Leaving My Tech Job to Start an Art Business

Introduction

I’ve written this piece so many times and scrapped every previous iteration of it. While it’s been extremely difficult to articulate just how complex this entire process has been – the ups, the downs and everything in-between with starting a business - I’ll give it a go. 

PECULIAR has been in the works for what feels like forever, and it’s been an extremely overwhelming experience. Whenever I sit down to reflect on this journey, my head starts swirling with a million thoughts because it feels like my whole life has led up to this very moment (no pressure, right?) However, when I breathe deeply and centre myself, I remember clearly that this all started in my second year in university, when I was studying Law & Liberal Arts in NUS Law and Yale-NUS College. 

Trial by Fire

I had fairly conservative expectations of myself going into law school – I wanted to excel in moot competitions (i.e. legal debates), graduate with at least a Second Upper, become a litigator at a Big Four firm, and celebrate my future wins over fancy cocktails with my colleagues (I can’t tell whether it’s funny or sad that I developed these delusions without watching a single episode of Suits). 

Needless to say, my reality was pretty different from my expectations. Although I enjoyed mooting, I wasn’t prepared for the soul crushing anxiety and sadness I felt throughout all of law school. I constantly doubted myself – why wasn’t I more analytical? Why couldn’t I write more succinctly? - and I felt trapped by past choices and future options – what could I do if I didn’t want to practise Law? How dare I even allow myself to consider that as an option? 

Looking back, I feel nothing but affection and sympathy for that version of myself. I’d grown up defining myself through my achievements; what school I was in, what leadership positions I held, how well I had performed compared to my peers etcetera, and trying to extricate my identity from the validation of a professional path was painful, gut-wrenching and extremely lonely. I also struggled with a heavy, sometimes suffocating sense of guilt. Why was I allowed to contemplate leaving Law, when some of my peers didn't have that option because of their financial constraints? I condemned myself for my privilege, and often felt that I did not "deserve" to deviate from the path I had chosen for myself, for fear of appearing spoilt, weak and lazy.

It’s no surprise that I avoided these feelings for years, until I met my then-boyfriend and now-husband, Darren. 

A Breath of Fresh Air

Meeting Darren was like learning to walk all over again – the guy had such a different outlook on life that I often felt like either my brain or his was wired wrongly. He told me early on in our relationship that I was analytical, smart, and not cut out to be a lawyer. Confusing, right? In hindsight, I think he could tell very quickly that my interests didn’t align well with legal work, and that a smart, analytical person who was good with words could excel in many other fields apart from Law (again, I can’t tell if it’s funny or sad that this was truly radical to me back then.)

As our relationship progressed, I began to internalise that my inherent value had little to do with external, often capitalist, markers of success. I also realised that the prestige derived from a professional job, though sometimes exhilarating (especially during Chinese New Year), was cold comfort to me whenever I found myself wading through piles of legal documents at wee hours of the morning. 

I kept searching for what made me feel fulfilled, and tried to see if I could marry that with adding value to society. I worked as a part-time debate coach to the loveliest, sweetest primary school students, dabbled in digital marketing courses, and gave myself the space to explore different interests. As time went on, I grew in self-confidence and courage. I wanted to start all over again and create my own brand of success, and I wasn’t going to waste my second chance at life.

My parents were shocked when I told them that I wasn’t going to practice Law. They tried to convince me to take the Bar and practice for at least a year, but I was resolute in my decision. I reasoned that it would make more sense for me to gain a year of relevant, non-law work experience (and salary), instead of studying for the Bar and practicing for 6 months, only to leave the profession entirely (although there is no shame in that either.) After many tense and emotional discussions, they relented and allowed me to forge ahead. I was, and remain, eternally grateful to them for placing their trust in me. 

My game plan was to apply to non-law jobs eight months before graduation, secure the role of my dreams, and turn down my legal training contracts. Like all of you, I didn’t foresee a global pandemic impacting my plans. In particular, I didn’t foresee myself turning down my legal training contracts without securing full-time non-law work.

I was fresh out of university and newly unemployed. 

Finding Light within an Ocean of Darkness

The early days of lockdown were hellish – I spent my days obsessively cleaning the house, applying for more jobs, budgeting my finances, and vacillating between feelings of despair and self-doubt. It felt like my life was spinning out of control and that I had no one to blame but myself.

Somehow, in the midst of everything, I stumbled upon a Youtube video tutorial on resin ocean art. I’d always loved the ocean and ocean-related art, so I was instantly intrigued by the prospect of making my own slice of the sea. I Googled a bit more, spent my Covid-19 Solidarity Handout on materials, and received my supplies within the next three weeks. I still remember how pungent the resin smelled when I first snapped open the bottle (please wear a gas mask if you’re working with this material!) and how my hands shook as I mixed in different shades of acrylic paint to turn the resin blue, green and white. My first piece turned out….ok I guess. Looking back, I can point out lots of different faults – how I applied too much heat to the resin, how I couldn’t achieve any cells with my white “waves” and how I didn’t really prep my workspace well (which explains why we’ve had to replace our dining table...sorry Darren.) However, in that moment, I just remember feeling completely engaged and absorbed in the process. Working with resin was everything that I was searching for – it was challenging, stimulating and extremely fulfilling. Needless to say, I was hooked. 

