Dear students: Why you need to go down that hole

I’ve put off writing my column Dear Students because I didn’t particularly feel inspired to write for my second batch of students – mostly because they didn’t know where they were going and I, as a teacher, could not help them get to where they wanted to go (precisely because they didn’t know where they were going). But with my third batch of students though, for a class that began earlier this month, coupled with going away, and with new thoughts and ideas – I felt compelled to write again. I can’t lie that I’m inspired by the energy of the class. They’re a bunch of bright students who were willing to communicate their ideas and thoughts, and who were open to not knowing where this experience will take them. And so my thoughts for this season are for them, and any student around the world who might find this useful.


Teaching in-person has been an interesting experience so far. I’ve done it for a year now, and with each batch of students it’s a hit-or-miss. It’s one hit and one miss so far. And with that miss, I ask myself why – was it because I wasn’t good enough? Or was it the materials? Was I clear on the goal of the class, and what the outcome was? Could I do better?

The answer might be yes to all of them. Or perhaps it’s the other way around. I’m not going to debate who is right or wrong here. I’d rather improve myself and brace for challenges as they come. I don’t know what’s going to happen; I can only prepare for the worst and hope for the best. I make sure that I have fun regardless of who came along for the ride.

And it’s this attitude that I want my students to have: the fun of exploration and the joy of discovery and surprise. The guts for glory, the willingness to accept defeat; and the hard work that goes into unravelling a mystery. The experiments that might amount to something big, or fail miserably when it doesn’t. It’s a 50-50 chance of having something great; which to me is pretty amazing. Surely it beats having a 0% chance of succeeding (which is exactly what happens if you sit still and not do anything about it.)

But an observation of almost 60 students so far has led me to an interesting point: that a big percentage of students are afraid of the unknown. Before they strike out and do something, they want to be reassured that it will either: earn them high marks / gain approval from their teachers / applauded by their peers. All of which points to gaining an outside reaction, rather than satisfying an internal interest.

And that irks me a little.

Maybe it’s a lack of confidence. Maybe it’s a more realistic way of thinking about assignments (I only have X amount of time, so I don’t want to waste time on something that would be panned).

But the thing is, if you’ve put your heart and soul into something, would it be all that bad? Would it be so bad to believe that you can do it – putting together your passion and experimenting with new ways of expressing your ideas and thoughts that would not only benefit you, but others as well? Would it be so bad to reach for the stars? Or go down a rabbit hole just to see what’s on the other side?

Would it be so hard to try?


For those who may not be familiar with the Dear Students series, it’s a column that I have on my blog where I unload my advice to college students. It’s inspired by the in-person class that I’m teaching at a local college, and it’s an opportunity to write down thoughts that I didn’t manage to send out during class, or as an interesting observation about the class that I wanted to share with you. So whether you’re a student or a teacher, I’m sure some of the things I write about would elicit interesting responses, and I most welcome your thoughts!

To read past Dear Students posts, click here!

[Illustration: Looking down the rabbit hole. Millicent Sowerby. Illustration from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll; Chatto & Windus, UK, 1907]

Q + A: Should I quit my job to focus on art full-time?

Q+A illustration by Amy of Pikaland!

Dear Amy,

I’m a full-time secretary at an accounting firm, but what I really want to do is to concentrate on my art full time. I hate my job – it’s stressful and I work 50 hours a week, which leaves little time for me to work on my personal project: illustrating a children’s book, which I hope to accomplish before the end of the year. I have a husband who can support me for a few months (I’m so ready to throw in the towel!) but I’m not sure if it’s the wise thing to do since work is hard to come by. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to sustain myself after I’ve completed the book as well – or if there’s going to be anyone snapping it up, which is really frustrating.

Should I continue with my full-time job and work on my project on the side, or should I quit to focus on my book full time?

~ Rachel

Dear Rachel,

I attended a talk recently, where a couple of illustrators and writers were talking about their experiences and process when writing a children’s book. At the end of the talk when it was Q+A time, I raised my hand and asked them this question: “How do you guys earn enough to do this for a living, since you only produce about 2 books a year?” The room turned to me and murmurs could be heard rippling through the crowd – they were curious after all; I just stood up and verbalized what half the room was thinking. Both of the illustrators said that they had part-time jobs in addition to working on the book. The whispers in the room got even louder, and I could see that the young illustrators in the room were a little taken back by their answer.

But I wasn’t. And their answers merely proved a point that I’ve been trying to drive home.

