I like to challenge conventions and ideas all the time.
And one of the topics that I can quickly get hot under the collar about is the topic of education. I think it’s a field that needs to be challenged, especially in this day and age where information runs freely and so abundantly. I’m not against the idea of learning. Far from it – I’m challenging the idea that learning needs to be in a formal environment, for a minimum of 2 to 3 years, learning about things that ultimately do not help you get to where you want to be.
You see, I get a lot of questions about pursuing a Masters degree, or even a diploma in a field that they love. And if you’re a student who knows what you want, and you have the means to go to a college or university, then by all means, go for it. But only IF you want to and feel very strongly about it and know what you want to get out of it. For the rest who don’t know what you want or can’t afford to go to college or university, then this article is for you. For those of you who don’t know whether to continue your education or not, then this is for you too.
I spent 5 years in a public university and graduated as a landscape architect back in 2004. I spent my life following a very predictable arc – primary school, high school, university, and then work. Only I didn’t work in the field that I graduated from. I felt that I didn’t belong, and after 6 months of intense internship where I gave it my best shot, I’ve deduced that I’m not suited to being a landscape architect. I hated the long hours, and the red tape that governed each project. I hated dealing with contractors and having my design torn to shreds due to shrinking budgets. And I hated AutoCAD with every fibre of my being. So much that I did my technical drawings manually (i.e. completely by hand) during my final semester when everyone else was doing theirs via computer.
So when I graduated, I turned to publishing immediately. What made me go to a publisher with nary a resume and no work history to prove my worth? Instead of focusing on what I didn’t have, I demonstrated what I could do instead. I wrote up an article and laid it out in Adobe Photoshop, to give an idea of the sort of articles I think should appear on the magazine. I got a callback for an interview and was hired on the spot as an editorial assistant. You wouldn’t believe the amount of push back I got from my peers and my parents about going for a job that I didn’t learn about in university! People said it would never work, and that no one would hire me – not without a Mass Communication or a journalism degree. I challenged it and proved them wrong. Heck I even went on to start a magazine for a publisher, and worked as an editor!
Was my 5 years spent in university a complete waste of time? I’d say it’s split down to 50-50. Back then we didn’t have choices. And the internet was still in its infancy. So we followed along a very linear path – one that our peers took. And the ones that our seniors followed before that. I wish that I could cut the time I spent in uni in half, but it wasn’t something that I could control. I wished that I had travelled more and explored student exchange options overseas. But that’s basically it. The upside which I could control: I’m grateful for learning a bit more about fine arts, design and the experience of working in a studio, and for the friends I made along the way. I made sure I was in control of what I wanted to learn – I enrolled in a degree that taught me the basics of design and art, even though deep down I knew that I might not work in the field I studied in. The reasons for doing so was a little complicated – I didn’t have access to a lot of courses in public university, and I didn’t go to a private college because of financial restraints (I didn’t want to get myself or my parents in debt). I made sure that the lessons I learnt, however, can be applied to virtually anything I was interested in life.
And that’s what I want people to know.
That you’re in control of what you do. That you can choose to learn at your own pace and to create your own outcome. That you don’t need a title to define yourself – you’re better off focusing on the things you want to learn, rather than what you will be at the end of a degree. That you’re no longer following a linear path – you have a wide open field at your disposal. And yes, that may be terrifying at times, but it’s also a very exciting time.
I set up this blog in 2008 precisely because I didn’t know much about illustration. I wanted to learn more from the artists I saw online. I saw their work, and I devoured their statements and went looking for patterns in their work so that I could try to get a glimpse of why they chose to create the way they do. It was always about ideas, and never about techniques for me. And so for 5 years (it’s approaching 6 now!) I learnt on my own. I saw thousands of illustrations, read thousands of bios, artists statements and concepts; talked to hundreds of artists and learnt what I could about the business. And I want to give back to people, and show others that it can be done.
Here’s another example: 8 years ago, I learnt about HTML and CSS. And PHP. I remembered that I was so frustrated for three months because I couldn’t grasp the idea behind a content management system (CMS) – this was before the heyday of WordPress – and I wanted to have a blog designed the way I liked it but I couldn’t afford a web developer. And I couldn’t tolerate the ugly designs of shopping carts back then so I had to customize my own. I wrote to developers instead, asking about the big picture and why I can’t seem to wrap my head around the core function of a CMS. I asked people in forums newbie questions, and continued my relentless pursuit of information. And then one night in an eureka moment it all came together for me – I could piece together the information because I now understood what it all meant. I happily went to work on the website and learnt bit by bit everyday.
And it was the best feeling in the world – the thought that I could do whatever I wanted, if I put my heart into it.
And so can you.