My Mid-Life Career Change: A New Chapter

By

Vanaja Dhanan

27-08-2020

7 min read

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Once upon a time….

At the time BenO came into our lives, I was ready for a career change and new challenge after being in the media and PR industry for over 25 years.

The Plot Thickens

I was truly intrigued when Ashraf Farid, editor for Leaderonomics, invited me to contribute an article. As we exchanged emails, he guided me through the topic at hand and while it seemed difficult, I attempted to shape this piece. 

I have had the privilege of being a human on this Earth for the past six decades. It started off with what was to me an ideal childhood, one that helped see me through a rocky yet exciting adulthood and nudged me along gently to my present golden era. 

I‘ve had my fair share of adventures – amazing highs and astounding lows, all of which I feel allow me to happily and comfortably wear miscellaneous hats today. 

For this piece, I don the hat of Aunty Van – author/publisher of two children’s storybooks and storyteller. My first book, ‘BenO Comes Home’ was published in 2003. Now, why a book, you ask? And why a children’s storybook at that?

Well at that time we (my late husband and I) had adopted a puppy that came home with a story to tell. He had been abused. He was probably barely two months old. His owners preferred him without a tail. Instead of getting this done professionally (but still, why?), they tied his tail. It festered and made him very sick. He yelped and howled all day long. We guess the owners got tired of the noise and threw him into a bin. 

I‘ve had my fair share of adventures – amazing highs and astounding lows, all of which I feel allow me to happily and comfortably wear miscellaneous hats today. 

A young man walking past heard the desperate cries, rescued the puppy and took him to a vet. Following a couple of surgeries, it got better and we eventually adopted it

Two good things happened in the story above:

  1. The rescuer could ill-afford to keep a pet but it did not stop him from reaching into a bin and taking the puppy to a vet.
  2. There was no money to be paid to the vet but it did not stop the good doctor from doing his job and saving a life. 

We remain grateful for the kindness and humanity of both individuals. Their kind deeds inspired me to craft this message to readers when signing books: Reach Out And Love

A career change

At the time BenO came into our lives, I was ready for a fresh start and a new challenge after being in the media and PR industry for over 25 years. So, writing a children’s storybook and going into publishing seemed like a great idea.

I printed 3,000 copies. This figure was a more viable, cost-effective print run. At first, I tried selling via the big chain stores like Times and MPH, but copies priced at RM20 hardly moved. Most of these ‘big boys’ preferred to work with three titles if they had to consider in-store promos or roadshows

With 3,000 copies sitting in my home, I balked when asked if I could produce two more titles. To me it was already a nightmare trying to sell what I had. Why would I want to add to my problem?

But eventually all this, thankfully, prodded me to rise to the challenge and fully committing to the career change. Despite not having any book retail experience, I set off to sell, guided only by faith in my product.

I was even more daunted when one publisher and retailer told me that the 3,000 copies would be sitting in my house for another three years.  

Eventually, all this prodded me to rise to the challenge and fully commit to the career change. Despite not having any book retail experience, I set off to sell, guided only by faith in my product. I started going on storytelling rounds to schools, created a BenO song and weaved other fun activities into my sessions such as drawing and colouring characters from the book, hand and face painting and creative writing. 

Thank goodness all these came to me naturally and by the end of a year, or maybe a little bit after, I ran out of copies. Suffice to say I re-printed 3,000 more copies all of which sold out too. I am deeply grateful to everyone who made this possible.

The second time is when you know you’ve made it

The year 2020 marks some 15 years since I re-entered the publishing arena. My second book, ‘Chi Ki Cat Comes Home’ was published in June 2019.  It’s an improved version of its predecessor because it has pages where children can write, draw and colour. 

This time, illustrating and getting the book to print was an adventure and a very challenging one. As with my earlier book, writing was the easiest part for me. The challenge began with finding the right illustrator for it, which took over a year.  Ten foreign and local illustrators later, I found the right match in Abigail Andrew, a young Malaysian animation artist. 

