My Career as a Blocked Creative

For 10 years, I worked for one of the most dynamic, creative and innovative Masters programs in Canada. Our students built things like games and funky apps. In a nutshell, we taught people in the digital media industry how to use their creativity and be better collaborators.

As part of the inaugural staff, I was thrust into a start up environment that merged industry and school. There was a lot of creativity around me: game designers, clowns, artists, storytellers, software developers, and entrepreneurs—name it. Back then, it was so exciting to be part of a new initiative. And for the first few years I felt like I could be in the digital media industry too. We were new, relevant and grabbing headlines as an organization. It was contagious.

We’re all creative. If you Google creativity you’ll notice that people practice it in different ways.  And creative doesn’t explicitly mean artistic.  Some are actual artists like Picasso. But, creativity goes beyond that. Creativity is a software programmer who comes up with dang creative solutions to technical issues, or entrepreneurs who think of innovative ideas generating millions for their companies.  That’s what creativity is, among many things—thinking differently and unapologetically.

I always knew I was creative, but I didn’t think I was creative enough, and there were always people who could do creative better than I did…the stories we tell ourselves.  “Why don’t you sing professionally?” someone asked me once. Sure I had pipes, good ones if I took the time to develop my vocal skills. But then I thought, well, sure I’m good, but not enough to make it in the big leagues. Not enough to be the Middle Eastern Alicia Keys. The impossibly high standards I set for myself, of perfectionism, made me not want to try at all. During the somewhat good days, I thought, maybe at best, I could be a sought-after local lounge singer in a jazz club, being an old soul and all. A regular at the club would ask me to sing at their wedding and I could make a couple of bucks.

But fuck, as a blocked creative, I couldn’t even fathom that. The fear of rejection, the fear of being turned away, and of course, the nightmare of being booed off stage, or cracking a note (I cry inside when I hear someone blowing a note while singing the national anthem before sports games. As an empath, I think to myself, they must be mortified beyond belief).  Self-limiting thoughts ran in the daily dialogue of my mind.

So, what did I do as a blocked creative? I focused on helping people who I thought deserved to officially call themselves creative. I worked for the Masters program as a recruiter/career counsellor involved in the digital media industry, which hired artists, programmers, designers, project managers, storytellers, etc. I became someone who chose to help creatives because I couldn’t, or rather was too scared, to help myself. And heck, I made a career out of it. I learned to sell, learned to develop an instinct of finding creatives like me and developed the finesse to convince them to bloom. Many of them skyrocketed, and I became what Julia Cameron calls, a shadow artist.

Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way explains the shadow artist as someone who surrounds themselves with creatives but don’t practice creativity themselves. Think of an assistant who works for a photographer with aspiring ambitions of their own freelance gigs, or a cosmetics representative who wants to be a makeup artist. Or perhaps, a music festival organizer who plays the guitar and hangs around musicians but never performs. They dip their toe in the industry but don’t claim their rightful place in it, instead, choosing to be in the peripheral areas of where they deserve to shine.

Looking back, fuck, I wish I took my own advice.  They say you become proficient at teaching things you need to learn for yourself. Day in and day out, for years, I would listen to myself dispense advice to people who dared believe they were creative, and I saw many and one skyrocket once they took that leap. I felt happy for them because their success reflected ours as an organization but inside, personally, there was a deep emptiness and guilt for abandoning myself. The mask projected laziness and fatigue to the outside world but once I dug deeper the block was as stubborn, rigid and cold as The Wall from Game of Thrones.

When I let her, the inner voice was confused that she couldn’t do all of those things too. Why can’t you try digital 3D art? she asks. What makes you think that you can’t code? Is it because you sucked at Math? (thanks Mr. Roy, you sucked as a teacher).  You’re an empath, she chimes occasionally. You’d be a great project manager for a studio because you can put yourself in people’s shoes and get them to get their work done. But the inner goblin always said, YeahNO. You’re a recruiter. Stay here and you’ll have long term financial security. Pick up something on the side that won’t cost you your job or your salary.

The years went by and various factors eroded at my professional self-esteem. I didn’t feel like my job allowed me to practice the values that reflected what I wanted in my life, such as creativity and connection, despite it being all around me. In short, I stagnated at my job and stopped learning.

Let me say, that there were a few external factors that stagnated my growth such as limited opportunities within the organization and lack of guidance (I had no direct access to role models and mentors who could help me grow). But ultimately, I let those factors control my life due to my internal blocks, using externals as an excuse not to move forward. When it comes to professional growth, you’re the tango leader at your dance: how you persevere is taking control of the direction you want it to go. I didn’t choose to lead. Heck, I kinda just stood around waiting for shit around me to happen. If you do that, you’re going to wait a long time—maybe forever.

With stagnation came comfort. I was in a cozy bubble that didn’t allow me to feel the pain of growing professionally. I also knew deep down that I wasn’t in the right career, and realized that I lived with this knowledge for pretty much my whole professional life. And the danger in that tasty cheese sandwich, is that it was stable and comfortable. No one wants to leave stable and comfortable. I knew I needed a huge change.

The moment I realized I was completely boxed in was when my intuition stopped talking to me. She was defeated, ignored and silenced. Byebabe, she said. What overtook intuition was anxiety, who’s a total mean girl, and that’s when the panic attacks started.

Anxiety was the dominant voice in my head. It was afraid, confused, angry, and had boundless energy it didn’t know how to release.  So it spread to my body, which was constantly in fight-or-flight mode. I felt adrenaline bolt into my system during any minor, trivial incidents that became triggers. And it fucking SUCKED. Anxiety took up all my energy to the point where I could only do the bare minimum like answering basic e-mails and complete daily tasks with no vigor. The joie du vivre, fiery ignition of spirit had chipped away into a tiny glimmer before slowly poofing out. It was gone. I was unmotivated.

There were definitely moments at my job where I felt excitement and energy, and now that I am on a career-searching voyage, those times are clues as to what I want to do next (be prepared for a lot of journaling if you try this—fun but hard work).

While this preparation to leave my job was simmering internally, it took a disastrous romantic break up to make me take the first action (it’s all connected folks, just like a tasty pretzel). I gave up my apartment, moved in with my parents and drastically minimized my expenses. All I knew was that I needed to get out—when, I wasn’t quite sure. I knew I wanted to travel for some time to clear my head (a post on that one to come) but beyond that, I didn’t know what career I was going to transition into and what city I was relocating to. I was done with Vancouver—look out for that jaded post. In addition to having to unblock, I needed a change in an environment I fell out of love with.

If you think you’re in the wrong career—transition as soon as you are able to. The older you get, the harder it becomes. And it’s not because you’re older—fuck that ageist bullshit (if any employer says you’re too old, you do not want to work for them anyway). It’s the psychology. In my experience, it was a mental game. And the fact that I believed I couldn’t transition (and we all know what we believe appears to be the truth) blocked and made me powerless to change it.

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