Friday, September 26, 2008

client case study: leaving volunteer work

Shauna Lee Lange Arts Advisory was contacted in September by a woman artist client who was faced with a difficult decision that many artists face. She had been dedicating part of her time to a prestigious institution by volunteering her ideas, energy, enthusiasm, and management skills and over the course of volunteering, had happily seen the organization stabilize and solidify.

Problem is, she wasn't getting paid for the volunteering and her own works weren't selling. She was feeling that her own interests were suffering and she was seeing that others who were more centrally dedicated and focused were achieving the "success" that she aspired to. She battled a "Type A" personality trait to "do it all" and worried that in giving up this activity, she would be falling short of all she could give.

I grew up on the east coast, near the water. One of my first childhood memories is walking the beach in the middle of winter, so cute with my little artificial fur coat on. I've lived on a few islands. I drink water even when I'm not thirsty. When you are a water sign, you live near the water, you long for island life, you might even collect shells and you develop a somewhat watery personality - always looking for the ground to next flow. When you're not near the water, you look at all the travel magazines to see where else in the world people are living happier than you and near the coast. Well - water's in your blood and there's no escaping it.

We who are water people have a saying. And our saying goes that when it comes to personalities, there are two kinds in the world. There are surface swimmers and then you have your divers. All my life I wanted to be a diver. Divers know what they want and they go after it with a single mind. They're the people who knew in second grade that they'd end up a car mechanic. They're the ones who order hamburgers just so, because they know exactly what they like. Or the ones you see walking down the street with a Phillies baseball shirt on, because Phillies are the bomb, and there will never be another team like the Phillies, and when we go to a game, you betcha' the Phillies will be a'playin, and oh yes they can name every Phillies baseball player since the inception of the team. Divers. They know what they want, they know who they are. They know where they've been, where they're at, and where they're going AND how they're going to get there.

A surface swimmer sort of floats around. He or she is a fantastic generalist. They try every little thing and they've been around every little block. They're amazing problem solvers because they have a WIDE range of options to chose. Sometimes, every little wave tosses them to and fro and this gives others the mistaken impression that what is in fact intellect manifests as flaky. Today I'm interested in wind energy and tomorrow I'm writing the President another letter about the homeless. A surface swimmer is reading three books all at once - all of them mid-stream. They stare at a menu for thirty minutes never having read item one. They're the kind that refuse to take one phone call at a time. They'll toggle the flash button on the phone to switch from call waiting conversations all the live-long day.

Being a surface swimmer has its benefits, but one of the greatest detractions is you can never really decide. You won't believe this, but in a period of three months once, I exchanged a new car. I then went on to purchase three separate and completely different makes and models in immediate succession (and I STILL to this day wish I had gotten the convertible model of the car I ended up with.) A surface swimmer is always looking for the next wave. They're trend setters, they're futurists, they're market indicators. They cover an awful lot of ground and they're great at cocktail parties because they can talk to anyone, but let's face it, they're surface swimmers.

For example, I love the tattoo culture. I love the idea of being able to express your experience on living flesh. I love the idea of marking your road map. Saying this is who I am, this is where my life turned, this is what I want to remember, and this is what I want to forget. If you can commit to that, my friend, commit to permanently marking your body, then you're a diver and I envy you. You plunged the depths. You braved the dark and the cold.

And I? Well I was the one floating up on top, soaking in the sun rays, calling out to the lifeguard to throw me a rope when I went in past my chin. I'm the one you'll see at all the conventions, in all the upcoming articles, in all the shops interviewing people and getting their stories, oh yes. I'm the one, the water girl, the blank canvas, the surface swimmer who won't quite be able to look you in the eye. We both know the truth. What an existence. (I am getting better!)

But you, if you're a working artist who has self-sacrificed for others for more than three or five or ten years, it is time to dive. And for this client, mid-life and trying to balance multiple tasks at once, it was time to (temporarily?) say good-bye to this fine institution. Choreographer Twyla Tharp wrote that the experience of single-mindedness is somewhat akin to being monastic. To giving yourself the gift of one-focus. Giving yourself the gift of the dive, the gift of seeing where dedicated studio work propels you as a person, the gift of stopping the giving to everyone else. Financial guru Suze Orman said she was always amazed when she was involved in the financial markets and would be attending seminars and when the topic of volunteer work came up, the men in the room sat still. Men generally have a different culture. They don't give away what brings home the bacon. Why should the women?

Yes, there's something to be said about community service, philanthropic idealism, nuturing and the magic generated back when you give to others. But if we're talking about a life's work, if we're talking about self-actualization, if we're talking about FINALLY doing something you always wanted to do, then it's time. You've prepared. You're ready. You've got your spare oxygen tank over in the corner. NOW DIVE.