2017, art, tradeoffs, wants vs needs, writing

How I Let My Ego Steal My Craft—And Why I’m Stealing it Back

“Let yourself be gutted. Let it open you. Start there.” – Cheryl Strayed

Until my brother was born, I was the only child and grandchild in my family, which came with an abundance of attention and adoration. I was three when he came along, and immediately found myself needing to compete for the spotlight. One day as I was pondering my increasingly impossible mission, I was bouncing around near our brick fireplace. I took a misstep, stubbed my right pinky toe, and started bleeding. I was suddenly surrounded by parents and grandparents offering me treats and ointments and band-aids. And in that moment, I found an answer.

Going forward, I started covering my arms and legs with loud, colorful band-aids—even though there was never a colorful injury under them. “Oh no! What happened?” I remember my grandpa asking as he scooped me up after spotting a band-aid under my elbow.

I am not proud of it, but it did the deed.

Several weeks ago, after a minor knee surgery, I went in for a check-up with my surgeon. Though most people didn’t notice anything wrong before the surgery (or any change afterwards), I—obviously—did. There were no colorful band-aids, but my knee wasn’t yet fully healed. I still had to work on my ability to fully extend and bend it. “This is your new project,” my surgeon told me as I left his office. Every day since, I’ve put endless amounts of time and effort into my recovery, sometimes with the most nuanced of isolation exercises. The definition of a personal project, my endeavor is one from which only I find a thrill, one from which only I feel a benefit. And there’s something really special about that.

At some point in my pursuit of becoming a writer, I started to pressure myself into producing work for the sole enjoyment of others, be it in the form of my personal book and blog, or in the form of my professional and freelance work. I carved out time not because I wanted to write, but because I needed to write. In some ways, there was nothing wrong with this. It’s nice for your writing to be read. But in other ways, everything was wrong with this.

Sometimes I would spend an entire day or days constructing meandering strings of words and paragraphs. Ones that made me feel something, but could never stand to entertain. Ones that made me reflect, that made me grow, that made my heart sing—and sometimes sob. But at the end of these long days, I would feel nothing but fury and embarrassment. With nothing to “show” for my time, I considered my day a wasted one. “I should have done something else today,” I would think to myself as I pulled open the covers and slid into bed. And so, I stopped writing for writing’s sake. I stopped writing for myself.

For the past week, artist Patrick Vale has been painting a mural at the entrance of my office. On Wednesday, he spent some time talking to my studio about his work. In addition to all his public work, he gave us a glimpse of his personal sketchbooks. His most recent sketchbook includes sketches of people he sees on the train. “I’m trying to get better at drawing people,” he explained, “and seeing them for only two minutes on the train gives you no time to mess up.”

His sketchbooks struck me. The quality of work was certainly notable, but that wasn’t what got me. I was more struck by the fact that these works were ones that he simply created—and kept—for himself. (“No one has really seen this stuff.”) They were not for anyone else. They were meant to allow him to self-reflect. To grow. To learn. To fail. They were not meant for him to demonstrate his “artist-ness” to the world.

His talk inspired me to bring back to my craft what I accidentally achieved through rehabilitating my knee: a sense of personal exploration, growth, and strengthening. For me. One that is almost more beautiful in its lack of universal applicability and shareability.

Thanks to overwhelming avenues for oversharing (avenues whose traps I’m often lured into both online and in person), self-expression can become increasingly frustrating and worse, inauthentic. Our personal projects become projections unto other people.

The real deal gets covered up by a band-aid screaming for attention.

These past few weeks, and this past week in particular have reminded me about the importance of what lies hidden underneath. The ugly scar. The struck-out sentence. That is art.

art, cell phones, Charlie, Charlie Hebdo, court trial, France, Je Suis Charlie, mugging, San Francisco, shooting, writing

I Was Charlie

“It reads, ‘Before I could get my wits together,'” implying that the author was not in complete control of her judgment. Clearly, we can’t be sure that her memory of the event is accurate.”

