SEO Guide for Beginners

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

There might have been a point in time where you were wondering why you see slump in sales, engagement, or growth. I totally feel you! I have been there myself where I wasn’t getting ANY traction in selling cards and hit a wall in gaining Instagram followers.

What if I told you there was a way to gain visibility without having to consistently show your face in front the camera, go live, or speak publicly? Yes, there is a way and that is using SEO!

What is SEO?

SEO is an acronym for Search Optimization Engine and it is a process to help you optimize and gain visibility to your website from search results using relevant, searchable keywords. To put it simply, it is a way to boost your site’s ranking through organic search results and make your content more discoverable online. For the introverts who want to organically drive traffic to your content without putting your face out there, this is a great way to help push your site’s visibility.

This is a slow process and does takes a couple of months for your SEO to go into effect, but something that can help boost you and your content once you start and set SEO properly.

Why SEO?

I’ll tell you an intriguing story. Last year, I was approached by a project coordinator from a clothing company called SHEIN who was interested in licensing my art for their products. I had vaguely heard this company name before and decided to dig in a bit deeper about who they were and how they became one of the most recognized clothing brands so quickly….

In 2008, Chris Xu founded SHEIN, formerly known as SheInSide, and he was an SEO consultant for another online marketing company before making his own. At the time, he recognized the value of selling goods to the international market on an e-commerce platform and well, got to work using his expertise in SEO. In just 13 years, his company had overtaken H&M, Zara, and Forever 21 as the biggest fashion retailer in the United States. Currently, the company is worth roughly at $47 billion dollars, almost the valuation of Twitter.

Isn’t it remarkable how the guy behind this company had no background in fashion and still became one of the leading clothing brands in US and internationally? Back then, he originally wanted to help domestic firms sell products overseas. Even when Alibaba (kind of like the Amazon in China) entered as an IPO company in 2007, Xu’s SEO strategy was working behind the scenes where his brand was standing out on the Google Search page.

The company all started from SEO roots. And, my friend, your business can too.

Here’s how to get started.

SEO is really about strategically integrating key, searchable keywords to help optimize the position of website in search results and to help drive traffic to your website organically. Did you know that a whopping 93% of your customers won’t go further than the first page of Google? You can also think about your own search queries – do you mostly scroll through the first page too and almost never click on links passed the second or third page?

What’s exciting is that there are cool tools to help you start the SEO process, by searching top keywords out there using Ubersuggest and also using another tool called Google Search Console to measure your site’s performance. For your information, I’m not an affiliate with Google (I wish though!), but I believe using their tools will help enhance your site just because everybody uses Google and “Google” things nowadays.

What is Ubersuggest?

Ubersuggest is a powerful SEO keyword tool that provides you insight on top keyword searches, monthly search volume, and much more. And no, it has nothing to do with Uber. It’s a free Chrome browser extension you can download here and get your research started today.

For instance, let’s say you want to Google “cute cat art,” this will pop up:

You can see what the top related keywords are people type in – and sometimes it’s not at all what you imagine! This is meant to help you gain an understanding of current trends in your market or topic.

Once you have an idea of top keywords in your market or topic, you can strategically use the top keywords or phrases in your own content to gain leads and traction. Keep in mind that SEO is an ever-changing tool, so it is ideal to start implementing SEO strategy once you have done your latest research.

What is Google Search Console?

Google Search Consoleis a useful tool and resource to monitor your site’s performance, measure search traffic, fix issues, and help you optimize your site. Learn more and get started by entering your website here.

With Google Search Console, you can see top searchable queries from your content, impressions and the average CTR (the percentage of impressions that resulted in a click), and the average position of your website when people are searching similar type of content in Google.

Can a blog post be optimized for SEO?

Yes, absolutely! If you are a blogger or are interested in becoming one, there are several SEO-friendly strategies when developing a blog post and they are the following:

  • Make your statements conversational, use “You” and “I” often
  • Create long posts, ideally 2,200 words or more
  • Use images, videos, & audio in between your text
  • Use subheadings and short paragraphs
  • Summarize your content & ask a question in the end to help gather comments on your page to encourage engagement

Consistently creating blog posts for your ideal audience and market can really help drive organic traffic to your website, especially when provide value and are relatable.

Pinterest is more than just a social media platform, it is a search engine.

Pinterest is not just your average social media platform, it is also a powerful search engine. Relevant content can drive traffic to your Pinterest and help you gain visibility. Do you notice how some of your search queries has sites or images from Pinterest?

To help you maximize Pinterest, here’s how you can use pins to boost your visibility:

  • Maximize your pin size so your pin can take up more real estate on screen (1000 x 1500 px)
  • Use strong, descriptive keywords in your title and captions
  • Make your image title large & use your brand colors
  • Make your pin link to your shop, freebie, site, Instagram, etc.
  • Put this into a board (i.e. Ideas for Business Branding)

You’re probably wondering, so what’s the perks of pinning? Pins have a longer shelf-life (beyond the 24 hours on Instagram) so your work will show up months after you post your pins. Also, about 80% of pins are repins, which will help your pins be seen by a new audience. You don’t have to post everyday and can batch post your content. Your boards can include content that isn’t yours – which helps get more eyeballs to your own boards & content too. You can also join group boards as well as link other social media accounts to your Pinterest business account.

SEO in Website Platforms

Website SEOis an important feature when you’re deciding on the website platform you want to host your content on. I highly recommend choosing a website platform that allows for SEO capabilities. Here are two website platforms I use and their SEO features:

WordPress is a website platform that has SEO plug-ins and settings to help your website become more visible and searchable.

Squarespace has built-in, fully integrated SEO tools so you can freely publish content without too much setup beforehand. There are specific strategies to ensure you are using Squarespace’s SEO tools effectively and you can use guides from Squarespace to help optimize your content for SEO.

Tips to Avoid Low SEO Rankings

While there are many pros about setting your SEO properly, be aware of the downsides too. If there are misleading or irrelevant content tied to the terms and keywords you are using, your website ranking will go down. Also, it is important to remove broken or update links no longer used in order to ensure this won’t impact your SEO rankings. Your website traffic and ranking may be negatively affected if you have URL links that aren’t fixed. Use the free Broken Link Checker to see if you have any broken links on your website.

The idea behind good SEO is to ensure your website is legitimate, consistent, and allows room for engagement. As more people go to your website for relatable and valuable content that you provide regularly, the better your SEO rankings will be. Also, allowing an online exchange of communication, such as comments and replying to comments, is a great way to let search engines know that your website is being interacted regularly, which will help boost your rankings. Also, as mentioned previously, SEO is an ever-changing process that will continue to optimize its search results, so just because your website is on the first page of Google, it does not mean your website will stay there. Regularly research top, searchable keywords in your market and continue to optimize your site as a way to keep your SEO rankings high.

For the beginners wanting to learn about SEO for your content, use any of these tools or resources that you like to start to get familiar with or use one that you already are using. There are many ways to approach SEO and I find it is best to use one or a combination of tools you can easily work with to help get your website more discoverable organically. Continue to do expand your knowledge about SEO and you can seek expert help if you really want to promote your website.

This is part of an ongoing Grow Yourself Monthly series where every week I cover a topic and provide beginner’s level content to help you build knowledge and learn new skills. For the month of January 2022, I will be covering the following topics: books, SEO, self-care, and art. I also do a weekly recap of the topic to my email subscribers. If you like a recap on these topics straight in your inbox, sign up at here.

I know it’s a lot of technical information to take in, but does this get your juices flowing? With this, I hope you can gain a bit more traction when you’re trying to put your content out there and give you momentum to keep sharing gifts to the world. Let me know in the comments if you found any of these strategies helpful!

Simple Self-Care Ideas to Implement Today

It’s time to put yourself first. As a fellow creative (illustrator and professional landscape designer), I grew up with a lot of anxiety. I was also chasing dreams that were not my own and putting my needs last. I finally started confronting my mental health a few years ago and prioritized my time to do the real, deep work in finding myself again and practicing self-care. This has positively changed my life. I’m living so much more fully and happily. I still get anxious, but it’s not crippling anymore and the constant self-doubt and worry is not holding me back from doing things I wanted to do.

I started practicing self-care in baby steps. I needed to do more than just routinely using face masks and keep a good skin care regime – I needed to actually do the deep work. Below are the tiniest steps I took to make it to where I am today:

1.) Meditate for 3 minutes, at least 4 times a week.

I know how woo-woo it sounds and, as a skeptic myself, I didn’t believe sitting still would reap any benefits. But after listening to Tim Ferris saying that at least 80% of successful people meditate over and over again in his podcast, I was convinced to try meditation myself.

I simply started meditating 3 minutes in the morning whenever I can. Then I made a space and time to do it during the work week, which involves sitting in my car and meditating right before I head to the office (if I am not running late). On the weekends, I do it right after I make my bed. I use the Calm app (not sponsored) for it’s simple mobile interface and I also enjoy the positive quote after every meditation session.

From the outside, it looks like meditation does nothing and the person appears to be sleeping. In reality, when you’re the one practicing meditation, you are actually centering yourself, calming your chaotic thoughts, and clearing your mind by taking deep breaths. It can do so much in so little, and it is by far the easiest way to feel more present and at peace with yourself. You will feel more focused and productive after.

Now, the caveat is that meditation only works if you do it consistently and over a sufficient period of time. Everyone has different results, and it took about 8 months for me to finally be able to see and feel the effects of meditation. I still have hard days and go through emotions like a normal human being, but the difference is that I don’t get too overwhelmed or overthink over a prolonged period of time and I am at a healthier state of mind much longer than before. The benefits of meditation has been a game-changer for my life and I believe it can transform your life too.

2.) Take 15 seconds to be brave everyday.

I don’t mean jumping off of a cliff, but scaling it down to something super simple and easy. It can be asking another question besides the typical “How are you?” question whenever you greet someone or have a different response than the normal, “I’m doing well.” Or try having a conversation with a stranger or actually make eye contact with someone when you are talking.

These small moments of bravery can lead to big results. Once you get into the habit of doing things that are uncomfortable and scary, you will do them a lot more. Even if you are afraid of doing it, you will start to gain confidence as you take the initiative to be brave. Part of being brave doesn’t mean you won’t have fear, but you will do it anyway with the fear inside. When you start to do brave things, you will start to do brave things for yourself, such as actually do things you love, learn to say no, and accept the rejection and challenges. You will be brave enough to get back up even when the odds are against you and have the brave mindset to keep moving forward.

3.) The 5 Second Rule

I recently learned about this from another podcast I was listening to. It was created by Mel Robbins, a now successful author and motivational speaker, during a time when she was at her worst, bottom moment of her life – a marriage on the the brink of divorce, a lost job, in debt, and becoming alcoholic. One day, she watched a rocket launch that counted 5-4-3-2-1 and launched live on television. She for some reason decided to apply this one day to help her get out of bed and it worked. So she did this in secret for several years before telling anyone about it. This 5 second rule extended to other moments of her life too.

I’m always interested in learning about simple ideas to practice self-care and time will tell if this 5 second rule will work for me. Still, I wanted to include this idea because it may help you with your own struggles and be something you can apply today or now even. I have heard stories from Mel Robbins about how this 5 second rule prevented someone from committing suicide or helped someone out of life’s most toughest moments. If this is something that can make a difference in someone’s life, then yes I’ll put it here so you know about it too.

These ideas show that self-care doesn’t strictly have to be so serious or hard to implement. It also doesn’t have to be lonely either. Sometimes, it’s even better to do a fun and festive self-care activity in a collaborative environment so it can help spark joy and ideas. A group setting can also help provide clarity in your next steps with many more minds to help you figure out your next thing.

I would like to invite you to a free virtual event that will take place on Sunday December 12th from 4:00 PM to 5:00 PM (US Pacific Time, GMT-7). It’s my new Sparking Joy in Self-Care Virtual Event Series and December month is Cocoa and Coloring! Every event will be themed, feature a Creative, have a self-care activity, and an easy homemade recipe. A creative will be featured in the monthly event, which helps support small business owners and creatives out there. Sign up here if you’re interested in attending!

Sparking Joy in Self-Care Virtual Event Series

The event is featuring a self-care calligraphy artist based in Singapore and we will be using her self-care coloring sheet she made exclusively for this event. You can learn more about her here. See you then and have a jolly day!

Boost Your Instagram Strategically

Photo by Cristian Dina on Pexels.com

If you’ve ever spent a chunk of your day creating a post or crafting the perfect caption for the ‘gram, but didn’t get the number of likes or follows you were really hoping for, then you are not alone. We’ve all been there and have felt discouraged about not getting enough likes, reach, or engagement as much as we hoped from having spent more time than we’d like to admit on one post.

Here are some encouraging news about Instagram: the social media platform is meant to keep people using the Instagram app and want people to discover new accounts and content. That’s why the “Feed” and “Suggested Posts” are always presenting fresh content from people you don’t currently follow. While carousels and videos perform really well, photo posts perform equally as well.

I am not here to teach you on how to beat the algorithm – I am here to EMPOWER you to use Instagram efficiently and effectively and to maximize results to help grow you, share your gifts to the world, and reach the right audience with Instagram. 

I have four tips to help boost your Instagram growth strategically:

Tip #1: Build Consistency

Think about the people you like to follow – you also tend to follow people who post on a regular basis. You trust that they will come back consistently and provide more content for you to see or watch. Imagine you doing the same for other people. Providing consistent content for others builds trust and value in you and your brand. The more you show up regularly, the more your audience will too.

There are strategic ways to build consistency without feeling burnt out. One of them is to start scheduling days and times that work for you to post regularly. This means start posting once a week that works around your current schedule, whether it be work or class. You can wake up earlier or use breaks throughout the day to post. While you do need to start building a routine around posting, it doesn’t mean spending hours creating the perfect caption or photo.

Tip #2: Create Valuable Content

Create value in your content by providing new knowledge, advice, or stories your audience will find useful or relate to. The idea is provide valuable information to your audience and the more you do, the more they will come back to you for information. It can be a topic you have a solid understanding of or something you inherently know, such as the best tacos in your local neighborhood or the best programs to use in your professional industry.

Also, you don’t have to create new content every time. You can re-use your previous content and craft a new one or research other similar content and make it your own. You don’t have to create something new and fresh every time, it is okay to re-post old content in new ways. This helps reduce feeling burnt out too quickly and allows you to focus on other parts of building your business.

Tip #3: Engage With Your Audience

You don’t have like or comment on every post out there – there are strategic ways to engage with your audience. There are specific engagement strategies to use for Instagram stories, responding to a comment on your post, and commenting on a post from someone you enjoy following.

Tip #4: Create Smarter, Not Harder

The shelf life of your Instagram post at most is 24 hours and, at best, 48 hours. Instagram is designed so new content will always supersede older posts in order to provide continuously fresh content for people on the app.

While you can’t control this, you can control what you put in your caption. This means including some sort of actionable step that allows your audience to take a step further with you after seeing your content. What does this mean? This means providing a link to your blog or website, a Google form to your newsletter, or directing users to a platform you do own.

