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.

SHARE WITH ME:
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]

Let’s not be too quick to judge

 Malika Favre

The other day while I was perusing Facebook, I saw one of my students post up a diatribe on how some artists are getting recognition for work that isn’t “that” great, while other artists who can do better are not getting the recognition they deserve. Her short post included reasons she believed as to why some artists were successful and the rest, aren’t – which involved the former knowing more people and for being good at kissing ass (which might not have been her exact words, but that was what was implied). She was also criticising how other people do not recognise good work if it hit them on the head.

She was a smart student, and this concern of hers was something I’ve encountered more than once. I promptly told her to stop and think for a moment and gave my reasons why. The post was deleted a while later, but I kept thinking about it. I was unsettled.

It’s easy to watch other people’s success and then whinge about your lack of it.

“She’s not as good as me, but why is she getting all the publicity?”
“His grades were lower than mine when we were at school but he’s showing at a gallery now?”
“That group’s stuff is just so-so, but why are so many people flocking to their stall?”

It’s one thing to whine about how other people may be successful, but it’s another to assume that they managed it under suspicious circumstances. “Oh, they must know someone”, or “I think they must have gotten the gig in return for another favour [sic]*”

That, is not cool at all. Unless it’s true. However, if it is, then it’s now gossiping instead of being judgemental – both of which won’t do you much good in the long run anyway.

“The famous ones know more people.”
While not all of your assumptions are wrong, thinking along this line of thought is destructive and quite frankly, mean. My retort to those who bemoan how well-connected successful artists is my usual: “So, what have you been doing to know more people?” That usually just ends with them stammering about how they lack family connections that would lead them up the higher rung of the social ladder, blah, blah, blah. Because, you know – there’s no way they could have gotten there on their own.

It’s easy to complain about how well others have it, and while sometimes a good rant is just that – it would be much more constructive if you’d ask them how they got to where they were instead. Yes. The good old asking-a-question trick. Heck, it’s not even a trick, really. Not if it’s done without malice and snark, and politely with a dose of old fashioned curiosity. Their answer might really surprise you. Underneath it all, artists are people too – and yes, that goes to those who are successful as well. From what I know, the ones who are successful have great tips, stories and advice to share, that it would be such a waste to let one’s ego get in the way of finding out what really happened along their journey.

But what if someone by a stroke of luck has a great network care of their parents/relatives/friends/school? It happens, and while that may leave others seething with jealousy; remember that the artist also needs to make it work. Maybe they’re embarrassed about it. Or maybe they’d prefer not to have the leg up, but circumstances made it hard to say no. Maybe they don’t deserve it. Maybe they do. There’s all sorts of reasons, many of them have nothing to do with you. And so, let’s not begrudge others for their good luck – rather, it would be more fruitful to engineer some luck of your own.

“But I’m better than he/she is.”
If you believe your work is great and that you’re an undiscovered genius – good for you. Anyone can call (or think of) themselves as the greatest talents to ever walk the earth. However, what other people think of you might very well be otherwise. Now I’m not saying that you shouldn’t believe in yourself; on the contrary. Being a genius (or any other compliments for that matter) is something that others bestow onto you; which would make it undoubtedly more meaningful. Sort of like how giving yourself a trophy is kind of sad.

If you believe all the work you do is great, how else would you learn? If everything you created was a work of art (critics be damned), how would you know the good from bad? As a student, where does it end? A healthy ego is necessary to be a great artist, but to have an inflated one from the onset does not bode well for you – it gets in the way of learning (which should never end even if you’re successful) and it also gets in the way of getting to know more people (because you might end up being a jerk who thinks he’s right all the time).

So what can you do?
Fear not – to rid you of your judgemental and egotistical streak (hey, it happens to the best of us!) I have a 7-step program that I recommend heartily. Doing the below will significantly up your goodwill karma and results can show in as little as a month or it might take as long as 5 years for great results. Mileage will vary according to how hard you work:

  1. Be nice.
  2. Ask others for advice, don’t assume or judge.
  3. Ask for constructive feedback for your work.
  4. Listen for feedback and try them out – if it doesn’t fit, discard and repeat.
  5. Reach out to other people who you think might like your work. (Bonus points if you have something to say or a story to share)
  6. Say hello a lot.
  7. Be nice.

Rinse and repeat.

Try it and see for yourself. Not everyone made it through having connections. Most of the time they’ve worked really hard and worked smart by reaching out to people who in turn helped them. There’s a lot of things that could have happened in between that’s compounded by luck and timing too.

So in short – the road to success looks something like this (mind you, this is very simplified):

(talent x hard work)a + (luck + timing)b + helpc = successx

Note: With all of the above, the variation of success is subjective, and is wholly dependent on the effort put in (a) & (c) and factors beyond our control (b) in the equation.

Thoughts? Share them with me in the comments! And if you want to read what 39 other artists have to say about experiencing jealousy/envy, here’s a free download of the PDF copy of issue #6 of the Good to Know project!

[Illustration by Malika Favre]

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]
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