My Education

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

...or the thorough lack of.

I get asked about this a lot during talks and meetups, but the main reason that had me writing this down was probably due to the mails I receive from students saying they were inspired to pursue photography, art, or something else less accepted by majority of the parents out there because of me.

It's flattering yes, and I'm probably expected to be supportive, but I can't brush off the feeling that sometimes I think my articles and interviews romanticize my experiences too much. So much so that when people read those they're given some sort of impression that leads them to think -- "She left school and became successful in no time, I don't feel like I'm learning anything at all in school either, I wanna quit too!" -- which then somehow helped them convince themselves that education is useless, and that it was fine to use it as an excuse to do something else for the sole purpose of using it as an escape.

Here's just a little something to better shed light on some stuff that led me to my decisions. It's just stuff that came to mind, so please do pardon the lack of coherence.

As a child, I always recalled my mother telling me a particular metaphor: if a fire were to break out in the house, the most important things to rescue would be books, for knowledge is power and the most valuable for one's survival.

It probably sounds a little far-stretched in the modern day context, but it puts the point across. Some of you will probably want to argue that it's money that one can't live without, practically speaking. Sure it's important, but then we have another metaphor, that, you can have a mountain of gold and silver and spend it all without knowing how to replenish what you have (due to the lack of knowledge). 

I was at the age where my parents' words were laws to abide by without questions, and I would always believe whatever I was told with absolute faith. My understanding then, at 4 or maybe 5, was that, knowledge was gained by learning, studying, and that's why we had to go to school. To learn.

As I grew older, I figured that studying didn't have to be confined into classrooms because we were all different. And that sometimes, the world itself was our best learning place, because certain things, I could only learn from actual experiences.

The thirst to simply find out more about what I liked was my drive, and only much later did I realize that learning was really a lifetime affair.

A lot of things happened throughout my schooldays outside of school.

To cut it short, I was made acutely aware of death at a young age. It led me to believe that I didn't have many years left. So despite making efforts to get in, I spent my days in a prestigious school not quite studying as I should have been, utterly convinced that my end was near and I had every right to spend the last few years the way I wanted.

I had various interests that weren't quite academical, and with every additional one I was made all the more aware of not wanting to be in a school studying things irrelevant for my needs. No, at that time, I didn't know what I wanted to be.

I was good in air rifle, but I felt that it would one day become dull if I stayed doing sports all my life (no offence to others in the line, it's just me).

I liked air rifle, but I liked difference, new and change even more. I wanted to do something that will make the next day fresh and challenging all at the same time. Air rifle was about hitting the barely 0.45mm bull's eye every single shot, about how many times I can repeat the same set of actions without mentally and emotionally wavering. But there's a limit set to it. You can only get 400/400 for 40 shots in a competition, and no matter how frigging perfect, may you get 109/109 for finals, it's as far it goes.

I didn't want something with a pre-set limit.

Along the way I met Yun (aka Arissa, aka Kagetsuki, aka minicloud, who still calls me by the nick I was using 7 years ago after everyone else has stopped), and thought that she was possibly the coolest girl I'd ever met in my life. Due to the fact that she was doing fashion design, I became somewhat interested, and decided to study fashion. 

I was on leave from school to train for the Olympics selections that year, and with all the extra free time on hand and interest in fashion, I selected a short course on makeup to learn. The knowledge in it played an important role in my photography later on.

I'm deviating a little from my original point here, but what I'm trying to say is, if you find something of interest, don't hesitate to learn it. An extra skill never hurts. (Although I don't know what reading The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space at Primary 4 was gonna help me with, but I guess at least it gave me a dream to live out there... in the future. Like I can do a photoshoot in space or something... Yeah yeah okay I'm having Gundam daydreams again. Hahahaha.)

After various events, with extreme reluctance on my mother's part, I managed to leave RGS for LASALLE with the blessings of my principal. (Gotta admit having a good standing of achievements in air rifle helped, seriously.)

