I’m a bad boss…
Not for my employees, at least I don’t think, but I’m definitely a bad boss for myself. What does that mean? It means that I’m sensitive. I’m anxious. I need order, but I crave spontaneity. I’m hopeful but brutally realistic. I’m rarely satisfied. I’m restless. I’m unfulfilled. I’m bitter. And I’m way too busy to do anything about any of this. More than anything, I’m too scared to do or be anything else.
Being the boss is hard, but honestly it’s hard in 1000 ways that people who have never been the boss could understand. When you succeed the whole team succeeds. When you fail, you fail all alone. For everything that you strive to make better, you will have someone mad at you for asking more from them. You can try your best to lead by example no matter the sacrifice, but you will still be expected to appreciate and accommodate everyone else’s struggles. You will rarely be appreciated for what you do right, but you will be resented for what you do wrong. Is this a pity party? Perhaps. But bossland is a lonely place, and if I don’t have the safety of my writing to vent then I fear I will become a poor leader for my employees eventually too. And being a bad boss is something special that I only want to inflict upon myself. Because ironically, I think it may be the very thing that makes me a good person to work for.
I constantly fear people’s disapproval of me, so I spend an enormous amount of energy trying to articulate my wishes and needs in a way that will cause the least amount of friction. I rehearse whole conversations in my head. I consider any and all possibilities, and I prepare possible solutions for all, just in case. I remember everything. My brain plays a never ending loop of my greatest mistakes, constantly reminding me of what I could’ve and should’ve done differently. And while I know I should turn it off, I’m terrified of not learning the lessons that I’m sure will come with mind numbing examination of every moment of my past, afraid that without those realizations and epiphanies I’m doomed to repeat my mistakes. I weigh risk versus potential. I choose my battles, only after complete and thorough consideration has been given to the best and worst case scenarios.
I’m not saying that I don’t occasionally lose my shit. Oh that happens. But it happens a lot less than it used to, and it only happens after my patience runs out. If you poke at me long enough I will eventually bite. I’m only human. I’m an extremely passionate human. But I’m growing, and I’ve learned that you truly do get more bees with honey. I want to inspire my employees. I want to encourage them to do and be their best, not just for the success of my business, but because I crave the energy of being around people who feel successful. It’s an empowering and uplifting feeling. And perhaps that’s the very reason that I do snap sometimes. I’m trying so hard to encourage the best from the people around me by trying my best to be the best, so when they disappoint, it truly feels like my own failure. I’m mad at them for making me fail. And if you think my reaction to my employee’s mistakes are bad, let me assure you it doesn’t hold a candle to the torture that I will unleash upon myself. I will relive my mistake over and over again, I will analyze every moment, and I will punish myself with the constant reminder of what I did wrong and what I should’ve done right. I will suffocate on embarrassment, shame and self doubt. And then I will pick myself up, gather my pieces, and move forward determined to never make the same mistake again.
So, now that I’ve defended… nay. Now that I’ve come to terms with… even more nay. So now that I’ve made the conscious choice to not only allow this behavior but to convince myself that it is necessary and that I’m prepared to do everything in my power to enable it, I must also figure out a less painful and more visibly sane way to navigate through this grueling cycle, or at the very least accept that it might be worth the pain and ridicule.
Or maybe, maybe I just need to accept and appreciate my opportunity to participate in this experiment.
And just like that, it all makes sense!
Today, meet yesterday.
Allow me to share with you a pivotal conversation from my past when I first truly realized that the real point of higher education isn’t necessarily what happens in a classroom or in a book. I suppose, truth be told, this can happen anywhere, but for me it happened on a park bench on a college campus.
