Help! I was raised to be “smart” by engineers… but I want to be an artist.

TL;DR What kind of art stuff should I try and who wants to hear about how it goes?

Like all of you I’ve grown up in a world infused by the over valuation of rational thought. A world grounded in enlightenment era values, watered by industrial needs, and breathing the cult of technological progress. And in some ways at least this has suited me. As early as the first grade I knew I was smart. The standardized testing told me so. And I’ve done very well in a STEM career.  But while I’ve been good at math and sciences, it’s not what makes me excited.  Programming has at times, when I’ve been making things, but I don’t know if programming for it’s own sake is what I want to do for the rest of my life. Or if I do, I at least need some other outlets to keep my creative juices flowing, to keep life in my life. The problem is… I don’t know anything else, and my brain is scared its too late to learn new things.

My whole conception of self is bound up in others viewing me as smart. I’d been praised for it from an early age, and that’s how I learned to receive affection and respect. If you’re reading this, especially if we’re close, we probably bonded initially over discussing things intellectually, or knowing random things. And that’s great, I love that, and I don’t want to change that. But I want more, and deep down I’m scared of doing something and not being good at it, because it challenges my ego of being naturally good at things. But that’s not how skills work. Even the skills I do have developed over time, I just started them early enough that I was always seen as ahead of the curve. But, now as I want to learn new things, my ego knows I’m way behind my peers, and rejects trying.

I don’t know how early it came on, but as long as I can remember I’ve known there’s three classes of people. Nerds, athletes, and artists. And I was firmly in the nerd camp. Like any good minmaxer I only put points in the things I was already good at. In fourth grade, I put next to no effort in the sculpting unit at the ‘gifted and talented’ program. There were other people there who were good at it, and I couldn’t try hard and not be the best, that would be humiliating. I have no memory of ever painting, but my gut reaction is that I know I’m bad at a painting. In high school I hung out with the theater kids, and participated in productions. But only as a tech, because that’s the kind of person I was. I’d never try out, acting is for those guys, I’d be terrible at it. How stupid is that? I wasn’t actually very good at sound tech; ADHD and doing things on cues in a story you can’t even see, did not make a good combination. Maybe I would have been better at acting; if I even gave that to myself as an option. Even with nerd things, the desire for being respected for what I knew came to bite me.I used to love playing chess, until in middle school I realized I wasn’t as good at it as my friends and I gave it up.

I don’t know all of where this came from, but I know some. Much has been written about the tragedy “gifted and talented” programs has wrought on kids, probably even more has been written about standardized testing being dominant from a young age. But I also don’t think it helped that both of my parents were also smart, software engineers.  Even the few bits of exposure they gave me to the arts were framed in terms of utility and knowledge. I had to take piano lessons so that I would know how to play in church on an LDS mission.  I have no memory of being exposed to the idea that playing music could be done for fun, for self expression. And so somewhere between when I started and when I stopped taking piano lessons I stopped having fun. And I didn’t practice because I was smart, I had the knowledge from the last lesson, and didn’t understand that I needed to develop a skill. And so I was bad at it, and being bad at it threatened my ego. So I resisted even more until I got out of it with barely any practical ability.  When I was introduced to classical music, it was with the purpose being described as knowing pieces and composers, not just enjoying the music. When I took an interest in Poetry, the value of it became associated with my ability to memorize, not the feelings or stories in the poem.

But the few times arts gotten past my defenses I’ve loved it. My favorite class in the time I was in college was a class about theatre, and certainly not any of my math classes. The times I feel most alive are when I’m exploring art. The times at work I’ve been able to engage best is when making things. My whole reason for getting into programming was to make games, and I’ve never given it much of a real try because it needs art.  So I want to explore more, I want to consider doing things I’ve never done. And I want to learn to value myself without needing to be seen as smart and good at things. So I’m just going to do it. And I’m going to share what I create, and not worry about whether it’s the ideal version of what I want to make. I don’t know what all to try, or how to get started, but I’m just going to do it. Give me ideas of things to try!  Send me encouraging words! Tips, tricks, or whatever you want to share. And I hope to share my progress with any of you who are interested.

People pleasing, perfectionism, irony and ironing

While ironing this morning I caught myself thinking “I’m not very good at this, but a poor ironing job is still better than wrinkles on clothes stuffed in a day bag”. I was pleased I wasn’t caught up in perfectionism and letting that get in the way, but I felt like there was more to it.

So I reflected on why I wasn’t good at it, it wasn’t a flaw in me, but a skill I haven’t practiced. Why didn’t I practice it? Because for years I pretended to not care. I didn’t iron out of people pleasing. I didn’t care because I felt more in control if I ‘chose’ to look sloppy. I worried more about doing a bad job and appearing authentically flawed than about being inaccurately cast as slovenly I was scared of vulnerability because I’d been taught I was valuable for what I can do. Not valuable for who I am.

My rebellion against people’s wishes was it’s own form of people pleasing. I was just like those who reject relationships before they can be rejected because they fear it will devalue them. I rejected ironing so that no one could reject my skill at ironing and thus devalue me.