How to succeed in life after art school? Read through the "career talk" I gave to graduating students in my university to give them a glimpse into possible futures.
Develop Your Character
If there is one thing I want you to remember from this “career talk” is that you must develop your character. It does not matter what you attain in college. Make yourself interesting. Develop your personality and then back that up with your skills. You can learn new skills in 10 minutes. But building a character takes a lifetime. You can only develop your character through life experiences, the influence from the people you meet, the decisions and mistakes you make.
You need a strong character with a good moral compass, integrity and confidence more than anything else to survive—not even succeed in life. You will need to survive first and then you may start thinking about that so-called society standard of success, which is always defined by having more money, right? I’m telling you I am not rich. I have only just started to get paid as an artist last year. And yet, I can say that I am successful because I have survived many times.
A strong sense of self is much more sustainable than any college degree or career. You can change jobs, hop from one company to another or even move countries but you cannot separate from yourself, right? So why not invest in your most accessible and constant companion? YOU.
You need a strong character with a good moral compass, integrity and confidence more than anything else to survive—not even succeed in life.
Do you know I have been fired twice and I quit my job three times? The first time I got fired was because I was too young according to movie mogul, Mother Lily Monteverde and my boss/mentor, director Erik Matti, was too powerless to hold his ground.
We were at the Regal Films office in San Juan and Matti was presenting his production staff for the second installment of the smash hit "Mano Po" to Mother Lily. When it came down to me she said, "No!" She said I was too young. In my defense, Matti said I could do anything and even climb a coconut tree. In that instant I began to wonder if I could really climb a tree! They were literally shouting at each other. So we all took a break outside. As I was seated on the pavement feeling dejected, my heroic director assured my job. So I went to the next shooting day in a hotel in Roxas Blvd. The line producer saw me on the set and she said that Mother Lily was visiting and she was not aware that I was still in the payroll. She told me to stay away from the set. So I hid in the 11th floor fire escape for hours, which prevented me from doing my job as the script supervisor, who was basically in charge of following the continuity of the script throughout the shooting schedule. Eventually I plucked up the courage to tell Direk Erik that I was leaving. He nodded. Walking along the boulevard I commanded myself not to cry even though I knew that my film career was over. I was just starting and I was already jobless! I went back to Tarlac and spent time with my friends and family until I figured out my next move.
That crucial event stuck in my memory especially the chaos I caused the production. Later on I realized, it was not about me. It was about protecting an investment versus a director’s pride. Mother Lily only wanted to work with people she knew and trusted. Anyway, who cares about an inexperienced 23 year old from the province when your million-peso blockbuster movie project was on the line? Later I heard he also got fired several times during filming but still managed to finish that damn movie, Mano Po 2!
After six months of bumming at home I received a call from someone who needed someone who could use Photoshop. I did not know how to use Photoshop but I did not tell him that. I would figure it out when I get there. Believe it or not but the company that hired me was owned by Mother Lily's son DonDon Monteverde and Erik Matti.
From then on, I worked mainly as an in-house graphic artist, who made logos for every company they put up, posters for films, events, etc. Then I worked part time in their productions either as an event organizer, wardrobe assistant, toy designer, costume designer, set designer, stunt double, and assistant director in Pa-Siyam. I was back on track. I was getting close to becoming a movie director. That was the dream! I was 24.
I tried literally everything until they offered me the colorist job even though I had no idea what exactly it was. Around that time I was being paid peanuts and I needed to pay bills already, rent, utilities, my life in the city… I needed a fixed income. I was becoming an adult. I realized that working in film was not sustainable. It was also a gritty profession—dog-eat-dog kind of environment. I pretended I had the stomach for it. I was at a crossroads between staying in filmmaking while knowing that I might die of hunger before I become a movie director or choosing a different path with a promise of a fixed income but still stay within the vicinity of the film industry and within Matti dominion. You see, I made him my hero. I thought if I stuck around long enough, maybe I could become just like him. That was stupid. Matti did not become a graphic artist to become a director. He certainly did not become a colorist to become a director. He followed his path through thick and thin and now he is at the top of his game.
