What I’ve learned from 4 years of being “Abbey Sy”

It feels like high school as I recall four years of experiences that led up to this moment. I know, four years? It’s honestly not that long. But in the context of my 26 years, with 70% of it being stuck in the four walls of school (which I both loved and hated), venturing out and being my own boss has been quite a journey I never knew would change my life.

Snippets from my first Moleskine, 2010. It was my first year on Tumblr then.

The moment I hit publish on my Xanga in 2007, I felt a twinge of possibility hit up on me—knowing that at some point, some stranger on the Internet would see it, read it, and know about me. This would go on until 2010 when I went on Tumblr, started a business, and then eventually Instagram, and the rest, they say, is history. But what I find ironic now is because I’ve become prevalently known for my job, my confidence has caged in. I’ve become more self-conscious about what I post, what I put out, and most of all, how people thought about me. I’ve disillusioned myself from the “Abbey Sy” you know online—I always say this is my Hannah Montana syndrome (or in general terms, imposter syndrome).

Color studies for Letters from ABC, a set of postcards.

“Ah, overnight success lang yan.” “Wow, 22 years old pero may book deal na siya? Swerte ah.” “I wonder how long this lettering trend will last in the industry, no?” were just some of the presumptions I got from meeting with some clients, dealing with critics, and finding my way to “fit in” this industry. In the midst of it I also had to take a step back and ask myself, “Why am I doing all of this? Have I proven myself enough to just let it go and let myself be?” and then I realized, wow, I am enough. For now. I really am. Also, let’s just put it this way: I’m tired. Like, really tired.

And because of that, I wanted to share with you some of the learnings I picked up from my creative career. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned these a couple of times already on my previous entries, but I will say that as I work on recalibrating parts of myself this year, so much of my perspective about work and life has drastically changed. 22 year old me and 26 year old me only have one thing in common: making art and writing books will always be my life’s work.

Put your best foot forward

I can attest to this because this is how I set myself up to get a pretty good client list early in my career—I put out all my work on Instagram, Behance, Tumblr. I wasn’t even required to; but I did. Funny enough, Bianca Gonzalez found my work on Instagram and I was hired to illustrate parts of her book Paano Ba To?! (but I soon realize my style there was non-existent yet). A few months later, Havaianas tapped me to design a pair for them. And then, Summit Books offered me my first book deal. Everything went on from there.

Some of my lettering work from 2015-2018.

When I met my publishers from USA and Spain, I asked them where they found me—and the answer was Instagram. How that platform transformed the way communication was for clients and artists / designs will always be the reason I was able to work on dream projects. 

Even if no one tells you to, put your best foot forward. I’ll admit I was bad with 30-day drawing challenges, but in my early years there was at least 1 or 2 lettering posts in my feed. I didn’t know I was setting myself up to get clients and an audience already. I just enjoyed it. And that’s what mattered.

Try everything (if you want)

I put “if you want” because if you had asked me, I’d say yes, I wanted to try EVERYTHING. From 2013-2018, I did wedding invitations for a time (NAH), I ran a shop (obviously I am still going to do this), sold merch in bazaars, taught workshops, worked on branding for small businesses, did freelance lettering work, projects that involved travel sketching, digital rendering, etc. and of course I did books. 

Try everything, because when you’re young, you have a lot of energy. You’re curious. As you experiment and try things out for yourself, you’re able to gauge what line of work feels right for you as you get older, and what kind of work you want clients to hire you for. Ultimately, you will also find what makes you happy in the process.

My first book, The ABCs of Hand Lettering

If anything, most of these require different work processes. I found freelance to be my “core” from 2015-2016 because I had room to keep reinventing my style to serve a specific audience (aka mostly the general public since I did a lot of commercial work like Toblerone, Havaianas, and Nestea). In my later years I did more books and exhausted my instructional writing skills (I don’t think I can do any step by step type of publication as of recent), and that required a rigorous amount of research, concentration, and time to sit down, write and draw. And then, there’s running my shop—a little difficult for a one woman team, but at this point, I want to dive into it full on and see how it goes. Another set of skills needed: customer service, production, marketing, accounting. The list goes on.

Don’t reach your limits

This was my biggest failure in the span of my career. It’s the reason I got burnt out and suffered from crisis last year. I pushed myself too hard—not just with work, but invested my energy into people that did not benefit me. Again, I thought I had to make friends in the industry to keep me in the loop. But I’m not good with faking friendships in order to get ahead. And I thought seeking extra help would be useful, but in essence I just lost trust in myself. It was hard.

