Homestead Your Interests

Homesteading is an age-old form of gaining common-law right to property.  A piece of land that is unowned or abandoned can become yours if you improve upon and maintain it for a period of time.  In the American West, pioneers would find a parcel of land they liked and stake it out as their own.  So long as they built fences or signposts or boundary markers of some kind and generally maintained the property, it was considered theirs.  Smart pioneers would homestead more than they could gainfully farm at first, looking to the future and leaving open the opportunity to expand their operation.  We may not have vast stretches of unclaimed land today, but the need to homestead some metaphorical acreage is still very real.

You have a body of knowledge, expertise, and a set of activities that define you.  This is your brand.  I’ve written before about the danger of being hemmed in by your brand, especially if it’s a successful one.  But how exactly can one prevent it?  By homesteading more space than you can currently occupy.

If you really enjoy architecture and keep in the back of your mind the idea that someday you may put a lot of yourself into it, whether vocationally or avocationally, you need to stake out a territory that includes architecture, and keep the underbrush trimmed so it doesn’t begin to encroach on your homestead.  Maybe you’re a lawyer, and all your friends and associates know you as the law guy.  If you keep your passion for architecture under the surface for twenty years, never letting it see the light of day, it will be a lot harder to make a sudden switch from law to design.  People will find it odd and see it as a frivolous deviation from your brand.  You will feel a lot of pressure to prove that you’re serious about it.  It will take a monumental amount of courage and resolve to make the move, and you will have to steel yourself against the reactions should you fail at first.  It’s like homesteading a virgin wilderness full of hostile flora and fauna.

If, on the other hand, you staked out your creative territory early in dimensions far beyond just lawyerdom, and you maintained your property line with the occasional foray into architecture, the opportunity to make a move later will be far more real and the transition far less daunting.  Maybe you keep copies of popular architecture magazines around for inspiration, and to let visitors see that you consider it a part of who you are.  Maybe you write about it from time to time, or offer amateur architectural tours of your city.  Maybe you keep a design table in your house and draw up blueprints.    Whatever it is, if you maintain the fringes of your property, it will be a lot easier to occupy it should the opportunity arise.

I make myself post a song or a poem once a week on this blog.  It feels a little odd sometimes, and It’s a little embarrassing.  But I love creative writing and keep in the back of my mind the possibility of composing short stories, recording songs, or working on film scripts as something I may want to put more of myself into someday.  I feel like it’s somewhere in me, but not yet ready to fully occupy my energy.  If I go on only producing what currently comes more naturally, commentary and prose, one day I’ll feel the urge to emerge creatively and it will feel like such a drastic transition it may be overwhelming.  I want to trim the weeds back at the corners of who I am by a little creative writing here and there.  I want it to be public, so that a later switch won’t seem quite as out of left-field to the observing world.  I’m under no illusion that posting a song once a week means I will be taken seriously should I become a full-time songwriter; far from it.  It won’t be quite as scary though, and I’ll have a little more confidence being used to putting my creative side out there.

Think about who you are, what you love, and what far-fetched dreams you entertain.  Draw a generous property line that includes even the most out-there interests.  Homestead it, and keep title to your identity with regular maintenance.  You never know when you’ll want to expand your brand.  If you never do, who cares.  You won’t have lost anything by keeping your boundaries wide.

Don’t Let Your Success Define You

My good friend and blogger over at Tough Minded Optimism, T.K. Coleman, just wrote the blog post I intended to write today. This should not come as a surprise, as we have talked at length on this topic and most of my ideas on it come from him. I’ll quote him at length, because he nails it:

“Every time I attempt to create, I am confronted by two aspects of my self: T.K. the brand and T.K. the creator.

T.K. the brand is the part of me that feels a need to protect my reputation from the fatal possibilities of being seen as incompetent, uncreative, inconsistent, and unintelligent.

This is the P.R. department of my psyche and it never approves of me experimenting with new techniques out in the open.

It always reminds me, with the very best of intentions, of course, that the subtlest miscalculation could result in permanent damage to my image as a writer, a thinker, or an innovator.

T.K. the creator is the part of me that wants to exploit every experience as an opportunity to discover something new.

The creator is not concerned with saving face, protecting the brand, or subjecting creative impulses to quality approval tests.

This conflict is more acute the more successful you are at your “branded” activity. If you get a paycheck, or acceptance in your social circles for being the X guy, it’s a lot harder to be the Y guy. Even if you’re not the best at X, the mere fact that you’ve been doing it for some time and are known for it makes it more secure than Y. While it makes sense to specialize and go where returns are greatest, it’s also wise to make sure we include our own fulfillment in how we define returns.

I love music making, songwriting, poetry, short stories, and other creative forms of expression. I happen to think I’m not very good at them, but I get a lot of joy out of trying. It’s hard to let that part of myself show, because I’ve engaged in so much more public commentary and analysis. Whether or not I’m good at the latter, I’m comfortable with it and many people I know got to know me as a person who engages in that. To introduce a new aspect of myself is scary and a little embarrassing. But it feels even worse to repress it.

There was a special on an NFL game earlier this year about 49ers tight end Veron Davis and his love of art. Davis opened an art gallery in San Francisco where he displays and sells art, much of it his own. I was impressed. Not with the art as much as with the courage of a top tier athlete to put another side of himself out there for public scrutiny. Whether or not his art is good, it will tend to be seen as art produced by a non-artist, or the opening of his gallery as a self-indulgent act by a guy too rich for anyone to tell him he’s not an artist. I happened to think his art was pretty good, but that’s not the point. The point is he was willing to recreate himself, or enlarge his brand beyond what had worked before. I respect that. He was not letting the public perception define the private reality.

T.K. ends with some advice from his experience,

“I’ve been somewhat of a rebel towards the first voice [of risk aversion] for over a year and I’ve gotten more creative work done during that time than in my entire life combined.

I’ve discovered that it’s not enough to merely FIND work that’s worth doing. One must also FIGHT for the permission to keep doing the kind of work that turns them on, to avoid the trap of being boxed-in by the demands of the brand.

We each have to find our own ways of negotiating the concerns of our brand while making sure our creative evolution is not stunted in the process.

I leave the details of the process up to you.

My point is philosophical:

A brand is a great asset, but a very poor master.

At all costs, avoid becoming its slave.”