Get a cup of coffee, I am going for it here...
I had what I will call a spirited debate last week at dinner with friends and came home with my emotions pulsing and thoughts spinning. You know those gatherings where someone gets riled up enough that everyone sits up a little straighter and looks at around the table with sideways glances that say, "WTF?" Well, I was that person at this dinner, where a sensitivity was touched and I responded without censoring myself. This is not to say I created a scene or threw a fit, but that everyone went home knowing how passionate I felt about the topics discussed.
The discussion was between myself, Marisa and three people who work in the financial industry. One was my husband, the other two were college classmates of his who now have a successful accounting firm. We are all close friends and I must make it clear that everyone's intentions that night were to be supportive, encouraging and positive. No one was trying to give anyone a hard time or win any kind of argument. My description of what we had as a "spirited debate" is actually inaccurate; it was a spirited discussion - an exchange of ideas, thoughts, possibilities and philosophies between people who all genuinely wanted the best for one another and who respected each other's experiences, opinions and ideas.
The discussion centered around artists and finances, how most artists have a difficult time managing the creative side with the business side, and how we artists would all be better off financially if only more of us learned how to value the work we do and demand more for our skills, talents and hard work. I will give another disclaimer here and say that I could not agree more with this notion - that many artists do all artists a disservice by buying into the idea that creativity and commerce cannot co-exist, that by suffering, our art is somehow better served. I do not create art for the sole purpose of amassing piles of money - this has never been my mission - but for many years my goals were focused on numbers and it was incredibly gratifying to reach the goals I set for myself. This was meaningful not only because I was earning money for myself, but also because I was helping those who believed in my work earn money - reps, agents, employees, printers, etc. I felt that I was contributing something positive on many levels.
In a nutshell, when I started Swirly my dreams were BIG - I wanted to be a licensed, recognized brand in the stationery and gift industry. Without one business class to my name - with no clue as to what the hell I was doing - in less than six years I built a brand that brought in six figures of income to me personally and generated seven figures on the retail level. I did this on my own - with no publicists, no galleries, no advisors, and no angel investors. I worked my ass off, built a business, got the top licensing agent in the country and then just as an already strong brand was about to be catapulted into the stratosphere my entire personal life fell apart - a divorce, a home lost, moving five times in nine months, and a whole slew of other soap opera-esque dramas. This was the greatest turning point of my life, something I have written about extensively.
After having gone through that, I can't say I don't still harbor dreams of re-building a new brand and making a name for myself with the mixed media and writing work I have been doing for the past few years - I do. But I have also made a conscious choice not to create a life that forces me to "manage" my time down to the minute and put my personal life second. My number one commitment is my marriage and our home. Right now, for as long as my husband is in the job he's in and we're living where we are in Los Angeles - where friends and family visit on an almost constant basis - the time I have available to pursue my career is limited. I absolutely have moments when I resent that, but at the end of the day I am not willing to push myself so hard that I risk going through the same level of loss I went through years ago. My divorce did not happen as a result of my career - it had nothing to do with it actually - but my attention was occupied with my work enough that I was blind to the damage that was being done to my marriage for other reasons, and I made a commitment to myself after my divorce to never let that happen again.
So here I am - building a career during whatever snippets of space I can carve out, and honestly, as recently as last week I was wondering why the hell I try so hard. Why do I push myself as hard as I do to keep my career going, to take on teaching projects, design work, and book proposals? The income my work now generates is correspondingly lower than what it was years ago when I was a full-time business owner managing thirty reps, 1200 accounts and shipping an average of 20 orders a day, and there are times when I compare the two experiences and feel like I’ve lost my mojo. I have to remind myself over and over again that my balance sheet is not the sole measurement of my success, and that I manage to get quite a bit done considering how infrequently I am able to get into a consistent work flow.
But back to our discussion, when two very well-intentioned men proceeded to tell me all the things I could and should be doing in addition to all the work I am already doing in order to further my career and earn more money. And it was all I could do not to scream, "I ALREADY DID ALL THAT. I built a brand, worked with the best agents, created a ten-pound portfolio and displayed my wares at the National Stationery Show. I DID IT ALL, and created a profit and loss statement that impressed the best accountants in Santa Barbara, who said they'd never seen such a well-organized financial statement from an artist. And do you know what? I am in a different place right now, where I still, in fact, have big dreams and goals, but there are only so many hours in a day and I CAN'T DO IT ALL, nor DO I WANT TO." It even caught me off guard, this emotional response, but I simply could not cope with the idea of anyone adding even more pressure to what I already put on myself, no matter how well-intentioned these words of advice and opinions were.
