5 Lessons I Wish I Knew 5 Years Ago

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always felt out of place in my world.

Growing up as a highly imaginative dreamer with my head in the clouds, I was constantly misunderstood by my family and friends, who seemed to be more conservative and practical in their outlook on life.

Throughout my teens and 20’s, I was always pulled apart by an inner conflict between taking the road less traveled, or settling for a clearly defined career path that more people could understand, so I wouldn’t feel so alone.

Some people who know my background will say I’m privileged to be able to talk about pursuing my passion and my dreams because I’m essentially a spoiled brat who’s never known a day of “hardship” in my life.

I acknowledge the fact that my grandparents and parents have worked their asses off to set up a life for me that allows the space to explore and seek something greater and deeper and more meaningful and intangible, and for that I can never thank them enough.

All I can say is that there is no one “right” way to live, and my choice to walk the less beaten path comes with its challenges and sacrifices, and consequences I have to live with.

Thankfully, I no longer walk alone because seven years ago, I found my tribe with Live Your Mark, a coaching and personal development community in Singapore, and a space for people to discover our truest selves, create lives that truly matter to us, and to live our marks in the world.

I would not be who and where I am today if it weren’t for my teacher Kelvin, Mei Yee and the coaches of the organization, and my fellow comrades over the years. These last seven years have been quite the journey of discovering what it means to live life on my own terms, discerning what I truly wish to create with my life, and dealing with A LOT of my internal conflicts, fears and struggles, before I could embark on my huge dream of installing 100 Dream Tree murals around the world (currently completed eight, and 92 more to go!).

So today I share with you five lessons I’ve learnt on this journey, stuff I never knew from before when I was struggling to figure this all out on my own.

I write this today simply to let you know that if you’re like me and trying to walk your own path, you’re not alone. I don’t expect you to fully agree with me, because ultimately you’ve got to find your own way, which is unique to you. If what I’ve shared here helps you, and you think it will help others, do pass it along. And if what I’ve shared doesn’t sound right, I’d love to hear your input and your thoughts, because I’m still learning, too, what this journey and what our time here in this world is really all about.

Illustration: “PenguinGirl’s Dream” (2016)
Watercolor and ink on watercolor paper, 11.7 x 8.3 in.

1. The right moment is NOW.

There is no waiting until the “right” moment. The “right” moment you’re looking for is NOW.

When we watch movies and read books, we witness the protagonist’s lives unfold as a series of significant events, though the various scenes and chapters that build the plot of the story. There’s almost always a clear beginning, middle and end, and usually the journey comes full circle, the conflict is resolved, and the quest is fulfilled.

What we don’t see are the moments in between the scenes and chapters. If that story were taken out of its creative format and lived out in reality, the unseen moments between the significant events is where real life happens, and where the real work of living takes place.

Our life happens in these day-to-day, hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute moments, and it’s moving along right here right now, like it or not. We can’t press “pause”, we can’t rewind, we can’t fast forward. So how we choose to spend our NOW determines what will happen in the next minute, the next hour, the next day… thus shaping the entire course of our lives.

We either work to set ourselves up for an extraordinary and remarkable life, a comfortable one, a crazy ride… whatever you wish it to be… or waste it waiting for the “right” time to really start living.

If you want more adventure in your life, then create your everyday to be the adventure. If you want to be exceptional at something, then you gotta practice everyday. And if you have a dream to be an artist or a writer or a chef… you gotta start doing what artists, writers, and chefs do… starting now.

There’s no waiting for the significant event that you want. The significant event happens because you’ve already been working towards it.

When I was 26 I was a student in the U.S., and I wanted to travel more, but my friends were always either too busy or didn’t have the resources to travel, and I was afraid of traveling alone. I decided I didn’t want to wait any longer, so I had to do something to overcome my fear. Part of this fear had to do with my framework that if I was doing something alone in public, like eating at a cafe or watching a movie, I would be judged for being a loser with no friends (it sounds so ridiculous now that I used to think this way lol). So I decided to face these fears head on.

For six months, once a week I ate a meal alone at a cafe or a restaurant. At first I felt so exposed and vulnerable, like all eyes were on me and judging me, that I had to bring a book and pretend I was reading. I dreaded doing this every week, but after six months, I was not only able to eat alone in public, I even went on my very first solo road trip for four days. I learnt how to better manage my fear, and today it’s not as scary to travel overseas by myself for long periods.

Stop waiting. Take the necessary actions to live your life the way you want it NOW.

“Penguin Mother” (2018)
Watercolor on watercolor paper, 8.3 x 5.8 in.

2. We are what we do.

There’s this saying, “Action speaks louder than words.” In the same way, we are what we do, and not what we say we are.

