Leaps don’t have to be big almighty bungie jumps. Mostly they start out as a little side step in a different direction, on the side. Sometimes they can almost feel like a crawl. As it was for Kim Lam, veterinarian turned illustrator and creative director. It took her six months from acknowledging a feeling a something needing to change, to three months of accepting it, another month of intention to do it, and then a final moment of conviction to jump.
One of the things I love most about Kim’s story is her awareness that her identity as a vet (which ticked the boxes for her parents), and security that came with that, eventually lost their appeal because they were holding her back. That gnawing sense that it was possible to draw a different future and create a new direction became too strong to ignore. Being a ‘nice lady person’ for everyone else had run it’s course. It was time to step into being more of herself.
What did you want to be when you grew up and why?
Ah, childhood hopes and dreams! Mine were relatively underwhelming at first. Looking into my magical mirror of the future, I’d imagine an adult version of me that was just a nice lady character. She would have long, lumbar-length shiny hair, an unoffending, pleasant countenance, and would dress like a librarian and go about her day completing important grown up missions and being kind to children.
I was brought up in one of the rougher Melbourne suburbs. It wasn’t uncommon to hear about so-and-so getting into drugs, becoming a gangster, getting kicked out of home or getting knocked up. My parents instilled a handy fear in me that those destinies could very well materialise for me, if I ever exhibited poor behaviours. I was under the impression that it was really easy to get mixed up in the wrong crowd. So the nice lady character was a rosy and aspirational alternative!
Later on, when I ‘dared to dream’ beyond being just a nice lady person, I first and foremost wanted to be an artist (of the crafternoon and doodles variety, an extension of art class really). I was always happiest when I was drawing, and so far this blessed affliction feels like a lifelong thing.
There was a long period of to and fro-ing between art, science, art, science. There was a lot of conventional asian-parental influence, and mine encouraged a sharp delineation between love/hobby and love/purpose. Vet fit snugly into the latter category and also gave me +1 asian-parent-pleasing bonus points for perceived stability, health science and prestige, respectively! Despite all the extrinsic motivating factors, I also had my intrinsic reasons. I couldn’t think of a more purposeful job than being kind to animals whilst geeking out on medical science. And it’s such a great honour: being able to interact with animals with mutual non-fearing and one-way intrigue. My heart still bursts a little every time I walk past a happy dog. The feeling never gets old. There’s definitely a level of obsession there. Animals are the best!
What did/do you study?
I applied for the whole gamut of health sciences all over Australia (whilst willing the stars to give me vet): medicine, physiotherapy, dentistry, pharmacy, optometry and even threw environmental science in there for kicks. I guess I was looking for the next respectable health science occupation as plan B to vet, which seemed too good to actually happen.
But it did happen (it’s up there as one of the happiest days!) and I was really lucky to be offered the Bachelor of Veterinary Medicine and Surgery at Murdoch University in Perth. At the time, it was hands down the best place in Australia to learn the tricks of the vet trade, so it felt like a total score! It was incredibly hard work and involved lots of literal blood, sweat and tears. And unromantic animal parts: heavy udders, docked piglets’ tails, unborn kittens. But also: releasing echidnas into the wild, delivering puppies by c-section, holding endless bundles of healthy kittens. It was rad!
Learning never ends for anyone and that is also true in the veterinary industry. There are so many species, specialties and special interest skills to learn, practise, refine and master. The literature and gold standard practice is constantly building and changing. It’s impossible to ever know it all. So the vet degree was really good value in that it equipped me with the skill of self-guided learning via research (preceded by the skill of asking the right questions). It taught me the importance of rejecting perfection and accepting that we’re all in a lifelong learning, growth-mindset mode.
As for my other craft, I have never formally studied drawing. During most of my vet life, I loved and savoured illustration, but only as a hobby. I stole bitesized pieces of time away from my day job to enjoy my own illustration practice: by copying, emulating, experimenting, observing, reflecting and generally trial and error. Organically and informally, all the way! All in between playing catch up with the constant flow of vet literature.
What has been your most scary/courageous leap you’ve ever made (preferably in your business/career/life direction)?
It was the leap from being a full-time veterinarian and follower of traditional pathways (high school, university, employment) to devoting my time to two less conventional, more uncertain things: creatively directing The Cleverness and freelance illustrating.
What were you doing before you made your leap?
Day time: I was in scrubs, gloved up and carrying out some sort of fine motor activity inside the body cavity of an animal patient. This was pretty much most days of my working life for six years. I liked it very much.
