My emotional state has been flip-flopping between being angry and sad for the past few weeks.

I had emergency oral surgery that involved taking out 2 lower molars and an impacted wisdom tooth about a month ago, and it took almost 2 weeks before I could speak like normal. One molar was in trouble because of the impacted wisdom tooth. Another was because a 10-year old root canal had an infection (although I didn’t feel any pain) and would have to come out sooner rather than later. And those were the ones I needed to attend to then. I still have another root canal treated tooth that’s biding it’s time because another dentist didn’t realise my filling had come loose last year (he merely put more filling on top of it) – and had allowed it to decay further until there wasn’t much tooth left.

No one informed me that all of this would one day happen.

No one told me that it could have been prevented.

Don’t get me started on why I even needed the root canals in the first place – it was because a shady dentist didn’t clean out my cavity properly (and no, x-rays were not taken back then). I thought something was amiss when he kept pushing that I should have crowns done; to which another dentist said “Crowns?! I’m more concerned about saving your tooth!”

I had braces done when I was a teen. I just recently learned one of my back molars wasn’t uprighted properly by braces that was done almost 20 years ago. And that I should have worn my retainers every night FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE. No one told me this. Not even my dentist.

Over the years I told the dentists that I’ve met that I sometimes grind my teeth. They waved my concerns away because it wasn’t that bad. I went to a dentist every year for annual check ups. All clear, they said. Keep the back of your mouth clean where the impacted wisdom tooth was, and it should be fine.

So I did. Or at least I tried my best. It’s hard to say.

Maybe I didn’t do enough. Maybe my occasional grinding did me in too. I even got a sonic toothbrush and a Waterpik to actively prevent cavities and to make sure my pearly whites were getting the best cleaning everyday. But even so, I couldn’t help but feel angry and disappointed at the dentists who could have done better. Who could have done their job properly. Who could have prevented things from going this far.

You might laugh at me and think I’m silly. It’s just teeth for crying out loud. I get it.

I took good care of mine. Brushing. Flossing. Rinsing. Waterpik-ing. Annual checkups. But shit still happens. Recently, I’ve been told stories of how some people hadn’t gone to the dentist for 10 years, who didn’t floss and yet still have perfect teeth. It’s luck, they said. At the time, they could have just ripped out my heart and stabbed it in front of me and it wouldn’t be as painful to hear.

Losing two of my teeth (that impacted wisdom tooth didn’t count) took an emotional toll on me. I felt like a failure. I couldn’t even keep my teeth in my mouth! I felt ashamed, and embarrassed. Heck I even debated if I should share it with you guys because it was so mortifying. My eyes would sometimes well up post-surgery when it was time for me to eat because all I could eat for the first 2 weeks were soft-ish food like tuna sandwiches (with the crust cut off) or porridge. I had to be careful not to eat things that were too hard because I could only chew on one side of my mouth. My remaining root-canaled tooth that had already taken a beating didn’t quite feel “right” yet. That one is also earmarked for extraction – but only after I replace my 2 missing teeth with dental implants, so I’ll need it to last me till then. I was a pitiful sight – I felt so sorry for myself.

I would look at strangers and friends and I would admire their lovely teeth. A full set of them. And I would feel sad. I already took out 6 for when I had my braces, and I didn’t have a lot more to spare. I have a friend who would feel sad as she watched couples with babies, because she couldn’t have one of her own. I can’t say I know what that feels like, but for me it came pretty close to describing what I felt at the time.

At the time, to me, the luckiest people in the world are those who have their full set of teeth.

They can eat whatever they want, whenever, wherever. In my mind they can conquer the world! Or a restaurant! It’s a stretch, I know. I bet they have other problems too, hidden underneath the surface. But at least they had working teeth – the crazy me would espouse. My mind was spinning, with me saying all these silly things in my mind and yet I was still rational enough to give the pessimistic side of me kick-in-the-ass rebuttals. It was a perpetual tug of war in my head.

