After two full days at the Gather Workshop, I'm taking this Sunday afternoon to decompress.
I feel like I'm constantly running my mouth: explaining to people where I live and why I don't actually live anywhere that often. Explaining what I do, and what a letterpress is. Explaining calligraphy, and how it really is all by hand. Explaining about why our studio is under construction, and what it even looks like for us to have a studio. Explaining how I run a business while my husband plays baseball, and how we make that work and the boundaries we've had to create to make it all flow. I feel like I'm talking ALL THE TIME.
But yesterday at Gather, I didn't talk, I spoke. If you're wondering what the difference is, talking about what's going on in your life is really different than formally sharing it with strangers. Rather, sharing it with people who came and paid to hear you speak and are sitting all around with wide eyes, notebooks open and pencils ready.
I thought I had a plan for what I would talk about - integrity. How to make choices for your business with integrity, how to plan with integrity, how to deliver products with integrity. But before I knew it, the first 45 minutes of my talk was a life story of how I scratched and clawed at business and life because I had none (integrity). How I was the scrappy kid undercutting people's prices and trying to do everyone's job.
I talked about how that brought me crumbling to exhaustion, and how doing it was never a reflection of whether or not I had talent or brains. I did have those things (I think). I just let fear, expectations and insecurity rule my business. I took the widest road to my clients - the road where someone else drops a dollar and you run behind them to pick it up. Brutal stuff happens on that road - you get shoved, passed, and tired - mostly just from trying to make it through the crowd.
Exactly how I got off that road is a long story, and I think it's probably best reserved for face-to-face talking or small speaking engagements (mostly because it's full of personal failures and TMI). But I did realize this morning that there could be some value in me sharing the nuggets of wisdom that I gained through all that experience. I guess I'll share them here:
HOW DO YOU DECIDE "WHAT YOU DO?"
That seems like a really weird question. Every creative business owner starts their business because they're vastly talented at one thing and they just can't help but throw off every other responsibility and masterfully create their product with wild abandon for "normal life." Nah.
A lot of times, picking a creative career comes by the method of "calculatus elimunatus." The way to find a missing something is to find out where it's not - yea, that's Dr. Seuss.
"Picking your thing" isn't really that easy. Maybe you can't make a rhyme. Maybe you have a rhyme but you don't know how to rock it. Maybe you can rock a rhyme, but not at the right time. It's tricky.
When I went to high school, I was equally good at every subject. Same grades in math, english, history, chemistry. Mostly because I was an insufferable know-it-all and I wouldn't sleep, eat or stop negotiating until I found out how to make an A in every class. Starting college, I went for orientation at UGA (a school I picked by the default of having no money) and left realizing that I didn't want to major in anything. Business made my skin crawl. History seemed too analytical. English didn't lead to any jobs I liked. I wasn't fashionable enough for fashion. Not enough energy for journalism. Science - I loved science, but I just couldn't picture a life spent in a lab or on a computer. The only thing that sounded decent was art. I knew I liked art, and without thinking too hard about the future or money or paying bills, I could picture myself as an artist. I mean, I always had. I wore weird clothes in high school. I was a "theatre kid." I twirled my hair up in paintbrushes and drew on my shoes. I was an artist.
Mostly, I underestimated my will to work, so picked art. Example one of being an idiot. Being an artist is just as hard as everything else. Sometimes harder, because success is often intangible. Getting people to buy your product is a luxury. Turning your art into a business is just plain-ole business. Moral of the story: coasting is only for socialites and hobos... and I bet both of those are still pretty logistically taxing so NEW MORAL: Life is work. If you're staying alive, you're beating the odds. You deserve a beer.
I graduated college with a BFA in Graphic Design and a heavy focus on Textile Design. I realized that my will to work was actually much stronger than I anticipated, and I finished my senior year along with three freelance jobs around Athens. I liked working more than school because working made sense. Working was about getting stuff done, and I appreciated that. Anything that crossed a line off a to-do list was worth it to me.