I enjoyed my foundation year tremendously. It provided me with a variety of mediums and platforms I could learn about and experiment with, all in the realm of something I was interested in -- art. And from there, slowly but surely, sieved through was my interest for illustrative images.

My decision to leave school a second time grieved my mother to no end. She'd thought I really loved school and was enjoying it (which I was, till later, which I'll explain below), and couldn't understand why I wanted to quit a semester short of getting my diploma.

My ex-step-dad and pals would scorn at her, stressing her failure as a mother; my maternal family was extremely academic and they were taking turns to call my mum from the US and UK all over, repeating just how a degree was mandatory.

But really, attaining a piece of paper doesn't mean I'd retain the knowledge from school any better if I hadn't bothered to study at all. Without it, what I'd learnt was already mine, and wouldn't be taken away from me. Right?

Here's a quick summary on what happened:

We were starting on a semester in men's fashion. Admittedly, I was only interested in womenswear, however, the lack of interest was hardly enough to warrant my yearning to leave school.

That term started almost a month later than scheduled; we didn't have lecturers for some of the classes, we didn't have make up classes for the sessions that didn't take place; then an incident, a classmate cried and screamed at me in front of a roomful of people because of how unfair she felt it was that I got by well enough whilst missing school for rifle training trips and competitions, while the rest could barely catch up.

Traumatized on top of the disorganization of classes, I felt that it wasn't adding up to what I could get out of my own time if I did individual learning. Also, I was becoming obsessed with photography.

I had a little popularity growing on deviantART, I would receive notes telling me that I had inspired an individual to pick up photography every now and then. It made me feel both happy and appreciated because it was something I thoroughly enjoyed, which at the same time seemed to allow a complete stranger to benefit from.

Around the same time I started getting small jobs, it was then that I felt the unstoppable urge to better myself and my shoots. The want to do more, create more and improve more. Which all demanded more time and efforts than I was already giving, it was the moment for me to shed everything else to focus on photography only. Once that became clear, I knew no one was going to stop me. I wasn't going to live down a life that wasn't mine, that much I was certain of.

A dear friend once said to me:

when we are alive, we need to do things that make us feel right
things that give us that feeling that we are living our own lives, our own choices
and if we are honest with our own feelings
we ought not feel bad for making others sad
because lying is worse
It wasn't directed at my studies, but I think this quote applies (and to a lot of other things too, really).

Eventually, when I did leave school, I'd already shot a magazine cover, earned an average of at least roughly 800SGD per job with constant enough job offers. If we look only at the basic of 1200SGD a month of a fresh diploma graduate, I wasn't too badly off. (Okay so I don't really know the exact figure, maybe it's higher, maybe it's lower, I didn't really care anyway, it was just numbers conjured up to explain to my mum I wasn't gonna starve to death) It definitely wasn't much, but it was something.

So no, I didn't just make my decision based on thoughts and ideals alone.

I knew quite clearly what I needed and wanted, that my learning had to encompass experiences from a working environment which was within my reach, which the school did not and could not provide, which needed more time for than I could have afforded while still being in school.

I knew what I didn't have and had to work on, and very importantly the simple truth of having to support myself, my overheads, and the fact that I was ready with the ability to face them.

I left school, but I was not running away from learning.

Pursue your dreams and be brave, but don't use it as an excuse to escape.

So um, there. It got a bit longer than I expected. Sorry. XD

I contemplated about writing the pursuit of dreams, turning pro and experiences, but obviously, that would somewhat turn this entry into an autobiography and make everyone on this page fall asleep. So maybe next time.

PS: Despite the fact that I'd tried self-betaing 98124 times, I'm sure there're still errors and pointless sentences where I got carried away, please forgive me.

PPS: If you made it to the end, even if it doesn't help you in any way (since it's more addressed to a small group of people), I still hope you enjoyed reading it somehow... yeah. XD

PPPS: I just realized that this coincides with Obama's speech to students on education, just a note this was written quite sometime before, and thus is in no way a response or opinion towards his speech. ^^;


Samantha Nandez said...