The conversation went something like this. Imagine a naive, directionless, art student, just treading water until graduation. Some days I gave 100%, some days I didn’t, but my entitled youth convinced me that I was deserving of approval every day. At the opposite end of this conversation was my photography and drawing professor, one of the most unique, bizarre, and wonderfully fascinating people I’ve ever met. He was like peanut butter and bacon, two things that shouldn’t work together but somehow just do. He was a delightful mash up of old fashioned and avant-garde. I once saw him dressed in women’s clothing for a campus event, but he didn’t at all look uncomfortable. In fact, he walked into the auditorium as confidently and comfortably as if he were wearing his best suit. I saw him lick paintings. He listened to Devo loudly in his office in the middle of the night. He encouraged great, deep, meaningful, sometimes scary conversation. Generic answers did not go unpunished in his classroom. He did this crazy thing to illustrate his boredom with a motion like he was slamming his face against the wall, slapping the wall loudly with his hand hidden between the wall and his head to ensure the effect while protecting himself from a broken nose. Risk or not, it was highly effective. You wanted to impress this man. He spent entire classes wildly and enthusiastically drawing circles, loving and cherishing the rare beauty of each one. He spent as much time standing on his desk as he did sitting under it. He wore red boots every day. He made art. He made good art and lots of it. And yet, he sulked through the art department halls like everyone’s grumpy grandpa. He smoked like a chimney. He scowled and he growled. And most importantly, he lived in a world where respect was earned. You could see how this was irritating to say the least for me. We were sitting on a bench outside of the art building after what I considered to be an exceptionally harsh critique. How could he not see how insanely talented I was. Ya, maybe my art did look like a white bread bologna sandwich that week, but did he not notice how deep and bold my intent was. I mean I was dancing around some really complex and mature ideas. That deserved some credit, right? You know how sensitive I am. You know I need people’s approval. He was holding out, and I hated it. The truth is, if I had shown the great potential that I so generously awarded myself then I now realize his disapproval was even more warranted. If I truly did possess the ability and the desire to entertain an exceptionally challenging view that went against the grain, what a disappointment it must have been when I stopped short of the grand finale. I’m not even sure I ever got past the opening credits. I scratched the surface of awesome, but when it got scary and hard I settled for good enough. But good enough is never good enough. On this particular day I was engaged in a twenty-something, ranting, raving, rambling defense of my work, all dressed up pretty in the disguise of meaningful and important life examination. What makes art good? What makes someone qualified to decide if art is good. How come someone else gets to decide if my art is good enough, if I’m good enough. It’s mine. It’s me. He endured my monologue, offering a nod here and there. Then, when I was heading towards loop four or five of the same aimless conversation he’s probably suffered through for all the years he’s been teaching, he let out a long sigh. “Student Monica, what is art?” Now, having entered my final year of college, an art degree within my reach only months away, I should’ve been able to answer this question easily, right? This is the most basic of questions. What is? We figure out the what, then we examine the who, the why, the when. What is art? I sat there, blank… Speechless. Afraid to say the wrong thing, afraid to say the right thing. This question terrified me. This should have been a cake walk for me. Step one. What. The 7,000 steps that were to follow should’ve been the hard part, right? I mean every text book in the world gives a definition of the what in the first page, all the pages that follow break down the why. So how could I seriously not know what the most basic definition of my area of study was, what I had based my entire education upon, the what to my entire future. There was no faking a response. There was no distraction. This hit me head on like a semi truck. I wasn’t prepared for it, and it stung. It downright hurt. I agreed right then and there that I would spend the rest of my life answering that question. Little did I realize then that that determination to analyze, absorb, reflect, and a terrified discipline to not fail would be the driving force behind who I would become.
The true benefit, for me at least, of college was to develop an ability to think beyond the scope of what someone else tells me. To think beyond memorization or common reasoning. I learned to use all of my senses and abilities to absorb new feelings, new information, new possibilities. I realized that my potential was not limited to my experiences, but to how far I was willing to reach for my dream. Life is not a series of comprehensible equations and definitions. It’s endless hypotheses and the constant hunt for answers. One answer that leads to another question that leads to another possibility. An endless, awesome journey. And don’t forget the struggle is important too. It gives us perspective. It’s the spectrum that we gauge our success and our value upon.
Now, as you know by now, my art degree did not result in a fancy art job. I do not catch a cab to a sharp office surrounded by shiny computers and people looking accidentally cool. I do not walk in designer shoes with matching hand bag to a glossy gallery, and I spend no time in a cluttered city loft that smells of charcoal and paint thinner. I cook. My world is a kitchen. My tools are smoke, fire and water. But I am still an artist, and this is still my studio. I know this… because, lo and behold, I found the answer in this kitchen. What is art? I think the very thought of trying to define art with simple words diminishes the extreme importance of my search for the answer. That’s not a cop out, that’s honestly me showing my respect to the process. My art is not something I make, it’s something I do. Making art is taking part in the never ending journey to define the indefinable. Art has no boundaries, but then again, maybe it is our boundaries. One mark too less and the piece is forever unfinished. One mark too many and the piece is dead. You go until you can go no longer, but if you go too far you must start all over. You learn, and then you try again. But here’s the best part about this journey, all of those steps, all of those experiments, the research, the paper trail of exploration, those are all tasty savory tidbits. And people pay for those! Thank goodness because otherwise we’d all be working in the dark, thirsty, hungry, and smelly. No, the proof of the journey is the best part. But not the answer. They’re not buying your art. They’re buying your waste. The leftovers. The crumbs that fall off the table as you move on to the next attempt. The next generation. The new horizon. As long as you are continually trying to find the answer, you are taking part in art. So when life starts to feel like Groundhog Day, when every day begins to feel exactly like the one before it, we need to stop and remind ourselves how lucky we are to be living a creative life. We are gifted the opportunity to take part in defining, creating, being the what. I have never made a perfect dish. I may never make a perfect dish. Perhaps I hope I never will. Because the exploration of trying new keeps me going. One bad dish makes me determined to make one better. And one good dish gives me the motivation to make one even better than that. The possibilities are endless. There is no finish line. There is no grand perfect. There is only the process, the daily, sometimes grueling, boring, monotonous, unnecessary, liberating, fantastic process.
Ya, I’m a bad boss… to myself. I set impossible expectations. I have no purpose other than that with which I set upon myself. I’m scared to fail, but more scared not to try. I’m unforgiving for the sake of craving the lesson. I’m making sense where there is no sense. I’m exhausted. I’m tormented.
I am creating art.
And I feel incredibly fortunate to be doing so.