Ah, the eternal question. The eternal answer: I don’t know. Does anyone know what came first? Does anyone know what comes first in life and art? I mean, according to Ayin? Ha ha ha. Well, in art, it seems the obvious answer would be the work itself. A lot of artists say that. But it’s not. Not exactly.
I’m an existentialist at heart. I came to be one after a chaotic childhood, then another life of strict beliefs (“knowing” answers to everything), then a tearing down of knowing absolutely nothing in a world with no meaning. After that, I began a ten-year study of everything I could get my hands on about psychology, sociology, philosophy, and art. It was a crazy ride that coincided with fifteen years of intense therapy. It took a while to find—myself. I’m still discovering and learning, and I don’t think I’ll ever stop. I can’t.
But during the time life fell apart, it was terrible. Life wasn’t worth living, and I was floating in the ether. It was in an existential crisis until I started to realize that I needed to assign some kind of meaning to my life and my art, as I wasn’t able to play drums anymore. My identity was very wrapped up in being a musician before that, despite the fact that I was also a painter. I was both. And now I was just the one thing with a disability trying to re-invent myself.
At the time, I thought my goal was to be a successful artist. Pretty general. It took some time to understand how to unwrap what all that meant and how to go about it. I finally had to ask myself what the purpose of being an artist was before I could reset my goals. All the while, I was still painting instinctually, mind you. That never stopped. It was like medicine or therapy for me throughout dealing with just about everything.
But after studying more about philosophy and psychology, I realized that meaning actually came even before purpose. Why did I want to exist as an artist? What was the fucking reason? These were two different things, and I’m crazy enough to ask myself these stupid questions.
I told you it was a crisis! I had to define these things, and define them for myself. Maybe you would like to do the same.
Well, a goal is simple enough. It’s what you want to do or have.
Purpose is the intention or aim (what you propose to do or picture). And with this one, you can ask yourself, what kind of impact do I want to have?
Meaning is the reason, significance, importance, or value. You can ask things like, what do I live for?
And so I asked myself these questions. I went with all that for a number of years, defining myself in these terms and breaking down big goals into little ones, then working toward those.
Did it work? Sure, sometimes. Hit and miss. I did make some traction. But I wasn’t applying it necessarily to the work itself. I was applying it to myself as an artist in a very general sense, not really having full clarity. Nothing wrong with applying it to being an artist. That’s certainly part of it. I was so close to “getting it,” but here’s what I missed…
Before the goals, before the purpose, before the meaning (and the meaning had the clue), were my values. Defining these were honestly the key to everything. I promise, it opened it all up for me, and it would for any artist. And my values had to align with my actual work. Operating as an artist (as in working within a career and business) is a bit different. It does have some overlap, but the work came first.
Sound like a no-brainer? Like a simple task? It can be. Or maybe not? It can be difficult if you get caught up in the “shoulds.” Some people think they should have certain values, according to their mom. Do a little soul-searching first. Think about what you want your art to represent—my unsolicited advice.
Start with a giant list of all the things that are the most meaningful and important to you. What qualities would you like to be known for? Then, hone it down to your top five (or better yet, your top three). Those will be your Core Values. I swear, once you find those, you’ll feel a huge boost of inspiration and feel a fire under your ass—a motivation toward working on the rest. It gives you a new focus on your work, and it will begin to shut out a fair amount of the comparison voices. Those voices that might be keeping you up at night about what other “hip” artists are doing.
And you can even re-evaluate them every year or so. You can change them whenever you feel like it. For me, authenticity is high up there on my list. Originality too. Vulnerability and candid expression are neck in neck for third.
Operating as a business, as much as I hate that word, can be a little different. You might have slightly different values, but they should probably align with the values regarding your work for the most part. You’ll have an easier time if they do. Values like integrity, professionalism, honesty, flexibility, kindness, etc. I’m sure you can come up with many and how they pertain to working with others, how you want to conduct your business, and whatnot.
Once you have your core values in place, everything else is so much easier. You can’t know the meaning of your purposes and goals, or set your priorities and policies (another blog post) without knowing what your values are. In fact, knowing exactly what you want is seriously half the battle for all of this.
Then you can look at meaning, purpose, and set your goals while streamlining them and the plan, because next on the plan will be some extended writing—your personal (artist) and business mission statements! (Oh jeez, are you kidding?!) Don’t worry. I’ll show you how to do these easily. Don’t have a panic attack and throw up just yet.