When the most powerful thing to do isn't to "power through," but to softenRead More
I recently launched my book Something More: A Working Professional's Search for Creativity, Purpose, and Peace. I'd love to share with you the author Q&A led by Majo Molfino, women's leadership coach and host of podcast Heroine.fm. The event was held on February 8, 2017 at the tea room of The Center SF with over 60 people in attendance.
This book is for you if you’re thinking about...
- Pursuing your creative calling while working full-time
- Exploring your many different interests, while navigating the purposeful and the practical
- Going on an inner journey, either while working or by taking a sabbatical
After ten years of not making art, I started making art again while working full-time in Silicon Valley. My adventures took me to the bare wooden floors of yoga studios, the white walls of art studios, and even to an anarchist bookstore and the city dump. Through it all, I found the core of what was looking for all along: a true feeling of self-acceptance.
You can find the book here.
- Starting to feel restless after five years of working in tech. Felt that I lacked self-efficacy. Gradually realized this feeling was related to my creativity. [4:15]
- How I decided to take a sabbatical. Responding my desire to grow and to recharge. [8:40]
- How I worked on creative side projects while working full-time. Taking art and writing classes on evenings and weekends. Making art or writing during the evenings and early mornings. Managing expectations. [10:22]
- As a daughter of immigrants, managing cultural beliefs that influence my decisions. [14:25]
- Reconnecting with my body to better manage my inner critic and listen to my intuition. [16:57]
- Recognizing privilege. Moving through denial and guilt. Recognizing that it’s possible to have gratitude and desire something more. [21:13]
- Managing my inner critic through meditation and journaling. Overcoming perfectionism through deadlines, faith, surrender, self-acceptance, and service. [23:10]
- Reclaiming 10 years of my life. Learning from the experiences of older women. Seeing how this questioning affects all aspects of my life, including purpose, partnership, and parenthood. Making decisions with intention [29:02]
- Fully accepting my many interests. Being flexible about how I make money and express my creative and analytical sides. [35:40]
- Reaching a feeling of true self-acceptance. Makes it easier to manage my many interests. [38:08]
I'm usually all about structure and checklists. But instead of goals, I identify my “core desired feelings” – 3 words that describe how I want to feel. The logic: everything we do is based on how we want to feel.Read More
When opposite approaches are possible – with projects and people, and within myselfRead More
How I expanded my set of role models to reflect the way I want to bring creative expression into my life
In the words of Aristotle, “Man is by nature a social animal.” That’s why “what other people think” can become a creative block, as you saw in my previous email on creative permission.
Each of us have different layers of social support. For example, there are folks I would interact with daily (friends, family and coworkers), to communities I interact with weekly or monthly, to role models I admire from afar.
I have deep respect for Silicon Valley’s pantheon of leaders, such as Elon Musk, Steve Jobs and Sheryl Sandberg. The careers of these leaders are of course highly creative and interdisciplinary, but there are a lot of different ways to integrate creativity into one’s life.
In bringing creativity back into my life, I noticed that I needed to expand my set of role models to include people who expressed those elements in ways that interested me the most.
I remembered an unusual assignment from college: each of us had to create a “Personal Business Plan.” A business plan is usually intended to help a company with strategic planning. It includes stuff like the company's vision statement, the company’s product/service offerings, market opportunity and market risks.
For this assignment, we had to create a business plan for our lives as if we were a company, e.g. describe our vision for our lives, our strengths and skills, etc.
Companies can have a board of directors to help lead the company. For this assignment, we got to nominate a “Personal Board of Directors” of people whose “superpowers” could complement our own skills.
Here’s the twist: The “board members” could be real of fictional. They could be dead or alive. No need to have met them before, or to share the list with anyone.
I didn’t think about this exercise for years. Now, as I encounter creative and interdisciplinary people in articles or conferences, I add them to a doc that’s an ever-growing list of virtual "board members."
When I have an idea for new project, a decision to make or I’m feeling discouraged by my “inner critic,” sometimes it helps to think about how one of my “board members” would have approached it. This practice helps me feel less alone as I navigate my interdisciplinary creative adventures and puts my fears into perspective.
How have your role models inspired your creative journey?
Moving from fear to creative permission, and what actually happened when I started making art again
As some of you may know, I had stopped making art for 10 years, before starting to make art again around this time last year.
In examining my creative blocks, I noticed something odd about one of them: I was waiting for someone to give me permission to make art. As a “good student,” I was used to getting permission and seeking external validation before taking action.
Because making art wasn’t practical, I didn’t feel like I was “allowed” to do it. I felt selfish and guilty for wanting to do something just because I enjoyed it. At its core, this was fear: fear of some kind of punishment or social ostracization.
I realized that such permission would only come from myself. Furthermore, whether or not anyone gave me permission to make art, the desire for creative expression was not going to go away.
At peace and alive
I smile when I think about what actually happened when I started to make art again on nights and weekends: Instead of pain or punishment, I felt at peace and alive. To my surprise, instead of social ostracization, over the past year I’ve strengthened existing relationships and made new ones among viewers who resonate with my art.
This quote was one of many pieces of wisdom that helped me reframe those beliefs and start making art again. It’s also the inspiration for the above piece of art, from my latest group of work.
