Meg on Art & Commerce

With this week’s post from me on entrepreneurship, it seemed like a perfect time to bring you a video that Rory Gordon Photo shot of me two months ago for her documentary project around the idea of making something from nothing. As we got to talking, I started discussing the idea of making something from something. There is a lot of pressure for women entrepreneurs to act like we just stumbled into a business, when in fact, that’s often not the case. I wanted to talk about going to art school, working professionally in theatre, getting business training at an investment bank, and then finding a way to apply those skills to my own business. I didn’t want to pretend that APW was all some sort of glorious accident.

The funny thing about this video is that I use the word “Art.” Art is a word that art school more or less took away from me (because, well, have you been to art school? Yeah…) I think of it as only applying to, well, the kind of high-brow work I don’t make, and usually squinch up my face when I use it. I normally apply the more colloquial “making stuff” to things that I do. But here I am, talking about the intersection of art and commerce, and maybe reclaiming the word for myself (a little).

And finally. If you’re into this sort of thing, I was on CBS Radio earlier this week on a show called Career Coach Caroline, talking about, basically, being desperately confused and sad about my career for years, and then finally finding my way here. About how talent (blessedly? frustratingly?) matters, and we have to do the work to figure out what we’re good at, even if it’s completely not what we planned to be good at. And also, how sometimes really prestigious universities forget to teach us how to use Excel. Whoopsy. You can listen here.


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  • Rosie

    I really agree with Meg here about how women entrepreneurs are supposed to have a created their businesses by luck, from a hobby. The honesty about how APW works and is run is a large part of what attracts me to it; as Meg says, being paid for your art isn’t a bad thing, in fact it allows you to focus on what you’re doing and to do it better. Recognising the hard work, planning and skills that go into creating a business gives women entrepreneurs the recognition they deserve.

    • Marisa-Andrea

      I think Meg’s candor about the work that goes into APW is also really important because I do think a lot of people generally dont really know what bloggers do (besides write blogs) and the effort it takes to get what you’re writing out there to a wide audience. And at least from the people I’ve talked to about it who write professionally in this medium, there does seem to be a general belief that you didn’t work hard to get to where you are, things just fell into place that way. I think it is important for women to know back stories like these.

  • “There is a lot of pressure for women entrepreneurs to act like we just stumbled into a business”

    YES. Business, careers in general, yes.

    I feel like this coincides really well with a video on self confidence I watched earlier today here:

    I think both in business and in life there’s this enourmous pressure on women to demur, to say “Oh, no, I just got lucky” or “Oh, no, I’m not that good at X or Y or Z, aw shucks” — it’s the same pressure I feel to SMILE at people all the time, people on the street, and no male friends of mine have ever shared feeling that sort of social pressure to be sweet and smiley and so humble and ‘Oh, talents, moi?! Nawwwww.’ (Not that there’s anything WRONG with being humble and smiling to strangers — it’s the *pressure to do so* that I find grating at times.)

    • meg

      I also don’t think not lying about how we just “stumbled into something by luck,” precludes a reasonable about of humbleness. Hopefully you can be proud of what you do and still not run by your ego. (I spent a looottttt of time in entertainment around people that were totally ego driven, and that is not something I’m interested in.)

      • Definitely. It’s about finding a balance. :)

      • There is a HUGE difference between confidence and ego.

        If all the lessons, thus far, of my twenties had to be distilled into one point, it would be: KNOW WHAT MAKES YOU AWESOME, AND DON’T FEEL BAD ADMITTING IT!

        I’ve found in art school and in the entertainment/media industry that many people seem to have the two confused, and I’ve met so many women afraid to be CONFIDANT in their talents and skills for fear of being seen as egocentric. I’ve also met plenty of people who have NO IDEA what they’re talking about who are so comfortable selling themselves and their skills, and who have no issue stepping on everyone else on the way. THOSE people are egocentric, and those people are assholes.

        It’s only a lesson I’ve learned in the past few years, but the two attitudes (confident vs big ego) are SO different. No one gives you any rewards for false humility. People will say, “Oh, she’s so sweet!” And then they’ll hire/book/collaborate with an asshole (who may be less skilled than you are) who has no problem talking about how awesome they are.

