About a month ago I had the pleasure of speaking with Meighan O’Toole for her podcast, What’s Your Story. We spoke quite a lot about feeling like a freak for any number of reasons, often in the context of various experiences I had with jobs, including those related to CrochetMe.com and Interweave Crochet. And obviously, we talked about the book. And for the first (only) time in my life, Meighan quoted me to me, which was both unsettling and lovely. Have a listen, eh? If you enjoy it, give it a heart over on SoundCloud or a rating on iTunes – those make Meighan super happy, as they should.
Oh, one more thing about the podcast. We talked about how problematic I find it when people attribute their successes to luck, and we briefly – too briefly – touch on the topic of privilege. Privilege is certainly a factor of luck, and it’s an important thing to consider when assessing one’s particular circumstances. I’ve become quite comfortable taking credit for my successes while also acknowledging the factors I have no control over, but I also experience all things in my life through the prism of some pretty undeniable privilege. I’m a straight white woman from a middle-class background who lives in a country with guaranteed healthcare. Each of these factors – and countless others, to be sure – contributes to the kinds of opportunities I’m presented with and to my ability to seize them. It’s important to think about this, because when I say things like, don’t attribute your successes to luck – you’ve earned them, I say it knowing that some people really do have more luck than others; more importantly, some people have considerably less luck.
Since I’m consumed by the book this week, I asked on Twitter if anyone wanted to guest blog about fear and creative demons. Look for some wise, thought-provoking posts from some very smart people over the coming days.
First up is Kate Atherley, whom I met in person at Knit City last fall. She might be the one person on the planet who has a chance of convincing me to knit socks. Kate is an experienced knitter, but a crocheter and cross-stitcher with plenty of suck. (And that one time she tried to sew a dress? Fantastically awful.) A refugee from the technology industry, she’s using her university degree in mathematics much more in her second career as a knitting designer and technical editor. You can find her at www.kateatherley.com, and on Twitter and Ravelry as wisehilda.
Wipeout – Lennox Head Surfers – 7 Mile Beach by neeravbhatt, on Flickr (cc-nc-sa licensed)
I teach knitting, to adults. After ten years of doing this, I can say with utter certainty that adults are terrible students.
As adults, we forget how to learn. We forget that you have to be bad at something before you can be good at it.
Kids are learning every minute of every day, and they understand the process: you try something, it doesn’t work out, so you try it again. There’s no fear of failure. There’s no judgement.
Adults are always judging themselves. As a knitting teacher, I see this every week. “But mine doesn’t look like yours.” I would hope not! I’ve been knitting seriously for over 20 years, and teaching knitting for 10. If your work looked like mine on first try, you’d be putting me out of business.
Many adults, upon experiencing that first failure, shut down. “Oh, I can’t do it.” “This is too hard.” “I’ll never be as good as you.” “I’m just not talented at this sort of thing.” “My mother said I’d never be able to do it.” Trust me, I’ve heard it all.
Adults judge their work against an impossible standard: mine. It’s not that I’m some sort of world-beating master at this stuff. It’s just that I’ve been practicing for a while. More than ten minutes, anyway.
Adults believe failure to be bad. And so they don’t put themselves in a position to fail. And this totally shuts down the learning process. How can you get good if you can’t first be bad at something?
If you don’t fail, you won’t know what you are good at. If you don’t fail, you won’t learn anything. If you don’t fail, you won’t get the pleasure of improving.
Embrace the suck, I say. Be proud to fail!
— My own experience teaching crochet and hearing these things Kate describes was a major contributor to the birth of Mighty Ugly. I avoid teaching crochet because it stresses me out to combat this inclination we adults have to give up and put ourselves down, but in the context of Mighty Ugly, I love combatting these same inclinations. Odd how that works out, eh?
Watch for his description of research by psychologist Albert Bandura, about how people’s overall confidence increases when they conquer a clinical phobia. This line of reasoning is exactly what underlies Mighty Ugly – to conquer the fear (or, more generally in the case of MU, to work through the uncomfortable aspects of creating) allows us to, as Kelley explains, try harder, persevere longer, and be more resilient in the face of failure.
I often bully myself into drawing a very bold line between personal and professional obligations – prioritizing completing the professional ones before I attend to the personal ones. This NEVER works, but I do it anyway. But then I’ll get to a breaking point, and in the middle of crazy stressful deadlines, I’ll go shopping and take myself out to lunch. And then I get all my work done. You’d think I’d learn…
Most of the time, I don’t have much trouble striking a balance between my professional and personal obligations. Most of the time.
Most of the time, I’m fair to myself. Most of the time, the bold lines I draw help me focus on whatever I’m doing at that moment. When I relieve the babysitter at 4:30, my work is done for the day (or it’s done at least until later in the evening). I’ve always done my best to keep work out of my weekends. And when I’m working to a deadline, my work time is sacrosanct. I often refuse to answer the phone (even more than usual, anyway). I don’t make as many social plans so I can conserve my energy for the intense work. I allow myself to cancel non-essential plans.
But sometimes? Sometimes I’m an absolute prick to myself.
In the “interest” of my lengthy work to-do list, I put off haircuts, relaxation, social plans, time to daydream and doodle and otherwise keep my creativity fueled. I’m an utter asshole to myself about it, too. The voice in my head is unrelenting in its harshness as it tells me how uncommitted I must be to want or need those other things, about how weak I am to find it difficult to balance all the factors of my life when one variable is taking up too much room and weight.
But you know? When I punch that fucking bully in the face, I end up feeling far more capable. Every. Time. Every time.
I hadn’t seen it (it was, I just noticed, only posted yesterday), but I just watched it, and I urge you to set aside fourteen minutes of uninterruptible time to watch it, too. Because she says things like this:
“When we really see each other, we want to help each other.”
She hits on points I only had the awareness to skirt around in my last post.
That it’s not shameful to ask. That to look another human being in the eye and accept their money for your creations is not only intimate and difficult, but fair.
It’s the fairness of it that struck me as the most profound thing she spoke about. It takes a tremendous amount of confidence to accept that another person finds your work valuable. It takes the gumption to flout the expectation so many of us were raised with that humility is more desirable an expression than graceful acceptance of gratitude.
In my own mind, I know that what I write is valuable. But right there, I was inclined to say, “even if it’s only valuable to me.” It is valuable to me, but to say that right now in this context is to peddle some serious false humility, because I also know that it’s valuable to other people. Not to everyone, but to some people. I know this because people tell me. And I know this because I do have the confidence to see the value of my work. I have the confidence to assume that for every one person who tells me they’ve benefited from something I’ve written or created or championed, there are a few others who say nothing.
When someone tells me I’ve touched them or pushed them or challenged them or entertained them, I need to do a much better job of saying, “Thank you. Please tell me more about where you’re coming from.” I need to stop what I’m doing and take a good look at this person who is taking a moment to share their gratitude, and I need not only to accept that gratitude, but to really see them. And if or when they take a workshop from me, or attend a talk I give, or buy my book, I need to know that the money I receive from them is a fair exchange for what they receive from me.
Thank you, Amanda Palmer, for clarifying what’s at the heart of making a living creatively.