Growing your Instagram doesn’t have to be simply to gain new followers or have a ton of views – it can be a gateway to actualizing your dream life by growing your own brand and business with content and messaging you are truly passionate about. I want you to have the freedom to share your gifts to the world and to live your dream life one day. If you would like to figure out how to build your Instagram strategically for your business, I have a free guide for you here to start taking this journey. Good luck!

Easy Tips to Come up With Content Ideas

If you are feeling overwhelmed lately about what you’re creating, here are three easy, doable tips to help you become unstuck and gain momentum.

Tip #1: The Jenna Kutcher 5 Method

Think about 5 categories you are passionate about. It can be self-care, DIY crafts, plants,  digital art, etc. It can be anything you enjoy talking about or have a solid understanding of. It can also be something general or super specific to you. Jenna Kutcher developed the 5 pillar system and this has really worked in overcoming my mental block of developing creative content on my blog and social media posts.

My 5 pillars are:

  1. Anxiety/mental wellness
  2. Paper art crafts
  3. Inspirational art
  4. Plants/landscape design
  5. Business

Once you have figured out your pillars, you can start to cycle your posts to talk about the five every week. These pillars aren’t permanent, and will evolve and change as you move forward.

Tip #2: Stick to ONE Platform

It’s easy to feel stretched thin when you’re trying to do everything on different online platforms all at once. While it’s okay to have your business account on Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, etc., stick to one you enjoy using the most. And to take it a step further, choose one that you love creating on. If you love writing, WordPress would be ideal or if you enjoy making videos, you can try YouTube.

I actually enjoy blogging the most and started blogging on WordPress first before I had an Instagram account. Also, if you stick with one platform, it is a lot easier to stay consistent and show up – this builds trust in you and your brand.

Tip #3: Change Your Mindset

This is a biggie because it affects everything you do. A lot of us believe we aren’t good enough to be a content creator, designer, artist, or an entrepreneur. But you are. You’re doing the thing, showing up consistently, and putting the hard work into this.

It’s probably the biggest mental roadblock that prevents us from creating and doing more. We worry so much about what we’re putting out there that we feel too overwhelmed to create anything at all. Take a deep breath and just keep moving forward. To be honest, nobody really knows what they’re doing either (me included), so don’t feel too stressed about it.

Start by saying, “I am a content creator” or “I am an artist.” Be a little bit more confident in what you do – you got this! The more you do this, it will encourage others do the same.

There you have it! Whenever you’re ready to take the next step to figuring a brand that fits you and your goals, here’s a free, quick-start guide to help.

Short, Uplifting Quotes That Will Inspire You to Keep Hustling and Feel Less Anxious

Sometimes, it takes reading a simple, positive quote that will make your day feel lighter and inspire you to keep on hustling. If it were not for these daily affirmations, I won’t be the positive, happy person I am today.

I’ve been known to be an optimistic person, but I wasn’t always like this. Before, I was a very anxious person with extremely low confidence. I had many cycles of doubt and uncertainty about myself, my skills, and my work. I was also very negative towards myself and constantly beating myself up about not being good enough and that I should simply to stick to my lane.

A few years ago, I made the change to collect positive quotes for me to read through every morning. This was a gentle reminder to myself to stay optimistic throughout the day, no matter how tough and hard it gets. I am not positive 100% of the time and I do experience other emotions like a normal human being, but I try not to dwell on those emotions too long. I do my best to stay focused and keep moving forward.

Being happy is an investment – to you and for other people. Happy people make more money, live longer, are more successful, have healthier relationships and, most importantly, have a positive influence on the people around them. Happiness is infectious and can create a chain reaction of good energy. The more joy you are able to spread, the more abundance you can create for others. It’s free and you can easily make someone else’s day, especially to a stranger who is going through a difficult time and needed it the most when they least expected it.

Here are my favorite inspirational quotes to help me get through mental roadblocks and empower me to keep moving forward:

If you are looking for more inspiration, take a look at five inspirational podcasts I selected to help kick-start your business and maximize results. As a huge podcast junkie, I have listened to many hours (65,000 minutes last year!) to figure out what the best, inspirational podcasts that will strategically help you move forward with your business.

Life is too short to not make the investment in yourself today. I want you to reminisce (not regret) about the things you DID to make your dream life possible.

Top 5 Business Podcasts to Help Kick-Start Your Business and Maximize Results

Photo by Faith Stocksey on Pexels.com

If you’re feeling stuck about what to do with your business and need some quick inspiration, I recommend listening to podcasts, which is a fast and easy way that gives you extra ideas, knowledge, and expertise, leaving you feeling refreshed and ready to take the next step in your business.

WHAT IS A PODCAST?

A podcast is an audio recording of a host or a group of hosts who share insight, stories, life experience, and expert knowledge on a broad spectrum of topics, including crime, comedy, business, and lifestyle.

The best thing about a podcast is you can listen to and pause on your own time. You can listen to a podcast while driving, on a slow day at the office, or when you’re cooking. You can easily pick back where you left off from the episode or you can stop and simply move on to the next one.

A couple of years ago, I didn’t believe in podcasts and simply thought the idea of listening to people talk about their expertise was invaluable to reading a good, old-fashioned book. But at the time, I was too busy to even pick up a 300-page book to learn about business tips and tricks, so I decided to give podcasts a try.

Now, here I am (I was once a hard skeptic) who has listened to 65,000 minutes of podcasts last year. Yes, you can see that I’m pretty obsessed with all things podcasts, especially business related ones. I find so many business tips, tricks, and easy wins from purely listening to podcasts without ever picking up a book and, best of all, I can listen to them while doing something else! For those who love to multi-task, listening to a podcast will be perfect for you.

THE ULTIMATE FIVE

I have listened to many hours of a wide variety of business podcasts (from the Dave Ramsey Show to NPR) and have found five podcasts that stand out from the rest because of the impactful, insightful, and applicable tips they share that you can start implementing today. I am not sponsored to share these podcasts – I just truly believe these podcasts would help you with building your business. Here are the top five inspirational, business podcasts to get your idea juices flowing

1.) The Tim Ferris Show

I’ve heard so many podcasters name drop Tim Ferris’s name when I first started listening to podcasts. And there’s no doubt why: Tim Ferris successfully build his own brand and even created a new lifestyle category as an industry.

In his podcast episodes, he goes deep into his conversations with many different people, from CEOs (Howard Schultz) to famous celebrities (Arnold Schwarzenegger) in order to learn about their backstory and how they become successful. His podcasts are more than just the business and technical numbers – it’s learning about the personal struggles and life experiences that are behind the success stories.

2.) Don’t Keep Your Day Job

Cathy Heller brings her positive energy and inspiration into every podcast episode. Her motivational words and wisdom are always so insightful and encouraging that would make you feel uplifted and excited to do your thing.

She was a former musician who now turned into a successful Business Coach to teach other people to build their own businesses around helping others. Her purpose is to help people who wants to live a more fulfilling life than a 9 to 5 job. She has honest conversations with successful, creative entrepreneurs and, more importantly, she gives motivational talks in the beginning and end of every episode to you, the listener, so you leave the podcast leaving so inspired and optimistic.

3.) The Goal Digger Podcast

Jenna Kutcher is a successful entrepreneur who shares inspirational stories and provides free, tangible tips that creates real results – all to help build your dream career. Jenna talks like she’s a good friend in her episodes, which makes her episodes incredibly relatable and down-to-earth. She provides simple, strategic tools covering every part of a business, like social media, email lists, website, and branding.

Her Secret Sauce Quiz is one of her most popular freebie to help identify what makes you unique. From her quiz, I found out that I am a “Dreamer” and this was honestly the most subtle but blunt way to tell me that I needed to finally take the right, actionable steps to building my own business. You will learn a lot of valuable business techniques that are specific and you can implement right away. A huge plus is that most of them are free!

4.) The Lavendaire Lifestyle

For the creative entrepreneurs who want to learn how to craft your dream life, this podcast is for you. While the podcast focuses on personal development and lifestyle design, the host Aileen Xu interviews many creatives, including entrepreneurs, and talks to them on their process of building successful brands and businesses. She has a soothing, calm voice that just makes you feel relaxed and cozy when listening to her podcast. She covers a broad range of topics, from astrology to mental health to productivity. As a creative myself, I binged many of her podcast episodes when I first discovered her and I believe you will too.

5.) E-Ficionado Podcast

Delanie Fischer is a comedian turned Simplicity Coach who helps people use a minimalist approach to their business that will increase their revenue, impact and freedom. She shares different strategies to help simplify side hustle businesses and provides tips to handle decision fatigue, criticism, and other challenges you go through when you are starting a business. Her laughter and warm personality is also infectious – I always have a smile on my face whenever I finish listening to her episode.

There you have it! Podcasts can be incredibly valuable when you’re short on time and you need quick tips and guidance to kick-starting your business. Every podcast host teach unique business strategies, so I recommend listening to more than one to learn as many tips and tricks and apply the relevant ones you can use for building your own brand and business. Keep it up, you are on your way there!

Looking from some guidance on how to build your brand?

Grab the free Quick-Start Guide to Building Your Brand right here.

Don’t Sugarcoat It

At some point in our lives, we had to respond to somebody asking “Why?”, which is really implying “why are you doing this?”

Why would you quit a good paying job? Why would you go to a second rate college? Why would you move across the country? While these questions show that the person asking may truly care and want the best for you, they don’t actually know what is really best for you. They know that the status quo of life can lead you to success – but is this your path to success?

For a long time, I did everything that was socially perceived as right: I got good grades, I went to a good college, and I even had a good paying job. But I didn’t feel successful or even fulfilled. In fact, I was incredibly anxious and deeply unsatisfied pretty much all the time. A few years ago, I had a breakthrough that led me to stop doing what others expected me to do and it was then I decided to do things for myself.

Part of my personality is to do things spontaneously, so I started to back in 2019. I spontaneously went to Korea a month before my wedding. I left a job for another company to work on projects I had minimal experience in. I started making cute wellness art on a digital platform that I’ve never used before and sharing it on social media. I did everything I was taught not to – and this newfound energy felt exhilarating. And, moreover, it was incredibly freeing.

Of course, people were curious and asked me why I did all these things. I gave somewhat mediocre answers at the time, because I really wasn’t confident in what I was doing either. I just knew deep inside my intuition said I should. Looking back, if I had the confidence, I would have gently asked, “Why not?” and actually be honest about why I was doing all this. It wasn’t for money or for my career, it was for me and my sanity. 

In my mental wellness journey, I’ve learned to not sugarcoat things anymore. I know us women in particular make up stories or excuses to not hurt or make the other person feel bad, as a way to protect them. We tend to fall in this endless sugarcoating cycle and not really admit why we are or are not doing something. Sometimes, we can’t go to an event because we are actually really tired and need a mental break from work and people for a moment. 

So, I’ve been trying lately to be more upfront about my feelings and being more confident speaking about why I do or don’t do things. It is hard to tell people my real reasoning since I’ve been suppressing this from others and sugarcoating it for so long, but I take baby steps when I can. With mental health slowly being more socially accepted, I don’t fear the backlash as much as I did before. In fact, people are willing to share their own struggles if you are honest with them about yours in the first place.

I hope the conversations about mental health become more normalized and we don’t have to hide and suppress our mental struggles from others anymore. Don’t sugarcoat it. In fact, coat it with everything you have. 

Good luck!

Me & My Wellness Journey…So Far

I may look put together in the photo, but in the 24 hours before this was taken, I was in a completely chaotic state.

I had to prepare and co-host a public community meeting the evening before and for the most part it went okay with a few of my mistakes. I was also in a rush to finish packing for a family trip to go on the next morning. I am the type to start packing early, but I still tend to pack extra clothes and essentials at the very last minute.

I try to be as prepared as I can, but I do have moments where things go wrong, which is part of life – nobody is immune to this. The good news is that after being in a state of panic, I have learned to not overthink too much and calm myself down during stressful situations. It’s been a life-changing journey to acknowledge and deal with my crippling anxiety and I am still learning and building better habits every day.

To commemorate my one year into my wellness journey, I wanted to share this is who I am and that I am an actual human being behind this blog. I still struggle too and, while I am not always smiling like this, I’ve never felt better and more alive. Feeling free of my mind has allowed me to be more myself. I don’t worry as much about whether I said the wrong thing, or if I’m too this or that, or if my work isn’t enough. I simply focus on doing the thing and improve from there. This has also really helped build my courage and confidence, which are great perks for an introverted, shy person like me.

I actually really dislike showing my bare arms to the world – it’s the body part I am most self-conscious about and I would most likely be reeling about it after I post this. But I want to let go of this fear and for others to have courage to do the same. By this I mean slowly starting to take risks and building the confidence to be more comfortable with and about yourself. You are an amazing person, but maybe you don’t know it yet.

A good tool is to actively ask yourself, are you revealing or concealing yourself? It’s okay to be a lurker (I very much am on Reddit), but it’s also okay to step out and show yourself too. The more you do it, the more others will too.
Also, just because you take a lazy day, it doesn’t mean you are lazy. It just means you are human and need to take a break too. It took me some time to figure this out, and I hope this helps you too.

This post is more of an introduction of the blogger behind the blog. I will be sharing more upcoming topics soon. Have a wonderful Wednesday and good luck!

Live Lightly to Live Fully

I have felt the heaviness too. The pressure to meet my Asian parents’ escalating expectations, the societal weight to be a strong yet never an inconvenient female, and the mental load to be normal and sane throughout it all and everything in between.


It’s lot to carry, I know. But for a long time, I kept carrying this weight. I didn’t actually realize how much of this weight was holding me back from being myself. And gradually, the weight was getting heavier to hold and after years of accumulated weight, I couldn’t hold it anymore.


At first, I was scared my biggest fears and worries would all come to fruition when I started to let go, but they never happened. When they didn’t, I simply stopped trying to live up to what my parent’s and society wanted and started to live life for myself. As I slowly started to mentally take the weight off, I instantly felt lighter and feeling the mental “weight” off my shoulders. I felt the freedom to do whatever I wanted. After 30 years, I finally felt the permission to be myself and live life on my terms. 


What I have learned is that a lot of this weight was mostly in my head. Sure, my parents would constantly remind me to get good grades and succeed, but they would still love me even if I messed up. Maybe part of it was also the constant drilling (and even borderline brainwashing) from school learning and society’s image on what it means to be a female, but I have chosen to un-learn this and, instead, learn to be more outspoken, to take up space, and to be brave about being unapologetically myself.


This is what I think it means to live fully: to be able to live truthfully and authentically as your truest self. I believe you can do the same by living lightly and slowly taking the mental load off of your mind. It’s okay to have a bit of pressure, as long as it comes from you and nobody else. Have the courage and willpower to live on your own terms, so you can achieve more, do better, and dream bigger. 


I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t. I would have been stuck at a dead-end job with a toxic manager, my crippling anxiety would take a greater control over my life, and I would continue to live life on other people’s terms. I wouldn’t have started sharing about my journey on this blog or created art for healing and positivity.  