The attraction to the colorist job were the following: the name of the position, I would have my own studio, I would be trained abroad, a 5-digit salary, employee benefits and that there were only 4 colorists in the country back in 2005. I would be the 5th! Though I was still making movies as well as TVCs, I was merely a part of the entire process. I was not the creator but a collaborator. It was fun and fine until it was not anymore. As the company grew, corporate politics seeped in through the cracks and again I was the target of two malicious power-grabbing newly hired managers, who only wanted to work with people they liked. It was Mano Po 2 all over again! When I found out that the other colorist they hired was earning twice as much as I was earning I quit. I did not have the energy to fight that battle anymore. I was 29.
Anyway I already hated my job as a colorist because of the politics and the inauthenticity of everything I was doing in advertising. I was done pretending I liked my job and that toxic environment so I handed over my resignation letter and backpacked alone from Tarlac to Ilocos, Cagayan to Kalinga, Sagada, Baguio, back to Tarlac and then to Manila. Monteverde and Matti tried to convince me to stay but I was steadfast. I also went to Palawan to celebrate freedom.
The second time I was fired, I already established a career in post-production. I was “let go” because I could not commit to this new post house who practically pirated me from my former company. I wanted something else. So I moved to Singapore in the next opportunity I got.
I was in a limbo in Singapore and I felt like a zombie there because I worked 7 days a week from 7am-12 midnight. But never mind that because I needed the money and experience to enter Germany, where the love of my life was waiting for me. I was not sure if I was a real OFW because I left the country for selfish reasons.
Every OFW I met had similar stories: they are their family’s only hope. They left because they had to earn for their family. Before I left, I talked to my mother because I felt guilty for following my heart again and that I was not contributing anything to them. She said, they did not need us to contribute to anything. What they wanted for us was to be happy. I am grateful to have parents who do not require their children to become their retirement plan.
There is a flaw in the Filipino or Asian family culture. A couple births a child or children. Everybody’s happy. Yay! Children grow up, parents grow old and then the children take care of the parents. That is all fine. That is being human and belonging in a community. But there is a thin line between giving willingly and forcing the children this responsibility. First of all, who wants to be born in this world? Life is difficult and our parents know that! It was your parents’ choice to bring you to this world and therefore it is their responsibility to bring you up as a functioning human being up to a certain age and then let you go.
Are you a nestling? A fledgeling? Or a free bird?
Birds are amazing. Every spring they pair up and mostly for life. They build a nest, lay their eggs and then take turns in incubating until they hatch. These are called hatchlings and then the parent birds take turns feeding and training the baby birds, called nestlings, until they could start flying, which by then they will be called fledglings. As they develop their flight feathers and learn to fly, the parents stay quite close to watch their offspring and still protect them because the are the most vulnerable at this stage. Several weeks later they let them go and probably not see them anymore because they know that they have trained their babies well enough to fend for themselves in the wilderness. If you are way over the collegiate years and still living with your parents or making them pay for your life, then you need to think about your role in this society. Are you a nestling? A fledgeling? Or a free bird?
My parents let me go because they understood that I cannot be stopped. When I spoke with my mother, I was not asking for permission. I was asking for forgiveness.
Right after graduation, I spent a few good hours lying on the floor and staring at the ceiling and pondering on my future. I was frozen. I knew I wanted to do movies badly because I have so much stories to tell but I did not know how to start. The next time I moved a muscle, I grabbed a directory of the advertising industry and contacted every director I found through a polite lengthy SMS—not even a letter. I was that bold. Some of them replied, mind you. The money I earned from teaching summer art class in Ecumenical School, P4,000, I used to fund my departure and new life in Manila. I could not wait to fly away from home.
What do you want?
Now let me ask you: what do you want so badly for your future? I know you have a secret dream that you are afraid to admit or tell anyone for fear of being judged or ridiculed. Give yourself a break. Nobody really cares about your dream or what you think because other people also have their own dreams, problems and lives to deal with. You are the only person who should focus on your life.
How to have a sustainable career in the arts? That is a million dollar question but I will give you a hint. Look at every single object around you. Is there some kind of artwork on it? Is there a logo? Is there a design involved in making the object? A pen? A notebook? A chair? Everything is manufactured by someone. Everything is designed by someone. YOU could be that someone.
Art is anything created by humans. Art has been around since the dawn of mankind. We are created by a creator.
The world needs creative people especially artists. You just need to know where your specific skills are needed.
However, one thing I have learned in the corporate world is that everyone is dispensable. You get fired or you resign, and the next person is just around the corner waiting for you to vacate your position. So how will you stand out from the rest?
