Throughout my childhood and beyond, my mom kept telling me that I can do anything that I set my mind to. I believed her wholeheartedly and set my mind to many career paths, and I have accumulated quite an eclectic background in various fields and industries. I jumped from corporate boardrooms to high school classrooms to theater productions to technology groups to the freelance life in writing, sewing, illustrations and photography. I seem to perennially be a Jane of all trades, master of none.
Recently, I realized that I’ve misunderstood my mom all this time. Somehow I was hearing, “You can do everything.” This is a very dangerous and unhealthy mistake, I’m discovering. We have so many roles to play, all of us, and I constantly have a running monologue in my mind in the form of a checklist. A typical list includes:
- do laundry
- plan photo shoots
- develop patterns
- schedule K’s playdate
- remind M to fill out tax forms
- meet with friend for coffee
- sew skinny jeans
- write blog post
- paint custom illustration
- contact so-and-so to promote Little Kunoichi
- buy compost bags and zit cream
- pick-up guinea pig from K’s friend (we’re pet sitting)
…and the list keeps getting longer and longer every day. Like other moms and women, I juggle home-management with some semblance of work, all the while trying to maintain relationships and family commitments.
Things are falling through the cracks. And the cracks are getting bigger.
A few weeks ago, I had coffee with two delightful and mind-bogglingly talented friends and we talked about the concept of “polymath” – a person with expertise in multiple disciplines. We each have ardent curiosity and enthusiasm for a variety of pursuits including arts and hard sciences and psychology and technology. But because we have so many interests, it’s easy to feel scattered and unfocused. It’s also easy to believe it’s possible to do it all. I mean, just look at all those overnight successes on the internet. Did you hear about the youtube video sensation that garnered millions of hits? A woman unwraps toys from Target. That’s all she does. The seemingly low bar of such stories inserts thoughts in my mind that maybe I too can create some fantastically popular video and rake in gazillions (maybe by folding fabric into origami shapes?) and spend the rest of my days becoming a polymath at a leisurely pace.
I know that the definition for success is amorphous, and money and youtube viewer numbers are not the best indicators, unless that’s your particular M.O. The other morning as I was dropping off K and her friend at school, the friend asked me what I was going to do for the rest of the day. I prattled off something about editing images and writing and she said, “Wow, your day sounds awesome!” And then she said, “If you become famous, will you buy a new car?” Because you know, we drive a junky old car and clearly famous people would never own such a vehicle. I informed her that the chances of me becoming famous are slim to none and it would be a long, long, long time before I could afford to buy a new car at the rate I was going. She looked disappointed that my “job” wasn’t as glamorous as she’d hoped. Remember how I started trying out the Amazon affiliate links? I earned $18.25 for the month of February. Exciting, but not exactly rolling in the dough.
In all but the financial realm though, I’ve been inching closer to my own personal definition of success. For me, a life well-lived is being able to spend my days on my own terms doing what I love with people who matter to me, and I want to create small ways to add beauty and goodwill around me. I’ve always wanted some version of that, though I’ve been fuzzy about what that actually looks like. For my college admissions essay, I unapologetically wrote, “I want to make the world a better place.” Ah, such an earnest idealist. I don’t hold grandiose aspirations at a global level anymore, but if I can nurture my family, be a good friend, and perhaps provide a space that’s on the positive end of the spectrum here with this blog, I’d be heading in the right direction.
My point is not that I am a financial failure nor that I’ve achieved some sort of exalted state of following my passion (ugh – yet another word I can’t seem to write without cringing). I think I’m trying to say that I’m getting closer to a way of living that feels right for me via slow and deliberate steps, but I’m also getting greedy about all the things I want to do. I want to be excellent at everything I love, and it’s just not possible, at least not all at once and not in my lifetime, most likely.
This second book I’m working on serves as an example. When I signed the deal, I agreed to do all of the writing, illustrations, pattern development and photography. It was such an honor! I couldn’t believe they thought I could handle this! The publisher told me that they’ve never actually had one person do all of that for a book. I felt my stomach sink a little at that revelation, but it sounded like a hearty challenge. And let’s be real: the publisher was getting more bang for their buck. It was smart on their part.
At first, I took on every aspect of the book by myself because I have a hard time asking for help. I stayed in my lone wolf comfort zone, writing the words, sewing and illustrating the projects and trying to style and photograph them. It became quickly apparent that my skills were lacking in many of the areas and this bummed me out — I worried about the quality of the book. Eventually, I owned up to where I couldn’t do certain tasks at the level I desired and tentatively reached out for assistance. Sure, I could try to continue bumbling through on my own, but it was uncanny how events unfolded as soon as I accepted my limitations. For example, a few months ago, I admitted to myself that I wasn’t as good a stylist as I wanted to be, then an old friend who’s in the styling biz contacted me out of the blue and after a lovely catch-up session, she connected me to her stylist network here in Seattle.
This past weekend, with the pro bono help of my long-time friend and a new friend — professional stylists with decades of combined experience under their belts — we had a test photo shoot at my house and it was brilliant. They showed up in front of my house loaded up with bins of props and flowers and produce. So fun, so energizing, so full of inspiration. So very different from my lonely, solitary photo shoots filled with doubt and a sense of misgiving. I did, however, suss out that I had to up my photography game significantly since I couldn’t even set up my tripod properly without aid. And it dawned on me that shooting for print is less forgiving than shooting for the web, so I’m already working on rectifying the situation. I am completely open to suggestions for all you photography experts out there.
By the same token, frustrated by the pattern-drafting process, I talked about it with friends some more, and then got hooked up with a professional pattern drafter/sewing expert. She’s been giving me invaluable advice on construction methods for my patterns and it hit home how inadequate my pattern-making skills are. My eyes filled with grateful tears when she showed me an ingenious zipper insertion technique and wowed me with her ability to look at my sketch and immediately figure out the construction.
Other friendlies from the sewing sphere have kindly offered their time to test patterns. And on and on and on. I’ve been overwhelmed by the depth and breadth of magnanimity. And I may even ask you, my dear readers, for input and recommendations. What started out as a daunting solo project has morphed into a wonderfully collaborative, stimulating team effort that’s teaching me so much.
With enough time and knowledge and hard work, I can probably do anything, but I certainly can’t do everything. There’s no shame in not being able to do it all; a few years ago, I would have rather asphyxiated myself with a jump rope than type those words. Sometimes things will fall through the ever-present cracks, but that’s part of the whole process, no? A process of letting go, of finding a foothold in my strengths and being honest about my limitations, grasping onto outreached hands for support. And repeating this cycle for myself, for others, for everything — could this be the way to climb unimaginable heights? Maybe it’s not even about climbing heights but marveling at the power of community to move mountains (or molehills in my case)? As usual, I only have questions and few answers.