2015: The year of taking charge


I had taken two weeks off from everything: teaching, family, this blog, everything.

And what did I do? What did I spend my 14 days doing prior to ringing in the new year? Was it something productive like sorting out my receipts and re-arranging the mess of a corner that I call my workstation (I work just fine, thankyouverymuch, and things are where they’re meant to be.)


Here’s what I did instead: I was binge-watching The Mindy Project because I had just discovered the show, oh only after it ran for 3 seasons. I was laughing and giggling over the chemistry between Dr Mindy Lahiri and her colleague Dr Danny Castellano while nodding my head whenever she was talking about how other things can wait when it comes to food. Or that you’re crazy not to have seconds of anything. Oh yes. That’s what I watched. For some her voice might be grating enough to turn them off, but for me, I had to control myself from snorting out food through my nose whenever the punchline kicked in (did I also mention I didn’t stop watching even when it was lunchtime?)

So yes I binged watched for the entire 2 weeks while I was off. And I’m not embarrassed to say that I enjoyed it. That and oh, chocolates.

I deserved it.

That, for me, was the act of taking charge of my time.

And I want to do more of that in 2015. Not the binge-watching TV show bit, but the taking control bit.

But wait, doesn’t taking charge mean doing something proactive? Something useful? Yes, it can be that too. But that’s not the point. The whole point of taking control is to be able to exercise your choice – irregardless of what other people might think. You need to know what you’re doing and what you’re doing has to be purposeful. And that is totally different from merely slacking off.

I didn’t feel an ounce of guilt while I was reclining on my sofa, cradling my laptop to the tune of crazy nurse Morgan as he deadpans about his dogs. I emptied my mind and let myself do nothing for a change. And while I do watch my favourite TV shows from time to time – having 2 weeks of pure uninterrupted bliss time to call my own is just what I needed to recharge my exhausted batteries. Your methods may vary, and so will your mileage.

Because society and life in general puts too much pressure on people to do things all the time. Sure, there are times when you can’t afford to take a break. Or maybe you’re not into The Mindy Project like I am. The point isn’t about reclining on sofas and watching comedies while popping Picnic bars. It’s about taking charge of what you want, and ultimately what you need to do to move forward.

I knew that I had been through a bit of an emotional roller coaster in 2014. One of my first dogs ever died. I ran another fun, successful second session of Work/Art/Play. There was also the 2014 Artists and Illustrator survey. I did a redesign of my blog. I participated in a local zine fair where I peddled my zines and gave a talk among other great designers. I took on a part-time stint as an art director at a regional PR firm. I was at the Asian Festival of Children’s Content as a moderator for several keynotes and a one-day workshop. And a few other wins and losses that I can’t seem to remember right now, but that’s okay.

2014 was a relatively slow year, truth be told. And I didn’t mind it one bit. There are times when we surge and forge ahead, and there are times where we back down a little – not out of defeat, but to prepare for whatever life throws at us next. We lick our wounds and treat our pain – physical or emotional – and get ourself ready for what’s to come.

And 2015 is going to be one exciting year, I can guarantee you that.

Just make sure you get off the sofa like I did.

So here’s my question for you:

What will you take charge of this year?

Maybe it’s taking charge of your time so that you can finally spend that time on learning that new technique you’ve been meaning to try out; or it means taking charge of your art and business so you can do what you love and be rewarded for it.

I’d love it if you would share with me (and I read every comment):

  1. What does taking charge mean to you?
  2. What’s your focus for 2015? What do you want to change?
[Illustration by Tyler Feder of Mindy Kaling on The Mindy Project. Available as a print in her Etsy shop.]

The scars we carry with us

Acne by Amy Ng

Acne by Amy Ng

A lot of people I know have fond memories of being in high school (also known as secondary school to Malaysians).

Not me though. I hated most of it.

I felt alone for most of my time in school. I often felt like I didn’t belong in any particular group. I wasn’t among the pretty girls group, nor was I popular. I wasn’t one of the smartest either. I wore braces and had horrendous cystic acne that threatened to disfigure my face. I woke up almost every morning to the sight of a spotty, bloodied pillowcase – signs that one or a few pimples had burst in the middle of the night. It was painful. If the pain wasn’t caused by the acne, then I was pretty sure it was because of the embarrassment I felt whenever I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror.

I didn’t look in the mirror for a full year when I first had it. I turned away everything that had a reflection, and was conscious about bumping into anything that might show me what I didn’t want to see. It wasn’t your run-of-the-mill pimple on the chin, or that pink dot on the nose – this was far worse.

Imagine one pimple threatening to erupt on your cheek; a stirring, angry red mound appears. Only it’s not the only one. This slow burning soon-to-be volcano is then joined by another peak that has threatened to form, right next to it. And another. And then another. Within a few day, these few peaks begin to expand beyond their zones, as though reaching out to its comrades in arms in familiar embrace – and form a big giant mass of pimples, pus and cysts that when magnified would seem to look like a scene out of the insides of a volcano.

It was painful. It was everywhere.

More than ever in high school I just wished that I could be like everyone else. I didn’t need the spotlight to be on my face for the wrong reasons – I’d much prefer the spotlight to be on my work. My personality. My skills.

But having cystic acne made me strong. It made me realize that if I were to shine I had to try harder than everyone else, because I didn’t want acne to define who I was (the girl with some sort of disease on her face). And I certainly did not want it to tear my self-esteem – whatever was left of it – into shreds.

