Sometimes our greatest career lessons aren’t learned on the job. Without realizing it, we often pick up skills and mindfulness from outside sources and experiences that we later apply to our careers. For example, the countless hours I spent in the performing arts as a student taught me a lot about discipline, that progress and rewards come from hours of effort, and that getting up in front of an audience isn’t scary it’s fun. Those skills helped me tremendously throughout my career.
Today’s guest post comes from Colleen Kong-Savage. She shares below how martial arts taught her three impactful career lessons, which we can all benefit from. She never expected that her journey with taekwondo would wind up helping her succeed in becoming a published children’s book illustrator.
“A black belt is a white belt that never quit.”
This quote has been my guiding mantra as I build my career as an illustrator of children’s books.
The other week I fulfilled a long-time wish and made my illustration debut in kid lit. The Turtle Ship, written by Helena Ku Rhee and published by Lee & Low Books, launched on June 5. In this picture book, a boy of 16th century Korea takes inspiration from his pet turtle and vies to win the king’s contest for the best battleship design. Poetically, this historical fiction is loosely based on a legendary Korean figure, Admiral Yi Sunsin… one of my favorite taekwondo forms, Chung Moo hyeong, is a tribute to him.
I have been doggedly trying to break into the picture book industry for seven years, and the task is a lot harder than the two inches of wood I had to crack apart with my foot for a brown belt test. But the lessons I have learned in martial arts propel me forward. Creative fields are fiercely competitive. You enter with confidence and a sense of possibility, which all washes away after the first year of constant rejection.
I never want to fight. But nine years ago I tried my first martial arts class. That’s what a wuss does when she wants to try something new. I visited different schools until I found the International School of Martial Arts, where I felt at home. I am unathletic. “Yes, sir” and “No, ma’am” were funny phrases in my mouth. Yelling when I’m not particularly angry or excited also felt odd. Learning taekwondo was like learning a new culture, like trying on a different skin.
Lesson 1: Show Up
I was at the dojang to learn new movement, self defense, discipline, exercise, to meet people. Black belt was not a goal, but the longer I trained, the more possible it became. I rose rank by rank until that black belt was simply there for the taking. Half the work was just showing up. As required, I recorded each class I attended with an x on an attendance sheet. I could see the level of my commitment. The difference in progress between showing up once a week versus three times a week is remarkable.
Likewise with this career in picture books—and illustration in general. I need to show up at my studio desk to do the work. When I began chasing the dream seven years ago, I had a husband, who generously provided me a work space downtown, and a preschooler, who demanded attention. I devoted three hours a week to my first manuscript and took two years to illustrate it. I showed it to one established book illustrator, who kindly never told me how bad my text was and instead referred me to six editors who all politely rejected my work. And that’s how the first round of dream-chasing ended.
I have so much advice for my old self—most important advice: you’ll have to try a LOT harder than that. Fast forward three years… half the week I am without my child because I am divorced, and I am desperate to make it in illustration because I can’t find a solid graphic design job. So began my new work regimen.
I now spend 25-30 hours a week on illustration—I would devote even more hours on my career if I could figure out what else in my life to deprioritize. Only 25% of those hours is actual illustration. The rest of the work involves looking for opportunities, self-promotion, maintaining my portfolio site, venturing into greeting cards, networking online and in person, writing… I throw a ton of proverbial spaghetti at the wall. Most of it slides off, but I am “showing up.” I put in the hours, and thus I am wading through the inevitable failures a lot faster in order to reach the inevitable successes.
Lesson 2: Eat Your Fear
I am a chicken. I don’t like to spar—and yes, I am aware that sparring is the whole point of martial arts. I don’t like diving over objects (although the skill came in handy one unrelated day when I flew off an art installation). I don’t like breaking boards because it hurts when you do it wrong and hematomas are hideous. However, I made myself do those things, knowing that I had to develop those skills to reach the next level of my training.
