Your job is to build a cage that can catch luck as it flies by. - Jessica Abel

Your job is to build a cage that can catch luck as it flies by.

I’ve got some complicated feelings this week on the occasion of leaving France after living here for four years, my one-year anniversary of beginning to write about building a creative life, and the start of a new job. 

moving-day-by-alain-françois-2016

Cheese and grapes…

Last Friday, I said goodbye to most of my worldly possessions for the next eight weeks. After four years in Angoulême, France, we packed our things into a 20-foot container (with the help of our lovely friends) and Matt and I waved goodbye to Léonel the driver and crossed our fingers that our things’ll have a comfortable boat ride and we’ll see them all again safe and sound in a couple months…in Philadelphia.

Yes, Philadelphia. Why? Well, it’s a long story.

…or lack thereof.

The roots go further back, but we might as well start a year ago, when I was about to launch my book, Out on the Wire, the podcast based on that book, and this redesigned website. I wrote a post to celebrate, called Cheese and Grapes, wherein I admitted I have a problem with stopping to take a break, or even a breath. It was my secret shame: I beat myself up for not knowing how to chill and take time off to enjoy. I told myself, this is my problem. I just need to learn to stop.

Since then, I realized that my madness had a real method. I didn’t have the option to just stop working, to say no. I have a house and a mortgage, I have two kids. I’m married to another freelance artist, and we never knew where our income would be coming from a year down the line.

So I said yes.

I figured out how to fit it in, and told myself that I’ll take a break “when things calm down.” Sound familiar?

There are people with good, salaried jobs who have similar issues with cramming too much in and not saying no enough. That may be a separate problem. But when you’re a freelance artist in an unstable situation (a redundant statement), you can’t afford to go around saying no. At least, not when you’re an American.

Socialism, capitalism, and workaholism.

Because the French do say no. In fact, sometimes it doesn’t even occur to them that yes is an option. And it’s not that they don’t work hard. They do. It’s not that they’re rolling in dough, either. Quite the contrary.

They say no, and they stop. Why? There are a lot of reasons, of course, but one major one is that if they fail, they don’t have as far to fall. There’s a safety net here, a real one, one that will actually catch you. You won’t be living comfortably if you’re on public assistance, but you’ll live, you’ll have housing, and healthcare, and your kids will go to daycare for free. Most of the people we know here also live smaller in other ways: they “keep the nut small.” If they have to give up on luxuries like a larger car or a big trip in order to take time off, they do it. It’s what one does.

I had a coffee in Paris with an American children’s book author last year. He had been living there for a while, and was about to move home.

I was already starting to think about the things I’ve been writing for the last year:

  • How do we go about changing the paradigm for creative work?
  • How do we make thoughtful choices about our time, make sure the work gets done but that we also stop?
  • How do we start to address the underlying strategy behind how we make a living at this, so there’s not the low-frequency vibration of fear running through everything we do?

The Auteur told me the two things he had started to appreciate most about France as he prepared to leave, which had, when he arrived, been the things that bugged him the most. My first reaction was to laugh. But then I thought for a few minutes, and his insight actually goes pretty deep.

How the French say no.

The first thing the Auteur mentioned was the very French attitude of, “Not my department.” In other words, if a task or problem doesn’t fall in your job description, you refuse to take it on. He said, “This drives me insane,” but now he sees that it can be really healthy, when used right. What is your work, and what is not your work? Don’t say yes to things that are not your job, that you can’t handle, and that will drive you nuts.

How the French stop.

The second thing the Auteur learned was clocking out. When you’re done, you’re done. You take a 90 minute lunch break (and you don’t use it to talk about work or have meetings). You leave at six. You work no more than 35 hours a week, even if that means you end up taking a half day on Wednesday. You take your generous vacation weeks every year. (And you take at least two of them during the last two weeks of August.)

I mean, you can go to an appliance superstore in France at 12:30 and find it closed for lunch. Bustling business shut down for weeks at a time for vacation.

This is frustrating to Americans, who want to get things done when they want to get them done. But the French don’t clock out to annoy us.