But life goes on.

I consoled myself by telling myself that we, as humans are in a perpetual state of decay. It just turned out that my teeth decayed faster than the rest of me. The same as how some people’s knees bust up faster than others because they’re athletes. Maybe I’ve been eating more than others? Maybe I’m a food athlete? Who knows?

A good friend told me that if a tooth isn’t doing its job properly anymore, it’s time for it to go. I told her I felt sad, to which she said the tooth wasn’t alive and can’t feel pain so I didn’t have to feel bad. Plus, a tooth’s job was to allow you to grind food up to bits – whether it’s a natural tooth or not shouldn’t matter at this point. I burst out laughing, and felt better immensely.

A month in after the surgery, I’m eating properly again (I’ll still need to watch out for those sly hard bits like bone, sand, etc, that work their way into my food). I chew slower, and more carefully. I brush 4-5 times a day (because darn it I can try harder). I still have most of my teeth. I no longer feel angry or sad. Sometimes it creeps up on me, but it goes away quickly. I recently went to Melbourne for a holiday, and came back refreshed. I was surprised at myself for being able to eat almost normally there (minus the tougher bits). I’m laughing a lot again. I feel lucky.

The truth is, nothing is ever perfect. It won’t ever be.

I’ll only be able to have a full set of working teeth next year as I’m waiting for my bone to heal for dental implants to be placed. And then there’ll be more waiting before I can actually have a tooth screwed on. I’m lucky I’m able to afford them – plus, I’m still young so it’s a better long term prognosis. So a tiny part of me will be metal. That’s a bit badass I suppose.

I’ve always wanted as many things to be settled as possible before I can truly begin my work. Didn’t matter if it was the big stuff, or the little stuff. I’d check things off my list one by one to finish off all the work that would potentially distract me from the major work I needed to do. And often, that leads me with not enough time to do the things I should be doing. I’ve realised that it’s foolhardy to continue to maintain such order. The the older I get, the more challenges I’ll face to my emotional and physical health. It could be mine, or my loved ones, family, friends and even my dogs. It’s inevitable. Things are often out of my control. Sometimes those lists will have to go unchecked.

Perfection is an illusion.

It’s an excuse we give ourselves – that everything has to be in order for us to truly begin, or to continue from where we left off. The idea that chaos is bad, and that the only way you’ll jump is if you already know how something will turn out. We can’t know for sure, but how many times have we made that sort of rationalisation? I know I’ve done it. But rolling up your sleeves and getting things done, even if you’re afraid of it, is what has made me take the little steps needed to move forward. Like plonking myself down on that dental surgeon’s chair so that he can remove 3 of my back teeth in one go – a process that took almost two hours because one didn’t want to come out (I wish I could have kept you too, buddy) and I could start to feel the things he did in my jaw because the local anaesthetic was wearing off.

We can’t always have everything in order before we begin.

The only thing that can and will work is if you take small steps forward among the chaos around you, towards where you want to be. It’s hard because pain – whether it’s physical, mental or emotional – is very real. But the great news is that things and situations don’t last, whether it’s good or bad, painful or joyful. They make up the combination of moments that pass in life, that stop and envelope you before it drifts away to become a distant memory.

I can’t ever have a full set of natural teeth again. But hey, at least I have options.

And so do you.

You there. Yes, you – dear readers with all your glorious natural teeth – do me a favour: go ahead and crunch a couple of nuts in your mouth on my behalf and tell me again what is holding you back from conquering the world?

[Illustrated pattern by Bouffants & Broken Hearts]

How to Be More Creative in the Age of Over-Inspiration

Ah, the internet. What would I do without it? It’s a portal that bounces me from one wonderment to the next – an inspiring road trip filled with jaw-dropping illustrations and illuminating interviews, with sideshow attractions of fun video tutorials to community hangouts for every niche under the sun. The internet is the gateway to inspiration on demand, and it seems like the more sidetracked I get, the hungrier I get for more.

