Things money can’t buy

Note: This was a post that I wrote for a local student magazine a few months back which I think would be useful to share here too. Enjoy!

Thomas Bayrle

Whenever I step into a classroom, the first question that I get asked is this: which profession in the design world makes more money: animators, graphic designers, or illustrators? Or how about multimedia artists or videographers? My reply was that there’s plenty of ways to make money – lots and lots of money perhaps. Not all of them are in the design industry. But all of it comes with a price. Heck, sometimes jobs that make the most money aren’t even legal, and you can bet that they’re dangerous. So again. There are plenty of ways to make money – not all of them are good. So herewith the question beckons: why all this talk about money first?

I can understand – I was once a student myself.

I was once so poor that I had to split a plate of economy rice with my friend. For those who don’t know what economy rice is, it’s a shop where they have 20-30 different kinds of side dishes that go with rice, ranging from meat dishes to vegetables, to other condiments. It’s popular with students because it’s fast and cheap – just grab a plate of rice and scoop up whatever you want and go to the counter to pay for what you’ve scooped. Back to the story: we had RM2.00 between us left for food. We went up to the lady in the restaurant and showed her the coins we had left and asked her what we could have from her array of dishes. I wasn’t sure if it was pity, or understanding – but she scooped what ever was left over from a few dishes and gave us each an egg to top it all off. We were thankful for the meal and conveyed our thanks to the lovely shopkeeper – whom we fondly patronised for as long as we studied there.

We weren’t flush with cash. We didn’t have shopping malls. And we didn’t even have McDonalds around each corner (this was in the year 2000). Money was tight – purchasing art supplies, books and endless trips to the printing house made sure of that. Whatever was left we scrimped on food. Bread was a staple at the time too – when we’re running out of time and cash, nothing fills you up faster than a roll of chocolate bun with a sticky black pseudo-chocolate filling with a side of lukewarm water.

It’s all very different now, of course. You have malls, left, right and centre. Fast food kiosks as far as the eye can see. Gourmet restaurants abound; and you’re spoilt for choice. Temptation in its many forms that clue you in on what money represents. And that’s just food. Let’s not even wander into the fashion industry, or the giant virtual malls that reside within the internet – one that offers a gateway to everything and anything your heart desires; open and available 24/7 with a mere click of a button and a working credit card.

I don’t blame you at all for thinking that cash is king. Money buys you lots of things. It buys you good food. Rad clothing. Fun toys. The best equipment and art supplies. And all these things make you happy. It’s a rather straight forward equation. Or is it?

The thing about money though, is that it doesn’t buy you freedom. When you’re doing things purely for money, you’re a slave to it. And it becomes your master. You’ll find yourself slaving away for him, in exchange for something that won’t be able to buy the things that truly matter. Things like love, friendship and time.

We’re living in a time where we constantly consume. We don’t create as much as we should, and this is a shame; because if we’re not creating, we are most likely consuming instead. Our eyes are fixated on screens while our wallets are empty. Our hearts grow heavy with greed; an endless, bottomless pit that desires more, more, more. The indescribable emptiness that spreads across our chest even as we move from one novelty to the next. One day we’ll find ourselves wondering what happened along the way that made us lose more of ourselves, little by little, piece by piece.

We’re all essentially broken – in fragments and bits, scattered around us in the people we love, the places we live in and the experiences we’ve yet to discover. Gathering those pieces and putting them together is what makes us human, and it’s what makes us special. We’re made up of everything, and yet we’re nothing. Money is merely an enabler and not the destination.

Do the things you’re good at, and the things that you love. Pick up the fragments and pieces of yourself through the work you do, so that you may put yourself back together. Figuring out how to do it is the best part about growing wiser. In the beginning you will be poor. You might have to share a plate of economy rice with a friend to get by (I hope not). But you’ll do better. The trick is to get better at the things you love, and to be nourished by the things you learn and the experiences you pick up along the way. Always endeavour to leave a mark. So much so that other people start to notice and respect you for what you do, and why you do it.

