A couple of months ago, I watched Amanda Palmer give a TED talk on the art of asking. For those unfamiliar with Amanda Palmer, she’s a musician and singer – who began her career as a street artist called “The 8 Foot Bride”. Anyhoo… during this season as the 8-Foot-Bride (check out the TED talk for the full story of what that entailed), she says this:
“And I would get harassed sometimes. People would yell at me from their passing cars. “Get a job!” And I’d be, like, “This is my job.” But it hurt, because it made me fear that I was somehow doing something un-joblike and unfair, shameful”
Omigod. How very very… achingly… familiar I am with that feeling. The feeling that (cringe! cringe! cringe!)… that I could ever ASK for money for my art… seems, almost blasphemous!
Here, she talks about passing-the-hat after a show (with some of her musician friends):
“…but there was this one guy in the band who told me he just couldn’t bring himself to go out there. It felt too much like begging to stand there with the hat. And I recognized his fear of “Is this fair?” and “Get a job.”
And later, she says:
“And the media asked, “Amanda, how did you make all these people pay for music?” And the real answer is, I didn’t make them. I asked them. And through the very act of asking people, I’d connected with them, and when you connect with them, people want to help you. It’s kind of counterintuitive for a lot of artists. They don’t want to ask for things. But it’s not easy. It’s not easy to ask. And a lot of artists have a problem with this. Asking makes you vulnerable”
So… Amanda’s talk has provided me with a LOT of (very!) uncomfortable food-for-thought.
Because, yes! Asking IS counterintuitive! I definitely don’t want to ask for things. It feels… needy… it feels like I’m begging… it feels like I’m greedy. Mostly (and this is my personal issue)… it doesn’t feel like it’s a fair exchange.
I don’t doubt that I’m a Creative Creature – able to create a whole bunch of creative things. I don’t doubt my natural artistic ability. What I DO doubt… is the *worth* of my art. Does it have any value? Is it worth anything?
The irony is that… when I switch off from Hat-the-Artist mode… and I become Heather-the-Graphic-Designer or even Heather-the-Illustrator… it’s like a whole different set of values enters my head.
Heather-the-Graphic-Designer / Illustratior has (or – at least – HAD… until I shut the whole bloody lot down)…. a “Real Job”. And, back then, I didn’t mind charging clients for my “real-job-work” either. It was a fair exchange: a few hours of (my) boredom and misery in exchange for their money. I mean – isn’t that how the whole world works….(?) We accept money from our employers – and, in exchange, we obey their orders… sit at our desks for a designated amount of time per day… and do their bidding?
“Real Jobs” are not expected to be fun or fulfilling.
In fact, if they ARE fun and/or fulfilling… you’re probably doing something wrong (or thus goes the unspoken assumption… and especially if you’re from a certain kind of middle-class upbringing). You’re not supposed to (gasp!) ENJOY your work… your “Real Job”. Real Jobs are there for us to… endure… to suffer through so-that-we-can-pay-the-bills-at-the-end-of-the-month.
Real Jobs are necessary. They’re about responsibility… and respectability… and duty… and about NOT being a ‘taker’ or a lazy-arse-bum.
Consider this chapter written by John Holt:
A man writing, sympathetically, to a radical paper about life in small towns in Iowa, where in order to pay their debts, many full-time farmers have to do extra work in meat-packing plants – as he says, “shovelling lungs” – says, “The work ethic has been ground into these folks so thoroughly that they think anyone who doesn’t hold down – continually – a full-time painful job… is a bum”.
They don’t want their kids to be bums. Back To The Basics, for most of them, is code for “No-More-Fun-and-Games-in-School”. Most of them don’t care particularly about reading, as such. They read little themselves – like most Americans, they watch TV. What they want their child to learn is how to WORK. By that, they don’t mean to do good and skillful work they can be proud of. They don’t have that kind of work themselves and never expect to. They don’t even CALL that “work”. They want their children, when their time comes, to be able and willing to hold down full-time painful jobs of their own. The best way to get them ready to do this is to make school as much like a full-time painful job as possible.
Now – my post isn’t about education (even though education and schooling is in the context of the quote above)… it’s more about how I seem to have absorbed the same mentality mentioned in the paragraph above. I view somebody with a “good work ethic” as somebody who – well, let’s be honest – holds down a full-time, painful job!
Somebody like my Dad (even though he ran his own businesses – he was never in them for the enjoyment… or because he was passionate about the product or service he was creating. He was in it to make money…. to be a responsible-respectable-provider-for-his-family).