Be you! There is only one uniquely YOU. The first time I understood the meaning of mediocrity I detested it. I hated that word. I was scared of that word. I did not want to be mediocre. Not only did I do jobs that no one in my circle of family and friends could do or even understand, I also made sure I gave 110% of my abilities. If the call time was 4am on set, I made sure I was there half an hour before. When they only gave me 3 days to learn the color grading software, I practiced everyday after that until I mastered it enough to be up to speed and give my own flavor to my color gradings. Perhaps I would have climbed that tree after all. I thrived at the challenge.
Most young people who do not know what they want or how to get what they want in spite of their education is in danger of choosing the most obvious and available job to earn fast. These are jobs that may not be as satisfying to your soul but may offer you stability, travel to Bangkok on a weekend, a house and a car and even education for all your siblings. If you are going to be satisfied with that because that is your life mission, then good for you.
But why did you take up this course only to end up in a box? You worked your asses off for 4+ years for a degree you will never use. You must have known deep in your heart that there is something for you here hence you chose this path. You are fortunate to have education. Use it.
Most young people who do not know what they want or how to get what they want in spite of their education is in danger of choosing the most obvious and available job to earn fast.
I did not want to be a professional artist. I actually applied for architecture. What I really wanted was to study theater arts in UP Baguio because I believed that would get me closer to filmmaking. But I was a full scholar in TSU and I did not want to burden my parents. Plus studying art was easy. Even when I earned my bachelor in Fine Arts I still did not know how to be an artist. 4 years in college do not teach you how to be an enterprising artist.
Supplement your education by teaching yourself. Force yourself to learn the business of selling art. Build a portfolio and a website, have social media presence and try to present yourself to potential clients as a credible artist who could provide the services they need. When I say sell art, it does not only mean going to art galleries and peddling your paintings there. You are selling your service through making art. I will tell you again. Companies need artists. Find these companies.
Who gets to decide whether you are a legitimate artist?
In my decades of being a professional, nobody asked for my diploma—nobody required my transcript of records. I had to shove those papers in front of my employers to prove to them that I was not an idiot. Guess what? They did not care. What they cared about was if I could do any task they told me. Erik Matti only cared about my ability to press the play button on cue as soon as he yelled “play”. So I pressed the damn button and memorized the Forrest Gump soundtrack, ran around bargaining for textiles in Divisoria and Kamuning, and pressed Richard Gomez’s Bench trousers, which I accidentally burnt, by the way, and paid for P300, which was my entire salary for the week. I was a cum laude. I was the best in my class and still I sucked at what I did! I was 22.
I tagged along with these Bacolod mafia filmmakers everywhere so I could learn the language, the art and inner workings of filmmaking (fortunately I understood Ilonggo because of my Mother). I was one of the boys! The first movie was Prosti, and then Gagamboy and a few more TV commercials in between. Eventually I was getting paid. Amazing! I was living my dream! And then came Mano Po 2... You know the story. I got fired!
That whole film experience taught me about the realities of adulthood and the good and dark side of humans. I chose the other way so I could at least get through life without being hungry. When I was already earning steadily as a colorist, I was simultaneously comfortable and insecure.
An indie film director once told me, “you cannot deny the call of art.”
Now that I am a professional artist, I have gone full circle. Funny because my parents recognized my talents, all my friends know that I am the artistic one in the group. My schools have been giving me awards for being the best artist. I just did not acknowledge it. I was being stubborn. I denied myself of my true self. And because I denied myself that, I was lost, miserable and I was not even aware that I was slowly dying inside. Now that I have accepted and declared to the world that I am an artist, I felt relieved. Making art is like breathing. Yes, I had to relearn drawing because I have not been practicing for 2 decades, but it was similar to just rebooting your computer. I could still draw because the knowledge is all in here.
You decide who you want to be. And once you have figured that out, and I hope as soon as possible, improve yourself. Be the best version of your true self. If you realized you should become an artist, then practice everyday. Observe everything. You do not need competitions to validate your talents. You are much better at skilling up by learning and practicing than spending your time competing and comparing your work with others. That is just time and energy wasted.
Know your worth
My greatest dream was to make movies but what do you think made me quit Mano Po 2? As I was waiting in that stairwell, I told myself, if I had an ounce of self respect, I would quit right there and then. Never mind my dream of making movies shattering into pieces.