And you’ll realise along the way that the “why” isn’t always about the money.

It rarely ever is.

[Illustration: Thomas Bayrle]

Changing careers: Why it’s not just about following your passion

Ana Yael

It starts with being very scared of what’s coming next.

That you don’t know what you’re doing. That you’re unsure whether things will work out the way you hope it would. The doubts that creep up around the edges, just when you think you have everything planned and under control. The butterflies in your stomach do double duty, and teeth grinding becomes a nightly affair. How your jaw clenches and your fist curls up into a ball when you think about what you’re going to do. It’s not fear – it’s enthusiasm. Or so you think.

When I left my full-time job eight years ago, that was me.

The decision didn’t come about after reading books that told me to go and find my passion. I don’t remember such books existed back then – the closest I got to was “What Colour is my Parachute?My journey was never one in pursuit of passion. It was one born out of curiosity. Finding my passion was merely a result of being extremely curious and doggedly persistent. Was I scared? Yes. Did I care? Not really – I was young, and I didn’t have much to lose. I was lucky. Looking back, I’m not sure if I have the courage to do it all over again.

I graduated with a landscape architecture degree – which took me four years to complete. I pushed that piece of paper right to the back of my bookshelves after I left university and entered the field of publishing. After climbing to the top of the proverbial ladder, I made the big leap and became a freelancer as I worked on Pikaland. Along the way, I tried out and learned a few things too – visual merchandising, copywriting, PR. I even learned how to sew when I couldn’t get a job, because I wanted to do something useful with my time. I didn’t know what I’d do with the skills and knowledge I’d amassed, but learning them meant that I could identify patterns through information that I’ve absorbed, and process it in a way that was unique to me.

If an older person saw how my real, actual CV looked like they would have choked on their coffee and have a heart attack right in front of the desk where they would have worked for 20 over years. They’d think I was scatterbrained, lacked focus, with no ambition or drive. They’d think I was crazy for jumping from one job to another while I had a professional degree stashed away in the corner, collecting dust.

But throughout it all, I knew what I was doing even though I didn’t know where I was going.

I wasn’t job hopping. I was meticulous – my moves were calculated and strategic. My intention was to absorb as much experience as I could, in careers that interested me in the very slightest. When I was an undergraduate, I would spend my time browsing books on art, physiology, and even cooking (besides spending a lot of time in the architecture section). I turned every job interview I had into a fact-finding mission. I made an appointment with a Pilates teacher in Singapore to talk to her about what it would be like to be one. I spoke to a florist and asked her what her job entailed. What their day would look like. What they wish they knew before they went headlong into it. I didn’t know them beforehand – I was just curious. I asked so many questions.

I belonged to an awkward time – when the internet was in its infancy and I still had my Nokia phone (anybody remembers how awesome the 3310 was?). Google was unheard of, and IRC and ICQ was the hottest thing online. Any information I had to go on came from books, newspapers, and magazines; and I knew it wasn’t enough. So I improvised. I looked for more. For information that didn’t come packaged up into nice, glossy pages. I was hungry for the truth. The bad. The good. I needed to hear them all. So I talked to whoever I could find, who didn’t mind answering the many questions I had.

It’s now 12 years since I’ve graduated from university and I still can’t believe how lucky I am to have spent 8 of those years on Pikaland – a blog that I started because I was curious about illustration. It led me to many years of self-study into the process and ideation behind illustration and creative entrepreneurship, where I got to know many wonderful, talented people along the way. I started fun projects and ended some. I began to teach and it unearthed another passion that I didn’t realize I had. Life is funny that way.

I still need a reminder every now and then about pushing through the scary bits, even though it’s been many years since that first major one. Reliving how I emerge whole (not unscathed though) through the other side is a fun reminder of how far I’ve come and how much more growing I still need to do. Which is why when Communication Arts contacted me for an interview about my career trajectory, I was a little surprised. But as it turned out, I did have some great stories to tell, which you can read here.