“Nature doesn’t ask permission. Blossom and birth whenever you feel like it.” – Clarissa P. Estés
My approach to exploring some of life’s most uncomfortable questions and how they intersect with tech and art
As a “scanner” with many skills and interests, I’ve been experimenting with different ways to fit art into my life. I’ve finally found one that fits: creative quests are now the foundation of my current artistic practice.
Here’s my process:
- Pick a theme and ask questions. I pick a theme that’s top of mind at this stage in my life and the questions I have around it.
- Collect different perspectives and experiences. I collect interdisciplinary perspectives, offline experiences and tech trends around the theme to help inform possible answers to the questions.
- Make art. Someday, maybe later this year or even years from now, I may make art about it to share the journey with others.
The themes tend to be on the weighty side of the human condition, themes I know I’m not alone in having questions around.
Instead of an academic point of view, I hope for the quests to be experiential and from the point of view of a working professional. How might a working professional explore these bigger questions without going to graduate school? How might the answers inform daily life?
The structure of my creative quests are a contrast to my otherwise analytical way of thinking. They are driven by process and curiosity, not by the execution of a pre-defined result. Instead of a definite “start date” and “end date”, my intuition will help inform when I’ve satisfied my interest. I don’t aim to find definitive answers to these difficult questions, but rather to consider them for myself.
Creative Quest #1: Cycles of Life and Death
Why these topics? Why explore them now?
I’m on sabbatical from the tech world and discerning my next steps. There’s endless advice available on how to approach one’s career.
Another perspective to consider is something to the effect of, “In light of knowing I will die someday, how should I live?” Taking it one step further, how might you consider that question without living from a place of fear?
Such thought experiments have been useful wake-up calls for me before. For example, a guided visualization of my funeral was one of many inspirations for starting to make art again after ten years.
“For me, living is the same thing as dying, and loving is the same thing as losing, and this does not make me a madwoman; I believe it can make me better at living, and better at loving, and, just possibly, better at seeing.” – Sally Mann
These words from photographer Sally Mann’s memoir Hold Still describe one part of my interest in this creative quest. At the other end of the life spectrum, the beginning of life is top of mind as friends and colleagues around me are starting families and as I’m discerning my own choices around this.
Life, death and tech
In the past five years alone, it’s become much faster to create new products and services (e.g. AWS, mobile app development tools). The question is now less of the “how” to build but more about the “what” to build.
What about technology that enables more meaningful connections and life experiences, given what matters most at the end of life? Some that come to mind are the proliferation of delivery and in-home services, 7 Cups of Tea (online therapy) and Hey Vina (Tinder for making platonic female friends).
How does the belief that you’re not going to die affect how you live? When I mention this creative quest to one engineer, he looked me straight in the eye and told me with absolute certainty that he is not going to die, citing life-extension endeavors like Calico.
How can birth and death be more spiritual and embodied experiences? Birth and death are currently highly medicalized experiences. Yet there’s a yearning for something deeper, as evidenced by the growing demand for birth doulas, end-of-life doulas, improvement of hospital architecture and more natural burial practices.
Here are some notes from the three months so far that I’ve been on this creative quest. The experiences so far have focused on end of life. I hope to do more around the beginning of life later in the year.
Zen Hospice Project
The Zen Hospice Project applies mindfulness to the dying process. Their Guest House is a six-bed residential care facility in the Haight. I heard about the Zen Hospice Project through BJ Miller’s TED Talk.
I participated in a workshop on mindful caregiving. We did an exercise to face our own fears around death, to avoid projecting them onto the patient.
In addition, this exercise shifted my perspective on life and death itself, showing that as we age, we gradually lose our skills and abilities (e.g. motor skills, vision, memory). We were invited to consider the emotional impact of these painful losses and the impact to one’s sense of “self.”
YG2D Open Mic Event
“YG2D” is “You’re Going to Die,” a movement to “bring people creatively into the conversation of death and dying.” I attended one of their sold-out monthly open mic events at The Lost Church in the Mission. Folks can sign up to tell a story, sing a song or read a poem in this safe space. The stories and performances, sometimes heart-wrenching, sometimes hilarious, brought the audience to both laughter and tears. One beautiful poem that was read was The Well of Grief.
When Breath Becomes Air
At thirty-six years old, neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. This beautifully written book explores the question, “What makes life worth living in the face of death?” The exchanges between Kalanithi and his oncologist were especially interesting to me. Each time Kalanithi asked about how much time he had left, the oncologist had the same reply: “What’s most meaningful to you?”
These creative quests can also help cultivate the practice leaving room for serendipity. Several of the most interesting experiences I’ve had or books that I’ve read on this creative quest came from recommendations from friends, from events I saw on my Facebook News Feed or from other unexpected sources.
If you have any related resources you’d like to share that you’ve found interesting about the cycles of life and death, such as podcasts, articles, experiences or events, please let me know.
Find the momentum, focus and permission to bring an idea to life
What is a creative quest?
A creative quest is a multi-day program to help jump-start your creative process. Once you’ve designed a process you trust, you show up and do it. Even if you don’t want to sometimes. Even if it seems like you’re not seeing “results” right away.
