For Barbara, the day after her graduation ceremony felt like the first time she ate sushi. She knew it was coming, she knew what it looked like, she had even watched others go through the experience, but it wasn’t until she held a piece of yellow tail with sea urchin to her lips that her stomach turned and the ceiling tiles became floor tiles. She was prepared, but she was not ready.
To make matters worse, her degree was in painting and drawing with a minor in art history. What was she thinking? She would never be able to support herself with this very expensive, debt-covered education. Why was she so stupid, so naïve not to realize this day would come? What was she thinking? Why didn’t she listen to her father and go to law school or look for a good man, husband material, while she was in college as her older sister had counseled? And all this took place on her way back to her seat after being handed her diploma.
While the next day was better, it was so only because it was familiar. Her emotions, her thoughts, her anxieties now hung about her neck like a small asafetida bag, quite pungent and ever present.
She was looking back and forward at the same time. Her life had always been about “the work.” As a little girl, when money was tight, she would draw on the cardboard sheets used to separate stacks of canned foods in their shipping containers. They also became the arms and legs of her paper sculpture, the wings and panel for a mobile, even the bridges and walls of a futuristic city. While she had friends and family that loved her, her love was the work. It made her feel special, not by comparison with others, neither more or less talented, but just special.
When she lost her mother to a drunk driver and her father two years later to cancer, her work gave her a context for her grief, a safe place to explore her feelings, resolve her conflicts and develop her own sense of self-worth. Her work was both a sanctuary and a fortress. It was not something she stepped into like pants or shoes, but a part of her like a tattoo that could be added on to and could grow. She knew instinctively, a sense of natural knowing, that while she was unsure and a little afraid, her connection with her work would nurture and guide her future.
Stop this, she told herself, making a fist in both protest and resolve. I have talent, imagination, energy and a degree. I have a great deal to offer the world of art. So she went to work painting her vision of the world, looking to depict on her canvas images and ideas that would communicate to and touch others. Her ambition was strong and so was her need to create. She would do whatever it took, for as long as it took, to find her visual voice, to speak through her work to others.
If pride and fear could co-exist on two sides of a spinning coin, she would succeed.
This was six years ago.
While not totally disillusioned by the cynical world of dealers, galleries and brokers, she was tired of a 60-hour week, being the gofer in line to be a slave for an advertising executive. By the time she had time to paint, she was too tired or too strung out or just too scared of the big white empty canvas hiding under her bed. She kept telling herself that doing the work she loved, her art, could wait. All she needed was to save enough money so that she could quit her menial job and paint full time. This sacrifice would be over soon. Soon got further and further away. Even though her job was not much, she ate well, had a door with a key and on occasion even leftover perks were dropped her way.
In July of the fourth year of her “six-month” agency job, her boss asked her, “Don’t you have some kind of artsy background?” He put her to work at a drawing board filling in for a junior art director on vacation.
After her first day she said to herself, I can do this. And she could. In fact, she was very good. So good that she was promoted to assistant art director. The only problem with the position was that it was not salaried. It was freelance work, paid by the hour. If she was good, fast and the agency “bag men” could and would bring her enough to do, she would make a great deal of money. She moved to a better apartment, bought new clothes for the first time since college, and even bought a used car.
Things started to move well for her. She was several steps up the ladder, no longer at the bottom being stepped on by others on the way up.
After only a few more months she was earning $100 an hour for her time. If she came in early and left late she could earn $1,000 a day, $5,000 a week. If she forgot vacations, worked when she was sick and worked through holidays, she could earn $260,000 a year. She did the math in her head, on note paper, even in the condensation on her office window. Her life would now be set. But...
If she took 30 minutes for lunch, it would cost her $50, that’s $250 a week just to eat. I don’t think so. Breakfast and dinner would be plenty. Damn those holidays. They were costing her dearly. The dentist, the doctor. Who has the time. I’m sure I’ll be okay.
When another group in the agency had weekend work, Barbara was there. A rush job, have to pull an all-nighter, Barbara was your girl. New Year’s Day? Any day.
She was working very hard on everything. She helped introduce a new toothpaste, promoted ridership of a suburban bus service, created a cartoon character spokesman for a lawn service company. Barbara even helped decide how many chips of butterscotch should be in each “new” Aunt May’s Old Fashioned Country Cookies. She was successful, but not a success.
On Saturday, the first Saturday in months she was not at the office, Barbara was loading up a rented moving van with her things. Finally she was stepping up to a new place. She picked up her night stand which she’d had next to her bed from house to house to dorm to walk-up.
As she turned the stand upside down to carry it more easily down the stairs, her legs became weak, her eyes would not function, focus was lost and what was up was now down. She could no longer stand, but she could fall, and she did.
Alone at the bottom of the stairs she slowly awoke staring at the bottom of the stand. It was a painting of a mythical kingdom she had drawn as a girl of ten.
The fall was not just down three stair sets but back eighteen years. Back to a feeling, to her work, her art. She was remembering what she had forgotten.
For most of us, the act of living requires concentration like that of a running back moving through a field of potential tacklers. Attention is focused on the next and closest obstacle to be overcome. Then the next and the next. If the lines were not painted on the ground, many a runner might lose his way. It’s a matter of perspective.
Many businesses, like people, go through the same process. The quarter to quarter evaluation by the bosses and the bosses’ bosses do not permit the kind of visionary planning and introspective thinking that guides a business's future. Long-term success requires the establishment of goals that require more than one generation of management to attain and the willingness to share that vision and that challenge with everyone in the organization.
Like Barbara, we need to remember our passion, refocus our experiences and share the vision with others if we are to accomplish our goals and fulfill our potential.