Approximately two years ago, my life was going in a few directions I hadn’t expected at all, and I was not in a great place. Friends, relationships, jobs – there was hardly anything that I had anticipated, and quite a few of them were painfully surprising. I’ve long been a fan of TED talks, and had been hearing great things about Brené Brown’s talks, so I decided to check them out. If you know me now, you’ll know that I’m ALL about her work, which you can find through her first and second TED talks, as well as her incredible book, Daring Greatly. Reading the book is one of those experiences where you suddenly know that these are the things that are so tricky and so worth it and so hard to begin doing. Her work on things like vulnerability and connection and authenticity has influenced me greatly as both a human and an artist, and I was excited to find a talk she gave recently at the 99U Conference on vulnerability, specifically regarding creativity.
Her book title comes from a speech Theodore Roosevelt gave at the Sorbonne in 1910, which has come to be known as the Man in the Arena speech. It talks about how the critic isn’t the one who really counts, how it’s not about pointing out how people could do things better or how they have already failed. But that in fact, it is all about the person in the arena, the one actually doing all the things, the one covered in dust and sweat and blood, and the one who tries again and again and again. It is about the willingness to go back in, time after time, even (and especially) when you know that you may not succeed. It is about the truth that if you win, you know true success, and if you lose, you do so daring greatly. You’re out there trying and giving your whole self, and it’s not always fun, but it is extraordinarily important. Brené jumps off of this central theme – that of daring greatly – and applies it beautifully to creativity. She reminds us in this talk that if you want to show up and be seen in your work and your life, “there is only one guarantee: you will get your ass kicked.” No one tells you about the ass kicking when you’re dreaming or just excited about a project without having thought through the details. No one warns you about the ass kicking found in long days and short nights and lack of sleep and printer miscommunications. It’s hard. Life can be hard. AND we need to remember that the ass kicking and the losing and the failing is part of showing up and being seen and daring greatly.
I think the biggest thing I took away from the talk was one of her first points – about the perspiration that comes from fear, the perspiration that comes when we are talking about something we care about deeply or have worked on for a long time or is incredibly meaningful to us. I don’t know about you, but in my experience, it is absolutely terrifying to even think about sharing an idea outside of my brain. Once it’s out of my brain, it could be something that is real, and in my let’s-go-immediately-to-the-worst-case-scenario brain, that means that it could be a failure. Is failure guaranteed? Definitely not. But it is still a possibility, and it’s not a fun one. As I’ve been navigating my experience as an artist, and even my journey to calling myself an artist, it’s been anxiety-inducing and stress-dream-creating and so much more. The voices of my critics say things like, “You didn’t go to school to be an artist!” or “You hardly have any experience! How could people want you?” or “You don’t know anything about graphic design, so how could you make any progress in such a digital age?” Critics are hard. And as she reminds us, the critics will always be there. There’s no getting away from them, especially the top three critics of shame, scarcity, and comparison, as well as what often turns out to be our harshest critic – ourselves. But if we reserve seats for them, knowing what they will say before we are in those situations, we can be prepared to hear them and see them, but to show up and do whatever it is that we are doing anyway.
While the critics can be really loud and a bit too present at times, we also get to reserve seats for the people on our home team. Your home team is made up of the people who tell you how awful it truly was, and how brave you were. They tell you how it’s time to get back out there, and continually love and support you in big and small and average ways. And the best part? They don’t love you despite your imperfections. They love you BECAUSE of them. I’m absolutely flabbergasted most of the time when I think about the people who make up my home team, and the people who have supported me on this journey so far. I would be absolutely nowhere without them, or any of you, and could not be more grateful. As I’m embarking on some exciting projects and learning to see my critics and acknowledge my gremlins and show up anyway, I hope you do too. You’re much too important and valuable to keep yourself down, you beautiful, talented, brilliant, powerful musk oxen.
PS: For my show currently up at Baker Miller, I made this piece of the Theodore Roosevelt quote - if you're in Chicago, you can go see it in person and get some ridiculously delicious baked goods while you're at it!