        • meg

          Yes. To all of this. Or as my dad used to say, “No one is going to toot your horn for you, so you better learn how.”

          • Your dad sounds brilliant.

    • Ambi

      You see this ALL the time when it comes to women talking about their bodies – so many women act like they are just naturally thin and fit – it seems like no one wants to admit that they watch what they eat, work out, and put effort into it.

      • meg

        Well. I don’t know about that, actually. It may be my lack of body image issues (making me the worst person ever to talk about this) but my body is just my body. I was born with it. I take care of it reasonably well, but I’d be small regardless. That’s just genetics. That said, I don’t spend a lot of time talking about my body, so there you are.

        • Ambi

          As an example, think of the super-thin celebrities who insist that they eat whatever they want and maybe do yoga once a week, but you can tell by looking at them that they didn’t get six-pack abs and cut biceps without working for it. I personally think that can create unrealistic expectations and negative body image. I happen to have a lot of women like that in my own life, and it drives me crazy. I’m not saying you have to be a certain size or be all muscular or anything like that – but in my life a lot of women DO work very hard on their bodies, but feel ashamed, I guess, to admit it. So they act like it is all just accidental or natural. Yes, some women ARE naturally thin, so I guess I shouldn’t make blanket statements that imply that all thin and fit women are secretly doing push ups and crunches and hiding it, but . . . I just know too many women who devote a lot of time and energy to maintaining a certain body type, but they really downplay that fact.

          I know that there are definitely naturally thin women and women who do not “diet” but who just consistantly make good food choices. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about an entire culture of girls and women, at least in my social circle, who care a whole lot about maintaining a certain size and looking a certain way, but feel superior (I guess) if they can present it as if those things don’t matter to them and they aren’t really trying too hard.

          • Alexandra

            Some of us naturally thin types don’t even bother to make the right food choices… We just worry that if we say anything about how we spend our life in front of a computer, eating nachos, all these women who do spend a ton of time working out/eating right/ worrying about their weight will HATE US FOREVER.

            Or maybe that’s just me. But yeah, I’m just going to sit here and smile demurely about getting lucky, since in this case I really did.

          • Ambi

            Alexandra, first I apologize because clearly my comment was way too broad and I have since realized how negative it seemed towards thin women – that isn’t what I meant, and I’m sorry! No one has any right to judge you for being naturally thin any more than they would have any right to judge me for not being that way.

            Meg – sorry I even went down this path; I can see this possibly devolving into an undesirable argument about weight, and that is not at all what your post was about. You will not offend me one bit if you choose to remove it in order to keep the comments on a more pertinent topic. :)

          • Alexandra

            Thanks for the apology. I suppose my point, really, is just that there’s a lot of women who get very jealous and catty towards skinny women. Weight is a seriously touchy subject for a lot of women. So if they’re trying to downplay it, whether it’s completely natural or if they really worked hard at it, it’s highly possible it’s just because they’re scared of how someone else will react. Natural or not, someone will find a reason to be jealous, either that they aren’t working at all, or that they have the willpower to work at their body.

          • I think a lot of why women who put a lot of time and energy into maintaining a high level of fitness (I won’t say a certain body type because your body type is your body type regardless of how much you work out) is because they don’t want to be seen as obsessed with their appearance. Personally, I get really uncomfortable and don’t know what to say when people comment on how skinny I am. I usually just change the subject. I can’t decide which is worse, downplaying how I got where I am or outlining my whole fitness regimen….

        • Ambi

          I make comments like this and then, a few minutes later, realize that this could be 90% based on my own effed-up body image issues, so I guess take my comment with a grain of salt. I really DO think that mainstream culture presents an unrealistic body image for women, between airbrushing and celebrity moms who bounce back to their pre-baby weight mere weeks after the birth and celebrities and models who say in interviews that they never work out or watch what they eat . . . to me, all of it feeds into this idea that women are supposed to just naturally look a certain way. In my own life, that manifests in friends and family members who are very concerned about size and shape and who do put a lot of effort into their bodies, but who feel like somehow that is shameful because they should just naturally look thin and beautiful without trying.

          But now I feel bad, honestly, for being so negative and resentful of thin and fit women – I guess the flip side of my argument is that whatever a woman wants to do with her own body is none of our damn business. I see that too . . .