As I sat in our kitchen after that dinner, alone with nothing but my thoughts and a keyboard, I hammered out these words. So they are messy, emotional, and written from the gut, edited only slightly. And my point in sharing the details from that evening is this: I am in an incredibly, magnificently, abundantly blessed and fortunate situation where I do not have to worry about where my next meal will come from or whether or not I will be able to keep my house. I literally have the freedom to do nothing besides grocery shopping, laundry, and whatever else needs to be done for my husband, our home, our family and friends which, should I choose, I could stretch into a full time job no problem.
For a while I felt guilty about this - that continuing to call myself a "professional artist" was bullshit, that it made me a big phony. I kept reminding myself that if I were single and living somewhere else, I'd be making a much stronger living as an artist, and that fact was what made my work feel valid and real. But I finally decided to give that up, and instead consider where I am right now as a gift and an opportunity to be a positive force in the world. I could kick back and make things easier on myself, but I instead wake up every morning and go through a daily exercise of what I like to call "Squeeze In Work Wherever I Can." So I hardly sit still everyday and go to bed many nights wondering what the hell I got done. It is only over longer stretches of time that I see how frighteningly productive I can be as I juggle 25 different balls. (And I don’t even have kids, so to all you creative & entrepreneurial moms out there, I bow down to you.)
I do not share any of this to complain, but to illustrate what motivates me: I work because it is my passion, and because I cannot tolerate the idea of "kicking back" and not doing whatever is in my power to take advantage of the fact that right now, for the time being, I have the health and security to pursue my goals as an artist and a writer. That could all change tomorrow, so I am sure as hell not going to squander away this time for fear of feeling like a "phony". Whatever voice is making me feel like my work isn't real or valid is not a voice I should be paying attention to, and it does not serve myself or the world at all.
As much as I know my husband and friend were trying to be encouraging and supportive in their ideas about all the ways I could further my career and be "more successful", there was one thing they weren’t understanding, which is that I am doing the best I can right now, and every choice I make right now must serve my highest priorities: My marriage, home, family and friends. I do not have the freedom to wake up every morning, go to an office and focus only on work. I wake up everyday, work in my home and have to manage as much work as I can shoulder beyond all the normal weekly responsibilities I have as my husband's wife and the manager of our home. I don't want to be told what more I could or should be doing to be "more successful". I already am successful in all the ways that truly matter, and I am only interested in greater success if it can be made possible in accordance with my deepest personal priorities. If those are compromised, then it is not possible for me to call it success. It also occurred to me the morning after our discussion that perhaps the issue in these exchanges wasn’t that I, as an artist, don’t value my work enough, perhaps it was an issue of them not understanding the value I place on the work I do to take care of my marriage, home, family, friends and, quite frankly, my health and sanity.
Success can be defined by dollars, by sales, by all kinds of quantifiable measures. And I am all for those kind of measures - I am all for going after goals based on numbers and creating financial abundance, but not at the expense of what is most important to me. I am trying, bit by bit, in my own way, to build my career and pursue my quantifiable goals, and it is taking more time than it would if I were single and living alone in a less expensive part of the world where visitors hardly came through. But that is OK, and at the end of all this what I think is the most important thing for me to say is that I am grateful for this spirited discussion that got me so riled up, because it reminded me of all the reasons why I choose to consciously manage my career in a way that supports my personal priorities. In a way, I had to defend myself that night at dinner, I had to explain – with emotion and ferocity – that the reason I’m not producing, growing and earning the way they think I could be (bless them for believing in me!) is because I am married to my husband, we live in Los Angeles and we are blessed with a passionate, vibrant family and social life that takes a great deal of time, attention and nurturing.
I still have big dreams and goals. I am still pursuing opportunities that could result in more time away from home, the need for more hours in my studio, and more discussions with my husband about how to make it work for both of us. My work ethic will always drive me to do as much as I can do, and right now, I’m doing a lot. And while it might look “less than” or “smaller than” or “not as much as it could be” to some, it looks just fine to me. I am successful. I am a positive force in the world. I inspire. I write. I create. I share - at my own pace, on my own terms. And I love my husband and friends for wanting me to go farther with all of that, but everything is just fine exactly the way it is.