Mar 232015

Finding Your Craft

T H E  Z E N  D I A G R A M

SXSW Panel Fear and Creativity Finding Your Craft with Helen Todd, Jey Van-Sharp, Jim Hopkinson, and Adam Marelli © ggorin

SXSW Panel Fear and Creativity Finding Your Craft with Helen Todd, Jey Van-Sharp, Jim Hopkinson, and Adam Marelli © ggorin

The Magic Chemistry

Last week, I was part of a panel that discussed how we found our craft at SXSW Interactive Conference in Austin Texas.  SXSW draws over 30,000 attendees from every part of the economy.  Throughout the week, panelists range from venture capitalists to astronauts, to programmers and in my case, the occasional artist.  Everyday is filled with more keynotes, panels and mentoring sessions than anyone could possibly absorb.  And while I was a touch nervous that we were scheduled to speak at 11am Sunday morning, the house was full and there was a thirty minute line to get in.  Step one…fill the house.  Step two…deliver entertaining stories that are relevant and useful to the audience.

SXSW Fear and Creativity full house © Jey Van Sharp

SXSW Fear and Creativity full house © Jey Van Sharp

With the current economy on steadier feet than it was in 2009 when I opened my studio, it seemed like a good time to explore the distinction between what we do versus how we define ourselves.  Very often our jobs become our identities, whether we would like them to or not.   During the panel, I joked that in NYC, the second question most people ask you is, “So, what do you do?”  Call it force of habit, bad manners or social convention, but our jobs often carry a defining quality.  But is this reasonable?  Is our world view really defined by what we do to pay the bills?

Our goal was to distinguish your craft from your job.  And while it won’t be possible to recap the entire talk, I wanted to share a story which might resonate with you.  In the puzzle that exists for all of us, we identified three main concepts that will allow you to gain a better understanding of your calling.  If we want to find our true calling, it will take a bit of soul searching.  In my case, two things were clear, I knew what I loved from early on, but I needed to get good at it and I had no understanding of why people would pay for it.  Try this as an experiment…identify:

  • What do you love?

  • What are you good at?

  • What will people pay for?


If you happen to be someone who knows their craft and loves their work, feel free to share your story below.  These types of stories never get old and you never know who might find inspiration in your path.

The Zen Diagram for finding your craft

The Zen Diagram for finding your craft

Here is an excerpt from my portion on the talk about how I found my craft:

Figuring out what I loved was the easy part…I loved pictures.

The thing that fascinated me about art was that it was another world, one where reality and perception collide and produce something else.

But there were two main challenges I needed to overcome. I knew what I loved, but  “What was I good at?” and “Why would other people want that?”

First part was straight forward…getting good at making art took patience, work, and time.  What you will notice is that there are no prodigy artists…There is no five year old running around with a paint brush making masterpieces….no Mozarts in art.  The writer Fran Leibowitz said…”in order to be a good artist or writer, you have to actually know something, unlike music or acting…where there have been lots of prodigies.”  And I’ve devoted about 20 years to developing my skills of drawing, painting, photography and sculpture…

Second is a question that many creative people never ask…what do other people want?  Or what does your work fulfill for them?  At first figuring out this one was a bit like driving down a road, blind folded.  I wanted to make a career out of art but I did not know which way to go…partly because I was born in a cultural void, some of you may have heard of it, NJ. While I was there, I never came across any professional artists.

My first break came while I was still in school. I heard architect Frank Gehry give a piece of advice to a class… He said “Get good at something special.  This way when people need that specialty, they will come to you.”  But like any piece of good advice I’ve ever gotten, it’s easy to hear but a journey to really understand.

That journey to understanding is not always comfortable.  After finishing a semester abroad, I went south to visit Frank’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.  I left London, was robbed in Paris, shared a sleeper car with a guy who was making passionate love to himself, all the while I was recovering from food poisoning. I had not held down a full meal in two weeks, and this night was no different.

Now, I understand that going to see a museum in an obscure Spanish town is probably not the most sensible way to develop your craft, but when it comes to finding your life’s purpose, you are going to do a few things that won’t make sense at the time…guaranteed.

Adam Marelli's Zen Diagram

Adam Marelli’s Zen Diagram

I returned to NYC and decided that if I wanted to build like a professional, I could get into construction.  And I did, which was a blessing and a curse.  Construction was what Stephen Pressfield calls the “shadow career.”  It looks a lot like your calling, but it’s not.  A shadow career is the practical, safe life that makes all the economic sense in the world, but will never bring you the fulfillment you desire.  Construction was my shadow career.

And what I realized was that I knew how to get into construction, but I did not know how to get out.  Getting out would would mean figuring out a problem that has puzzled everyone…“How do you make a living as an artist?”

A good friend of mine said, “Why don’t you talk to my therapist?” On my first visit she asked why was I there?  I said I did not want to have a nervous breakdown.  She said, “Why do you think that would happen?”

