According to the Harvard Business Review I’m doing right by myself professionally. I am in line with the list of three steps to career self-actualization from the HBR referenced here. I’ve always been strategic in choosing jobs that I could leverage to another (next) experience. I see my life as a collection of interesting short stories. Sometimes these stories have multiple chapters, sometimes they read more like a poem – short and irregular, lacking in narrative logic, perhaps painful but beautiful after the fact.
I’m one of the few people I know who did not change their major in college. I didn’t graduate on time, but my interest has not waned. I was struck by a love of art as a senior in high school, pictures made more sense to me than the quadratic equation and I enjoyed a fluency with color.
1. See your career as a series of stepping stones, not a linear trajectory.
I knew I could not make a living as an artist (some might argue with me on that but my experience held, I could not live the life I wanted with the income my work generated.) Having gotten a late start in my own art education, I jumped right into college classes with zeal. But I did have to work to pay my tuition and bills so I followed the winter migration of students up the mountain to the local ski resort. I knew nothing about skiing but I did think I would go into teaching in some capacity, so I applied for the ski school. Luckily for me, the Director hired all the girls that applied. I taught skiing for 15 years (more than double the normal lifespan of a ski instructor.) I was better at teaching than skiing but was good enough to get a job at the Taos Ski Valley in New Mexico which led to a job at in Argentina at the exotic resort of Las Lenas . (I made a deal with myself, if I could get to Argentina and back for $2000, I’d go for it. The cost came in at about $1980. I was scared shitless, I lied on my application about my fluency in Spanish and I was committing to a big long trip all by myself.) But, typical of me, I thought – what the heck, this will make for an interesting experience. And, it did.
It definitely gave me some street cred with the tough group of young men I worked with in the vocational training program I ran at a community college in Washington for five years. I knew I wanted to work in the academy and the opportunity to train kids to get certified as ski instructors and coaches was an unusual and fun way to get experience in higher ed.
Eventually skiing got kind of boring, seasonal work is tough.I countered the winters with summer work as a firefighter, a bartender, a cocktail waitress, a ski coach, a trainer, and a nanny. I also suffered the injuries common to athletes that abuse their bodies. Like most skiers, adrenaline was a drug I enjoyed year around. I rode my mountain bike in the back country, rafted the wild rivers of the Pacific Northwest, climbed and hiked, played hard, and broke myself in multiple places. And, I missed art.
I’d been out of school for eight years and I was ready to go back and take it seriously. I was ready to take myself seriously. I finally felt like I had something to say. I had banked enough human experience to tell some of the stories or ask some of the questions that I thought others might care to hear. I was ready to practice my craft, deepen my toolbox, dig in. I loved it. Graduate school changed my life, it changed me. I felt I had agency for the first time, I was gaining mastery in something that mattered to me, and I felt like I could contribute to a legacy or at least participate in a dialogue around art and ideas. I was in my thirties and thought my life was in front of me.
2. Seek legacy, mastery, and freedom — in that order.
I went to graduate school with a singular purpose – to get the credentials necessary to land a tenure track teaching job. I chose photography as my field of study because of it’s commercial applications should teaching not work out. I’ve always been committed to my financial independence and every job was carefully considered against that metric. I needed income, not wealth. I also needed time. Time to think, to read, to wander. I never even heard of corporate America until about ten years ago, so climbing the corporate ladder was not part of my plan. Stability and longevity were not drivers in my decision making. Experiences trumped relationships for me.
Graduate school was intense. I loved it immediately. I taught classes and managed the photo lab in addition to taking an overload almost every term. And though the University of Oregon was extremely generous to me with tuition waivers, stipends, and studio space, I borrowed money for the second time in my life. I spent it on a hundred different types of photo paper and film and explored an assortment of used cameras. All of my time was immersed in learning about professional practice – what is meant to make art, write about it, talk about it, and exhibit it. I learned things I couldn’t have imagined on my own – postmodern theory and linguistics – a critical discourse around humanity and expression. I felt at home in the classroom and relished the process of critique.
3. Treat your career like a grand experiment.
The teaching job I landed right out of school was in Indiana. That was a culture shock (and a climate shock – those winters were cold without my ski gear.) It wasn’t tenure track but my three-year renewable contract was far better than an adjunct position. I grew tremendously as an artist and as a teacher at Ball State. I got a studio downtown and though I continued working in photography, I returned to drawing and painting. I took a deeper dive in printmaking and book arts. I learned about letterpress and metalsmithing. I made things in the woodshop and the iron studio. Though I had some delightful students, the art department was not very functional and I was stifled as a professional in that environment. And, I was very lonely. My resume was getting fatter but it wasn’t very good company.
The search for a tenure track job took me all across the country. I made many short lists but I never got an offer. I began to think about other ways to realize myself professionally and I gained more trust in the role art played in my life and the role I played in my work. I came to realize that the academy wasn’t the only source of support for a creative life of the mind. I could continue making art that was serious and personal if I considered other ways to pay the bills. I met a man. We took a chance and moved to another state. We both quit our university jobs. I started over professionally.
I became a barista while he renovated a 12,000 sq. ft. cotton warehouse we bought. Then I ran a nonprofit that fixed homes for elderly low-income residents of our new town, Petersburg, VA. I wrote and took pictures for the local newspaper. I did 16 loads of laundry every Sunday at the laundromat. The southern weather and physical labor had my husband going through four t-shirts a day and his pants literally stood up in the corner at the end of the week. These experiences brought me closer to my community than I had ever been. I taught high-school at one point which was almost as hard as being in high school . . . I got stir crazy.
The big city down the 95 was calling my name. I missed the conversation around art and I missed artists. When the opportunity to join a non-profit board for a community art center in Richmond came up, I was thrilled. When the Director of Education position opened up shortly thereafter, I was excited. A chance to return to working in the arts (with adults), a chance to use all that information I had accrued in studio arts. I secretly held out hope that I would get a position at the local university – they have a fantastic art program. But after five tries, I gave up. I loved Richmond though. I met wonderful people – artists, musicians, writers, architects, and kids. I loved talking about art with six year olds. I learned about art as social practice and met people working hard for social justice.
After five years with the Arts Center, I was invited to join the leadership team of a small two-year college closer to home. I felt like I was coming full circle. Back to the academy and back to the small town life my husband and I chose together. I am surprised at how satisfying my work as an administrator is. I help build programs and put together teams that connect projects across campus. I’m being paid to see problems and to solve them. It uses every skill I learned along the way. It’s creative (if not artful), it taps into my best teaching self as I collaborate in cross-functional groups, listen to students, staff and faculty in the service of improved functionality. I research and report on best practices in the rapidly changing landscape of higher ed. My work in non-profits helped me see the business case increasingly necessary for today’s educational institutions without tarnishing the purity of critical thinking and philosophical rumination. And, I have more time for my own studio practice and my family and friends.
The grand experiment of life relies on the J.O.B. to a great extent. We spend a lot of time at work. I don’t mind calling theses chapters jobs instead of a career. The disparity of my experience has given me the confidence to pursue the legacy of my life. The demands of so many learning curves have expanded what mastery looks like – maybe because it’s forced me to know my strengths and to rely on them in diverse ways. I have agency. I’m planning my next step. I’m thinking like an entrepreneur. Monetize isn’t a bad word anymore in relation to my work as an artist. Being a creative thinker can actually earn me quite a bit of money. I can make a living off my work. I’m free.