Six months ago I did a speaking gig and neglected to share anything about it. A year before that, I did the same thing. Quelle surprise! It always feels like such a scramble to do these sorts of event engagements, and I often flail afterwards and don’t manage to go through the photos or do the obvious easy things like turning my talk into a blog post. Sigh.
I may never have finally gotten around to doing this, EXCEPT that I am angsting out about the midterm elections on Nov. 6, and thinking again of how crucial some of these races are — and one of these races is the New Mexico governor’s race in which Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham is running, and I really, really hope she will win.
I thought of Lujan Grisham because it was at her event that I was speaking earlier this year (and last year): the Congressional Art Competition for high school students across the district. Lujan Grisham is currently our Rep for New Mexico Congressional District 1 (which includes Albuquerque) and since she has been in office she has hosted this competition, which has an awards ceremony to honor the winners.
In 2017, Lujan Grisham got stuck in Washington during the budget debate and near-government shutdown, and it looked like she was going to miss the awards event here in Albuquerque, so at the last minute my friend and fellow blogger / organizer-type Joe Cardillo recommended me to help fill time at the event with a keynote about creative careers. At the very last minute Lujan Grisham was able to attend after all, so not only did I get to speak but I got to meet her, which was great.
The thing that was especially cool about meeting Lujan Grisham in that context was to learn about her support for the arts, and to see government in action on the cultural side of things, which I don’t see enough of. Both years the room was packed with the contestants and their families, and the pride and excitement was palpable. Having the arts recognized as something important, and seeing young artists valued by our national representative was a big deal for these kids and I found it unexpectedly moving. It was great to get this little window on how government can support the arts in a fun, engaging, community-building way.
Anyhoo, besides being impressed with Lujan Grisham’s support of young artists, I have really enjoyed meeting her in person and having my kids get to meet her too. I was already a supporter before that first Art Competition, but the more I have seen from her, the more strongly I feel Lujan Grisham’s energy and background would be great for our state. We need a governor who’s smart about economic development, who will protect access to health coverage (including folks with pre-existing conditions), and who values all human rights: for women, immigrants, the LGBT community, people of color, everyone. Michelle Lujan Grisham is the clear choice!
Please, for the love of dog, get out and vote!
/campaign talk 🙂
Here’s the speech I gave six months ago. In my next post I’ll share my speech from last year.
Planning a Creative Career, Leaving Space for Magic
Keynote for Congressional Art Competition, 4/28/18
Good morning everyone. Thank you so much to Michelle Lujan Grisham and her office for inviting me to join you today, and congratulations and shout outs to all the artists participating in this competition.
I am incredibly honored — and honestly quite relieved — to be invited back to speak again at this year’s event, because it means I must not have been too crushingly boring last year, but mostly I’m just excited to be involved in an event that celebrates young creative people and energy in our community.
I’m a self-employment author and coach, and the publisher of an arts publication, and my entire career has been driven and motivated by wanting to work with and help creative people. So to meet a roomful of you who are already putting your talents into action is hugely inspiring.
For last year’s event I was asked to talk about my career path in the arts, and in a nutshell I shared my history of law school, then legal and business publishing — not exactly the most creative work — BUT I always had a steady stream of creative, unlikely, some might say kooky projects in my workflow, even as I was developing my “core” career of more “boring” work as a business author and consultant.
Working at a couple publishing startups and then at an established publishing company taught me a huge amount about the creative process, including how commercially viable creative projects like books and software and newspapers are produced and sold and distributed, and how to be part of a team. Over time, my natural affinity for organization and legal/business stuff melded with my nonstop attraction for creative projects, and I found myself happily self-employed developing media and publishing projects both for clients and as my own business ventures.
That was last year’s talk. What I want to talk to you about today is how to carve out a creative career path that works for you and fits well with your nature, and — really importantly — that leaves open as many options as possible for you, for a career of rewarding, meaningful and fun work. If you want a career in the arts, it is completely doable. And forget you ever heard the term “starving artist.” There are so many different paths you can follow.
I have just a few tips for you today.
Tip 1: Make goals and plan, but leave space for magic.
As a business author and self-employment coach I talk a lot about the importance of setting goals and making plans to achieve them. You’re maybe at the age where your parents are telling you to “plan for your future” or giving you a hard time that you aren’t setting goals, so please don’t tune me out for using these words “plans” and “goals.” Because what I want to tell you is that while, yes, goals are essential, and planning is an incredibly important skill to develop — it’s also undeniable that artists are different from “regular” businesspeople, and I think your planning has to be different too.
Instead of profit goals, or growth targets, your goals as an artist will likely include much more subjective things like what themes you want to explore, or tactile decisions like what media you want to work with. For an artist, thinking about things like color palettes, or the best materials for you to express the nature of suffering, or love, is part of your planning work.
Just because it doesn’t include spreadsheets or financial projections doesn’t mean it’s not “work.”
