Asking Not Asking #15: Waiting to Be Seen
TINA ESSMAKER / Creative Coach
I’m a Designer and Art Director with 14 years of experience, yet I feel like I just landed on the “Designers Should” series. For 12 years I worked on the local scene in Romania, a land with absolutely no design landscape. As a self-educated professional, I am lucky to have worked through a range of projects, and learned a lot along the way. I started with motion graphics then I learned photography.
Being born and raised in a communist building in a tiny city by super creative parents, I kind of inherited my skin as an outsider. We had a huge castle and a princess painted on the wall of a room called The Room Of Toys and it was a better formation than any school could give. Yet it also made me and my brothers outsiders, different; no one around had those kinds of values.
For many years I worked in ad agencies where I learned to design and art direct integrated projects. I also had a bicycle thing for a while restoring vintage Italian race bicycles and selling them over eBay or on the local scene. It was really cool to help revitalize pieces of art and be a part of a great community and learn the delicacy of physical creations in comparison to ideas, concepts, design, or art. In parallel, I helped found an alternative school, from building it’s identity to teaching myself—in a place that has no understanding over education. The last local project I did was the first digital index of imprisoned politicians, in a terribly corrupt country where I was honestly afraid to do that at the time.
All this variety faced its limits, feedback was rare and my development was stagnating so I moved a bit further West, to Amsterdam, switching from a €300 to a €1600 rent and leaving my family behind. If I look back to when I left my homeland, I’d say I did a good job being here. The last 2 years I learned to code, which was something that seemed really difficult for a visually inclined person. I wanted to integrate more digital work in what I do, and I had to build my own stuff. In my enthusiasm I thought ok people will be open, creative, integrating talent and accepting variety. In reality, since starting to communicate internationally, I’m feeling so unheard, so isolated. Although I received sporadic feedback from creative folks recognised by the community around the www, I never had enough recognition. Besides this illusory need, I am doing really poorly on the freelance side, where I just can’t grab any respectful clients, or just enough of them to get through.
While my work tends to stay creative, playful, techy, in motion, fun, dark, and sophisticated, I’m struggling to make a network and communicate clearer. I received feedback that my work doesn’t look like theirs so they won’t hire me, which is something I can understand, but it’s also the path to a certain death. When you just want to stay and look as you have always been, that’s not living and creating. I heard that my work looks like the work of a studio, yet nothing good comes this way. I’ve met people who said I’m nice to chat with, but I don’t have enough “luxury brands” in my portfolio. I’ve tried so many times and have written so many messages, probably many times to the wrong people.
I want to be heard and be part of bigger things, alongside better people. Yet any new attempt is met with another refusal. I know that most of you out there want standards and this is our nature of wanting to stay alive. Our creative society wants us standardized, although ironically we pretend to embrace otherness. I’ve made good progress yet I need a boost. I want to spend my mid age effectively working and offering my talent, instead of regretting and looking at how others thrive. Many times I feel broken into pieces and it’s hard to aim at being advanced and focus on one thing. How can I be heard? How can I make you see me? How can I contribute?
Cheers from Amsterdam,
Waiting to Be Seen
Dear Wanting to Be Seen,
When I read this sentence in your letter, I took note: “I want to spend my mid age effectively working and offering my talent, instead of regretting and looking at how others thrive.” I’m not sure you believe you can thrive. It seems like you’ve reserved that for others and believe there’s only enough work, money, happiness, fulfillment, and resources for some of us. I want to start by saying you can thrive, too. I want you to believe that, because it will change the way you approach your work and life. There is enough for all of us, including you!
It was interesting to read your recollection of your childhood and the unique experience you had growing up which made you feel like an outsider. It seems you’ve continued to feel like an outsider throughout your career, but rather than embrace it, you have grown to dislike that part of yourself, noting that you’ve been given feedback about your work not looking like others’. Of course your work isn’t going to look like others’ work because you are different than them. You bring a different perspective and different experiences to the work. You are not supposed to be like other people—you are supposed to be you!