Soon after, I started an Instagram-based business called Mizu Moment to document and sell my resin pieces. I was very upfront about my motivations behind setting up the account: I just really needed to create value again, and to feel validated for my work. Somehow, my story resonated with many others who were also struggling to find work in 2020. I remember having many conversations, both online and offline, with people who were feeling lost, discouraged and stressed out. It was reassuring to know that I wasn’t alone, and I always felt so comforted when my newfound friends would take the time to encourage me and let me know that they cherished my work. 

I felt myself growing and changing as I continued to run Mizu. I learnt to conceptualise new designs, source for materials, negotiate contracts and make my artworks within a schedule. I also managed to land a Digital Marketing internship at a tech start-up, so I had my hands full. Those early days were really blissful; I was so excited to build a community of ocean-obsessed clients and I was finally working a job that I was actually interested in. I kept applying to full-time roles and after two and a half months, I heard back from none other than Salesforce.

Getting Validation 

Breaking into tech had always been the end goal for me (or so I thought.) When I was in school, I tried to pivot away from litigation by undertaking tech-related legal internships (in hindsight, none of my internships in Intellectual Property law or Consulting were really that relevant to tech, but it was what I managed to clinch as an undergraduate.) I had always admired how progressive tech companies were and I applied to all of them, hoping to be given a chance. Unsurprisingly, many of them didn't get back to me, and those who did simply told me that my background made me an unusual and unsuitable candidate. 

I received a call from Salesforce about my application for the Solutions Engineering role on a Wednesday evening. I was over at my in-law's place and I struggled to maintain my composure as the recruiter told me that I had made the first cut. To be very honest, I had completely forgotten about applying for the role and had jokingly asked the recruiter to refresh my memory about it. She said something about being a pre-sales technical consultant and I immediately froze - me, possessing technical knowledge? About customer relationship management software? There was no way that I was cut out for this job. I almost called the recruiter back to cancel my interview, but something told me to give it a shot. If I really couldn't do the job, they'd just reject me anyway, so I figured that I had nothing to lose.  

The interview consisted of a fairly demanding technical presentation and personal sharing session. I felt safe and supported throughout the entire process and didn't hold back from sharing about my journey as a lost and confused 24-year old. I found out a week later that I had landed the role, and I was so happy that I thought my heart was going to explode. It felt like I had finally gotten the validation that I had craved for so badly - a big tech company wanted to hire me, and they saw my legal training as a strength and not a weakness! I screamed, danced and hugged my loved ones. It felt like things were finally falling into place.  

The next 11 months were challenging, exciting and extremely educational. I worked alongside wonderfully kind colleagues, struggled with imposter syndrome, and tried to absorb as much technical and client-facing knowledge as I could. However, as the months flew by, I found myself thinking about my business more and more often. I craved the rush and excitement of my creative process, the joy of engaging with my clients, and the fulfilment I experienced whenever one of my artworks was able to lift someone’s spirits. I also felt deeply conflicted - why was I still feeling this way despite landing such a good job? What did I really want? It was as if I was experiencing de ja vu all over again, and I felt sick every time I contemplated leaving such a safe and secure role. 

However, I had grown and changed a lot since the last time I was at a similar crossroads. I finally had a better idea of what I wanted out of life, and the physical, emotional and financial costs associated with it. I knew what I needed to do, and I broke the news to my manager over a cup of coffee. She graciously accepted my decision to leave the company, told me that she believed in me, and said that my storytelling and empathy would help me succeed in whatever I ended up doing. That was almost a month ago and here I am now, a budding artist and entrepreneur at the ripe old age of 25. 

Taking a Chance on Myself  

It's been a couple of weeks since I finished serving out my notice period at Salesforce. I've been getting more and more comfortable with the fact that I'm about to launch the homeware design company of my dreams, and I'm so excited that my product lines have expanded to include hand-built ceramics and glassware. I'm also perpetually caked in resin and clay, which isn't how 16-year old me thought I was going to end up.  

Sometimes, I feel like I'm growing so much that my brain physically overheats (or maybe that's the work of the resin fumes). Darren got me a small kiln for my 25th birthday, and I've commandeered the guest bedroom as my own little art studio. Friends and family have been cheering me on, spreading the word about this new venture, and exchanging tales about how crazy their daughter/niece/friend is for leaving her tech job to become an entrepreneur. I feel scared, excited, stimulated, fulfilled and content, and I know deeply that these feelings will translate into my designs and artistic concepts. 

Everything in my life has led up to this moment, even if I didn’t know it back then. If you've made it to the end of this journal entry, I want to let you know that it's never too late to rediscover who you are, and live a life that's sustainable for your health and happiness. This story is as much about my journey as it is about yours. Be brave, embrace growth and chase your dreams, no matter how peculiar they may seem. Thank you for supporting me as I chase mine. 

Love, Liz

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