A few weeks ago, I got a soft knock on my front door. I opened it to find the 10-year-old daughter of my neighbors, a sweet and bubbly girl who I always hear belting soulful songs through the thin apartment walls. She asked me, in an adorable child-like rambling fashion, if I would be her “mentor” for a school project. She and her classmates were assigned to find some adult in the community who had shared interests and work with that person for 6 hours total, broken into one hour a week. She wants to be a fashion designer (and a singer) so my experience as a costume designer is relatable.
My first thought was “ME, a MENTOR?” And then self doubt and negativity flooded my brain for a moment… I thought: “But, I’m a broke office drone who has had to switch careers due to random circumstances a few times and still hasn’t realized my forever dream of being a fiscally successful artist… How could *I* mentor anyone???” But the neighbor girl’s cute little face was peering up at me and I just couldn’t say no.
Sure, I said, I used to work as a costume designer, I think I can share something.
So I’ve mulled over in my brain what I would tell her, teach her and talk about. And then I realized that maybe I DO have wisdom to impart. All of my hiccups and false starts and moments of brilliance, and the successes and failures of my peers, have imbued me with knowledge.
So this little girl and I are going to meet for six sessions and talk about being a fashion designer, and I’m sure it will be great fun. Maybe I will inspire her, maybe I will put a little seed in her mind so she has the confidence to succeed better than I did. That would be awesome.
This whole thing has also got me thinking about how I could mentor myself, both the present and past me. I’ve never had a mentor, and I think I’d like one. Who better to do the job then someone who knows me as well as I do? I think I have had some amazing experiences and learned so much from them. So what if some bumps in life kept me from getting where I wished I could be now? Our challenges and flaws are part of our beautiful imperfections, or as the Japansese define it, “wabi-sabi”, the comprehensive aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection.
So here are a few things I would advise to my past self. This is also what I try to keep in mind and manifest as much as I can in my present situation:
– Be TENACIOUS. Seriously. Once you decide on what you want to do, clamp your jaws down on it like a rabid bulldog and don’t let go. There will be bumps, periods of doubt, critiques from friends and family, but don’t let this dissuade you. Figure out all the steps you need to do what you love. Enact them smartly. And, of course, don’t hold on to a dream that’s not going to work. Know when to let those jaws open and let it go, but give it a damn good try first.
– Don’t go into crazy debt if you can help it. Debt hobbles your future mobility, makes you take jobs for money that you generally might not take, and keeps you from being free enough to realize your dreams sometimes. This is a hard one in our society, especially with the pressure to get a college degree and the obscene cost of tuition. The necessity of a college degree depends on your career goal. And getting a degree as a “back-up” to your artistic dream means you’ve already given-up on it. Really. This leads to the next tip…
– BE CONFIDENT. (Just like Atreyu) Those big-busted sphinxes with laser beam eyes won’t get me, OH HELL NO.
– Don’t give-up your dreams for your partners. (oh, we women do this too much, don’t we?) Yes, collaborate with, and support your partner’s dreams. But, as Janis Joplin said: “Don’t compromise yourself, you’re all you’ve got.” Sadly, there are those you may date or even marry that think of their partners as accessories. This kind of narcissist will feign interest in your dreams, maybe even entertain the idea of supporting you in them, but in the end will push hard to make their dreams #1. They’ll manipulate you maybe by placating you with the promise of a little slice of your dream (which often gets pulled away when it’s not convenient enough for them), or by saying that after their dream is actualized, they’ll support you in what you want to do (hint: it’s unlikely this will happen). So then you wake-up one day to find that you’re duty in life is now to be their support team and you’re expected to sacrifice and slave away to make their dream come true. If you complain about your miserable role, you’ll be labeled selfish. So, get the heck out of these situations before they permanently hobble you. (and if you keep picking partners like this, you probably have co-dependency issues, as narcissists and co-dependents go together like peanut butter and jam.)
When I was 20 I seriously gave-up the chance to study abroad in the theatre department of Oxford-fucking-University because my partner at the time cunningly convinced me not to go. Yes, I will FOREVER kick myself in the ass for that one.
So yeah, don’t give-up your dreams for your lovers. A loving partner will always wholeheartedly support and give a shit about your dreams too. This goes back to BEING CONFIDENT.
– Don’t let perfectionism cripple you. You will kinda suck at first. That’s okay. Keep doing it anyway.
Ira Glass said it best:
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
It took me a long time to get up the confidence to perform belly dance. I’d been studying for years, but just didn’t feel “good enough” yet. But, you don’t get better at performing unless you perform. And I’m so glad I finally got up the guts to get up there, it has been so enriching, even if I do still cringe when I’m about to watch a video of myself!
– Diversify what you do, be a smart business person. It’s not easy to be an artist in this culture. The work is undervalued and under-supported. You have to be crafty to be successful.
A great example of this is my old-time friend, Skyler Fell. She started learning how to play accordion when I knew her in the late 90’s. She transformed her love of playing this instrument into a full fledged business. To do this, she didn’t just play the accordion, she learned how to fix them, how to teach others to play, and also opened a retail store. Badass.
And lastly, I know this speech has been up and down the internet and is like, so 2012, but I still love it.
Just make good art:
I am trying now to follow my own advice, to listen to my inner mentor, and follow these tips as best I can and repair the part of my life where I did not listen. And I think that leads into the very last bit of advice for myself, just do your best and don’t be hard on yourself, you’re amazing just by being. “Success” means many different things.
As for how I am going to mentor my little fashion designer friend, I think I’m just going to encourage her in her dreams, tell her never to give up on them, and we’re going to have a really fun time drawing and sewing purses.