“Getting your wits together is a phrase. It is an expression of my creative freedom. It doesn’t mean that –”

“Did you write these words?”

“Yes, but — ”

“Your honor, let the record show that the victim wrote that she did not have her wits together.”

So went the questioning during a hearing for a violent cell phone theft that took place in May, 2013. His case weak, the public defender was explicating an article about the crime line by line in the courtroom. An article that I wrote. I, the victim.

The shots continued.

“Is it true that the cops said, ‘We never catch the smart ones?'”

“Well, I — ”

“It says right here in your article. ‘We never catch the smart ones, they said as they turned on the sirens and made an abrupt turn.'”

I knew what he was getting at.

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art, creativity, family, friendship, grateful, passion, Passion Company, social pressure, Thanksgiving

Why Simple Concepts Deserve More Attention Than Complex Ones

Be present. With us, not with your phone. Forget small talk. Talk about your dreams. Love yourself. Play. Engage with the art and creativity around you. 

These were the instructions I received hours before attending a perfectly San Franciscan event with three friends. Hosted by The Passion Company, the event showcased projects and lectures by people who found ways other than money and status to define themselves.

Though I wasn’t presenting, I was nervous to attend. I felt anticipatory insecurity about how I would measure up to other attendees who had surely discovered, you know, the meaning of life and stuff. The feeling doubled when my friend and I walked through the door.

A girl in a Renaissance gown asked for my name and checked me in. “Head over to that table with nametags on it. Write down your name and one thing you are grateful for about yourself.”Ugh. Why can’t they just ask for a name like a normal event?

I walked to the table and stared at the blank nametag with blank thought. I knew that others would write insightful, perfectly crafted adages on their nametags. Trying to push past the creative paralysis, I racked my brain. I am grateful for my optimism, but I thought it too fluffy for such a sophisticated crowd. Falling back on ever-reliable alliteration, I went through adjectives that start with “R” like my first name. Something stuck.

Rationally optimistic.

“Oh that’s good,” my friend said next to me, while she wrote hers.

Creating communities.

“Oh that is good,” I said to her.

We pinned our nametags onto our shirts (pity the man who still uses stick-on nametags), then started to schmooze.

Nametags were reliable conversation starters and within moments, we were talking to a native New Yorker who was grateful for his family. “I know it sounds silly,” he apologized glancing at my friend and my nametags, “but I am grateful for them! I was just talking to my sister before I walked in.”

He didn’t need to apologize. In fact, I was grateful for his nametag. The one simple word “family,” was immediately relatable to me. This is because the word was accompanied by a deep and universal concept. Thinking of my love for my own sibling, I instantly felt connected to this man, and more importantly, at ease at this event. I stopped worrying about the potential of mismatched intellectual planes. I was as similar to these people around me as I was different.

My nametag was much less relatable than that of “family” man. Mine couldn’t create community. As I continued to walk around, I received eye-raises and Oh, that’s good!‘s, but the slightly complicated phrase was incapable of forming a human connection the way “family” could.

I left the event feeling hokey, not because of others, but because of myself.

Two weeks after the event, I was lying in bed scrolling through pictures on my phone. I came across one of my recently deceased pup. I posted it to Instagram. The moment I pressed “Share,” my eyes welled with tears.

I cried for an hour.

Finally, a familiar tritone brought me out of it. The message was chillingly perfect:

The next day, I received this message from another friend who recently moved away from San Francisco:
And then, at what would have been 11:30 PM her time, another friend FaceTimed me. “I might fall asleep on this call,” she started, “but I just needed to see you this weekend. All weekend I just felt like talking to you. I feel like you might be sad. Are you sad?”These are just three of the uncountable, beautiful friendships that define my life.

