You Can Get Us Coffee

It’s a beautiful Autumn day in Chicago. I’m having lunch with a co-worker who is telling me about her business idea: to start a boutique marketing research agency in California. 

At this time we both are doing consumer research for a large consumer products company. We’re both thinking about moving on and what we would do.

The co-worker says she and another co-worker (not me) would make a great team because they have different areas of expertise. It sounds great to me and I think perhaps I would be a good addition too.

“Maybe I could work with you,” I suggest.

“That would be great,” says my co-worker. “It would be fun to have a cool, funky receptionist.

I don’t say anything and my expression doesn’t change but internally I feel as though my co-worker just punched me in the stomach and I can’t get my breath back.

I stay calm and ask, “Uh yeah, you mean I would be your receptionist?”

“Yeah,” responds the co-worker brightly. She clearly thinks this is a great idea and that I would agree.

When I get to my desk after lunch, I write my co-worker an angry email which in hindsight I wish I never sent. But I did and we more or less stopped talking from that time on. 

What I didn’t say during that lunch but I wish I had said was, “Actually, I’m interested in doing qualitative research—focus groups, in-depth interviews, and so on for you. I have no interest in being a receptionist.”

I wish I had said that in a calm, friendly voice.

But I was so hurt and angry at the moment I had practically left my body.

And this is what I want to explore. Why WAS I so angry and hurt? 

We have to flash back to the early 1970’s. I’m 12-years old and my family has recently moved to an expensive suburb. The town is very different from the place we lived before. The suburb we moved from, Park Forest, was much more supportive when it came to funding arts programs in its schools.

And being a creative kid with a lot of natural talent, I thrived in that environment. I was in the choir, I wrote and put on a short play, I started playing the clarinet, and I did a LOT of drawing and painting. I assumed everyone valued creativity the way I did.

The new suburb did not. The people in charge were strictly into the educational basics: reading writing, math, and science. Art, music, and drama were strictly extra-curricular. It was terribly disheartening for me.

Being a natural people pleaser, I learned that if I wanted approval and validation the surest way was by being a good student and getting good grades. So that’s what I focused my energy on. 

And when I began to think about going to college (and what I actually wanted to do for a living) it was clear that there was no way in hell that I could make a living as an artist. My mom, who had great enthusiasm for the French Impressionists alternated between praising the work of artists like Monet, Cezanne, and Renoir and telling me how people disliked their work. How artists like Vincent Van Gogh were mocked for being ahead of their time and now their paintings are selling for millions of dollars!

So really, did I think I could make a living with my art? With any kind of creative work?

Nope, I’d be starving in an attic. Unless, of course, unless I married a doctor or lawyer or some other highly paid professional who would “take care of me financially.” One of my mom’s friends was a sculptor but of course her husband was a dentist and he supported her.

A family friend who was a creative director for a Chicago advertising agency told my parents he thought I had a promising future doing graphic design in advertising. But when my parents told me this they didn’t say “You should consider being an Art major when you go to college.” I assumed they thought it was very nice that their art director friend thought highly of my work but they expected me to be able to make a living when I graduated from college. No way could I do that as an art major.

So I majored in business administration and ironically, I did end up working for an advertising agency but in their marketing research department as a research assistant. I worked with the people who wrote copy and designed logos but my job was to find out how much consumers liked those words and images when it came to buying a brand.

What I believed as a young adult was that if I wanted to have a job that enabled me to live independently, it needed to be something that had VALUE. That employers would pay me GOOD MONEY to do.

And specializing in consumer research was something employers valued. Art, music, and other creative endeavors were not things employers valued. Most artists, actors, musicians, and such either had day jobs and did their creative thing during their spare time (like a hobby). Or if they were professionals musicians or artists, etc they had to get part time jobs so they could pay the rent.

Returning to the question: why was I so angry with my co-worker.

At the time, I had been doing consumer research for over a decade and I was feeling burned out. Most of my work was analyzing consumer behavioral data. I found it dry and boring. I missed talking to consumers directly as I had in my agency work. 

I was thinking about leaving and wondering if it was possible to support myself as a graphic designer. So much work was now done digitally and I had an affinity for creating with the applications. I thought I might be able to make this work.

I’m guessing my co-worker thought I wanted a side job to supplement what I earned as a professional artist. 

But I took her words to mean “Poor Judy, all she can do is creative work which is of no value to us but we could pay her to answer the phone, make appointments, and get us coffee.”

And, in fact, if my value and worthiness as a human being was based on the market value of my strongest skills, I was pretty damn worthless if all I could do was draw, paint, and write entertaining stories. 

Those kinds of beliefs are going to trigger lots of shame and anger and fear and sadness. There is a part of me that gets angry and indignant because of course it isn’t true. But there is also a very small but potent part of me that is absolutely terrified that it IS true!

I have spent, literally, years slowly unlearning these beliefs and learning to value myself in a more holistic way. But those beliefs about self-worth die hard and I can still slip into hurt and anger when I feel other people are evaluating me as a “poor little artist girl.”

This can be challenging because our culture places so much value on equating “marketable skills” with a persons worth. Which means the opinions and beliefs of other people isn’t a very good indicator for my own self worth. I’ve focused on learning where those beliefs live, healing old hurts, and relearning my value using animist values as a way to understand my worth. It is a slow process as most human processes tend to be. 

One day when someone tells me I can work for them and get them coffee, I will be able to smile and laugh and say “that’s never going to happen dude” without an angry edge. And that will be glorious.

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