And he was – and still is – a dutiful, responsible, respectable, hard-working Provider-for-his-Family.
Dad worked… and worked… and worked some more. He spent long hours at the office. He’d come home late at night… exhausted and irritable. He’d eat his supper, watch TV and go straight to bed. As kids, my sister and I barely saw him. He was like a ghost. Either too busy – or too tired – to attend our school concerts or prize givings. Mom was the parent who raised us. Dad was the Working-Provider… mostly absent – and, as we would have defensively told you, “understandably so”.
And we all admired him… deeply… for his “incredible work-ethic”.
What an admirable thing: to work, work, work, work, work, work, work, work…. WORK (regardless of how unhappy, exhausted, unfulfilled or miserable one was)… (regardless of how little quality time spent with loved ones).
A Good-WORK-ethic easily trumped all of those things.
Even to this day – there are many people whom we admire (in my family and in Nick’s) who are all deemed to have “an incredible work ethic”.
We proudly refer to them as the family work-a-holics. And they make us proud… those work-a-holics.
They’re not bums. They’re not takers. They’re not lazy. They’re not selfish. They work-damn-hard!
I wonder why we never really give a thought as to whether their work makes them happy? Or whether they actually enjoy their work? Or whether they find any sense of value, meaning… or fulfilment… in the tasks that they perform…. day-in and day-out for the (majority) of their short, precious lives?
I mean – my God – it’s estimated that our “work” takes up about one third of our lives… isn’t it important… that we… I dunno… enjoy what we do?
Isn’t it important… that we do something meaningful… and valuable… with our time?
Isn’t it important to be… happy?
Is that SUCH an offensive aspiration?
“Duty before happiness!”… “Responsibility trumps meaning!”… “Routine and Respectability above passion… fulfilment… joy!” “House-and-Car above experiences and making-beautiful-memories”….
Isn’t that the world we live in?
I’m sure you’ve all heard of the Top 5 Regrets of the Dying… and the number one regret (especially amongst men) was that they deeply regretted working-so-hard (instead of spending time with their loved ones).
And – it seems to me – that I, too have bought into this mindset so deeply (even if on an unconscious level)… that even though I am now doing what I LOVE (instead of loathing my work… my job)… I still feel a deep sense of inner guilt. I still feel as though what I do now (see?! I can’t even manage to call it ‘my work’)… my art, my music, my offerings, my various projects… don’t have any REAL VALUE…. because they are not “Real Jobs”… they’re not “REAL work”… because they are not boring or painful or tedious…
And – because they are not boring, painful and tedious… they somehow are not… “valuable”… or worth anything. And certainly not, you know… worth… actual money…!
Do you hear what I’m saying?
I (in my role as “Heather the Graphic Designer”) held down a full-time, painful job for many years.
You may be wondering what a painful job looks like for a graphic designer / illustrator? Well – you could read part of that story here (regarding the endless deadlines, stress, brown-nosing the corporates and generally not having a life)… but mostly, it had to do with… in a sense… prostituting my creative gifts in exchange for money.
Very little of the work I did (during the years I ran my design business) was… in any way… personally fulfilling, meaningful, happy – or, for that matter, even creative!
It was about following instructions (given to me by the client). It was about adding ugly colours and dodgy fonts (because the client insisted upon it – and they were, after all, paying money for the work – so I’d better give them what they wanted). It was about creating mountains of marketing material that would promote products and services that I didn’t like… or believe in (and, in many cases, which I thought were shitty and dishonest)… again – all in exchange for money – which seemed fair enough. It seemed like a “fair” exchange.
A fair exchange: my “hard-work”… my hours of boredom and busy-work doing-exactly-what-the-client-wanted-me-to-do… in exchange for payment.
I never felt guilt about sending them a bill for my services back then. Money… for that kind of crappy-WORK… was deserved. Payment was “fair”.
I could spend many happy hours creating a piece of art… but do you think I could ask you for some MONEY for it?
God no! I enjoyed it too much! It was fun… it was hours happily spent… but it wasn’t work….
… and thus… it’s not REAL…
and thus it has no value.
See? Told you I was screwed up! 😉
As a side note: The Oatmeal (a guy called Matt – who used to design-for-clients and now creates hilarious comics instead) perfectly illustrated the typical Graphic-Designer’s experience in a comic that almost had me wetting my pants with gleeful laugher. If you’ve never understood the painful process of graphic design… just click here! (tee-the-hee-hee!)