For the last two months, I’ve been working at a law firm in my Iowa hometown, as an assistant for an estate planning attorney. Displaced from NYC due to pandemic-related job loss, I am incredibly lucky and grateful to have landed any job at all, let alone one that I enjoy.
That said, it’s the first time I’ve worked a desk job like this — actually showing up to an office, 9-5, having a desk, not wearing jeans — since high school. And while the work is enjoyable, that new daily structure has taken some getting used to.
There are a few lessons I’m learning as I work daily to answer this question in new ways: How do I preserve and honor my artistic/creative self in this new administrative context? I think a lot of artists are asking themselves this question these days, as COVID has limited the overtly arts-related paid opportunities that used to sustain us, and we find ourselves trying to blend into other industries in order to get by (cue the major imposter syndrome).
Here are three ideas:
Creativity and art are not reserved for “the arts” alone.
I have found myself in as much a state of creative flow building a system to track and manage trust-funding processes as I have learning a new aria. The art certainly looks different, and it reaches a different “audience,” but the act of creation — bringing something into the world that did not previously exist — is exactly the same.
Any work can be generous, if we choose.
Attitude is everything. If I show up to this job with the sole intention of earning an income, doing just enough to meet expectation and earn the paycheck, it is not a generous act. If the only reason I show up is so that I can pursue my real passions outside of working hours, it is not a generous act. But if I show up and realize that, even from my little cubicle, I can make a real difference in someone’s life—then it has the opportunity to be a generous act.
That said, I don’t think every job is required to be completely generous. It might be okay to do a survival job simply to sponsor one’s other work, the work that one believes will make a bigger impact. Charles Ives was a successful insurance actuary by day, which financed his nonconforming style of composition that ultimately helped lay the groundwork for the 20th-century musical avant-garde. His compositions wouldn’t be widely regarded as important or even good until after his death — he certainly wouldn’t have made a living off them during his lifetime. He needed a stable job to fulfill his basic needs in order to create masterpieces well ahead of their time.
That said (again), Ives the Actuary also helped lay the groundwork for the modern method of estate planning. So perhaps he wasn’t just showing up for the paycheck, after all. Maybe Ives’s progressive musical ideas informed and inspired his progressive financial ideas as much as the other way around — true innovation.
The “what” doesn’t matter so much as the “why.”
I began Becca Brunelle’s month-long Purpose Seeker Training Program the week after I started my new job, and the timing could not have been more synchronous. The program was a daily reminder that the “what” — the job, the product, the thing that we do — doesn’t actually matter so much, as long as it’s rooted in our “why.” Our purpose, the change we seek to make, whatever that may be.
Artists often get very wrapped up in our whats. We are our art; we and our creations are one and the same. But what happens when a catastrophe comes along and rips away our ability to share our creations with others, at least in the way we were accustomed to sharing them? Over-identifying with the “what” leads to inflexibility, and if it all falls apart, it leads to despair.
Rather, we can realize that what we create is simply a function of our reason for creating. If I can’t make the change I seek to make doing one thing, I am flexible and resilient enough to find a way to make that change another way. If I can’t build the empathy bridge on a stage, maybe I can do it at a computer.