On Self-Employment, Workaholism and Getting My Life Back

05/23/17

Instructions for living a life.
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

-Mary Oliver

I could have titled this blog post What a Difference a Year Makes.

Or What Happens When you Really Lose It.

Or, simply, Freedom.

What I call it doesn’t matter. It just feels important to me that I write this down: part warning, part catharsis, part story of recovery.

I’m not telling this story because it’s at all unusual or because I think it’s in any way special. I’m telling it because the American ideal of busy-ness, success-by-hard-work, and the layer of bizarre importance we place on both social media & email — have the potential to be damaging. And I wanted to talk about how all of those things have impacted me and how I’m beginning to find freedom from them.

This is a story that started ten years ago when I left my job to begin making a full time living as an artist. But the important part of the story starts one year ago, almost to the day.

At the time, I was on a book tour on a stop in in New York City, and I was about to continue on to Minneapolis to deliver the 2016 Commencement Address at Minneapolis College of Art and Design and then do more book events the same week. I woke up in my friend Debbie’s apartment in Chelsea on a beautiful May morning, and came to the profound realization that I was done with the way things were in my life. I was exhausted, in physical pain, anxious and depressed. Something had to change, and this time was serious. I had hit bottom. I realized I could no longer sustain the intense workload and travel schedule that I’d been carrying for the past few years of my ten year career.

True fact: I used to be person who had a job and also thoroughly enjoyed her life outside of her job. I went to work (I worked for many years at two different non-profit organizations), felt committed and did my thing, but I didn’t bring it home with me. There was a tight container around work between the hours of 9 and 5. After 5 pm and on the weekends, I rested, swam, went hiking, hung out with friends, read books, slept in, went dancing, did some sewing and art projects, and relaxed in front of the TV.

Ten years ago in 2007, when I was 39 years old, I quit my job at the non-profit to pursue a career as an artist full time and, almost immediately, something inside of me shifted. As an artist just beginning her freelance career, I didn’t have an income yet, and I adopted a new mindset very quickly: time is money. I began to feel like even if I wasn’t working on a paid project (which I rarely did in the first couple of years), I had to be working on something — something that I could add to my portfolio for potential licensing, something that might spark some interest in my work from an art director (I started sharing my work online early in my career), or anything that might lead to something in the future. I also understood that because I was self-taught, I needed to work hard to develop my artistic skills and find my voice. If I wasn’t working, I began to feel like I was slacking. This mindset was buttressed by the fact that I was authentically excited to be making art full time. I loved what I did, and compared to an office job, I felt like I had hit the lottery, even before I made a penny. And this second factor was important.

As a result, I began working all of the time. For the first couple of years, I also opened a little store with my friend Rena to supplement my meager art income, but when I wasn’t there, I was making art and I began sharing it on the internet. For the most part, I stopped swimming regularly and I stopped relaxing in front of the TV, going dancing, sewing or sleeping in. When I was watching TV or “relaxing” in the evenings, I was doing it with a laptop or drawing paper perched on my thighs, where I was also working. In my mind, if I wasn’t working and sharing, I was losing a potential opportunity to get paid work.

This mindset served me well, initially. Within just a year or two, I began to build a following. As I drew and painted each day, I became a better and better artist. And from there, I began getting paid work. In 2008, I signed with a prestigious illustration agent. By early 2010 I signed a contract for my first book and began showing my work at a San Francisco gallery. I started getting regular illustration jobs, and I started making a regular income. (Eventually, I even wrote a book advising others how to do it).

And then in around 2011, things reached a new level — I call this my “tipping point.” At any given time, I was working on up to 15 projects at once, some small, some big. I said yes to literally every opportunity that came my way (and they began flowing in), including online teaching and public speaking opportunities in addition to illustration, publishing and licensing. Around the same time, my Etsy shop picked up steam, and I’ve made regular weekly sales ever since. I also consistently engaged in my own personal projects which I shared publicly as well, and which ultimately led to new professional opportunities. All of this stuff I was doing became a fruitful cycle. In my mind, even though it was often stressful, working 12 hour days and on the weekends was getting me somewhere. I was paying off debt, adding clients to my client list and building the career I had dreamed of having.

