Dear students: Create your own opportunities

Dear students,

Time and again I hear about your laments; accompanied by the hand-wringing and wails of despair – “how will I ever survive out there in the real world? How can I ever compete? I don’t know where to start, or where to go. I’ll be eaten alive and spat out by the system within the year and whatever love I had for art/illustration will wither and shrink up like tomatoes left out in the sun for too long”. [okay, the tomatoes were my words, not theirs].

I’m used to being a little on the edge. Heck it’s been almost 5 years since I last had a proper desk job where I get a stable paycheck at the end of each month. If I had a penny each time someone comes up to me and said “it must be nice being your own boss,” I’d be filthy rich by now. Like those out there like me, who are freelancers, we know that we have to work at it, everyday. Most of the time, we have to work harder than those who have a check waiting for them at the end of each month, because if we don’t go out there and hustle, there’s not going to be anything waiting for us except a cool glass of water (no offense to those who work on regular full-time work!)

People do this for many reasons – perhaps they make more money this way. Or they’re happier. Or they want to change the world. Or perhaps they’re looking for flexibility in their schedule that wasn’t available to them before. Whatever your reasons, if you want to have a proper go at having a meaningful career, you have to hustle and create your own opportunities.

So here’s a list of what you can do when you get out of university. For those who are driven, do all these before you get out and get a head start:

Take on a less demanding job while you hustle. If you like the idea of getting your work out there, get a second job to survive and work on your craft during whatever time you have left over. If I hear moans of not having time, my reflex automatically veers towards giving you a good smack up the head. Because that’s an excuse for being lazy. And laziness won’t get you anywhere.

Have a web presence. Create an online portfolio. Use services like Behance or Cargo to get your site running in less than a week. Don’t know how to go about it? Google is your best friend. Again, don’t be lazy.

Don’t mope, moan or complain. Just do it. If you’re forever frozen because you’re scared of what bad things might happen – you’ll never get anything done.

Turn off the computer. Unplug. Get some fresh air. Information overload can cause serious I-can’t-do-it-itis because you’re just consuming instead of creating.

Don’t limit yourself by thinking local. Think global. The internet has opened up so many opportunities to show your work out there. And so many people are using this opportunity. Remember that it’s merely a tool; a portal if you will – you’ll still need to work up your courage to step through it. And then show them the best of what you have. Read this timely article by Derek Sivers about choosing to be local, or going global.

Create your own opportunities. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there, like what Johanna Basford has done here (see video above). Some people say that you shouldn’t do the work before being commissioned and with a piece of paper in your hands. Bullshit. Be generous – show what you can do first, especially people are unsure about your capabilities or when you have nothing to show but a bunch of student work (which you think could be better). Be smart about it though – show that you can solve problems, not just make pretty things that can be recreated by an intern. If you’re good, there’s plenty more where that came from, so don’t be afraid to open up.

Change the world. Have something to say. Be an active participant in life, and be the change you want to see in the world [Mahatma Gandhi]. Blaze your own trail – don’t be afraid to create works that speak of your passion for a better future.

If only you can see yourself as how I see you. There’s so much potential in each of you that I am thrilled to watch you grow. But right now all I can do is to make you believe in yourself and to let you see what you’re capable of – the rest is up to you.

{Video: The Starbucks (inky) Red Cup from Johanna Basford on Vimeo.}


Every week, I teach about the creative process of illustration at a local college. And when I come home, I realize that I’ve forgotten to point this out, or to remind them about something. Dear Students serves as my own personal compilation of thoughts, and is a series dedicated to students around the world who might find my musings useful. 

11 Replies to “Dear students: Create your own opportunities”

  1. Ellen says:

    🙂 Thank you, madame professor!

  2. This is so inspiring! Just the kick I needed to start my day. Thanks 🙂

  3. Kazz says:

    Just the article I needed to read 🙂 Concise and inspiring 🙂

  4. Cecilia says:

    True to the core, thanks for your inspiring words Amy!

  5. Nicely said. I tell recent grads to get a job working full time with a company that hires freelance illustrators. That way they will learn the business from the inside out. This is what I did when I graduated many, many years ago. Having been the person receiving and working with artists’ freelance art, I know how art directors want to receive art and what happens to the art once it gets in the clients hands (both the good and the ugly). The lessons I learned back then have definitely contributed to my success as a freelance illustrator today.

  6. Thaaaaank you! I’ll read this every morning with:)

  7. LOVE this post! And I couldn’t agree more… you have to work really hard to get where you want to be! No messing about just get out there and do it! Luckily I won’t get a smack in the head… hilarious 🙂

  8. Yeah! Go for it, make your dreams come true. It’s not easy and it might take a while, but it’s good to do 🙂 I’m working hard and I’m proud of myself!

  9. Pfefferminzia says:

    Thanks a lot for this article, I just found your article and I really want to become an illustrator. I’ve had some downs lately but I realized that I’m really ambitious about becoming an illustrator so I’ll do it one way or another. So reading your articles is like having the mentor all we newbies wish for, thank you.

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