Aligning tension points: creativity and entrepreneurship; value versus validation
It was the first time in a year I had natural light in my bedroom; my last apartment had no windows. I was in such an open space and, yet, I felt blocked. “I think I'm writing two different books, Ryan.”
Ryan Williams and I were introduced through the Syracuse University Blackstone LaunchPad, a space where student entrepreneurs and those inspired by innovation can build companies and work in teams. I was working on a final project for my grad program; I was focused on the struggle of student entrepreneurs to balance work and school — and life. Ryan is a fellow entrepreneur, strategist and holistic wellness coach. In terms of what shaped his outlook, he talks about coming from the hood and going days without eating, his time in the Marines and the loss of his brother.
I had conducted a few book interviews to this point. If you know me, my interviews are mostly just conversations. And now, I was confused. Ryan, ever patient, sat across me for three hours as I brain-dumped onto him.
I wanted to show the alignment between two tension points: creativity and entrepreneurship, and internal value versus external validation. I knew everything was related — connected — but I struggled to integrate these ideas.
I had spent the last year researching arts as a business and the impact of artists on community development. I was doing this research to learn more about the target audience of my business “Art Inspires You” (I still vacillate between its full name and “AIY Studio”), initially providing digital tools, services and resources for creatives. I managed to integrate the work for my business into the classes for my graduate program — but my growth took place outside the classroom.
For the first time in my life, I was living in a non-abusive environment. I was finally in an external safe space that allowed me to put down my walls and examine myself internally. I realized everything is connected, from the way I was raised to the way I had lived, to the way I viewed myself and how others viewed me, to all those around me and to all the things I had done to that point, and to the business I was creating.
I told him all about my interview with Catherine Wood, the life coach behind Unbounded Potential. I finally found time over the weekend to turn our interview outline into a full-blown, 2000-word story before I added any research and data, facts on time management and personal value systems. I asked, how would I incorporate all of the research about arts as a business, and art's impact on the economy, test scores, and people with depression? I got so caught-up interviewing life coaches that I had "barely interviewed any creatives to this point."
“So, Cat isn't a creative?” he asked.
“Well she went from being an economist for the government to being a life coach so, not a creative—”
“Why not?” he asked.
“I mean, that's not, technically—”
“Then what’s your definition of a ‘creative’?” he asked.
It was at this moment I realize I’d been applying a term to a group of people I hadn't yet segmented or defined in my own head. Who was this group? I had initially used the term “artist,” but it threw people off because they assumed I meant “fine artists,” those who employ traditional visual art practices in their work, such as painters, illustrators or sculptors. I was looking for a broader term that encompassed a more diverse crowd of creativity.
I wanted to express this idea that all creative people have the capacity to be an entrepreneur, harnessing the energy they put into creating for self and channeling that into creating external value, allowing them to scale along side communities they help to cultivate and create.
But I had it all wrong.
“What do you mean by ‘creator’? What do you mean by ‘artists’?” Ryan asked again, “because maybe that's what we're tackling here. It's like, what does it mean to be an artist versus what it means to be an entrepreneur?”
I answered him indirectly by reading aloud some of my written ideas, referring to myself at one point as “creative entrepreneur.”
“I don't like the term ‘creative entrepreneur,’” Ryan said, "because all entrepreneurs are creative.”
I thought for a moment and agreed with him, and momentarily lamented the fact I had titled my recent Newsweek article “The artist is the business: unpacking the box of the creative entrepreneur.” Entrepreneurs are people who are constantly coming up with new ideas, crafting creative strategies and problem solving — mitigating risks. They need to; the drive to create and constantly innovate is what makes someone entrepreneurial. Adding the word 'creative' in front of 'entrepreneur' allows people with limited creative development, the inability to experiment with ideas and scale ideas into brands, to usurp this root term. Plainly, the mix of a business person in the entrepreneur pool muddies the persona of entrepreneur.
“This is why I thought I was writing two different books,” I said to Ryan, “I'm still having so much trouble instilling in myself the idea that I am both creative, and an entrepreneur.”
For me, there's always been a boundary between the two words. Through this conversation, we bridged a gap that joined two paths I've struggled to connect my entire life.
I have always used external labels to give me a sense of self, because I was unable to see my own value; I didn't know who I was. I had lived my life according to the path my parents laid out for me. I was unable to give myself permission to pursue my own goals because they didn't fit into the path I was “supposed” to follow. I was told that if I created something considered “fine art,” I was an artist. I was being defined by my product, as opposed to me as a person; my brand. I didn’t even know who I was, and so allowed my product to define me.
Growing up in abusive homes and struggling with inconsistency, I relied on the end goals laid out for me, because it was the only constant in my life. I always looked to the future because the present was so miserable. I believed my struggle would end if I just played along.
We are not merely labels defined by an external source, however. We, as individuals, are entire systems unto ourselves that defy labels. Realizing that you exist as a person separate from the expectations attached to those labels is the first step in understanding who you are. By defining the driving factors and reasons — the “why” — behind those who self-identify as “entrepreneur” and “artist” or “creative,” we can dig deeper.
I carried this conversation to another friend later that week, stating that “all entrepreneurs are creative, and all creatives have the propensity to be entrepreneurs.”