Looking back, I realize now that workload was already taking its toll, even then. I battled almost constant anxiety and I had terrible chronic neck and back pain from sitting at my drawing table and computer for so many hours. I had also started a relationship in 2008, and the weight of my workload caused tension for us as my career grew. I am so grateful that my partner (now wife) was so understanding, believed in me so profoundly and stuck it out with me. Ultimately, she had a huge part in helping me to walk away from the burdens of it. But aspects of our relationship suffered. I kept saying to her: “Look, if I work hard and often now, then in a few years we’ll be set financially and I will slow down and work less.”

The problem was, I was like a hamster on a hamster wheel who literally did not know how to stop the wheel and get off. Even though I was making a steady six-figure income and I could have taken some space, I had become addicted to working. I was also addicted to the rush that working and being acknowledged for the work brought to me. I was attached to the idea that it is the hustling that brings success. I began to feel more stressed when I wasn’t working, not just because I had so many looming deadlines, but because slowing down itself became uncomfortable. Despite early indications of burnout, I felt it was imperative that I continue in this way. I told myself, You can do this! You work fast! You don’t need much sleep! Someday you will be able to take a break.

To be clear, I also understood very deeply that this was all a choice I was making. While I wrote occasionally about my workload (including about how I was feeling overwhelmed) on this blog and on Instagram over the past six years, I was careful not to come off as a victim. I knew I had chosen this path. Mostly, I was outwardly cheery to my social media audience. In fact, in some ways, I wore my busy-ness as a badge of honor. I was busy, goddammit, and I was proud of it.

Somewhere in there, I got married, and two years later in 2015 we moved to Portland, Oregon and bought a house. Part of the decision to move was precipitated by a desire to have a slower lifestyle. We decided that moving from the frenetic work culture of the Bay Area of California to a city with a slower pace of life was going to give us a fresh start. But, like what happens anytime you say you are going to make a change but have no real plan in place or boundaries to implement it, we moved to Portland and nothing changed. In fact, for a time after we moved, my wife was working for me and then I hired an employee, and things actually got worse. My wife and employee were amazing and helped me with so many aspects of my business. But instead of lightening my load, I used having a team to help me with my workload as an excuse to take on even more projects for myself.

Fast forward to a year ago. I hit bottom. I was strung out, uninspired, anxious, and in chronic pain. I was miserable. For awhile, I thought about quitting all together. I fantasized about being a part time dog groomer or a gardener. I fantasized about crawling in a hole.

After I got back from that book tour, I began the necessary process of re-thinking my career and my life. Ultimately, I knew I wanted to keep working as an illustrator and writer. I just needed to get my workload down to a manageable size and I needed to start creating space in my life for rest and enjoyment and creative rejuvenation. About a year ago, I began to decline 80% of the opportunities that came my way. I said no not only to most illustration projects, but also to speaking engagements and some interview requests. I decided very intentionally to focus on only a handful of meaningful projects and speaking engagements for the next three years. I still had to finish the commitments that I’d already signed up for, but I set out to slowly relieve myself of responsibilities and start a new approach to living and working going forward.

You may remember that back in December, about six months ago and six months after I began the process of starting to lighten my load, I wrote this blog post about my burnout and the slow rebuilding. At the time, I was in the thick of the process of slowing down, but I was struggling — still really struggling — because even after I began making changes to improve the quality of my life, I still felt anxious and depressed nearly everyday. I didn’t know how to relax in my new-found time. I was still worried about what would happen next for me. The good news was that I was starting to feel inspired again — one of the worst side effects of my burnout had been a total lack of creative energy or motivation.

Fast forward to today: a year after starting this process, I am very happy to say I feel solidly on the other side. I am living and working differently, my depression is gone, and my anxiety is at an all time low. Most days, I feel great. My days are slow. I work and rest. I am starting to feel some sense of balance again. Here are some things about the journey over the last year that feel important to share.