So I encourage you to live, like really live. You can start by taking the mental weight and pressures off in your mind. In reality, nobody is really pushing you to do something. There’s always going to be external voices and opinions, but you should quiet those down and listen to your own internal voice instead. Your internal voice is the one that matters anyway. And I totally get that your inside voice may consist of self-doubt and worries, but I believe that just being aware of those feelings can really help you start the process of building confidence and uncovering who you are truly meant to be.


Living lightly has given me the opportunity to live fully. I am in a much better headspace than ever before and I live life everyday doing things I love. Even when things go wrong during the day, I don’t sulk too long and I do my best to move forward, as this is all part of the human experience anyway. 


There is no real need to carry all this heavy weight anymore. Slowly let it go and you’ll find yourself so much lighter and feel so much fuller than ever before. Good luck!

Think Big With a Happy Mind

Wynwood Wall in Miami, Florida

My design professor one day showed students his fantasy master plan amusement park design if it were ever to be built. He designed this amusement park so it would be bolder and cooler than Disneyland and thought of the rides, attractions, and themes for each. It was a hand-drawn, complete set of construction drawings and plans where he figured out every little detail. At the the time, I naively thought it was silly of him to waste so much time and energy to do all this work for a park that would probably never come to life. Why would a 50 year old guy spend so much work on this crazy pipe dream? 

Maybe I was a little jealous that he was able to do this in the first place. But truthfully, it was because I was used to thinking small. I never did anything that bold, that different, or that big. On top of teaching and having a professional job, this professor did something for himself and was happy to work on his dream side project, regardless of what his 19-year-old students or anyone thought about it. He didn’t need anyone’s permission to go do the thing he wanted to do and just kept pursuing his dream anyway.

I never found out if his amusement park ever got built, but I do know this: if there’s anything I learned from his class, it is to not be afraid to think big. This professor wasn’t even a well-known landscape architect and his expertise was grading engineering, not amusement park design. But he followed his dream that made him happy and whether it comes true or not, all that effort was still worth it to him.

I used to do the right, “small” things that got me somewhere in life, but not where I wanted to be. I did things within my comfort zone and never thought that I was capable of doing more. I felt unfulfilled and unhappy. Though, as I looked deeper into myself and rediscovering who I was and wanted to be, I realized being comfortable and doing possible things wasn’t enough for me. My newfound mental clarity and calmness helped me figure out what made me happy and redefined my purpose. My purpose wasn’t to go to college, get married, and have a 9-to-5 job. I found out my true purpose was to use my creative work to help others heal and rediscover themselves so they can live a fulfilling life. This is what I was meant to do be doing and even if I don’t make a huge profit or reach millions of people, at least I did something that made me smile every day. 

We can pursue big things simply because they make us happy, feel alive, and be ourselves. Doing big things give us a bigger purpose and adds a lot more meaning to our work. It’s okay to do small things, but I encourage you to try to think and do bigger with a happy mindset. This professor didn’t let his academic or professional role define who he was; he defined himself by thinking and doing big in his own time.

When you build something on your own, you are building yourself too. So the more you do this, the more courage you have to do big things. It’s not to say that you won’t still be absolutely terrified every time you put yourself out there; I get the jitters too, every single time. But I keep doing it because I have a little bit more courage each time.
So, don’t be afraid to go wild with your ideas and don’t forget to have fun while you’re at it. That’s what life’s all about: positively disrupt the world and dare greatly!

You Can Be Your Own Inspiration

The next time you hit a creative block, try looking inward for inspiration.

You have a lot more to say and more feelings to express than you realize. We just think they don’t matter or are not important enough to look for inspiration, so we seek out external sources as we’ve learned to do so. There is nothing wrong with Googling ideas or use music, art, books, or other media for inspiration – I refer to these all the time. But I think true inspiration can come from within, based on the unique blend of your personal emotions and experiences.

Pete Docter, the Chief Creative Officer at Pixar, draws from his personal life and experiences for his storytelling in his movies, from Monsters Inc. to Inside Out. The character Riley from Inside Out was actually inspired from his daughter growing up and dealing with conflicting emotions from being an outgoing kid to a shy teenager. There is something deeply raw, personal, and relatable about using your own feelings and experiences that no amount of Googling will ever bring. What makes his movies captivating are not grand schemes and made-up gestures, but his genuine feelings and deep life experiences captured in his movies. It’s no wonder why so many of us, including me, cry in every Pixar movie.

Music artists and rappers draw from their own emotions and experiences all the time too, like Taylor Swift. And they are not shy about them either and are incredibly bold about vulnerable topics such as heartbreak, betrayal, and loneliness. I also think the feelings of distraught and pain are the foundation of a lot of good music out there, so don’t be embarrassed about feeling this way either. Don’t feel bad for feeling. 

We can let our emotions slide or we can look deeper into ourselves and find out what feelings are brewing inside. I used to use Google as a crutch for inspiration, but nothing truly creative came out of it. When I finally started doing self-work and self-discovery, my feelings and the journey of finding myself became the sources of my inspiration for my art, blog, and messages. I slowly peeled the layers of myself and expressed my deep feelings and process into my work. It felt very uncomfortable, vulnerable, and scary to truly see myself and share my experience, but I believe it gave a refreshing and relatable perspective on what I was going through. While my situation was unique to me, other people were able to resonate how I was feeling too. It’s fascinating how the more layers of yourself you expose, the more people would feel the same way too.

I now have ideas constantly flowing on what to draw and write about because I am so much more aware of my feelings and my life experiences. Instead of seeking inspiration outside, I have been using what I feel and experience in the moment and express them through my creative work. And the more you do it, the more it keeps coming to you!

You can still use your favorite music, podcast, books, and other external sources for inspiration. But I find looking deep inside yourself and really harnessing your feelings and life experiences can make your work incredibly intriguing, compelling and relatable. In a world where we feel invisible and disconnected, I think this can help you be more visible and connected to other people. It won’t be another blog post about the top 5 self-care tips or a fan art of your favorite anime. It would be something deeper and can resonate with others. 

I know you have a lot of feelings and emotions inside – we all do. But we don’t have to numb our feelings and experiences like we normally do. We can try and use what we’re feeling and experiencing into our creative work. The more you do it, the more confident you become and the more authentic you are to yourself. Dig deep, be inspired by your own self and maybe one day you can be a source of inspiration to others too. Good luck!

Make Your Mess Your Message

You are the author of your own story, regardless of the heartbreaks, rejections, and hardships you’ve gone through or you’re currently going through. Think of them as plot twists and help make your story more interesting.

I totally get not seeing the bright side when things don’t go your way, especially when the bad stuff keep piling up one after another. I applied to both undergraduate and graduate programs at my dream school and I didn’t get in either times. I was called pathetic by an ex-boyfriend after three weeks of dating and I went out with another guy a few times who just really wanted a one-night stand. I was never good enough for job positions I really wanted and simply accepted ones that paid the bills. As you can see, I have had my share of the soggy pie too, just like you and so many other people in this world.

What makes these setbacks interesting is what happens after. I didn’t give up and saw these failures as life experiences and part of my journey. That dream school I didn’t get into? I am working on a project with them right now. That ex-boyfriend who called me pathetic? He apologized for his immaturity back in college and we’re still friends today. The job positions I never got? I still didn’t get, but I now work in a job I chose to be in with a salary I negotiated for.

We can choose to stay down or rise up against the harsh realities of life. To be honest, I am just an ordinary woman who worked really hard on my achievements and extra hard on doing the self work to be the me I am today. I do not have any special skills to overcome my hardships, just my persistent willpower to keep moving forward and grow from these experiences. It helps to have a little bit of curiosity and some fun too. So don’t let the difficulties be the final ending to your story. All of us had gone through some sort of a hardship in life, the only difference is what we do after.

People who were nobodies became somebodies because they didn’t give up, were authentic to themselves, and chased their dreams. Steve Job’s story could have ended when he was kicked out of Apple in 1985, but he kept doing more and created Pixar a year later and developed the first Iphone 20 years after. He didn’t let any setbacks stop him and even had the courage to go on a spiritual journey which heavily influenced the design aesthetic of his future innovations. If he gave up at any moment in time, then a lot of the world we see today might have been very different.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg also fought hard in life and became an even bigger fighter for women’s rights and gender equality. In light of the sexism she faced in early childhood, the passing of her older sister and her mom before her high school graduation, and surviving cancer five times, she kept going and remained incredibly strong even in her final days. Her resiliency and perseverance made her who she was and she didn’t need anyone’s permission to be the woman she wanted to be in order for so many of us enjoy the freedoms we have today.

There are many other stories of people who have endured and overcame their struggles too, from Stacey Abrams to Steph Curry to Chadwick Boseman. Before their successes, they were just ordinary people who did something and didn’t give up, no matter what hardships they went through. They didn’t let a lost election, their height, or their cancer stop them from doing more. They did the really hard work and hustled, and was able to craft their own stories out of it. 

You are not alone when it comes to the struggles and hardships in life. We all deal with something but, unfortunately, not all of us believe we can overcome it. I am telling my story because I believe hitting rock bottom doesn’t mean you need to stay down. Getting out of something hard can be messy, scary, and a lot of the times very uncomfortable, but it is the best feeling to be free and to continue to write and tell my story. 

You can’t control what happens, but you can control what you do next. I hope you are able to find the strength to keep going and make your mess your message. Maybe you can also find joy in both your pursuits and failures. Whatever you do, don’t give up on yourself or your dreams. Who knows, you can be the next ordinary person who can be extraordinary and live to tell your own story. 

The Side Effects of Vulnerability

Be honest, when was the last time you had a real, deep conversation with someone about what’s really going on with your life?

On a regular basis, we prefer to talk about positive things in our life with our loved ones instead of the actual issues going on with our lives. We are also afraid to talk about taboo topics such as divorce, depression, and mental illness because it would not only make us lose cultural face, but it would also make us become losers in life. It’s even scarier to have this talk with ourselves, so we keep turning our heads the other way and just live life without ever living fully. 

You would think being vulnerable in front of others would make you look weak, annoying, or trying to seek attention. But it’s mind-blowing to see what happens when you open up. Becoming vulnerable and sharing my vulnerable experiences online with others did not result in negative reactions or social exclusion that I have so feared. Instead, the complete opposite happened. Strangers would relate to my experiences and comment on my posts about how overwhelmed, stressed or anxious they were feeling too. As I shared more of my mental wellness journey, my own friends began to open up and talk about their own mental health issues with me. These were friends who I knew a long time and I never knew about their mental health struggles until now. 

Being comfortable about sharing your own struggles and vulnerability helps other people to be more comfortable to do the same. They relate to you more and your relationships with them also become deeper and at a level you probably have never thought it could reach. You would also be surprised about what they are going through, even if everything looks picture perfect on the outside.

Now that I have shared, I can’t seem to stop talking about it! It’s freeing to let go and to be a small part of a cycle that positively changes how mental health has been traditionally viewed. As you share your vulnerability more often, you also gain confidence and courage to do other things, be authentically yourself, and live a fuller life. Eventually you can find joy in doing this work, as I have by creating cute positive affirmations on a regular basis.

Good luck on whatever journey you are on and I hope you continue to build courage. As Brené Brown always says, “Stay awkward, brave, and kind.”

Happy Ending: Finding Yourself and Crafting Your Dream Life

From the outside, it seemed like I was living the dream life. I got a graduate degree, I had a decent paying job, and I was part of many social circles. Based on society’s and my Asian parents’ standards, I did everything right by achieving academic, professional, and personal success throughout my 20s. I followed a path like many others had done before me and I thought this was the ideal life I was meant to be living. At the time, I assumed my personal well-being didn’t matter, even as my anxiety levels and my mental state were getting progressively worse, since in the external world, everything else was going fine.   

As I was achieving success, I was going so fast and nowhere at the same time. I felt empty, unhappy, and unfulfilled. The two years of graduate school in another state put a strain on my long-term relationship. I loathed the job I was in after graduate school and I became incredibly anxious and depressed working with a toxic manager. I went to every social gathering to show my support to my loved ones and friends, but I wasn’t really present when I was physically there.

For so long I assumed my happiness would positively correlate with all the things I have done right in life by being a good daughter, a good student, a good employee, and a good partner. I just accepted things as it came to me and obediently stuck to my lane. I never did anything to step on anyone’s toes or out of my comfort zone. But I was nowhere near happiness and I was getting further away from being my authentic self. I was slowly disappearing and I couldn’t admit this to myself because I was too scared to face my own troubled mental state. I used other things like work, social gatherings, and other “busy” distractions to keep me from ever confronting my mental health. I thought my worries, anxieties, and fears would just eventually go away if I kept going with the flow of life. This was the ideal life anyway, so this would work itself out right? 

It didn’t. The cracks of this seemingly ideal life started to crumble into noticeable pieces. I was in a terrible mood a lot of the time, I was in a constant state of worry, and I was exhausted from meeting everyone’s expectations. My relationships soured, my work suffered, and my mental health declined. I was losing myself and I didn’t know what to do. 

In 2019, I didn’t have a breakdown, but I had a breakthrough. For the first time in my life, I made the decision to start doing things for myself, not just to please my parents or to impress an employer. I started to work on projects I liked and enjoyed. I went on trips for myself, not for social obligations. I was rediscovering who I was and finding out who I really wanted to be. For once in my life, I was finally taking ownership of my life. I left the toxic workplace for a new one with a position I wanted and a salary I negotiated for. I improved my communication skills with my partner and fostered stronger relationships with friends. I even started a side business of designing and selling cute greeting cards. I was making things happen my way and was finally becoming myself again.

As I gained confidence to do the things I loved, I gained the courage to confront my mental health and took action to do something about it. I started meditating, slowing down, stretching, and experimenting with all sorts of mindfulness activities. I read books and listened to many hours of podcasts related to self-help topics. After putting in “self-work” consistently, the results were magical. The newfound clarity and sense of calmness was incredibly freeing. For a person who had experienced a lifelong crippling anxiety, this felt like a dream. And this new dream became my new reality. 

I am starting to live my dream life now. I am learning to be my authentic self and I am so much happier than ever before. I live fully with less anxiety and do things I love without anyone else’s permission. As I gain more courage, I am able to take risks and try new things, like taking a real hard look at my finances and my unhealthy lifestyle, and making changes that I have avoided for so long. Interestingly, the more I give back to myself, the more I am able to give back to the world at a much greater capacity than ever before. I am continuously using my creativity and art to help others heal and began their journey of self-discovery, while staying true to myself and my values.  

I am sharing my story so one day you can find yourself and live your dream life too. You have the right to live happily and make your dreams happen, no matter what age you are. Be willing to let go, take up space, and live authentically. It does take real work, time, and consistency, but I guarantee that it is incredibly rewarding, feeling this other way. This may make other people uncomfortable at first, but realize you need to put your own life above others’ expectations. By the end of it all, you have lived your life, not someone else.  

A happy mind is a happy life. You deserve to be happy and live your dream life, so go make it a happy ending.

(And here’s a free mood tracker I made to start. Good luck!)