I think what people need to understand the most is that what happens and works for one person doesn't work for everyone else. If you look at all the success stories of anyone (photogs, artists, businessmen, anyone) they all have a different story. The core is that each of them works hard. As you do in your photography.

Mikkel Larsen said...

This is a very deep and very interesting entry to read, and I am sure, that the smaller group of people you are eventually aiming at, will have learned something from reading this, and I really hope that they do.

I have told you once before, that you have a way with worths, just as you do with a camera. Knowing more than just the name and age of a person you admire is always a good thing, for me at least, and although I do not know you, and probably never will, really, I still feel that I have learned something from your entry, so thank you! :)

fang said...

i think it takes a whole lot of courage taking the path less trodden to chase your dreams :)

like ur photos <3

Red Lebrun said...

Thank you for that, it's always interesting to see into the mind of the artist. All forms of education are valuable, whether recognized or not by society in general through those small pieces of paper called diplomas or degrees - but not all manage to prove their worth without that extra paper, that foot in the door.
Glad it worked out wonderfully for you, and although i would certainly call you a source of my inspiration, i'll continue to pursue that degree ;)

Erica said...

I just want to say thank you.

Wolf Schröder said...

What you did is very commendable. I really respect it.

If you didn't take the steps that you did to ensure your future as the future you wanted, not only would you have been unhappy, but all of your fans would not have the beautiful photos that you leave us with today. I enjoy looking at each and every one of them.

"But really, attaining a diploma doesn't mean I'd retain the knowledge from school any better if I hadn't bothered to study at all. Without that piece of paper, what I'd learnt was already mine, and wouldn't be taken away from me. Right?"

^ That is so well-said. I wish more people would understand that.

Ryuuzaki+Julio said...

Very honest, the school system is rating students like they used to do on 1930, so basically they are still training people for small jobs, school its about knowledge and the one who understands this, PLUS that we don't live forever, can't waste time following someone else, there are a few who not follow a path, but create one, Zemotion is one for sure.

This was a nice reading, thanks!!

jordax said...

You said: "I contemplated about writing the pursuit of dreams, turning pro and experiences..."

I would like to hear that.

riverstyx said...

That was very deep and moving... you've been through a lot and it's very impressive what you've achieved :) Family and life can't always be the easiest things to handle ;)

Thanks for sharing it with us :)

cinnamon89 said...

My eyes were watering while reading your entry- probably because I am feeling 'unfulfilled' in my current degree choice. I was doubting education and my future prospects (as a graduate), but you have inspired me again- like countless times before. Though I don't know you well, you are one person I look upto, not only for your photography, but also for the person you are. I am grateful I came across your DA one year ago and I am grateful today, that I read your blog entry.

Anonymous said...

Hi jingna, thanks for the insightful writeup. You're braver and wiser then most ppl twice your age.

kieli said...

As a former educator, much of what you've written echoes comments I've made to my students. Encouraging aspiring artists, photographers, etc to learn the basics before striking off on their own is very good advice. It so happens that you are extremely talented, probably in ways that you never imagined. To have an impressive body of work at your age is quite an amazing feat and I hope your parents are very proud of what you have accomplished.

By the same token, it must be difficult to be someone's model as to what direction they should take in fulfilling their dream. That burden would be tough to handle for anyone. However, you seem to take it in stride (relatively speaking) with a maturity and grace that is, by turns, humbling and inspiring. I look forward to your next book.


Jeffrey Lai said...

that really was quite the inspiring read, thanks for sharing your experiences!

Lanx said...

Thank you. Really. Thank you for sharing this. It moves me alot and you have no idea. And yes we must try our best to pursue our dreams so at the end of the day, we won't feel sorry for ourselves for doing nothing at all. Not even trying.

So, thank you. =) *hugs*

Anonymous said...