And I’ll take this a little farther and say that planning and goal-setting for artists needs to leave some space for the unplanned. You can set the table for inspiration but you can’t expect your muse to show up for dinner on time. You have to be ready for inspiration — and for creatives this often means leaving space in their lives for wonder and magic to sprout and flower. You need to have time to explore weird ideas. (Honestly I think the same could be said for many regular businesses, but it’s especially true for artists.) The trick is to find the right balance, and that simply takes time.
This leads well into my next tip which is…
Tip 2: Say YES to as wide a range of projects as feels remotely manageable.
I can’t overemphasize the importance of having experience under your belt in order to develop your skills. And not only that: You’ll want to learn what things you’re not good at; the things that seem to be telling you they are not right direction for you.
So to find this sweet spot I think you quite simply need stuff to chew on. You can’t learn this from a teacher or from a book. So practically speaking it means you need to do work, which further means you need to seize opportunities when they arise. Say yes to everything you can — within reason (I’ll talk about that in a minute).
The first few times I was asked to speak to a group, it certainly didn’t feel comfortable to say yes, but I did. Now it’s way easier to say yes and it’s easier to figure out what direction I should pursue with my talk. I still might not be great at it but I’m much better. I’ve developed a bit of proficiency.
When my boyfriend in college asked me to be the proofreader — and a couple months later the editor — of the free weekly he started, I said yes even though I had barely any experience with publishing. I took to it really well, kept doing it, and I’m still working in publishing today.
Here’s the thing: I was also asked to sell ads for my boyfriend’s free weekly, and I said yes, and I discovered wasn’t really good at it. Not only were my results poor but I had no gusto for it whatsoever (which I’m sure was largely why my results sucked). So I stuck with editing; I’ve never much been into sales. But another of our college friends who is an amazing musician turned out to be really great at sales, and she had a huge part in making that publication financially successful. I always found it fascinating that someone who had a stronger foothold in a “creative” thing than I did — she has always been a really accomplished musician — turned out to be so strong on the business side.
The lesson here is neither of us would have known what we were good, or not so good at, if we hadn’t said yes.
I’ll also add that you’ll need to develop a sense of when it’s right to say no. Now, there are many great things about being young, but having the luxury of being able to be choosy about projects is not one of them.
The reality is that when you’re young, you’ll end up taking jobs that aren’t ideal — but there is a line. Don’t say yes if you don’t have the skills and it seems obvious that you just won’t be able to do the job. Don’t say yes if you know it’s a doomed mission. Don’t say yes if the people you’d work for or with seem like jerks. And definitely don’t say yes if it feels like you are being taken advantage of.
Creative people of all ages are often asked to work for free, and this is especially true for young creative people. The reality is that many of these projects will be wonderful experiences while others are exploitative. You’ll need to develop skills to distinguish the two. This takes time and trial and error, so my advice is to go out there, find some good causes (like community organizations or even political work), say yes cautiously and be thoughtful and protect yourself — but overall, try to say yes and get work under your belt.
And don’t just say yes to others, but remember also to make your own opportunities. Don’t forget that the essence of creativity is creating — making something where it didn’t exist before — so I encourage you not to be shy about initiating projects and pushing them forward. This often means developing relationships and partnerships and collaborations with other people.
This brings me to my last tip, which is:
Tip 3: Balance your ambition and drive with skills at being a good human being.
Taking initiative with projects and making sure they are moving forward takes persistence, and a certain amount of drive and stubbornness. There is definitely a way to be a “go-getter” without being a domineering jerk, and it can take time to find your groove with that. It gets better when you find collaborators who have the same energy and temperament as you — but that doesn’t always happen right away.
You have to develop a thick skin not only for rejection, but for negative and difficult people. Girls and women might find yourselves encountering outdated crusty or even creepy patriarchal attitudes, which I encourage you to let roll off you as you calmly blaze forward. Men and women alike will run into employers, clients or collaborators who won’t take you seriously, or want to squash you down. Breathe it out and move on.
The bottom line is you’ll need to find your comfort zone with asserting yourself and realizing your vision as an artist — and you’ll need to remember to do this without being a jerk. Fight to make your projects happen, but be collaborative. Be compassionate. Be a solid human being. Other people will miss deadlines, and they’ll screw things up and they won’t do things the way you expected them to or wanted them to, but I assure you: You will too. Develop skills of communication and collaboration that help resolve conflict and channel your creative energy towards great work. Be a person that others want to work with.
To sum all these tips up, I’ll leave you with some advice that I learned doing interviews and podcasts for the last six years with all sorts of artists and entrepreneurs. By far, the most common theme that comes up over and over again is “problem-solving.”
To this day, every artist I talk to about how they’ve found themselves in their particular creative career replies with some version of, “Well, I had something to say to the world, so I figured out how to paint, or how to play music, or how to make sculptures, and the hundreds or thousands or more creative choices I’ve made along the way resulted in my body of work.”
So as you move forward with your creative work — and especially if you find yourselves stuck, as we all do from time to time — remind yourself that as an artist you’re a problem-solver, and the unique way that you figure out how to bring your talents and vision into the world will be your legacy as an artist.
And when you let things like wonder, magic, persistence and compassion guide your problem-solving, the art you create, and the person you are, will be a true gift for all of us.