I thought I wanted to be an artist.
I was, perhaps 6 or 7 years old and I was passionate! I loved animals and Science and Science-Fiction. I loved drawing. I loved music, and I was already a budding entrepreneur…
I remember being asked, “What would you like to be when you grow up?”. I’m sure this was a well meaning statement from adults who were not sure how else to have conversations with kids. I really dislike what this question implies though. It seems to be based on the premise that children are not yet people, but that one day, they will have to decide to “be”… something. Kids are people. They are complete people. There is nothing missing from children. Innocence and naivete are traits that every human being carries with them, in varying brightness and in various hues throughout the spectrum of experience, from the first glimmer of a fresh spark, to the last light from dying embers. At the time, I was never overtly offended. I seemed to accept that I was indeed, not really a person yet, and it is an odd feeling of incompleteness that has stuck with me throughout the years.
One day, perhaps, I’ll finally grow up and figure out what it is that I want to be!
Back to what I loved…
Drawing was, I guess, my first art. I remember if I were to ever complain of being bored while riding in the car, my mother would dig around in her purse- a magical and intuitively off-limits bag that always seemed to draw out more contents than could possibly be contained within. Out of this small sack of enormous utility would come a seemingly limitless supply of paper pads, stencil notebooks, pencils, erasers, pens and even a pencil sharpener. If there wasn’t a sharpener, dad would always be able to sharpen my drawing pencils with his pocket knife. I was occupied, if not happy for hours on end as long as I had something to draw and some way to draw it.
A little later on, but not by much, I distinctly remember my first foray into the business world. I’m not exactly sure what I wanted the money for. I liked candy a lot. I also liked Star Wars action figures and dreamed of one day having a Millennium Falcon ship scaled to the size and skill level of my Hans Solo action figure. But regardless of why, I decided that earning some money was a pretty good idea, and I had a plan!
A few blocks over from the cul-de-sac that was my world, there was an off-world place that was simply referred to as “The Butte”. I was free to roam the dead-end street without much consideration. Hans and I could walk two houses over and command epic battles with the neighbor kid in the sand dune of a “backyard” that was the common replacement for actual grass in the desert town of Hermiston. But The Butte? No- I had to ask permission and always have a companion (besides Hans) to go up to The Butte. The Butte was dangerous. There were snakes and sharp rocks and cliffs that seemed to dizzy your brain and beckon you to jump to your death when you approached the edge to look over. There was even a radio tower that we swore was sending and receiving critical top-secret plans, and it would surely electrocute anyone who came within ten steps of it. The Butte really was dangerous- just the place a boy wants to be! And as it turns out, the sharp rocks were beautiful! Iridescent glass gems that were somehow transparent and deep opaque black space, all at the same time, laying out for everyone to see! How could something so beautiful and obviously valuable just be laying there for the taking?
Well, I thought the obsidian was pretty cool, and who could resist buying it by the truck -or red wagon- load? My buddy and I loaded up and took it back to my house where we labored in the dry heat. We washed and polished the glass until it reflected our enthusiasm. And with that- we were in business! We lugged the wagon around the world, which took at least half the day. We rang doorbells and knocked on doors and we were excited to share our merchandise!
Unbelievably, we did not sell out of our initial inventory. But, we did sell some! The highlight was the dentists’ house a few doors down. I don’t think he was a dentist, I think his name was Dennis but I was 6 at the time and I’ve still not got that one sorted out in my head. One thing I did know about him, is that he had two tall, beautiful, slender, blonde girls that lived there and they always smiled at me. And they bought some rocks too! That made me feel big.
I guess I really never decided back then that I would be an entrepreneur, I just never considered ever having a job! Some might say I have business in my blood, but I really think we all do. It seems to me that the only reason we make plans to submit our livelihood to another person is that we are taught to. I think we all start out in a natural state of thinking and acting independently, but as one monkey observes another using a handy tool, we see that it’s an easier way to crack that nut, and socially acceptable to plug ourselves into an existing system. Maybe the happy accident of selling some rocks to the pretty neighbor girls was the positive feedback that this monkey needed to pursue a life of independence.
