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.


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]

8 Replies to “When you’re not where you want to be”

  1. Wow, what an incredibly well written and thoughtful post.

    I took “the practical” route for quite awhile as well. I went to art school and left thinking making a living as an artist was an impossibility (I should mention I studied fine art). I moved to San Francisco and took a job at was, at the time, a financial services firm housed in a quirky brick building. I passed the next 8 years trying to fit into the corporate mold for the sake of a comfortable paycheck. I took every opportunity I could to insert creativity into that job… I redesigned PowerPoint templates, made the quarterly Capital Markets Review look as enticing as I could, spent hours perfecting the design of our annual holiday cards…

    But there was something missing. I woke up one morning early 2009 and had a serious conversation with myself. I couldn’t do it anymore. I needed to do what felt right – I needed to try and make a go of it with my art. So, I spent the next 9 months squirreling away every last penny that I could and as of October 1, 2009, I made the leap into making my art my focus,

    I’ve never regretted that decision. In the face of an economic downturn, I didn’t let fear of not making it keep me at a job that wasn’t fulfilling. Life is too short. Sure, I’ve had to make sacrifices, but I honestly love what I’m doing now and am immeasurably happier than I was when I was making 10x as much.

    1. amy says:

      So happy to hear your story Maggie! I’m all for serious conversations – I don’t think it’s been done enough, really (too hard, too little time, etc). So kudos to you!

  2. Rore says:

    Hi Amy

    I never understood the weight of higher education and why it is today of such importance( in the past also ?).
    You yourself are probably a voracious autodidact in that you would learn whether you were in university or a part time job. University does put us close to like minded professionals in the industry and this brushing of shoulders is important. And it certainly tips the scales in terms of work placement, unfortunately sometimes.

    Yet isn’t the more important and probably hardest thing to know what it is that we should pour our valuable life into? What form of expression we can harness that will best pass on our intent?
    And the only way to find this is experience, in life.
    I spent time post high school in a music college, great, but I’m not a musician though I play almost religiously. Music school – good times hey, having fun but mostly time spent in library by the river studying, studying, storing away like a squirrel. For what, don’t know but, must consume knowledge., for that time..

    Now music school finishes, and into the unknown, to music ? maybe. but no, to work.
    Fruit picking from NZ to Australia, two years circumfrencing Australia’s great (xpansive) coastline, solitary mostly, work, repetitive and physical, driving towards a kind of meditative state. Oranges,oranges oranges. Six days a week, one day to visit the bank and have a chocolate thickshake in town. University ? why not, I studied the zen of manual labour and the works of the golden age of russian literature by torchlite in a petrochemical tent. Gorky, Dosteovsky, Solzenhitzin. Slept under a desert oak and cooked over a wood fire in a salvaged plough disk.

    What we take from such times seems immeasurable.

    But does it transfer?

    Creativity seems to me unbounded. When we truly believe in our work it can erupt from any avenue, having outlets that are already practiced and developed can be an advantage but the rawness of an unpracticed and limiting outlet can be sometimes present the most real of art. *Genuises and prodigies being exceptions for this an most generalities*

    To cover your question of a less than ideal situation, – fruit picking was like meditation after a while, the continuity of it, life in the outdoors in a big sky country, nights amid the desert of the real. But what is the use of this experience if we cannot pass on some of what we have been given the grace of seeing. Sacrifice. We give it up, the comforts, the paycheck, the continuity. The road opens up, the unknown, the chance of failure.
    We take a plunge towards what we believe will best pass on the gifts we have been given.

    Now I write sometimes for my weblog, draw more, play plenty of music, run a small business, write music reviews, photograph nature and sometimes forget to brush my teeth. In the big city Melbourne.

    Thanks for reading.

    1. amy says:

      Lloyd, thank you for sharing your insights! To me life is a tangle of strings, of experiences – some that lead to others while there are threads that seem to be experiences unto their own. Sometimes, one string leads to another, and yet some do not – and that is okay. So yes, I believe it does transfer; even if those experiences doesn’t change the environment or the fate one is dealt, it changes us. Even if we don’t know it.

  3. Dana says:

    I like your statement: You can’t control the cards you’ve been dealt, but you sure can change how you choose to deal with it. When I choose how to deal with my deck of cards, I try to make the very best of whatever situation I am in at the moment. I concentrate on the present. I seek resources. I take logical steps toward improving my situation, letting the universe meet me in the middle. I work at having a positive, hopeful mindset. I learn as much as I can from every situation (bad or good). I move forward.

    It has been difficult for me to receive and accept “what is” rather than complaining or trying to change it. But the more I accept and don’t judge, the better I feel and the more I get out of life. There are so many miracles in life, and I find it uplifting to take the time to be still and receive them. When I stop the merry-go-round and just sit on the bench for a minute, I receive amazing insight, inspiration, ideas, and hope that propel me forward in my life.

    1. amy says:

      What a beautiful explanation of the process Dana – I love the bit where you mentioned “I take logical steps toward improving my situation, letting the universe meet me in the middle.” I think that’s all we can hope to do.

  4. Hedy says:

    It’s fate that I happened on this article. I recently graduated with a degree in animation but after my past internship at a studio, I decided that studio life wasn’t for me. Meanwhile, I’d been teaching art on the side for years and realized my career dream was right in front of me all along. I’m now a future teacher for Teach For America Corps and hope to freelance my art. Thanks for the great article. It made me feel more confident in my choice.

  5. Hi Amy,

    I’m so thrilled to have found your blog and to hear your story. Until now it’s felt as though NOBODY understands my mindset or the choices I’ve made. I studied sociology and psychology at university but soon after graduating I realised that my life lacked creativity. So, like you I was handed a ticket but wasn’t too sure about the destination. You see, here in the UK you can receive funding for a second degree in a limited number of subjects, namely medicine, science and architecture. I chose architecture thinking it would be the closest thing I could get to an art degree.

    While I remained a strong member the group, I realised that my strengths lay in the conceptual aspects of the course, i.e. sketchbooks/illustration, artist research, documenting my processes and presenting my ideas to people. The technical side of architecture and final outcomes were never very interesting to me. So I left after completing my first year and joined an amateur theatre company in my home town as a voluntary set designer.

    My theatre work has led to postgraduate research into community-based arts, performance design and more recently, dance culture. I’ve never been more happy! The only thing that bothers me is when people say, “what is it you’re doing now?” I never really have an answer for them. I mean, what do I call myself? I draw, I blog, and take photos and make videos for fun. I write, I teach… I guess I’m a generalist but to some, that’s not necessarily a good thing. People think I’m indecisive and don’t understand that I’m just passionately curious.

    So like I said, it’s been a breath of fresh air to hear your views and gain some perspective from you. Thank you!!

    Kam x

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