Have an Ox-cellent Lunar New Year 2021!

When asked in an interview of how she felt when she lost the 1998 Olympics Gold medal, Michelle Kwan said, “I still won the Silver.”

You can still win, even in the most unlikely of circumstances. In 2007, my team and I competed in a college-wide dragonboat championship and our team didn’t even make it to the final top three. But I still won a first place medal that day with half the team that wasn’t our own.

Here’s my story: I was a freshmen in college and this was my first ever college dragonboat championship. There was a women’s division round and my team actually didn’t have enough women to participate. Our team, made up half men and half women, just had barely enough people to make a full boat. Interestingly, another college team also didn’t have enough women to participate either and were in the same boat as us too (pun intended). It was suggested that we pair up – half of the women from our team and half of the women from the other – to compete in the women’s round.

It was a crazy idea to be in the same boat with women we barely knew and most likely trained with different paddling styles. The odds were against us too, since we were going against teams with women who trained with each other for months and probably even years. But we decided to go for it anyway. Once the race started, I gave it a 120% and just kept paddling forward, no matter how wet or cold I got in the wintery day. I remember I instinctively didn’t want to let this group of women down, even though half of them were strangers. So in the midst of the loud cheering, screaming, and shouting during the whole race, I kept charging forward. And we won.

You can think that we were unlucky to compete with women we barely knew. Or you can think we were the luckiest group of women to be on the same team together and win first place that day. So, when you see the glass half full or half empty, it’s up to you. I believe you can have an ox-cellent year if you open your perspective and figure out how to keep going.

You still gained something in the end, like work experience, new colleagues, and maybe finally figured out how to use the office printer properly. Or you realized you had a terrible boss, a shitty job, and didn’t even like the work to begin with. Losing a job or a chunk of your salary doesn’t mean you lose everything. It may feel like it initially, but remember that you still have control over your life. You can figure it out and eventually things work out. Everything is figureoutable.

I hope you carry this mindset with you in 2021. Have the willpower to move forward, do bigger and be better. You can still win and the year is just beginning, so get MOO-ving!

My 1st place medal that was achieved in the most unlikely of circumstances

A Small Act of Kindness Goes a Big Way

thank you signage
Photo by Giftpundits.com on Pexels.com

The Bay Area has been hit hard lately. The COVID-19 pandemic, along with the on and off county restrictions, has already devastated our economy, our social life, and our mental health. We still have ongoing earthquakes and power outages too. And the sweet cherry on top of all this, is the 400-plus wildfires blazing through the precious natural areas of the Golden State. Yes, it has been a very difficult time for Californians in 2020 and none of really know when we can get back to normal again

Even in the midst of all this, I have encountered a small act of kindness that I am so happy to have experienced a few days ago. I currently live in a home located in an active evacuation warning zone for the 2nd largest wildfire in the state. Fortunately, I have extended family and good friends who have generously offered their own home in case my family and I needed a temporary place to stay. What I did not expect was the same offer from an owner of a local shipping and mailing store in my city, who I have only met recently and twice to date.

For the past few weeks, I have been using this local mailing service, as opposed to USPS or FedEx due to terrible Google reviews, to mail out free greeting cards to my local community. When I first met her, we instantly clicked and shared our admiration of plants and details about our careers. She found out I was a full-time landscape designer with a new greeting card side business. She was genuinely interested in getting to know about my side business and also getting landscape consultation advice for her back yard. I told her I was happy to help give her advice, pro bono.

A few days ago, she sent me a text of her back yard and photo examples of what she wanted. I told her I will come up a few ideas for her, but not right away because my family and I are currently located in an evacuation warning area and we could evacuate at any time. She responded to not worry about her yard and that if I needed a place to stay, I would be welcomed in her home and use an extra futon at her place.

I was kind of blown away from this generosity, from a woman who I barely know and just met only two times in the past few weeks. Maybe she did this out of a niceness, or the fact that we are both Asian American women, or a bit of both. Whatever the reason is, I am so glad to have experienced such a kind gesture from someone like her. It re-instills my faith in humanity that there are good people in my local community, no matter what’s going on in the outside world. Even with all the terrible things going on in my state, our nation, and the world, there are still good people out there willing to do good things for people.

Just a small act of kindness can be huge for others. I know that the times we live in aren’t great and we often hear about the bad news more than the good ones. When I ended up receiving more gratitude than I was giving away, it made me feel emotions of excitement, fulfillment, and joy all around. So, I hope this story inspires you to do something good for another stranger and it doesn’t have to be of any monetary value. Practicing just a tiniest inch of gratitude can go a long way. And, you might receive something back when you least expect it.

I started a side business for $800

stationery for sketching and drawing on wooden table
Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

Starting a new side business during the pandemic and while many businesses are closing at astronomical rates is crazy, I know.

But I also know there is never a perfect time to start doing what you love, no matter what is going on in the outside world. If anything, it is probably the best time to see if your interesting ideas or hobbies can potentially be turned into something more. We have already witnessed that in a matter of six months, many company jobs are disappearing left and right and are not as stable and secure as we once thought before. Also, we now have more time to be at home and much fewer obligations to go to social events. So, I truly believe with a little bit of perseverance, confidence, and patience, it is very possible to start something new of your own, even during very difficult and challenging times we are now living in.

You do need some capital, but not a lot. In the olden days, a new business needed many investors and heavy duty funding to get started. Now, businesses can start for under $1,000 or even less than $100, depending on the type of product or service you are creating. My initial startup costs amount to about $815 and I have listed the cost breakdown below:

Startup Items Cost
Annual personal domain cost (from Namecheap) $9.08
Annual personal website cost (Business tier from Squarespace) $216.00
Apple pencil (1st gen) – discounted* $91.77
Apple 10.5 inch iPad Air 64 MB – discounted* $467.22
Procreate App* $10.00
Cardstock paper $20.00

Total

$814.06

*These are essential items for my side business.

I created an online greeting card store for my side business, with all cards available for digital download so I did not have to worry about prints or shipping at the moment. The mission for this business is to empower and celebrate people for who they are and the moments that really matter to them. The cards provided are beyond standard birthday and anniversary cards. They include cards that congratulate loved ones coming out, starting a new business venture, and hitting a sobriety milestone.

My side business requires a good digital pen, a tablet, and a design app for me to make high-quality designs for my greeting cards. I hate to admit, but the Apple products I bought are the best tools in the market now for creating digital artwork. They work seamlessly with my 2018 MacBook Pro and Pixelmator Pro to do final edits for both the card designs and social media photography. The investment for these tools are quite high, but are necessary for what I need to make my card designs. Also, I knew a good friend who worked at Apple to help get me a discount. And if the business doesn’t work out, I can still use the iPad to watch Netflix and look at recipes while cooking, so it is a win win.

The second main expense was purchasing the business subscription plan on Squarespace for my business website. I researched their platform before purchasing to ensure they are able to sell digital products and they do. I also played with their limited features using the 30-day free trial and thought the platform was easy to use, after some time figuring out how to navigate their tools, including changing theme colors and categorizing commerce products. I really like how the user interface is set up so you can manipulate as much as you want and, if I had any questions, I was able to read through a detailed, step by step guide with photos from their support page. For a non-tech person like me, it is the right decision to use Squarespace for my business website.

It took me about six months to launch my side business. I worked tirelessly around my full-time professional job, which I thankfully still have and currently working remotely. I was drawing, sketching, and making edits during my lunch break and late evenings after an 8-hour workday. It was definitely hard, but I was doing something I enjoyed, so it did not feel like work. I recommend keeping a day job if possible, so income is still being generated and you can be a little bit more creative about what you want to do for your side business.

When I first started, I was overwhelmed with self-doubt, fear, and a lot of anxiety. I thought too much of what I had left to do and if the work I was doing was going to make a difference at all. So, in order to keep focus, I just concentrated on the next, small steps and just kept going. Instead of thinking about the big picture of a beautiful, finished website of my brand that showcased my greeting card designs, I focused on the little tasks that will take me further to it. It really worked, because now I am here and I recently launched my side business a few days ago.

Also, only mention your side business to a few people when you are first starting out. This helps keep the outside noise down and lets you focus on what you truly want to make and show the world. The first lucky few will be the ones who are likely to support you throughout the whole process anyway.

Right now, I am slowly building an online presence using social media. And using the same mindset as before, instead of trying to make a seemingly far reaching goal of a thousand sales, I figured I will try to make just one sale. I will continue documenting my side business journey and see where it takes me. Even if this takes me nowhere, I am uber happy to have put something out there that I can call my own. The feeling of joy from producing your own creative work and having purpose beyond my professional job is one of the best feelings you can have. Anyone can achieve the same fulfillment, including you.

Check out my side business here! Thank you in advance for your support! 🙂

ChubCatArt Website

FYI, none of the products or services mentioned are sponsored. This blog post is based solely on my own personal opinions.

A Message to My College Graduate Self (Ten Years Later)

IMG_1910-2

You did it! You survived four years of studio without noise cancelling headphones and managed to pull all nighters for projects without drinking any coffee. Your road to professional and personal success is only the beginning and you will achieve much more than you realize even when the odds are stacked against you.

I know you will harness your creativity and intellect to visualize beauty and function in the midst of seemingly impossible landscapes and you will produce ideas that not only impress others, but also surprise yourself. Like any professional creative pursuits, this will take time, patience, courage and a lot of hard work to get there, but the rewards will be immense for your career, as well as, for your personal endeavors. It will not be easy and there would be many times when you want to give up and cry in the office bathroom. It is okay to fail, as long as you get back up and continue to move forward. How do I know this? Well, ten years later, I am a forward-thinking landscape designer with a salary I wanted and working on projects I enjoy. And so much more.

I cannot tell you how I got to where I am today, but I can reveal this: continue to be your weird, unapologetic self and just keep going. Be original in your work because there is no one else like you. Also, have some fun when being creative and do not be so serious all the time. You can have a child-like mind when it comes to creativity, without actually being childish in front of people. There will be moments when you have no idea what you are doing, but you will figure it out eventually and be wiser than the day before. Learning new things will be scary, but you will be glad you did.

It will be a year later since the Great Recession ended. Times will initially be tough as jobs are slowly being recovered. Though, the bright side is that many landscape design firms will restructure their workflow and team sizes to become more resilient during economic downturns. Professionals in the field still reminisce about this period six years later during an office tour or eight years later in an interview. People never forget and are very understanding about the times that are bad in the past and will also be incredibly forgiving of any economic hurdles in the future.

You are stronger than you think because you have already accomplished one of the greatest feat in life, which is getting a college degree. That’s more than what Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, or Mark Zuckerberg can say. Now, these billionaires have also achieved beyond what most of us couldn’t thought was possible and yet they have made it happen. The final lesson here is to not be the next Zuckerberg or Jobs, but to be you and make your ideas happen. If studio classes have taught you anything, it is that you can make it work and pull off a decent, presentable project by the due date. You can do it.

You have come so far when you began this journey four years ago without knowing anything about the program or profession. Now, you have the foundation and tools to help provide creative solutions to real world problems. Your future success awaits and I look forward to seeing you do it.

(Note: I graduated from college in 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture. The ripple effects of the Great Recession remained in my industry, even many years after it ended. Many professionals in my field remember the tough aftermath and their proactive decisions then that have led them to be here today. While I know this worldwide pandemic has devastated our economy, do keep in mind that we will get through this and know that opportunities will come, just delayed for now. As we slowly recover from this, people will be very understanding about these unusual circumstances and be intrigued about your story on how you overcame it. Carve out your own story, as I have done, because it is the one thing you can still control even during difficult times.)

Make Work Interesting For You

IMG_0131

This can apply to any job that is inherently interesting or one that is dreadfully mediocre. If you have some flexibility to make work more interesting for you, then why not add some joy and enthusiasm to your work? This should not be reserved for a fresh grad from college and it is something I still continue to do in my professional job even after 10 years of graduating from college. It helps pass the time quicker and your supervisor may actually reward you for your newfound work ethic. As long as this is not offensive, unprofessional, or risk client confidentiality, then it may be something worth doing at your job.

I first did this when I volunteered as a gardener for a local cemetery while in college. My responsibilities were to help maintain the cemetery grounds by weeding, planting, pruning, and other light laborious tasks. I was tasked to help devise a planting plan for their annual bed mound. Although I could easily just come up with a bubbles of plant labels on a planting plan and call it a day, I decided to make it more fun for myself and, also, for the visitors. I came up with the idea to make a “volcano” concept: a metaphoric explosion of annual Iceland poppies with yellow and orange flowers snaking down like lava towards the bottom.

DESIGN CONCEPT

IMG_0001_2

PLANTING SCHEME

IMG_0001_new

The concept sounded absurd, but it was bold, different, and completely surprised my supervisor (in a good way). He loved the idea and believed it could really brighten up the space, providing a little bit of peace and calmness for visitors to the cemetery. It did, based on the feedback from visitors in the next couple of weeks after we planted the annuals. It was a great success in a way that it really did lighten up the area and helped create an inviting space for all, from a visitor to a passersby. It was a space not only for those who passed, but for those who are still living too.

FINAL GARDEN DESIGN

IMG_8921

If a 12 feet diameter planting bed can make such a big difference, then I believe you can too. Try and test if you can make the work you do more interesting for you, whether professionally or something so menial like a house chore. It does not need to be over the top and just needs a little bit of effort to go the extra mile. People, not just our bosses, can tell if we put effort in our work or not. For example, we can already tell whenever a chef puts love into the meal based on his or her presentation and taste, so any signs of apathy will be noticed. But if we go above and beyond our responsibilities, the rewards can be immeasurable.

Doing something fun, unique, and exciting in your work can produce big results. And big results can lead to bigger opportunities. Whether you are just starting an entry-level position or in a job for over ten years, you can make your work interesting and still maintain professionalism. I learned personally over the years that the more creative, original and bolder the design is, the more WOW factor and reaction I get from my supervisors and clients. And the feeling never gets old.

Life Threw a Big, Fat COVID-19 Lemon, So Make Lemonade!

IMG_1520-edited

The aftertaste is bittersweet. On one hand, we are spending more time at home with family and commuting less. On the other hand, we are spending too much time with family that makes us want reasons to drive out more. Now, where do we go from here?

A lot of people having been thinking that lately. We are living in a period where most of humanity are thinking about what to do next, all at the same time. We are not living our day to day schedules anymore, passing by life like we used to. Up until end of last year, we became very familiar with our normal routines that we had no reason to think beyond the usual, regular actions of eating, working, playing and sleeping. Then the pandemic happened and we abruptly became derailed from normalcy and sidetracked from our life pursuits and goals.

Now, we are all thinking. We are putting our minds at work like never before and it has been interesting to hear about life-changing ideas from high-level, tech CEOs to a bored kid with a computer. We are also thinking about things we never thought about until now, like how to really make ends meet, how to teach your children their grade level math and English, how to adjust to the new work from home environment, and how to support local businesses.

