Finding Your Craft
T H E Z E N D I A G R A M
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 : )
Read more about the panel on: http://zendiagram.strikingly.com