Turn That Weakness Upside-down
If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door.” -Milton Berle
It’s the start of a new year.
If there’s ever a good time for self-indulgent navel-gazing, this would be it. While I’m writing about my own experiences, the advice I give to myself is what I’d give to others, especially creative people trying to find their so-called “right” path.
Cartoon from the OutThere series
There have been a number of times in my life when I thought I couldn’t possibly measure up to the so-called competition in school, in the arts, and in the workforce. However, as I look back carefully, I see that what I once perceived as my biggest weaknesses, turned out to be unexpected strengths that helped me actually stand out and accomplish my goals.
We all know (except a younger me) that trying to create a career in the arts is a very difficult undertaking. Much of the reason I even still have a career in the arts, now over 20 years out of art school (yikes!) is mostly due to sheer ignorance that “it couldn’t be done.”
In my blog post, To Be or Not to Be an Artist, A Letter to My 17 Year-Old Self originally created for the career website, Admitopia, I wrote,
The people with the most talent don’t necessarily do the best in life. It’s the scrappy ones who make it. The ones who try and fall down flat on their faces and just can’t accept failing so they pick themselves up again, each time learning a new lesson and making changes until success is inevitable.
People who succeed in the arts are passionate about what they do. In fact life is downright painful for them when they’re not creating something. The most successful artists have drive, but they are also flexible.
That article was written five years ago, and boy do I have some newer advice and insights for that younger, 38 year-old self.
- Just you wait! You now have a nice title, paycheck, and job security… but also a gnawing feeling that you want to bring your skills to developing countries and teach them to people you were never supposed to have met because of geography and life circumstances. You’re going to drop everything and start completely over from scratch.
- In both “rich” and “poor” countries you’ll find no end to ways you can help people in need. However you have to draw a line in the sand and make a distinction between your full-time work that pays the bills and volunteer work. DO NOT mix the two. Unfortunately many of the places you’d like to help cannot afford to pay you well. Help them anyway, but just in ways that don’t gobble all of your time and energy.
- Begin a Stop Doing List immediately so you can unload those monkeys on your back and drop what is draining you, is no longer fun, or no longer serving you.
- The worst thing that can happen is sometimes the best thing that can happen. In my blog post How Not Getting What I Wanted Made Me Happy, I wrote about how the university I was helping to set up in Myanmar being forced to close actually turned out to be a great thing. (For me, not the country sadly.) I had an identity of “Professor” for almost twenty years. Suddenly not having a university I was tethered to forced me to re-explore my ARTIST identity… the one I always intended to develop in the first place.
- In my twenties, my dream was to make art for UN organizations. I couldn’t figure out how to do that so I became a professor instead. In Malawi, I originally wanted to be a professor. I couldn’t figure out how to do that (my field doesn’t exist in the universities in my part of Malawi) so I started making art for the UN instead. It’s been awesome so far!
Poor Country? Rich Country! Six+ Months in Malawi
One of the first things people notice about Malawi is how undeveloped it is. Some may see that as a weakness, and while they may lament the lack of strip-malls and skyscrapers, I drink in the sight of a giant African sky, rolling landscapes, mountains and hills in the distance, and unspoiled nature as far as the eye can see even in Malawi’s capital city of Lilongwe. It’s stunning, and I’m not even living in the most celebrated places full to the brim with tourists.
And the people! Malawi is known as “The Warm Heart of Africa” because its people are exceptionally friendly.
At first glance most people notice the poverty. Many see the small huts with no running water and electricity. There, people are living on $2 a day or less.
I’m not saying this is a good thing. Extreme poverty is a true weakness that prevents many from realizing their dreams and potential.
But I see people who are self-reliant and resourceful. I see people who can live off their own land and completely and successfully live their lives off the electrical grid, with little to no social services or safety nets. I see people who work mostly in harmony with their communities much like our ancestors did or even people a hundred years ago.
I don’t mean to idealize it. I want them to also have jobs and electricity and running water as well as access to the Internet, education, and all the rest. All I’m saying is I see the panic in the USA when the electricity goes out for even an hour or when the grocery store is running low on Ho-Hos.
Is the Zombie Apocalypse upon us? If it happens in Malawi, life will go on as usual.
I’d say that’s a strength.
Wouldn’t it be great if the rest of the world looked to Malawi for answers on how to live with a smaller carbon footprint, live in harmony with the land, and get along better with their neighbors?
How to Turn a Weakness Into a Strength.
Ready? Pick one of your “weaknesses.” If I go with a concrete example from my own past, it could be that I wanted to study computer animation back in my twenties… but oops… I never owned a computer before and only had a degree in painting.
I knew that I could never compete with the techies who were writing code since they were inside the womb. What to do?
Lo and behold, I decided to try selling my painting skills as a strength instead of a weakness. I applied to three famous graduate schools in New York City. I applied with my fine art portfolio, trying to show off my developing command of color, line, texture, space, and composition. I also included a very basic animation I made in an elective computer course one semester at Mass Art in Boston and a lofty essay about how I could do anything I put my mind to.
The first two schools said, “Uh. No thanks.”
The third school was actually my FIRST choice. It was Pratt Institute. They even gave me a little scholarship.
Later, right before graduation from Pratt I was asked to apply for a full-time teaching job at William Paterson University where I was already a part-time Adjunct Professor teaching Web Design.
There were over forty other people applying for the same job. I didn’t think I had much of a chance, but it turned out that some of the fine art faculty were deeply suspicious of the faculty working with computers and technology. I sold myself as the “bridge-candidate” who could bring the two sides together. My humble painting background once again became a strength.
That’s just one example.
What makes YOU unique even if it’s not considered a traditional strength?
I recommend you make a list where you write every word that comes into your head without overthinking things in two minutes. What makes you unique?
Try then making a list about the qualities or “shortcomings” you have that are keeping you from your goals. Could one of those be a hidden strength?
If word-association and list making doesn’t yield results (though I’m sure it will…) try asking your friends and family.
And how can you turn this unique quality of yours into a strength? Or maybe it has been a strength all along and you just never saw it as one.
The answers may not come all at once, but if you continue reflecting on these a bit and you remain open to weird coincidences and unusual opportunities, you may be surprised at where life takes you.
Commence your own self-indulgent navel-gazing.
It is a new year after all!