          • Lauren

            Ambi, I’m totally in agreement with you. I’m a reasonably thin (though not “skinny”) woman, but I’m also a marathon runner. There is no way I’m going to downplay how much work that is. “I just drink a lot of water and be sure to walk everywhere” drives me crazy when it comes out of celebrities’ mouths.

            I also have loads and loads of body image issues so take this comment or leave it :)

  • Ambi

    I can’t watch the video at work, but I really appreciate your introductory comments here, Meg. You definitely hit the nail on the head when you talk about how women, especially in creative fields I think, sometimes downplay the work/education/preparation/skill side of establishing a career, which leaves the impression that, if you have to work for it and fight to make it happen and push through roadblocks, maybe it isn’t right? Which is bullshit. But there isn’t a lot of mainstream narrative about fighting for your business even when things aren’t working. We get stories about how the lady who created Spanx had an epiphany one day and cut the feet off her pantyhose and *poof* she had a million-dollar business.

    I think that in some fields (like mine – practicing law) there is a lot more recognition of those other aspects of success – it is very common for a lawyer to be praised or respected not just for her litigation abilities, but for, say, the fact that she has an accounting background and has handled her firm’s finances beautifully or that she has put in countless hours in developing community connections that have ultimately brought in clients or that she is a workhorse when it comes to putting in extra hours and getting things done before a deadline. At least in my experience, in those kinds of fields, no one expects success to fall into your lap and we are, honestly, a bit suspect of people who seem to have just lucked out. Hard work, skill, experience, education . . . for better or worse, those things are very explicitly valued, measured, and compared.

    I’m rambling now, but this all kind of reminds me of when I went to college on a visual arts scholarship but started focusing on my pre-law studies – I found it REALLY difficult to switch back and forth between a creative artistic mindset and a more analytical almost business-like mindset. I remember talking to a lot of my fellow art students and professors who agreed that, sometimes, the practical and analytical side of your brain can get in the way of your creativity and inspiration. Maybe this is where some of the desire to downplay the business/technical side of creative businesses and emphasize the “glorious accident” of artistic inspiration comes from?

  • Ris

    Chiming in as a University of Chicago alum to offer a resounding YES. I graduated six years ago with lots of smarts and absolutely no marketable skills. I could, um, write an essay on the hetero-normative love plot but, ah, I didn’t understand Excel and I can’t synergize. It’s refreshing to hear that I’m not the only one with this experience, and I can’t wait to read the rest of the comments. Thank you for this.

  • Marisa-Andrea

    “There is a lot of pressure for women entrepreneurs to act like we just stumbled into a business, when in fact, that’s often not the case.”

    This. I feel that this is the case in a lot of scenarios where women are successful generally, which is something I’ve always found interesting. It takes hard work to be successful at anything and for some reason, we often downplay female success as though it was something accidental or as you said “luck.” I don’t believe luck has very much to do with success (though you might have a little bit to help you out). But I also think our culture breeds a fear of failure which is kind of crazy to me. And maybe it’s easier (and safer) to say “Well I’m just going to write and hey, if I publish, then that will be the icing on the cake” instead of saying “I want to publish so I am going to write and actively work to make this happen.” If anything, what your experience and launching APW tells me that if you keep working and keep trying to figure it out, eventually you are going to create or find a way to make it all work (not stumble upon) while learning some valuable lessons in the meantime.

    • meg

      We’ve discussed this before in comments, and I know not everyone agrees with me. BUT. In careers (as opposed to generally in life, where luck, or whatever you want to call it, probably plays a bigger role), I think it’s more about playing the cards your dealt as well as you can, and being ok with failing. AKA, lots of us have as much bad luck as good, and success usually is just about continuing to push through the bad luck or the failures (that have nothing to do with bad luck, just with our own mistakes).

      Which I always find empowering. I mean, I was dealt some great cards and some shitty cards, and if I’d thought it was luck I think I would have given up a long time ago. Hard work, and picking yourself up after you fall over, now that’s something I can work with.

