Dream Catcher Interview
This is a new segment on my blog about people who conquer all odds to live an unconventional life and dream that is unique to who they are. My first interviewee is Justine TF, a lifelong friend I’ve known for over 14 years.
R- Tell us about who you are, your story and how you came to live your dreams? (How you quit dental school, etc…what was your process, what spurred on the idea).
J- My parents were both born and raised in Taiwan in the 1950’s in poverty and as adults moved to the U.S. to start a new life. Given that there were so many opportunities compared to anything they’d seen back home, it was paramount that I take advantage and study everything, get the best grades, go to the top schools, and secure a great future. They came from very little, and so their vision for us was to become ridiculously financially wealthy, but not without reason. Our stipulation was to do good for others in a respectable career, and so medicine was the most logical route.
I studied my ass off. As a kid, I rarely had free time. My mom was constantly shuffling us to extracurriculars and after school classes. In middle school, I took my first SAT class. In high school, I took a bunch of AP’s. I got into UCSD, one of the top science universities, and majored with honors in biochemistry. Clearly, and thankfully, I had the brains to do all of it, but whatever it was that was missing didn’t become apparent until I was already half way deep into a doctor of dental surgery program.
I remember the first time I felt a calling to be an artist was in high school. I was watching Heidi Klum’s Project Runway with my cousins and announced, “I want to do that. I want to just make stuff.” I didn’t know how significant that statement was then, but before that, I had always been a very creative child. Almost too creative. Notebooks and art supplies were my favorite presents as a kid, and I would immediately fill my notebooks with doodles, plans, and short stories. My parents were terrified of letting me explore creative avenues, and I remember having to hide my notebooks. Yes, I would get in trouble. And yes, I would get beat for “wasting my time”.
In college, I doodled in just about every notebook I had. Other people’s notebooks, too. I filled every inch of every wall in my apartment with my own art and even painted a mural. My creativity was really starting to overflow and I needed somewhere to channel it, so I started a shiny new Tumblr blog called “Doodles and Things” (which is probably someone else’s username/domain now). Tumblr was very new then. I posted my doodles and illustrations everyday and built a portfolio of thousands of images. From there, I was able to obtain some freelance work as an illustrator for music albums, a book cover, and local newspapers.
Keep in mind, I was still on my way to becoming a doctor. My view around making art for a living was so skewed by the way I was raised, that when people were throwing money my way for me to make art for them, I would see it as just a temporary favor. Never once did it occur to me that, “Hey, I never took an art class, but I’m still making art. I must be an artist.” Nope.
I remember very distinctly in an MCAT class once, I had just had enough of the bullshit. This was when I was still on my way to going to medical school before I diverted – not far enough – toward dental school instead. As the teacher droned on about test taking techniques, I took out a red pen and just started drawing all over my workbook. It was quite obnoxious, but it felt so good to just be free in the moment.
Anyway, this is a loaded question. Where was I…?
Oh yeah, How I Quit Dental School:
I was depressed and felt out of place as all hell in dental school, but I pushed through because I believed what everyone else said – after the first year, which is heavily didactic, things should get better. It didn’t get better for me. In fact, when I got into the clinic, things got worse. Even though I had the hand skills to work in millimeters, I just couldn’t see myself working on another person’s tooth for the rest of my life. I needed a canvas. I wanted to paint walls.
It took a lot of guts to leave, for sure, but so many more nights of insomnia, feelings of hopelessness, and pure exhaustion from trying to convince myself to do something I didn’t want to do.
Thankfully, through working with my school counselor and amazing clinic professor (who are now both good friends of mine), I was able to systematically withdraw from my program without making a scene. Most people in my class who found out were surprised by my leaving. I didn’t tell anyone until after I left.
Leading up to that point, as I said, I was depressed as all hell. I had already been practicing yoga everyday, but my counselor recommended that I try meditation as well. One night, I was so tired of feeling so impotent as a dental student whose future was grim and set, that I simply imagined what it would be like to be something else, anything else. Immediately, the fog cleared within me and in that instant, I knew another life was possible. Such was the real opportunity my parents had given me.
R- What were some of your challenges? How did people respond to you wanting to pursue your passions?
J- The biggest challenge was to not succumb to the pressure to stay. So many people were terrified for me. Many asked if I was sure I wasn’t going to regret it. But I had prepared myself for these naysayers. They weren’t not believing in me, they were just trying to look out for me. No one had the vision I had for myself the way that I had seen it in my own head. I mean, duh. It’s my life! I had to do what I had to do.
R- What keeps you going?
J- I’m committed to exploring this inner psychology that I have as a human being and communicating that with others through my artwork. Part of the reason that art is so powerful is that it represents things and ideas that words alone could never do justice. It’s an amorphous language all on its own. I think through the practice of yoga, where so much internally is explored, I’ve really discovered what I could do with art. It’s truly a special form of communication. What is communicated in my work is the recognition of internal human experiences that exist universally.
Similarly, with yoga, I’m committed to assisting others with the exploration of their own internal journey. I have learned so much through my own practice, and want for others to see for themselves!
R- What inspires you?
J- Nature for its insistent stride in the cycle of birth, growth, death, and re-birth again. Nature is such a great teacher.
R- Who has been supportive and encouraging in your walk?
J- Thankfully – my mom, my brother, and lots of friends and family. But my therapist is the real the MVP. Love you, Monica!
R- Love that artwork- trust the process- can you explain why you created that piece?
J- I made that on a whim, like most of my pieces are, because human experiences are equally fleeting. I was feeling antsy about not knowing what to make next, so I just sat down and let the words come to me. All I could think of that evening was to just trust the process, since I’ve learned from so many pieces before that the end products never turn out to be the way I imagine. And in fact, they almost always surprise me in a good way. So, I dipped my brush into ink and made my first stroke, which ended up being the top of the first T.
J- For 2016, I’d like to really learn how to run a business. For the rest of my life, I’ll probably be making art! Hopefully write a book. Publish a coloring book.
R- And feel free to add anything you’d like to tell the readers about following their dreams!
J- If you have a dream, what’s the very next step you need to take to make it a reality? Figure it out and do it. Then repeat. That’s it! It really is that simple. We often see living our dreams as this giant mountain that we can never get to the top of, but while the grand view is daunting, all you can do right now is the next step anyway. So what’s the first next step? Figure out a way to do that and do it. Then ask yourself: What’s the next step?