NEW JOURNEY: The Seventh Step

I learn that trying to be perfect limits your options.

Another quick thought to share with you today.

I read a comment that Quinn McDonald (of Quinn Creative) left on my last post about my hospice training experience.

(And btw, let me thank all of you who took the time to write such thoughtful, beautiful, powerful words of support to that post. Each of you, and your words, are a gift to me.)

I had a coaching session with Quinn a few months before I began hospice training. She said several very valuable things to me, thoughts that helped me stay centered and calm.

The most pragmatic were her observations on perfectionism.

When she asked if I were a perfectionist, I answered, “Yes!” I’ve worked hard at everything I’ve undertaken with my art biz. I’ve always tried to come up with the best solutions for everything. When I teach, I try to create the perfect workshop experience. When I speak, I work hard to say exactly what I want to say to an audience. When I write, I cull and edit and re-edit to make sure everything flows logically. It drives me nuts to find a spelling error after I publish a piece.

I know that is perfectionism exhausting. I recognize it eventually produces diminishing returns for our efforts.

Quinn pointed out another drawback:

“When you are a perfectionist,” she said, “then you are full of knowing. And when you are full of knowing, nothing new can come in.”

Nothing new can come in….

I had to really think about that one. If I am to learn as much as I can from this experience, I have to be open to what is there.

And what I’m learning so far is that there is no need to excel in the class. There’s no need for intellectual brilliance, or to even ask great questions. There’s no need for extreme competence or great listening skills or excellent communication skills. This is not the place for perfect anything. The skills I’ve relied on all my life do not serve me.

In fact, as our training leader says over and over, every class, it’s not about “doing” at all.

It’s about “being.”

Being present. Being there.

We can help by simply offering the gift of ourselves.

This is new territory for me. But what an odd place to end up, this year. Somewhere where nothing is asked of me, except to have an open heart. In a way, it feels a lot like yoga….

I feel like I am learning to simply listen. And breathe. Perhaps hold a hand.

And be.

P.S. I edited this little article about two dozen times. Until it was almost perfect. Obviously, I am still imperfect at being imperfect.

additional P.S. The implications for my art–and my life–are not lost on me, either.

NEW JOURNEY: The First Step

Letting go of one stage of life in art, moving on to the next.

WARNING: The following is my personal experience and thoughts on this particular juncture in my life.

I do not cast judgment or aspersions on anyone else’s decisions and goals. It is simply one person’s thoughts (mine) on what I’m going to do next, and a discussion on how I’m getting there.

Time to share some of the reasons I checked in with artist/writer/life coach Quinn McDonald last week, and some of the insights I’ve had since then.

I’ve been feeling like a failure.

Or rather, I’ve now achieved all the goals I set for myself fifteen years ago, for better or worse, and I can’t find new ones.

Some were great: Getting juried into the prestigious League of New Hampshire Craftsmen. Getting juried into the equally elusive Buyers Market of American Craft winter wholesale show. Getting juried into one of the country’s top retail show, the ACC-Baltimore show.

I’ve been featured in national magazines. Interviewed on TV–twice! Wrote a book. Wrote articles, even a regular column, for magazines.

I’ve been a guest lecturer for the Arts Business Institute. Given speeches at an international crafts symposium, various state and regional artist groups.

I’ve sold wall hangings for $5,000, an outrageous goal when people were balking at paying $50. I’ve had my work exhibited alongside some of my art heroes. I was selected for juried exhibitions in dozens of other states. I’ve won awards.

I’ve learned how to apply for public art proposals, how to create an exhibition proposal and how to pitch an article idea to a magazine editor. I’ve learned how to promote myself as an artist and writer.

In the process I’ve met wonderful people, made new friends, traveled across the country, and enriched my relationship with my now-adult daughter (who was three when I started all this!)

Some goals proved hollow or too elusive, and I’ve set those aside for now.

But I can’t think of any new goals. I have no idea what’s next.

Not knowing feels like failure.