The way I read it, there seem to be two things going on here: 1) There is a dissonance between who you are and who you think you should be based on others’ expectations, and 2) There is the practical matter of securing work to pay the bills and provide for yourself. You need time to explore #1, however without meeting your needs and addressing #2 you will continue to feel pressure and make decisions based out of fear. It might be best to find a way to relieve some of the financial pressure while you are exploring the bigger questions about your career, like how you can contribute and have a voice.
Practically, how much do you need to make a month to provide for yourself? Do you track your monthly income and expenses? Do you know exactly what is coming in and out and what you need to bring in with your freelance business? Start there because once you know the numbers you will feel more in control of your money.
Next, who do you know? This is not the time to shrink back and do it on your own. None of us can get to where we want to be without help. Two years ago when I was going through a divorce and transitioning out of the business I cofounded with my partner, I reached out to friends because I wasn’t sure what was next for my career. I was exhausted and thought I might go work for someone else full-time because I wanted the sense of security that full-time work could give. In the end, I chose to turn down a full-time job offer and freelance to pay the bills while I determined what was next. I told everyone I knew that I was looking for work. A couple of friends hired me to do freelance content strategy for their organizations and, even though that wasn’t what I wanted to do next, it lifted the pressure and gave me space to explore other interests. That’s when I decided to combine my social work degree and my time spent interviewing creatives as Editor in Chief of The Great Discontent magazine to help creatives take action. I trained as a coach and launched my practice, but it took a full year to make that decision, be trained, and launch a new business.
Recently one of my mentors told me that we are drawn to the sense of security that we see in full-time work, but that really what we see and are drawn to is consistency. Whether you decide to work for yourself or someone else, creating a sense of consistency for yourself during this season will help make space to think about the bigger questions you are asking about your career. How can you create consistency for yourself? Are there friends, colleagues, or past clients you could reach out to about work? Do you have a community in Amsterdam and, if not, how can you find one? CreativeMornings Amsterdam is a great place to start. It’s a free monthly breakfast series on different topics and brings together many folks from the creative community. You can be part of something bigger through being part of the creative community at large—sometimes we find meaning and belonging through the work we’re paid to do and sometimes it’s through communities outside of work.
You have a variety of experiences and skills. What is resonating the most with you right now? If you are indecisive about what you have to offer, others will be indecisive about you. You have to be clear about who you are and how you add value. And you have to be able to express that to others and advocate for yourself. I would encourage you to spend some time thinking about these things. Here’s a Mission Statement/Elevator Pitch exercise I use with my coaching clients to help them hone in on what makes them unique and how to overlap their desires and resources to create opportunities.
So let’s talk about uniqueness. The podcast Freakonomics published an older, but very topical series on “How to Be Creative” and in Episode 370 called “How to Fail Like A Pro” the film director Mark Duplass reflects on how to make work that resonates:
“...we very quickly realized that being professional and making a movie for a lot of money does not mean it’s going to be a good movie. But staying near and dear to your anxieties, your fallibilities, your vulnerabilities, staying close to that conversation you had at 2:00am with your sibling or loved one or friend, where you were giggling with shame or crying about something that was so personal to you you think no one could understand it. As soon as you go into that stuff, I think that’s where you win.”
What are the things that are near and dear to your heart? Go into that stuff. What are the things you dream about with friends? Lean into that. What are the things that make you feel anxious, vulnerable, and fallible? Chances are you’re not the only one who wrestles with these things. You are not the only person who has written me trying to reconcile their past experiences and who they are with who they think they should be. You are not the only one trying to satisfy the expectations of others while staying in alignment with their own values and desires. You are navigating a very normal part of the process, which is to say you are right on course. I see you, and so do all the others who have traversed this road—and one day you will bear witness as others wrestle with the same questions you’re wrestling with now, only you’ll do it from the other side of this experience.
To bearing witness,
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Asking Not Asking is a bi-monthly column written by Tina Essmaker, a New York City-based coach, speaker, and writer who helps others live into their possibility. To be considered for the column, send and email to firstname.lastname@example.org with a short note about where you're at and where you want to be, and make sure to include the following:
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