  1. As I mentioned earlier,  I do believe the American ideal of busy-ness, success-by-hard-work, and the layer of bizarre importance we place on both social media and email — have the potential to be very damaging if we are not careful. I bought into them, and I suffered mightily. That said, I had to take full responsibility for not buying into them anymore, and that is ongoing work for me, every single day. If you had asked me a year ago to describe my existence I would have said, “I feel like I am trapped in a box and someone has filled every last bit of space in the box with rocks and trash.” The box was my life, and the rocks and trash were all my responsibilities and obligations.  I felt trapped underneath pressure, darkness and lack of space. I was suffocating. The choices I made put me in that box, and I was aware that I was also the only one who could get myself out of it.
  2. Just because you make an intentional, conscious and committed decision to change something, doesn’t mean you will see the positive effects quickly or that it will be easy. In fact, for me, my anxiety got worse before it got better — I had grown so accustomed to being in the world in a certain way, that change felt terrifying, even though it was clearly a healthy shift that I needed to make. But change happens slowly, especially when you are shifting mindsets and behavior that have been engrained in you for years. I used the same discipline to commit to slowing down and being present as I had used to hustle to build my career from scratch. I was literally addicted to work. And so breaking the cycle of constantly working was hard.
  3. That’s right. Once I did start to create some space, I had to literally relearn how to relax. As I began to finish up existing projects and take on fewer and fewer responsibilities, I began to see and feel space around me again. I was no longer trapped in the box! How cool, right? Um, no. It totally freaked me out! I was so used to filling space with work (even self-generated projects) that when my goal was to relax and slow down, I panicked. So I have approached it in several ways. First, when I am working now (because I still work), I focus on slowing down and taking my time — because there is no need to rush. I have more time! And that has made work feel more enjoyable. You can’t relax into work with you are rushing. Second, I also only check and respond to email and post on social media during specific times of the day now. I also post far less frequently on social media or on this blog. I’ve given up making art at “daily Instagram speed” — even if that means I post less often, or some days, not at all. I’ve given up being prolific and have simultaneously unplugged, both of which have been essential in finding some relief from my anxiety. Third, when I do have space outside of work, I think intentionally about how to use it. I read, take walks, mess around in my studio with no specific outcome, and go for long swims. Sounds easy, but it wasn’t. At first this intentional use of my new-found “free time” felt like torture. I was a nervous wreck! Read a book? Shouldn’t I just go back to work? I had to practice taking  slow walks in my neighborhood (which my dog helps me with since he has to stop and stiff everything in his path), going for long swims (instead of madly trying to finish my workout so I could get back to work), or reading an entire long-form article in the New Yorker (when I first started this process I couldn’t read more than a paragraph without losing focus). And I had to practice sitting with the initial anxiety that came with doing these seemingly enjoyable, relaxing activities. I am happy to report that I not only survived, but most days I am very good at relaxing now. I just have to engage my relaxing muscles again and not give up when it feels challenging.
  4. I had to redefine my definition of success. Previously, I aligned things like hustling and hard work with success. I had proven it myself over and over, and it became how I was wired. And while I do think there is a correlation between discipline, risk-taking and action with building a sustainable career as an artist, the stress of my own level of discipline, risk-taking and action had taken a huge toll on my psyche and creative energy. In the end, I decided to let go of the idea of success all together. So, now, I am beginning to think about and define whether I have a good life in terms of space and enjoyment instead of professional success. I am always thinking about how much figurative space I have around work projects, and whether I am actually finding any pleasure doing them. This perspective now also influences my decisions about what professional opportunities to say yes to and which to decline. If I am going to continue to have a career, I need to keep taking advantage of opportunities, so learning a new way of navigating them is important.
  5. Lastly, I can’t end this blog post without talking about something that has made all of this possible: meditation. Daily meditation has made all the difference for me. I have tried to mediate regularly for years, but I never followed through for more than a handful of days at a time because I never got past the “sitting in silence with my anxiety is torture” phase. But everything I read from Eastern religion to Western medical science espoused meditation as a real, long term relief for anxiety and living with more peace and calm. So, this time, to help me both with accountability and support, I began working with a coach and meditation teacher (best decision I made in the process). But here’s the thing about meditation: like with the other changes I made, despite the support, I didn’t see the positive results immediately. I had to practice meditation every day for 40 days straight before I noticed that in general I was feeling calmer and less anxious. I also had to redefine what it meant to be a “good” meditator. I had to let go of the notion that “thinking” or anxious thoughts during meditation were bad. Really, meditation is just practicing bringing your attention back to your breath over and over as the thoughts and anxieties arise. Magically (or maybe not so magically), the impact of 15-20 minutes of meditation a day on my entire 24 hour cycle has been profound. I have a long way to go in my practice, and I’m in this for the long haul.