Choose your own adventure
Creative quests have played an important role in my artistic journey. A daily drawing project (similar to Elle Luna’s #The100DayProject) was the momentum I needed to start making art again after 10 years. For the full story and tips on designing this type of creative quest, read on.
A creative quest can take on other forms, including a physical voyage. “Walking artist” Hamish Fulton walked +1000 miles across the UK in 47 days and made art about it. Photographer Reuben Krabbe took a team on an expedition to the Arctic to in search of a once-in-a-lifetime shot of skiers in front of a solar eclipse.
A creative quest can also be an introspective process, no travel necessary. Examples include the book The Artist’s Way, a 12-week self-guided process to unblock and deepen your creativity. You can live your whole life as a creative quest, as in Gandhi’s autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth.
Benefits of a creative quest
- Momentum. The emphasis is on moving forward with the process and less on the results.
- Focus. A creative quest helps narrow focus without closing off new ideas.
- Permission. For some, it’s permission to make time and space in our lives for creative expression. For me, it’s permission to explore topics that are sometimes uncomfortable.
Creative Quest #1
Creative quests are the foundation of my current artistic practice. One creative quest I’m on now is around the cycles of life and death. So far, this quest has brought me to the Zen Hospice Guest House in the Haight, an open mic event at The Lost Church in the Mission and more. Read on for more about this creative quest (and how you can help) >>
After years of thinking I needed to “overcome” all my fears before taking action, one observation made all the difference
When “rationality” is fear in disguise
Every step of the way, fear has cast its familiar shadow. Fear of not getting a job amidst the 2008 financial crisis. Fear of making the wrong choices. Fear of illness. And so on.
I had considered my fears entirely rational and absolute truth. Reflections of the inexorable laws of nature and economics. Furthermore, as a modern “fearless” woman, I wasn’t supposed to have fears anyway.
Whenever I had an idea to create anything or to do something outside the Traditional Life Path, I told myself, “I’ll do X when I have addressed all of my rational concerns.”
That would make sense, right? To first “overcome” all of my fears before taking action.
I’m thankful for the educational and career momentum I’ve had over the past 10 years. Yet oddly, as a result of this way of thinking, I still felt “stuck.”
Desires > fears
About this time last year, when I was discerning my next steps and had just started making art again, I met with some people whom I admired. I realized that they didn’t live in an alternate universe, where there was nothing to fear.
They lived in the same world, with the same physical and economic hazards. They weren’t 100% “fearless” either. They woke up in the middle of the night with their concerns too.
However, I noticed that one difference was that their desires outweighed their fears. They were clear on their desires. They wanted them strongly enough that they were willing to do what they could to manage their fears and pursue their desires anyway. They weren’t waiting for their fears to go away entirely.
They would take one small step and then another in the direction of their dreams, with their fears and desires side by side, forever.
This observation inspired the artwork above. Big thank you to the brave folks who contributed your fears and desires!
After years of thinking something was “wrong” with me, I finally found a model that works
Interested in everything
I have a lot of interests, as you saw from my previous message on combinatory play. In college, I was the kid who wanted to major in everything.
As a product manager and product marketing manager, I’m thankful that my career experiences so far have been so interdisciplinary. I've also enjoyed making art again after 10 years, completing a yoga teacher training program, writing and pursuing a number of other interests outside of work.
For a some of my peers who have picked something and stuck with it, I’ve seen how far they've gone in their careers. What was wrong with me? Why couldn't I "stick to something"? Why did I feel like I was the only one who approached life this way?
Recently I read a book called Refuse to Choose by Barbara Sher. The book describes people called “scanners”. She calls them this “because instead of diving down into the depths of an interest, we scanned the horizon for many interests.”
Expecting such a person to pick one specialty for life as his or her singular “passion” and forfeit all other curiosities is like expecting someone with wanderlust to pick their favorite country and stop traveling.
Leonardo da Vinci and Benjamin Franklin are popular examples. Related terms include: Renaissance people, polymaths and multipotentialites.
There are also several types of scanners. For example, some seek mastery in a subject before moving onto another one, while others are satisfied with a “101”-level understanding.
I’ve read all sorts of career advice over the years and oddly this was the first time I encountered anything like this. It's comforting to know there are more of us out there like this.
I now embrace my curiosity and breadth of skills and interests. I also noticed that the career experiences I’m most proud of are those in which I made unique connections across different disciplines.
No matter what’s next in my career journey, I hope to incorporate such themes moving forward.
Does this sound like you, or like someone you know or manage? I’ve included some resources below. I would love to hear from your experiences and any helpful resources you’ve encountered along the way.
"Curiosity is, in great and generous minds, the first passion and the last.” ― Samuel Johnson, Works of Samuel Johnson
- Book, Refuse to Choose by Barbara Sher
- TEDx Talk, Emilie Wapnick: Why some of us don't have one true calling
- Emilie Wapnick's site Puttylike, a home for multipotentialites
- SuperSoul TV, Elizabeth Gilbert: Flight of the Hummingbird - The Curiosity-Driven Life
- 99U, Framing Your Creative Expertise
- NYTimes, The Lives of Millennial Career Jugglers
How a four-day silent retreat gave me a taste of true mental rest
I welcomed the New Year through a four-day silent retreat. This is the story of how the process helped me feel, even briefly, true mental rest for the first time.