As simple as it sounds, this Thanksgiving, I am thankful for my friends. The depth of these relationships goes much further than the simplicity of the word.Though I’ve always had friends and though I’ve always loved them, this year, I’ve needed friends. Through the good, but also through some bad and ugly. My friends kept me standing on my two feet then pushed me forward. And through it all, each played a different but necessary role: my fan, my therapist, my parent, my tough love, my unconditional love, my inspiration, my motivation, my pillar. My raison d’être. My friends that had always just been there in the background, were now the entire foreground.

If I could go back and do it again, that nametag would read, “My friends.

Sometimes, we feel so pressured to leave an impression that we unnecessarily complicate things. Those nametags taught me that simplicity is approachable, relatable, and powerful. Simplicity makes an impact. Simplicity is authentic.

Thank you for sharing your shoulders, your smiles, and your love. Here’s sending all of that back to each of you.

art, corporate America, creation, creativity, hierarchy, writing, WWII

“What one does is what counts.” -Picasso

Sophomore year of high school, I joined Stories of Service, an organization whose mission is to immortalize the stories of World War II veterans. Initially, my job was to interview veterans and produce short videos about their stories, from script-writing through film-editing.

The first veteran video I created was simultaneously the best and worst experience of my life. An inquisitive historian, a natural interviewer, and a passionate writer, I enjoyed everything leading up to the video-creation process. The first time I launched Adobe Premiere, my heart crashed into my stomach. I didn’t know where to start or where I was going. I hated myself for being stupid and hated the product for making me feel stupid. But I knew that my anxiety wouldn’t be quelled by simply shutting my computer and washing my hands of the project. Like needing food when you’re hungry, I needed to see it through. For the next month, I fought my own war, with small victories like splicing together two video clips but also with occasional defeat, like losing unsaved work when the program crashed unexpectedly. Eventually, what started as an ugly newborn blossomed into an adorable baby.

One of the first people to watch my video was a fellow volunteer (and coincidentally, someone who later worked at the company I’m at today). A poster child of the program, he joined years before I. His videos were necessarily chosen as examples and he generously donated his time towards helping others improve while continuing to create his own. After watching, commented “This is good but I want to show you a few things,” while launching Premiere. Though at first his swift snipping and clipping felt embarrassing to my month-long effort, my disappointment quickly transformed into inspiration. I respected his criticism because it didn’t come in the form of words, but in the form of his skill-in-motion. I wanted to one day be in his shoes; I wanted to create videos that looked like his.

As my involvement with Stories of Service deepened, my responsibilities grew, at least, in the traditional sense. I say the “traditional sense” because to me, my responsibilities had only changed. I became an “Executive Producer,” which meant that I helped run the program as a whole, recruiting volunteers, leading training workshops, and representing the organization across the nation. Stories of Service was flourishing “under” me but I felt disconnected from it. I only later realized that the void stemmed from a lack of creation.

Around 6:30 one evening last week, my company’s engineering leader walked by my desk. He sits a few desks down from me and we work closely in a figurative sense too. “Hi! I haven’t seen you all day,” I said as he passed by. “I know, how are you?” I responded and went back to my work. A few minutes later, he came back around. “I’m going to fix my bike tire. Do you want to talk to me while I do it?” “Sure.”

We went to the back of the office where he pulled his bike off a rack and detached the wheel. He stripped a punctured tire from its frame and sat down on the ground. I sat at a chair next to him. I talked to him about a feature we just launched and needed improvements. He agreed. “There are things I and some others are building which will help this.” As our conversation took its course, his hands became increasingly covered in grease. It was symbolic of the role he plays at our company. He builds and helps other build. He creates better products and people. The willingness to get your hands dirty is imperative at any level. You don’t always see that, especially in larger corporate structures (and sometimes service organizations).