Night time: Being ineffective at creatively contributing to The Cleverness, which started off as consisting only of my partner and adhoc helpers. Only just managing to finish illustration projects before the birds started chirping in the morning. It was the ultimate creatively frustrated, moonlighting lifestyle.
Who have been the biggest 3 – 5 influences in your life, in terms of your career and doing work?
My parents, for their stoicism. No, for so many things! They arrived in Australia as Vietnamese refugees with nothing. They both have separate horrific stories of what they witnessed and experienced on the journey they took to get here. This past didn’t stop them from being able to bounce forward and re-build. If anything, it fuelled them. They work harder than anyone I know and have an endless generosity of spirit. I love that they go about life with twinkles in their eyes from the gratitude of survival, a quiet sense of pride and the tenacity to keep on keeping on. Call it grit, resilience, or that Finnish word, sisu. They both have it in abundance. Respect!
My partner, Jason Fox. The biggest believer in me. He also happens to be the kindest person I know, the deepest thinker I know, and a most impressive pioneering gentleman pirate! Being married to a brilliant genius means being both challenged and inspired, regularly.
My Japanese teacher, Sawaki Sensei. I thought I was learning grammar and kanji and going through weekly essay writing bootcamps was a slow-drip kind of torture, but these were indeed all life skill metaphors and life experience simulations. He taught us the importance of ‘glit’ (his endearing Japanese pronunciation of grit) way before it was in vogue.
What did you have in place before you made the leap?
I didn’t have anything in place except for some crafty thoughts in various diary entries. I carry a ‘planner’ diary with me everywhere but it’s pretty much my organisational crutch. A repository for plans that are more like amusing hypothesis than actual maps. I’m afraid planning and having things in place is simply not my forte! I live very much in the moment (a curse and a blessing in this modern age), and at most, in the short-term (days). I think having some accountability helped, towards the people in my life with whom I had planted the seed of my hunch plans.
What was your defining ‘I can’t do this anymore’ moment that lead you to the leap?
The leap happened in a slow evolving way inside my head. To be honest, it was more like a crawl.
It started as a six month hunch, I was already where I wanted to be as a vet, so could this feeling be stagnation? Then three months of acceptance and learning that walking away isn’t giving up, it’s moving on. Then one month of intention: I’m going to change from doing something I love, to doing something else I love. Then a moment of conviction.
That moment occurred near the end of a challenging, mentally and physically taxing four hour dental procedure on an anaesthetised feline patient. My least favourite procedure, so perhaps there was some bias in that moment that clouded all the amazing good parts of being a vet. Bias or not, it gave rise to a new feeling of quietly confident readiness.
How did/do you overcome/work with the fear that comes with leaping? How do you decide to choose courage?
There were a few things to overcome: my default identity as a vet, fear of missing out, change, uncertainty. The usual suspects.
I was working in a high-end, gold standard inner city Melbourne vet clinic. I had brainy yet hilarious vet colleagues, the most committed and educated clients and charismatic patients who I still care a heap about. I had a routine. It was really difficult to peel away from this arrangement which fit into my pre-arranged life story so well!
When making difficult decisions, there’s always a part where you need to zoom out, zoom in, zoom sideways…or use a completely different viewing apparatus! Just so that you can see things from a different perspective. I did this, and it helped me admit some things to myself. I admitted that I was hanging onto a need for a certain personal identity and feeling of security. It’s okay to be angsty and confused, but there’s limited rations for time spent brooding over these needs, especially after I had called them out for what they were. And to be honest, they got a bit boring and became something I didn’t respect in myself anymore.
It’s a work in progress experiment in re-writing the story of my life. Where would the interesting climax and hero’s journey occur if I were to stay on my status quo, default pathway? Life stories need a diversity of happenings! And in the end, ‘identity’ and ‘security’ lost their decision making power because they were holding me back and taking up too much space. It was time to put more energy and attention into other needs. I really craved personal growth, new achievements and new challenges. There was more of that to be found in paving my way as a creative director and illustrator, rather than in vet.
I think it’s also a handy concept to park things. I’ve parked vet for now. Decisions don’t always need to be drastic, edgy or permanent. Things can happen slowly, be ordinary, private and quiet. A lot of my leap was like this.
How did you fund your leap?
