WORKING THE DREAM
rediscovering the creativity education stole from you:
an interview with Kei MAYE
By Emily Parker
Kei landed what she thought was her dream job, after ten years of working in retail: teaching art. She soon discovered that dream jobs aren’t always what they appear from the outside. After a year in teaching she made the brave decision to quit and strike out on her own. Now she is a self-employed creative coach and digital artist, who helps other creatives to follow their passions.
Emily catches up with Kei to discuss what it was like making the life-changing decision to quit the 9-to-5 and work on her own terms.
What does your day-to-day look like at the moment then?
You actually find me on quite an important day in my career journey because today I launch my new creative coaching business and website, which has been in production for around a year. I’m offering creative consultation and producing information, resources and tools to help creative talent - particularly freelancers and designers in the visual arts space, who are looking to get into creative entrepreneurship. I am also a digital illustrator. I sell my prints and have also provided work for publications.
And you know how tough and long that journey to self-employed creative entrepreneurship can be right?
Yes completely. Throughout my life I’ve always been a part of the creative industries in some way shape or form, but in November last year I was in a job that I thought was my dream job. I was teaching art. But over a period of time I came to the realisation that it just wasn’t for me. It wasn’t making me happy or fulfilled.
Were you teaching in a school?
Yeah it was a primary school. I thought it was my dream job. But I was so unbelievably stunted and limited in what I could teach. I wanted to allow the kids to be creative and explore, but the school just wanted me to teach all this old factual stuff for them to memorise, rather than actually letting them get their hands messy and explore. I felt like the system was failing the kids. They weren’t allowed any creative freedom, and I just felt like I couldn’t be a part of that any more.
And I guess not being allowed creative freedom and opportunities to “play” as an adult is one thing - it’s a massive problem - but if you haven’t even been allowed to be creatively free as a child that is real tragedy - if you can’t be creative as a child when can you be?!
Yeah exactly, exactly. Everything is so black and white, and so much about right and wrong, success and failure, and that’s what makes us all so risk-averse and scared of failure.
We talk about this all the time at Quarterlife! What do you think is the biggest problem with the current education system?
The curriculum is out of date for a start. And I think so much focus in education is on making children grow up to be seen as “employable” by others. It’s so linear - so much focus on this one document: your CV. There is absolutely nothing to help kids grow up to be self-made or use their own initiative. It’s all about how you can grow up to serve others and make others’ dreams come true. But what about the millions of kids with the potential to make their own dreams come true? I got so sick of it. So I was like, no, it’s time, I’m going to take a chance on myself now.
And what you’re doing now is working to redress that, right?
Yeah, it had to be done. Over the years I’d been putting out content and videos to try and help because there wasn’t an awful lot of transparency in the creative industries. There was a lot of hoarding of knowledge and information. People don’t really want to share because they want to be the only one to do well.
Yeah that whole thing that, there’s only space for a very limited number of people at the top, and that “the more people that have success, the less room there is for me”. It’s so bad that someone else’s success automatically makes us feel we’re failing.
Right exactly, and that’s what I wanted to turn on its head. Because I’m like, listen, we are stronger together, number one; and there’s space for all of us, number 2. Because we each offer something totally different to the next person. No two people are the same or could dream up the same thing.
And how are you encouraging sharing?
I set up Print Plug - which is now a part of my business site. It’s a creative hub and members’ space which is built for information-sharing and access to tips that can help you take your creative, entrepreneurial career to the next level.
What I found was, the more I made videos giving free advice, the more messages I got from people thanking me saying they’d been looking for this information for so long. That was when I realised I could really help people with what I was doing. The problem now is that people are afraid to ask for advice. We’re all scared of rejection so we won’t reach out to someone we don’t know, even if we know they could genuinely help us. And having been in the industry for so many years I can now share what I know. So that’s why I decided to become a creative coach.
What resources do you offer?
As well as Print Plug, I curate exhibitions and events to help people, and then I do one-to-one coaching. I also create digital products and tools, like an artwork pricing calculator, a creative planner and an eBook to help guide less experienced artists trying to make a career out of what they do.
And what do you charge for your resources?
Some of the resources on my site are free, but my premium resources I do charge a reasonable price for - that would be my number 1 piece of advice to the people I coach, so I have to practice what I preach, but I set my prices low so that anyone can afford them.
I gave out so much free advice over the years. People used to slide into my DMs with their problems and I replied to every single one, because I wanted to help. But it was exhausting and I had to stop giving so much of myself away for free. I felt bad at first, but then I realised what I was doing was consultancy, and people do pay for consultancy!
And what sort of things will you be advising people on as a creative coach?
I urge people to contact me first so I can see whether I can actually help them before they pay. I’ve helped with emotional difficulties, pricing strategies; helped people determine what their value or worth is; helped them to monetise themselves or their product. I help people dealing with impostor syndrome too. Sometimes people just need to figure out what their blocks are - like what is stopping them from getting to where they want to be.
It’s so impressive that you even managed to leave teaching - a career that is so tangible, easily described and universally recognised - without another job contract to replace it. Just with the courage and self-belief that you could build all this for yourself!
How did you make that career change, and what advice would you give to someone in a similar role - something they thought would be the dream but hasn’t turned out quite what they thought?
I was 30 when I finally left teaching. I thought to myself, I’ve been in this place of limbo my whole working life and I don’t fancy being stuck in it for another ten years. And if I want something to change I have to leave and that means losing my comfort zone. I left because I got to the point where I couldn’t not leave.
