Tu Ha An - Dreamlike & Multicultural Illustration

Things that 10 years of working in safety have contributed to my creative life

Recently, my favorite author, Chi Nguyen, presented an exercise in a YouTube video entitled: Looking at your career as a book with many chapters.

The exercise consists of writing down the different “chapters” of our professional life, from the present moment, to the moment we want to stop working. Each chapter represents a period of 5 years.

Since I never had a detailed overview of my future, I attacked the exercise with a lot of curiosity and enthusiasm.

But… the instant my pen touched the paper, I realized that my “book” of my illustration career doesn’t begin until I’m 28. Which means I spent 10 years of my life in a field that is far from my True North.

10 years is a long time in a lifetime. Yet, I don’t consider those 10 years as wasted time. Even though I had to go through a lot of hard times, my former job in railroad safety brought me many treasures, including 3 lessons that I apply every day in my new creative life.

1. Feedback filled with comments is a gift

Why then?

When I was in school, I always dreaded the sessions when the teachers handed in the papers. I was afraid to see my paper covered with red ink corrections. Often, the number of remarks is inversely proportional to the grade.

That’s why I was in a panic at the beginning of my graduate internship when my supervisor handed me back the first set of instructions I wrote. When I opened the document, the red corrections generated with the track changes function on Word jumped out at me. I felt like I had disappointed my manager. The pressure was on when he asked to meet me at the end of the morning to discuss the document.

Contrary to all my fears, there was no reproach or disappointment. My manager made me understand that in our work, there are no more good or bad grades. All that counts is the effort to produce the best result with the resources we have at the moment.

Comments and feedback during proofreading are meant to reinforce ideas, highlighting possible counterpoints. They also give us a variety of perspectives and initiate discussion.

With the double or even triple validation system, I have seen a lot of comments and remarks on my documents. I realized that it is not always a good sign when the document is sent back without comments. Often, it happens that the interlocutor doesn’t have the time (or doesn’t want to take the time) to read in details, or even the interlocutor doesn’t have the necessary skill level to comment on these documents.

How this has helped my creative life?

Receiving client feedback is one of the biggest fears many creatives have before starting out as a professional.

Admittedly, I prefer when my client says, “Woah, your sketches are beyond my expectations! I have nothing to say, let’s move on to the next step!” But with my background in safety, I also feel reassured to receive feedback filled with comments, because I know that the final version will be the best version, with the resources that the client and I have when creating each illustration.

I am grateful for the time and attention my clients and editors have given to my creations.

2. It is important to name our files correctly

Why then?

A big part of my former job was to analyze tramway accidents, to prevent them from happening again.

During the analysis, we didn’t just look at the sequence of the accident. We also had to analyse:

  • Which procedure was applied by our drivers. What is the latest version of it?
  • In what context was this procedure written?
  • Which training courses have our drivers taken?
  • When was this training updated?
  • What was the driver’s schedule during the week before the accident?
  • And the tramway, it was maintained following which procedure?

To answer all these questions, we had to be able to quickly find the documents that had been kept for years. And for that, each employee of the company had to follow a rule to name each file created, so that we have a maximum of information just by looking at their title.

How this has helped my creative life?

From the beginning of my activity, I knew that the future An would have a hard time if I named my files “Drawing 1” or “Summer blog post V3”.

So I applied a naming system for each file. All my working files are named like this:

Reverse date _ Document type _ Project name (or client name).

For example :

20221015_Cover_The Present Day planner

20230309_Colorful illustration_Thien Huong NGUYEN

With the reverse date, my files are automatically sorted in chronological order. I don’t even have to remember if the latest version is V3 or V4.

Later, if a former client comes back after 10 years, wanting to do a sequel for one of our projects, I know I can find all the files quickly and easily. I will have more time and less mental workload!

3. My work should be adapted to my health, not the opposite!

Why then?

I remember a physiology class at the IUT, where my professor told us about a worker who had back pain. The worker said, “I’m 50 years old, it’s normal to have back pain at this age!”

“That’s not true!” – Our teacher would say, “Just because all the 50-year-olds in his factory have back pain doesn’t make it normal!”

That day, he told us about the preconceived notions related to physical pain. I learned how important it is to analyze physical pain to find problems in working conditions. The environment, organization and working conditions must be adapted to human health, not the other way around!

How this has helped my creative life?

I shared my view on physical health in the last paragraph of the article Hi 2023 & keep creating!

Every time my back starts to stiffen up, or my wrist starts to swell, I’ve never told myself that it’s normal to be sore in those places, because most illustrators get tendonitis or low back pain. I know that I need to make changes in my work until my body feels better.

These changes can be a change in desk location, or an addition of a wrist rest. But it can also be a change in organization, adding stretching sessions to the day, or yoga sessions to the week.

As a result, I have never regretted the 10 years of study and work in safety?

10 years is nevertheless a long time.

I still remember the evenings when I would walk home from the office along the canal, exhausted, lost, disappointed after a long day of meetings. I felt like I was wasting my time, like I was stuck, while every year new illustrators were entering the market with more and more innovative creative ideas. And most importantly, they are younger and younger.

But from the moment I started as an illustrator, I don’t feel any regret. I am simply happy with my present.

You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards

Steve Jobs

Yesterday, while doing the “Look at your career as a book with many chapters” exercise, I realized that I have at least three times 10 years left to do the job I love. And I want those three times 10 years to be a happy adventure filled with lessons.

Keep creating!

Tu Ha An

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