Why did I quit the coolest job in post production and completely turn my back from the business of filmmaking? Because the company that I dedicated my time, work and loyalty betrayed and did not value me. I was also so enslaved by that dream that I have become blind from the other possibilities out there. I was too comfortable earning a regular income by doing something easy and superficial. I was 29 years old, broken-hearted from failed relationships, depressed, suicidal, hated my job and worst of all I allowed people to make me feel worthless.
As soon as I let go of that dream and all the baggage that came with it, I felt free. I did not care yet what would happen to me because before I resigned, I made sure there was at least one company that would hire me. You would not believe how many opportunities came in once word came out that I resigned—two of them were job offers from abroad. That somehow assured me that I did have value. But I was not eager to jump into another frying pan. I needed time to heal—to find myself through traveling.
During that northern Luzon trip, I realized I only wanted one thing: to be happy. I needed to fill my cup again because how can you give when you are empty? Do you know what also happened during that trip? I met my future husband on top of a jeepney on the way to Sagada. Not only was that a rom-com movie moment, that was also the Universe’s funny response to my prayer because that signaled a new chapter in my life.
In order to enter Germany and guarantee employment there I enrolled in a Masters degree program. I forced myself to learn German until I finished the 2 year course in media conservation, which was taught 99% in German. I worked thrice as hard as any of the other younger students. I also worked part time as researcher, colorist, and film archivist. We got married eventually and I was earning again. The Germans admired my work ethic by being on time, organized and well-prepared through research. I attribute these qualities to my professional experience in film and post production. My papers were getting published and recognized by international academes and my future in film archiving seemed bright even though it did not feel quite right. I was pretending I knew what I was doing. Though saving old films seemed more noble, because you are basically conserving art, my job as a film restorer lacked the creative aspect. It was more technical, academic with so much external politics involved, because you need government funding in everything you do. That time I already knew I hated politics and I had the strong desire to be creative again.
Then an opportunity for my husband to work abroad came and we both decided to move to South Africa. That also meant I would not be allowed to work because of visa restrictions. Once again I faced unemployment. I was 34.
I was also in remission from cancer of the uterus. I cannot have children. So imagine this, I was a married woman in my prime years without children and a job in a strange country and sitting all alone waiting for my husband to come home. Our life was comfortable and I thank my hardworking husband for that. But I did not want to be just an expat wife. No self-respecting woman in this modern age would be content with just being a house wife. I did not want to be useless—to be obsolete, to waste my potential as a woman and a human being. I still have something to offer. I asked myself what is one thing I could do naturally anywhere in the world. Be creative. Make art!
Why Make Art?
Apart from the obvious reasons of self-expression and leaving a legacy, I want to make art that also serves. People always say that in an economic crisis, art is always the first to go.
On the contrary, the global book publishing industry has done really well during the pandemic. They have seen significant growth, up to 20% increase in sales, and are quite stable compared to other creative industries. It makes sense because we were all locked up and had to be entertained, right? So where do artists like you fit in situations like this?
Apart from the obvious reasons of self-expression and leaving a legacy, I want to make art that also serves.
What did I tell you about offering something valuable that is uniquely yours? As an artist, you have probably developed a style right now or still developing. No one will have the same brush stroke as yours in the same way that if you copy a painting it will never be 100% the same as the original. You also have a unique voice. This is your manner of visual storytelling plus your choice of medium and subject matter. Art directors and artist agents are constantly looking for fresh talent to answer the demand for new books.
Remember that artistic style and voice as well as technique is developed through constant practice and exploration. I used the 5 years of being unemployed in South Africa to improve my skills and develop my style and it paid off. I won my first book deal at the height of the pandemic.
When I was rebooting my art, I did not know I wanted to be a children’s books illustrator. Out of all the different markets for illustrators such as home decor, stationery, toys, editorial and so on, I fell in love with making art for children because there is fulfillment in knowing that whatever I create for children’s books will have an impact to young readers who hopefully will grow into better people than any of us here. In my opinion, that is art that serves.
Remember that artistic style and voice as well as technique is developed through constant practice and exploration.
In this life you will need luck. I was lucky to have parents who are completely independent and did not require us to take care of them. I was lucky to be alive and be given a second chance to live and redefine my purpose in life. I was lucky to have people who love me and who will always cheer for me. I was lucky to find a partner in my husband. I was lucky to be discovered by an artist agency so I could bring my work to a bigger audience and get paid for it.
