personal –  being where I am (Malaysia), this is how I chose to deal with my lot, so it bears repeating that my challenges may be different from yours. 

[Illustration by Eleanor Taylor]

Tom Gauld

Tom Gauld

Tom Gauld

I first came across Tom Gauld’s work on Flickr, and once I started looking, I couldn’t stop. Tom works in the UK as a cartoonist and illustrator; counting The Guardian and the New Yorker among his clients. His comics are filled with robots, astronauts hapless personalities that combines innocence with wry wit – there’s so much eloquence in his panels, delivered in a deft swift kick.  I read an interview from 2011 where he talks about what he does, and I wanted to share some snippets of the interview that I thought was really thought-provoking.

On  his working process:

I sit and think and doodle in my sketchbook until I have a good idea. Then I’ll make rough pencil sketches on copier paper till I have things worked out visually. Then I hone these sketches on paper and in photoshop till I have a rough version of the image which I can send to anyone who needs to approve it. Then I will print out the image and use a lightbox to trace an ink version which I crosshatch then scan back into the computer where I can clean it up, tweak bits and add any colour. I love using the computer but I try to stay away from it till I’ve done most of the thinking for an idea, looked at it from all sides, because I feel that once the computer is involved things are on an inevitable path to being finished. Whereas in my sketchbook the possibilities are endless.

 

Tom Gauld

 

On illustrating a book cover versus a cartoon:

I feel more pressure doing a book cover than almost anything else, I think “This author has probably spent years writing this book: I mustn’t mess it all up with a crap cover”. So I have to try and find a way to react to the book and make something which is suitable, but is also strong and interesting in its own way.

Tom Gauld

On how Edward Gorey has influenced his work:

I like that what he makes is unclassifiable: he makes picture books for adults which aren’t comics, many are self-published but they’re beautifully produced. I love his drawing, the odd narratives, the design of the books, the compositions, the hand drawn typography: everything really. The way I crosshatch (with small “patches” of short lines rather than long ones) I learned from Gorey.

On what he thinks is next for books and print:

One thing which might happen with the rise of e-books is that the books that DO get published in paper may have to justify themselves by being better made, designed and illustrated. That would make me happy.

Read the complete interview here. Also: another in-depth interview about his comic-drawing process that’s really good.

Links: Tom Gauld’s website | Flickr

His books: You’re All Just Jealous of My Backpack [Amazon link] | Goliath [Amazon link]

What if you reclaimed your time?

Paul X. Johnson

I made a decision about a month ago to not renew my contract as a creative lead for a PR firm. I had been in the position for only 3 months, but it wasn’t working out for me as well as I had hoped (remember this equation?)

I took it on to help out a friend, who needed someone to help out with the team on fleshing out the creative side of client briefs and campaigns. I was the go-to person when it comes to working out imagery that would work; the piecing together of visuals, style and form to form an effective campaign. That I did.

I went in without knowing if it would work; whether I was up for the job, or if I would fail terribly and end up embarrassing myself and the firm. So I took it on as a challenge. I told myself that it was something I hadn’t tried before (not in a formal capacity anyway) and so ahead I went. It soon dawned on me – it wasn’t whether I was up for the job or not; but in the end it really boiled down to me asking myself, “is this really what I want?”

It came in small whispers – it doesn’t feel right. You’re not happy. I had a knot in my neck that didn’t seem to go away. I felt as though time was slipping away like sand between my fingers as I tried to hold on as tightly as I could. Where did the time go?

Although I loved working with great colleagues, it wasn’t for me; it ate away at the time which I’d rather spend on other things – like Pikaland. Having the amount of hours you could spend on something you love cut short by other commitments really helped me refocus and find clarity. For example, I had been faffing around with the redesign of the blog for a few months, but when I left my position, I instantly got to work and got everything out there within a week. I started with just an inkling of an idea and turned it around into a full-blown working website design within a few days. I felt incredibly happy.

Maybe it was a burst of timely inspiration. And maybe it was. But more importantly, it was me realizing and thanking the universe for the gift of time that has been given back to me. And I didn’t want to waste time in getting back to the work I felt I was meant to do.

When I was working at the PR firm, I asked myself constantly – what could I be doing with my time instead? Don’t get me wrong – having built up a creative direction for a campaign really convinced me of what I was capable of. But I didn’t just want to do work that I was capable of. I wanted to do more. I wanted to do work that thrills me to no end (well, maybe for the most part!) I want sleepless nights not because of clients and their imminent deadlines breathing down my neck – but because I was excited that I couldn’t wait till morning came so I could get right to it.

It was a great opportunity, many people said. “You’re crazy – I would relish the opportunity,” said one. I thought so too – if it were 5 years ago. But the beauty of it was that if it were indeed 5 years ago, I wouldn’t be given the same opportunity. I could only laugh at the irony of it all.

What I gave up might be an wondrous opportunity for others, but I knew it wasn’t for me. So instead of hanging on to a title that would eventually kill me, I’d rather part ways to focus on things that wake me up with purpose. Plus, on the flipside, I like to tell others that it isn’t very nice to hang on to positions/jobs that doesn’t quite fit you – what if someone who really loves it comes along, only to have it occupied by someone else?

I didn’t regret the experience one bit – if anything, I know better what I am capable of. Learning through stretching myself has always surprised me in good ways, and I am grateful for the amazing experience that was offered to me. Rory Cochrane once said: “I do not regret the things I’ve done, but those I did not do.” – and it certainly rang true in my case.

The good thing about having your time given back to you? You’ll appreciate it that much more. I know I do.

SHARE WITH ME:

I’d like to know – if you could reclaim your time, what would you do with it?

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My Work/Art/Play online class will be happening this September! To make sure you’re not missing out on details and to be the first to know when registration opens, click here to sign up! (psst, you can also read up on what our past students thought of it too!)

[Illustration by Paul X. Johnson]
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