If you’re thinking of changing careers, the best advice I can give you is to keep an open mind. Pikaland was possible only because I went out and tried to find myself. I was curious about everything, and especially where I fit in with the world. I made mistakes. I had breakthroughs. I made my own opportunities. I lost out on a few. It was hard. And while the fear remained, it was also very easy to say no when I felt that things weren’t right. I’ve said no to major job opportunities that would have meant going back to publishing (and beating myself about it when things were rough). I had a path to clear, and I couldn’t stop – I had to go forward. I pushed on until I could see that clearing, beckoning. To everyone else, it may seem as though I finally found what I was looking for all those years. But it wasn’t something that I found – it was an idea that grew wings of its own. Remember how I said I knew what I was doing even though I didn’t know where I was going? Well, I still don’t know where I’m going – but I’m still here, and I’m curious to find out.

In turn, I’d like to ask youhave you ever thought about changing careers? What does a perfect career look like to you? What’s stopping you from making the leap and what are your concerns when it comes to forging your own career path? Share your thoughts with me in the comments.

Illustration by Ana Yael

Should you go to that conference? How to decide on events that are worth your time and money

 

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If you’ve subscribed to my newsletter, you might know that I recently went to Amsterdam and Berlin. Prior to my trip, I asked my fantastic readers to share their best tips for traveling over there, like what’s the best place for food and what to do (pssst: If you’re not on my private mailing list yet, head here to sign up!) The trip was mainly to attend Pictoplasma 2016 in Berlin, which I have heard so many good things about for the past few years. It was my first time in Europe. It was also the first time I sat in an airplane for 14 hours. It was exciting.

It was also scary.

Before I decided to attend Pictoplasma, I thought of going for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content in Singapore – AFCC (an event that I’ve been attending for the past 3 years, invited both as a moderator and speaker). But when I realised that I didn’t have to go this time round, I asked myself – where should I go instead? Maybe it’s time for a change, I thought. I’ve always wanted to go to Europe to see what it’s like. Pictoplasma is two months away, and by a stroke of pure luck, there was an ongoing promotion of cheap flights to Europe at the time. Fifty percent off the normal ticket price was a pretty good deal, I thought!

Once I started thinking, I then asked myself – what’s stopping me from considering other events? So I turned my focus on another event – the ICON 9 Conference in Austin, Texas. Both were within mere months from each other. I had to decide: Europe or the US. I could only pick just one.

I calculated the cost of accommodation, flight and meals for both to see if I would be able to afford the trip – and it turns the Europe trip was the one that I could afford. Tickets to the US were expensive (50% more), and to cut a long story short, I was able to take advantage of more cost savings that Europe had to offer – including a standing invitation from a lovely friend to stay at her apartment throughout the duration of my trip.

So Europe it was.

To be honest, I never thought that I’d be able to set foot in Europe so soon. For those who traveled often, it might not seem like a big deal but it was always something that I had dreamed of doing, but was something that I waved away as pure indulgence and was out of reach for me. Because it was so far away (14 hours by flight!) Maybe when I had more money. Maybe it’s a trip I should go with my husband. Maybe I should stick to Asian countries first – there’s quite a few that I haven’t been to. I’ve set up so many imagined roadblocks for myself that I hadn’t realised that I was holding myself back.

But you know what? Screw it. There’s only so much time I could waffle on about this, so I booked a flight, and bought a ticket to Pictoplasma two months before the event. I was really lucky because the stars all aligned for me in terms of budgeting. If you’re wondering how I did it – there’s no magic here. I’m as boring as can be:I took on more projects to defray costs. I saved up.  I’m a very frugal person, plus I don’t have other responsibilities beyond my mortgage and miscellaneous living expenses, so I am lucky to have been able to save up a fair bit for stuff like this. And if you’re a scrooge like me, you’ll know that it’s hard to let go, especially when things like this are right in front of you – even though you saved up just for it. It’s a complex, I know.