Most of those to-do's were variously creative:
1. Make a cake for Whitney's birthday
2. Finish the slides for Sunday's church service
3. Get those fliers printed for the painting exhibition
4. Photoshop all the double chins out of the dance team's poster
5. Take one more roll of film for photography class
6. Draw a floral pattern to screen print for Tuesday's critique
7. Try to re-finish those side tables you bought at Goodwill
8. Help Anna hem her skirts because she's so freaking short
9. Finish glazing pottery for everyone's (cheap, handmade) Christmas presents
After college, I got married (longer version of that story reserved for later). Getting married to a baseball player meant that a summer of portfolio-editing and job interviews were now null and void. He would make me move in six months and whatever job I landed, I'd have to quit.
So, I kept making stuff for other people. I had to get paid (because baby baseball players sure don't) so I would make whatever you wanted me to. If you asked me to make something I didn't know how to make, I'd learn. Remember - I was the girl who found a way to make A's in every subject. That's less about intelligence and more about stubbornness.
As I made more things for more people, I got a lot of job descriptions. I was a seamstress, a stationer, a chef, a photographer, a coordinator, an event planner, a florist, a construction worker, a saleswoman, a graphic designer, a project manager, a lawyer, a stylist, a creative director, an advertising manager, a personal shopper, a curator, a therapist, a mediator, a tastemaker, a blogger, a web developer, a strategist, a jet-setter, a janitor and a courier. Let's not forget I was also a "humble and devoted wife, avid supporter of my husband's fabulous road to the baseball hall of fame." Can't forget that one.
Out of stubbornness and poverty (I have found that making less than 10K in a year in America qualifies you to use the word poverty), I refused to let any of my jobs go. I always asked myself "CAN YOU DO THIS!?" But never - should you do this?
Again, I'll reserve the long story of taking on sixty jobs at once and get to the point. Nobody can sustain that lifestyle. And when you're doing that many jobs, it's probably because you were willing to do them all for cheaper than anyone else. Did I screw up my projects? No. I felt too much responsibility to ever really blow it. Was I mastering my craft? Devoting myself to my talents, pouring into others and excelling in my industry? HAHAHAHA hell no. I was paralyzed by demands, stretched too thin to dream bigger, and I hated every second of it.
Eventually I had to quit it all. I stopped working completely for six months (after three years of the other stuff) and decided to think hard about what kind of work called me to action. I had a lot of jobs that I "powered through," but very few things that I did proactively with curiosity and energy.
I liked working with my hands more than working on a computer.
I had no interest in learning HTML, CSS, UI or UX.
I hate iPhones.
I am an introvert.
My favorite people were grumpy old dudes who worked tirelessly on the same kinds of projects they had been for thirty years (specifically, printmakers and minor league baseball managers).
I wanted to envision myself doing something for a long time - sustainability.
I needed something that created enough margin to serve the other demands of my life: travel, baseball, marriage. I needed to be able to take days off.
I had a knack for lettering, and in my spare time I'd research, practice, and experiment.
Side note: if you like something enough to RESEARCH it and PRACTICE it - you're getting warmer.
So I decided to take lots of classes, build a new portfolio of letterpress work, and launch an online shop that would facilitate getting orders without having to be physically present in meetings. All the notes for the orders would be right there in an email confirmation and I wouldn't have to worry about lost notebooks or checks being mailed to old addresses. I could set clear expectations and build in enough time to produce a quality product.
I picked the job that allowed me to set boundaries, define my process, create margin and deliver well.
This might have been a lot of words for a very little lesson, but that was the one I learned. If you're a creative person who can't seem to narrow down your specialty, really set those four qualities on the table and see how your skills match up. Just because you can do something doesn't mean it fits into that framework. For me specifically, that was florals. The demands of being a florist creeped into my margin, required a lot of face time and my lack of pure vision for it kept me from delivering something truly unique. I could do it, but it didn't have to be my job. Now that it's not my job, I can partner with other florists (sans competition) to COLLABORATE and make each of our specialties into something even more special. Is that making sense?
Think about what sets you into motion. Not what people ask you to do, or how you assume you'll rake the most cash. Think about what you can grow and evolve and develop and mold into something so uniquely YOU.
Think about what gets you out of bed in the morning, but is also manageable enough to let you crawl back in at 10pm. Rock that rhyme. Keep rocking it until you find your rhythm and it's all on time.