“You don’t look like a designer,” someone told me at the conference. I clearly remember myself that day. I was wearing a boring striped cardigan and jeans and had an ordinary look. I remember being surprised to hear that observation; it never occurred to me that I should look like someone to be someone.
Why didn’t I push back? What was missing in my character to push back or at least ignore that comment?
I never considered myself a creative person. Creativity wasn’t an integral part of my self-image. But it is a well-known fact (or at least I assumed) that designers have to be creative. All of a sudden, calling myself a designer felt like cheating. I was missing a core requirement!
For the next few years, I continued working as a designer, but deep inside I was always questioning my work, skills, and abilities. My inner critic had a very powerful argument to question my work: — Of course this is a terrible design. You are not a designer, anyway. You don’t even look like one!”
Somehow I never developed trust in my ability to create new and unique work, in my intuition, in my ability to come up with creative ideas.
Over time, I gave up design. I spent a few years exploring other options and tried to find myself in less creative roles.
But this detour in my creative journey didn’t end up well. I clearly remember sitting in front of my computer one day and convincing myself to write an email for a customer. My mind felt empty. I was literally forcing myself to do every single action: click an email icon, click, click, click …
I physically couldn’t do this anymore. I had been in such a state of mind for several months, but I would always find a reason to keep going — mainly by thinking about obligations to my team, company, or clients. But that day, I couldn’t convince or force myself to keep doing it.
My body and mind physically refused to follow logical reasoning.
I needed this crisis to finally listen to myself and to allow myself to follow my internal callings and instincts. I didn’t know what I should be doing, or what I even wanted, but it didn’t matter. I had to change.
Growing up, we need some authority figure (either a parent or a teacher) to validate our aspirations and creations. Intentionally or unintentionally, we look for ways to confirm with the external world that what we create is needed and welcomed.
Some of us face excitement and encouragement in our endeavors and feel safe to explore further. Others among us face indifference and criticism and move away from doing things that we are naturally drawn to and focus instead on things that are considered normal and accepted in the environment we are in.
In childhood we show up to the world as we truly are — unique, inexplicable, authentic. We spend our time doing things that we are passionate about, things that bring us joy, without questioning our abilities or reasons for doing them.
In his book “Orbiting the Giant Hairball,” Gordon Mackenzie makes the observation that by the sixth grade, very few children will admit to being creative. He suggests that societal pressures trick children out of their originality in an effort to train them away from their natural-born foolishness.
“From cradle to grave, the pressure is on: be normal.” — Gordon Mackenzie, Orbiting the Giant Hairball
I imagine our original uniqueness as a whimsically shaped blob. Each spike represents something inimitable about us. This blob is capable of contributing something to this world that nobody else can. There is power and magic in this uniqueness.
As we grow, some of us, instead of developing our unique spikes, cover them with the sediments of what is expected of us–what is encouraged by parents, teachers, society. We are pressured to be normal.
Normalcy arises when you are wrapped in the layers of sediment that grew around your unique-self. Those layers consist of social expectations, accepted models of behavior, respectable or sustainable professions, right and wrong things to spend your time and energy on. We are incentivized by following rules — so we follow them. Layer by layer, we become semi-perfect spheres: uniform and consistent.
Normal is safe, normal is predictable, it has a place in society. Our parents and our teachers shape us to be normal so we can get along in society and sustain ourselves in this world.
Where do my creative callings come from? How is it that something that is now such an inseparable part of my self-image wasn’t there before?
In the book “The Crossroads of Should and Must,” Elle Luna (@elle luna) proposes that one’s calling, or “must”, is often evident in childhood. Luna suggests reflecting on questions such as: “What activities brought you joy as a child? Did you prefer to spend time alone or with others? If you’re not sure, consider asking your parents. By exploring our childhood interests and tendencies, we may uncover clues about our true passions.
Growing up, I clearly remember that I had a notebook full of poems that I wrote. I was writing essays with thoughts and reflections on the books I read. Not because I had to but because I wanted to. I remember having a scrap book with a bunch of sketches of dresses and suits I drew when I decided that I wanted to be a fashion designer.
Alongside all these creations, I remember my experience of sharing them.
When I brought my poems to my father, he barely paid attention to them. He was watching TV and just briefly glanced at my notebook. I’m not even sure he was listening to one of the poems that I tried to read to him.
I don’t remember anyone asking me what I was writing all the time so I didn’t think that my essays deserved any attention. Also at some point we were forced to write essays as school assignments, and they had to follow a certain structure and format, so my attitude to writing shifted from “I enjoy reflecting on what I read and writing my thoughts” to “Writing is hard and boring.”
I was around eight years old when a real artist came to our class and taught us how to draw a real portrait. Not a comic-cartoon-looking face, but a realistic portrait. I was super excited and I carefully drew a portrait of my mother. I don’t remember how good it was, but I clearly remember how much effort and love I put into it. I remember how thoroughly I drew mom’s curly hair and high forehead and tried to pick the right shade of green for her eyes. I approached my mom in the kitchen while she was cooking dinner for us and showed her my work. She laughed at it.
I don’t remember my reaction and I don’t remember making any decisions like ”I will never draw again,” but I clearly remember feeling disappointment and disbelief in my skills.
After years of denying myself a right to be creative, I finally came to admit my creative callings are part of who I am. The journey of exploring my passions–things that fire me up, bring me joy and meaning — led me to the fields of art, illustration, design and visual thinking.
I again felt like an impostor, an alien in the world of creatives. But this time, I also felt supported by something deep inside, and I felt firm determination and confidence to find my place in this creative world, to learn skills that I am missing, to reach for help when I need, and to pursue this journey no matter what.
This time it wasn’t just a choice: “I want to be …”. It was a clear realization that this is who I am.
Growing up, I deposited all the necessary sediments and became that rounded blob that meets the expectations of my environment. But after a while those sediments of normalcy started to suffocate me, depriving me from the source of my energy, motivation, senses, and meanings.
Me reclaiming my true self was not the choice I made. Sooner or later, I would come to realize the disconnect with some cherished part of my earlier and true self which were preserved under those sediments and still alive. It took courage and persistence to find ways to re-discover my spikes, embrace them and start to re-grow.
I could choose to silence and ignore this inner self, and maybe I would be very successful in cementing those sediments for all my life. But I always would be aware of the presence of the unique blob deep inside of me that is waiting for the right moment to be discovered.
It requires courage, perseverance and resources like time and money, to be who you truly are instead of who you think you’re expected to be. If you have family obligations or people dependent on you, you may not be able to quit everything and follow your bliss.
But you at least need to know it.
”It’s hard to make anything meaningful if you’re unwilling to consider and question your identity.” — Adam J. Kurtz
When you know who you are, you know your unique blob, from this state you can accentuate the spikes instead of covering them up or choose which sediments of normalcy to deposit. And this time, it will be welcomed sediments, layers of norms and skills that you choose to grow and that are tapped into your one-of-a-kind self.
Things that you can create in connection with your true self, your unfathomable magic, are much more meaningful and fulfilling. You will gain the confidence to pursue things that are hard, the passion and limitless energy to follow your dreams and goals, and perseverance to make it through challenges. Not to mention, enjoyment from every moment of what you do.
You will become a much happier human too!