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!