      • Zoe

        Right. But I also think it’s important to acknowledge that, especially in this economy you can be talented and work hard and things STILL might not go your way. This isn’t to detract from Meg’s accomplishments. But you HAVE to acknowledge the role luck plays in professional life, because otherwise, why aren’t ALL the talented, hardworking people in their dream careers? Maybe some of them are, but I know MANY who aren’t. I’d also quibble with the idea that failures only have to do with mistakes, not luck. Honestly, I’ve read too many stories about people who started small businesses, were talented and successful, and then the economy crashed. I don’t think you can possibly call that their own mistake?

      • Kess

        I think this is really interesting as a kind of ‘locus of control’ issue. I am one of those people who truly believe that I just got lucky, because honestly, I did. I’ve got a very external locus of control.

        I think things have just been too easy for me at this point to really believe that anything I specifically did led to my success. Instead, I was born with a high IQ, my parents and siblings helped nurture that, I had good teachers, I was born into a middle class family, and I’ve never even had major conflicts to go through. I got offered scholarships without really trying and I’ve now got an offer for a full-time job at a prestigious company working in R&D. I didn’t really work hard for this. Heck, I’ve never really had to work hard in my life, so maybe that’s why I really do think it’s all luck.

  • Liz

    Listened to both – you sound terrific!

    Meg, my very favorite posts on APW are about entrepreneurship and your thoughts on women in business. Just sayin’, if you wanted to write more, I sure wouldn’t complain. :)

  • Diane

    Meg, it’s great to hear you talk about your deliberate intention to start a business with the site and really own that. I think one of the things that I struggle with is that while I’m good at taking advantage of opportunities as they come along, I think I often conceive of those things as “serendipitous” or “lucky” and the truth is that I also CHOSE to pursue those things. I also really struggle to take compliments, more of a relic of my upper midwestern family culture, I think, but that is posing a problem as I apply for fellowships and one of my letter-of-recommendation writers has asked me to draft the letter first and then send it to him. Anyone else have similar challenges? Or thoughts on working with (moving beyond?) that?

    • Hey fellow upper midwesterner! I feel your pain. I could have written this question verbatim 5 years ago! I worked really, really hard to differentiate myself from some of the ideals and expectations of my community (refused to speak with a heavy appalachian accent/use appalachian colloquialisms, studied art, did things like parliamentary procedure and speech and debate, moved to a big city, but somehow never got away from that inability to take a compliment that’s also a heavy party of that community.

      It’s hard. And I don’t necessarily have advice that doesn’t sound trite or overly simplified, because it is WAY easier said than done.

      One thing I found was I was very good at advocating on behalf of others. I interned all throughout college in production positions and was able to tell someone “I need x, and I need it yesterday,” and feel zero guilt. I was able to finagle my way into getting special treatment/freebies/whatever by dropping my various bosses’ names and citing some of their accomplishments in the industry. I just wasn’t good about advocating on my own behalf.

      When I decided to make a conscious effort to work on that, it was right around the time I was leaving college and in need of letters of recommendation. I started by listing all my accomplishments and giving myself a fake name. Then, I wrote letters of recommendation about the fictional person who had done those things, replacing it with my name when everything was finished.

      It wasn’t a perfect solution, and getting to the point where I could advocate for myself on a regular basis took much more time, a lot of setbacks, and a few major, game-changing career decisions, but it totally happened.

      • Diane

        Hey Sarah, thanks for your reply! I like the idea of writing about a hypothetical other and then just swapping in your own name at the end, I may have to give that a shot. The funny thing about this whole issue for me is that it’s not a lack of self-esteem or more generalized confidence, it’s very specific to being comfortable accepting compliments and of course that makes it so hard to write a whole letter bragging on myself. Advocating for other people? No problem. I’m even a comfortable public speaker and have been elected to leadership positions among my peers, so it makes very little sense in some ways. Perhaps it’s time for me to do a little therapy…

        • I think (for me at least) it’s something about a rural upbringing that tells you it’s uncouth to accept compliments. It had nothing to do with self esteem. It was almost like I didn’t want to make other people feel bad by confirming that I, too, thought I was accomplished. It’s so strange!

          Good luck on the letters and fellowships!

          • (By “good luck,” I obviously mean “rock your skills and talents hard core, and roll with the circumstances that arise!”)