But luck is not magic. It is summoned. If you do your part in trying to achieve your goal, if you have tried everything in your power to show what you’ve got, the universe will notice and listen. It has to! Everything will line up to help you reach that goal, may it be through a series events or people because luck is an opportunity you say "yes" to.
Remember that there is no easy way. Let’s say your goal is on top of a mountain. It doesn’t matter how quick you get there. There is still a mountain in front of you (Simon Sinek on millenials in the work place). People have tried to climb the Everest, right? And some of them reached it. But did they do that in one day? They trained for years trying to climb lower summits first to learn breathing techniques, acclimatization, have endurance, strength and patience so that they could finally reach the highest mountain in the world.
Luck is an opportunity you say "yes" to.
The good thing about Filipinos is that we are not privileged. We know and understand hardships, which makes us resilient and adaptive. I know this because when my husband and I attended an expat orientation seminar in Germany before we relocated to South Africa, the moderator asked which one of us had experienced a typhoon. I raised my hand. Earthquake? I raised my other hand. Volcanic eruption, flood, typhoid, dengue... My hands never went down. Every single person even my husband was staring at me in shock.
But young people today are addicted to instant gratification. Please don’t fall victim to this twisted notion that in order to be successful you have to be popular. Instead ask yourself what can you uniquely offer to attain and maintain that internet popularity? Use your time, energy and talent in making real things that have value to your community and then post it if you like. People always buy something that has value to them. You as creative young people could offer something with value.
Get Out There
I had to go through all that only to realize that the thing I did not want to do is exactly the thing I am supposed to be doing. Does it mean I should have just pursued art from the beginning? How would I know that time? I had a different dream. We all walk into our futures of unknowns but try to know at least one thing before you take a step. I knew I wanted to make movies and that became my starting point.
If I did not pursue filmmaking, I would not have learned about the realities of adulthood, responsibility, integrity, humility and realized my own worth. I was not the best but that did not mean I was worthless. If I did not quit that colorist job, I would not have explored and met my husband. If I did not leave the Philippines, I would not have understood what true independence is, appreciated my country and realized that I represented every Filipino wherever I went. If I did not move to Germany I would not have been married and would probably be dead now because you die of cancer in the Philippines. If I did not have cancer, I would not have realized my true calling. If we did not move to South Africa, I would not have had the time to be creative and have been inspired by everything I have seen and experienced to revive my art and learn about the possibilities for an artist. If I did not let go of that false dream of filmmaking, I would not have realized that creating stories through words and pictures was my life mission.
If I had pursued art when I was 21 years old I may not have the guts and graciousness to accept every rejection that would come with being an artist in a global stage. Even though I am a working artist now, I am still being rejected. For each project I have won, I have equally lost. Rejections are inevitable because art is subjective.
But because I have life experience and have a better understanding of people’s actions and my own, I have become more mature. I am not going to whine about not getting a project. I will not stop making art just because one art director did not like my work. It only meant that there is room for improvement or simply the project was not for me and that I am now open for the next project that fits me. That also meant that another artist would be given the chance to earn a living who will do a much better job than I would.
Life experience is one thing these four walls could never teach. Life experience is one thing those pieces of paper we call diploma will never declare. If I was an expert at anything for 41 years, I have become an expert of myself—my own person. I know at least when to say yes or no to anything. I could let go of anything that is not serving me anymore because I know now that I am truly the captain of my soul, the master of my fate!
Life experience is one thing these four walls could never teach. Life experience is one thing those pieces of paper we call diploma will never declare.
I wish I could tell you it is going to be alright from now on—after you have graduated or even after you have landed your first job. I wish I could tell you that there are 10 clear steps to success and that the results will be the same for everyone if you follow them. I wish I could tell you that being Filipino and an artist and a woman living in Tarlac is great. I also wish that your academic degree will be useful in whatever profession you will choose. I wish I could tell you that you will not fail, get hurt, or be betrayed as you go through life as an adult. But there is one truth I am going to tell you: It is going to be exciting from now on.
So when you get out there be careful not to lose yourself! Rather get to know your true self and let that be your anchor. Learn anything from anywhere and anyone but do not compare. You do not know the difficulties that idol of yours went through to get where they are. That is the only way to build your character—the person you ought to be.
You will learn more when you are out there experiencing life than being here listening to a self-centered person who is also and still finding her own place in the world.
Success is not about proving yourself to others what you can do. It is about improving yourself to contribute through your own way to the world.