I Don’t Have To

It was a revelation when I realized that I didn’t have to be unhappy to be an artist.

No one ever outright told me that this was a requirement — heartbreak or abuse or drama or whatever — in order to be a creative person worth the title. But it was implied by pop culture and hearsay. Great artists are tortured souls, I knew, and being a happy person, I felt I was at a disadvantage.

And so I sought out difficulty. I stuck with a few relationships long past the point when I admitted they were bad for me, and mined my life for something dramatic, something sad. It didn’t work very well, so I gave up on the whole artist thing for a while. Tempered my creative ambitions.

Designers don’t have this same cultural baggage. You don’t hear as many folktales about brilliant designers being gifted because of some horrible thing that happened to them. There aren’t any old wives’ tales about designers mailing their lobbed-off ear to someone before booting up a pirated copy of Photoshop. No popularized culture of self-destruction in the typographic field.

I was able to embrace design the same way I’d embraced art, but without those added expectations. I didn’t even realize the difference, really, until I was a senior in college, looking back at the work I’d done and recognizing that the things I made when I allowed myself to be happy was far more me than anything I did while feigning anguish.

I experienced a similar moment when I was on my way out of Los Angeles, leaving behind my brand-building lifestyle for something else, something new that I hadn’t quite defined yet.

There’s a culture of dominance in the entrepreneurial world that you don’t really notice, not so that you’d put a name to it, while you’re inside that culture. The heroes and villains and hero-villains in the entrepreneurial world are all larger-than-life caricatures who stomp around and tell all those backward, dust-covered tycoons, and normal people who lack their superhuman vision where they can stuff their caution and concerns. According to the folklore, entrepreneurs take up space, dominate the room’s attention, and have origin stories that are repeated in awed reverence by people who aim to make the same ripples in the world someday.

Stepping away from this culture for the first time since I started my first business as a teenager, I realized how much of this grandiosity I had faked for so long; how much of myself I had to set aside to fit this mold so that others would see me as someone who made sense within that context; would believe I was made of the right stuff for success.

Quite often the friendly, happy person is seen as a rube or as someone who’s not made of stern-enough stuff in the context of entrepreneurial culture, but that’s who I am. I like helping people out, I like being happy. I like building things that don’t scale to infinity and living a lifestyle that isn’t ostentatious. I don’t believe that being an asshole is an advantage, or an attribute worth bragging about.

I enjoyed those years of entrepreneurial ambition to some degree, but I didn’t realize what I was missing until I extracted myself from that culture, from those expectations and folk tales. As soon as I was on the road, unsure of myself but wanting to make something me-shaped, I found out that there were so many elements of who I am that I hadn’t been exuding in my work or in my own brand.

Recognizing that these expectations were a reality in these different spaces was a big turning point for me. Recognizing that I don’t have to live up to these expectations in order to participate, enjoy the work that I do, and thrive, was earthshaking. It formed the entire basis for how I live and work today, and allowed me to be more myself than I’d ever been before.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these culturally prominent stereotypes.

If you want to take up space and stomp around and be seen as a hard character who gets things done, that’s wonderful. There’s a pre-built scene where you can do that.

If you’ve had some difficulties in your life and can tap into that heartache, that pain, that suffering, and channel it into something beautiful, something communicative, then I applaud your positive use of something negative. Keep it up! Make your art.

These ready-made cultures can be destructive, though, if we assume they are the only paths to success or fulfillment — if we feel compelled to whittle off our rough edges so that we better fit the commonly accepted perception of what a protagonist should look like and how they should behave.

Most of us are exposed to these pop culture idols before we’ve lived enough life to know who we are as individuals, so the likelihood of using these creations as shorthand, as filler until we better understand ourselves, is high.

Extracting ourselves from these preconceptions, then, and reminding ourselves that we don’t have to be anything that doesn’t align with our beliefs, our preferences, our ideal habits, is an incredibly valuable pursuit.

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