I consider myself a woman of many talents. Talents in the performing arts, talents in business, and I can make a mean boxed mac and cheese. The talent I am most proud of is my talent to fall asleep in 30 seconds or less. It has served me better than all my other talents combined. It kind of feels like a superpower. Haters, back off.
I was not born with this gift. It all started around the time in theatre school when I would go to class from 8AM-5PM, rehearsal from 6PM-11PM, waitress from 12AM – 4AM, and then get up the next day to do it all over again. It was a time when I was learning how far I could really push myself, learning how hard I could work and, as a result, my anxious, stressed-out body was learning, “Oh shit, we better sleep whenever we can, this bitch is out of control!” Voila, I learned to fall asleep.
The last few weeks, however, for the first time in about 12 years, I can’t fall asleep.
In this whole Freaky-Friday Coronavirus Pandemic, I have found my world turned completely upside-down. I own two businesses: a company called Space Space Revolution that provides low-cost theatre and studio space to self-producing performing artist-entrepreneurs and a company called Party Princesses Canada that provides fairy-tale and storybook characters at children’s events. When the first wave of the shutdowns were ordered because of COVID-19, both of my businesses were forced to cease all planned operations. As I continue to hear from so many others in the arts, my contracts, bookings, and income disappeared in a matter of two days. All of my expenses did not.
When this first went down, I knew I wasn’t prepared financially. What I didn’t know is how hard it would affect me emotionally.
In times of crisis, I usually lean on my problem-solving abilities. My first instinct was to try to find a solution. I call this stage the “Flailing Pelican.” I thought that a solution to the problem was all I needed. If the problem was just paying my personal bills and the bills of the company and paying the people who work for me, I just had to find a solution to that problem.
I became obsessed. Hypothesizing, researching, and pushing to find a way to suddenly come up with tens of thousands of dollars, and fast. Soon, my chest was tight, my stomach was nauseous, and I had a general sense of panic, dread, and uncertainty. There was a lot of squawking, my arms were constantly flapping, and there were no solutions. A few days in, I was exhausted, crying, and I smelled like, well… probably a pelican.
As I spent a good part of the week in emotional decline—concerned about getting sick, evictions, bankruptcy, starvation, or worse, having to go live with my parents—I realized that the flailing pelican wasn’t going to cut it. Since the good ol’ days of only sleeping 3 hours a night, I know a lot better than to ignore the importance of protecting my mental health.
After the first few sleepless nights, I decided to start seeking relief from the stress itself. I went to my toolbox. Luckily for me, I have built up a repertoire of anxiety relief through my consumption of workshops, books, and therapy. As I dug through bookmarked self-help sites, notebooks, and spiritual-Instagram-influencers, I wondered, what kind of screwdriver/wrench/hammer/vice-grip ninja-combo-tool am I going to need to start to relieve this mangled stress mess?
I finally came across a tool in one of my notebooks that was exactly the lifeline I was looking for. That tool was the power of focusing on my purpose.
This tool is great because it works in both the artistic world and the business world. Living between the arts and business worlds, as many of us do, I’ve found I have often had to translate business lingo. This tool requires no translation. But while you don’t have to look far in the business world to find someone offering a course on “how to find your purpose,” I have noticed that purpose is rarely discussed in the arts world. It’s almost like it’s expected and assumed that everyone knows why they are an artist. It makes sense: as an artist, our “purpose” is often all we have to lean on. While the rest of the world seems to value financial benefit above all else, they watch in horror (and sometimes envy) as we throw caution to the wind and pursue a life wrought with uncertainty. Going against the grain and taking risks against all odds? Of course we know why we do it!
Or do we?
I remember first learning about “finding my purpose” several years ago. Lightbulbs went off for me! It felt like a missing link between my life as an artist and a business owner. It helped me to grow my business and start a new one. It helped me discover how I could best serve my community. It helped me reimagine my career as a performer. All in all, it has brought me immense joy to build and create in pursuit of my purpose. Over the years, revisiting my purpose has helped me find resilience in tough times. It has helped bring me back to my senses when I thought it might be time to quit.
