I want to talk about an issue that I feel is greatly affecting our ability to be successful in our art and business: our willingness to stand firmly in our uniqueness, and put our individuality in the spotlight in everything we do.
A word of warning though, this is a very lengthy article, because
a) I have trouble being concise and have no idea when I should stop writing, and
b) I wanted to share it in this integral form, instead of breaking it into 4 different posts, because I see it as setting the foundation for things that I want to say in weeks and months to come.
Authentic sharing has become somewhat of a trendy movement (and I’m all for that), but I’m not talking just about saying more personal stuff on your blog and social media in order to appear more human. I’m talking about actually being proud of who you are as a whole person, regardless of your perceived shortcomings, and acting like it.
That’s not easy for most of us. Pride is labeled as one of the seven deadly sins. Somehow we’re not supposed to be proud of who we are. I think people got it all backwards, and I’ll explain why in a minute.
First, I want to go back to the source of our insecurities: our painful childhood experiences.
When I say painful, I don’t necessarily mean the horrific stuff you hear on Oprah, I’m talking everyday normal things that most people don’t even consider traumatic, but they are. (I’ve talked a bit about my not-very-traumatic-but-still experiences in my post Why are my artworks so dark and morbid?)
No one survives childhood without a few scars. Even if we had unconditional support in our homes, the rest of the society is still so brutal and underdeveloped when it comes to raising healthy humans.
Being true to your authentic self wasn’t held in high regard in my surroundings. I remember being repeatedly chastised, teased, bullied, and punished for having preferences and desires that other people thought were inappropriate for my age, gender, or at all.
It should not surprise you that I was the weirdo of my extended family, an artist stereotype.
By the time I entered school this got even worse, and for the better part of my life I saw myself as a social outcast that will never make any real friendships.
The bullying and exclusion (by both students and a few teachers) I endured in primary school pushed me to my first depressive episode at ages 12–13, which sounds ridiculous, but I suspect it’s more common then we might realize. (I wrote more about my experiences with depression here.)
These experiences have reinforced a very powerful message that I’ve been carrying inside me to this day:
Being myself is wrong.
My interests and passions are wrong.
My talents and strengths are wrong.
I am inherently wrong, and people will never accept me for who I am.
Your story might have been similar or not at all, but it’s likely you’ve been taught the same lessons by either your family or your education system, because that’s just the way today’s culture operates.
Even if you know now that all of those stories are bullshit, and that you are free to be whoever you are, there might be a voice inside your head that challenges you every time you decide to put more of yourself into the public eye. (If this is happening to you, I’ve written about how to overcome your fear of visibility.)
It could be your mother’s voice telling you that it’s no way for a proper girl to behave.
It could be your teacher’s voice saying that you will never amount to anything, and that you’re destined to remain a failure.
Or it could be your own inner child’s voice warning you what might happen if you do what you’re not supposed to.
Sometimes you push them away because your inner calling is so strong, it overpowers any doubts or fears. But sometimes you hesitate. Your desire and vision are not yet clear enough to pull you through the weeds. You listen to that voice and pull back.
There’s no shame in that. It would be crazy to do things that a big part of you fears will cost you your life. (For children, parents’ love, care and acceptance is life. You might have grown into a strong adult, but the child who was mistreated still remembers.)
Being unique and innovative is challenging.
Thankfully, in my own experience I did have phases where the utter misery I was swimming in pushed me to explore various creative avenues. After pursuing those for a while and having a blast just creating my heart’s content, it turned out that my peculiar interests were actually profitable.
Who would have thought?
I like to say that everything I achieved in my life so far, I did not because I listened to other people’s advice, but because I was doing what I enjoyed despite mocking and open discouragement.
Which brings me to my foul-mouthed manifesto.
(Children, cover your ears.)
I am pissed off by our conformist society that crushes people’s dreams and demonizes their natural, precious gifts.
I am annoyed by people doing things just because “it’s how it was always done”.
I am sick and tired of imposed expectations.
I am enraged by authority figures telling children that their interests are stupid and useless.
I long to live in a world where no child is shamed for their individuality.
I dream of a world where every person is celebrated for the distinct perspective they bring to our diverse collective.
I want for everyone to tap into their natural talents and and live their life by doing things that bring them joy, wealth, fulfillment and success, however they choose to define it.
I want for you to be free to express your true self, both through your creative work and your entire life.
Because you are brilliant.
As are all the people you encounter in your life. If they’re being assholes toward you, it’s because they haven’t yet discovered their own brilliance, and they go around vomiting their frustrations all over other people since they don’t know any better. One can hardly blame them.
Which brings me to my second point
A world where every person acts according to their true nature, and does what they do best is not a world of chaos, as powers that be want us to believe. It’s a world of cultural and scientific progress, a world of financial and emotional well being for everyone, not just the 1%.
The world as it is is fucked up. Why do we sacrifice our own well being to preserve what’s not working, anyway?