Voracious mind, as a strength
My mind has always been voracious. As a child, I constantly read everything — even the obscure ingredients on the back of the cereal box at breakfast.
Usually you can’t tell when someone is “thinking.” In spite of this, my constant thinking is sometimes evident on first impression. Upon meeting my friend’s mother for the first time, she mentioned that I look as if “the wheels are always turning up there.” My friends would tell me repeatedly, “Just be chill” or (in the words of my Latin American classmates) “Relajate,muchacha.”
Over the years, such constant thinking has been one of my strengths. I’m naturally curious. I have a number of interdisciplinary interests. I have explored several distinct roles and industries in my career so far. In my daily life, I pair rote tasks or transportation with a queue of audiobooks or podcasts. My voracious mind has been critical in being able to digest all of this content, to perform on exams and to manage and ship multiple competing cross-functional projects at work.
This hunger of the thinking mind is a separate from intelligence or any other mental faculty. The content of my ruminations doesn’t matter— the point is that my mind was always thinking about something, without respite.
Voracious mind, as a weakness
Every strength can become a weakness. In this case, my ever-thinking mind was a big blind spot — I had no idea I was unable to experience true mental rest. Here are the three main drivers for why:
First, I didn’t know what “mental rest” was. I guess it’s something we all do but don’t really talk about. I understood the need for physical rest and the concept of a repetitive stress injury, but I didn’t understand mental rest was a thing. When a leadership coach once described something called “mental rest,” I was surprised and embarrassed to have so many follow-up questions. (I never guessed that a year after that conversation I would write this post.)
Second, “rest” was low on my list of priorities. As a daughter of immigrants working in a fast-paced industry, coupled with my many interests, unsurprisingly I was a workaholic. I had so many interests and wanted to do so much.
Finally, I thought I was already resting. For example, I prioritize sleep and I meditate daily. Once in awhile, I watch TV or movies or go on vacation. These activities can indeed be restful. Through this silent retreat I found a different quality of rest.
For the mind to be still, it helps a lot if the things around it (like the body) are still as well. For example, during a yoga class a few years ago, I was fidgeting so much during savasana that the instructor put 10 pound sandbags on each of my arms to help me hold still.
Now imagine scaling up this concept to include the limitation of other sensory input and output. As expected, during the silent retreat there was no need to talk. Everyone’s phone was on Airplane Mode. Even reading and journaling was discouraged. Cradled by a routine of meals, meditation and various other activities, our daily survival was taken care of — we didn’t need to think about what we were doing next.
For the first two days, my hungry mind continued to churn. I became acutely aware of the presence and power of my thinking mind in a way I hadn’t before. My body also felt its own accumulated tiredness, so I slept a lot.
My mind chewed on its usual topics — the pros and cons of future plans, or how things could have been different in the past. After two days of cycling through this content repeatedly, I had no more excuses: I could no longer believe that my constant thinking was 100% useful, urgent or important.
By the third day, my body and mind felt more rested. During a meditation that day, I experienced a place of stillness beyond my thinking mind.
I felt as though I had found a dial on the radio and slowly turned down the volume of the talk show of my thinking mind, until I couldn’t turn the dial any further.
And for a few minutes I experienced what remained — a stillness. A stillness that I can only describe as solid, like a bedrock. A deeper, truer state of mental rest.
Dental floss for the brain
When friends ask me how the retreat went, I call it dental floss for the brain. The week after the retreat, back among my normal surroundings, I was surprised to continue to feel so rested and refreshed. For the first time, the “thinking work” I usually love to do and can’t stop myself from doing (like reading, writing, making art or future planning) didn’t feel as urgent.
I don’t claim to be “enlightened” or to speak on behalf of all silent retreat participants. I can’t guarantee what experiences you’d have on a silent retreat. I don’t know that much more about the place of stillness than what I have described, or whether I’ll be able to experience it again.
What I do know is this: I’m thankful for this brief experience of deep mental rest. I’m glad that such a place of stillness exists. I’d be open to participating in a silent retreat again. I look forward to exploring more ways to incorporate mental rest into my daily life.
“Combinatory play” can be described as “the process of taking unrelated things (thoughts, ideas, topics, images, disciplines, etc.) and putting them together to generate new, useful ideas.” 
For example, “Einstein famously came up with some of his best scientific ideas during his violin breaks, which he believed connected different parts of his brain in new ways.” 
“Combinatory play” sums up what I’m up to at this stage of my sabbatical. I'm collecting a variety of enriching experiences around certain themes and keeping an open mind of the results. My approach to “R&D,” if you will.
For example, in the theme of “Nature,” I went on my first backpacking trip, became certified in Wilderness First Aid and participated in a foraging walk in Golden Gate Park.
At the intersection of “Nature” and “Art,” I took a class at the San Francisco Art Institute on Environmental Installation.
In the theme of “Art,” I’m taking my first poetry class, at the Writing Salon in Berkeley. I'm also working on my art book and exploring various projects at my shared art studio space in the Mission (more on those in future email updates).