Your next project-- Autobiography: "From Zero to Zhang Jingna"


死心 Dethhart said...

uhmm uhh hi.. i didn't mean to stun you or anything previously haha...uhm sorry lol ._. see i don't know how to put my point across well...*lacks eloquence* well it was meant to be a short thank you but i am very long-winded and all but still yah i hope i didn't stun you in a bad way or what.

my arblahblahblahrubbish stars, thank you *so* much for sharing all this, it really means so much, so much to me.

Zemotion, thank you.
From Dethhart

Ryunosuke said...

Just to let you know you have really inspired me and have helped me understand a little bit more about myself, my life, and my ambitions. I hope you don't mind, but I am going to print out this beautiful blog entry and post it on my wall in my room, and when I am lost I will read through it.

You really do have a way with such beautiful words. They've moved me in the direction I needed to be in. - Ryunosuke Furiya

yuuiki said...

I didn't know what to say actually so I hesitated to leave a comment.

I do agree with everything you wrote and I can relate to it. I'm currently studying Graphic Design, though I'm more interested in Photography lol ^^; But I'm just studying for the sake of the cert for now. My dad wants me to study language but I refused and insisted one studying Art.

So I really do appreciate what you wrote there. <3
Thank you.

(Never expected the comment to be this long tho)

Anonymous said...

Wow, the moment you started Photography you was already getting jobs, great. ^^

Jody said...

You are definitely an inspiration, regardless in character or in skills. You go girl! (:

Ginkojyuin said...

Thank you for writing this aspiring piece. I've always had the feeling that in order to achieve one's dreams... we need to have a firm mind to where we're going and we're getting there. Sadly, I feel that more and more of us teenagers are however, being pressured to enter into a certain career/field. I supposed there are other aspects that we need to look at such as family/monetary means.

Even as today, my interests in art are considered a mere hobby in my parent's eyes. One that doesn't bring money back. I never considered that just because I'm young, it would mean I'd be able to do it as a career later on in life. Rather I'd like to make an effort to do it. I guess, sadly, I don't however, have the skills or time to improvise for now.

But even so... Just reading what you've gone through makes me feel alive again. You're truly an inspiration for all of us... or rather for me. Thank you.

©Sherly said...

thank you so very much for writing this :) I don't think I can't say thank you enough.

I really wish I, too, could make something great out of the sacrifices I made. :)

Now, if only a certain person I know will read this journal and get reality to slap her hard on the face... >__>

Ana Pacurar said...

with all respect you are inveted to join 100 photograhers on

we hope that you will come with your great portofolio

have a beautifull day

Ann fr Ro

noom said...

Thanks for this sentense.
"Pursue your dreams, but don't use it as an excuse to escape."

Not many people know which dream should they persue. Tell us why art & photography are yours? How do you know it's a "real" dream?

Lyana said...

I always enjoy learning about the people that inspire me. I'm glad you took the time to clear up a lot of misconceptions and confusion about how to pursue one's dreams because if I were you, I sure as heck wouldn't want to take credit for being the sole influence in an increase of drop outs. I have a higher respect and admiration for you after reading your entry. Not only are you a great inspiration in the world of art, but also a great source of wisdom.

weijie said...

hey !

i managed to survive through reading this entry and i really liked it .

especially this phrase ,
" Pursue your dreams, but don't use it as an excuse to escape. "

it's cool that you given up air rifle for yet-another-cool interest which is fashion and photography but yet you excel in what you are able to do . i really liked your works at deviantART and all those commercial shots .

absolutely stunning . :D cheers !

LJY said...

your pictures made me notice photography and YOU inspired me to pick up a camera.



chrisgraphics said...

Your story is not short of inspirational.

If I were to add a few lines to your thoughts I would say this:

Quit college if you utterly conclude you're better off doing something else.
But be prepared to take the ambition you didn't have to finish college and add it to the ambition you'll need to stay on your new untried path.

bibi said...

I just want to say thank you for sharing this =)
I truly admired your courage and determination.

PatatasX said...

I am so in the same situation now...

Thanks fer sharin' yours...

dreamtomatoes said...