The Auteur explained it this way: “All Americans care about is widgets, and all the French care about is fucking.” I don’t entirely see the French obsession with carnal activity, but maybe I hang out with too many parents of small children.

What they do care about is personal life, family life, and the division between that and work. We could learn from this.

However, as I said above, while it’s true that Americans are always looking for efficiency, those of us who are self-employed (or un- or under-employed), making our lives work financially is completely on us, and that’s scary as shit. When I’d just tell myself that I was a stupid workaholic and no one on their deathbed wishes they worked more, that never caused me to slow down.

Without pulling back and reworking the whole paradigm, the only way I made a reasonable living was to just keep cramming more low-paid work into the same few hours. That’s why I chased widget-making, not for the love of the widgets themselves.

How I spend my days is how I spend my life

Here’s what I have learned from living in France, and am trying to implement:

Work, even work you love, is a means to an end, and that end is your life. You work in order to live your life. Both to pay for your life, and to add meaning to your life. But it’s part of the bigger picture. It’s subordinate to your life, even if you love your work. Take vacations, stop for lunch, stop at 6 pm.

I’m not a slogan-clipper, but one that I wrote down and stuck to my drawing table for the last four years here at the Maison des Auteurs is, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” from the Writing Life by Annie Dillard (which, credit where due, I read via Brainpickings, not in Dillard’s book). Except I wrote it down all wrong, and super messy, and for some bizarre reason (normally I’m a great speller), I misspelled it too. And I haven’t fixed it, which just goes to show you how I spend my days.

how youu spend your days

In fact, I’m kind of proud of not fixing it. I’ve considered doing one of those prettified calligraphy treatments on it, but that would take at least a day, and as a note-to-self, it serves its purpose. I’d rather be spending my days other ways than drawing lettering.

How the French safety net helped me…

One of the big, important choices I’ve made in my life is to spend part of it outside the United States. And although the two places I’ve chosen (so far) could not be more different (Mexico City and small-town France), they both ended up giving me something I desperately needed. I mean, there were lots of things. But at my selfish core, both times living abroad gave me the perspective, time, and (maybe mostly?) a financial cushion that let me reassess the choices I’d made about how to live. France is not as cheap as Mexico, of course. But I’m far from Paris; it’s not expensive. And I’ve got that safety net.

Before-after-drawing

All that allowed me to say no to lots of gigs I had been juggling. I didn’t work less, but I concentrated on fewer things; basically just Out on the Wire and Trish Trash for the first three years here. I did more of the same thing instead of spreading my efforts, and it paid off in terms of the quality and quantity of the work I did.

…and how it didn’t help.

Here’s what also happened: I gained a lot of clarity. Without all that business obscuring the core of my work, I could see the outlines of what I was doing. And what I figured out wasn’t pretty. I realized that if I wanted simply making books to be my core business model, I’d have to either speed up the making, or sell a hell of a lot more of them. Many more than I am currently capable of doing.

That left me kind of flat. What now?

Maybe this moment was the turning point—maybe this is when I started to see the strategic error of my ways.

I’m just about at the one-year anniversary of my first foray into talking publicly about living the creative life. It feels like it must have been a lot longer-ago than that. But it was the day before Bastille Day 2015 when I sent out my Hey artist, how do you make it work? article to my then-tiny list, just the few hundred people who had stuck with me since my Drawing Words days and even my Artbabe Army days (those days are a story for another time). I sent it out and got a howl of assent back from the world. Hundreds of shares, many many emails.

It was awesome and…weird. I felt naked, exposed, but also like I suddenly had dozens of compatriots.

That response was fuel. I’ve built a whole new strategic vision for my life this year, one that is, ironically, based on bringing more strategy and vision into other creative people’s lives. I am writing and talking and teaching about building a functional creative life, first in the sense of structuring sensible, sustainable creative practice, and now I’m even dipping my toe into talking about money and how business ties in to the question.