Regardless of why, I have always had some sort of need to fend for myself.
Do what you love…
A few years later I began to receive accolades for my art. At the time, my mother was a struggling, but respected artist and my dad was a private building contractor. I was encouraged from all sides to pursue my passions, and that the key to success was to do for a living, what I wanted to do for life. My friends, teachers and my parent’s friends all encouraged me to continue to draw, write music and act. I had become somewhat of an acting celebrity in my home town of 600 people! My acting career never spread beyond the “Welcome To Joseph” sign, but I had a plan for making mountains of money from my drawings.
I had sold a few drawings and had been commissioned to do some small graphic-art. I even made a few dollars painting cartoons on the inside of storefront windows. So I figured it was a no-brainer: I would call my company Custom-Cartoons. I offered businesses window painting services and graphic design, I would start a syndicated cartoon strip and put together a line of letter-writing stationery. The biggest investment by far was the stationery line, which I did launch, and out of over 500 stores that I contacted (from Joseph Oregon to Boise Idaho), I was able to sell to 2- and one of those was the art supply store my mother worked for.
I consider Custom-Cartoons a success, because after a year of working on it and investing a couple thousand dollars I was able to break-even and quit. My dad still has an inventory of stationery if you are interested.
But if I had break-even financials and inventory left to sell, why did I quit? It would be cool to say it was because I had such amazing forethought to see that e-mail and ink-jet printers were going to retire the stationery industry to the dusty relics of history. A few short years later, nobody would be writing letters any more and if they did want to- for novelty’s sake- they would be using clip art on their fancy new home printers! In reality, I was clueless. I didn’t see that coming at all.
I quit because I was becoming successful.
Let me explain, because this is where this entire history-of-me lesson has been leading up to.
The idea of pursuing your passions and making money from them is supposed to be some pass-key to nirvana. Instead, it simply took the passion out of me. I was doing some serious pencil art at the time, not just cartoons, but since I quit on that business, I have hardly drawn at all in nearly 20 years.
Now let me clear- I have no moral qualms about making money. In fact, the making money part was always great! I was excited when I could create something, and have someone appreciate it enough to buy it. I enjoyed the creative process. I beamed at the recognition. I was energized when I made money. So what the hell’s the problem?
Other people demanding things of me is the problem. I found that, for me, the fastest way to snuff out the flame of creativity is for someone to demand that I light it.
I have the maturity to take criticism. I like to help other people. I can be accountable to the requirements of a job. I’m not perfect nor am I perfectly accountable, but I can get the job done. It’s not so much that I can’t function as a person when I’m working for someone else, but there is something about it that completely smothers my ability to be creative. Forcing myself to be creative sucks the joy out of my art. If I can’t enjoy being creative, how can I be creative at all?
I’m pretty sure this is not the case for many artists. I have been on-set to watch the filming of several major TV shows and movies and I’ve seen these creative people working 12 hour days and longer to meet a deadline. I know professional writers that have to meet demands of both content and time-frames. I’ve seen artists that can create beautiful works that are commissioned and dictated. Professional artists from all walks do this. Surely they have figured out how to retain the joy of their art? How can they create under the demands of someone else? More important for me; why can’t I?
Maybe the secret is here in this article and in the advice I’ve heard many times from my friend J.D. Roth. I began writing this article out of frustration. I’ve been under an enormous weight of stress lately and it’s made me resistant to create content or artwork for LiveAllYourLife- even though I really want to get it done. J.D. says to write every day- even if it’s only an outline or taking notes. Of course he’s right. He’s a pro. As soon as I started writing this, I began to feel the creative juices flowing.
I’m curious though… Do you have any resistance to external demands like I have described? What have you discovered that works for you to stay creative and productive even under stress and demands? I would love to know!