I wish my cousin could see this...
"Pursue your dreams, but don't use it as an excuse to escape." is my FAVORITE quote of all time now. x]
Thanks for writing this! I really enjoyed it!

Yuet said...

What you wrote reminds me of Paulo Coelho's short story 'The Importance of A Degree' in his book 'Flowing Like The River'.

It is really inspiring to know that you pursued your dreams with such courage and determination.


Ling said...

... interesting to learn about how you got started! ... and air rifle!
(that gives me some hope since i was in the air rifle group which is ironic since my eyesight is so bad after years of computer use I am both long- and short-sighted)

... and @Yuet , Paul Coelho's "The Alchemist" is what I held on to during those 1.2k days. :)

TeaLady said...

Just wanna say thanks. What you wrote really gives me hope for my dreams.

It gives of idea of what i wan to do now. I will be honest with myself and do what I love.

atsikaryonip said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mode.ulation said...

Your post and life story is seriously inspiring. I too am now in a local academically-inclined school and I really wish I can have the guts to pursue my dreams like you too... =)

Anonymous said...

You *are* an inspiration to many, but I get the sense that you are not finished.
Continue to pursue, grow, change and push the edge. ...and Thank you for the wonderfully written story.

Brittles said...

I'm so glad that I found you here. I just started a photography blog (literally like an hour ago) to help stay organized and help myself learn, etc so I kind of stumbled upon this accidentally, although you're on my 'watchlist' on
Thankyou for posting this story. It's both inspiring yet realistic. People can read this and be inspired, but at the same time realize that they can't just up and quit school and their whole life suddenly to do something else. They have to want it, and work at it and of course always push forward.

JewelKelvin said...

"Great minds think alike and sometime we live alike too."

I quit psychology a year back and took up photography instead(you know what you want is what you truly want, when you're looking enviously at your lecturers with their dslrs shooting away at the little events at college lol). It's been 9 months now since I began my journey and I see no end in sight. My hopes are still soaring high for that someday.. someday the dreams I'm pursuing now would be real and not just something I contemplate on endlessly.

This post made me realize that nothing is impossible when you put your heart and soul into it, knowing where you're heading and being able to accept the outcome of it. Good or bad, happy moments or sad.. It's a good sign that you're on the right track when you feel good at what you do.

Jewel Ling

v smyrniotis said...

Thank you for writing this. I always want to write to artists about what pushed them over the line to choose staying in school or quitting.

If you have the drive and invest the time into making your art your career, and realize the risks and achievements that can come from that - then go for it. But if it's just that vague idea that someday your art will get to the stage it needs to be at without school and without work, then your dream becomes that escape from education that you were speaking of.

Thanks again for writing this.

Saw Kang Jong said...

marvelous entry... Now, I'll work hard for my chosen path :)

Rendy Lai said...

Love the ppps of Obama. ROFL.

Great write up. Completely inspiring.

Annika Kluepfel said...

Hi Jingna,

I think you've shared very important thoughts here:
That it is a good thing to have dreams, and maybe even run a risk to achieve them,
but that it's at least equally important not to become irresponsible and to always reflect on whether a risk is actually worth being taken.

The way you handled it seems just right to me, and I wish you all the best!

Wenq Lee said...

-sorry for necroing this post =p

I have similar thoughts as you on education, leaving something just before the end - because I realize my passion is in another. Twice for me too. I did get my degree (withdrew during my honors year), but it was in a completely different field (chemistry degree lawl, I'm a graphic designer now, go figure. Second time was leaving an advertising diploma because I'm more interested in the arts). Some called me daring but I don't really think so. It's just what I have to do, if not there's no point in living.

It's rougher for me though, I've walked in circles quite abit so now I'm only just starting out on this 'new' path. Hopefully one day I can write a similar post like yours, about how we all came to become successful.

(whydoesntstrikethroughwork ._.)You are an inspiration(dangit)
I like your hair. Makes me wanna draw it XP