And so on.
Process vs. results
This process of Combinatory Play is separate from its results.
Furthermore, those results can be expected and unexpected. Those results can also be immediate or later.
For example, in 2012 I completed a 200-hour yoga teacher training program. Some results were immediate and expected (e.g. a stronger yoga practice).
Some results were immediate and unexpected (e.g. decision not to teach yoga at the time), while other results were later and unexpected (e.g. inspired several art pieces I created in 2015, such as this).
In a similar way, I’m doing this process of Combinatory Play around certain themes, but keeping an open mind to the results.
While some of these endeavors have already borne fruit in the most unexpected of ways (more on that in future updates), I understand that some may come up in my art life or tech life years from now… or maybe never.
With that in mind, I select activities that I enjoy and can learn from, so that at the very least, I have fun and have learned something new.
"How we choose to pay attention, and relate to information and each other shapes who we become, shapes our creative destiny and, in turn, shapes our experience of the world." 
I was just interviewed live for a podcast show based in South Africa, for a content hub that’s Africa’s biggest podcast provider, to share my experiences reconnecting with one’s creative side and pursuing your creative calling while working full-time. I'm at 11:55-21:55 on http://iono.fm/e/223116.
This opportunity was a surprise. It was the first time I had done anything like this.
My first instinct was to listen to my inner critic and to say no. My next instinct was to over-prepare, to isolate the variables I could control. I eventually accepted that I can’t predict all of the interviewer’s questions and I might mess up, but it was worth it to put myself out there and share my story anyway.
So here’s to overcoming perfectionism, experiencing vulnerability, having a bias to yes, edging outside of one's comfort zone and putting oneself out there.
After 5 years in Silicon Valley and 2 amazing years as a product manager on the MoPub team, today is my last day at Twitter. I am incredibly thankful for the many opportunities I have had across Google, MoPub and Twitter and for the chance to learn so much from the Silicon Valley community.
I’m taking a sabbatical to “reset” before the next stage in my career. During this time, I hope to make more art, to travel and to research the future of labor markets.
The theme for my sabbatical that spans all of these: Space.
Space to create.
Space to consider the next 5, 10, 20+ years of technology.
Space to explore and to rest.
Space to reflect on the lives we’re designing for ourselves and for one another.
“Between stimulus & response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth & our freedom.” — Viktor Frankl
During this sabbatical, I hope to have the space to bring to life the “backlog” of art I’d like to make and techniques I want to explore. I also hope to make further progress on my art book.
Set foundation for a creative life
The desire for creative expression will be with me for life. I look forward to a lifetime of weaving together “Art” and “Everything Else in Life,” well into old age. As this video from the Institute on Aging demonstrates, even the physical limitations of these elderly participants did not stop them from making art.
I believe in carving out space in one’s life for creative expression, turning it up and down based on one’s circumstances. I’m very thankful for the circumstances that have enabled me to turn up art at this stage in my life.
For the past 10 months, I’ve been pursuing my creative calling while working full-time. Weekends, evenings, early mornings. This balancing act was constant practice in making tradeoffs in how I spend my time.
In light of this view of a lifetime of creative expression, I see this sabbatical as “rebalancing my portfolio,” as they say in finance; I’m currently “under-invested” in the art part of my life. I look forward to navigating the next steps in my career with a “rebalanced portfolio.”
I look forward to a lifetime of creative expression, no matter what my primary profession. I enjoy working in tech. Seperately, I believe there’s “something there” at the intersection of technology and art that I haven’t quite figured out yet.
I make art because it brings me joy. I experience a combination of autonomy, mastery and purpose. I hope seeing my work on your smartphone or on the walls of your home or workspace brings you a moment of joy as well.
“Do you have the courage? Do you have the courage to bring forth this work? The treasures that are hidden inside you are hoping you will say yes.” — Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic
Future of Labor Markets
I was in college when the iPhone 2G and the first iOS development classes first came out. When I first started working, the grown-ups were trying to wrap their heads around “geo-local-social.” Now, 5 years later, cars drive themselves. It’s interesting to consider, “What’s next?”
I would like to research and form an “investment thesis” in the area of the Future of Labor Markets, something I’ve been curious about for the past 5 years. My interest roughly corresponds to “One Million Jobs” in YC’s Request for Startups and Homebrew’s Bottom Up Economy.
In one of my college classes, we compared the car assembly lines of Detroit (illustrated by the book Rivethead) and the more collaborative car assembly lines of Uddavella Volvo (similar case study). I had thought there was only 1 most efficient and profitable way to create a product or to perform a task; the class demonstrated how work can be designed and how that design impacts workers, businesses and consumers.
This interest is in the theme of making space to reflect on the lives we’re designing for ourselves and for one another, as technology is shifting the needs of workers, businesses and consumers. I look forward to sharing a more focused project description in the coming weeks.
I look forward to the space to rest. The cycles of work and rest are undervalued by our linear view of time and productivity. I hope to travel in early 2016. I also look forward to exploring more of the beautiful outdoors of Northern California.
Making space for a sabbatical is something I have wanted to do for years. This decision comes after a year of personal introspection — clarifying and validating my desires, learning to manage my fears, making tradeoffs and taking action, as demonstrated by 10 months pursuing my creative calling while working full-time.