What if you’re thinking of going to an event? How would you decide if it was worth your time and money? I’ve been to my share of events – both in and out of the country to further my skills and open up my horizons. I’ve also learnt when to say no to opportunities that I felt were not the best use of my time. But like the above, I’ve also learnt to take risks and to just say a big huge yes. I used to get big pangs of FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out when I was first starting out. Having to say no would make me hyperventilate with fear at the thought of losing out on experiences, contacts and networking opportunities. These days however, I’m weighing the pros and cons of every invitations I get carefully before deciding if I should go. My heart doesn’t give off a weird, awkward twang anymore when I have to write an email to decline an invitation. Instead it’s more of a relief, I’d say.

So if you’re curious on how I’ve managed to stave off the ugly FOMO monster, here’s my personal checklist of considerations that I run in my head before I say yes to an engagement or event:

1. Return on Investment (ROI)
In a perfect world, you wouldn’t have to think about ROIs for when you’re attending events. In a perfect world, I’d love to say yes to everything and every event I’m invited to. But I have only one body, one mind (which I’d like to keep sane) and a pair of hands and legs that can only be at one place at any given time. You know how people make a list of pros and cons and then weigh it against each other? This is no different. What would you get out of the event? Are there other events that would be able to provide you with the same opportunities? Who would you like to meet? Could you email or phone them instead? Could you watch the rerun online later? Factoring the practical side of the equation will help you make a more informed decision.

2. Can I afford it?
Budgeting is a real concern when it comes to traveling; particularly when the event takes you out of the country. Would I have enough funds to get there and back? What about food, living and traveling expenses? What if I run into problems over there? Money, however, is an issue that can be settled if you have enough time. Most of the time, planning well ahead will afford you cheaper tickets (much like accommodations, where you can find better rates and locations to cut down on the need for commuting). Not enough funds? If you plan ahead, you can factor in your planning to get some extra money. Take on extra freelance work, or set up a stall or online shop. Hustle, hustle and hustle some more. Get a sponsor. Talk to people who might be able to benefit from your opportunity. Get creative – there’s only so much you can save, but your earning potential is limitless, especially if you do it thoughtfully and purposefully. Stay local – I usually opt to stay at an Airbnb or a local bed and breakfast whenever I traveled so that I had someone to consult when I was there – this time I picked Airbnb as it was on a short notice and having hosts who could give you tips on transportation and general tips is tremendously helpful especially when you need to orientate yourself quickly. When you’re there, pack your own lunch too to save money and time. Discover the local markets/grocery store – this makes me giddy with joy because I enjoy learning how to live and eat like a local.

3. Am I going for someone, or for myself?
I’ve been invited to events where I’d turn up as a favour to the host or invitee. And while some of these events have been great and I’ve come away from it inspired and energised; there have been a few that has made me regret wasting my time because I was trying to be polite. If you’re a freelancer or if you’re self-employed, you might get this guilt more often than not: should I go, or should I not? If I don’t go, maybe my client won’t give me more jobs. If I do go, there’s also the possibility that I might enjoy myself and learn something new. It was mostly the latter for me, luckily, when I was first starting out. I approached a lot of these events with an open mind and was ale to learn lots of cool things, form friendships as well as collaborations that has lasted until today. Remembering this point can sometimes bring up the FOMO monster again, but I’ve since learned to make better decisions.

5. Can you get your things in order before you go away?
Can your business still run while you are away? Can you get time off from work? Can you relax for a bit and not have to think about work while you’re somewhere else? Could you work while traveling? Do you want to? Or would you prefer to line things up so that you can clear your desk and pile ahead of time before you disappear for a few days (or weeks – it’s up to you!)

