Get Paid for Who You Are
You have everything you need, angelfish.
Margaret Richardson peered at me under an outrageous hat after a studio tour of Wieden+Kennedy, during my senior year in design school. She took a prolonged breath and dramatically expelled, "You see, darling, everything is about everything in design," in what I can only describe as a design accent—the sort you gain after a lifetime as a design writer, interviewing legends like Sister Corita Kent.
I really hated that line. I gave her the eyeroll of her life, while respectfully nodding in agreement. I had no idea what she meant. How could I? I had zero design experience, and certainly no clue about my creative statement to the world. And here I was, standing before my Professor of Contemporary Design Studio as she dropped a potent knowledge bomb in my face, rolling my eyes. She said it to me a few more times before the end of the term, and again the following term when I was her TA. More eyerolls.
Now that I'm hundreds of years old, and have worked basically everywhere (some call me a design ho), I want to share with you what I believe Margaret meant. Engaging in the act of creativity takes everything from us. It requires all of our emotional capital. We can't fake this career path. We can't not see, truly see, the world while engaging in the act of creativity. It's impossible. If you’re a creative who gives a damn, you know this is true. Just look at the emotional whiplash we put ourselves through with each brief — the cognitive dissonance, the thrill, the early onset of paralyzing self doubt, the waves of optimism, and the alarming possibility that you could make something globally impactful with this one. It takes everything.
Okay, point established. I get it, Margaret; it's not an easy career path. We've got to think for a living (nodding at you, Duane King), and it takes time and effort. Lots of jobs take effort (I've worked all those jobs, too, pop tarts). But here's the sniggity snag in all of this: while we’re being asked to dig deep, to truly see the world and engage in the act of creation while living in it, someone, somewhere is trying equally hard to capture our hearts. And those someones, working 16-hour days to persuade, delight, and distract us, work for multinational corporations — corporations that have budgets specifically designed to make us feel like the answers to all of our doubts can be found by purchasing their goods or services.
While we’re being asked to give kind attention to our inner hearts and exert as much creativity as possible, unchecked amounts of our energy are being syphoned off into the consumption of culture, rather than the act of creating it. It's an overwhelming amount of time and energy that’s spent marketing to us. It's like being asked to knit a sweater with your hands, and paint with your feet, simultaneously. There’s no sustainable way to engage in the act of creation while our hearts are being captured by corporations.
In overwhelming quantity, corporate broadcast messaging has one purpose: to convince you that you are not enough. This theme is repeated using all manner of creative devices imaginable until many of us agree with it, which is a distraction from engaging in the act of creating culture.
The last thing we need in the crushing realities of the modern era is more consumers. We must curate our image; we must purchase to brand ourselves, but that’s a much more powerful position than the type of consumption brands want us to engage in. Do not be fooled; these corporations want your lust, your love, your eternal fandom, and your time. All of this while also wanting your dedicated financial contributions. It's insidious. And most of it is also garbage that ends up in the ocean.
I learned in the years after design school that the world really just wants to know one thing: what it can get from you. If I’m going to demand that the world pay me for who I am, I must first, unwaveringly, know who I am. And it’s nearly impossible for me to know who I am while blindly responding to negativity-based messaging every day of my life.
There is one certain way to disrupt the insidious nature of corporate messaging: become an object of art yourself. That sounds like another eyeroll-inducing Margaret Richardson quote. What I mean to express to you, my dear fellow creatives, is that we can design ourselves out of systems designed to bind us. We are, after all, well versed in complex cultural conundrums. We solve them consistently, or we get fired. So let's use the same principles that define our practice, shall we?
What’s the solution to being marketed to, as a consumer, which distracts from our own creative practice? Stop being marketed to. How can we survive the barrage of the 3,000-5,000 ads we’re exposed to every day? How can we possibly create in this environment? Treat ourselves as an object of art. Feed our inner creative with positive, nourishing attention. By this I mean, curate and design your thinking patterns. Remind yourself that you have unique value in the way you see the world. Compose mantras that mean something to you when you’re experiencing self doubt. Here are some that work for me:
- I have everything I need
- No one on earth can directly compete with me
- My story is the most valuable thing I own
- I embody unique value
- I am more than enough
- I can't resonate with everyone, but I can resonate with millions
- This is not my final form
- This is the performance of my life
- My wealth is in my relationships
If our inner creativity is a garden, we must water it. Stop the syphoning of our identities and hearts to global conglomerates and feed yourself with positive reinforcement, angels. I promise you in just a few weeks of daily self talk that’s kind and encouraging, you’ll see a change in your energy. Your work will feel lighter. Your connections faster, your cognitive abilities fluid, sharp.
Once we start watering our inner creative gardens, we begin to loosen the chains of late capitalism, and get closer to recapturing our hearts, and putting them back in our chests. What this means, however, is that we must know ourselves. If we are going to ask to get paid for who we are, we must be able to tell the world who we are.
On November 8, I felt like the world was trying to tell me who I am. A subject of an American idea that I didn't vote for. A marginal voice in a sea of powerful negativity. It was one of the worst nights in my adult life. And then Meryl Streep spoke these words into a microphone during an awards ceremony, "Take your broken heart, make it into art.” I realized I had to recapture my broken heart, or I was at risk of losing it entirely.
Somehow, after the paralysis of the election, I was empowered to start an identity-based work called One Dangerous Queer, which was the first time I had told the world what I was, in a formal way. I photographed 50 incredible humans who empower queerness in others, each of who has also empowered me. In photographic form, I shared my heart with the world. And I have to say, having completed this work, it was the most powerful process of my creative career. I felt like Moana when she dove to the bottom of the sea to grab the heart of Te Fiti.
I found myself in the act of this creative work. I'm so grateful for the people who gave me permission to shake off the paralysis of the realities of the modern era, and make something with my heart. Maybe it was Margaret, maybe it was Meryl. I stand here before my community today, where comparison to others is completely irrelevant, fully numb to all the ads that are thrown at me daily. My heart is inside my chest, and the flourishing garden that I watered during the dark storm has come into bloom. This is what I want for all of the creatives who may be reading this.
Let's make history together. I'm waiting patiently for you. If you need me, just book a rainbow, I'll be at the end of it, watering my garden. Grab your watering can and a handful of sparkles, darling; we’ve got work to do. I can’t guarantee you’ll get paid in U.S. currency for your efforts. But you’re going to feel alive and wealthy in so many ways that it won’t even matter.