I see these aforementioned areas of interest as experiments I’ll perform in the coming months. I am thankful for the multitude of Life Variables and Life Tradeoffs that clicked into place that has given me the opportunity to make space for these explorations. I look forward to keeping an open mind to what may come in the months ahead.
“I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity.” ― Gilda Radner
To fellow working professionals with a closet creative side — artists, writers, photographers, actors, poets, dancers, filmmakers, singers, musicians (this somehow conjures up in my mind an image of a joyous bacchanalian procession but with iPhones) who have been told throughout most of your life (probably by the people who love you the most) that such passions are fleeting, not practical and generally don’t matter, yet have an ongoing feeling you can’t quite shake that something’s “missing” — this post is dedicated to you.
I have loved making art since I was a child. I drew on the walls. I tried, unsuccessfully, to convince my mother to convert our laundry room into an art studio. In high school, I took weekend classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
In college, I stopped making art. I explored my other interests across technology and the social sciences. As the daughter of Filipino-American immigrants, I directed my studies and activities towards getting a job after graduation. I joined business groups and did internships, including one on Wall Street. Amidst these endeavors and career-related considerations, I didn’t think art was “worth” making.
And besides, I wasn’t the “best” at it. There was always some other kid in the art class whose work the teacher liked better anyway. Socially, I didn’t fit in among the hipsters who studied art and creative writing.
I have been working in tech for the past five years. The work is fulfilling in many different ways, yet I still felt like something was missing.
When I thought about the last ten years of my life as a college student and working professional, I noticed that art kept coming up again, even if I didn’t create art myself. In addition to the pursuits mentioned above, in college I had also volunteered to do art projects with hospital patients, led an art studio course for non-art majors and led two initiatives to apply technology to share art — all activities that made art more approachable to others. I eventually concluded that whatever I was going to do in life, art would be some part of it.
I also noticed more and more working professionals quietly pursuing their creative interests outside of work, mostly around music. The product marketing manager recording an album. The business development manager slowly assembling a home studio, one Amazon shipment at a time. The sales manager playing in a string quartet. Engineers and product managers taking up DJ-ing and participating in local capella groups and jazz bands. The list goes on — across photography, dance, filmmaking, writing and more.
For those of us who feel a strong need for creative expression, this feeling is with us for life. Indulging such creative expression is a fool’s errand; at the same time, so is suppressing it.
We can’t all drop our responsibilities to create full-time. But there’s a gray area between all or nothing, in which making a little bit of space for creative expression amidst life’s circumstances is both 1) worthwhile and 2) possible.
So, how does a working professional carve out space in his or her life for creative expression?
This is the story about how I created 70+ art pieces and the foundation for an upcoming art book while working full-time.
The 70+ day challenge
I had concluded that art would be some part of my life, but I didn’t know where to start, so I kept an eye out for relevant wisdom. This post, this postand a leadership workshop with Maria Molfino shifted my worldview and helped me face my inner critic — certain “rational” thought patterns aimed at safety and self-preservation.
These were the same thought patterns that were discouraging me from making art. I learned how to manage such thoughts more constructively. As a result, I started making art again for the first time in years.
For my first project, I painted a commission for a YC startup’s office in Palo Alto. I enjoyed the experience, so to keep up the momentum, on Saturdays I took a class at the San Francisco Art Institute with Sarah Stolar.
The teacher’s proposed class assignment sounded simple: a daily 10-minute sketch each of the 70+ days of the class, to prepare for larger projects later in the class. In the instructor’s experience assigning this, only 1 student had ever completed it.
Over several nights, during what’s otherwise “Netflix time,” my quick sketches evolved into standalone conceptual pieces. By the end of the course, I created 70+ pieces. The work evolved into an interactive installation that highlights a curated selection of 30 pieces. I’m currently working on transforming this collection of pieces into a book.
If you had told me January that this is what would happen with my work by May, I would not have believed you. All in all, I feel more complete, at peace and alive.
As a bonus, I experienced a solid month of euphoria. During that time, I was grinning from ear to ear. Amidst the state of flow and the unexpected outpouring of support from those with whom the work resonates, emerged a combination of autonomy, mastery and purpose. My seemingly ongoing mid-quarter life crisis found brief respite in this newly found equilibrium.
Now that the class is over, the logical question is, “What’s next? Will you drop everything and be an artist? Or are you satisfied now and will you stop doing it?”
Based on my experience with this project, I have a different approach, and I would like to share it with other working professionals with a creative side:
What if you start from the assumption that this need for creative expression will be with you for life? How might you carve out some space in your life for it, turning it up and down based on your current circumstances?
This essay is about the process behind creating art daily for 70+ days, and what I’ve learned from making space to pursue my creative calling while pursuing my career.
For those of us who feel a strong need for creative expression, this feeling is with us for life. I believe making at least a little bit of space for creative expression amidst one’s current circumstances is both 1) worthwhile and 2) possible.
The creative gift, for life
The following encounter hit it home that this desire for creative expression is here to stay. I had the aforementioned commission framed at a reputable frame shop in San Francisco. When I went to pick up the framed work, the accountant finalized the paperwork. She was a middle-aged Asian immigrant woman who could have easily been an auntie.
