Career Shift: Returning to a Childhood Dream of Being an Artist
In his 60s, photographer Sunny Seki shut down his Los Angeles studio to write and illustrate children's books, a lifelong goal
Growing up in postwar Japan, Hiro Seki longed to make his mark as an artist through drawing and painting. But his father discouraged him, noting that success would come slowly, if ever. He urged Hiro instead to study photography, a career with a more reliable financial future. A respectful son, Hiro reluctantly put aside his dream and became a commercial photographer.
Yet the young man felt restless in his native country. The United States looked more appealing. “Age and experience don’t matter much in America," he told himself. "Talent is what counts.” So in 1971, at 24, Hiro moved to Los Angeles. He soon found work as a photographer and met Judy, a young American woman willing to help him sharpen his English. She later became Hiro's wife — they've been married for 34 years.
(MORE: A Family That Earns and Learns Together)
In 1979, Judy and Hiro — now nicknamed “Sunny” — opened the Sunny Seki Photography studio, specializing in weddings and portraits. Their business prospered, and the couple raised a close-knit family, with nine children.
With the advent of digital photography, the Sekis realized they’d need to make major investments in new equipment. Instead, they made a different kind of investment in their own lives.
Becoming a Children's Book Author
Around 2005, Judy encouraged Sunny to return to the drawing and painting he’d always loved. She suggested he write and illustrate children’s stories like the ones he had told his kids. Sunny loved the idea but worried that, as his dad had warned, he wouldn’t make enough money to support his family.
So the couple formulated a plan: They’d keep the photo studio going a bit longer, but move to smaller quarters to reduce expenses. Meanwhile, Judy would go back to school to get her teaching credentials. That would enable her to support the family while Sunny learned the skills needed for success in publishing.
By 2007, Judy had a teaching job, the photo studio was closed, and Sunny had learned that his heritage could give him a competitive edge as an author. “Rather than imitate American books, I could create works based on my native culture,” he says.
Several publishers rejected his first effort, but Sunny then hooked up with East West Discovery Press, which specializes in Asian-themed, bilingual books. It published his book, The Tale of the Lucky Cat, in 2007 with English and Japanese texts.
He and Judy worked hard to market Tale and an earlier self-published book on Japanese senryu poetry, a type of haiku that focuses on the human condition. The couple attended Japanese cultural festivals and book fairs, gave presentations to community groups, staged shadow puppet shows and started the website Sunnyseki.com.
Their efforts paid off.
(MORE: Find a Niche for Your Small Business)
The children’s book sold well — it can now be ordered in nine languages through Sunny’s site — and requests for presentations have come from as far away as Arizona. Since 2008, Sunny has written and illustrated two more children’s books for Tuttle Publishing: The Last Kappa of Old Japan and Yuko-Chan and the Daruma Doll. He also plans to sell his illustrations as framed artwork.
Income from the books barely supports the cost of marketing them, but the Sekis are content with their progress and Sunny plans to keep writing. Says Judy, “If sales from all his books eventually provide a modest supplement to our retirement, that’s fine with us.”
And Sunny’s dad, now 94, is pleased that his son has become the artist he aspired to be as a child.
Sunny's Tips for Pursuing Your Passion
If you, too, have a long-deferred dream, Sunny offers this advice:
It’s probably not too late to recapture an early ambition. In fact, he says, your age may work to your benefit. You may now have more maturity, confidence and financial resources than when you were younger.
Don’t just leap; make a plan. Improve the skills you’ll need for a new career through education or by getting coached. Look for ways to polish yourself and get feedback.
Find a helpmate to keep you going. This could be a spouse who is supportive (financially, emotionally or both), a friend or a mentor. For Sunny, Judy’s teaching income helped him pursue his book writing and illustrating. “Now that I no longer have financial pressures,” says Sunny. “I can concentrate on perfecting my work.”
Go easy on yourself. You don’t have to set the world on fire to find fulfillment through a career switch. “It’s never a mistake to follow your passion,” says Sunny.