Asking Not Asking #14: Unqualified
TINA ESSMAKER / Creative Coach
I'm 31 and a graphic designer. I came to the design world on the later side at 27. I moved to New York to go to Parsons where they have a great program for people like me who want to make career changes after undergrad. I loved the program and had great internships while I was in school. After I finished, I went to work for a popular wellness website. My ultimate dream was to eventually work for a branding agency. However, after I finished school and just before starting this new job, I found out I had bed bugs in my new apartment. I had already been dealing with some chronic health issues and with the bed bugs and a stressful job that often required work on nights and weekends, those health issues were greatly exacerbated.
I eventually reached total burnout and had to quit my job and leave New York. I gave myself a couple months to recover and went back to New York for another seven months but as soon as I was working full-time again, my health got much worse and I had to leave again. I had to stop working and move back in with my mom in North Carolina. I've been working on getting better for about a year and a half but I'm still not there yet. I know that when I do start working again, I won't be able to hustle in the traditional ways.
One of the real surprises of this process has been finding what I think is the type of work I want to make. Before getting sick, I actually never had ideas for personal work. I always felt blocked and one of the big reasons I love design is that I could work within someone else's parameters. I've had very little energy for the past couple years so I turned back to reading fantasy novels. I used to love them when I was young, but stopped reading them because I had faced some judgement about the genre as a teenager and fell out of the habit of reading for pleasure. I devoured dozens of fantasy books and realized how, in my opinion, many of the book cover designs did not reflect the stories I was reading. For the first time in my life, actual ideas for work came into my head without another person's direction and that has been a huge deal for me.
While I've come to this realization, I'm still in the earliest stage of fear and don’t know what do next since I don't have a lot of the skills required for that genre (such as illustration). I'm still in this process of getting better and getting out of the rock bottom but even though it's still difficult, I can already see the ways in which it has totally changed the way I will approach work.
I wanted to add this in case it’s helpful. I've been consuming a lot of creative pep talk kind of stuff such as Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic, and the beautiful book, Your Inner Critic is a Big Jerk. I try to listen to every interview with Lisa Congdon, the actual Creative Pep Talk podcast, and your column, of course! I see content about how it's better to create bad work than no work and what I find myself up against is that fear. But there is a practical side, too—when I was in school, I wrote off book cover design because it felt like a weak spot of mine and illustration was never even on the table. It feels daunting that my interest is heading in a direction where I especially feel the least qualified. How can I move forward from here?
Last week I cracked open Heather Havrilesky’s book, What If This Were Enough?, and the following passage struck me:
More than anything else, we have to imagine a different kind of life, a different way of living. We have to reject the shiny, shallow future that will never come, and locate ourselves in the current, flawed moment. Despite what we’ve been taught, we are neither eternally blessed nor eternally damned. We are blessed and damned and everything in between. Instead of toggling between victory and defeat, we have to learn to live in the middle, gray area, where a real life can unfold on its own time. We have to breathe in reality instead of distracting ourselves around the clock. We have to open our eyes and our hearts to each other. We have to connect with what already is, who we already are, what we already have.
The middle, gray area of life isn’t what we want. We want to feel completely qualified and confident, or we feel insecure. We want to absolutely know that we are making the right decisions, or we procrastinate on choosing at all. We want reassurance in many forms that we are making the “right” choice, but we can never have that certainty. Instead we get to work it out in the messy process of living. The above passage from Heather’s book has become a meditation for me. Perhaps it will become a meditation for you, too. A reminder that you are not yet where you want to be, but you are also no longer where you were. You are in the middle. In transit. Somewhere in between.
Look at how far you’ve come. Look at how you took care of yourself over and over again: You gave yourself time and space to heal without pressure—not once, but twice—you granted yourself permission to explore your curiosity and dive back into reading fantasy, and you allowed yourself to think about what it could be like to do work that aligns with your interests and excites you. Now you are looking at the whole, expansive picture, which feels overwhelming. We don’t jump from having an idea to holding an executed, completed project overnight. There are many steps in the middle, so let’s talk about what those might look like.