Nobody has all the right answers and that is okay. We are imperfect in our solutions for now, but we will get there. The important thing is to keep thinking and act upon those ideas. Do not let the noise of media, online trolls, and protestors in front of government buildings get in your way. They have infinite time on their hands, but you do not. Your time is precious and more finite than you realize. If you are frustrated about something, then go to the proper channels to actually make a difference in your community, like emailing your local city council members or maybe even be one in the near future. There’s endless possibilities with unlimited, free thought.

A lot of us do not like change and prefer to stick with the status quo. But if people just accepted the norm, then we would not have internet on our phones, original content to watch, or the ability to connect with people from all over the world today. If Henry Ford did not make automobiles affordable and accessible to all Americans about 120 years ago, then we probably would still be traveling over predominantly muddy roads today. Thinking about ideas that can change the world can be both priceless and lucrative (later on). For now, let’s dial it back and figure out the next steps.

Sometimes, to think of better ideas is to ask better questions. Instead of thinking how my small business last six months from now, how can it last for another 20 years? Or more critically, how can I make it last with the least amount of effort that can produce the biggest rewards? With regards to college, how can a college student learn the major more effectively out of the physical classroom for the time being? Remember, we are taught tools and theories in school, but it is our responsibility to think and learn for the rest of our lives.

It is true that life throws us lemons, some bigger and have more rot than others. The silver lining is that you can still make lemonade even with this sour fruit. So, I believe we can think of ways to turn the COVID-19 lemon into lemonade, instead idling by or complaining. “The best way to predict the future is to create it yourself,” a quote paraphrased from Alan Kay, a computer scientist who pioneered graphical user interface (UI) design.

We all have the power to think of creative ideas, even in the messiest and scariest period of our lives. We need to continue our thinking and not stop. And when we act on some good ideas, these are what will help get us out of this worldwide doom and gloom. It is time to make some fresh lemonade!🍋

Take a Mental Break Before It Becomes a Mental Breakdown

driving-photo

At the start of the week, I had not one, but two deadlines due the following day. One was a Photoshop rendering perspective for a project I never worked on and another was to make minor updates to a re-submittal construction document package for a project I loosely worked on. I also did not have a full two days (16 hours) to work on them since both were given on short notice. I was notified about the rendering at 11:00 am with a noon deadline the next day and the other with a similar notification time that was due later in the afternoon the following day. So, in reality, I only had about 11 hours to complete both – 1 hour lunch not included. Mondays are a buzzkill, amiright?

On the same Monday, I also had planned on doing a quick run to the office during lunchtime to grab a couple of drafting supplies I have been running low on, as we were on the 9th week of quarantine. For me, I personally see driving – not commuting – as a therapeutic way of relieving stress and anxiety. There’s something about driving at my own speed and pace that is mentally soothing and relaxing. I also enjoy driving on my own from time to time and, plus, the freeing ability to unashamedly blast selected K-pop songs on repeat in my old SUV.

Others may view this little errand run an as an interruption to workflow and productivity, but I believe this was a good “mental break” for my mind. Not working on those deadlines and doing something mentally calming was more productive than me sitting anxiously in front of the computer and most likely wasting half an hour mulling on the fact that I had two deadlines with no game plan in sight. While driving, I unconsciously came up with a bunch of ideas on how to plan the rendering quickly from scratch during the 40-minute drive to and from the office. If anything, the scheduled office run worked in my favor and quite possibly prevented me from having a mental breakdown by hour four of the deadlines.

Deadlines happen all the time and never at the moments you ever expect. But lately, I have been seeing the glass half full than empty when it comes to such realities. Nothing I do will change this reality, so I find it helpful to accept it, move on, and focus. Like really concentrate on the task at hand for a couple of hours with a few breaks in between. I also choose not to worry about those two deadlines outside of working on them. Instead, I find something completely opposite to occupy my mind with for the latter part of the day. Even knowing fully well I had two deadlines the next day, I slept well and not a single thought about either projects entered my mind that night. It was tomorrow’s problem, not tonight’s nightmare.

The remaining four to six hours left of the deadlines consisted of intense focus. And yes, I did finish the rendering in the nick of time (ok it was really only 10 minutes over). I also did monitor the clock a few times that morning, but I did not panic or dwell into worry. I was already in my work groove, so I just worked a bit faster and kept going. I also made my second deadline by 2 pm.

The familiar saying “Whether you can or can’t, you are right” rings true here. If we were really being honest, I actually did not think I would make the deadlines. Turning a blank page into a manager approved, client-worthy product in a small time frame felt very nerve-wrecking. Though, in actuality, it was the fear of not getting it done in time that caused me more anxiety than actually doing it. When I was in full concentration mode, my willpower to finish and rendering skills somehow combined to work magically and produced magical results. It is astonishing what your mind can do in just little time.

It always helps to take a mental break, even when the odds are stacked against you. Luckily for me, driving was the mental break I needed, even though it was probably the last thing I would have done in such a time-sensitive period. This fortunate incident reminded me that it is okay to take a step away from the screen and to calm the mind before diving in too deep into the work. A refreshed mind can really turn seemingly impossible tasks into very real, tangible possibilities.

Your “Tick” to Creativity

artwork

(Photo taken from an art gallery in The Venetian Hotel, Las Vegas, 2017)

When you hit a creative block, it sometimes helps to follow your anger. Criticism rather that polite praise can work more wonders than you think. Throughout my personal and professional life, I have received a fair share of hurtful comments, outlandish critiques, and harsh judgements. Of the many, those from a very strict manager I used to work with were the most critical, toughest words I have ever received for my concept designs. Deep down, I knew he was coming from a place of heart and did this in my best interest to succeed professionally. He wanted to push my potential to the limit, even to a 25-year-old entry-level employee with barely any experience in the industry.

Whenever I showed my manager my crappy concepts, he would sarcastically ask, “What would the client think?” I would go back to the drawing board, huffing and puffing inside, knowing fully well that I had failed in his eyes. Rightly so, I did suck at developing residential design concepts in the beginning. I also naively thought they were good and, looking back, they were terrible and my manager was right. While his critiques were big blows to my self-esteem, I channeled my frustration to developing better and more creative designs, to prove my worth and to show him I can get to his level one day. I eventually did get much better and faster at developing concepts, after many hours of practice and many rolls of trace paper.

So that this impressed my new manager at my new job recently. When I showed him three concepts for a neighborhood park, the manager was actually taken aback and was torn between choosing one of the three. That was the biggest compliment to date in my professional career. Not positive words like a “good job”, but the reaction of surprise and indecisiveness of several great designs was the long-awaited approval I have worked so hard for.

If it weren’t for my previous manager’s criticism early on in my career, I probably would have foolishly still been producing unaspiring work today. His critiques were my main motivation to do better and propelled me to become a full-fledged professional who can come up with really cool, interesting concepts for many different types of design projects now.

Inspiration can come from anywhere. One outlet of inspiration is from constructive criticism, as this is actually my biggest driver to keep improving and keep going. Try to use criticisms to your advantage and not only do better, but also overcome and overachieve in front of others who have placed doubt in you. Take actions to prove them wrong and be “so good they can’t ignore you” (a quote by Cal Newport). Find what make you “tick” and funnel all that energy to become somebody others never thought possible. You would surprise even yourself at how far you can go.

Another person’s doubt could be the path to your greatest victory yet.

30 New Things I Learned During a Month in Quarantine

IMG_5104

No, it did not involve a skill or language. With more time alone and isolated, I have been learning new, little bits of information every day since the shelter-in-place has started. The lack of social obligations has really freed up my time to focus on doing things I want to do and being more observant of my surroundings. None of these things were hard to learn and sometimes a quick Google search can do the trick. Some things were learned from an embarrassing scenario or by random too. If anything, being imperfect has probably taught me more than actively trying to be perfect.

  1. From hearing wild turkeys gobbling loudly outside my house for the past few days, I learned it is now mating season for turkeys this time of year.
  2. The quote, “I am not a businessman, I am a business, man,” by Jay-z.
  3. Bananas can be artificially ripen in the oven and then used to make banana bread.
  4. There were a lot of SATs words that I looked up (but now have forgotten) in Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book City of Girls.
  5. Investing is a fancy word for reallocating savings.
  6. A couple of passionate 450-word emails to my city and local park district to close a park entrance in the middle of my neighborhood during the stay at home order worked.
  7. A digital cleanse of unwanted email subscriptions can be mentally refreshing.
  8. Homemade cheesecake and apple cinnamon coffee cake taste way better after a day in the fridge.
  9. Washing my hair every other day and not blow drying it has made my hair appear healthier and stronger.
  10. There is a keyboard shortcut to toggle WIFI on and off on a Windows laptop. (I accidentally pressed the keys in an effort to take a screenshot and I embarrassingly spent 15 minutes on the phone with our office IT guy trying to resolve my remote desktop connection. He was not amused.)
  11. A new high yield savings account can be opened a lot easier than I originally thought through an online application.
  12. A male barista at my local bakery shop is always chirpy and enthusiastic towards customers every time I grab coffee to go once a week.
  13. Weeding is much easier to do in the cool, cloudy mornings than in late afternoon.
  14. The unconscious fact that I have been touching my face a lot before the pandemic and now have roughly reduced the number of times by about half.
  15. The podcast “What You Will Learn” is literally the audible version of spark notes on books in topics ranging from investments, lifestyle, non-fiction, and self-help.
  16. Placing hot brown butter too quickly into the cookie mix can make the texture of the baked cookies flat and runny.
  17. Social “dieting” and social distancing can go hand-in-hand and nobody is the wiser about your unknown whereabouts.
  18. There is usually some technical difficulty when doing a virtual hangout session, but this can be resolved pretty quickly.
  19. Reusable mesh produce bags can be washed in the washing machine on delicate mode and air dried after.
  20. The quote, “We don’t make movies to make money, we make money to make more movies,” by Walt Disney.
  21. Wear sunblock even when going outside on a cloudy day.
  22. Salt and pepper are not the only seasonings that can make soups and curries tasty.
  23. Installing a new TV wall mount requires locating existing wall stud locations and figuring out where to anchor wood screws to ensure a secure and stable wall mount installation.
  24. The time to cook or bake takes longer than you think.
  25. Washing my face in the shower with regular bar soap has helped cleared my skin (on top of washing my face in the morning and at night with a facial cleanser).
  26. People appreciate receiving a direct phone call or voicemail message when I was attempting to contact a sales representative of a paving company for work.
  27. Frozen kimchi pancakes are actually very flavorful and delicious when I stir fried them.
  28. Correcting my posture with three pillows in my home office chair has done wonders.
  29. Re-watching episodes of The Office on Netflix is a good default entertainment during lunch breaks. (It feels like I am in an office setting when I am working from home.)
  30. Little joys like passing by spring blooms or not burning steaming vegetables can brighten up my day.

You can learn something new every day. It does not need to be a difficult mathematical equation or trying to solve world peace. Dial it back down and learn something easy and simple that you didn’t know or notice before. Learning something new does not have to be boring or tiresome either and should be something that excites you and lets you pause for a moment. My greatest motivation is knowing I am not perfect and that I don’t know everything, even with a masters degree and several years of industry experience. There is always something you can learn, you just need to go look for it.

Happy Monday and carpe diem!

Rethinking Parks as a Landscape Designer For Post COVID-19

IMG_20190331_103740

Public parks are closed, but my ideas about public parks are not.

I was wondering how my work as a professional landscape designer can make a difference during times of a full blown global crisis. In actuality, COVID-19 has made me rethink about what public parks can actually mean for people. The mental aspect of public parks has never mattered more until the pandemic happened. Sure, healing and “zen” gardens have been designed in many spaces, but typically in healthcare campuses and hospital environments. But why does it stop there? Can’t these types of spaces be weaved into public parks with other programs such as children playgrounds and open courts?

These are the questions I have been asking myself when developing public park concepts and being cooped up at home for the past six weeks. The ability to work from home and continue working on projects as a landscape designer with a financially healthy company has been a grateful blessing and I am now more diligent than ever before to use my experience and understanding to create concepts for public parks that is not only functional and aesthetic in form, but also mentally calming when being inside the park. Adults need sanctuary and healing spaces too and have the chance to go to parks not only for recreational purposes or watch their children play in the playground.

The pandemic has actually sparked a fire-breathing dragon of creativity inside me to create spaces that are relaxing and tranquil within public parks. There is never a better opportunity to start now. I have been given the opportunity to design multiple parks for a neighborhood development project and certainly did not let this go to waste even while being isolated and working remotely. It did take some adjustment to sketch ideas on an 8 ½ x 11″ paper with a 100’ scaled base, but this did not stop me from developing really cool and interesting ideas about how to incorporate such spaces in 5-acre public parks.

And guess what? The project manager loved my ideas and told me so with five exclamation marks. He’s also the type that barely shows much emotion through a Zoom message or let alone, leave any punctuation marks at the end of a sentence. While I can contribute financially to the pandemic – and I do have the sufficient means to do so – I wanted to help in a different way and something that has a lasting impact to locals and even visitors from afar. I have the power to make spaces good, but I also have the power to create something truly unique and better for everyone. These times of uncertainty is not a time to be lazy or uncreative; it is a time to start thinking, be creative, and do things fearlessly (not recklessly).

It is ok to be afraid, but not to live in fear. This period of instability is making many people anxious, including myself. But I choose not to dwell in the rabbit hole of worry and have opted to instead figure out ways to contribute professionally (through concept ideas) and personally (virtual hangouts with friends and constant updates with immediate family members). Just remember you do not have to be the best or the brightest to think of big ideas, you just need to start and keep going.

Self-Care Activities I Now Have Time For

 

white and purple flower plant on brown wooden surface
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It is quite the luxury to feel un-rushed now. Before the shelter-in-place order, I was incredibly busy with my new job during the weekdays and attending social activities on the weekends like baby and bridal showers, brunch dates, and obligated family gatherings, which pretty much occupies most weekends for a woman in her early 30s. Now, with all the time in the world due to the shelter-in-place order and working remotely from home, I can finally do things I wouldn’t normally do if we all weren’t on house arrest (or at least it feels like one).

This new temporary norm was definitely an abrupt lifestyle adjustment at first, but after four weeks in, some of these activities could permanently fit into both my current and post-quarantine schedule. Best of all, they take thirty minutes or less and can also positively contribute to your overall health and well-being. Nothing is sweeter than a double dose of goodness.

1. Take an outdoor walk with a household member.

Instead of normally commuting back home after work, I now replace the time with a 30-minute evening walk with my sister, who I currently live with. After 5pm, we take a walk around our hilly neighborhood and pretty much talk about anything and everything. The latest updates on COVID-19 and the virus’s impact on our work and overall economy have certainly been our main discussion topic, but it is nice to be able to talk to each other about our feelings and thoughts about current issues, un-judged and unfiltered. At the end of our walk, both of us feel relieved getting stuff off our chest with each other and we get an easy, short workout while doing so. Plus, we get to see cute, neighborhood dogs from a distance during our walk.