When you have a source that beckons with creativity and inspiration 7 days a week and 24 hours a day, it’s easy to be sucked into a loop. There’s always something interesting a mere click away. I know for a fact that I’m not alone in my predicament. In the age of Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter and the many infinite scrolling art & design websites (I liken it to a bottomless well of beautiful things just waiting to be discovered) – what does this mean for artists?

The National Centre for Biotechnology Information’s research in April 2015 has surveyed that the average attention span of people in 2015 is now 8.25 seconds, compared to 12 seconds in the year 2000. That means our capacity for holding attention is 30% less compared to 15 years ago – and it’s not surprising, given how our brains are hard-wired to crave new information; according to Bruce Morton, a researcher with the University of Western Ontario’s Brain and Mind Institute.

With each click leading to the next and the more information we devour, the novelty wears off quickly, and off we go in search of better, more beautiful, more interesting things. It’s nasty cycle that perpetuates itself; leading to a host of other problems like a lack of productivity (hey, where did the time go?), procrastination (just one more website!) and for some, the inability (or reluctance) to dive deeper; to analyse and synthesise the information they’ve already visually absorbed.

I’ve talked to college students who were confused by it all – there was no lack of inspiration, and yet they weren’t inspired. They grew up with the internet being a very big part of their lives, and yet they seem to be suffering from inspiration fatigue, and couldn’t understand why. One theory that I brought up was that perhaps they’ve been looking at what was already completed and done by other artists, therefore subconsciously they didn’t need to figure out the process for themselves (hey, since it’s already been done!) Replicating something visually without finding out the underlying thought process behind it all is just like skimming the water without knowing its depths. It’s also a little like eating junk food all the time, which tastes great but isn’t very good for you.

I recommended my students to try and be more conscientious of the information they took in. Instead of merely looking at the aesthetics of the many works of art in front of their screen before jumping to the next, how about they pause for a moment and focus on finding out more details about it instead? Dig through archives of the artist’s work, and perhaps catch a glimpse of their process. Maybe it works and maybe it doesn’t (the ails of over-inspiration runs far deeper), but the reminder to dig vertically instead of mindlessly pacing horizontally might just be a good start. I needed the nudge too as I’m sometimes guilty of the same.

It’s times like these that it’s useful to remember Charles Eames’ quote:

Art resides in the quality of doing, process is not magic.

Maybe we don’t really need more inspiration. We need more doing instead.

[This is an article I originally wrote for Illustration Friday]

[Illustration: Neil J. Rook]

8 things my parents taught me that years of art school never did

Marija Tiurina

They say that school is where people go to learn.

I beg to differ.

While there are great schools out there, the majority of the graduates I’ve encountered so far has mentioned how they were inadequately prepared for working life. When I graduated myself, I didn’t really give it much thought – I just simply went out there and tried my best. Maybe I got lucky because  I had really thick skin and didn’t take “NO” for an answer. I used unconventional methods – this was when Google was still in its infancy – and marched right up to companies in industries I had no prior experience in (and probably no business being in either) and told them why I should be hired. I sold myself the best I could.

In all fairness, I was really curious about the work that people did. I was armed with a professional degree in landscape architecture but I wanted more: I wanted to demystify the whole creative career market to see what the world had to offer; and so I thought my best bet was to send in my application and see what the job entailed. I sent in my resumes to jobs that I found interesting – a variety which included being a visual merchandiser at a mall, a carpet designer, and even an junior florist. I was hired on the spot for almost all the jobs I interviewed for – save for a couple which I deliberately self-sabotaged because it didn’t seem like the place for me: *cough* carpet designer *cough*.

I thought people would naturally know about these sort of things (not the self-sabotaging one’s interview bit, but the one where you hustle and tried everything because you didn’t have anything to lose), but as I climbed the organizational ladder and had to interview people myself, I was in for a rude shock. Some were really, really bad. Some made me cringe. Some made me want to cry, but a lot of them just made me wonder.