The illustrations were wonderful and added much intrigue and colour to the book. The artist had never worked on a children’s book project before, yet managed to produce outstanding work. Due to unforeseen circumstances, Abigail took almost a year to complete the first draft. I then had the task of showing it around hoping to raise funds for printing.

Editor’s note: No, that’s not Vanaja. Just trying to make the best of my stock photos.

My idea was to get a corporation to buy a page and advertise its services or products. However, this didn’t take off and more time was lost. There were many moments when I was tempted to ditch the project. But I remained committed because I appreciated the effort put in by the artist. 

Finally, a good friend, Dato’ Dr Noorul Ameen Mohamed Ishak, founder-chairman and managing director of Qualitas Medical Group came to my rescue and donated money for the print-run. He prefers to remain discreet but I am hoping that by sharing his goodwill others in similar positions will also reach out and help those trying to pursue their goals and dreams, career change or not. His gesture truly shows the value of friendships and I hope it gives others struggling to fulfill their dreams some fresh hope. 

Yup, that’s Vanaja.

In life, we come across many people. Some can be a blessing and others, who only want to take advantage of situations, a challenge. Be encouraged by the good, keep going and do your part to spread compassion and kindness and create a difference in your community. 

I just wanted to write a book, not do storytelling

I didn’t plan on storytelling when I first published my book. It came out of necessity. I guess when I wanted a career change, I got a career change

I learned that I had to evolve, think very much on my toes and be interactive to keep my audience engaged. I learned to give them roles. There were always eager beavers who wanted to be the big, unhappy giant stomping around or the little puppy BenO who had to wriggle his tiny body to get out of a tight hole. 

Along the way, I kept an open mind and was eagerly absorbing pearls of wisdom from my young friends. One of my favourite questions during storytelling was: How can one escape from a room, with only a locked door while an angry giant slept somewhere? 

Answers ranged from calling mummy using a mobile phone to kung fu and karate kicks. 

The more observant ones would stare hard at the picture and provide the correct answer.

I learned to give them roles. There were always eager beavers who wanted to be the big, unhappy giant stomping around or the little puppy BenO who had to wriggle his tiny body to get out of a tight hole. 

Through storytelling I set out to impact lives. I highlight to audiences that we should respect all life. I used opportunities before storytelling to educate and remind children about abuse, bullying and deliberately harming one another. 

We talk about pain, crying, kindness, hugs and other mushy, sappy things. A major take-home message was that life sometimes can start rough. You may cry because it hurts but after a good cry, do something. Create the change you desire and like BenO, pursue it when the opportunity presents itself. 

At one storytelling session as we chatted about how one should never stray from adults, I was told with all seriousness a 6-year old could muster that in an emergency one should never hide. The reason being: Your rescuers will not be able to find you!

I never stopped learning along this journey. I kept an open mind, absorbing and enjoying my learning. Sometimes parents would drop a note to say their child performed the same story at a show and tell and won a prize; or that they had expressed a desire to be a writer after our encounter.

I was humbled by the feedback and more resolved to give it my all.  

It’s good for the soul too

The career change also allowed me to develop on another front – charity. The book proved to be a worthy fund-raising tool. I was able to adopt many causes along the way. Part of the proceeds was donated to animal care or causes for the betterment of children. Proceeds from my second book support various causes including a trap and neuter programme run by animal lovers at University Malaya; The National Stroke Association Of Malaysia and Dignity for Children. I am happy to work with other groups and make whatever difference I can. 

My personal message to young and adult readers (there was this 79-year old who hogged a copy because he really liked the book, what can I say) when I sign the new book is: Be Happy…Be Nice. LOVE and Light Up Lives! 

This message is a reminder that within us is the ability to spread happiness. Set out and touch a life a day. If you want a career change, get a career change! Keep the faith, and the rewards will come. 

The End.

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