Tag Archives: learning

The first step out into the real world is a fight for your dreams.

In the past weeks, I’ve received emails and had subsequent conversations with some prospective SVA IxD students. What was it like? How has it impacted me? What am I doing now? It’s only been four months since I moved away from New York City (although it feels like a few years already) and there are things I did not have time to tell them because, oh I don’t know, we were busy discussing the classes and the teachers and the lovely donuts and the Prosecco and what was awesome and what was not.

Perhaps one of the most important questions they haven’t asked yet, or were afraid to, was one about fear. I don’t blame them. Shouldn’t an MFA make one feel invincible, as though getting through two years of grueling work and critique from the best in the industry gave you immunity for the toil and turbulence that comes next?

Eh, no. An MFA is but a tool, not an end. So here are some personal (i.e not one-size-fits-all) thoughts about what happens after you shake David Rhodes’ hand onstage at Radio City Music Hall:

The biggest fear after graduate school is that one will no longer be able to do what she loves. In the first few months after graduating from SVA, at least after the chaos of saying goodbye and moving camp (again) halfway around the world, I was filled with the choking feeling of dread. It was fun playing the nomad for a few years, but once again, one goal was fulfilled and I had to give myself another one. But which?

I was (and still am) terrified of losing momentum, that I’d be stuck doing a primarily administrative job for the thing I loved instead of doing the thing I actually loved. There is quite an ocean of a difference. I think in addition to what you want to do, it’s also important to determine how you will be doing it. It also matters for whom you will be doing it.

I am extremely grateful for unexpected kindness. I am writing this post from the wifi-equipped living room of a dear friend who has generously loaned his space to me (as well as many other artists and friends before me). It feels like a co-working studio, complete with two dogs. I just replied to an email from a curator of one of my favorite museums who has always listened to my ideas and made as much room for my work as she could since the day we met a few months ago. The other day, I said happy birthday to an editor who several weeks ago very kindly agreed to let me write for her section of the newspaper as long as she had space. Two mentors have taken time out of their extremely busy schedules and have been sending recommendation letters on my behalf to prospective opportunities. I am still producing new work and continuing old ones. I seek out potential collaborators every single day. For one who doesn’t have a full-time job yet, there is hope, you all.

I really pick who I work for. By now, I realize that when I don’t like the project (or the client), the work doesn’t end up to be something I’m proud of. While I still like doing commercial projects (you do get some cool ones!), I hope I won’t forget about asking people to draw what makes them happy, draw on clouds, smell memories, eat poems, and hug each other. And other projects that are currently in the works. Those are the ones that make me feel like the world was still magical.

There are times when I do see life as a taekwondo match. No, really. You bounce around, jump forwards and backwards, and throw a kick when you find an opening. You are not kicking every single second and getting exhausted for no good reason*. A creative life feels that way sometimes—each time I do a project, I use up energy that gets less easily replaced the older I get.  And so I try to reserve the best of my creative arsenal for work I really love. Creativity is boundless, but I am a finite being, and so with that comes a  heightened perception of time.

(*Although outside competing, it’s awesome to train just … because.)

Admittedly, my candor has been both an asset and liability each time I shamelessly cold email someone with a more formal and polite version of “Hello! May I please meet you?” I’m still invited to speak about and share my work. (Hurray!) Sometimes people don’t call me back, like, ever. (Oh, boo.) But for each interaction, I am extremely alert to subtext. Many times, when I directly ask people who have jobs with awesome-sounding titles, who have to spend most of their days in meetings and other things they might not necessarily love, I do get the sense that if life gave them another choice, they would take it.

I am still learning every day. The letters MFA are not an end to my education. Just this week, I’ve devoured books and online resources about marine conservation and aviation—topics we never discussed at SVA but are things I was curious about. By now, I suppose few things surprise me anymore. Ten years ago I thought I would end up with a PhD in cancer biology and have a stuffy career in academia parroting what textbooks had to say but instead things got happily crazy.

As I wrote before, I never went to grad school so I could get a “respectable 9-5 job” afterwards. I wanted to explore and to do things I never thought I would do, but I didn’t want that intellectual and creative freedom to end. Ever. Yes, while graduate school challenged me, it wasn’t any different than how I was already challenging myself before that. People have different feelings about school, especially about doing a thesis, but I’ll say it: I loved doing all my thesis projects and I would do a thesis every freaking year if I could.

And you know what? I will. And I am.

But I can’t for the life of me see what’s going to happen within the next year or so. Each tomorrow is cloaked in fog, and I can only see the next few steps, and afterwards, nothing.

And so for those who wanted to ask, but haven’t yet, let me correct my earlier statement:

Every step out into the real world is a fight for your dreams.

For SVA IxD’s Class of 2013, who are neck-deep in thesis (you can do it!), and for myself, when I feel like giving up. 

This week, something unexpected happened; I’m a published print journalist once again. Pop the champagne! It’s nothing I haven’t already wrote or spoke about before—I wrote about DrawHappy (full article below) for the readers of the Philippine Daily Inquirer. This is the first print article about the project, and I hope to write about my other projects, too.

DrawHappy in the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Learning section

How did this happen? Last week, I had coffee with my former editor, whom I hadn’t seen in eight years and who now runs the Learning section. She was kind enough to listen to the projects I am running. That was on a Wednesday; my first article ran five days later. I have been through enough to be grateful for paths of least resistance. It’s pretty much the same routine of me looking at all submissions, except that whatever I send to my editor will exist in print first, then this blog.

Why this newspaper? Well, I used to write for them. While I was rarely in their offices—the consequence of the Internet—I did meet my editor, the president, and the chairperson once, and they’re quite lovely people whom I respect. I have quite fond memories of assignments involving me as a zookeeper, a magician’s assistant, a mascot, a sushi chef, as well as the requisite book and movie reviews. The Philippine Daily Inquirer also has the widest readership in the Philippines. Because it exists in print as well as online media, I hope my projects reach even those who can’t afford technology.