We have never done this before the quarantine. But with this shelter-in-place order, we have adjusted our lifestyle around it and managed to find a way to have a deep conversation, in between binge-watching Netflix shows and baking. Actually, this is more like triple dose of goodness because this lets me spend more time with a tolerable family member, unload my unrestricted opinions on this person, and meet my 5,000 steps goal on my Google Fit app every day, all at once.

2. Perform a cooking challenge during lunch hour on weekdays.

For the past five years, I have been mostly eating microwavable food and leftovers for lunch at work. Don’t get me wrong, I like convenience and I still do, but the ability to cook a fresh meal at home beats a mildly warm leftover fried rice at the office any day. Lunch is now a plethora of hearty choices using whatever is available in the fridge and pantry, along with a handy kitchen gadget and clean cookware.

There are lots of healthy recipes that take thirty minutes or less to prepare, and I use the remaining time left to watch an episode of Kim’s Convenience. Lately, I have been doing a personal challenge of figuring out recipes and methods to cook a rainbow plate of delicious food, which consists of vegetables, healthy carbs, and lean meats, using the least amount of time and cookware possible. So far, I have really enjoyed making tasty, colorful lunches for the past several weeks and found myself being more productive and less sleepy on the latter half of the work day. Win-win.

3. Treat myself to a spa and relaxation session.

Before the state-wide lockdown, whenever I did a face mask, I would also be doing something else simultaneously, in order to save time. Now that there is no rush to go somewhere or meet someone, I have some extra time to do a face mask while relaxing my mind and body. It is still multi-tasking in a way, but in a good way. I can lay on my bed with either a cool face mask or mud mask and listen to soothing music without much interruption – outside or mentally. My thoughts are not consumed by the next task, but just being in the moment and actually meditate a little bit.

This has probably been the best treat I have given myself while staying at home. It is free, takes only half an hour, and, at the end of it, my face is brighter and my mind is clearer. For somebody who rarely goes to a spa or let alone even pay for one, this is the next best thing to the real thing. I also never would have thought of doing this in relaxation mode, without doing something productive at the same time. Having time for yourself and performing a self-care routine was considered a luxury to me and I now do both simultaneously on a regular basis. I can even do this on a weekday and not need to wait until the weekend to do this.

Self-care has usually been something that I needed to squeeze somewhere in my busy life and kind of doing it half-heartedly when I did find time to do it. Recently, it has gradually cemented into my not-so-busy schedule and paved itself as a necessary activity for benefiting my overall mental health, improving my mood, body, and mind. Self-care is not selfish, because if I strive to live with a healthier mind and body, it benefits everyone else around me and the work I do. I can have better relationships with people, improve work productivity, and be more creative with a calmer mind. The important thing is to start now, when you now have the time to do it.

Minimal Ways to Maximize Ideas

design-photo

Ideas can sprout anywhere. It does not always come in the perfect environment, the best timing, or an ideal location. If anything, they come at the oddest and most inconvenient moments. Knowing this, there are ways to help foster ideas and spark creativity by sticking to using basic tools in a not-so-perfect setting. Being minimalistic and even messy can spark big ideas. As a landscape designer by profession and a general creator in my free time, I have found ways to maximize creativity by using minimalistic tactics. This is not always pretty or organized, but, truthfully, the root of creative ideas never are anyways. They are usually the rawest and roughest form of bigger ideas, which is how ideas are naturally generated.

1. Use basic tools to sketch ideas.

A clean, new sheet of scratch paper makes me nervous and could actually hinder me from developing new ideas. I agonize too much over ruining the new sheet and beat myself over about whether or not the first line is worth drawing on. I also get too stressed over the possibility that if the idea sucks, then the new sheet is wasted. So instead, I became more flexible to drawing my ideas on a random paper or something accessible at the time, like the back of a scratch printed paper, on a lined journal page, or on a paper napkin. I became accustomed to sketching on things not exactly designed for ideas, but they are still economical, resourceful, and practical. Most ideas are produced by chance too and not at the dedicated times when I sit and stare over a blank piece of paper, so it is okay to grab whatever piece of paper is handy.

A basic working pen or pencil can be more appropriate to use for ideas than a fancier one. As long as the pencil or pen produces enough ink or marking without too much effort, then it remains an effective tool in drafting ideas. I prefer to use a black ink pen because this forces me to commit to the sketch without the ability to erase or retreat from my initial thoughts. Inked sketches also help keep a permanent track record of the ideas that were thought out, so I can go back and revisit earlier versions if the one I developed does not work out. I can use fancier pens or pencils later on once I finalize my ideas and want to draw a final design.

 2. Sketch small first then bigger later.

 I tend to draw in small, quick bursts rather than in larger and slower movements, especially when ideas start to flow all at once. I draw multiple sketches of a singular idea and if I do not see it working out, I move on to a completely different idea and keep repeating this cycle until I reach a satisfactory point where the idea can be truly finessed. This helps maintain idea flow and avoids wasting too much pen or paper during the brainstorming process. Drawing small can be messy and disorganized, but the whole point of the sketching exercise is to develop ideas, not constrain them. The messier the paper is, the better.

3. Maximize comfort and limit distractions when brainstorming ideas.

When deliberately trying to brainstorm ideas, it does not really matter where you are, as long as you are able to concentrate and are in a comfortable environment when doing so. The place can be at a local coffee shop, a computer desk, or even on your bed. There is no right place for generating ideas, just one where your ideas can flow freely and with little to no distractions. The space should match your comfort level and be spacious and tidied enough to draw. Your ideas can be messy, but the space around your sketch should be cleared and free of obstructions.

It also helps to turn off your computer or phone, so you will not be disturbed by an impromptu text message or swayed to procrastinate on your computer. You can listen to music or have something playing in the background if this helps you with your creative juices going. Try to concentrate for twenty minutes  – or longer if you can – and then take breaks in between by grabbing a snack or taking a walk outside. Taking breaks can be just as important when developing ideas. Sometimes when we are not actively thinking about ideas or productively procrastinating, the ideas come out in full force. Do have a paper and pen handy when they do come out of nowhere because they usually do half of the time.

How to Make Money Without a Bra or Makeup

woman in pink long sleeve shirt holding brown book
Photo by Alexavier Rylee Cimafranca on Pexels.com

I am ambitiously lazy. I have been making extra money, aside from my full-time professional job, but in my own comfort zone, barefaced and un-shaved legs, while sitting under a warm comforter on my bed in my pajamas and drinking coffee from my favorite mug. For a woman in her early 30’s, it is a freeing concept to make money whenever and wherever, without having to wear make-up, contacts, or a bra. I do not have to face anyone, look older and mature, or try to wear work attire that is not too tight or low or short to make more money. Best of all is that I do not have to be told what to do within a 9-to-5 timeframe to earn money, I can make money my way and on my terms.

To do this, I had to first take a step out of my comfort zone. In order to live comfortably, I needed to be uncomfortable first. This means deviating from the standard and taking the risk to be different. Consider this analogy: instead of hiking up on the wider, paved trail to the mountain peak of success like everyone else, I decided to take a less traveled, alternate route. It was riskier and steeper and the path may or may not have reached the mountain peak at all. I may have encountered obstacles, slip, or fall. Though, despite all the uncertainties, it was my choice to create my own path and decide where I go next. Even if the path was more difficult to climb and required a bit more work, my path could potentially lead to the peak faster.

For a long time, I was like everyone else. I was not the fastest or slowest person on the conventional path up, but I was going at a decent pace in achieving academic and professional success. I was also following the usual path of a woman in finding the “one”, getting married, and building a family one day. All of my girl friends were doing this, so I was doing the same without missing a beat. I got married last year and my wedding day was truly one of the best days of my life. While the route I was on made me feel stable and secure, I was not fulfilled. My sense of purpose was lacking, even though I did all the right things, stuck to the same path, and was careful not to disturb the status quo along the way.

Career-wise, I was chugging and grinding along like I was supposed to by having a regular job and just getting paid for doing good, honest work. Yet, I found the work unrewarding and felt trapped in a cycle of dead-end responsibilities. For the first time in thirty years, I wanted to quit a job for one that I actually wanted, not because of any life reasons or because it was the only company that gave a job offer. After achieving financial stability, I wanted to choose what I wanted to do and for the salary I wanted. This meant straying from the norm and leaving a four year job that would have made me terribly unhappy if I had stayed for another 30 years. And so, I stepped out from the conventional path and into the bushes.

At first, it was prickly, uncomfortable, and the unfamiliar terrain made me very nervous. Nobody was guiding me forward, I was on my own. I kept going though, treading carefully and purposefully. I negotiated for a higher end salary at my new job that I wanted and successfully got it. I spontaneously traveled to South Korea, a country I have never been, within three weeks of my decision to go. I did a freelance project designing a front yard residential landscape and was involved in the entire construction process, which is now built and enjoyed by the owners. While I have never done any of these before 2018, I was carving my own path.

As a petite Asian woman in her early 30’s, I seemed to be going against every traditional, cultural and social norms. Being different meant being isolated from a social circle of friends and acquaintances who were doing things by conventional standards. While a handful of my friends were having babies, I was pursuing side ventures. While they were focused on planning their baby showers or baby rooms, I was focused on my self-worth. It was a solo journey and it did feel lonely at times to be detached from conversations about family planning aspirations and expensive daycare costs. But I wanted to increase my income, to travel to places I have never been, and to create something I called my own. I did not want conventions to define me, I wanted to define myself.

It is easy to take the conventional road to success because it does lead to some guarantees and promises of financial security by relying on a steady job of 50 years, the safety net of social security and government handouts for retirement. It does not require much thinking or creativity to follow this path, as long as you work hard and long enough to reach the peak. I believe at some point in time this path may have worked in the past, but it will not make anyone a millionaire today. If anything, those who follow this path now would be unhappy, unmotivated, and even in debt. To actually get to the point of making money without a bra or any make-up on, you will need to break away from these conventions and start making money by doing things you like, not what you have to do. In the long run, you will make more money by doing things you are interested in and, once you do, you can make even more money your way.

Investing in myself was probably the most profitable decision I have made in my life. It allowed me to make more money than I ever thought and now I have the ability to make even more by investing. It has been rewarding to do things on my own. It is a new high that I have discovered and the more I do this, the more of this I want. Plus, my side ventures did not feel like work at all because I enjoyed doing them. I also did not need to work ten times harder to get ten times the results. It was true that I worked longer and I needed more brainpower to push through, but I did not work harder. I did what I normally do when doing something new for the first time, which included many hours of researching and reading. I also talked to friends for some guidance and advice who were long-time veterans of these situations, like negotiating for a higher salary. If you are open to continuous learning and gaining new skills, then do not be afraid to ask for help from others who have succeeded in doing so.

Now that you have a steady income flowing and presumably have paid off all debts, the fun part begins: it is time to make more money by investing. In the next Part II post, I will explain techniques on how to earn compound interest, how to conservatively make money from the stock market, and how to maximize your 401(k). Truthfully, if you choose to invest in yourself, all the other parts of your life could be very rewarding – professionally, socially, and financially. All it takes is a first step off the conventional trail.

Coronavirus: America’s Wake Up Call

sorry we re closed but still awesome tag
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Pexels.com

The past couple of weeks have been nasty and disruptive. Who knew a virus could single-handedly wreck the stock market, day to day life, and our access to basic necessities? It sounds like a crazy dream, but we are all living this nightmare in real life. And we never saw it coming.

Everyone’s situation is different. I see employees adjusting to the new work of home life on LinkedIn, I read stories about people losing their jobs on Reddit, and I hear those still partying on the beach as if nothing is happening on the national news. I am beyond lucky to have a job that allows me to work from home – starting this week in fact – in a profession that I love. I work with a landscape architecture team that focuses on large-scale projects (park design, residential development, and commercial landscapes) and we are able to continue working on projects remotely because our client contracts were secured months prior. And luckily, most of our work is done using the AutoCAD program and on the computer about 85% of the time. I have never worked from home before in my line of work of 5 years, but this abrupt change has been both interesting and enlightening in a couple of ways.

The new quarantine and work from home life has been a blessing in disguise for me. I admit I am a homebody and I love being in the comfort of my childhood home. So far, I have been enjoying working in my pajamas and eating non-microwavable food for lunch. I do not need to put on make-up or eye contacts. I can go to the bathroom as loudly as I please without needing to be as discreet as possible in the women’s public restroom. From having to commute round-trip to work for 3 hours to 1 and half hour to 40 minutes to no commute at all, it has been nice and stress-free to just walk to my own desk and get to work. I also get to see my neighbors (and their furry companions) from a safe distance when I got out for my daily lunch walks.

I seem to be more focused, without being disturbed or leered into random conversations, and I do not feel a sense of loneliness as I have been building up my independence for a long time. I am also incredibly grateful that the home I live in is built for working remotely (my other family members do this regularly), has a working heating and cooling unit, and enough private space for three adults to work remotely at the same time. It is Day 4 and I have definitely adjusted to the new work from home life. I can’t imagine going back to working full time now. The only first-world problem is that I do not have enough pajamas to go through and will have to wash my only three pairs often and regularly.

Also, the timing has never been more perfect to invest in stocks or funds (index or mutual, depending on whichever butters your bread) in a down stock market. For a gal who loves a good discount, this is the silver lining I have been waiting for the past 12 years. I have slowly been building a small nest of funds, emergency and otherwise, and have been watching the bear market like a hungry wolf. The moment to strike is now, oddly caused by something that was totally abnormal and outside from the typical world of economics. Even with the many lessons learned from previous downturns, new techniques set in place, and a seemingly strong economy, the stock market is not immune to volatility and disturbances. And us humans will always feel the effects of it, in both the good and bad times.

I know it is luxury to still have a job, to have the resources to work remotely, and to even have toilet paper (one bulk set of 16, nothing more or less). I know others are not so lucky and living in a much tougher and difficult reality. But the truth is that you can be in my shoes one day – probably sooner than you think – and be able to have the ability to ride this massive wave the next time an unexpected high tide comes. The stock market will be a never-ending roller coaster and life will keep throwing lemons at you, but you can learn to be self-sufficient and find ways to overcome worst-case scenarios. You can survive this and come out stronger if you keep calm and focused. Know that you have options and others have succeeded with far less and in worse situations than yours.

If you are still in panic mode and still don’t believe me, I highly recommend reading the book, “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living” by Dale Carnegie. He talks about people from leading businessmen to prominent leaders to ordinary people who suffered from constant worry and overcame this by changing their mindset and finally saw life through a different lens. He tells stories of people in the worst of situations. One such story is an American manager for a life insurance company who happened to be in China when the Japanese army invaded Shanghai in 1942. He had no choice but to work under a Japanese admiral and liquidate the company’s assets for him. He did not tell the admiral about one of their securities, but this was soon discovered by the Japanese army. He was told he would be sent to a torture chamber for being a traitor. Nobody ever came out alive from there. How did this same life insurance manager and guy with an incoming death sentence later become one of the most successful American businessman in the Far East? I will reveal this later as you continue reading.