Via the savings of six years full-time employment on a humble veterinarian’s salary and the help of being one half of a dual income, child-free, single cat household. Funding my leap was pretty smooth financially, as I didn’t need to blow money on any bricks or mortar. I just needed to ensure we could keep covering our living expenses and mortgage without the vet income stream. I was fortunate in that I had a steady enough amount of freelance illustration projects by word of mouth (although it could be better, I am extremely poor at active self-marketing, still haven’t got around to that bit), and that contributing to the business of The Cleverness turned out to be the pathway of better financial return than if I had stayed working as a vet. Gratitude and luck!
What other leaps have you made in the past?
The vet to non-vet leap/crawl is definitely the most contrasting and conversation-worthy one. It’s hard to pull out other examples of life leaps because in hindsight they seem very small. Like unexciting choose your own adventure steps used only as fillers to flesh out a bigger narrative.
My parents sheltered me both literally and metaphorically, despite us living in such a rough suburb. Every day, I was driven to my high school in the city because taking public transport would have exposed me to drugs and boys, to the detriment of my studies. So perhaps the biggest first leap was moving out of home, to Perth, a city that never crossed my mind until it became a logistical detail to studying vet. Learning how to be an adult, very suddenly, cooking, groceries, bills, transport, security, cleaning…the things we now take for granted.
What leaps didn’t work out? What did you do about it?
I can’t remember any leaps that haven’t worked out. Either I’ve blocked them out of my memory, or maybe I look at the past with rose-tinted glasses! Everything leads to something, even forgotten mistakes. And as long as there isn’t an end goal (because I have none), there’s always progress as a measure of things working out.
What are you most fearful of? How do you deal with it?
Irrelevance and not contributing. I deal with it by remembering the good parts of myself. By acknowledging the evidence that nullifies such irrational thoughts. By trying not to overthink things so much! By putting things into perspective. We’re all blips in the cosmos and so insignificant in the scheme of things. That’s my chill pill!
How would you rate your level of happiness about making your leap?
1 being sad, 10 being rad.
At the moment my net level of happiness is 8/10, that sweet spot between grateful contentedness and constructive discontent.
What’s the biggest upside to making the leap?
My time is fully mine (freedom). Being able to participate in this interview whilst sitting in the cafe of a beachside sauna in Helsinki!
What’s the biggest downside to making the leap? And how do you get through it?
I have a really poor grasp and fuzzy sense of time, so the lack of structure can wreak havoc on productivity. I’m much better at seizing the moment, rather than seizing the day, or the week, or the month. I get through it by (ironically) spending lots of time trying to work out my priorities. In real life, this looks like a one to one and half hour morning ritual of re-writing my to-do list, circling the one thing that really needs doing and journalling. Then, making a reassuring cup of tea…
What might be your next leap?
Sharing myself and my work more actively and deliberately, because it’s the selfless thing to do, really. Making some financial investments and risky/exciting decisions on behalf of The Cleverness. Too under wraps to unveil yet!
What are your favourite words to live by?
Perfection is an asymptote.
—Thanks to my friend Vi who I first heard this from.
Don’t always think that you’re on a permanent journey. Stop and enjoy the view. This is life, too.
—Alain de Botton
Who do you admire who also made the leap?
My partner-partner and business-partner, Jason Fox, who is always pioneering and making leaps, and does so in public and in front of many eyes.
A piece of advice for someone with an itch to leap?
Don’t underestimate your ability to adapt and improvise.
And perhaps read Ella Luna’s book, The Crossroads of Should and Must, and Liz Gilbert’s Big Magic. And balance that out with Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking. They’re popular for a reason.
Right now I’m:
Hearing: The pleasant hum of quiet nordic conversations at a Helsinki cafe.
Eating: Cheese, lasagna and tiramisu are staples.
Drinking: At home I have five shades of green on daily rotation: Matcha tea, Genmaicha tea, Ovvio #11 Organic Minty Tea, a green protein smoothie, post-workout and nettle tea.
Reading: There’s a book for different locations, moods and handbag size. These two are currently getting love: iPad kindle: The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, by Oliver Sacks. His neurological case studies are mind blowing, thankfully not literally. I need a moment after each chapter to recalibrate reality whilst giving thanks to my clinically mainstream brain! Real-life book: Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre by Keith Johnstone. I’m pulling some tools out of there that’ll help me be more like a river in life, less like a stick.
Loving: Sunshine on a cold day.
Life is a work in progress and yours for the rewriting at any point. Turn the page and consider what new story could unfold either as a leap… or a crawl over time!