When you’re starting out as an illustrator, or if you’ve recently graduated as one – you’ll need to think of it as a business. And you, as an entrepreneur. The ability to draw is just one of your skill set, among many other skills that you’ll have to pick up along the way. It’s a tough journey, which is why I don’t recommend going at it full time when you’re just beginning – just like any other businesses.

For example, I stayed in my job as a magazine editor for a full year while running Pikaland – writing everyday and collaborating with artists on projects, going to the post office, coding up my blog and shopping cart (there wasn’t an elegant out-of-the-box solution back then!), and to top it off, a daily 2-hour commute. I slept about 5 hours everyday and crammed whatever free time I had into Pikaland, which meant no TV or unnecessary outings. I was also mindfully networking and finding opportunities for freelance writing commissions so that I could pad up my savings for a rainy day. Only when I felt that I had deserved it (and saved up quite a substantial amount to last me at least a year) – and that all my hard work was beginning to bear fruit – that I handed in my resignation letter. It wasn’t easy, but those small steps that I consciously took everyday helped pushed me towards my goal.

So my advice for you, Rachel, would be this: instead of jumping right away into the deep end, I recommend a slow but steady approach: get a less hectic part-time job, so that you can focus on honing your skills and work on your project. What if you can’t get another job? Then I’d recommend negotiating shorter hours with your boss or cutting back on your working days (hey, it’s no harm to ask!) without sacrificing your work performance so that you can find your audience. While this means working a little harder at the beginning, you’ll get less stressed about not being able to make money from your work while you continue to hone your skills. And let’s face it – it’s rare for artists to shoot to the front of the fame train on their first try. Persistence is key.

I’d also recommend setting a goal for yourself – just like what I did. Make a list of things that you hope to accomplish – whether it’s getting freelance clients, getting paying customers, having a book deal in hand, or opting for another less hectic part-time job – before you can give yourself the green light to dive full-time into your art.

Illustration – just like any business, is built on relationships, and the earlier you cultivate the necessary relationships that will help bring in work; whether it’s with your audience or your clients, the easier it will be when the time comes for you to take that leap and dedicate your time to creating.


Have you ever quit your job to focus on your art full-time? What lessons did you learn from it? How did you manage the transition? I’d love to hear your story, plus any other advice you have for Rachel!

If you think this article is helpful, there’s more coming your way – just subscribe to our weekly newsletter to make sure you don’t miss out on any! And if you have friends who are contemplating doing what Rachel is doing, share this article with them before it’s too late!

Q+A: Illustrators: Why you need to stop looking for agents

Hi Amy,

I’m a recent illustration graduate and I’m finding it difficult to get work. I’ve also sent letters to illustration agencies hoping that I’ll be picked up, but so far it’s not been going very well. I’m on the verge of giving up – I have bills to pay and I can’t find full time work – how can I get into an illustration agency?

~ Mark

Hi Mark!

That’s one of the many questions that I’ve been getting lately. Work is hard to find, and illustrators are aplenty. So why not do it in reverse right? Find an agency and perhaps some work will filter down to them in the process instead. Wrong.

There’s a lot of problems in this one little question, and your belief that being a part of an illustration agency isn’t going to make it any better. I get it – the fact that you have someone going out and getting work on your behalf is a marvelous idea. Someone who does the marketing for you, and someone who makes sure you get paid on time. But there’s only so many illustration agencies out there, and there are even more illustrators clamoring to get onto their list.

What people often don’t realize is that illustration agencies would rather take on someone who’s more established. That is to say that they have proof that the illustrators are in it for the long haul – that they’re not going to run away and do something else, because the agency would have invested too much in their growth. But on the flipside, when you’re more established, you might not need an agent anymore to pull in work (I can already get clients on my own, so why should I hire an agency and split the fee?) It’s a catch-22.

We’re not going into more specific details too – like how agencies take anywhere from 25% to 45% of your fee (and no, you cannot bitch about this, because it’s a choice you’ve made and agents need to eat too), whether or not they’ll help you pay for your marketing, postcards, competitions, annuals, etc. What I’m more concerned about is how this unhealthy dependency on getting picked by a small segment is overriding illustrators out there from doing the real work that needs to be done.

Drawing. Illustrating. Communicating. Marketing. But most of all, choosing yourself.

So stop depending on others to give you work – go out there and hustle. And not just any sort of hustling, mind you. You need to go in there with the right mindset and be prepared.

How? I’ll show you in the next few weeks. To not make sure you don’t miss out, click here to subscribe to our weekly newsletter!


I’d love to hear your experiences – have you ever tried seeking out an illustration agency to take you on? Whether you were successful or not – what did you learn from it all? Let’s talk about it in the comments below – and if you have more advice for Mark, do share your thoughts too!


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