And in terms of advice, I think fear tends to dominate too much of life. People stay in jobs they know deep down aren’t making them happy because they have fear. They fear they won’t make any money; they fear that they’re going to fall flat on their face, or that their ideas are going to fail. But when people worry about losing income or job security, I think look at Brexit! Nothing’s guaranteed anymore. You could lose your job and get fired or made redundant tomorrow! There’s no such thing as true job security anymore, it’s a myth, so you might as well take a risk on your own terms whilst doing what you truly love. Whether that be to apply for an industry you could be happier in, or to start something yourself.
I think the way we all think and talk about failure is wrong. Because failure is not a bad thing, it’s the best opportunity to learn. Failure shows you exactly where you’re going wrong. It hands that information to you on a plate! It is an immediate opportunity to change and adapt. I’m also just like, “What is failure? What is it??” It’s just a word we use to describe things that didn’t go exactly the way we thought they would, but then that happens every single day.
What do you think is our biggest fear?
Money. It stops so many people doing so many things. And what we focus on becomes our reality.
There are so many ways of doing what you love and getting paid for it. But there’s this weird guilt about doing what we love and making a living from it - it’s almost seen as lazy or greedy, but we need to knock that narrative on its head, because it is not true. It’s simply not true.
Yeah, work doesn’t need to feel like punishment for you to deserve to be paid for it.
I don’t buy into that whole “never sleep, stay in the office all hours” thing, because it’s not the only way to work hard and do well! I came across this woman called Danielle Leslie who has designed a series of amazing online courses and teaching resources to help people launch their own courses, funnily enough. But she’s on holiday all the time, like every day of the week; she’s earning in her sleep. And back in the day people would be like, “Who does she think she is? She’s lazy, she’s greedy”. But today it’s like no. No no - she’s cracked it. She’s well within her rights to earn her money in that way and live her life in that way, and so are the rest of us.
Absolutely! And have you found your overall wellbeing has changed since you left teaching?
Oh you have no idea. When I was teaching...I’m not sure if it was depression. It could’ve been. I was miserable every day for years. I was in tears all the time. I’d come home exhausted and so down, and I’d wake up in the morning with dread and feeling like I just did not want to go in. I was having frequent stomach aches.
And then the way I left was weird because I was expected to work a six-week notice period, but I had to ask for early release.
I can imagine. I don’t know about you, but I’ve found that once you know you’re leaving a job it is so, so hard to go back to it, day after day, until you’ve done the notice period.
It’s so hard! I mean...six weeks?? No!! It’s too much. But the environment there was difficult because everyone was miserable. I remember getting the call saying I was no longer required to go back, saying I was granted early release and I just felt like the whole weight lifted off my shoulders.
I mean this whole time since quitting I’ve had no steady income whatsoever. But I’ve scraped together money from different sources and I’ve been totally fine. Happier, actually, than I’ve ever been.
I’ve been productive, I’ve been feeling grateful, because now I wake up when I want. I work to my own schedule, and it has allowed me to find my “power hours”. For me that’s not in the morning, but late afternoon I’m so productive. Like I used to wake up early in the mornings and get to my desk and I was so confused when I found that something just wasn’t clicking in my brain and I wasn’t able to do anything. I don’t try to force it now and I don’t feel guilty about the times I don’t work because I could only work less well.
So good to hear narratives of successful people that aren’t of the Elon Musk school of thought! People doing what they love and not saying we have to work 70-hour weeks to be a “success”.
It’s just such an outdated narrative.
So outdated. So, given that Quarterlife is all about easing the transition and plugging the knowledge gaps left between education and real working life, what advice would you give to our readers?
It’s my understanding that so many graduates end up working in retail for months and sending letter after letter to companies, hearing nothing back and getting really disheartened and demotivated.
It’s totally true - it’s a year we’ve dubbed the “lost year”.
That’s exactly what it is! It’s such a problem. But what I would say is, first of all, students are made to feel as though when we start out we’re going to have to work for free, work for others to get anywhere, and compromise everything about us. But we don’t have to accept what we’re told about how to live and work. There are now enough tools and resources and opportunities available to allow young people to make things for themselves, and to create their own opportunities. And there are so many of us out here willing to help them and support them in doing that. Me, and you guys, for a start.
I think the main thing is to never let lack of experience stand in the way. Never let that make you feel as if you’re less than, or not worthy. Don’t think you don’t have the right to do anything. Literally pick your dream industry, your dream job, and then make your own experience. For example if you want to be a graphic designer who creates visual identities for companies, even if you don’t have any experience doing this, just start making mockups! Make up pretend businesses and pretend clients and create work for those clients. Put that work on your website and in your portfolio. There’s nothing wrong with doing that, no one is going to check whether those companies exist. At the end of the day if you can prove that you’ve got the talent, the skill, the dedication, and that you’ve done your research, even if it’s through work on fake clients, that’s all employers or potential clients want to see.
When I was younger I made so much work for imaginary businesses - imaginary events, imaginary clients, imaginary exhibitions. Just don’t rely too much on agencies or companies or even employers in general. Don’t look at your future as if someone else who is hiring holds the key to it, because with a little creative juice and a little bravery in the face of failure and uncertainty, you can totally make it work by working for yourself.
Images by @Kei_Maye