How do you measure success when money is not your forté? Numbers overwhelm me. My fourth grader cruises about YouTube looking for videos on binary code, pi, and the fourth dimension. He does this for FUN at age nine, gets excited, and tries to share his newfound knowledge. When he speaks, I hear, “Ooglety bogfogf ones fndi zeroes ovoeicwi xmy diameter. Do you know what a hexadecimal system is?” No idea. For the life of me I cannot remember his height or weight. I only know that I cannot carry him anymore and that when he hugs me standing up, my chin is in his hair.
Like a lot of artists, I’m a little short on financial savvy. As a new divorcee I am all too aware that as a person without a job, I am completely dependent on the alimony my ex-husband provides. The situation is humbling—on dark days, humiliating. After nine unsuccessful months of applying for graphic design jobs, I shifted to plan B to find work as an illustrator. I figure if I’m going to spin my wheels, I may as well spin them in the direction I want to go. The clock is ticking as I struggle to establish a business before the spousal support ends.
In March I complete my first year of being an officially middle-aged person. Because I spend enough time flailing about in uncertainty, I am dedicating this post to the idea of Success. I asked friends, “How do you measure success in your life?” The most common response boiled down to “Happiness.” My friends are largely artists like myself—visual artists, dancers, musicians, film-makers. Those of us who haven’t been ground down by the pragmatics of earning a living, are still clawing our way towards professional recognition. Most artists aren’t rich, but life feels rich. While I feel shaky these days, I marvel that I am exactly who I want to be. How is that?
Four Decades, Four Feathers In My Cap For Flight…
1) MASTERY OF CRAFT: Eat Your Fear, Do Lots of Bad Work, Then Fly
I’m good at several things—pontificating on paper, executing roundhouse kicks, transforming cardboard boxes into toys, commandeering the dance floor, sculpting gingerbread, and making pictures. The talents that make me proudest are the ones in which I have invested the most hours and most heart: picture-making and martial arts.
A friend wanted to purchase a drawing and asked what I had available. Like a squirrel I dug out sketchbooks from under the bed, the closet, behind the piano. There were so many—pages and pages of so-so drawings, awkward lines, false starts, flat compositions, and every now and then we would find a gem that made us go, “Ahhhh.” For every one good piece that I make, there must be 25 pieces that are “Enh” or downright “Bleah” and seen by no one. This is the only way we master a craft: do things badly, learn, master, stretch farther, do more bad work, beat our heads, learn, master, repeat. The head-beating is crucial to the process. If I never want to fling work out the window, it means I am treading stagnant water, thus failing to grow.
My black belt is my other Grand Achievement. Ironically, in earning a black belt, one realizes how little they have learned of their discipline (insert head-beating here). But every time I show up for class I mark it on an attendance sheet, making a visual record of my efforts. I spend a significant portion of my time in the dojang experiencing faint dread. Every time I have to spar or break wood, I’d really rather not. I’m a coward. I hate smacking my shins into my opponent’s knees, and the hematoma I got from failing to break a board with the first strike was supremely gross. I hate leaping over piles of kick pads into a roll because I’m afraid I’ll break my collarbone. However, I eat my fear over and over because it is the only way to fly over the obstacles.
2) COMMUNITY BENEFITS: the Boomerang of Giving
I am pissed that in my hunt for a decently paid graphic design position, pro bono art direction of school journals is worth squat on a resumé (I’ve been a stay-home mom for nine years, so the section for professional work experience is thin). Nonetheless, I believe in volunteering for my communities: my taekwondo school, the New York public school system, New York in general. As a martial arts teacher I am proud of empowering awkward kids with control over their bodies and revealing powerhouses within pixies. In my son’s elementary school, I led class art projects that raised several thousand dollars for enrichment programs.
Other public schools and community centers look less bleak because I designed murals for their walls, and I know the couple gallons of my donated blood came in handy somewhere. I want to take care of my communities because they are extensions of my home and family. I learned and took inspiration from my own taekwondo teachers, who were generous with their knowledge and encouragement. My son studies at a fantastic school in part because of parent volunteers. And if my life ever depended on a blood transfusion, some stranger somewhere will offer me a pint. We get back what we give.