First, I want to help you reframe this statement from your letter: “It feels daunting that my interest is heading in a direction where I especially feel the least qualified.” What are other ways you could convey your truth that feels more empowering, gives you strength, and encourages you rather than paralyzes you? How about, “I am interested in an area I don’t feel qualified in, but I have learned other skills in the past, and I can learn this, too.” Or you could say, “I’m scared I’m not qualified to do this, but I haven’t tried yet, so I’m going to keep an open mind and find out what I am capable of.” Or even, “I’m not qualified now, but I can learn and practice and then I will feel more comfortable and qualified through experience.” This is an exercise in reframing the underlying message from one that self-sabotages to one that encourages exploration of what is possible. You don’t yet know what is possible—you’re merely guessing.
You mentioned Lisa Congdon in your letter. I had the pleasure of interviewing Lisa about her path into art and illustration for The Great Discontent back in 2012. What stood out to me the most about our lengthy conversation was that she started making art at 32 and didn’t become a professional artist until her late thirties. She started as an educator who later moved into the nonprofit sector and found art as an outlet to a job that was stressful. She recalled her path to me: “At first, art was purely a hobby. If you’d have told me ten years ago that I’d be making my living as an illustrator, I would have said you were completely off your rocker. I didn’t have a very developed skill set at the time and I never could have imagined that this thing that I did that brought me joy would be something that I would someday do all the time, really well, and that people would pay money for it.” While Lisa noted that she had always been creative, it wasn’t until later in life that she embraced her creativity in a professional capacity.
I want to make note of this because, one, there is no pressure for you to figure it out right now. And, two, we all feel unqualified at some point, regardless of training, experience, and titles we ascribe to ourselves. As Lisa put it, we start with a skill set that isn’t very developed, and we develop it with practice. What if you let go of the pressure to know how this exploration plays out for you? What if you did what resonated in the moment and allowed yourself to play and have fun with illustrating book covers with no end in mind? What if you committed to practicing and were open to how your practice evolved? What if the goal was to develop your skill set?
As a side note related to the objective of practicing, have you heard of #The100DayProject? It’s a great way to give yourself space to play and experiment while focusing on the process rather than the outcome. People around the world commit to make one thing every day and share it on Instagram: a poem, an illustration, a painting, a dance, a song, and so on. The possibilities are limitless. If you’re interested, this year’s project kicks off on April 2, 2019! And it’s a wonderfully encouraging, inclusive community of people who range from beginners to professional artists.
I want to address the world we live in, which requires money and tangible resources to live. I’m not sure what your current financial situation is and if you are providing for yourself or if you have help supporting you while you recuperate. If you have support and don’t have the pressure to work while your health recovers, that is a gift because it means you have time to practice a new skill without financial pressure. If you are working and supporting yourself financially while you recover, I’d encourage you to build time to explore your practice into your schedule at a pace that feels good to you. Remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
In your letter, you said, “One of the real surprises of this process has been finding what I think is the type of work I want to make.” So make that work. Give it a chance to exist in this world. And, in the process, connect with your dreams on a deeper level. You might feel unqualified, but none of us show up on this earth qualified. It takes practice. It takes courage. And it takes the audacity to believe we can do something we haven’t done before.
Like Lisa, you may only see your interest as a hobby. You might not imagine it as something you could be paid to do. Either outcome could prove true, but you owe it to yourself to discover your potential, to follow your curiosity, and to learn what you are capable of. To go back to Heather’s words: We have to connect with what already is, who we already are, what we already have. The experiences you’ve had have led you back to yourself. You’ve rediscovered a part of you that you traded in for a more socially acceptable persona. It no longer serves you to be someone you are not, so be you. You are indeed qualified—qualified to be you.
To being enough,
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Asking Not Asking is a bi-monthly column written by Tina Essmaker, a New York City-based coach, speaker, and writer who helps others live into their possibility. To be considered for the column, send and email to firstname.lastname@example.org with a short note about where you're at and where you want to be, and make sure to include the following:
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