I said, I’m in a relationship with someone that everyone says is great for me though I feel stuck. I’m in a job that most people would love to have and I can’t stand it. I make more money than I’ve ever made and I’m not happy.  What else is there to do but have a nervous breakdown?

After two months of therapy she kicked me out…she said these were philosophical problems and I should speak to philosopher, but they don’t make those any more…so I had to find someone else.

I found a zen monk, two brahmin priests, and a Hopi medicine woman.  If you plan on asking mystical questions, you might as well go to mystical people..and what I learned with all of them was this…Art was only what I produced, being an artist was about exploring how we see and how we sense the world around us…Art was just my preferred medium.

Armed with this realization, I left a ten year relationship, left construction and opened a studio, had a handful of what I call breakdown/breakthroughs, and built a new life where I am doing what I love, can confidently do it well, and because it is something people want, make money doing it.  The thing that still shocks me is that aside from building an international collector and client list, the opportunities that come in everyday are even better than I envisioned.

While lots of it was uncomfortable or scary…that’s normal…in fact it probably means you are on the right path.

SXSW Antics behind the scenes.  Helen Todd shooting Jey Van-Sharp, Stacy Berman, and Adam Marelli.

SXSW Antics behind the scenes. Helen Todd shooting Jey Van-Sharp, Stacy Berman, and Adam Marelli.

Wrap Up
Finding our craft is not just an artistic problem…it is something that all of us are fortunate enough to face.  Once our basic needs of food, shelter, and the threat of death are taken care of, as humans we search for purpose and meaning.  For this reason, I say we are “lucky to have this problem.”  And whether we figured it out a long time ago or are facing it today, the stories are worth sharing.  At minimum, like in my case, they will give you a good laugh.  Yes, I am kind of proud that I am the only person I know who was kicked out of therapy, but best case, the stories are truly helpful to someone else.  What happened on your road to discovery and what have you learned in the process?  Leave a few words of wisdom in the comments below.  It might be the only time in Internet history that the comment thread is actually helpful : )

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  4 Responses to “Finding Your Craft”

  1. Great article Adam!

    I feel, no I know, I am in a shadow career as well. One where many people would say they would love to have my career and I should feel fortunate to work for such a large stable company. The problem, however, is that I absolutely do not get any personal growth or emotional well being from my job. Its a job that gives security to my family, puts a roof over our head, clothes on our back, food in the fridge, car in the driveway and then maybe once a year vacation. Nothing more. I have wrestled with this for a long long time and this year I will have hit 17 years in my shadow career. I actually voiced these concerns with a great supervisor I had and he put his hand on my shoulder looked at me and just said Thursby we work to live we don’t live to work. It actually made me feel better that someone in a position with a lot more responsibilities than me felt the same way.

    Right now I feel I can live with this because I can retire from my shadow career at a pretty early age. I can easily have a second career in something that will give me the satisfaction that I am looking for. In the meantime I can continually study the art of photography and practice to get better at it. That way when I do start my second career I can hit the ground running because I will have spent all those years studying and practicing. I will have a lot more free time and the income from saving all those years to have my second career.

    Lastly you are correct too many people identify themselves as what they do in life. We once had a person who worked with my company for many years and was very well liked, pass away in a car accident over the weekend. A former big shot manager with our company wanted everyone to wear their uniform to his funeral. I did not and wore the best suit and tie I had and was the only one to do so. My manager did not say much but did ask why. I said because he was more than just a person who worked at the company. He was a father, a brother, a son and a person who will be greatly missed regardless whether he worked for the company. He just nodded and never brought it up again.

    Great article Adam.

    • Dear Gary,

      Thank you on all fronts. I appreciate you sharing your story so candidly. Your plan to retire from the shadow career and embark in a new direction sounds promising. It seems like a perfectly reasonable way for a guy with a family and kids to approach the idea. Being aware of the shadow career puts you ahead of the curve.

      And as for your passed colleague, a suit seems more appropriate than a uniform. We are all more than our jobs.

      Thanks again Gary!


  2. Yes, great article; great food for thought and/or frustration!

    I am looking in from the opposite direction as I am in search of my shadow career. I need one, I tell myself, to keep my family and me supported and safe.

    I became unemployed a while ago, but get by – just so – every month on dole money.

    Standing at the crossroads of it all is very frustrating indeed, and I really don’t know which road to choose. According to my friends, I am completely free to do a good deal of things, but I feel very far from it, I’m afraid, as the roads are many. Even the road that is Shadow Career itself is divided: is it bread-and-butter photography, to keep close to what I love or something completely different that may be more practical in an economical sense? I am at a loss.

    With this comment, I am really not asking for advice, merely spelling stuff out for myself, as it is what I can do these days: try to dress my situation in words to make it easier to grasp.

    As I said – frustration aside – great food for thought, thank you!


    • Hi Johan,

      Just wanted to thank you for discussing the frustration and inspiration that you are going through.

      I hear what you say when people tell you that its great to have the freedom of choice, but it seems like there are just too many roads to decide.

      Good luck with it all and check back as it progresses. You never know how your story will be of service to someone else reading.


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