You might be wondering, what am I up to now? I am working on two books, one that comes out in 2019 and one that comes out in 2020 — both with ample, almost luxurious timelines. The second book is a long term intensive project that will be my main work for the next two years. I am scheming a couple more video classes that I will roll out in the next year. I am making a lot of personal work. I have a book that comes out in October, and I’ll be having some book events this Fall. I have two residencies and one fine art show scheduled for 2018. Right now, that’s about it. And it feels great.

I also know I have to keep doing my other work: meditating, taking slow walks, going for long swims, participating in some activism in my community, protecting space in my schedule, and rallying against the notion that it’s all about the hustle.

I’m here to say, it just isn’t. It’s not glamorous to be busy. It’s just exhausting.

And I am done being exhausted.

Here’s to freedom!

Thank you for listening.

CATEGORIES: Personal Essays
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On Politics and Social Media

02/01/17

If you follow along on any of my social media channels you know that I’ve been, like much of America, a bit riled up after the election of our new U.S. president, especially since the inauguration. I’m not here to talk about politics at this moment, so hang in there with me. I’m here to talk about what some of my followers expressed when I did start talking more frequently about politics in the last year, and what their reaction has made me realize.

For the record, I’ve been speaking about my political (personal, social, world) beliefs here on this blog and on social media for years. I don’t do it a lot, but when stuff in the world or in my own life happens that I care about, I say what I think. I feel like I have a personal responsibility to say what I think. Also, I’m gay. Openly gay. I’m married to a woman. I’m covered in tattoos. Over the years, my hair has been every color in the rainbow. I live in a liberal mecca (and moved here from another liberal mecca). I have done work (very publicly) for both the Obama and Clinton campaigns, the Human Rights Campaign and other progressive causes. I’m an artist. You get the picture.

I sometimes naively assume that if you follow me online or take my classes, that you also get the picture — of me and what I’m about. But what I have learned over the years (and especially recently), is that a portion of my following, while they might assume I have political opinions that are different from their own, they don’t want me to talk about them. They just want to look at my pretty pictures.

Here’s the thing: for the most part, I do make a living drawing and painting “pretty”  (and mostly politically benign) pictures — bold, graphic landscapes, floral line drawings, animals, repeating decorative patterns, vintage-inspired quilt motifs, and inspirational hand-lettered sayings.

The day of the inauguration, I wrote a post here about activism. I started more fervently making and posting politically charged artwork. Afterward, I got comments and messages on various platforms saying some flavor of: “I follow you because I like your art, but I do not want to hear about your political views.” Others argued with the power or validity of anger (I had said, in no uncertain terms, that I was angry). One woman proclaimed that she was unfollowing me, and that she was also going to unfollow every artist who was also currently an activist speaking out against the government. Because, to her, it is wrong to question the president. She also vowed to unsubscribe to the platform on which I teach classes and to never buy one of my books again. She was done with me. It’s worth noting that I have not experienced a mass spewing of vitriol. Most of my former followers have unfollowed me more quietly, and, even if they’ve expressed their opinion about why, they’ve done it politely and respectfully.