One of the things that drove me to choose this path is the fact that every single time I talked to others in my field, we asked one another: “how do you make it work?” The undercurrent being, always: “I must be doing something wrong, right? Because this just isn’t sustainable. You seem like you’re making it. What’s your secret?” The “secret,” unfortunately, mostly turned out to be: just keep hacking away at the same stuff, do more and more, and try not to think about whether this will still be enough a year from now, or ten years. Most of us fool ourselves into thinking that this is just a temporary situation, that once this next big push is over, things will get easier.

Once we get some contract, or get picked up by a publisher, or kickstart a book, or sell a painting, or meet some director, or get a part, or whatever…there will be a change, we’ll feel different, and we’ll relax a bit.

It’s not your fault: if you find yourself in this trap, it’s to be expected. There is no safety net, you’ve got no guarantees. That’s scary, and the natural response to that fear is to just keep grinding.

We think that if we get good enough at what we do, someone (someone with the power to make a change in our lives, that is) will find us, and lift us out of the grind, change the playing field.

Then someone found me and lifted me out of the grind.

…Which brings us back to Philadelphia. I know, right? You weren’t expecting that.

At the beginning of April this year, I received an email inviting me to apply for the position of chair of the Illustration Program at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA). To say that this email was unexpected would be to make a vast understatement.

I applied, I went through a rigorous selection process, I got the job.

It’s pretty much a dream job, working in a small art school, teaching and developing a new illustration program within the structure of an intense beaux-arts educational setting, with the mission of incorporating all kinds of approaches to illustration and visual communication (including comics), as well as building students’ entrepreneurial skill set.

But the wrong take-away from this happy story would be that I got this job because I got good enough, I worked hard and long enough.

Four years ago I would have been a good candidate for this job. With my long teaching experience and textbooks on comics, I might have gotten an interview. My books and teaching are good, and I wouldn’t have been hired without them. But that’s just the price of entry.

Of course I can’t be sure to what degree, but I feel certain that the thing that set me apart from other excellent candidates for this position was the work I’m doing here with you, on this blog, talking about arts entrepreneurship and teaching about building sustainable creative lives. I have a voice and a platform.

Why do I have this voice? Because I started talking.

Harness luck as your industrial product.

Talking (AKA writing, podcasting, speaking at conferences) was how I clarified my change in strategic direction. I made my big decisions about what to devote my time to based on where my conversations with you, my “listeners,” were going.

I didn’t have any idea that this job is where the conversation would lead. But how things have played out puts me in mind of something Robert Smith said about how he and Zoe Chace got such great stories: “We’re not lucky, we’re just good.” Which made Zoe laugh. (It’s uncomfortable to be as bold as Robert sometimes.) But what he meant was: by laying out their approach strategically, they set themselves up for success. Whichever way an interview went, it would play a role in making a good story.

Or perhaps more clearly, as Ira Glass put it: “Your job is to harness luck as your industrial product.” Because I know this was a stroke of luck. I’m very lucky that the job exists, that the dean heard about me and decided to reach out, that I was already planning to move back to the USA at the right moment.

But I was prepared to harness that luck and make it work for me, as my industrial product.

I don’t have one simple call-to-action for you today. Your job is to build a cage that can catch luck as it flies by. That’s not a one-step process or something that I can give you a worksheet for.

Everything I’ve written in the last year on this blog, everything I’m teaching in the Creative Focus Workshop, everything I’m planning for you in the coming months, it’s all pointed this way:

  • Get clarity on what it is that you’re intending to do, and whether you’re actually doing it.

  • Make smart choices about where to devote your time and energy.

  • Make a strategic plan to move, quickly, in the right direction.

And if you feel overwhelmed and blocked and slightly crazed trying to make your creative life work, believe me: You are not alone, it’s not your fault. Most importantly, with mindful attention, you can make it better.

How you spend your days is how you spend your life.

Want to join me on this mission? Sign up to join my list and I’ll send you the Creative Marathon worksheet, an exercise that will help you get more strategic about your creative work. Take concrete steps towards taking control of your creative practice. 

  • Barb

    July 3, 2016 at 8:35 am

    What an interesting post. I love your view on things.

