Embrace Your Nonlinear Path

Life isn’t really linear, but we’re brought up to believe that it’s supposed to be.

We’re conditioned to think that after our schooling years we need to go to university and get a degree, then after we graduate we have to get a job in what we majored in, and then by a certain age we need to find a partner, buy a house, get married, have kids, settle down, and spend the rest of our days watching our kids grow up, working until we retire, and until then we look forward to when we’re finally free to have the life we’ve always wanted.

Even though we may know intellectually that there’s no pre-determined template of how to live, there’s still a part of us which craves the certainty and stability of the conventional.

Plus it certainly isn’t easy to embrace our unique path when everyone else around us seems to be following “normal” routines, lifestyles and milestones.

As a human who was walked (and is still walking) a nonlinear path, I totally get it.

I’ve spent years feeling misunderstood, feeling like I was “different” from my peers and my family, and eventually even concluded that there must be something wrong with me for not having the same goals in life as everyone else.

But as I look back on my nonlinear journey so far, with its myriad of experiences and adventures, and interesting persons I’ve met from all walks of life, I’ve gradually come to terms with the reality that there is no one “right” way to live, and that every single person is on their own unique path.

When I was a child I loved to draw, but I was discouraged (by conventional-thinking adults) from being an artist when I was 8. Even though I completely forgot about my artist dream for 20 years, it occasionally prodded at me through a sudden interest to paint something, or to peruse art books at the bookstore, or people complimenting and praising my random doodles and sketches (and for the longest time I just thought people were being nice!).

I completely missed all these signs until I reconnected to my artist dream (for reals) at 28, and suddenly my calling as an artist became clear.

In the meantime, the path I walked from ages 8 to 28, which eventually led me back to my forgotten childhood artist dream, was quite nonlinear.

It had started linearly like most people’s educational path — in Singapore we go to kindergarten, primary school, secondary school, pre-college institution, and then I attended a local university at 19, where I majored in psychology.

And like most people I had my hobbies and interests, and I pursued them in between the time I spent in school, finishing my homework, and studying for exams.

Because I completely stopped drawing since I was 8, I didn’t really have a creative pursuit after that. Then when I was 11, one of my classmates wrote a fictional short story about a few of us on an adventure. Inspired by this, I wrote my own short story with the same characters, and then I couldn’t stop writing.

These short stories became longer as I entered my teens, and then at 15 I fell in love with contemporary Christian pop music, and began writing original songs in the hopes of someday becoming a singer-songwriter in this genre.

I was brought up a Sunday Catholic, and had gone through all the motions of my religion, but with my newfound dream to bring people to God through music, I developed a greater interest in the Christian faith, and believed that all signs and inspirations that came my way were part of discerning God’s will (thus I usually dove in feet first to try things out).

Through other “coincidences”, at 17 I got involved in the local Christian music scene, and began to develop friendships outside my usual circles of school and church.

Through these new friendships, I got connected to other interesting people, and by the time I was in my final semester of university in Singapore, one of the guys in my regular group of friends was an independent filmmaker, and his girlfriend was a local actress.

Now, acting was a profession I hadn’t considered before. But when I wrote longer stories at age 13-14, I used to imagine myself as the female protagonist, and sometimes daydream about winning Academy Awards for playing those roles in a movie.

This actress gradually became a regular in my group of friends, and the more she shared about her life and the happenings on set, the more I wondered about the possibility of myself as an actress. I used to think of actors only as Hollywood stars, a highly unattainable status and hence way out of my reach, but now I was friends with an actress, who seemed like a regular human being, and so I thought: If she can do it, maybe I can too.

Eventually I plucked up the courage to tell her I had been thinking about exploring acting as a profession, and it just so happened she was going for an audition the next day. We went together, and that was how I got cast in my very first speaking role (a small one) in a short film.

From here I explored acting for a year, and though there were many fun and interesting experiences, somehow it never felt right as a career for me. I transitioned into working behind-the-scenes in production design type of work, but that felt even less “right” for me. While I spent the next few months trying to figure out what’s next, I met someone at church who worked in a job agency, and she had an opening in retail, so I took the job and worked six months in a local department store selling costume jewelry.

Then one day my mother offered me a ride to work, which happened only this one time during those six months. During this car ride, we conversed about my life direction, and remembering my dream to be a contemporary Christian pop singer-songwriter, I shared that I’d like to pursue something in music.

And that’s how at the age of 25, I moved halfway across the world to Nashville, Tennessee, to pursue my second bachelor’s degree, this time in Songwriting and Music Business.

Yes! Finally! I’m going to fulfil my dream! At least that’s what I thought in my first year there. Then the more I learnt about the music industry and the reality of a singer-songwriter’s life, the more I knew it wasn’t right for me. In my final year I explored a few classes outside of my major, and during my graduating semester, I enrolled in Introduction to Drawing.

One day, in the middle of a drawing assignment, I had a flashback of that forgotten memory of when I was 8 and discouraged from being an artist. This, along with the encouragement and support from my art professor in that drawing class, spurred me to take a leap of faith and move to New York City for a year to explore being an artist.

I had come full circle and returned to my childhood artist dream, and once again I thought all the pieces of my life will finally fall into place in a predictable linear fashion… and once again I was wrong (lol).

After I successfully organised my first solo art exhibition in early 2013, I became a freelancer in illustrations for children’s book, portraits and other private commissions, while also trying to figure out what kind of artist I am. I explored being a curator by organising two group exhibitions, I was hired to paint other people’s murals, I sold prints of my work at local art markets, and eventually taught doodling workshops (teaching was something I never thought I could do), and tried to get my work into local art galleries.

In these first five years as an artist, it was very exciting to explore all these possibilities, but the more I explored, the more I felt none of them was completely “right” for me. My artwork looks more commercial and illustrative in nature, but I didn’t want to be freelance illustrator. I felt more like a fine artist, but compared to the works I’ve seen in galleries, something was missing too.

Then in 2018 I attended my first artist residency, where I painted my first ever mural of my own design, outside of Singapore. Inspired by that unforgettable experience, I decided to paint 99 more such murals around the world, and in 2019 I installed seven more in six countries. In the meantime I also reconnected to singing again, and trained to be a singing instructor and voice coach.

This year, with the COVID-19 pandemic discouraging me from international travel, I stayed put in Singapore and unexpectedly started to explore paper cut animation as an art form. I completed my first animated story in October, and am currently working on my second film.

From one nonlinear-path-person to another, I assure you that it’s normal to have an unconventional life, and you really don’t have to feel like you’re “different” or “out of place” or “worse off” than your friends who seem to have their life together (only because they have taken a more conventional route).

At the end of the day, you owe it only to yourself to live the best life that you can possibly live, and it’s going to be a life that’s different from anyone else’s.

So keep walking your own path, keep going at your dreams, keep following the inspiration that comes to you, and eventually you’ll figure out what’s best and what’s right for you.

And someday you’ll look back over your nonlinear journey and its accompanying adventures and memories, and you’ll see how it was all totally worthwhile.