Note: I wrote this nearly a year ago, so it doesn’t fit with the linear timeline of my other articles. The book I mention is now published, and I’ve also had a come-back to my art in the meantime, but fell out of practice again in favor of the book. Life is not linear, and this is something I’m continually learning how to get better at. It seemed like a good time to post it as one big accomplishment is behind me, and I’m coming back into my personal creative practice.
Success is, like happiness and money, one of those things we can’t seem to have too much of.
Scratch that. Success is, like happiness and money, one of those things we can’t seem to get enough of. Ever.
A rare person can say “Look at all these things I’ve accomplished, now it’s time I take a well deserved break.” There’s always more to achieve. There’s always a way to become better, and to make a bigger impact.
In my case, my business and creative endeavors became a hamster wheel I can’t step down from—except maybe during those emergency vacations I have to take so I don’t burn out. (And still, I manage to burn out.)
At any given moment my heart is tugging at more things than I have time or energy for. Jumping from one thing to the next makes for a very slow growth in all the areas. Focus is a requirement for success. If I’m not good at focusing, logic dictates I’m not good at being successful.
“Oh shut up, you are successful. Look at all the things you’re doing, and showing up everywhere… How can you even say that you’re not successful?”
First of all, I sincerely appreciate your kindness and encouragement. *blows kiss*
Second, what looks like “gosh you’re everywhere” on the surface doesn’t necessarily translate into tangible markers of success—like you know, money. I’m not complaining, life has been treating me very well lately. But before that, things were very hard for a very long time. People who didn’t know the whole story have considered me successful back when I didn’t feel like that at all.
And third, let’s go back to that first paragraph, shall we? No matter how much recognition I get, I can never feel like it’s enough. Recognition has been my white whale since I was a kid. I know how and why that happened. And I know enough about human nature to know that I cannot un-want the things I want.
Yes, I’d love to be recognized for my work. I’d love to be seen and appreciated for what I do, instead of how I look, my ancestry, my (lack of) education, my social status, or whatever.
But pursuing recognition is a terrible plan. Things never happen the way I hope or anticipate. Things that I hadn’t expected happen instead. The attempts I think would bring me recognition fall flat. Things I do in the spur of the moment blow up unexpectedly.
It’s my belief now that pure discipline in the service of success doesn’t lead to a life well lived.
This past few months have been very productive for me career-wise. I’ve worked on several projects that I thoroughly enjoyed, with people who were a great pleasure to work with. I kept writing my book. I’ve been attending events left and right, and generally had lots of fun.
But my personal art had suffered badly. That thing where I used to make art every single day in the morning? It wasn’t happening for months. There was this urgent client project, and that urgent client project, and one conference, and then another conference, and then another client project… My days filled with personal art had become a distant, fuzzy, gray memory.
I’ve felt the effects. I became restless, anxious, confused, deflated. The pendulum had swung too far to one side, and it was time for it to swing back.
A few weeks ago, I was on a 2-hour bus drive home after leading a successful (!) workshop. My phone battery was dying, and I didn’t bring a book so there was literally nothing to keep my mind occupied. I took this opportunity to just think—something else I didn’t have the time for lately.
I asked myself “What do you want?” and immediately started sobbing. Nobody asked me what I wanted for a terribly long time.
I said to myself “I’m so sorry, I know, I know…” And then I asked “Who is the one apologizing, and who is the one hurting?”
My Artist self was hurting, and the Boss/Executive was running the show for too long, trying to keep things running smoothly, and pushing the Artist down in the process. The Executive was making sure I’m doing all the work that needs to get done and keeping up with all my commitments, but my personal, playful creative practice was suffering because “there was no time”.
There’s so many wonderful things happening because of the hard work I’ve put into. I’m deeply grateful for that.
And yet, I need to own the fact that my inner Artist is hurting.
There’s a part of me that isn’t, and will never be for sale. There’s a part of me that just wants to express herself with no concern for money or reputation. That is a part I need to honor, because it was the one that led me to this path. The Executive would have nothing to build and grow if the Artist hadn’t lit the spark.
The Artist isn’t getting enough airtime. The Artist feels unappreciated and resentful. The Artist isn’t impressed by the outward success.
What the Artist wants is to break loose and do whatever she wants without answering to anybody.
The Executive thinks there’s no time for that because I have projects to do, and a book to write, and I’ve already committed to do stuff with people on the weekends.
The Artist is sick of hearing that because there’s never a good time, and there’s always something “more important”, and she didn’t even get a proper vacation this year. I was just sleeping, lying on the beach, and watching Twin Peaks, and she is just done with that shit. Done.
The Executive cares about my safety. Am I fed? Am I warm? Am I confident that I’ll have enough money for the upcoming months? Am I keeping in contact with all the people I care about so they don’t abandon me?
The Executive doesn’t care about wholeness. She only knows what her idea of success is, and what it feels like to be deprived—of safety, of warmth, of intimacy, and community. Her strategy is to run in the opposite direction and work, work, work. She isn’t really big on feeling the feelings, especially those that remind her of deprivation.