She cheerfully whispered to me, “I’m so happy to see an Asian! There’s no Asian artists who come here. Are these for your show? I wanted to be a musician, but my parents wouldn’t let me so I’m an accountant. My brother is good at drawing but he’s an engineer. Whatever you do, follow your dreams!”
She continued, “My son wants to design staging and lighting, and I let him. He tells me, ‘Mom you’re not like other Asian parents.’ Follow your dreams!”
Huh. This desire for creative expression among working professionals was more prevalent than I had thought. I was not alone. The desire for creative expression was not a “phase” we can grow out of, or something specific to idealistic millennials. For those of us who feel the desire for creative expression, this would be with us for life.
The creative gift meets the rational allocation of scarce resources
In college, I went to an excellent talk that gave career advice to pursue the Venn diagram of 1) my interests, 2) my skills and 3) the market (example of a similar visual). Such an elegant Powerpoint slide. How hard could this be?
And it makes sense to prioritize practical pursuits over art. In such a highly competitive economic environment, the most rational thing to do is to allocate my scarce resources of time, energy and youth towards building something lucrative and scalable. Diverting resources from more economically rational activities, even as a hobby, is the evolutionary equivalent of willfully standing in front of an oncoming bus.
Furthermore, human civilization has been able to mass-produce aesthetically pleasing images for more than 1000 years. It’s irrational and economically inefficient to spend even some part of my life making them.
If this is all so simple and logical, what’s wrong with me? Why do I still want to make art?
Shouldn’t this fear of scarcity and this logical deduction have chased away the desire for creative expression?
I am thankful that I have had the opportunity to align my career with such a model and it is fulfilling in many different ways, so why do I still feel incomplete?
I don’t know.
The data suggests that our ancient ancestors had shorter lifespans and greater challenges with basic survival, yet still spent resources to make art. With respect to the visual arts:
“Though fully modern humans have lived on the earth for over 100,000 years, the dates assigned to the earliest objects classed as “art” go back about 40,000 years. Earlier humans had crafted tools out of stone and fragments of bone, but what inspired them to make detailed representations of forms found in nature? Some scholars suppose that image making and symbolic language as we know it are the result of the new structure of the brain associated with homo sapiens sapiens.
…Whatever led to the ability to create art, whether a gradual evolutionary process, or a sudden mutation, it has an enormous impact on the emergence of human culture, including the making of naturalistic images. Such works force us to reevaluate many of our assumptions about art and the creative process, and raise fundamental questions, not least of which is why human beings make art at all.” Janson’s History of Art: The Western Tradition, Seventh Edition, pages 1–2
The perplexing, hand-wringing details from the outside world about whether a given act of creative expression is a hobby or a business, is there a market for it, will an authority figure externally validate one’s work and baptize it as “real” art — all of these absolutes and labeling and judging miss the point.
Should you only take up running if you’re planning to run a marathon? Or aiming to win an Olympic medal?
I argue that making room in your life for art, even though it may not seem economically rational, is worthwhile and possible — and if you don’t, you risk feeling like something’s missing in your life well past your mid-life crisis.
The following three specific practices were effective in helping me make enough room in my life to create art over 70+ days.
1. Performing the creative process
The project that my teacher at the San Francisco Art Institute had assigned was to do a daily sketch. Stated otherwise, the project was to show up each day to perform the creative process with an open mind. The project was not to pick a clear goal (e.g. “2 really good paintings”) and work backwards. If I had done that, I would have never created this series.
Why not? I needed quantity to get quality. By starting out already having the end state in mind, I would have capped my upside, as they say in finance. Having a fresh start each day gave me an opportunity to grow artistically, because I could work on a new idea that came up during the day, or incorporate something I learned the day before about how different materials worked with one another. As this excerpt illustrates:
“The instructor divided the class into two groups for their final weeklong project. The students in the first group were told that their entire semester’s grade would be based on each student producing one pot — the very best, most perfect pot possible — by Friday. The second group’s grades would be based only on the number of pots they could produce by Friday. Guess whose pots were better? The group with the most practice, of course!
The moral: Paint many paintings. Paint every day that you can. Maybe you’ll like only a handful of the many you create. Success is made up of many small failures and the decision to challenge every one of them.” — Chris Saper, Painting Beautiful Skin Tones with Color and Light, page 12
My daily success criteria was not about the quality of the individual piece (i.e. the end result) but whether or not I made time to try to make something.
Through the momentum of the daily sketch format, I practiced managing my fear of failure. I knew that if I ended up not liking a piece, I could try again the next day. In addition, the structure and community of a class provided accountability, feedback and practice for carving out time for art (at the very least to attend the class each week).
To unhook from praise and criticism, I waited until I had finished a number of pieces before starting to post to social media. There’s a time and place to adjust one’s work in response to external feedback, but in this embryonic phase of starting to create art again, waiting to post helped me stay true to my own ideas.
2. Minimizing friction to make it easy
I applied behavioral design thinking to make performing the creative process each day as easy as possible. To start, I chose the materials of ink and watercolors because they lend themselves to quick iteration much more than canvas and oil paint.
