So it turns out I have a bit of a soapbox about this.
I have a younger cousin named Jessica. I’ve always felt an affinity for Jess because besides being an incredibly cool human, she’s a creative pursuing creative things in post-secondary and when I did that (7 years before her) it was not well received by certain members of our family. I never had to, but I remember being ready to go to bat for her at any moment, loudly praising and encouraging her. This backfired very slightly, because after a couple years as a dramatic arts major, she switched into political science, and was nervous to tell me because she thought I’d be disappointed in her for “abandoning the arts”, ha! As if.
Jess’s new plan was to become a lawyer. What a badass. After a year of her new focus of study she promptly went and got herself a summer gig at a law office for some real world experience. Last fall, she told me that this job wasn’t an encouraging example of what it means to work in a legal field. She was very aware that there was no room for her to excel or apply her brilliant creative mind to problem solving on the job. She told me that the best case scenario for her was to do a task in precisely the same way, with precisely the same outcome, of anyone else in her position. Consistency and predictability were law. And so, she had decided that maybe being a lawyer wasn’t for her either. She was still fascinated by her studies and inspired by the topics discussed in her seminar classes, but maybe she wanted to be part of that learning environment long term? Maybe she wanted to teach?
Here’s where she said something that I have been bringing up with all my business pals, and coaching program classmates: she said “I’m trying not to make this my new plan. Whenever I make a plan, I follow it with single minded intensity and forget to ask myself periodically, ‘do I still want this?’”
Boom. Mind blown. How did my little cousin get so wise!?
As a teen, I was super nervous about “falling behind”. You can see the prevalence of this idea in rhetoric around students missing school because of the pandemic. I don’t think it comes from teens, but I do think it’s super harmful. For example, there was no way I was going to take an extra semester of highschool to replace the one I’d spent abroad (learning a lot of things, but not a lot of school). And when it came time for me to apply for university, I was devastated to find that I wasn’t 100% sure what I wanted to study!
Highschool programs encourage you to choose your future career in the 10th grade. That’s age 15 or 16. That’s crazy. In order to have the classes you need to apply to specialised university programs, you have to take them in grade twelve. In order to take them in grade twelve you need a grade 11 prerequisite, and in the case of another one of my cousins, you need to choose your grade 11 courses before the New Year in grade 10. And if you don’t know? If you’re not sure what you want to study, but you’re an academically talented young woman who wants to do something prestigious because she owes it to herself (and feminism!) then you try to take all the academic prerequisites just in case, and you don’t have room to take home-ec, or music, or physed. To change your mind is to fall behind. Blargh, it’s a bad system. Anyways!
Being “behind” your peers is a big fear that makes no sense. Let me tell you why.
Despite my best efforts, I did “fall behind”. And every time I did it got me closer to figuring out how to live my life in its best, most joyous and rewarding way. After that panic of “I’m definitely going to university because I’m a good student, but what do I go for??” I spent one year at a specialised art highschool (shout out to HB Beal in London ON) which was the best thing I could have possibly done. I could rave about Beal for hours, but I’ll sum up the way I usually do: their foundations program was comparable to my first year art program at OCAD and it was free.
After Beal I finally “knew” what to study and it was…. Fashion! Lol. Hindsight makes everything funny. After one very educational (nothing is wasted) year studying fashion at Ryerson, I made my way to OCAD to study drawing and painting. After a year of that I switched into Printmaking and set up camp till graduation. No regrets. By the time I found myself in my actual major, I was potentially 3 years older than the students who had come straight from highschool, and you know what? It was a huge advantage. I had been living on my own for two years and there was no adjustment period where I was also trying to learn how to be a university student. I had taken virtually the same “intro to art history” course three different times at three different institutions (that’s another problem that I don’t have time to address here). I was more secure in my identity. I was better equipped to handle feedback (hypothetically).
I vividly remember popping into my regular highschool two years after I graduated for some event they were having, and running into a guy I’d known on the cross country team in my year. I shared somewhat sheepishly that I’d changed my mind about my education every year since I'd graduated, and he reciprocated that he hated his program but he was two years in already so he was going to stick it out. I was horrified. Sure, it matters less than you think, what degree you get, although a degree does seem to be useful. But the idea that at 19 or 20 you would feel that you’ve come too far to change your mind is devastating.
You can change your mind at any time, forever. If you need permission, here it is.
Changing my mind and direction didn't stop with school. It has also played a huge role in my post-grad practice. I have called myself many things over the years: emerging artist, micro publisher, book artist, printmaker… even now, I’m questioning whether bookish collaborations are my favourite way to work, or if there is something else I might be doing that would bring me greater joy and satisfaction.
Recently someone asked me “Did you start with an intentional business plan- or was it more happenstance?” I love this question. I’m going to address the second part first. I don’t think it’s possible to fall into a successful career in the arts. I would love to be proven wrong but I don’t think anybody just makes great work and gets “picked up” or “discovered” anymore without being super intentional about it. As an emerging artist, you can resent this, or you can revel in your agency. Regarding my business plan, I’ve had many. I have always spent hopeful, playful time with my numbers. Think of the exercise where you acknowledge that to make 10k you can either sell a 10k thing to one person, or $1000 things to 10 people, or $100 things to 100 people, or $10 things to 1000 people, or $1 things to 10k people. Move things around, multiply your potential until something feels almost possible. Most of my plans have felt just on that side of possible, but that hasn’t stopped me from pursuing them. When I first mentioned quitting my day job at the end of 2020 to my partner,I meant it as a joke. The numbers snuck up on me a little bit, but the only way that could have ever happened was with a lot of groundwork beforehand.
The trickiest thing about being an artist in business is reconciling what I feel called to do with what people seem to want from me. For example, I probably could have made a decent career doing commissions for people: executing their ideas with my skills. Except nothing has made me feel more drained and less creative than commissions. I flat out refuse to do them. On the other side of the spectrum, I used to do super detailed coloured pencil drawings that would take months and months of my time. I didn’t have an audience that supported selling those for a fair price, and so I got into linocut multiples where I spend the same amount of time and make 30 instead of 1. If we revisit the math, this means I can sell them at 1/30th the price of the drawing and still pay myself a fair wage.
My most important takeaway from my business coach Emma Natter, is that a business plan doesn’t have to be a thing that worked for someone else. In fact, copying a plan verbatim is most likely destined to fail. With that freedom comes a huge amount of potential. My business is the vehicle for my art, but it can be any kind of vehicle. In my household, we do a lot of one-pot stews and sauces, and then depending on the flavour of the sauce, we decide on the vehicle. Curry > rice. Tomato > pasta. Sweet and sour > rice noodles. Spicy and tangy > tortilla. Your plan should follow your art.
And there should always be room in your plan for adaptation, for changing your mind. Do a thing wholeheartedly for as long as it continues to make sense and bring you joy. Don’t succumb to the sunk cost fallacy. Every experience contributes to your creativity and capability. Nothing is a waste. In the words of Hector Janse van Rensburg via this wise cat: Try adding ‘for now’. This isn’t something you need to do out loud, but it’s helpful in your head.
I think teaching is my calling (for now).
Making a reliable income is my priority (for now).
The best way for me to express myself is through writing (for now).
I am flexible and willing to try anything (for now).
I need consistency to feel safe (for now).
My values are aligned with those of my workplace (for now).
This service in trade is working for me (for now).
I have lots of energy for social justice work (for now).
I would rather stay home (for now).
This is a fair price for my expertise (for now).
What's a plan that worked for you in the past but you've happily let go of?