The other day I was speaking with a client about an interaction she had. Over the years, she has dedicated herself to the art of lettering and had, through consistent work and daily practice, become a master – carefully illustrating beautiful script and exquisite characters. Someone saw her lettering and exclaimed, “Oh my gosh, you are so talented!” And this compliment – which so many might have embraced – really irritated my client. And I got it!
She took offense because the years of work, the daily dedication to picking up her brush and painting the same letters again and again, hunching over, squinting, finding perfection in her strokes, was not being acknowledged. This client had made a decision years prior that she wanted to be an artist and was mystified that her mastery was being viewed as mere, inherited talent.
I can relate. Whereas my client identifies as an artist, I identify as an athlete. Like my client – I dedicate myself to this identity for my own gratification and benefit. She doesn’t create art to sell things – I don’t work out to compete or impress others. It’s not about people-pleasing. For me, being an athlete means I can be strong, playful and able. Being athletic allows me to sustain my vitality in my life and my work, to be active with my family and my community, to have a better chance of living a long, healthy life. Being an athlete is who I am.
And – I’m not perfect. While I have been able to embrace my dedication to being an athlete – rarely if ever wavering from daily workouts, from pushing myself to strive to be stronger – my attempts to build habits in other areas of my life have been more challenging.
Case in point: I want to be a pianist. I dream of being an artist who can sit down and play the piano effortlessly, without sheet music, without thought – to find sheer joy and get lost in the beauty of the music. And yet, over the years I’ve been striving, I find myself struggling. I go in phases of being diligent about the habits I know I need to embrace to move toward the mastry I desire – the repetition, the finger placement, the chords. And then something happens. Something else takes priority – whether it’s folding laundry or helping one of my kids with their homework. And I lose my momentum. Something eclipses my desire to be an artist.
So recently, I asked myself the very questions I recommended in my previous post. Who am I? And WHY do I want to be an artist? And what arose for me is this. Being an artist – dedicating myself to countless hours of practice – feels selfish. Self-involved. Less “productive” (a word I am coming to loathe … but that’s another post). I found myself asking, “How does this benefit anyone aside from myself? Is it even benefiting me? What am I contributing to the world?”
What I learned is that the reasons I want to be an artist are not as grounded as the reasons I want to be an athlete. Not yet. Until I can identify being a pianist with positive, healthier reasoning – because it brings me great joy, because I know in my heart that being creative and free is central to who I am – I know I will not be able to build this particular habit.
So – work to be done. A great lesson for me – for all of us – to delve into the “who” and the “why” before, and during, our quest to build habits, to embrace change. Devoting oneself to habits and achieving mastery is possible. Look at Beyonce, Muhammad Ali, Mary Oliver. Don’t look at the world-renowned chefs, the masterful software coders, the great orators and think, “I wish I could do that!” Embracing change, finding out who you really want to be, is available to all of us. It’s there for the taking!