    Reply
  • Madeleine

    July 3, 2016 at 11:32 am

    Inspiring as hell, as ever. So glad about this exciting move for you and your family, and you have given me pause to think about how I build pauses into my life too. Here in Portugal there’s a similar commitment to lunchbreaks… and not working Saturday afternoons, or Sundays – which at first drove me crazy. But like you, I’ve come to appreciate the fact that work doesn’t always come first, and to start to incorporate that into my own life.

    I think as creative people, part of the problem is that our work doesn’t always feel like “work”, or we have this idea that it has to be our “calling”, like falling in love, an all consuming thing that we never need to take a break from. I used to feel that way about writing; like an adolescent relationship: I won’t EAT! I won’t SLEEP! It is EVERYTHING TO ME!

    Now I see my creative expression as morphing into more of a healthy marriage – I still have my own independent life, I can do my own thing and yet it is woven into the fabric of my being gently and permanently. My work and I can support and nourish each other, I see now.

    Reply
    • Jessica Abel
      Jessica Abel

      July 3, 2016 at 6:16 pm

      I totally agree, Madeleine, and I’m writing this on a Sunday, so that proves it. No, really. I do love my work, and I don’t feel like I need to segregate it out completely, but there is something so refreshing about just stopping, on a regular basis. I love especially how the French don’t talk about work, or very rarely, during meals. It’s made me reassess my (current lack of) hobbies and other interests. Our art grows richer when our inner life does.

      Reply
  • Mike Cavallaro

    July 3, 2016 at 6:00 pm

    Thanks for writing this. There are so many bits and pieces in there that I’ve said to myself or to other artists friends in those same conversations about “how are you doing this?” that make this post so readily identifiable. We used to live in the same neighborhood in Park Slope, and I eventually had to leave NYC altogether. I hated going, and still wish I could go back in some sustainable way, but that hasn’t presented itself. In the meantime, the reduced living expenses have allowed me to say “no” to a lot of the low-paying, career-debilitating work I used to accept in a desperate effort to pay bills. I was able to invest that time in projects that had been forced to the back burner for years. Some of those have already paid off. Basically, I’m just reiterating what you’ve said so well in your post, but I wanted you to know how true it rings for someone reading it. Good luck in Philly, and welcome back!

    Reply
    • Jessica Abel
      Jessica Abel

      July 3, 2016 at 6:18 pm

      Thanks, Mike! Matt and I struggled with the question of returning–or not–to NYC for years here. We just couldn’t see how it could happen and not fall into exactly the same hamster wheel we had escaped. Many many options were considered before the PAFA job became a possibility and then a reality. We are thrilled and kind of amazed, really, at how it’s all panned out so far. Glad to know you’re doing well, wherever you moved to!

      Reply
  • MacKenzie Whyte

    July 4, 2016 at 9:01 pm

    I have been really enjoying your posts for the last few weeks now. They are helping me reassess ny time and commitments.

    I just wanted to wish you guys best of luck on your move, good luck with your new job. Luck, luck, luck apparently.

    Reply
    • Jessica Abel
      Jessica Abel

      July 5, 2016 at 10:18 am

      Thanks MacKenzie. Luck and strategic POV to you, too.

      Reply
  • Kat

    September 9, 2016 at 2:54 am

    I really love this post. As a musician I’ve been way too many times through the cycle of working absurdly hard on a project, burn out, give up for a while then rinse and repeat; not the most sustainable option. But what you say is so true: work is just a means to an end, which is the rest of your life. I think as artists we sometimes tend to get a little monomaniacal and start to define ourselves by our output, which means we never feel like good enough humans unless we’re constantly getting stuff out there. And if it’s at such a huge price it’s not worth it… there are other parts of life outside work that need to be experienced for a fulfilling and balanced life! Saying no and being able to stop are definitely things I’m trying to do more often in order to make my artistic practice sustainable and not crazy-making. But it’s not always easy!

    Reply
    • Jessica Abel
      Jessica Abel

      September 9, 2016 at 3:30 am

      Kat, you’ve got it exactly. Last night, I’m up late working, and Matt’s comforting me, saying, “It’s crunch time!” But it’s not crunch time. It’s my life. Basic, underlying structures have to shift to make this change. THAT is not easy.

      Reply

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