I didn’t just abandon my need to paint. I abandoned my need to feel—because being in the middle of an important project is a really shitty time to be having a meltdown.
It’s just never a good time for having a meltdown.
Running like Hell
For many people, creativity offers a way of processing confusing and difficult emotions. The emotions that are hard to explain to other people because they’re no longer firmly tied to any memories, but are instead just floating around our system and occasionally surfacing when “triggered”.
Unfortunately, our culture’s dominant way of dealing with emotions is repression. I’ve learned how to feel and express my emotions fairly well, but at times I don’t let myself because it’s inconvenient. When I get anxious about my pressing commitments, I repress like a mofo. It surprises me because I see myself as an emotionally expressive person, but apparently I have a blind spot.
I’m feeling more alive now than I’ve felt in a while. Yet, I have recurring dreams of being chased. There are two types of dreams I frequently dream: flying (mostly lucid), and being chased (I almost never manage to become lucid during those).
Sometimes I’m chased by monsters. Sometimes by killer robots. Sometimes by secret agents. Sometimes by a threatening man. Sometimes by a dangerous, magical woman. Whoever is chasing me, they’re at my heels. I run, I hide, I jump down from buildings and climb tall trees, and all the time they’re right behind me.
As much as I like to think of myself as a person who faces her problems head-on, my dreams tell me a different story. I’m running away from something. Dreams don’t lie.
Art doesn’t lie, either. Inspiration for dreams and art comes from the same place. People call artists “dreamers” (often as a derogatory term), because the line between dreams and reality is so thin. We dream with our eyes open. You can see it on our faces when we tune out.
Dreams and art, that’s all one needs to see that you’ve been running away from parts of yourself. I’ve been ignoring both. The Artist has a healing message for me, and I’ve shut her off because it was an inconvenient time for me to be dreaming. Success can’t wait.
Emotional honesty can be painful.
To the inner Artist in all of us, honesty is paramount. Without truth, there is no art. “Art” that isn’t honest is mere decor—it’s placating, instead of evoking deep thought and feeling.
When the Artist takes the stage, expect the unexpected. Expect breakdowns. Illusions shattering. Existential crises. Awakening. Healing.
And being in the middle of an important project is a shitty time to be healing.
It’s just never a good time to be healing.
Wholeness can feel like a noble pursuit, but the path to getting there is the opposite of glamorous.
It’s messy and can cost you more than you’re ready to give. As much as we want to feel whole, we doubt our willingness to pay the price. If we want to be whole, we need to allow ourselves to feel the feelings and break down occasionally. Most people don’t lead the kind of lives that enable them to do that.
Our work, family, and social groups demand that we’re constantly on, present, and stable. Pursuing wholeness causes a lot of instability. As a society that’s chopped up into tiny, fragile units called families, with 1–2 primary breadwinners and caregivers, we can’t afford it.
In 2016, a horrible client experience rattled my world. I questioned my trust in other people, and I was berating myself for not trusting myself enough. It was a difficult time, and I reached out for help. I also allowed myself time and space to recover. Thankfully, there was no urgent work that I couldn’t postpone, and I didn’t have classes that week so I could just lie on the couch for several days and process what happened.
When my mother quit a job that was ruining her health, she took a six month sabbatical to recover from 20 years of inhumane levels of stress, overwork, mobbing, and sleep deprivation, and just grieve in peace. She didn’t even think of applying for a new job before she felt ready. I was more proud of her than ever for putting her own needs first for once.
It takes real strength to claim what you need, and often it’s those “fuck this!” moments that push us to do it. Sadly, most people are not in a financial position to do that, and are forced to gloss over their inner rifts. That’s not fair.
Success isn’t concerned with wholeness.
Success mandates that you’re on and ready and present. Success mandates that you’re disciplined and consistent. Success expects you to sacrifice your health, well-being, and relationships “when necessary”.
Success is ruthless. I’m done pursuing it.
My mission from now on is: to become whole again, and to give the world the best that I have to offer.
I can’t give my best if I’m not whole. I know I can do more. I know I can do better. But the path to getting there isn’t through trying harder, or working more, or even working smarter. It’s to scale back everything I can, and cut down distractions that take away from my ability to be present with my lack of wholeness. It’s to be satisfied with just enough money to fund my modest lifestyle, and allow me more time to dedicate to emotionally honest art.
It’s to stop thinking about 5-year and 10-year visions, and start thinking about end-of-life visions. The only clarifying question that matters is “What have I lived for?”
I will not have lived for a six figure income, being a sought-after speaker, millions of page views, TV shows, book deals…
I will have lived for giving the best I have to offer to the world, and for the hope of becoming whole.
Success will either come, or it won’t. Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.
About Nela Dunato
Artist, brand designer, teacher, and writer. Author of the book “The Human Centered Brand”. Owner of a boutique branding & design consultancy that helps experienced service-based businesses impress their dream clients.
On this blog I write about art, design, creativity, business, productivity and marketing, and share my creative process and tips. Read more about me...
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