By Patrick McNerthney
Our very nice neighbors invited my wife and me to sit in their well-shaded backyard this past weekend. Normally one tries to avoid shade in these parts due to the whole it’s-never-sunny-and-hot-here thing. However,the temperature’s been pushing 100-degrees of late, so we gratefully accepted the offer.
Admittedly, the promise of beer made the invite extra appealing. And I think my wife was thrilled to both socialize with humans and break up the monotony of listening to me repeatedly say, “Man, it’s hot.”
(It showed up today, and it was smokin’.)
Guess what we talked about in the neighbor’s perfectly shade-dappled, still hot, but at least out of the sun backyard?
It was my fault, I started the conversation by asking both of them about their jobs. It turns out this sort of thing is a behavioral misstep encouraged by our culture, at least according to a podcast I listened to last week about business and people management, part of which stated:
“When we meet someone for the first time or hang out with folks we really don’t know very well and the polite conversation starts, the most easily landed upon and socially acceptable thing to talk about is our jobs.”
It’s totally true. And it’s totally lame.
I vowed to defeat this cultural norm because talking about work generates either guarded answers (how honest can one really be with folks they don’t know well?) or fake answers, like: “It’s awesome! Everyone loves me! Our company is making tons of dough; we never fight, and my boss is an angel!” (Again, how honest can one really be in a moment like that?)
(I’m a fan of the guarded answer, myself.)
As my neighbors responded to my intrusive and asinine line of questioning, I realized I had blown my chance to start changing our society in that moment. Dang! Next time.
It’s actually an important mission because framing identities through the lens of work normalizes something that is decidedly unhealthy: Equating “worth” and “happiness” with what we do (or anyone does) for a living, a.k.a. income. For example, a doctor is supposedly “worth” more than a grocery store clerk. And a technology worker is happy, while a janitor can’t possibly be.
The other peril inherent when tying identity to work is receiving (the inevitable) feedback about performance. Meaning, if we’re not careful, we may take everything that happens during a day on the job – criticism, guidance, praise – as a judgement on who we are: Successful! Smart! Idiotic! Incompetent!
This is a big deal because it can really mess with our psyches. But these critiques are not personal and not about us, per se; criticism at work is about the work. “Us” is a completely separate identity and includes tons of stuff not necessarily relevant to what we do for a living: Our hopes, dreams, fears, relationships, history, goals, setbacks, achievements, failures…
It’s kind of like sending a resume to an employer for a job you want. When you don’t land an interview it’s totally disappointing and you feel the failure. But they’ve rejected your resume, not you. They don’t know you.
And that’s the trick. To talk about ourselves is not to talk about money, jobs, houses, cars, perceived status or any of that nonsense – that’s not us. Those are things anyone can collect, everyone struggles with, and many don’t have. But that’s not us.
(This really isn’t us)
We are what we do. And what would really change the conversation is if we stopped talking about what we do for an income and instead talked about the things we do that have no clear path to a specific result. That’s who we really are; we are the actions we take simply because we think they are important, regardless of whether they help us or not, and despite the fact that we can’t predict the outcome.
Things like relationships, hobbies, helping neighbors, and particularly passion projects (think: writing a book, or creating a sculpture, even building a fence…), those are the things we do, designed to create the possibility of change. And understanding success is not guaranteed, nor is it easy to measure in the first place.
That’s what we talk about all the time at Fine Art Miracles: motivating people to find their passion! We believe creative expression is the key for underserved populations to connect with their own ability and mastery, while giving them a feeling of relevance in the world and a way to thrive in the face of social isolation (pandemic or not!).
Have we seen creative expression lead to the outcome we hoped? Absolutely. Is it guaranteed? Nope! Because it’s a journey and a process. But that’s where the magic comes from.
Art Therapy, Dance & Movement Therapy, and Music Therapy create worth and joy by the act of simply making, without a metric of “doing it right” or “winning.” And as we’ve said before, attitude follows action! And that’s worth talking about.
So the next time a stranger asks what you do during some polite conversation, maybe your answer will be, “I help people connect with things they love, and sometimes things they don’t know they’re capable of.” And if your residents or loved ones are asked that same question, they can simply show off a piece of artwork that will explain it all.
Questions about how to get started? Reach out! We’re happy to help!
Oh man, it’s getting hot again! Now, I don’t have an invitation, but I’m going to hang out in my neighbor’s back yard again. If I bring the beer it really shouldn’t be a problem. And my wife says I’m a broken record about this heat, so I’d better be merciful and give her some space!