Some of them had great portfolios – but many took for granted that this was all they needed to get their foot in the door. Some were rude. Some were late. There were those who were shy, but there were a lot of people who didn’t know how to communicate effectively.

They say you shouldn’t judge too quickly (heck, I said that myself last week) but when you’re interviewing the 30th person for a few days at a stretch, you see a pattern emerge very quickly. Call it intuition or just plain experience – you get quite good at reading people after a while. And when you know these people can do better – I remember the impulse of wanting to grab their shoulders and give them a shake – you start to wonder: what went wrong along the way? Then I flipped the question and asked myself instead: what did I learn that they didn’t?

Turns out you don’t learn everything you need in school, and neither should you expect to.

My practical, effective, thrifty, Asian parents

My parents – especially my father – held us to particularly strict standards. Me in particular. Being Asian and the eldest in the family meant that I would have to set a good example for my younger sister. He was a project manager in the construction industry, and for as long as I can remember, he was home on time for dinner every day when he was based in town (he was posted overseas several times throughout his career). I didn’t realise it back then, but project managers had a lot to do; and the fact that he made it back in time everyday for dinner before the traffic pile-up, was a feat in itself that’s worthy of praise.

He drilled into us the importance of a few key things, a lot of which I took to heart. I’m passing this on to you because I know I’m lucky to learn from someone who’s practical, efficient and very, very thrifty. So if you didn’t have an Asian dad breathing down your neck when you were younger, here’s what advice from him would feel like:

#1: If you’re not in the car by 9.00 we’re leaving you behind.

Time management was one of the first thing we learned as a kid. When he said that we’ll be out of the house by 10am, he would back the car out of the driveway by 9.55am. So we’ve learned to ask the exact time when things would happen, or where we would be going a day in advance so that we could plan our time properly. My childhood (as far as I remember) was an orderly one – we were responsible for keeping our own time and failure to do so was frowned upon by my dad. A lecture would ensue about time-keeping and about being considerate to others – a fate we made sure not to repeat.

#2: Put the clothes in the wash first, so you can move on to do other things.

My dad was nothing if not for being one of the most efficient person I know. He would plan things in advance so that he could squeeze the most out of the day. Because a load of laundry takes time to finish, he’ll make sure that it’s the first thing to be done when we get home from a vacation. Or on a weekend. By the time he’s pottered around the house completing the rest of his chores, the wash is done and he’s done for the day.

#3: What do you do when you enter a room?

You greet people. You say hello. Coming into a room silent without acknowledging people is very rude in our parent’s eyes. Even if its our own parents! Cowering away in a corner was never an option for us kids. We were taught to say hello when we entered anyone’s home/office/event and you learn that ice breaking is as easy as saying hello.

#4. That is not how you use a pair of chopsticks.

When I was about 5 years old we sometimes had dinner at my paternal grandmother’s house and they used chopsticks and bowls instead of a plate with spoons and forks. I was trying to use my pair very unsuccessfully – and if you’ve ever tried to use a pair of chopsticks, you’ll know that you can muck it up pretty quickly. So I kept trying and thought I had my rhythm going until my dad saw what I was trying to do and sat me down to teach me how to use a pair properly. And once I mastered it, I was so proud of myself – I could pick up the tiniest thing with my pair of chopsticks. My hand didn’t hurt from holding it for a long time and I got nods of approval from old folks wherever I went. Sure I was creative – he gave me points for that – but at some point, it’s better to learn how to fully utilise a tool so that it can help you do things faster and quicker. Plus using chopsticks the wrong way is an abomination (his words, not mine).

#5. Why should I buy you that toy?