(Above: one of my many recent posts on Instagram, at the Women’s March in Portland, holding a sign I made and wearing a Pink Pussy hat my mom made for me)

In truth, I believe the beautiful thing about social media platforms is that you get to choose who you follow or don’t. That requires a bit of trial and error — you might follow someone because you “like their art,” but then later discover they express opinions that you find offensive. I have unfollowed folks for a variety of reasons. I am in full support of unfollowing, because a lot of the time, it makes sense. And so, my response to the woman I mentioned above was some version of  “…that’s the great thing about social media — you don’t have to follow or listen to anyone who you don’t want to, who rubs you the wrong way, who you disagree with, etc. Follow if you want, but I totally respect unfollowing. Peace!” You get to “curate” your own social media feed.

After years on the Internet, I have learned not to take disgruntled followers or mean trolls personally. I have learned to accept unfollowing as part of everyday life. What has become more important to me, and the main point I want to make here, is living my truth, expressing myself as a whole person — not just someone who makes pretty pictures — is more important to me. Here’s how I put it to the woman who publicly proclaimed she was unfollowing me and all artist/activists: “I am not on this planet to please everyone or make everyone feel comfortable. I am here to share my art and my experience and to be a voice for what I believe in.”

That’s right: I might make pretty pictures, but they do not define who I am. I am a complicated, sometimes messy human being. I have past experiences that haunt me. I have regrets, hopes and dreams. My views have been shaped by my experience — as a woman and a lesbian, for example — just like your experiences shape your views. That’s why on my Instagram feed and here on my blog you see both the pretty things I draw and paint and, occasionally, of the other stuff — my struggles, my beliefs, my heartaches, my joys and contemplations and my political rants.

I also want to acknowledge that while I have lost many, many followers over the past months (especially in the past weeks), I am incredibly heartened by the support that the vast majority of my following (and it’s going strong) have expressed for my activism and my activist artwork. I think most of my followers do see me as a whole human being — they want to see me as a whole human being. They like knowing where I stand, and where they stand in relationship to me. Sometimes we don’t agree. Almost daily I am challenged to think about at least one thing one of my followers has said or asked.

I am also heartened by the activism of so many artists on the Internet — many of whom have never said a controversial thing on their Instagram feed or blog until now. I continue to urge artists to use their voices. Your freedom to do so is what makes our democracy great! Your words have weight. Use them.

Have a good Wednesday, friends! And thank you for listening.

Lisa

CATEGORIES: Personal Essays
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We Are Very Angry

01/20/17

Shortly after the election in November, I sat down with Maria Molfino, who hosts the podcast Heroine: Women’s Creative Leadership. We weren’t sitting down to talk about the election. In fact, we mostly talk about other things — things like what I was like as a kid (and how that changed when I hit puberty), and women stepping into their creative power, and the unsexy parts of my work. I hope you will give it a listen*.

But inevitably, at the end of the podcast, Maria asked me about using my art for activism. At the time the podcast was recorded the election had just happened. In some ways, I was still in shock. Even though I’ve never been shy about sharing my views online, I was just then beginning to think about how I would use both my art and my platform online to express my views and influence others in a more powerful way. I also talked about this very thing with Sandi over at Crafty Planner in our recent podcast episode, also recorded after the election. It’s been on my mind a lot. It’s something I think about nearly every day.

My question has been: how will I use my social media platform and my creative expression to contribute to activism?

In the last two months I have made some major shifts in this area. I have begun to care less about losing followers or attracting trolls, and I have begun caring more about speaking my truth, regardless of what happens as a result. I have begun to participate in fundraisers and political campaigns online. I have begun donating part of the money I make as an artist to organizations and political causes I care about. I have been openly expressing my grief to my 125,000 Instagram followers.

Part of that shift has come from watching other artists, in particular fellow women artists, speak their beliefs on social media and through their actions. It has been one of the most inspiring and liberating experiences of my life to sit amongst so many creatives expressing their dismay and anger.

Yes, we are angry!

We are very angry.

That’s right: YOU ARE NOT ALONE in your anger or sadness or grief.

You are not alone!

For me, action has helped keep me from falling into the pit of despair.