Carnegie also talks strategies and mentions a ton of inspirational quotes throughout the book. Though, I find reading the stories of people who overcame worries and eventually became rich – either financially or in life or both – has made the book relatable and gives me hope that I can achieve the same feat. He writes in a way as if he was talking to you in person, where it feels like you are having a coffee chat with a very supportive, restorative friend. It is also eerie and impressive at how he easily predicts your skepticism too. For a worrywart like me, this book is probably the best $10 I have spent to date and a way cheaper alternative than going to see an expensive therapist. By the way, the book is not sponsored and I am merely echoing similar praises from over 2,500 5-star reviews on Amazon.

If you are not in panic mode, it is time to wake-up and make lemonade. Stop reading the news, stop listening to your friends about the news, and stop talking about the news. Knowing and spreading this sort of information will not change your situation. You could be doing something more productive with your time, especially with all this extra time being stuck at home. This crisis has shown us the true nature of people. We find out things like American senators selling stock before the market slowdown, people exploiting consumer goods, and corporations laying off thousands to save their own companies. Whether these are true or not, there will always be people one step ahead of you and trying to get ahead of everyone else. Be one of those people – legally and logically of course.

We cannot rely on the current system because it remains unfair, unreliable, and unstable for those struggling to build wealth. The system has been working for those who have already made it to the top and have catered to their best interests all along, not yours, no matter how much it appears like it. So, it is time to stop beating around the bush and beat the system. To do so, you need to figure out your finances and this all just comes down to basic math. It does not take a mathematician to figure out how much debt you have, how much income you have, and how much you spend on a regular basis. Write this down on a piece of paper or an excel sheet. Once everything is laid out, find out expenses you can cut for the time being, perhaps Netflix or even the 401k contribution if you still have a job and need the extra money now. Maybe also start thinking about selling things you do not need and get a cheaper alternative, like a $500 car baby seat for a baby that is still due in months. Do not spend things you cannot afford.

If you have debt, figure out a game plan on how to tackle this first. And not just tackle it, but tackle it aggressively, so interests won’t continue to pile up. Perhaps in our current state of emergency, interest rates will not budge for now, but it will start again in the future. Do not think your debts will go away because they will not and you will need to address them sooner or later. If you do not have income anymore to pay your debts, figure out a way on how to generate more income. For the time being, you can be a Lyft driver, an Amazon delivery person, or even an online freelance gig – anything that could give you income. Take all three jobs if you have to. Remember, all this is only temporary until you get back on your feet and while you may have friends and family who laugh at you now, you can laugh back at them once you have no debt, no financial worry, and more than six zeros in your bank account.

It will not be easy at first. It will be excruciating, tiring, and sometimes you will feel like giving up. Though, hard work, perseverance, and discipline will get you farther than anything else. There is a helpful quote of Military origin (based on a quick Google search) that states, “Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.” A good analogy of this is the children’s story about the tortoise and the hare. The tortoise still won by making gradual steps forwards instead of the hare being lazy and taking a nap. You can still win by being slow and steady. Little changes could make a big difference over time. And this doesn’t have to be a children’s story, it could be yours. Once you become debt-free, then you can start building wealth from then on, including your emergency fund. You will have a better peace of mind and can live a lifestyle you have always dreamed of. And when life throws lemons again, you will still be ok and not be financially affected because you will then be one step forward than half of the U.S. population.

Remember the American manager who was on the brink of death by the Japanese admiral? He had one day to think of a game plan, so he thought about his options for hours before writing the top four down and their consequences. His first three options were to either give the admiral an explanation, try to escape, or not go into the office the next morning, but all might lead to inevitable death. So, he decided to go with his fourth option, which was to pretend nothing had happened and the admiral would be too busy to remember the exposed discovery. The next morning, he went to the office as usual and, fortunately, nothing more came from this. The admiral returned to Tokyo six weeks after. The time spent to figure out all options and writing down the “what ifs” literally saved his life. So yes, I am a strong proponent in spending time to think and writing about the top possible options (and their outcomes) to really figure out your strategy for any of your worries. This will really prepare you in the long run.

The coronavirus should be a wake-up call to all Americans. If a virus can financially affect you this badly, then what you have been doing so far has not been working and probably has not been working for a while. Don’t feel bad, feel good that you are acknowledging this. Because once you do, you can either figure out how to build an emergency fund or a strategy to pay your debts or a second or third income to keep a roof over your head. Remember there are options, you just need some time to figure them out. Start today, not tomorrow or the day after. Time is non-renewable and the longer you wait this out without a course of action, the harder it will be to overcome your problems. Your future self will thank you for it.

Final Note: It has been a devastating pandemic and the world has seen the both the ugly and good sides of humanity during these uncertain times. My hearts go out to everyone to be safe, healthy, and responsible because we are all in this together. Remain calm and buy necessities in the amount you absolutely need. We have never faced a crisis like this before in modern day history, so I believe most of us are learning as we go. Sometimes protocols are unexpected and may continue to be for a little longer, but know that you are not alone in this. You can get through this and the rest of the world will too.

How to Negotiate Your Salary and Beyond

Market2 copy 2
Mongkok Ladies’ Market / September 2015

My earliest memory of bargaining was when I was 13 years old. I was with my mom at the Mongkok Ladies’ Market in Hong Kong, sweating and sticky under the hot mid-afternoon sun in July. I wanted to buy a couple of souvenirs for my school friends and my mom was determined to get the best deal from an older female shop owner. My mom was firm in the lowered price she wanted to pay, but the owner was reluctant. My mom and I then tactfully walked away, but not too far because the owner later shouted for us to come back and accepted my mom’s price. My mom smiled and we returned to the shop to pay for the souvenirs. We did this several more times at the market. By the end of day, our red plastic bags were full of items my mom happily bargained for.

Bargaining is a cultural norm and a skill kids growing up under a traditional Chinese household learn and try to excel at as much as academics. The ability to convince a complete stranger for the price you want is a concept I learned early in my childhood and one that carried on into my adulthood. I eventually became very good at bargaining in local street markets whenever I was traveling overseas. It felt really good to purchase something for much less than the original price and having the final say was highly rewarding. Jessica Huang from ABC’s Fresh off the Boat series would have been incredibly proud.

Bargaining is daring and thrilling, but negotiating is scary. Perhaps the fact that the word itself starts with the latin neg– meaning no connotes negativity already. Yet, bargaining and negotiating mean pretty much the same thing since both involve discussion and agreement on something. The difference is that bargaining is often associated with price and negotiation applies to more broader terms and guarantees, sometimes not involving price in the first place. 

While I knew how to bargain, I was terrified of negotiation. So much so that in all the miscellaneous jobs I held for the past ten years, I have never once negotiated my salary. I accepted the pay offer as it was and I did the same when there were annual pay increases after yearly performance reviews. I never questioned my previous employers’ decisions because I was always thinking they were getting what they were paying for. This does not mean I was satisfied with the outcome (if anything, it was far from it), but my desire to not disrupt my relationship with my employers or change the status quo outweighed my own happiness, every single time.

And I was not alone in this. I know of a senior technical recruiter who did not ask for a raise after three years with the company, despite a few years of industry experience before this role. I know of a high-level HR manager who did not ask for a raise in five years even after having accumulated job responsibilities over time. I know of a sales marketing engineer who agreed to the same salary at a new employment opportunity even with a couple years of experience, a college degree, and certification in the field. They, including myself, are serial bargain hunters when it comes to shopping, but none of them had the courage to bring up to their supervisor about a raise or salary adjustment in their professional lives.

All of them are successful and smart Asian-American women in their respective fields. Perhaps being raised under a traditional Asian household we all learned to regard money with uncertainty and insecurity. While bargaining was a strategy to get the cheapest deal as possible, it was done so we could save money and maintain a stable nest egg. I myself learned all the aspects of coupon clipping, finding cheap deals, and bargaining whenever possible, so I could remain financially secure. For a long time, I thought money was meant to be preserved and sustained, so I was always so focused on never losing less. I never thought to make more. 

Last year, I had a defining moment to make a change. In my fourth annual performance review with my previous employer, I was given a small pay bump of a $1 increase to my current hourly pay. In the previous three years, I was given either $1.5 or up to $3 increase to my hourly pay every year, so hearing this was a major blow to my ego and self-esteem as a hard-working professional. I was also carrying more responsibilities and workload, but not getting paid substantially for it. It was then I realized they were not getting what they were paying for anymore and, instead, they were getting what they wanted for at a bargained price. I was the older female shop owner at the Ladies’ Market from 18 years ago. 

At the time, I did not challenge the pay increase and just accepted it for the time being because I knew from then on I was going to work harder to get the pay I wanted at another firm. I was thinking about leaving anyway and find a company that better fit with my career goals and project types. I set out a mission to update my portfolio and resume, as well as take freelance work on top of my full-time work to gain outside experience. I was also planning my own wedding too, but my willpower to earn more money and showing my professional skills and potential was equally important, if not more. There was never going to be a better time than at that moment to do so. 

I did a schedule send email on a Monday morning of my application to only one firm, hoped for the best, and did not think to hear back from them for months. I heard back from the HR manager within 2 hours in an email, stating they wanted to schedule an interview with me in the same week. Emotions of surprise, panic, and relief came all at once after reading the email, but it was mostly a sense of reward that I felt. Hard work really does pay off. 

I did well in the interview and was offered a job the day after. The compensation offered was what I put down in my application, which was a bad mistake I later found out. I learned from my recruiter friend to never write down the compensation amount and write either ‘N/A’ or ‘Negotiable’ instead, so there will be some flexibility to actually negotiate the salary once there is a job offer. My initial reasoning to put down a slight salary increase was that so they would be more willing to hire me, but she told me my logic was wrong and leaves no room for negotiation down the road. She explained not indicating a specific salary amount works better in the candidate’s favor and reassured this will not deter a company from hiring someone. Many applicants do this anyway and I should have done the same.

I did not want all my hard work to go to waste for a slight increase in pay. Since this was the only opportunity to negotiate my compensation, I asked for the pay I actually wanted, which was about a 20% increase from my current salary. I briefly explained after reviewing the job description and pairing this with my skills and experience that I believe this new compensation would be fair. I reread my email about 100 times before I sent it. Deep down inside, I was absolutely nervous and afraid of what they would say. Many questions consumed my thoughts. What if they retract the job offer entirely? What do I do if they came back with a counter offer? What if they never get back to me?

None of my concerns actually happened. After a few days, they accepted my new compensation and sent over the revised job offer. It worked! I was mind-blown because it was my first negotiation ever and it was successful beyond my expectation. Of course I have to prove myself at my new job, but this was something I can do, since I have been building skills, experience, and knowledge in the industry for a long time. I was beyond excited to finally get the compensation I wanted with a job position I have been longing for.

Today, I no longer see negotiation as terrifying. I view it as a normal business transaction and actually quite empowering. Even if there was a counter offer or they stuck with my original compensation, I could have also negotiated for things other than salary, such as more paid time-off or mandatory yearly increase in pay. It is not the end of the world if the initial negotiation does not work, just try to negotiate other terms since it is your only opportunity to do so before signing the offer contract. The employer rarely retracts a job offer just because of your willingness to negotiate. 

Now that I feel like a superwoman who can do anything, I am also shifting my focus to find ways to earn more money rather than focusing on trying not to lose less. It is interesting how I, along with my Asian girl friends, grew up to think about money as something that needed to be saved, bargained for, and protected. Our male counterparts often grow up learning otherwise and see money as power, investing, and strength. I find this dichotomy unfair but I understand this is something that is inherited culturally, socially, and historically. While I cannot go back in time to change my past, I have the ability to control my future. This year, I am slowly starting to invest and build my net worth because nothing is sexier than compound interest from savings and having varied investments for a bargain hunter like me.

Ladies, negotiate, negotiate, negotiate. Breathe it, chant it, and repeat it. Negotiation is not as scary as you think it is and once you do it, you will be amazed at the new wave of opportunities that come with it and wonder why you did not do this earlier. If your professional experience and potential matches with the salary you would like to negotiate for, then go for it. It does not hurt to ask for more. I know of another Asian girl friend who was able to successfully negotiate a salary compensation of $50,000 more and they accepted her offer! Do not settle for less, settle for more. 

This post is in honor of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day. Thank you to all the women for their achievements, contributions, and influence. Let’s continue to move forward and bring positive change. We can do it. 

4 Things You Should Know About Weddings

I love going to weddings. I have attended eighteen weddings so far, including my own. I have witnessed long-time friends become lifetime partners, cried at almost every heartfelt speech by loved ones, and tasted unbelievably delicious sweets from fabulously decorated dessert tables. Weddings are joyous occasions and celebrating love between two people makes me feel so happy and whenever there’s an open bar, extra happier.

But having been a bridesmaids to five dear girl friends and a bride herself, I know it is not all dandelions and roses leading up to the big day or on the day of. While the wedding itself is just for one day, the planning process could feel like an eternity. This is because you and your engaged partner are doing the best you can when you have absolutely no experience in wedding planning but suddenly have the societal expectation to plan the perfect event on the biggest and most important day of your lives, while maintaining some sort of sanity, your professional jobs, and flawless skin doing so. And on top of that, balancing a stretching wedding budget with external opinions darting left and right from all angles. It sounds completely absurd, but this is a cyclical reality every engaged couple gets dragged into before marriage.

If I have learned anything about weddings, it is that they are not easy to plan. It can take a psychological, financial, and physical toll on a relationship before it legally begins. Behind the exquisitely decorated dessert table was probably a ton of behind the scenes design coordination, numerous tastings, and budgeting efforts prior to its inception. Behind the table seating chart display was probably many heavy, and sometimes heated, debates among traditional parents over guest invites and count. Also, specific decisions regarding guests such as ‘plus ones’ require more time and open conversation with your partner than you think. Should you invite a cousin’s new girlfriend of 2 months to your wedding? Should you even invite this cousin at all?

This can get really overwhelming, really fast. There is no perfect recipe for planning a stress-free wedding, no matter how hard I tried. Some things will no doubt be difficult and not work out the way you want them to. For those who are planning a wedding for over 50 guests, I do have a couple of handy tips to help you go through this process. While I am not an expert in this industry and nor will I ever want to be, I was able to pull off an almost perfect wedding day for 150 guests without a wedding planner. You can do the same too and not lose your mind by your wedding day. Here are four things you should know about weddings:

1. You will need to make uncomfortable decisions.

I was not ready for this, but I still had to make them. My most difficult decision in the wedding planning process was choosing my five bridesmaids. Actually, it was not the act of choosing who they will be, but the act of choosing who was not going to be my bridesmaid, which was the gut wrenching part of it. It was easy to ask a close, longtime friend to be a bridesmaid, but it was much more heartbreaking to tell another close girl friend she wasn’t going to be one. Three of the women whom I was a bridesmaid for were not a part of my bridal party. It was a tough and dreadful conversation, but I still had to suck it up and do it anyway. They took it better than I imagined, as they understood and were busy planning for their growing family.