6. Can I also explore other things and places, and meet other people within the vicinity?
I love to kill two birds with one stone. For me to travel to Europe, I’d really like to max out my time there since it takes about 14 hours (not including layovers) to get there. Being the sort of person who likes to soak in a particular place for a few days (to get better acquainted, and fall in love with it) instead of being the harried traveler, the maximum number of big cities/countries I’d like to cover is no more than 2-3 at one time. I took 17 days to cover 2 countries, which has been a really nice pace – your mileage will vary though! In between, I made sure I had time to meet up and visit lovely friends who I’ve only spoken to via emails, which is a real treat! I also was fortunate to have a roof over my head to call home, hence I was able to stay longer without denting my budget. Recently, I time and plan my travels to also coincide with flea markets happening in the area – I love finding gems that won’t break the bank, while buying directly from local residents.

7. How much do you need/want it?
Sometimes things don’t make sense. You might not get everything you want from that just one event. Maybe it’s just a small chunk of knowledge that you’re itching to get. Maybe you’d really like to say hello to that hero of yours that flew in all the way from someplace far that would be see hell freezing over before you could get there (talk about meeting halfway, eh?) Life can be irrational sometimes. People can be irrational sometimes. And it’s okay. If you think that going to this event would or could change the course of your career or even life (hey, it happens!) then by all means, you don’t need people telling you what you should or should not do.

I won’t be the first to admit that when I want to travel, it’s not just because of work. Like the above considerations, there’s lots of things that go into a decision to get on an airplane, but one of the biggest deciding factor for me is also one that’s very subjective, and sometimes a little selfish. Very often, when I decide to go away by myself, it’s for me to clear my head or for when something bad has happened and I would need some time to process things through. I liken it to having new memories to replace the not-so-good ones!

Whether it’s to get away after watching my first dog die of cancer, or because I felt stuck; traveling – going away and then coming back – keeps me sane. The line “I need to go away” is one that I’ve used a few times when life knocks the wind out of me, and I’m very lucky that my husband and family understands my need to do so. Experiencing different sensory inputs and being in a new place, meeting new people and trying out things I don’t normally get to do – it refreshes and rejuvenates the way I can’t describe it. Yes, I do come back to the same situation at the end of it. My dog is still dead. My teeth issues are still there, waiting for me. I have work that’s piled up sky high. But I come back a different person, with new eyes. I’m itching to get back to work, sleeves rolled up and ready to go. And this alone makes going away worthwhile (in addition to all of the above reasons that I’ve mentioned).

And so I’m back from Europe. And you know what? I’ve built up the idea of visiting Europe so much that when I was in Amsterdam I kept touching the many bridges there while I was crossing the canals to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. I thought to myself: hey, it wasn’t that difficult to get here. It was doable. Yes, it took many years to save up for it, but it also took me the same amount of time to get over my money issues – let’s just say that I am so thrifty that Asian parents everywhere would be proud of me.

As for Pictoplasma? While it was a fun event, I doubt that I would go again in the future as an attendee. First, the good stuff: I learned a lot of new things, met some fantastic artists and made new friends. The not-so-good? I thought the organizers could do better with the opening party and hosting better programmes in the evenings after the conference, so that everyone could maximise their time there, as there were quite a few people who flew in from around the world just to attend (eg. the ability to procure drinks at a bar does not make it a programme for me, really). I say this after having been to a few conferences that was managed a bit better in terms of giving attendees value for their money, and were more proactive in organising ice-breaking events for attendees. But because I managed to cover most of the items on my checklist above in addition to the conference, I had a brilliant trip that’s worth so much more than if I had flew in just for the event.

So if you’re ever wondering about whether going to an event would be worth it, I hope the above checklist is helpful! For me, this trip isn’t just about Pictoplasma, or about going to Europe for the first time in my life; it’s also learning that nothing is out of reach. Yes, I consider myself very fortunate to be able to travel as it’s never lost on me that not many have the opportunity as I did. It might take you months, or even years (like me), but with the right planning, budget and timing, traveling outside your comfort zone is highly recommended to expand your horizons – physically, mentally and emotionally.

Just don’t do it because you have FOMO.

[Illustration by Matteo Berton]
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