An abridged version published in Fast Company.
The word “professional” doesn’t hold the same uptight sentiment like it used to. However, no matter how incredibly progressive your company may be, with the free lunches, the flexible and relaxed culture of wearing blue jeans or hoodies to work, or maybe, the biggest HR holy grail – having an employer who understands and supports you as an individual human being with aspirations independent of your current job – there will always be a moment of reckoning for The Artist in The Cubicle on how to feel creatively fulfilled. How does The Artist in The Cubicle reconcile one’s artistic pursuits when a professional identity doesn’t always sync with a creative identity?
This problem has nothing to do with the job you have or don’t have – if you’re a designer, coder, “ideas” person or a whiz at Excel. This has nothing to do with your employer. This has everything to do with the expectations you set for yourself and your idealizations of what “being an artist” means inside your head.
Part of learning how to be The Artist in The Cubicle is managing these idealizations. This is an Icarusian fall that may take some time to recover from, but this was a fall The Artist had control over from the beginning.
In a recent interview with NPR’s All Songs Considered, when discussing life and songwriting, Jack White said, “I have to talk myself out of the harsh reality that, over the years, your romance becomes tempered by realism.”
The realities in your day, the slog of email, the energy-zapping assignments, the cluttered schedules, the over “connectedness” may be the obstacles that disconnect you from getting to your artistic work. Reframing how you view your artistic pursuits will change the way you feel about your professional and personal work.
Why are you letting yourself focus on the obstacles and not the opportunity? You are in control of your brain – no one else. As David Foster Wallace said in his speech “This is Water,” to Kenyon College:
‘Learning how to think’ really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot or will not exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.
In reckoning the reality of being The Artist in The Cubicle, there’s finite time to produce the art you feel innately required to produce. Time is a resource that quickly dwindles and when it’s lost it has this power to haunt you, if you let it.
My main struggle with writing and other artistic pursuits is feeling in control of this creative time, to build a discipline into my day where I’m consistently pushing forward or coming to deeper insights with my work.
It’s essential to be hyper focused when working on a larger project to allow for breathing room and wherewithal to take something on that doesn’t seem possible at the onset. Give yourself “snackable” assignments for a concise period of time, a frame you know you can manage. Start with 5 minutes and work up from there.
Anne LaMotte’s Instructions on Writing and Life recommends breaking up things into increments when approaching a daunting pursuit. She wrote:
Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he'd had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
Creative types know that prioritizing time is the most difficult part of the battle. The Artist with a full-time job needs to give him or herself the permission to focus and see what that time yields.
As The Artist, focus on the experience of your art to maximize the productivity of your time when you are outside of The Cubicle. It’s not about the productivity in the sense of accruing more or doing more. This productivity is dependent on how you determine quality time spent.
Reckon Quality over Results
I get lost in the dark forest of valuing results over quality, of working on shorter pieces “to get them done” rather than a scarier project because I have no idea where I stand on the map. I don’t see the immediate results; essentially, I can’t see the proverbial forest amongst the trees.
As The Artist in The Cubicle, you must hold this sentiment dear: Art isn’t about the end result – it’s the process, the modus operandi. Sometimes what you see on a wall or the book you’ve read is merely what’s left behind, artifacts of creative experiences, the drift wood on the beach. Your waves are what you should be most concerned with.
When you work in the shadows of that conceit, that art is results driven, that there’s a moment where you’re “done,” you’ll always be distant from why you originally came to the page, canvas or stage.
Excuse the morbidity, but artistic pursuits really only have one ending, as Chaucer implied: “The lyf so short, the craft so longe to lerne.”
There are moments that should be wholly dedicated on thinking about how to achieve “quality,” if that’s even possible, and what The Artist in The Cubicle must consider to reach that. People use the term “work-flow” often and I’d like to say that experiencing that state of focus is intrinsic in finding “quality.”
“Sometimes it’s a little better to travel than to arrive,” wrote Robert M. Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. To shuttle between lucidity and bewilderment when delving into your work to improve it, rather than producing more of it, won’t take you to your destination, but it’ll bring richer insights before you which you didn’t have before.
Art is a travel, a push across a horizon or a dig to the center of the earth. Either way your production is wresting something up or forward.
The Artist in The Cubicle may think there are only so few hours before and after a work day and all this time should be maximized with “your work” or “thinking about your work,” but often The Artist forgets about the idle time when you think or the time needed to commute, bathe, eat and be a human. There just isn’t enough time, The Artist says.
It may be clarifying to realize that when The Artist reckons his or her art against time as the major obstacle, The Artist is making excuses. Release the excuse and work with what you have.
Everyone is allotted the same about of hours in a day. While accessing your free time productively is critical in your artistic goals, The Artist in The Cubicle must also make these goals achievable. This is all in efforts to prevent The Artist from building idealizations in his or her head. When The Artist makes unrealistic goals, he or she pre-dates his or her disappointment and discourages The Artist’s future.
Ideals are beautiful to live up to but idealizations are precarious and come with the promise of a sharper disappointment. This is because idealizations are set to always be beyond what The Artist actually achieves. Ideals are there because they keep The Artist reaching.
The idealization of creativity and happiness often times mirrors one another. Both creativity and happiness are disguised as points of destinations when they should be states of being or a feeling rather than a result.
In his TedTalk, Shawn Achor said, “we've pushed happinessover the cognitive horizon as a society.And that's because we think we have to be successfulto be happier.” Similarly to creativity, we’ve habitualized making results the reward and the marker of “success,” rather than identifying an experience, the act of doing, as being inherently successful.
The Artist in The Cubicle commits to drawing creativity closer to his or her every day. Being The Artist in a Cubicle is a livelihood, a hustle, how The Artist sees the world or conducts one’s thoughts and organizes one’s expressions. In finding one’s creative identity with one’s professional one, The Artist in The Cubicle realizes that, most importantly, this livelihood is about being accountable to the tenants that are self-determined and proclaimed to be “of value.”
“But! This is the deal we make with the world. We interact within it,” wrote Rachel Sklar when covering former NY Times Editor Jill Abramson and the struggles of the politics in professionalism. “We move up with the help of great managers and are hindered by crappy ones. Sometimes we get recognized and sometimes we don’t… But the key question is: What is the source of your power? And, what is the source of your joy?”
The Artist in The Cubicle, and the human that has to live in and love and pay for this expensive and challenging and rewarding world, must reckon his or her individual path to create and preserve the integrity of his or her work. Make decisions around how you’ll frame the production of your art, no matter the 9 to 5. And then, finally, make a decision to feel good about your decisions.