But, there is a catch. Anyone who offers workshops or writes books about finding your purpose will caution you that it is incredibly easy to lose sight of it. Money and power are two of the biggest culprits. So are family, friends, fear, grief, excitement, and that dude you just matched with on Hinge. When I came across my notes on purpose the other day, it occurred to me that the crisis that I and so many artists are facing right now might be a direct reflection of how side-tracked we can become, and how infrequently we revisit our purpose for being an artist (or an artist-business owner).
I won’t dive too much into how to find your purpose or your “why.” A quick google search will turn up endless results of free exercises, articles, and books on the subject. I recommend anything by Simon Sinek. I will say that your purpose usually isn’t your mission statement; it is deeply personal, and it should move you, emotionally. I do believe deep down that there is something in those who work within the art that calls us to contribute to others. If you think back to when you started creating, it was probably as a kid. It was probably for family and friends. Perhaps you gathered people together to view your work and it felt great. Perhaps something deep within your soul lit up in recognition that your purpose is to bring together community and connect them together with a common experience. Perhaps you wanted to be understood and, in that understanding, you found that you were offering someone else the freedom to accept and love themselves. Whatever your original why, I believe that if you have chosen the path of an artist, it is to serve others in some way.
Unfortunately, for many of us artists, we lose sight of our why as quickly as we find it. We begin to follow the path of other artists we admire, studying their movements, their career choices. Inevitably, someone at some point convinces us that the life of an artist will be one of constant struggle against poverty in the pursuit of fame and fortune. We accept that as our fate. We have it drilled into us from a young age, (usually by well-meaning relatives) that success is “to be the next [insert famous artist here].” That sentiment is only further reinforced with lines like “Oh, have I seen any of your work?” or “Wow, best of luck to you!” Best of luck for what? The real nail in the coffin is when we are told by people we consider leaders in the arts community about the rules we must follow. Many of us spend 3-4 years and tens of thousands of dollars on institutions that inform us of these rules. We leave any training program desperately trying to play by the rules, to get it right, and to win. Those rules become a habit. Those collective habits build our artist culture. Our artist culture becomes about WHAT we are doing and nothing about WHY we are doing it.
Today, in this COVID-19 pandemic, one of the biggest challenges that artists face is that the rules we have been trying so hard to follow no longer apply.
It is easy to feel that, unless what you were doing before the pandemic started will directly translate to Zoom, you are SOL.
It sucks, but this situation might actually be a huge opportunity to re-focus on our purpose. Focusing on our purpose in times of uncertainty can reveal our attachments to the ways we have been trying to fulfill it. It can let us know if we are off base and it can help us pivot to taking new action in support of that purpose.
For me, it is not safe for me to do any of the things I normally do in pursuit of my purpose. It felt daunting at first, but dropping my attachments to how I thought fulfilling my purpose should look and finding a way to fulfill my purpose in this new reality is giving me the emotional strength I hoped for.
By going back to my why, I realized that, although with my kids entertainment company I might not be able to attend parties, I have the ability to fulfill my commitment to spread joy and cheer to kids through video—and that I might be needed now more than ever. It has put me on the path of creating brand new programs that will eventually support kids who need joy and cheer the most: kids in hospitals and those who are immunocompromised, or who can’t have friends over for their birthday.
By going back to my why, I realized that, in my commitment to providing resources for performing artists to build community, I can put together packages that allow artists to start their creation process now, with more flexible timelines for performance dates. I can also write this article.
As I write these words today, I ask myself, do I have all the solutions? No. Have perfect sleep patterns returned? No. Do I still smell like a pelican? Maybe. But what I do have is more emotional strength to take the next steps. I have found the strength in focusing on my purpose to keep fighting, to keep negotiating with my landlords, and to keep creating new possibilities for fulfilling my purpose in this new normal. What I also have is the certainty that, whatever happens to me and whatever situation I find myself in, my value doesn’t come from my circumstances. Nobody, not my landlords, not the government, not a single soul, can take my purpose away from me. I can follow my why, no matter what.
Many people live their lives never having a life-changing experience. The good news is, we get to do this one together, as a community. Who knows, we might discover that the rules we have been playing by haven’t applied for a long time, and we emerge from this crisis forever stronger.
If you have your why, all the world needs is you.