On Tuesday, I spoke to a group of women at The CoLab Workshop who were in the very, very early stages of working to start a creative business. (The workshop was a collaboration by Emily Takes Photos, Hart & Sol West, and Jonas Seaman.) I talked a lot about the intersection of art and commerce (don’t let your art be overtaken by commerce, don’t let your common sense be overtaken by douchbaggery) though frankly, I probably should have just told everyone to read Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad, and have a nice long think, and left it at that. (Me = Overachiever.)
But the key part of my talk was about how hard it is to set up a creative business. Classy, right? “Welcome to my talk! Your lives are about to be really hard, if they are not already!” But you know what? I think that the truth sets us free. Or at least give us something to gulp out while we’re sobbing, “But! Meg! Did! Say! This! Would! Happen!” Which, whomever we’re sobbing to generally appreciates: “Yes, I’m sure whoever Meg is did say that dear, now have a tissue.” Besides, my real message was that creating a creative business would be hard but WORTH IT.
Also, my related message was that on top of things being hard, the serious downside to creative endeavors is that there are a crap-ton of people who simply won’t take you seriously. So, once you figure out who it is in your life that’s always trying to cut you down to size (“Oh, yes honey, I know you’re playing around with that blogging/wedding photography/painting little project of yours, but I was wondering when…”), they should be identified and then excluded from your immediate circle of creative confidence (because those voices get into your head). Plus, I pointed out that we build a circle of creative confidence by BEING creative confidence for others.
The amazing thing about The CoLab Workshop is that, while it was a brand new project with an intimate group of attendees, I could see that it was creating a circle of creative confidence and skill for the people in attendance. How do I know? Well, I have a friend who’s an illustrator (oh, nothing, she just designed the original APW header, and those happy and frazzled Meg-brides you see in the comment section), and I rather forcefully shoved her into attending the workshop (bossy Meg). By the end of the two days she was giving excellent advice to the 19-year-old super-talented young photographer who had flown in from Arkansas, and she was trading plans and favors with other attendees and teachers, and she was working on building a business (that stuff is like pure liquid joy for me to watch). Because anything that makes the hard part easier, and gets us past the dreaded first step, is great in my book.
But what I wanted to talk about today is the thing I didn’t have a chance to talk about at CoLab. I wanted to talk about what I’ve learned recently: Getting over The Hard Part than you’d think, and making real life changes involves even deeper digging than previously imagined.
In the course of moving and then unpacking my office over the past two weeks, I dug up a list of reasons why I wanted to work for myself, which I’d made as a reminder at my desk job in the month before I quit. (Interestingly enough I also made up a list of Risks and Fears about going full time on APW, none of which have come true. Not that it’s been easy, but the fears I had in advance never played out.) But back to the Reasons To Quit. My Reasons To Quit list was damn sensible. It included things like ability to set my own hours, ability to choose my work environment, ability to not be trapped at a desk all day if I don’t want to, and ability to stop working when there is nothing to do.
And here is where it gets interesting. I’ve now been working for myself for almost a year and a half (I know! I know!). And it’s taken me almost a year and a half meet the goals I set for myself before day one. When I first quit, regular (and excellent) commenter Class of 1980 (who, given that she graduated in my birth year is 18 years older than I am), told me to “Get a couch in your office.” She told me, “You’ll need naps, take them.” And guess what? I didn’t listen. “No, no! I said. That’s not how I work. I’m used to a really regular rigorous work schedule with no breaks, and I’m going to keep that up.”
Crazy pants. That’s me.
The thing is, I was used to a really regular rigorous work schedule that didn’t work for me. One that was destroying my soul. I’d worked in an investment bank (which, I’m not exactly knocking. In The CoLab Workshop someone asked me if I had business training and I said, “Yes, I worked at an investment bank and learned tons of business skills.” And also, “I buy a lot of For Dummies books.”) But I’d also worked in professional theatre. In Theatre I’d had far less rigorous hours, I’d gotten out of the office for meetings, I’d walked around the office barefoot a lot, and I’d spent a huge part of my professional life out seeing shows and drinking with friends discussing that art. All that (less the emotionally abusive bosses and low pay) really did work for me.
But, who am I kidding. When I set up work life for myself, who did I imitate? Obviously I imitated the bad-for-me investment bank, even though I knew that was exactly what I was escaping. And holy shit did I imitate the details. I mean, I would be anxious on Sunday nights, like clockwork. I would check my email way too often “to see if there was an emergency.” I most certainly did not take naps (or breaks). I worked crazy long hours. And worst of all? When I didn’t have something to do, or I just couldn’t focus on the work I had, I didn’t get up and walk away or go outside. Nope. I sat at the computer like I was trapped in a cubicle, mindlessly pushing buttons.
