Following our passion is easier said than done. From a very early age, we were convinced that life is comprised of a linear set of milestones that must be achieved in order to give it meaning: go to school, get a job, buy a house, get married, have kids, and the list goes on. By the time we realise that there is more to life than an archaic list of someone else’s goals, we may have given up on what interests us the most, assuming that we have already discovered what that might be. As a result, most of us tend to endure our chosen profession rather than enjoy it.
At the 22nd edition of CreativeMornings Utrecht (21 February 2014), psychologist-turned-illustrator Ellen Vesters proved that it is never too late to do what you love, as long as you are willing to work for it. As an artist and founder of online illustration concept store Urlaub, Vesters is undoubtedly a rebel-at-heart, leaving behind her former career to pursue her true calling. Although she admits that her change in course was not the smoothest of transitions, her struggles did not keep her from having fun along the way.
“I never seem to choose the easiest or most logical path in life,” Vesters says. “After 10 years [of working as a psychologist] I made a career switch. People always seemed to think it went smoothly.” As a matter of fact, it took 10 years in the making. Not to be deterred by her fears, Vesters finally decided to take the plunge and immersed herself in becoming a full-fledged illustrator. In her talk, she openly shared her cathartic journey, amusingly referring to it as her “10 Ways to Fail Greatly”.
Realising that psychology was no longer for her, Vesters was haunted by the question, “What can I do?” Subsequently, she hatched a plan to study all the potential jobs she found interesting and tried them out for herself. “When I had a date with an illustrator, I thought this was it,” Vesters claims. “Now I knew what I wanted, [how do I] get there?” Due to the highly inflated tuition fees, going back to art school was not an option. Instead, she sought the help of master illustrators who took her under their wing (#1 Don’t go to art school).
“I just wanted to be an illustrator right away,” Vesters reveals. So, she quickly decided to make it official by putting up a website and setting up shop (#2 Fake it ‘til you make it). “There were some people who thought, who is this girl?” she says, while others appreciated her enthusiasm and were willing to help her out. “Part of where I am now, I can thank for being online,” Vesters insists. “I have a lot of commitment to people following me from the start […] People can see that I grew and I’m better now, so it’s not so bad after all.”
Title in hand, Vesters soon realised that growing as an artist is one thing, while growing her business is another. As a psychologist, she is well aware that (#3) Procrastination is the most difficult habit to break, considering that she practices it herself. “If there was an AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) for social media, count me in,” she quips. “I call it fun with marketing.” In fact, 70% of Vesters’ assignments and sales are derived from her online interactions. “I just have fun with people and that’s how I make new connections,” she explains. The same goes for meeting people face-to-face (#4 Go to networking events to get drunk and make new friends). Despite the strategic advice to do your homework and come prepared to various networking events, Vesters prefers to build relationships organically. “If I don’t talk to anyone and I don’t like it, I can leave,” she maintains. “People remember that you’re a nice person and people want to work with nice persons.”
Be that as it may, illustration work (or any creative work, for that matter) does not come easily to newcomers. In order to establish herself as the real deal, Vesters had to take on a number of assignments for free – a BIG no-no in the illustration world. Nevertheless, that did not stop her from being of service to others (#5 Work for free). “I worked for free mostly if I saw a good cause somewhere,” Vesters says. “I’ve always felt that I was actually helping people out and they are helping me out in another way.” As a rule, you should only take on work if it satisfies two of the 3Ps: Pay, Pleasure and Prestige or, better yet, if you can exchange it for a much-needed service.
“The first three years, you have to take every assignment that comes to you,” Vesters claims. “Because I would work my arse off, I am where I am now.” The downside is, she only gets an average of six hours sleep a day (#6 Do not sleep). “This whole [career] switch has brought me a sense of freedom, so it doesn’t feel like work anymore,” she confesses. “If I thought about all the things I’ve done these past years, I would not be here.” (#7 Act without thinking) Her advice to anyone who wants to follow his or her dream is to just do it – given that you know what you want and are completely prepared to put in the hours to get it.
“I started out with a business plan, but I never looked at it again,” Vesters chuckles. Being an all-round creative, she is entirely dedicated to her craft, constantly walking a tightrope between making art and doing business. “There’s only one kind of business I want to have,” Vesters says. “Why should I be so focused on profit or marketing? (#8 Don’t think commercially) I just want to do what’s close to me.” At the end of the day, she would rather be remembered for her love and passion for illustration than her annual bottom-line.
Indeed, Vesters’ optimism is even reflected in her choice of workspace (#9 Start a shop at the 1st floor of an office building). “I got to embrace it and see it as a challenge,” she admits. “When you enter a shop and say ‘I’m finally here,’ you’re not going to think, ‘Oh is this is it?’” In fact, her customers tend to appreciate her studio even more, considering the effort it takes to get there.
The same can be said for her peculiar store name (#10 Name your shop a German word that no one knows). Once mistaken for “U.R.L. please” (A.U.B. being the Dutch equivalent of S.V.P.), Urlaub is the German word for holiday and is meant to express Vesters’ love for the city of Hamburg, the illustration capital of Europe. “If people ask me [about the name], I can tell them my story,” she says. “It helps me with my storytelling.” In effect, Vesters adds another quirky item to her list: (#11) Agree to do a talk in English that will travel the interwebs for eternity.
In truth, Vesters recognizes that her career is still a work in progress. “It’s a process,” she reveals. “You’re growing, and slowly, [you] can get on your own financially.” She also had to significantly adjust to the fact that she earns far less. “If you work 8 days a week, you don’t have time to buy anything,” she jokes. “The only time I lay awake at night is if I don’t feel secure.” Ultimately, Vesters believes that everyone can be a rebel. “It’s the best part of my life, but also the hardest part of my life.” The key is not to live with regret. “Think what a wealthy, educated Dutch person would not do,” she advises, “and just do that.” ✌
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