Last fall I came across this incredible article on failure in the October 2008 issue of soon-to-be-defunct ODE magazine. Writer Marisa Taylor explores why failure is not just critical, but crucial to our development.

I know something is changing in me. But “giving in” to it was terrifying.

What if this “next step” means walking away from my art? What if it means not being very good at something?

What if it means going deeper into my art, and I’ve already used all my talent? What if I can’t sell it? What if I can sell it, but I don’t know how? Or don’t want to??

I realize I’ve fallen back into bad thinking habits. Thinking I have a finite talent for learning, focusing only on what I do well, whether I love to do it or not. Fear of looking stupid.

I realize lately I’ve taken more risks with my writing than with my art. How many people do you know would say it right here, “I’m afraid of looking stupid”…??

“The brain is a muscle,” says Taylor, “that grows stronger the more it’s used.” Failure, she says, creates even more synapses, more connections. Success and failure in the business world is about taking big risks–because only mediocrity lives in that middle ground.

And creativity is all about new connections. Like mediocrity, it never lives in that middle ground.

For me, selling my work gently but firmly led me to making creative decisions from my wallet, not my heart. Playing it safe, lowering my prices, focusing on work I thought would sell more easily.

Now, selling artwork is not a totally bad thing. It’s wonderful to have people love your work, it’s incredible when they tell you how beautiful it is.

When they buy it, it means they value your work enough to pay you for it. Their hard-earned money for your incredible work. One of my 15-year-old goals was to sell a wall hanging for $10,000. The day I sold one for $5,000 was a banner day.

But that thrill of selling is short-lived. Defining my success as “how much money I made at this show” or “how much money I made this year” made my world smaller and smaller. As the recession hit harder, and fear affected more and more of my customers, my sales took a walloping.

I kept saying I would not give in to that, but I did. As I look at all my decisions the last few years, I can see I’m still holding on to that lame definition of success.

It’s left me with an empty place in my heart.

My coach said it’s easy to see how I got there.

Just for simplicity, she suggested I temporarily replace “success” with the phrase “thrill of selling”.

Art shows are all about making money, from the producer to the show guide publisher, down to the booth holder and the parking lot attendant. Money is the coin of the realm here.

You sell your work or you don’t. You make “enough” money because enough people buy your work, or you don’t. If you are“successful”–selling your work for a lot of money–well, it gets harder and harder to raise the bar.

And if not….if you feel you have something–a pot, a quilt, a necklace–to offer the world and you’re “not successful”–it’s not being valued/bought, that’s painful.

The recession has made that worse. There’s been a sea change in our culture since 9/11. It’s a culture of fear. And it’s been exploited by many for a lot of different purposes.

So, said my coach, you’ve got something wrapped around your axle, so to speak. You are an artist–and money is not important. You are an artist–and money is important.

It is very, very hard to hold two opposing thoughts in your head at the same time. Which is where some of your discomfort is coming from.


Here’s the first question I was asked:

“What if money were not the coin of the realm?”

(Actually, the very first question was, “Are you a perfectionist?”, but we all knew that answer….)

So if I mentally/emotionally remove myself from that art show environment, what else is there?

Stay tuned…..


I’ve been doing a little coaching for close friends this year. They’re stuck at a crossroads in their life, or even at a dead end. They have no idea what to do next, or even what they want.

I do a “listening exercise” for them. I learned it from Deborah Kruger, and I’ve written about her workshops before here, here and here.

Here’s a trick I’ve learned. When people are really stuck about what they want to do with their lives, there’s a simple little question that helps unlock the log jam of “shoulda/woulda/coulda”.

“When you were in first grade,” I ask them, “what did you want to be when you grew up?”

Sometimes people swear they can’t remember. Or they laugh it off, because the answer seems so ridiculous.

I just poke at them harder til they come up with something. And they almost always get to a point where they pause, and think, and say, very slowly, “Well, this is really silly, but when I was really young, I really wanted to be a….”

