About three months ago, I was transformed by a talk Sharon Ann Lee gave on redesigning success. Lee is a cultural trend analyst and author who runs “a think tank/studio on trends, culture and creativity.” Her talk has been buzzing around in my mind since watching it.  Lee recommends: 1) know your numbers 2) live in the power zone 3) create a poetic vision of your life.  Because a poetic vision serves as your North Star, keeping your heart/dream/life-purpose mission at the forefront of your mind and guiding decisions about what projects to take on, I’ve wanted to start drafting mine.  Well, today I did! I filled out the worksheet she emailed me and created my very first draft. Your poetic vision is a project that is in perpetual beta, constantly being tested and redefined, so although I need to work on it, I’m pleased that I now have a good first draft. [Note: I began drafting this post on January 9, 2012, which is the day I drafted my poetic vision.] 

Lee’s talk was also important to me in a long journey I’ve been on to reclaim myself as an artist. Identity, and how you think about yourself is so powerful. Though I liked drawing when I was younger and creating visual art, I didn’t particularly have more of an affinity for it than most children (though I think children are amazingly creative and artistic!).  I wasn’t labeled an “artist” by my family or education institutions nor did I think of myself as one.  The way I thought of myself as a “creative” person ebbed and flowed.  But more and more, bit by bit, I started thinking of myself as belonging in the Creative Camp.  Though I didn’t think of myself as a (capital A) Artist, I knew creativity was important to me and I just felt like I belonged with poets, artists, dancers, and other creative people.  Several birthdays in a row in my late twenties, I modeled my birthday parties after those a 5 year old might have, with coned party hats, and lots and lots of paper, magazines, scissors, crazyons, markers, tape, and glue spread out on a long table. The idea was to create an environment for people to create, engage, and connect with one another through art with no judgements attached - after all it was modeled and branded as a birthday party a 5 year old might have! There was no way to have “bad art.” The point was to have fun and connect and explore art-making.

In July 2010, I went (hesitantly) to a night for artists to work on something deemed artist liberation. The basic idea behind the evening was to work on the idea that art is important, that what we each were striving to do with art was important, and that while oppression against artists was damaging and hurtful — and real —  we could keep going forward with what we believed in.

I knew this group was very open and non-judgemental about who qualified as an artist, so though I decided to self-identify enough to go, I didn’t feel like a “real” Artist, and  wondered if maybe I shouldn’t be there at all.  It was amazing, and I had probably the first major breakthrough in beginning to think of myself as an artist.  Afterwards, I tweeted (lightly edited for clarity):

Inspired by artists and thinkers I met with tonight. Some thoughts I had: 1) Ideas are (one of) my medium. 2) The Internet is a giant playground 3) The open, social web *is* art & creativity, realized (and other stuff). 4) designing play & interaction is art making. 5) I love humanity.

I didn’t have to think of myself as a visual artist to be an artist.  Being an artist was a way of looking at the world, of being in the world, and interacting and influencing the world.  I could look at problems, I could look at situations, I could look at the wonder of the universe with an artist’s mind.  Lee’s talk took this idea that had already been percolating in my mind, and made it more real by describing the way she came to think of herself as an artist.

(Context: an audience member asked Lee, “can you inspire us with your poetic vision?” Starts at 30:18)

I am a person who for my entire life has bristled under any job title I have ever had. Even if it had VP in front of it or president or CEO or anything that was lofty. I absolutely hated it. It was a label that I could not connect with. I didn’t feel like it was me. So when this happened, I was in search of a title that I felt really good about, that let me be free, instead of put me into a box. And I was sitting with my husband one day when I was really struggling with this.  And I said, is there some word that I’m not thinking of where you’re taking — you know, I’m inspired by culture and I like collecting all that information, but I’m not just a researcher. I like to take that information and then create something *new* with it. Is there some word in science or some other field that does that? Like a polymath? So I was looking for some kind of technical term.  He just looked at me and said, I think they just call that artist.

It never occurred to me. First of all, in my Asian parents’ success manual, artist was *not* an option. It was doctor and Connie Chung. And also when you’ve had a business you get labeled, “oh you’re a business person, you’re not creative.” So I never felt like I had any rights to it. But it was the first time when I thought of it, and I’m not thinking of it in the terms of I want to paint and have a gallery show. No. I’m thinking about it in this broader term. Suddenly I relaxed under it because I just felt free. It didn’t tell me to be anything, it was just this open door to make whatever I wanted to make out of it. 

And for me the definition of an artist is “to animate the magic inherent in the world.” The world already *has* magic in in. The role of an artist is to galvanize it, to rally it. And to genuinely connect with people, stir a response and leave them a bit transformed.

I was inspired by something David Hockney said. As a painter I really admire he said, “In the end I’m just trying to connect.  I’m just trying to connect with people.” And so when I did this for myself, I just thought I can relax under that and it gives me freedom to do whatever I want. So that was a pathway for me.

For me, a lot of my interests when I filled out my worksheet was:  I’m inspired by culture and people, all the weird nuances of what people are doing with their lives. I’m so interested, and I love it. And also for me, I understand the world through metaphor.  So the metaphor for me was bioluminescence.  Bioluminescence is really like animals who emit light, like jellyfish and fireflies. What I learned from these weird frontier science books that I was reading, is that we are also - humans are bioluminescent creatures. We don’t show the light but there’s light inside of our bodies. They’ve measured it with photon measurement tools.  That was this amazing leap in my metaphor. I’m really drawn to bioluminescence for some reason. For me, if my work can show the light inside of people, then that’s my poetic vision. So mine was:

Lead with my heart.

Imagine the impossible, and believe it’s possible.

Reveal the light inside of us. (human bioluminescence)

Like Lee, thinking of myself as an artist in this broader sense of the word is helpful. Freeing. Liberating.  I’ve realized that I can be a researcher and designer and whatever else I want to be and still be an artist. It’s almost as if art is a guiding principle in the way love is for me.  I deeply resonated with the way Steve Jobs’ sister described the role love played in his life.  I felt like she was describing me: 

Steve was like a girl in the amount of time he spent talking about love. Love was his supreme virtue, his god of gods.

He believed that love happened all the time, everywhere.

He always, always tried, and always with love at the core of that effort.

As I wrote last month, art matters. For all kinds of reasons.  Sadie, who’s 7 or 8 years old in this video, shows us her drawings as a way of reminding each person that you, yes — YOU personally — can do anything:

You know why I’m showing you these pictures? Because I’m trying to encourage you to do something you know you can do. Do something you want to do. Cuz you know what? You might not know who the heck I am, but you know, everybody’s all connected. When we’re connected, it means we all believe in each other. And I believe that you can do whatever you want, whenever you want, and all the time. So do it.

Art reminds us that the seemingly impossible is possible.  It opens up windows in our imagination. It makes room for hope and possibilities.

Interestingly, identifying as an artist is opening up all kinds of possibilities for creativity in a variety of mediums. I started drawing again. But that’s just one example, the larger point is that I feel more permission to be the real me. The creative real me. Part of this means falling much more deeply in love with life, appreciating the wonder and awe, the love and beauty, the magnificence that we are all surrounded by but that somehow gets obscured by anti-cruise forces.  I’ve taken to noticing how utterly miraculous it is that I get to experience the exact moment I’m in, with the wondrous person I happen to be with during that moment.  I feel blessed. Happy. Grateful.

Never could I have imagined that reclaiming myself as an artist would be so important in terms of the way I interact with the world, my sense of happiness, and how I think about and approach success. 

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