Here are some things I am doing, and I encourage you to do too:

+Use your pain to express yourself.
+Make time to express your feelings and beliefs through your art.
+Own your anger or frustration. Do not let others tell you to “settle down.”
+Be authentic: say what you feel and in a way that you would say it. Speak your truth!
+Stop worrying about whether people will stop following you or like what you post.
+Participate in fundraisers with your work.
+Support causes you care about through your art — raise money, encourage others to donate, do pro-bono work for them.
+Connect with other artists who are also interested in using their work and platforms to shed light on political issues and human rights issues you care about; collaborate with them!
+Research workshops in your community that teach about activism for artists. Participate in local initiatives.
+Follow and support fellow artists who are using their platforms to express themselves. This is a time to unite!

Tomorrow I am off to the Women’s March in Portland. Next week you’ll see a short video I made for a post-election cause I’m very excited about. After that, other things. I will not remain quiet.

In love and light,
Lisa

*If you enjoy Maria’s Heroine podcast, you can also find it & subscribe to future episodes in iTunes here: bit.ly/herpod

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On Burnout and the Slow Rebuilding

12/22/16

True story: I started my career as an artist ten years ago as eager a beaver as you can imagine. I was the textbook illustrator and artist at the beginning of her career (except for that I was already in my late 30’s when I began). I was building my client base, finding my voice, experimenting with mediums, building my portfolio and dreaming about where I wanted to go next. It was scary, yes (I made no money for the first three years), but I loved it. I was motivated in a way I had never been motivated to do anything in my life. It took me about four years to really get going, and then once I did, opportunities began happening for me very quickly.

Since 2010, I have written and/or illustrated 15 books (seven of those my own) and worked with over 65 illustration and licensing clients. I’ve also recorded nine classes, 21 podcasts and stood on stage and spoken at 27 different events. Just this past year alone I flew on 28 different airplanes. Amazing things have happened for me in the past six years. I’ve worked with fantastic clients and on dream projects. I do not take those things lightly. I am enormously grateful for every opportunity I’ve had. I feel extremely lucky.

But (and this is not the first time I’ve admitted this in the past six years), all of that work has, over time, also made me really tired and, as a result, I found myself earlier this year at an entirely new level of unmotivated, stressed, and cranky — a level unlike anything I’d ever experienced. I started by admitting this to my wife, employee and friends, and then, slowly, in fits and starts, here on the Internet to the people who follow my work.

To be clear, I don’t think my situation is special or unique. I know from talking about my struggle with scores of other creatives that many share it (you can listen to my conversation with artist Samantha Hahn here, in which we discuss this and related issues). Turns out, it’s very common for artists and writers to catch a wave of opportunity that is both wild and exhilarating but also dangerously unending. After a time, we want to jump off the wave and take a rest (or maybe just do something different for awhile), but the wave is going so fast we feel like we don’t have the chance, or, worse yet, we are scared to jump off for fear we will never be able to get back on.

Ironically, for me, the constant work, while good for my portfolio and pocketbook and growth of my career, began to do the worst possible thing: it began to kill my sense of creativity and excitement about making art. Worse than feeling tired or cranky or constantly stressed, this, to me, was the most frightening side effect. Over the past year, in particular, my work began to feel dull and monotonous. I began to worry I’d lost “it” all together — not just my will to make art, but my ability to innovate or make anything that mattered or that anyone would have any interest in looking at or consuming. I know this wasn’t reality, but it was how I felt. I began even to ask myself existential questions about the point of life all together.

I am sure by now (if you have gotten this far in this sad and woeful tale) you are looking for me to now transition to sharing a happy ending to this story — the next part wherein I make some solid changes in my life, learn a bunch of things, and am no longer tired or anxious and have regained a renewed sense of creativity.

The problem is life doesn’t always go that easily and changes don’t happen that quickly, at least not most of the time. I have made a lot of changes over the past four months —  to slow the fuck down, to take pressure off myself, and to regain a true sense of excitement and motivation about making art again. And I’m making progress in all three of these areas. But recovering from six years of bonkers might take me a long time, at least that’s what others who’ve been through it have told me.