This year I am taking everything slow. I decided to work solely for myself. No more managers, assistants, extra help. I want to be in a place where I can fully rely on myself and be 100% accountable. I no longer have the energy to work with people who are halfhearted while I am full-on dedicated to the goals I want to hit.

I’m also being more watchful of my work hours. I am vying on cutting down screen time and getting back to reading, cooking, and just immersing myself in things outside work that feel good. I hope by moving to a new studio I’ll be able to achieve this balance more.

Remember what YOU want

It’s nice to be presented with a handful of opportunities in front of you. For a time, this overwhelmed me—and by default, I would always say yes because I didn’t want to let opportunities pass. But as I did that, I realized not everything “sparked joy”, as Marie Kondo would say. Instead, I wasted my time working on things that exhausted me to my core—not even sure if I really wanted that opportunity.

I will admit I’ve been into this trap many times. Oooh, dream client! Oooh, dream project! Sure. But if anything, in recent years I’ve learned to take a step back and look at the big picture. And think of myself too. When I take on projects, I always look at how much it will benefit the audience I serve—which I think is okay, but if it reaches the point where I am no longer happy with how I work, then that is where the problem lies.

For years I have taken on work that seemed good on the resume. And while I don’t regret it, I wish I had made time to work on my own skills too, and invest energy into growing more as an artist.

But in hindsight, a lot of things I worked on in recent years have been quite unbelievable (I need a little pinch to realize it all happened…like getting sent to Germany for work). And I’m still so grateful for those opportunities.

Pausing is as important as pushing forward

I got this quote from JK Glei, one of my favorite podcast hosts and writers. It’s true—the act of pausing and slowing down does wonders to the brain. For a time I became an overworked machine and I was losing fuel. It wasn’t good. I really thought I wasn’t going to make it anymore (this was when I flew to New York).

My time in New York was a period of growth, albeit a hard one.

During my four months in NYC I’ve been working on ideas I otherwise would have ignored given my busy schedule in Manila. I remember having sleepless nights brainstorming about my magazine for class (which I will hopefully publish soon, and currently giving it a test run in the coming months) or jotting down endless ideas upon doing research on trends or new platforms to try. Learning to let go of daily work for a few months helped me refocus on what I really wanted and how I wanted to go about it.

While I haven’t really paused intently, I’m hoping the next few months will do just that. I used to be so overly organized with how my career will turn out but this year I’ve decided to lay low for a bit and see how things go. If I focused on one thing, would it be better? Would I be able to pour my 100% into it? Will the returns be equally good? If I tried illustrating more of my travels, would I possibly have it published as I’ve always dreamed of? I don’t know. But it’s okay. I’ll find out soon.

Possibly the hardest thing to say is to take it one day at a time. For someone like me who has always been focused on the finished line, this is difficult. But I have to keep myself at a pace that is manageable, especially knowing that I’m doing this for the long haul.

Celebrate little victories

A mentor once told me this and I never forgot about it. It’s why I’ve learned to mark March 20 on my calendar every year as my “work anniversary”. I remember crying in the elevator as I left behind my Advertising job (for the record, I missed the people, not the company) four years ago. Now, I treat it as a huge sigh of relief that I am doing this for a living.

Let’s be real. I cannot imagine doing anything else in my life except making art and running it as a business. Writing books is such a privilege, and I am so, so grateful to have written five (and hopefully more in the coming years). I know I am not cut out for a 9 to 5 job but can diligently finish my projects right on time, and I’m capable of creating frameworks and endless spreadsheets and all those geeky things earth signs love (doesn’t help that I’m a Capricorn).

A big chunk of my journey has been centered on proving my past self wrong—there are the teachers who said I wasn’t cut out to be creative. There was also the fact that I knew being an artist was not a viable option in the Chinese household. Fighting through everything already felt like a huge burden I can never let go of, and I’ve been distancing myself away from “Abbey Sy” because she was the impossible version of me I had never seen coming.

During the launch of my 5th book, Always Be Creating.

But I keep forgetting this is real life. This is really who I am: whether I’m Abbey, Abigail, Claudine, artistic-dreams, ABC…the list goes on. It’s high time I become at peace with this fact and enjoy the journey that is yet to come.

Thank you for sticking it out with me. For witnessing my journey from then ‘til now. There isn’t any specific destination yet but I hope wherever it is, it’ll be worth waiting for.

“The journey is the thing.” – Homer

cover + workspace + book photo: Ber Garcia

workshop photo: Raniel Hernandez

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