  • Beth

    Meg, I found this video to be really empowering because it gave me hope that with hard work and time, I too can find my path and my passion. I think I did have a notion that you (and people who are successful in general) just “got lucky” somehow, or “fell into it.” But knowing that you put a ton of hard work and experience into what you do makes me feel like “hey, maybe if I work hard and keep pushing toward my goal, I can make it” instead of thinking “well, I sure hope I get lucky and fall into something I like doing.”

    • Yes! And then I see successful things like this and start feeling jealous. Like how come something awesome doesn’t drop into my lap?

  • Yes to this. Honestly. I appreciate your candor and really resonate with a lot of this. If you don’t set out for something to be a business and work your ass of for it to be profitable….it probably won’t be. And it might not be anyway, but then you’ve hopefully at least failed in the right direction (or at least that’s what I think). It’s SO important to get those bourbons (or gin & tonics) with “competitors” because we are ALL way stronger as allies. Thank you Meg!

    • Sarah

      I love when you pull the curtain back and tell us a bit about the behind-the-scenes advertising community. My favorite part of this video was your discussion about bourbons with competitors/collaborators.

  • What did I say? TALENT WILL OUT.

  • Meg, your comment about how women artists and entrepreneurs aren’t lucking out but are successful because of hard work gave me tingles, I love it!!!!

  • Thanks for speaking about the fact that starting a business and creating a successful one relies on a deliberate effort and that one of the main goals of having a business is making cash munny.

    I’m not the type to get a tatoo, but if I were I would get one on the inside of my upper arm that would read: ‘I’m hustlin’ every day’ because goodness knows I am, and I ain’t in this racket for my health.

    Don’t get me wrong: I love what I’m doing and working for myself is amazing in ways I couldn’t have anticipated which is often it’s own reward, but there was a lot of dreaming, scheming and number crunching that went into it before I quit my day job.

  • Anne

    I love this! I’m going to apply for the scholarship for my private practice!

    I think that when entrepreneurs (and many other professionals) get called lucky, we’re all missing the point. What some people might see as “luck” in my business was actually the outcome of thoughtfully considered “risks.” It’s not luck that I have a full business — I had to quit my safe, secure job; invest my family’s savings in the business; hustle; and put in the hours.

    I feel very fortunate (sometimes I say lucky) to have my business be in the place where it is today, but I had to take soooo many risks to get here.

    I think it’s really easy to look at someone who’s been successful and call them lucky (i.e. Meg). It’s harder to see all the risks, failures, and challenges that had to coalesce to create that success.

    Also, thank you for being so candid about why it’s important to earn a living!

  • It was a friend of mine that actually taught me how to answer the question ‘what do you do?’.That if you answer with confidence then people will believe it, if you ask someone this question and they answer ‘I’m kinda a dentist, part-time, but I’m just exploring it’ you would run a million miles. So when people ask me I answer ‘designer, I run my own craft business’, not boasting, but at the same time not playing it down either.

    This was really difficult to start doing, especially being Irish, as a nation we are naturally suspicious of confident people and like to keep people in their place. But after a while I got used to it, so other people did too.

    Since taking this little step loads of doors have opened for me. Everything in Ireland works through work of mouth, so by simply telling people what I did the word spread. I been featured in national newspapers, magazines, and even tv. I genuinely think it started when I changed my own attitude to what I do. Also leaving my part-time evil waitressing job was the best thing that ever happened, I had no idea I was living in a state of exhaustion for years.

    • Hmmm, you make me wonder if I got my habit of downplaying myself from my Irish mother! :)

  • Margaret M.

    I have gotten so much happier about my career by putting it in perspective. It is just not as important to me as other things in my life, and I am so much happier having come to that conclusion. I work because I need to make money to be an adult and support my life but I don’t need to find fulfillment or my passion in my work. In general, I look for a way to make money that won’t make me miserable (and I have a pretty specific list of criteria of jobs that don’t make me miserable), but I don’t worry if it’s the end all, be all of fulfillment.

    I realize this is not the path for everyone, but it’s working for me.

  • I couldn’t agree more with your last point – collaboration is such a big part of the creative world, and often you’re going to end up working alongside others who have complementary skillsets, and refer business to each other when projects aren’t right for you.

  • As a woman starting out in my own small publishing business, I love that you’re doing these entrepreneur posts now. I’m finding them very helpful and encouraging!

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