Recently, however, things have changed. And it’s been a little challenging trying to nail down what changed them. It wasn’t the book tour, interestingly enough. That shook up my life completely for a month, and (surprisingly) it mostly meant that I had to work non-stop. Plus, oddly, I’m still processing that experience. And it wasn’t coming home from the book tour and totally crashing at the same time I tried to catch up on a month’s worth of errands and work. Which means, then, that the change took place during the rather horrible period of gloom after that, where I felt almost entirely creatively blocked. The thing about that period is I was coming to terms with the fact that I had a more mature career. After years of rushing around trying to make APW happen, and then trying to get a book published, and then trying to learn how to write a book, and then touring to promote that book… suddenly I was left with a cohesive career to do with what I choose. I was writing and publishing online, I was speaking at events, and I had a lot of options on how to move forward that I had to figure out.
Of course, instead of taking this period to celebrate big accomplishments, the brain did what it is so wont to do: FREAKED OUT! ASKED A LOT OF QUESTIONS! QUESTIONED EVERYTHING! My internal monologue whirred along asking nasty little questions like, “Is this it?” and “Now that we’ve worked so hard to get it, do we even want it?” and “So we wrote a book. So what does that even mean now that it’s done?” Monster mind is very closely related to Gollum, possibly from not getting out into daylight enough.
But of course (though I would very much not like to live that period of gloom again) asking all of those questions was surprisingly good for the psyche because it allowed me the space to come up with answers. Besides, I spent that period alternating between angrily napping because I couldn’t cope and pondering what completely wasn’t working in my life, because I was smart enough to know that I had to get out of the gloom ASAP.
And what wasn’t working was the way I was working. I felt like I was punishing myself by not having an office and working at the kitchen table (where I had to clear everything away at the end of the day and had no whiteboard or files or anything). It wasn’t working to live in a place where I never saw the sun (hello Western San Francisco). It wasn’t working to be trapped in the house all day with no car. And also I needed nature. And less pressure to be trapped in front of the screen. And more naps.
So, as you now know, we moved. We moved to Oakland, where I have my own little office space, with files, and a white board… and lots of sun. And amazingly, my window overlooks the high branches of an oak tree, and I have to little squirrel co-workers, who run circles around the branches and squeak. Because of all that, I started getting up and walking away from the computer when things weren’t working (possibly because I could now go putter in the garden, or do laundry in the basement, or take a drive to a cafe). I stopped beating myself up about working an exact 9-5. Yesterday, for example, I got in an hour or more work before nine, then drove to the gym and swam laps for an hour, and then came home and kept working… WITH NO GUILT. And most of all, I started taking non-angry naps. Because you know what? Better off working a little later, after getting a bit of rest.
But really, I’m writing this post mostly for its non-entrepreneurship lessons. I’m writing this post because I think that so frequently, when we try to change, we re-create the very worst elements of our past. We leave the bad boyfriend, but we repeat all of his crappy commentary of us in our heads. We change jobs, but we take the bad habits with us. We move, but we don’t let go of the stuff that just was not working. We change, but we don’t let ourselves really change. Because real change is hard. Real change is forcing a paradigm shift on ourselves, rooting around deep inside to dig out the parts we really don’t like and get them out of there. Real change is believing. And the weird part is that it’s not just believing in what we’re capable of doing; it’s believing in what we’ve already done and in what skills we have in us right now.
Remember how I said I hadn’t really processed the book tour? Well, I came across this picture a few days ago, and I looked at it totally stunned. What? That was the crowd that came to hear me speak? I did that? WHAT DID THAT EVEN MEAN? And then I came up with a goal list I’d written up for Camp Mighty last year and saw that “Be interviewed on NPR” was on it. And after staring at it and blinking a few times, I realized I’d done that too. And I basically couldn’t believe it.
So to change, really change, we have to believe in the power of who we already are. And that shit is hard. So get cracking CoLab ladies. And the rest of you too. You’re already exactly who you need to be. Now you just need to believe it. (And dig around and force that change to happen, even in the midst of the gloom.)
** Note: If you’re interested in hearing more about The CoLab Workshop going forward, sign up for their newsletter here! (Highly recommended). Rumor has it they are considering New York City for their next event.**
Photo: Crazy amazing Instax of me taken by Jonas Seaman (APW Sponsor), at CoLab. He took it after I said I could never get Instax to look like anything but terrible. Proof of artistry right there.