You do not owe it to the world to be “nice”.
You do not owe it to your parents, your teachers or your president to be a “respectable citizen”.
You do owe it to your and other people’s children to do whatever is in your power to change the conditions for them, so that they can have it easier.
And I don’t mean easier just financially, because money can always be earned — the courage and self-esteem once lost can take a lifetime to rebuild.
Again with the self-help, Nela?
Why do I get so inspired to write about the touchy feely things, instead of giving you 5 tips to pick a color palette for your blog, or some other shallow thing? Why indeed. I didn’t understand this urge either, until recently.
Recently I went through Tara Gentile‘s bootcamp on Creative Live, during which I was guided to really put a finger on what my unique perspective is on the industry I work in. I guess I have finally owned up to what I really want to say. I knew it for a long time because it emerged in my art, I just wasn’t sure how that ties in with my business, but thanks to Tara, a million light-bulbs went off and I now have a clear(er) vision. This post is my first attempt of sharing this vision with you.
Here is a photo I did for last year’s Jennifer Lee‘s Right-Brainers in Business Summit contest (which I loved even though I choke on the word right-brained) in which she wanted us to “tattoo” our core message on our body.
Yeah, I know. It’s a pretty underwhelming message on the surface. It’s certainly not motivational poster material. It’s not “You’re amazing! You’re magnificent! You’re a unique special snowflake!”
Because that’s not the message a lot of people are ready for, yet. People who, when you say to them that they’re amazing and geniuses, will wave it off and think you don’t really mean it. People who, deep down, still doubt that any of that can possibly be true, because all their lives they’ve been told the opposite.
Jumping the grand canyon between “Your worth as a person is measured by how well you meet our expectations” and “You’re awesome” is impossible. We need a bridge to lead us there.
This message is a bridge. It’s not a destination in itself. It’s not some profound truth you’ve been looking for all your life. It’s just what it is — something you may need to remember occasionally when things get tough.
It’s OK to be you.
It’s OK to be who your really are.
It’s OK to not give a crap what other people may think of your interests, opinions and choices.
There’s no need to worry.
It will all work out.
Now you may be wondering… What does all this has to do with creativity and business?
I’m glad you asked.
Honoring your individuality is the only way you can be truly creative
Finding your own artistic style or voice is the Holy Grail of every creator. Nobody wants to be a cheap copy of someone else. Even when people compare your work to an artist you love and admire, you might feel a bit uncomfortable, wondering if that person thinks you were influenced by the said artist.
However, we can’t help but allow other influences to sneak into our work. It’s quite a positive thing, actually—sensory experiences are what stimulates our brain and fills our well of inspiration.
Since no one’s life history is identical to yours, the unique content of your psyche enables you to come up with results that are very different from that of other people. The key to this is to allow your own psyche (or inner wisdom, Muse, Spirit, or whatever fits your belief system) to dictate your expression instead of looking around at what is popular, or what a certain industry or company is expecting from you.
This comes with a great measure of risk. You may ask yourself…
- Will anyone like what I create?
- Will anyone want to buy it?
- Will people rip my work apart with criticism?
Repeating what has already been established as “good quality” and “sellable” is easy. Inventing something that hasn’t yet been proven worthy of anyone’s attention is hard. Not only in terms of effort, but also emotionally. We are afraid that our ideas and creations might seem stupid to other people.
In order to create anything new and valuable, we need to be willing to let go of the years of conditioning and all the angry and fearful voices in our head, and just go with our gut.
Creativity takes courage.
The very process of making art is sheer bravery, whether you decide to share the results with other people or not. Art messes with our sense of identity. Art can show us parts of ourselves we may not enjoy seeing. Authentic art is often not beautiful in a conventional sense, and it’s this kind of art that is the most healing.
Allowing your weird, extraordinary inner self to dance on a page with no judgement is delicate work. It’s difficult to remove all self-imposed barriers to pure self-expression. It can be uncomfortable to witness our canvas as a mirror of our soul. My own authentic emotions first found their way into my awareness through art. I haven’t had the vocabulary or conscious understanding of it back then, and I only realized what was happening in retrospect, when I first heard of the term “art therapy”.
To create art is to allow your truth to emerge. The everyday practice of raw, honest creation is one of the most fulfilling habits you can have.
Of course, there’s hardly anything novel in what I just shared. You know that being original in art is where it’s at. But how does your distinct personality play out in business?
If you want to excel in business, stop hiding your “weird” side
Many of us consider business as an option not only because we want to be spending more time doing what we enjoy. You might already be in a profession you love, but you’re unable to find a workplace whose values match your own, and you work mostly on projects and assignments that aren’t a best match to your skills and talent. This often results in losing passion for your creative work.
I’ve been in situations of “golden cuffs”, where my creativity was held hostage by all the great things the workplace provided. But as much as I enjoyed all the benefits of the job, I craved expanding my skills into areas that were most interesting and relevant to me, instead of what was expected for people at my position.