As long as I can remember, my childhood was a series of negotiations done between me and my parents.  When I walked into a toy store, my parents would notice when I was lingering at a particular toy. They would ask me if I wanted to buy it, and my usual answer would be no, it’s alright (I rarely ask for toys – I feel bad because they had to pay for it). But one day, I saw this amazing purple My Little Pony with the most gorgeous hair cascading down its back. Hair that I could play with endlessly for hours on end. Plus there was a comb that doubled up as a lock for a compartment! I looked wistfully at the box – and my dad showed me another pony (and definitely not from the My Little Pony collection) that was cheaper. I told him it wasn’t the same. I kept quiet on the way home but once I got back, I began to draft a handwritten letter that stipulated that I would do extra chores like sweeping the kitchen floor after dinner to earn that pony and that it would be my last toy EVER. I presented my proposal to him. I got my pony. The kitchen floor was clean. Win-win. I’ve learned how to effectively negotiate and trade ever since.

#6. Speak slowly and clearly. I can’t understand you.

My brain would go faster than my mouth when I was younger – a fact I believe was what drove me to talk at high speeds so that my mouth could keep up. And this exasperated my father who would often then tell me to speak slower and to enunciate my words so that I could speak clearly. Sometimes I got ahead of myself and words didn’t come out right either and it’s times like these he’ll pause and asks me to repeat myself – only this time to make sure I listen to myself as I spoke.

#7: Stand up straight

I was considered a tall kid, and had a habit of hunching my shoulders to make myself look “smaller” like the rest of class. Towering over small people was no fun, least of all to boys who hadn’t caught up to their growth spurt yet – so I hunched. I remember my parents – in particular my father pressing my shoulder blades to straighten my back whenever we walked. Bad habits shouldn’t have time to form, he said. Besides, standing tall makes you more confident, inside and out. This one still sticks because I still need to be careful with my posture, lest I slip into old habits.

#8: If you’re not sure, ASK.

“Don’t be a smartypants” was one of the lessons drilled into me when I was young. If I wasn’t sure about something, I should be asking someone who does. And I shouldn’t just stop at one person – I should ask a few to make sure I got it right. Because people can be wrong. They might not be doing it on purpose, but we had to learn to listen and figure out what’s right instead of merely depending on one one source. We were encouraged to put up our hands to ask questions, to step up and to make an impression – because people remember you that way. Shyness won’t get you anywhere.

Sure, you protest – no one ever says these sort of things in art school! Or design school. Or whatever school for that matter. Of course! In school, we’re focused so much on the academic side of things that we forget the human side – how we communicate, how we approach others, how we manage time, etc. Those sort of things can be taught and learned – it doesn’t mean you have to be in school for that. But it’s precisely these small little habits that build up and can make lasting impressions and relationships at work. When you have a good solid foundation to build from – the sky is the limit.

Maybe you need someone who’s effective and practical to help guide you too.

Making sure artists have a good foundation was the reason why I built my online course Work/Art/Play. While I was teaching undergraduates at a local art and design college, I realised that it wasn’t just pure academic or technical knowledge that they needed. They needed help with reframing their ideas, their mindsets and also learning how they could be the best they could be so that the world could benefit. Although I was brought in to teach a particular subject, I quickly found myself answering questions that ranged from personal style to self-promotion and marketing. Most of my students couldn’t imagine fending for themselves out in the world once they graduated. Talking to seniors and grownups didn’t work because they were equally confused; and it made things worse.

So I put together what I’ve learned — through experience and by learning from others on what worked and what didn’t. I helped my students put what they’ve learnt into practice — with great results to show for it. Maybe it’s true what they say: that deep down inside we all want to pass down things we’ve learnt: whether it’s from our family, friends or people we’ve met along the way. So if you know someone who needs a tough yet gentle guiding hand to help their art career, do check out our syllabus right here. And by the way, in case there’s any confusion: There’s lots more in there besides advice about putting your clothes in the wash ahead of time. Just sayin’.

FYI: enrollment closes 07 August 2015.

I’d love to hear from you – what’s the best advice your parents ever gave you? Share them with me in the comments and let’s not let good advice die out!

[Illustration by Marija Tiurina]