I was nicknamed Iron Lady by a teacher who saw how strong minded I could be. I wasn’t afraid to raise my hand to ask questions, and stood up readily to give answers. I challenged the things we were being taught, and I spoke freely. I didn’t want to be known as that girl with acne. I wanted to be known for what I could become. Not something that had taken residence on my face, chewing my insides, and leaving angry bumps that would forever have scar tissue in them. But not only did it consumed my face – it consumed me.

I can still feel the cysts left behind if I press into my skin deep enough.

One day, I sat down on my bed and cried. I told my mother that I couldn’t bear to go on like this – and that there should be a way to help with my condition. I tried everything – antibiotics, a change in diet, changing my sheets, my skincare regimen, pimple creams, everything. I have not seen anyone had it as bad as me (and I still haven’t encountered anyone who has) and all I wanted to do was to stop it from mutilating my face for good. I could hang in there while it runs its course, but what if it didn’t? What if it robbed me of more than just my face? I knew that one day those scars would leave me (hopefully), but what would I leave behind? What if it robbed me of my confidence, or my self-esteem before I could accomplish what I wanted to? What if it robbed me of opportunities? What if it chipped away at my insides until I was just a shell? The world was a harsh place – if high school was anything to go by, the outside world didn’t look that promising then either.

As my meds kicked in over the next few months, it was a relief. No more pains. No more bloody pillowcases. It was an unconventional treatment at the time, but it worked for me. I became a silent crusader against acne ignorance whenever I could. I yelled out at ignorant fools (and very nearly grabbed them by the collar) who kept saying that the fault lies in the sufferers – that our skin was dirty, and that the solution was that we should wash our face more often. If I thought that would help I would have washed it every minute!

And so it is with everything in our lives. We have stories to tell. Of wars waged against others and ourselves. Personal stories that go untold because we think it isn’t important. Oh but it is! Each and every experience that we have is something we have to share – if not for ourselves, then think of the people you can help. Think of those who are at their wits end. It may very well be that their problem might seem small, but to them, it can feel as though the weight of the world are on their shoulders.

Whether it’s a war at home, or at the office, whether it’s a something that’s visible or isn’t, big or small; people around us are embroiled in battle one way or another. Acne taught me to be kind. Because I wished for kindness when I was battling it.

My scars reminds me of that constantly. And I’m ever determined to leave a mark of my own.

What about you? What scars do you carry with you?

Life as an experiment: What to do when you have lots of ideas

Adrian Woods & Gidi van Maarseveen

Adrian Woods & Gidi van Maarseveen

In the Work/Art/Play class that I’m teaching right now, an interesting discussion began on the topic of having too many ideas, too many experiments that might (worryingly) lead nowhere in an artist’s journey.

It’s a very well known affliction that plagues creatives – and the term creatives is a very loose one. These could very well mean entrepreneurs, who may have a pool of ideas to tap from for their next venture; or a designer who has a big sketchbook ready to go for their next collection or season. For an artist, it could come to mean experimenting with the use of various medias to come up with a series or even to redefine their personal style as they find ways to mix things up.

I have lots of ideas. Some of them didn’t quite turn out, and some of them did. A few years ago I began to keep a sketchbook that listed out my ideas; I filled them with pages of pages of thoughts, comments, figures, sketches and with it, possibilities (although these days, instead of just using a sketchbook, I found that Trello is a great app in helping me sort out my ideas.) And it wasn’t just a continuation of one idea either – every other week I would come up with a new idea; or I would stew on a new idea and blend it with a previous one.

But no matter how many entries there were in my book, I was resigned to the fact that I only had two hands. I know myself enough to know that if I were to dabble in a few ideas, they would never turn out well enough for me to know if it was worth pursuing. So what I did was to just focus on one idea at a time – I owed the idea that much at least. To bring an idea to fruition takes time, dedication and effort; things that I knew would be scattered if I tried to juggle too many at a go.

It was still an experimentation none the less. But I choose to focus on one at a time so that I can properly document and figure things out as I move along. Is it working? Is it not? Can I do better? Do I want to keep doing this? Will I make a difference? I question the idea (and myself) constantly at every step of the way – much like a scientist who keeps a record of an experiment to see its progress.

And once you’re committed to the idea, you need to give it space and room to grow, to breathe, and a chance for it to live out its life. You’ll have to nurture it, see if it can stand on its own two feet, or if you’re lucky – to see if it could fly. But first, you’ll need to make a decision: which idea goes first? Pick one. Just one. And start from there.

A good friend reminded me once when I told her that I had trouble picking one idea, and she said this little gem of an advice that I carry to this day: “It’s good to have lots of ideas – this way we can execute them one by one until we’re 60. We’re all set!”

So here’s a couple of tips and reminders:

  • Don’t let fear stop you from experimenting. And fear takes on many forms: fear of failure, fear of missed opportunities, or even plain old irrational fear.
  • Experiments always leads you somewhere, and often times it leads you down a path you might have considered before. Enjoy it and soak up the process!
  • Ideas on paper are just worth the paper they’re scribbled on – especially if you don’t start.
  • If you can juggle a few experiments at a go, by all means feel free to do so! Just be aware that if you drop the ball on one, the rest might follow – and you might not know what the outcome would be if you had focused on just one.


What about you? What works for you when you have lots of ideas? Do share your thoughts and experience in the comments below!

[Photography by Adrian Woods & Gidi van Maarseveen]
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