Another true story: I used to be one of those super annoying people who, when asked by others, “What do you do when you get creatively blocked?” would say, “I don’t ever get creatively blocked!” And, until a couple of years ago, it was true; I was a font of unending energy for my work and for putting ideas onto paper and canvas. So part of my work now is not comparing my new reality to my old reality. My work is accepting what is, and taking the process of regaining energy for my work one day at a time.

I am taking an active (rather than passive) approach to recouping a sense of excitement and inspiration. I have begun diving into new subject matter and revisiting old subject matter. I even went back to using a medium (gouache paint) that I haven’t used in years. I am trying to pay deep attention to what I want to make and less and less attention to what I think my audience might want to see from me. I made the move to get a second, larger studio space in which I can experiment on large surfaces and get messy.

So the good news is that I am beginning to feel a sense of motivation and inspiration again. I’ve started several new bodies of work and I’ve jumped wholeheartedly back into my sketchbook (I even changed the orientation of my sketchbook from horizontal to vertical as a new way of looking at things). I am also being extremely judicious about accepting opportunities for collaborations and projects going forward, all in an effort to create space and energy for my own exploration and innovation.

Part of me feels like telling this story is self-indulgent. Who should really care about my burnout? And I don’t honestly think anyone should. But maybe it can be useful as a tale of warning for those of you seekers out there who aspire “to have it all” as an artist. Working toward success can come with a price. So at some point, you may end up here too. Perhaps that many of us end up here is unavoidable. Maybe it is a normal part of the process: pushing the boundaries until you implode, and then rebuilding.

One hopeful thing I have learned: it is possible to ride a wave, hop off, and hop back on. It’s also true that some waves die, but new waves always come along for us. So now my work is figuring out when to hop on a wave, and when to hop off. Similarly, which waves to ride and for how long. And when to just lie on the beach for awhile.

On that note, happy 2017. I hope to be back here writing more next year. And I’ve got lots of other fun things planned. See you then.

(Side note: the illustration above is from my upcoming book, A Glorious Freedom, out October 2017 from Chronicle Books. There it will accompany an essay by writer Caroline Paul about learning to surf at 50.)

CATEGORIES: Personal Essays
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Jonathan Fields on How to Live a Good Life

10/19/16

wildandpreciouslife_lowres

About four years ago, I received an email from a guy named Jonathan Fields. He had started a program called The Good Life Project, which, at the time, was a broadcast web show that filmed in depth interviews with mission-driven entrepreneurs and artists (it’s now a podcast). Jonathan mentioned in the email that he’d discovered my work & heard bits of my story through my friend Maria Popova, and was interested in interviewing me for his series. I googled Jonathan’s name and discovered he was a respected author, speaker, teacher and thought leader in the world of entrepreneurship. I quickly said yes to the interview, and Jonathan came to San Francisco to interview me in my studio three weeks later. Little did I know that after our initial interview, Jonathan and I would go on to be friends, that he would write the foreword to my book Art Inc, and that this year — four years after we met — his work would set my life on a new trajectory.

So now you know my background with Jonathan, in a nutshell. You may also know that a few months ago, I wrote this blog post about What Makes a Good Life? To be clear, this blog post was more a proclamation about needing to change things in my life in order to feel more grounded and less stressed, and not a set of answers. In fact, I’ve been on a quest of sorts since early last year to find new, more profound meaning in my life. Over the past ten years, I fell very deeply into my work as an artist and have been enormously devoted to my career, which has brought me fantastic opportunity, financial stability, and profound internal satisfaction. I am so grateful. It’s part of what has given (and continues to give) my life meaning and purpose. But I also found that I was beginning to feel really burned out and tired, with very little time devoted to relaxing or having fun. As a result, I have spent much of the past year outside of my work reading, taking classes and otherwise exploring the notion of what makes a good life — attempting to continue the work that is meaningful to me, but at a different pace and with a new goal to feel more joy and calm.