Listen closely to the answer. Because it’s really important.

I’ve never met a kid, a very young kid, who didn’t have some dream of who and what they wanted to be when they grew up. It is the ultimate fantasy, the first dream.

And in it lies the seeds of what you could become today.

Look beneath the “title” of what you wanted to be, and think about why you wanted to do that.

We had those desires when we were young. But we don’t know enough about the world to interpret where those desires could fit in. So we look around and grab a name, an occupation that fits our desires.

Later, when we’re older, we remember the name of the thing. But we forget the feelings, the desires that brought us to that thing. That’s when it starts to seem silly, or unattainable. And that’s when we first let go of our dreams.

For example, lots of boys want to be firemen, or policemen. And obviously, not all of them become one. But that desire to protect and serve, coupled with action and physical activity, may still be part of their dream job. Or keeping people safe. Or solving crimes, or puzzles. Or gosh, maybe something as simple as wearing a uniform.

A desire to be a ballerina may mean you want to be in the limelight and wear fluffy tutus. But it could also mean that you were happiest when you were dancing. Or practicing your craft. Or performing it. Or simply moving. Or maybe it was interpreting the music. Or teaching the other kids a cool move. Maybe it was the pageantry, the costumes, the stage sets.

And it may be time to put some rigorous movement, or music, or coaching, or performance back in your life. (Or go buy a tutu, what the heck? Some dreams are cheap to fulfil.)

I think this exercise is insightful because our desires can be so pure and simple when we are so young. (I don’t mean “pure” in the altruistic sense, I mean in the the undiluted sense.) There is no fear or self-doubt overlaid, no real world sensibility intruding. No one is telling you at age five “You can’t be an artist, you’ll starve to death!”

The trick is to look underneath the job title and think about what intrigued you.

Did you want to make things? Maybe you want to be an artist or craftsperson. Did you love to hammer? A carpenter. Did you like to draw? Illustrator, architect, graphic designer. Break things? Demolition!

If you wanted to be a skater, maybe you wanted to skate. But maybe you just wanted to go fast. Or be outdoors. Or you wanted to feel everything about winter, including a cold crisp wind on your face.

Whatever made your heart sing, try to figure out how to go there again, even for a little while. It may not be your dream job, but it’s a thread you can pick up and follow there.

Me? What did I want to be when I grew up?

An artist, of course! Interestingly, I drew a lot, and I don’t like to draw now. But…I never drew anything I could see. I didn’t want to draw landscapes or houses, for example. I was always drawing imagined images. Especially…animals. I absolutely loved drawing animals. Especially…horses. I yearned for more animals in my life, too, especially horses.

I also collected things. Anything. Pretty stones, shells, bits of interesting lichen. Ribbons, scraps pretty wrapping paper, pictures cut from magazines. My mother called it “trash”, but it was all treasure to me.

Later, when I had money, I loved scrounging thrift shops and junk stores. My favorite thing to do, hands down, is to browse through a really good antique store/second hand store. (The affordable ones, not the pricey ones!) I love finding odd little treasures, especially the things most people overlook–carpenter’s folding wooden measures, bits of funky jewelry, rusty metal things, game pieces. (I treasure the measuring tape that was wrapped around a steer, with calculations to estimate its weight.)

I loved archeology and fossils. I think I loved the notion of finding something really cool and old, and digging it up. And imagining what life was like when that particular thing was around. My favorite scene in the book Little House on the Prairie is when the girls visit an abandoned Indian campground and find all those glass beads. (Trade beads!!)

You’d think when the current collage/assemblage phase burgeoned, I’d be a happy collage artist. But I’m not. I can’t bear to cut up any of my treasures. Instead, I love arranging them into endless vignettes. And I’m very good at that, too.

Animals…artifacts…ancient treasures…vignettes. Oh, did I mention I wanted to be a writer, too?

Who knew that fifty years ago, the artist I am today was already awake and thriving in that five-year-old’s heart?!

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