3) A FANTASTIC CIRCLE OF PEOPLE: Stay True, Nurture Friendships that Feed You, Drop the Bad Eggs Because They Stink
I travel in fantastic circles. I love the people with whom I surround myself. They inspire me with their talent and personal histories. They nourish me with kindness. They are funny as hell and understand human nature. They mentor me, respect me, and grow my brain. They catch me when I fall and pull me along when I’m out of fuel. My friends and family amaze me, and I am honored to know them. I do not take them for granted. Friends are found and earned. Family is given, but shaped. When one is caught in poisonous relationships, plenty of work goes into extricating oneself. If I want friends, I must reach out. “Open your hands if you want to be held,” wrote Rumi. Building friendships is work, but you don’t notice it when the relationships are good ones.
I watched my son struggle to find his own friends. After a couple years of lonely recesses, I am relieved he finally found his niche. My son is not shy, but he is an atypical boy. He is averse to sports, and until recently, also averse to video games. Gender stereotypes peeve him to no end. He grew his wavy locks past his shoulders, cutting them only because last Halloween he wanted to be David Tenant from Dr. Who. He proudly danced in the Nutcracker ballet and insisted on his right to wear pink in the face of ridicule. My nine-year-old is so sure of himself. I am impressed that he never settled for the company of various jerks who only gravitated to him because no one else would put up with their crappy personalities. Thankfully my son preferred to spend time alone than with people who disrespected him. Now he has several great school friends. His experience reminds me that friends are not a given.
You know those mugs and plastic trophies that say, “World’s Best Mom.” They are stupid, ubiquitous, and cheesy. But then the words “Best Mom” pop out of my boy’s mouth, and I am smitten. I am related to a spectacular human being—smart, strong, compassionate, creative. I like to think I have something to do with it. “You’re a great parent,” my son told me recently. “I hope one day I’m as good a parent as you.” Considering my past insecurities, where I felt I was only impersonating a mother, I was in heaven.
4) GOOD SELF-ESTEEM Is Hard to Come By
From ages 15 to 25 I stewed in mild depression, doing well in school, but frequently crying for no reason; feeling disconnected, though I had friends. If I was not myself—literally—I knew I would have liked Colleen. However I was myself, and I hated being Colleen with the fidgety dark brain. I would panic when I imagined my next sixty years floating in an abyss of loneliness and wished I could override my self-preservation instinct to hit the self-destruct button. I agonized over every sentence that I pushed out of my mouth, fearful of how others perceived me. Day-to-day misunderstandings became emotional paper cuts, just fine enough that I did not notice how much they bothered me. It hurt just to be alive.
I got help in graduate school. I wish I could say I found my own way out of the cave, but it was beyond me. Even though New York City is brimming with busy therapists, I still feel the stigma of seeking a professional hand. Yet that help is what guided me towards happiness. I know who I am now. I am emotional, but I understand what makes me tick, which helps me understand what makes other people tick, and it frees me from fear of their judgement. I am sensitive in a society that prefers a thick hide. I tear up over minor chords in music, but I also laugh a lot harder than most folk. The best thing about my depression is that it taught me to fully appreciate happiness. To love and respect oneself is a gift.
Last Thoughts on Being a Successful Human Being …
While contemplating this essay on success, I heard writer Kate Messner preach “The Spectacular Power of Failure.” Her message: Don’t internalize failure. The work fails, not you, and failure is an inherent part of your work. At the same time, don’t forget to celebrate the successes in your journey, especially the small ones.
Have you ever heard that question, “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” I’m doing it right now: making art. That fact in itself is a success. I look forward to the day I can also say that I make money making art… Actually, I do! And if I multiply the income by a thousand I might be able to afford the skin I am wearing. It is a start.
The thing about success is that you have to keep working at it. The past few months I have tried to tack more work hours onto my week. I replaced six weekly hours of taekwondo with a 30-minute workout video called the “30 Day Shred.” It breaks my heart, feeling my muscle, skill, and any hint of cool slip away. Wouldn’t it be grand if I could sit on my butt after earning my black belt and remain worthy of it? Unfortunately we have to keep working in order to maintain what we gain. I have such a long way to go.
However, I can celebrate what I have accomplished. For my 41st birthday I challenged myself to make a list of 41 achievements. I won’t bore you with it, but I am relieved to say that it wasn’t too difficult to write. I highly recommend drawing up your own list, especially if you have forgotten that you yourself are a spectacular human being.
After I admitted to my ex-husband that I was thinking of divorce, I texted a friend, “I’ve just jumped out of the airplane. I hope my parachute opens.” I had no job. I didn’t know if my ex would seek retribution for leaving the marriage. I didn’t know if my son would survive the heartbreak. Happily, the afterlife seems to be proceeding smoothly. I am still holding my breath, not quite sure if my parachute will hold, but wow… the view from here is amazing.
Illustration & Design