Now comes the intersection of the two stories: Jonathan Fields and my quest. Since we met in 2012, Jonathan’s Good Life Project has spawned an entire community of people, a camp, resources and more. This past August I was a keynote speaker at Jonathan’s Camp GLP (short for Good Life Project). Camp GLP is a summer camp for 350 grown ups, filled with usual camp-like things: workshops, pool time, eating in a mess hall, games and even a good old fashioned talent show. I decided not only to accept the speaking invitation from Jonathan, but to participate fully in camp. I’m a textbook introvert — large groups of people make me really uncomfortable — but I dove into the discomfort of camp (and my continued soul searching) with all my heart. And not too surprisingly, the four days were profound for me. Thank you to Jonathan and some of the other speakers and workshop leaders at camp, I made some huge discoveries and began to get some answers about my aforementioned quest (more on that in a minute).

I also learned at Camp that Jonathan had written a new book, entitled (yep, that’s right): How to Live a Good Life, which was released just this week. Immediately after camp he sent me an advanced copy, and I’ve spent much of the last two months studying it. It is a compilation of everything he’s learned over the course of his own personal quest to live a good life, talking to interesting and engaged people about how they live and immersing himself in scientific research.

A book with the answers to my big existential questions about what makes a good life? Yes, please!

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Two important things: first, this book isn’t about how to be happy. Instead, it’s about living with a sense of connection, purpose, ease and discovery, which is going to look different for everyone. Second, this book isn’t one ounce preachy or dogmatic. Instead, it’s filled with a super easy to understand framework for and ideas about changes you can make in your life that will help you to live with a stronger sense of connection, purpose, ease and discovery — and with more awareness and intention.

To be clear, Jonathan’s book is not intended to be a quick fix. Much of what he writes about are simple practices — stuff I intuitively know (and I am sure many of you already know) will lead to more calm, more joy and a better overall quality of life. But it’s all stuff that I also know requires a certain amount of commitment — turning things off & turning other things on, breaking deeply rooted habits & trying new things — not just once or twice, but every day. Much of what causes us to feel pain in the first place is stuff of our own making: things like over-working, connection to our devices and disconnection from others, self absorption and fear of change. And choosing intentionally to break those unhealthy patterns is hard, and we don’t necessarily have the discipline or patience to do it, even though the payoff would be tremendous.

I’m approaching the changes I’m making one day at a time. The first thing I began working on was meditation (Jonathan talks a lot about the power of meditation, and has practiced daily meditation himself for years). I am on day 53 of daily meditation, which just this week became something I look forward to each morning instead of being something I dread (you can read what I wrote about my meditation a couple of weeks ago here). I can also feel the positive effects of meditation spilling into the other parts of my life.

Another thing I am working on is disconnecting from social media. In the last month, I have spent about 1/4 of the time that I used to spend on Instagram and my personal Facebook page. Social media is not only a time suck, but it can be an energy suck. Social media has so many benefits (and my business wouldn’t be what it is without it), but it’s also a place for comparison and overwhelm. Staying off social media has helped my sense of calm enormously.

I’m also continuing to work on saying no when I don’t have time or energy for something (Jonathan calls this “practice the loving no”) — and that goes for social plans and work opportunities.

I’m also working on gratitude, focusing on and expressing thanks to the universe for what I do have instead of what I’ve been left out of or what’s missing or who might not like me (stuff most of us spend way too much time thinking about).

And, finally, I’ve been having way more fun. In the past two weeks, I’ve been out dancing three times. Recently, I got on stage in a sparkly gold outfit and platinum wig and danced by myself in front of 450 people at a conference where I was the emcee. I’m starting to realize how much things like playing hooky and staying up past my bedtime are essential for my 48 year old self to feel alive. Oh, and I’ve done all of this stuff sober (I also cut way back on drinking).

If you are in a place where any of this resonates for you — you want a new path or you are on a path already and you want to feed yourself more inspiration and tools, get yourself a copy of How to Live a Good Life. I promise if you are open to making some shifts, you won’t be disappointed.

Have a great Wednesday.

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