To reduce daily setup cost, I put a small table in the kitchen of my apartment as my workspace. This became my “sacred space,” as Elle Luna describes in her book, The Crossroads of Should and Must. I didn’t need a studio. In fact, having a studio would have increased my daily setup cost, since I would need to go the studio each day. Gobble enabled me to make a quick and healthy dinners in between layers of paint.
When I traveled for work, I brought a pared down set of supplies and created some pieces during a few pockets of downtime in airports and hotels.
Setting up the project to have clear start and end dates was key to sustaining mental commitment. The finite duration of my project helped me stay focused. I felt more comfortable deprioritizing certain things since I knew I could address them after a specific date when the class was over.
3. Working with your current skill level
I soon discovered that my classmates were more advanced in their technical painting skills.
Undeterred, I took the opportunity to focus on other aspects of the art creation process, especially in making stronger visual metaphors. Creating each piece was a puzzle — how might I convey a given idea in a memorable way that was still within my technical skill level? I also took the opportunity to experiment with other materials and techniques.
The capacity for creative expression is not proportional to technical skill with a medium. In this TED Talk, Cristina Domenech describes teaching a writing workshop at a prison in Argentina. The inmates’ limited educational backgrounds didn’t stop them from writing two books of compelling poetry.Creative expression has the power to break the logic of defined systems, no matter what skill level one brings to the table.
1. Making tradeoffs
The biggest barrier to sticking to the project was not cost of the class and the supplies, but the prioritization of time. During this project, time felt even more precious than it already is. To make space in my life to create art, I needed to re-evaluate how I was spending my time and have the courage to say no to some things. If I didn’t need to say no to anything, I would have already been doing this.
For example, for the duration of the project, I gave up most of my already minimal social life and some exercise. My mind is clearest in the morning, so sometimes I woke up at 6:00 am to finish a piece from the previous night before heading to work.
Setting up the project to have clear start and end dates was key to sustaining mental commitment. The finite duration of my project helped me stay focused. I felt more comfortable deprioritizing certain things since I knew I could address them after a specific date when the class was over.
2. Unfinished business
The constraint of limited time has some benefits, such as forcing time prioritization decisions and pushing creative boundaries to simplify the execution of pieces.
However, the perfectionist in me would love to finish or redo some pieces. This would increase the yield of strong pieces as well as assuage my frustration of knowing how they could be better. Nonetheless, I had to discern of when to let go of finishing a piece and develop the discipline to move on.
3. Hitting the Exhaustion Wall
A characteristic of the state of flow is an altered perception of time. “10 minutes a day” gradually bloomed into longer periods of time. I didn’t notice it at first, as years’ worth of uncreated art came to life. But over the several months of the project, the hours added up.
Similar to the concept of athletic overtraining, I hit a two-week period that I call the “Exhaustion Wall.” I was so tired in the evenings that I could barely motivate myself to start a piece, much less to set up and to clean up paint. As Danielle Laporte put it:
The journey has to feel the way you want the destination to feel.
At this point, the journey was not feeling that great. On one hand, I hacked around it. Inspired by a video of Matisse’s work, I started working with paper cutouts, which have their own unique expressive quality as well as comparatively minimal cleanup.
On the other hand, physical exhaustion eventually trumped discipline. I learned when to back off, rest and better pace myself going forward.
Learning from this, I am experimenting with more sustainable ways to make art going forward. For example, I could continue with the daily sketch format, but actually cap it at 10 minutes a day. Or have two cycles of creativity a year, in the spring and in the fall. And so on.
I look to examples of celebrated creative minds, from poet Robert Frost to composer Charles Ives to actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who for at least some part of their lives had careers outside of the creative work for which they are known today. In various cases, having careers provided the financial support for them to kick off their creative work, practice their craft and even explore experimental directions that were ahead of their time. They were able to figure out a way to make it work. All in all, having a career did not discourage them from creating.
Worthwhile and possible
I found it easy to say no to making art with the mindset that it’s all or nothing: that the only options available were to create art full-time, or not to express my creativity at all. It was more challenging, yet rewarding, to do neither extreme — to carve out a little bit of space for art in my life and to manage the tradeoffs that come with it.
To my friends and fellow creative spirits who supported me throughout this project: thank you. I continue to believe it’s 1) worthwhile and 2) possible to make space for creative expression. No matter how great life seems when your career is in order and you’re doing some fancy, important stuff every day, something feels missing without creative expression. With joy and peace, I have chosen to welcome a little bit of creative expression into my life, even if it can be at times a difficult guest.
“He understood that the task of molding the incoherent and dizzying stuff that dreams are made of is the most difficult work man can undertake, even if he fathoms all the enigmas of the higher and lower spheres — much more difficult than weaving a rope of sand or minting coins of the faceless wind.” — Jorge Luis Borges, The Circular Ruins
P.S. I’m working on transforming this collection of art pieces into a photo book that I would love to share with you — a story about moving through fear towards creative expression, told through a “gallery tour” of the 30 works in the installation, and the pieces of wisdom that inspired each of them. Sign up to receive updates on this book and other creative projects and events. Best wishes on your own journey making a little bit of space in your life for creative expression.