I am a chicken. Networking makes me squeamish. I do not want to demand audience with an editor or mingle with the mob at a children’s book conference. I do not want to do school visits—public speaking is terrifying, even when that public audience is very cute and much smaller than I am.
As a child, I embarrassed my mother because I could not look people in the eye, let alone smile and converse with them. It took decades of eating my fear before I could push out coherent sentences with strangers. It took decades of faking that I was not a terribly awkward human being before I trusted that I wasn’t. Some people assume I am a natural extrovert. What they assume is extroversion is actually enthusiasm, or in more romantic terms, passion. Things that excite us pull us out of our shells, both consciously and reflexively. I consciously push myself to do those terrifying school visits (with small, cute children) because I love making books for kids. I reflexively have a lot to say when someone asks a great question because the topic excites me.
Finding work, especially in crowded creative fields, is about making connections. So I keep pushing myself out of my studio cave to connect with people in order to win assignments, to see what other artists are doing, and to, well… just connect. We do things we loathe for things that we love. Passion can make you eat your fear.
Lesson 3: Be Open
Before I began training, I had expected a uniform level of accomplishment among martial artists who share the same rank. Not so. We each have our individual strengths and weaknesses. The closer you come to your black belt, the more you realize how little you know.
Humility serves us well. It allows us to be open, which allows us to learn, which allows us to grow. Everyone has something to offer you. When you teach someone, you are strengthening your own knowledge as you break down a technique to its most basic components. If you disagree with someone, you are checking your perspective. It’s not about rank, it’s about knowledge and skill. I have often learned from observations and suggestions of a lower belt. The open channels in my dojang make for a rich community.
Everyone has something to offer. Be ready to offer back. I am grateful that despite fierce competition in the children’s book industry, kid lit makers are exceptionally nice folk: warm, funny, open. When I attend a conference, I look forward to the sense of community. It’s a small world, kid lit. Newbies rub elbows with veterans and superstars. People at the top remember their own hard scramble up the mountain, so they are compassionate and generous with their advice. I am grateful every time someone acknowledges my accomplishments or takes the time to offer constructive feedback. They’re generosity inspires me to do the same. This industry is a hard climb with many jagged rocks. An environment of kindness allows us to stay on the path.
Lessons From The Turtle Ship
The characters in my new picture book serve as good role models. Sunsin, a boy chasing his dream, is dismissed by everyone around him. He has a splendid spark of an idea and must push and push to be heard by the king. Only by chance does he get to demonstrate the brilliance of his concept.
Everyone and their dog seems to want to publish a children’s book. There is so much noise that the gatekeepers of the industry—the editors, the art directors, the agents—will easily overlook talent. J.K. Rowling’s manuscript for Harry Potter was rejected by 12 publishers before finding a home with Bloomsbury… and 12 is a small number for rejections. Many now established writers have received hundreds. If I want to play the game, I will have to insist over and over again that what I have to offer is worthwhile. I have to keep showing up, so that when that opportunity arises I will be there, too.
And then there is Sunsin’s pet turtle, unassuming and unfazed by all the bustle around him. His lesson is patience. I am often frustrated by how long it is taking to establish myself as an illustrator. At the same time, I recognize my good fortune at being able to afford to even pursue this highly unstable career. Most people don’t have even a year, let alone seven, to build towards a job that, alone, usually does not pay one enough to live on.
I want to be worthy of my opportunities, so I have worked hard as I waited for the door to open. The five tenets of taekwondo are courtesy, self-control, integrity, perseverance, and indomitable spirit. I no longer have the time to train as a martial artist, but the five tenets carry over to my work. They guide me as a visual artist. A black belt is a white belt that never quit.
Free Autographed Book Giveaway
Want a chance to win a free autographed copy of The Turtle Ship? Here’s how to enter
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Untemplaters, what type of career lessons have you learned outside of work that ultimately helped you succeed on the job?