Back in the day, I was what they would call a youth correspondent, and I was just out of high school. (No need for gasps of ageist-related awe; there were people younger than I was, and trust me, the differences in depth of writing among them were vast.) During college I wrote over 100 articles until I moved to New York.

I am very thankful for those years with the Inquirer because it taught me to be able to write about anything with the tightest of deadlines and with the barest of writing instruments and technology. It has taught me to take criticism, hate mail, and the occasional death threat with as much poise and dignity as possible. Going back to those old articles has always made me smile and wince at the same time. What one writes when she is 29 years old is quite different when she was 17.

It’s also funny because, as someone who was always taught that writing is no way to make a living, it has been helping me pay the bills in the almost-two months I’ve been finished with my Fulbright. Back in those days, I deposited all my writing-related paychecks in a couple of local bank accounts that I promptly forgot when I left to travel. It’s not much, but hey, guess who just paid herself while she gets her projects off the ground? Oh, the irony.

Below is the article, with the link to PDI’s website here.

What Makes the World Happy

DrawHappy: A global art project on drawing your happiness

“Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.”

—Dalai Lama

Perhaps it was a nagging curiosity, perhaps it was restlessness, but for one reason or another, I found myself in the mysterious and sometimes mystical country of Iceland. It wasn’t just the need to get away from the mania of New York City. I went there on a hunch. For years, I have been fascinated with happiness—its arbitrariness as well as our insistence on studying it as though it were quantifiable. Iceland happens to rank consistently as one of the happiest places in the world. And so off I went.

I wanted to ask these people what made them happy, but ah, how do I get them to show it? I realized that one of the most universal and clearest ways to record their responses was to ask them to draw their happiness. Drawing is one of the earliest skills we learn; its basic elements are comprehensible to people of all ages, cultures, and nations. I reasoned that if people knew that they were happy, they should be able to identify the source and moreover, visually embody this joy.

Kindness is first

I vividly remember the first time I asked someone to draw. It was in a diner, a short pit stop on the way back to Reykjavik after spending time in the black beaches of Vik. The young man, Arnar, who worked the register and couldn’t be more than 17 years old, was such a warm an genuine character that I knew I had to ask him.

When you have a project in your head, the initial step is always one of uncertainty and awkwardness. I didn’t have a name for the project yet. I felt foolish for even asking. But I was immensely touched when he drew something that I never thought would be the first sketch. “When I see people do an act of kindness, that makes me feel truly happy,” he said. Kindness! In a world that’s often depicted as materialistic and disconnected! Perhaps there was something to this after all.

A one-woman happiness machine

That first encounter made it easier for the succeeding ones. I became a one-woman happiness machine right afterwards, asking everyone in my path. Even a particularly cold and windy day (in Iceland, “windy” means “being swept off your feet”) didn’t stop me—I went through the entire street of Laugavegur, the primary commercial street in Reykjavik, and asked every single person who would listen to me. Some turned me away, but many took my offered pencil and drew, which they confessed they hadn’t done in years. Some told me that no one ever asked them this question before, which made me do a double-take (Seriously?) and a cartwheel (Yes! About time!).

I set my goal for the Iceland trip to 100 drawings, a big yet manageable number since my trip lasted around two weeks, with half of the time spent chasing waterfalls, volcanoes, and the Northern Lights. But I persisted, even asking people on the plane with me en route to New York. Upon returning, I reviewed the sketches I had, reflected on why I was even interested in doing this to begin with, and decided to put everything online and continue the project.

Drawings as data

My teachers and classmates at the Interaction Design program at the School of Visual Arts, where I received my MFA this May, helped me a lot in tightening up my story and clarifying my intentions with DrawHappy. A final project for my Data Visualization class led to me creating an infographic about the sketches I had. I began treating the drawings as actual data, categorizing the countries where people came from and what they drew. I think doing this helped me understand why people chose to draw what they did.

Until now, I ask people to give their name, age, country of origin, and profession. They don’t have to, but I encourage it because I think it’s important to own up to your happiness and it gives me a way to see how it is defined by people of their demographic. I also ask them about what they were doing right before they made the drawing; I think our notion of happiness is contextual and affected by the things that surround us. How a person views happiness also changes through time, and occasionally, I get another submission from a previous participant, whose definition of happy has evolved.

Going global

It has been more than a year since Iceland. The project has since received submissions from 47 countries. Even now, my heart would skip a beat every time I get an email from a complete stranger, wanting to participate in the project. I have smiled, laughed, wondered at, and cried at the stories I have gotten from people I may never meet. DrawHappy has been a window into our shared humanity, one that is universal and timeless. I hope to run this project forever; I think it has sustained me as well as the people who have supported it.

Lessons on happiness

DrawHappy has also made me understand happiness in a deeper way. Happiness is a paradox. To quantify it, as I have found, is less interesting to me than to qualify it by what people have chosen to draw. Happiness is also a way of life, not an end. How we are happy, that is, whether we can see the little joys in the day, matters more than the bigger payoffs of life. Finally, I now believe that happiness is something that can be cultivated or practiced every single day. I hope that in getting people to draw, they will be reminded of their happiness and that they take steps to pursue it.

Parts of this article have appeared in the project’s site, as well as my personal blog, Follow the project at or @idrawhappy.

Starting today, we will be accepting DrawHappy submissions from all PDI readers! Visit for submission guidelines  and terms, and email with the subject line “DrawHappy PDI.” We will feature a drawing every week in Inquirer Learning, and will post them online at If you wish to hold a DrawHappy event in your school, company, or organization, please email me as well.