It is ideal to be upfront in the beginning about this so there are no misunderstandings about it later on. Choose your bridesmaids or bridesmen wisely because these are the people who will literally stand by your side at the altar and be with you for all the bride-related festivities, including your dress shopping, bachelorette and bridal shower. Also, when you ask your friends to be your bridesmaids/bridesmen, outline any financial expectations and requests you have before they commit to being one. This will save potential frustrations and uncomfortable conversations in the future or even a broken friendship by the time the wedding comes along. Losing a good friend over one of the happiest day of your life is not worth it.

Guest invites were my second most difficult decision I had to make because this involved my traditional parents who wanted to invite people they knew, including people I have never met before in my life. There were times when my parents and I would get into screeching arguments at a local Starbucks over something so menial like a few guests they wanted to invite. It was definitely not my proudest moment as a thirty-year old, but this conversation kept repeating itself with no resolution and tripled my frustration every time we talked about it. My partner and I wanted to keep an intimate guest list, but they wanted to invite the whole world. We later compromised with them to strictly invite their close friends, since the venue could hold a maximum of 150 guests and we were paying for the wedding ourselves. In the end, we had a total of 120 wedding guests and half of their friends were unable to attend due to schedule conflict.

The wedding planning process will involve hard decisions, especially if you have traditional parents. My advice is that while you cannot control the situation, you can control your actions and emotions, so keep your chin up high and stay focused. Your friends are more understanding than you think and there may be a silver lining or an opportunity for a compromise later down the road.

2. Use referrals or plan early to help save time and money.

Because my partner and I were conveniently one of the last couples among our group of friends to get married, we were able to use vendors referred to us from our married friends or friends experienced in the wedding industry to help us save time and cost. We did not need to do much research for some of our vendors because our friends have done them already for their own wedding. Our wedding officiant, florist, and make-up artists were all referrals from our friends. Because they were referrals, we were either able to get a slight discount for their services or had several things added to the service for free. Networking with people in the wedding industry is similar to professional networking, so definitely mention the referral whenever you first talk to the vendor. Also, if you and your partner can afford to pay for a service rather than DIY, then this helps minimize a lot of stress and additional coordination to purchase, transport, setup, and so on.

Also, it saves to plan early. The rumors are true; wedding prices do increase every year. But if you plan your wedding at least a year in advance, you have the opportunity to pay the current year’s rate and not the following year’s rate for a vendor. My partner and I were engaged for about two years before getting married last October. When we booked some of our vendors back in 2018, we were able to pay the 2018 pricing, not the 2019 pricing. If we waited to book them in 2019, then we would have needed to pay more, probably an additional several hundred dollars or so. This concept is similar to booking a flight or hotel early on to save money, so try to book your vendors sooner rather than later.

Sticking to your set wedding budget is probably one of the most important aspects of wedding planning. This is a number that you and your partner will both need to agree on and be committed to before the wedding planning begins. Once you know your budget, allocate how much funds you and your partner are willing to spend more or less on. Also, booking a vendor requires a deposit upfront, typically half of the total cost. If you have trouble making just the deposit, then perhaps you should re-evaluate your total budget or, if possible, postpone the wedding a little later to get the funds you need to make both the deposit and full payment later on, without getting a loan.

Be firm in maintaining your budget and try not to go rogue. I know Instagram and Pinterest are fun resources for wedding ideas, but try not to be swayed by the dreamy decor or nonessential details. If you can afford these additions, then sure go for them. But if you cannot, stick to the original budget.

3. Get ready to smile a lot with sore cheeks on your big day.

I consider myself as someone who smiles a decent amount each day, but I did not anticipate my cheeks would get so sore from just a few hours of smiling on my wedding day. My cheeks started to hurt by noon, after smiling so much for photographs during the tea ceremony that morning. There was still nine hours left to go and the wedding itself hasn’t begun yet. My partner was struggling with sore cheeks too. We were fortunate to take several breaks between our wedding ceremony and reception so we could rest our faces. It is both a relief and a mystery that nobody captured us frowning at each other while we took our breaks.

There are muscles in your face cheeks you probably never knew existed until your wedding day. This may be the oddest piece of advice in this post, but to avoid sore cheeks, try training your cheek muscles sometime before the wedding. If you were planning to work out anyway, might as well squeeze in some cheek training in your workouts too.

4. Bride-to-bes, you will feel like a celebrity on your wedding day.

Assuming no other guest tries to steal the spotlight, then all eyes, cameras, and focus will be on the bride on her wedding day. Now, I am an introvert at heart, so being the center of attention for twelve hours was kind of nerve-wrecking. Nobody in my family or friends has looked or stared at me for more than ten minutes before, but as a bride, I was their direct line of sight for a whole day. I was not used to 120 pairs of eyes staring at me and being the person everyone wanted to take photos with or talk to. It was a mind-boggling experience to take center stage for once, to feel like a celebrity and have ‘paparazzis’ and people come up to either greet me or take a candid Instagram story with me. At times, I felt like a deer in headlights and unsure of how to handle this newly found fame.

There is no other day in a regular woman’s life where she will receive as much attention when she is a bride. Being a bride somehow means to be social and smile constantly, while making certain to not show embarrassing habits or weird gestures in front of everyone that would be captured for life. So, I went out of my comfort zone to be an extrovert for my wedding day and it was more liberating than I initially thought. I was not forcing myself to smile in front of the photographer but smiling because I was enjoying the moment with my partner and being surrounded by loved ones. Eventually, my new celeb status wore off by evening, a big thanks to the open bar we had. By the end of the night, everyone was focused on having a good time with each other. The remaining hours of our wedding celebration was incredibly freeing for both me and my partner because the wedding planning was finally over.

Our wedding day was the most magical, happiest day of our lives. We planned it like it was our last so we would never have to through the wedding planning process again. Yes, we had a few mishaps on our wedding day, but nothing ever really goes as planned. As a bridesmaid, I have witnessed a bride having a meltdown right before the grand entrance and a staff from catering quit and leave while serving dinner during the reception at another wedding. In our wedding, one of our guests drank too much by the end of the night, blacked out, and had to be picked up by his parents at midnight. Some things just happen beyond your control, so the best you could do is to handle the situation as best and calmly as you can because there is a solution for everything. While our wedding was not totally perfect, it was to me because most things worked out and some things even exceeded beyond my expectations.

I am extremely happy that my partner and I are no longer discussing anything related to wedding planning anymore and we are able to have normal conversations again. For two years, wedding planning consumed our thoughts for many days and nights, with some decision or concern agonizing us for weeks at a time. Planning for a once in a lifetime event was exhausting for us since we were simultaneously maintaining full-time jobs, handling uphill battles with my parents, and making big and small decisions on a daily basis. It did become easier with time, help from friends, and patience. Know that you are not alone in this. Keep the wedding simple if you can, keep calm if you can’t. Congratulations on your engagement and good luck with the wedding planning!

How to Make Your Landscape Architecture Portfolio Stand Out

A few months ago, I recently accepted an employment offer as a landscape designer using a portfolio I developed six years ago, with minor tweaks to show updated work. I also got a park internship and my first employment opportunity with the same portfolio years prior. My portfolio has proven to be timeless after all these years and the techniques I have used to seemingly make my landscape architecture portfolio stand out remain applicable today. 

These techniques are gathered from my own experiences, learning from my mistakes and successes throughout my career. They could help your portfolio set you apart from other applicants and get noticed by prospective employers. It worked for me, so I believe there is some merit to these strategies.  

Here are a couple of ways to help your landscape architecture portfolio stand out:

1. Show YOURSELF in YOUR portfolio.

The first portfolio I developed early in my career was quite memorable – in a terrible way. My portfolio was a hot mess of colors, text, photos, and graphics spread into only 10 cringe-worthy pages. I am ashamed to have submitted this with my job application to several reputable landscape design firms and, not surprisingly, I did not get a response from any of them at the time. 

I am not sure why I thought this was a good portfolio then, but I know I was partially attempting to imitate what others were doing in their portfolio. I was showing my work in a way that looked “cool” like theirs with embellishment of unnecessary text and photos, but made no real sense to do so. I was trying to be something I was not and created some sort of Frankenstein result out of it, with bits and pieces of me, others, and nonsensical things in one unapologetic format. It is not that I was presenting bad projects either, I was just not displaying them properly. 

Ultimately, I was not showing who I am as a landscape designer and my own creativity. So after a few years of various career ventures, far too many Sunday morning hangovers, and an MLA degree, I scrapped my Frankenstein portfolio. I devised a new one, using fonts, a color palette, and organization of my own style. I made my portfolio simple and cohesive, with a variety of graphics, and wrote paragraphs briefly introducing and explaining every project. I also became incredibly detailed with how I wanted each page to be displayed: I wanted to control how the viewer would visually experience this collection of my work when mouse-clicking onto the next page, since this would be initially viewed on the computer 100% of the time in a matter of seconds. Each project also showed something different, dynamic, and new, to indicate that I was diverse in various skills and project types, while simultaneously keeping the portfolio unified. 

My new portfolio got me interviews with several prospective employers. I even got an interview with my dream firm, which was also one of the reputable firms I applied to with my Frankenstein portfolio years ago. (Side note: I did well in the interview, but actually took a job offer with a more local firm instead.) It is my best portfolio to date as it shows the real me and, along with it, my own originality and creativity. 

So find out who you are as a designer and showcase this in your portfolio. There will be nothing like this out there. It will probably take a lot of back-and-forth brainstorming, much keyboard slamming out of frustration, and maybe times when an indecisive measly detail will keep you awake at night. Just remember the reward outweighs this first-world and short-lived anguish and the outcome will perhaps even surprise yourself.

My portfolio revealed who I am, my talent, and my potential. Your portfolio should do the same. So be your good ole’ self in your portfolio.

2. Improve your project graphics.

Now, I know what you are thinking. Why on earth would I spend more time on these projects when I have already spent countless hours on them already? 

Well, because when you actually finished them to meet that 9:00 am class deadline, they are most likely a representation of your rushed work, not your best work. Perhaps you met the minimum criteria of graphic quantities and quality to get a decent grade, but this does not mean the same in the real world. Re-evaluate your project graphics and see what you can do to improve. Better yet, take the constructive feedback you have gotten from your professor and peers. Their criticism is generally meant to help you and, while sometimes it’s tough to hear after three straight all-nighters of studio work, you may find some truth in their words.

Do take some time to figure out what worked, did not work, and things the project lacked. I did this for all my projects in my portfolio, doing minor changes to some and major revisions for others. I discarded several mediocre perspectives and developed new renderings instead, to show the concept at different times of the year. I also made new graphics to help enhance my ideas further. This took many hours of intense computer staring, with some panic moments of Photoshop unexpectedly crashing in between, and lots and lots of caffeine. I probably spent more time doing this than the time to complete the project itself for the class. Though, in the end, I couldn’t have been happier with the results.

I used some of the same projects from my Frankenstein portfolio in my new portfolio, just a 1000x more enhanced than before. Here is a tip: if you figure out how you want to display your graphics and the overall layout beforehand, you do not need to redo or revise the entire section or perspective, just the part that will actually be shown. There may need to be some early coordination between InDesign and Photoshop, but this can help save time and effort. Also, smaller graphics on the page may not need as much revision as the larger graphics since they will not be as readable.    

There was a project that I had to revise the most, but it is my favorite project of all time and one that I did back when I was a sophomore in college 12 years ago. Yes, it is okay to include work that you have done in the distant past, as long as it is relevant to the position you are applying for. There is no rule against this and if it makes you feel any better, I did note down the year for all my projects in my new portfolio and no prospective employer has ever bat an eye or questioned it.

3. Be unique in your graphics.

While you are in the zone to update your project graphics, you might as well consider how to display them differently or in a way where they are not typically shown. Think of it this way: most web pages today have a beautiful UI interface with large photos of happy, good-looking people enjoying the atmosphere around them and symbols and text to make the content seemingly more user-friendly. Though, I feel this makes them all look the same and dilutes what they are trying to market. Nothing stands out. A hiring manager may experience something similar when going through hundreds of portfolios in a competitive market. 

A good portfolio needs to be interesting. Find ways to display graphics, particularly analytical data, that are both visually captivating and informative. For example, I did a public survey for my graduate thesis and I was intrigued to do an infographic of the results in my portfolio. I went out of my comfort zone to do this, as I have never done this before, and it became the first graphic in my new portfolio. I also found creative ways to transform my site analysis and collected data from GIS or written research into interesting graphics that would lead into the final concept.  Not only should you show your talent to make pretty renderings, but also your ability to interpret analytical information. 

Along with creative data related-graphics, hand drawn sketches are useful in a portfolio and can be a major part of the project in some instances. I voluntarily did a planting design for a small garden bed, roughly 64 square feet, in a local cemetery (don’t ask). I sketched my vision of the garden bed, planted the annual plants with another crew member, and tended to them as they grew within several weeks. I later took a photo of the garden bed in full bloom, and it looked pretty much like a replica of my original sketch. This hand-drawn graphic is the second largest on a page in my portfolio and has not been re-drawn or edited much ever since. Hand sketches are a display of your original ideas and could really help differentiate your portfolio from others. 

Part of this making your portfolio journey is to actually enjoy being creative and developing graphics to make ideas visually alive and exciting. This is the most fun aspect of the landscape architecture profession, so why not give the portfolio your best and show prospective employers your enthusiasm and personality? This is what an entry-level job description usually highlights anyway.

4. Little details matter.

The tiniest details in a portfolio can make a difference between you and another potential candidate. I made a personal logo out of a casual whim and placed this in my portfolio, along with my cover letter and resume, to make my application coherent. It impressed my new employer because I think that extra effort shows diligence and meticulousness. I also labelled all my graphics using the same font and size across all projects, to add consistency to the portfolio. I did the same with project cover pages, north arrow, and scale too. Because I like quotes, I added one to the beginning of some of the project introductory paragraphs. This was also noticed by my employer. 

Little additions and details can go a long way to making your portfolio stand out from the rest. You never know if the prospective employer will relate to anything that you show in your portfolio, but try and see what happens. If you are into watercoloring, show this side of you. If you are into plants, show your planting skills and ideas. If you like to write (like me), then write good paragraphs. As long as the content is not offensive or illegal, then you can really show other sides of you in your portfolio, beyond just standard course projects.  

If you made it near the end of this blog post and you are still not convinced in putting that much work into your portfolio, then read my last piece of advice. I will confront the elephant in the room and actually talk about the financial aspect of the landscape architecture profession. For those who are applying for a new job position after a few years of industry experience and are able to get a job offer, then you can perhaps negotiate a higher salary with an exceptional portfolio. It proves your hard work ethic, your talent to do great graphics, and your potential to do bigger things with the new company. I was able to negotiate the salary I wanted, about 20% higher than the national average of my experience level. My portfolio was probably a big reason for the salary increase, so hard work can really pay off.

It took a lot of time, thought, and patience to make my portfolio what it is today. I was not the best drafter or had the best grades in school. In fact, I was average compared to my peers, but I persevered and did a couple of freelance and side projects to help add to my portfolio. If you are willing to do the work, then you can create your own Frankenstein portfolio that you can call exclusively yours and nobody else’s. It could be your greatest creation yet.