I could only do that through the vehicle of my own creative studio.
Running your own business may not be the best option for everyone, but in an evolving economy, it will become a necessity for more and more people, as the number of traditional jobs declines. For this reason I encourage everyone who will listen to pursue their creative dreams. Yes, even when I warn you that turning your creative hobby into a job may not be the best idea for everyone, I still at least want people to consider it as an option. Who knows, sometimes a failing hobby-turned-business can spark something novel you haven’t even thought of originally. Sometimes you get to redefine what you do, so you can serve people better.
Starting anything new, especially as important as your business, should come with a great deal of dedication to learning as much as you can so you can avoid the most common pitfalls. Ironically, one of the common pitfalls is to do everything exactly as other people do it. I’m a learning addict, and I love reading other people’s tips and behind-the-scenes so I get the appeal, but relying exclusively on other people’s advice can be dangerous.
There are business and marketing programs out there that churn out clone after clone of that successful superstar entrepreneur who seems to knows everything. Surely, if you just followed in her footsteps you’re good to go?
Nope. No advice, technique, tip or strategy should be absolved from this two-criteria test:
- How well is it working for you?
- How well is it working for your clients?
Are you repeatedly doing something you hate? Then stop it.
Are you refraining from doing something because the experts told you not to? Do it anyway. You will not know for sure whether it will work for you or not until you’ve tried it.
Are the “best practice” techniques you’re using just not working for your particular client list? Stop wasting their time with ineffective crap! Identify what works best for them.
Question every advice you hear, even mine. Hell, especially mine. People say I’m a bad influence.
You are not only allowed to break some rules, you will have to do it sooner or later if you want to succeed.
Every inventor, artist, or multi-millionaire business owner got where they are because they did something outrageous that their contemporaries thought was “never going to work”.
And I don’t mean that your work has to be different. Of course your best creative work comes from your unique blend of skills, talents and personal values, and it’s an expression of your essence—your most valuable gift to humanity.
I trust you already do that. But that’s not enough. Your entire approach to business needs to be custom-tailored to you. How you present yourself in person and online, how you do your promotion and sales, how you communicate with prospects and clients, how you invest in your business…
Make sure that all of these processes are based on your core values and are giving you results. If they’re not, take the time to analyze them and consciously build better ones.
Other people’s approach to business and professionalism may not be ideal for you, and we could argue what it really means to be professional ’till the cows come home.
When you approach your business this way, people find you refreshingly different. After seeing dozens of your competitors who all look alike, your business stands out like a flag pole. People might fall in love with it, or they might hate it—in any case, that’s good. You’ll attract the people you get along with well and who adore your creations, and deter those who aren’t your best customers, anyway.
How precisely do you do that? Naturally, there’s no one right prescribed way. There are many different ways, and one of them is what I do for my clients.
Channeling your unique personality into visuals
The thing I love the most about design is to bring the unique style and atmosphere of my client’s work into their logo, website, and marketing materials.
While I have developed a distinct design voice of my own (most evident in my personal work), it’s impossible that two of my works made for clients look alike, because the final product depends on the input I get. And in my case it’s not the “what’s your favorite color” kind of input. I don’t ask my clients to tell me what they want because that’s not their job.
I ask them to tell me who they are, and how what they do is different from other people in their field.
My ability is not just to draw beautiful pictures, write good code, and make it usable and functional. That is necessary, but not enough.
My “secret sauce” is identifying what makes people remarkable, and portraying that through symbols and color. I’m a translator from the language of imagination and dreams into a visual language.
I work best with people who are authentic and willing to be seen for the individuals they are, yet don’t necessarily have a preconceived belief of how their visuals must look. In truth, my favorite kind of inspiration comes from the non-visual media. Things like stories, music, and emotional experiences. I love being the interpreter for the subtle and elusive qualities that turn a good, but commonplace visual into the realm of “something else entirely”.
Being different for the sake of being different is superficial, and it’s hard because you always have to be on the lookout, making sure you’re a step ahead of your competition.
Being extraordinary is a natural byproduct of revealing your truth.
That’s the real deal. You don’t need to look around for what everyone else is doing, because competition is no longer relevant. No one can come even close to you, since they can’t be you. When you look at websites of your peers, you can pinpoint with absolute certainty why your ideal clients would pick you instead, and why their ideal clients are not yours.
That is a great place to be.
Are you ready to express yourself unconditionally—in your life, art, and business?
If you’re not, why is that?
Are you afraid of being judged and labeled as weird?
Are you worried all your current clients will run away, and no new ones will come?
Or maybe you are terrified of finding out that all the people you care about wouldn’t love you if they knew what you were really like?
What’s stopping you from standing in your special brand of power, unapologetically and courageously?
If you’d like to learn how to identify your uniqueness and use it for promoting your creative work, I have great news for you — I wrote a book that will teach you just that.
Your quirks are your strengths. Learn how to use them.
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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