It is a mistake to think that creation will ever be beneath us. Delegation and doing is mutually exclusive and excellent leaders do both because they know doers inspire other doers. As a young high school student blinded by the glamour of public attention, I failed to recognize that the meaning of my work came from direct involvement in the craft – personal relationships with the veterans and the technology. Looking back, I regret not adopting the pervasive theme of any story of service: Even military officers go to war.

appreciation, art, DIY, painting, yellow

And it was all Yellow

Sophomore year of high school, I took a semester-long Asian History elective. If I had to be completely honest, I’d say that I don’t remember much of what I learned during the course. I do, however, remember (in impressive detail, might I add) the artwork that adorned the walls of our classroom. Maybe because I have a photographic memory, but more likely because I spent most lectures daydreaming while staring at the walls. Of particular interest, was a poster of this Rothko, which hung on the back wall.

Now let’s get a few things out in the open: I neither understood nor appreciated this piece of “art.” Now sure, I like yellow and blue as much as the next guy, but I simply couldn’t fathom how a canvas with splotches of primary colors could be considered art. It made me resent Rothko (and all other famous people) for being able to spit on a canvas with paint, get away with it, and worse, be dubbed prodigal.

One morning, I had arrived to class a bit early (okay fine, I regularly got to class early) and our teacher had not yet arrived. We were using another teacher’s classroom for the elective, and he happened to be taking care of some stuff at his desk. Not yet aware that silence is golden, I struck up a conversation with him. “That’s such a random piece of artwork,” I said casually, pointing to the Rothko. He looked up. “What do you mean?” “I don’t know. I just always wonder how it could be so famous. I last held a paintbrush in elementary school and I could paint that.” (How much do I sound like a stereotypical unappreciative art critic?! Yeah, I wasn’t even trying.)

Long story short, the teacher did not appreciate my commentary. “Excuse me? Have you ever realized the outpouring of energy created by this painting? Just stare at it for a moment. The balance of the uplifting yellow and the calming blue is genius. It’s not something that just anyone can paint.” I had found his reaction to be sufficiently startling, and responded by staring at the poster and feigning a new found energy (see Paragraph 2).

I had never been more happy to see my Asian History teacher walk through the door.

Fast forward nine years. This morning, in an effort to decorate my room, I decided I needed to introduce some artwork to the walls. For no reason but the fact that we have some unused blank canvases and acrylics lying around, I went the D-I-Y route. To keep it as simple as possible, I planned to paint three of the canvases yellow and the fourth as teal accent. I set aside twenty minutes for this activity. All I need to do is slap some paint on these canvases and brush over them until they’re completely covered, I thought to myself as I set up my “studio” in the laundry room.

Well, it turns out that painting something yellow is fraught with opportunity to fail. Because yellow is such a light color, it’s really difficult for an amateur to hide her brushstrokes. For the same reason, it also requires oodles of patience and an extremely steady hand (neither of which I have) to apply the yellow evenly over the entirety of the canvas. Then, there’s the edges of the canvas. I wanted them to be yellow as well, since I don’t plan on framing said “artwork.” I had no idea how to hold the canvas so as to paint the edges without covering my hands in paint. So I have paint all over my hands (Let’s just say that I’m no Ro-thko).

I ended up with some nicely painted canvases, but it certainly took more than brushing a few squirts of acrylics across a canvas. And somewhere along the way I gained a pretty deep appreciation for Rothko.

It’s so easy, as many cognitive biases and illusions will explain, to write off (or in my case, paint off) the work of others, especially when we don’t understand the effort or skill that went into it. In an increasingly D-I-Y world where anyone can create a beautifully filtered photograph or a professional-looking website, it’s too easy to discount art made for art’s sake. To incorrectly believe that we can do anything and everything just because someone has done it before. This is absolutely not to say that we shouldn’t try our hand at new skills and forms of art (and I use art in the loosest sense of the word), but in the cases where we have no interest in taking it up ourselves, we’re only harming ourselves by resisting and downplaying the beauty that surrounds us.

What I failed to understand back in high school is that while we don’t necessarily need to like everything we see be it paintings, products, or the like, it’s our duty as fellow humans to at least appreciate the effort that went into it. It’s that appreciation that energizes us to get the best possible out of the world around us, and even better, to give the best possible to the world. It’s that appreciation that should fill the canvas that is our world.