It’s the how we spend our time that shapes our identity, and not the labels we put on ourselves. The label helps put forward an intention of the vision we aspire towards, like declaring, “I’m an artist” when you’re just starting to paint. It puts you in that frame of mind and sets you on that trajectory toward your aspirations as an artist.

But no matter how many times you declare “I’m artist” and you don’t show up to the easel or produce any work for the next few months, then can you really call yourself an artist?

You might feel that you are an artist in essence, and maybe you’re waiting for inspiration, or until you have a proper studio, or until you have enough money and quit your day job… The fact remains that until you produce something, all you have is just a label without the certainty and confidence that you are what you say you are.

We become an artist only when we produce artwork, or a writer when we craft articles or a book. What we are only becomes real when we engage in the work of honing our abilities on a consistent basis and producing stuff, even if it’s not to make living with, and even if we’re not planning to share or publish it. Once again it comes back to how we choose to live the day-to-day moments in our lives.

I’m an artist, but I’ve also felt that I’m more than just an artist. I also aspire to be a creativity coach like Eric Maisel, and help other creatives with their work and struggles. Thus in Live Your Mark I’ve trained in life coaching, and in other skills development such as leadership, management and organization. There were times in the past seven years where I neglected to make time for my creative work, and after a few weeks without making art, I felt like something was missing, and I’d question my alignment to my dream of being a coach. After going through these cycles many times now, I’ve discovered that I’m always an artist first, and if I don’t put in time to make art (doesn’t matter whether I intend to sell it or not), anything else I take on will always make me question my identity and my purpose. At the same time, I cannot feel aligned to coaching other creatives if I don’t walk the walk myself.

So whatever your dream is, start taking consistent little actions in that direction wherever you are in your life now.

“The Creation of PenguinGirl” (2018)
Watercolor on watercolor paper, 11.7 x 8.3 in.

3. Attitude is everything.

When we do what we are, it’s not just doing for the sake of doing. It’s also how we do what we do.

Are we giving our work the best that we’ve got? Are we approaching each project as our best work?

Or are we slapping a bunch of random words together and calling it an article? Are we holding our best back for the “right” project, or the “right time” to execute your dream project?

Do you finish your projects, or do you have a tendency to abandon them every time something more interesting comes along?

In the beginning it’s better to just get the ball going, and produce in quantity, if only to get into the habit of producing work. Then after some time we’ll have to establish a balance between quality and quantity. Of course we strive to put our best work out there, but the quality of our work can only improve when we’ve produced more of it over time.

For example, building a daily writing habit is a key practice towards being a writer. You need to invest time into writing so you can hone your skill and discover your voice. But that doesn’t mean you publish your drafts as the final piece. There’s also the process of editing and refining in order to create quality content.

When going for quality, it’s admirable to want to make your work the best that it can be, but perfectionism is a potential pitfall. At a certain point of editing and refining, we have to make a decision that the work is complete and close the chapter so we can move on to the next thing, rather than getting paralyzed by the voices in our head saying it’s “not good enough” or “not perfect yet”.

For many years I struggled with this. I started my artist journey seven years ago with no formal training in art, and though my first solo exhibition in 2013 was a successful manifestation of my childhood artist dream, I couldn’t help feeling like I had a lot to catch up on, and I became obsessed with trying to move things along as quickly as I could.

So I spent a lot of time looking for shortcuts that worked for other artists and online businesses, and trying to emulate them so I can move my career along faster. I studied how to curate my Instagram feed so I can attract more followers, how to write better captions, how to reach my ideal audience, how to run Facebook ads for selling my art, and so on… hoping that somehow one of these things would magically take off and work for me.

I also looked at what’s the fastest and most efficient way for me to produce art, refining my system of production so I could finish more paintings in a shorter time. I was also very inconsistent, jumping from idea to idea according to what seemed to work for other artists at the time, series to series according to my whims, and ended up finishing only 20% of what I started.

All this at the expense of my primary job as an artist – to express what I really want to express, and to master my ability to do that in a way that is unmistakably me.

If I had a chance to do over, I would spend far less time trying to find shortcuts to grow my audience and my business, and invest more time developing my skills and ideas, and be stricter about what “doing my best work” means to me.

Because at the end of the day, I’d rather be remembered for the quality of my work and how it has moved the five people who LOVE it, than have thousands of followers “like”-ing my mediocre work that will soon be forgettable in the sea of other far more remarkable work out there.

Illustration: PenguinGirl’s Seaside Song Session (2016)
Watercolor, ink and color pencil on paper, 10 x 10 in.

4. There’s no one “right” way to live your best life.

Life is a balancing act, and each person has a unique set of scales.

We live in an age where content is abundant and everywhere, and it’s easy to get caught up with all the various tips, suggestions, opinions, and advice by all these “experts” out there, sharing the “best” way that you should live your life.

But every single person is different, and everyone’s journey is as one-of-a-kind as their fingerprint.

There’s no one “right” way to live your best life, and only you can figure out what truly works for you.

Maybe you’re someone who has to focus on one thing at a time to make things work in your life. Maybe you’re easily bored with routine and needs to have a few things going on at the same time. Maybe you need 10 hours of sleep for peak performance. Maybe you only need 6, and 10 makes you feel more tired.

Everyone is different, and instead of just blindly following the advice of some articles you’ve read online, experiment and test a few things out to see what works best for you.

When I was trying to make my artist career move along faster, I noticed a trend of artists who made a new artwork every single day for at least a year, and it brought them tremendous results. One artist went from selling only a few daily paintings at $50 each, to selling every single one three years later at an average of $300 each. Another artist grew his Instagram following from a few hundred to more than 100,000 by the end of a year just by posting a new drawing he did every day.

So I tried to copy this, and it was horrible for me, because this kind of daily routine isn’t fulfilling for me. I very quickly got tired of trying to start and finish the same artwork within one day, let alone having to repeat that same process for the next few days. I did manage in 2014 to complete a 100-day daily art project (though it took me a few weeks to get through Days 90 to 100 lol), but the quality the work I produced wasn’t as good as when I took a few days to finish one painting.

At the same time, I cannot leave a painting unfinished for more than a few weeks, otherwise I get bored of it and forget about it. Thus, I discovered that the optimum time for me to produce a finished piece is a few days, and I have to work on 2 to 3 pieces concurrently.

Thus the first thing you must get clear on is the outcome you want to achieve. And then when you figure out your process of getting there, how much closer you move towards the endpoint will indicate if the method you’ve chosen works for you or not. And if it doesn’t work, try something else, or refine it to work for you.

The more you repeat this process of testing things out, the easier it becomes to figure out what works for, and the most you’ll discover about yourself.

“PenguinGirl & Cheshire Cat-Penguin in Tulgey Wood” (2020)
Watercolor, ink and color pencil on watercolor paper, 11.7 x 8.3 in.

5. The only person you really answer to is YOU.

At the end of the day, there’s only one person you really answer to, and that is yourself. 

Our lives are lived in the day-to-day moments, and each moment comes with choices we have to make.

At the end of your life – the culmination of all these decisions – are you pleased with your results? Can you be at peace with the consequences? Are there regrets?

Every decision you make comes with further possibilities, and a price. How you choose to spend your time now affects your options and the consequences later in your life.

Everything is pretty much a risk, even what seems like the safer bet. And while we can’t predict how our lives will or won’t turn out, the only thing we can control is the choices we make.

The real question is: Are you choosing based on following someone else’s expectations or advice, or do you consider all the possibilities presented to you before powerfully making the best choice for yourself?

Your loved ones and your mentors can give you guidance and suggestions, but at the end of the day, these are based on their own perspective, opinions and life experiences, and are to be taken with a grain of salt.

The only person who can truly decide for you, is you.

Even if we decide to listen to someone else’s advice, and later things go wrong as a result, we cannot blame that person because it was still our choice to listen to them.

And if we choose something against what they advised, we have to be prepared that there’s a chance they may not react well to it. Remember that their reaction is their problem, and try not to let it change your stance.

I personally struggle with this a lot. As someone who grew up always feeling out of place, I thrive on external validation, and even though I’m aware of it and I really don’t want to, I can’t help it sometimes. I’m easily affected by the numbers of likes on my Instagram posts, my follower count, and most of all, negative feedback.

I took a risk the other day, sharing openly how I failed at my recent art sale, and I received a mixture of feedback. Some gave encouragement. Some responded with their well-meaning advice and opinions. One criticized an aspect of my work (I’m sure I took it to be harsher than it was meant to be). And because it wasn’t the validation I was unconsciously seeking, I started to doubt if I should have shared that post in the first place.

Then I realized that once again I was giving my power away to people who don’t really know me, some of whom aren’t even on a similar kind of journey, and I was letting their opinions and responses affect a decision I had already made. All of a sudden it became clear to me that I need to be the best advocate for myself. 

Each of us are pretty much on our own in our respective journeys. You may have like-minded friends, comrades or life partner, but ultimately your path is still your own, and only you can walk it in your own unique way.

This means you make all the decisions, you’ll reap the rewards accordingly, you’ll bear all the consequences, and you have to choose everyday whether you still continue to walk your path, or switch to something else.

Because at the end of the road when you look back, the only opinion that really matters on how you’ve lived your life is yours.

“Scream of Cuteness” (2018)
Watercolor on watercolor paper, 5.8 x 8.3 in.

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *