The Duty of Creativity

During my graduate program and my first year of teaching, I was something of an overachiever. I stubbornly wrote all of my curriculum from scratch and diligently checked all the boxes on my lesson plans. Differentiated instruction, formative assessment, IEP accommodations, spiral curriculum, layered curriculum, social and emotional learning, multiple intelligences, project-based learning, performance-based assessment, I tried to stuff them all into each and every day.

At the end of the year, I watched, exhausted, as my students got pummeled by standardized testing despite all my efforts because they lacked basic literacy skills, three square meals a day, and parental support. I limped home for the summer and my mom, seeing my bedraggled state, asked me, “Why do you work with so much…so much…so much passion-ah? Why don’t you just treat this like a job?”

I bristled as only a 24-year-old about-to-be-disillusioned evangelical could. “Of course it’s not just a job!” I snapped. “You can’t treat teaching like it’s just a job. It’s a CALLING.” Obviously, this was something my career bureaucrat parents would not understand. Obviously.

Of course my personal significance came from my work, because I believed my teaching career was divinely mandated. Or did I believe it was my calling because I had invested all my self-worth in what I did rather than who I was? Click To Tweet

Hmmm.

In any case, I have long since come to believe that neither calling nor passion is a particularly sustainable motivation, at least for me personally. For starters, passion usually just translates to, “What I really like and want to do right now.” The problem is that “What I really like and want to do right now,” can and does change fairly quickly and rather frequently. (See also: my extensive resume of jobs and hobbies.)

Another issue, I suppose, was in my immature understanding of “calling.” Until the age of 24, I believed that following all the rules and steps and formulas would yield the results I wanted. (WAHAHA.) By extension, if I stayed true to my “calling,” then the work would be easy. Or at least enjoyable. So I didn’t really know what to think when I was burnt-out and disappointed from my first year of teaching in a difficult environment. Had I made a mistake about My Calling? Had I followed The Wrong Path? Was I doing Something Wrong?

(No, silly, life is just hard and unfair a LOT OF THE TIME.)

I know I’m not the only who thought this. I’ve seen enough, “Find a job you enjoy doing and you’ll never work a day in your life,” coffee mugs on Instagram to know that this is a common and dangerous myth. But the reality is, no one gets away with only doing what they loooooooove and feel caaaaaaalled to do. (Please see Parenting: Exhibits 1 through 7,625.)

Few people enjoy wiping their baby’s ass but it certainly needs to be done. Most creatives don’t want to work on administrative or marketing tasks, but without those chores, there’s no money to be had.

If “passion” or enthusiasm is your only motivation for creating, what happens when you’re tired or stressed? Click To Tweet

Last month was one of the hardest I’ve experienced in the last three years, and that’s including the four days I spent in labor. I could barely focus and the act of writing was difficult for the first time I can remember. But I stood to make nearly our monthly rent from just three articles, so I put my head down and muddled through. I am proud of what I wrote, but I certainly wouldn’t call the pieces “art” or anything I was particularly “passionate” about. It was “just work” that needed to be done.

Several months ago, I did a coaching session with author Cindy Wang Brandt, and she asked, “Does your craft feed you, or do you feed your craft?” Many creatives I know are still feeding their craft or passion; it’s not feeding them. (Yet!) But I didn’t want to wait that long.

I decided to split my craft in two, so that the copywriting and email strategy feeds me so that I can turn around and feed my blogging and fiction writing without everyone going hungry. Do I want to be a famous email marketing strategist? Not particularly, but it’s going to take awhile to be known as an Asian American blogger and novelist, and I’ve got bills to pay in the meantime, so I divide my time and energy between two major domains: passion and work.

Putting a bit of an air gap between my passion and work has turned out to be a really good thing for me. Click To Tweet

My 24-year-old self wasn’t totally wrong. Teaching is definitely too demanding for someone to just walk in and do without some semblance of caring for children and education. But I for sure put too much time and energy into it, leaving myself with nothing. I knew I couldn’t keep doing this once I had a family. When I did portrait photography, I let my emotions dictate my pricing (usually to my detriment), because – oh – how could I ever put a price tag on my art? Now that I’ve got my child’s future college tuition to fund, how could I not?! Now I make better business decisions faster because I base my choices on objective measures like time and money, rather than a subjective idea of passion or calling.

Treating certain types of writing as a “job” helps me keep my priorities straight and my work relatively organized. I often see creatives struggle with structuring their time, money, and work space. I wonder if that’s not partly because they don’t think of the work as work but rather as a hobby or passion or some other more pleasant sounding noun. But when writing is a job, it becomes much easier for me to set healthy limits. I have set work days, a limited number of projects I can take on, and very strict rules about not spending personal money on business expenses, because work shouldn’t be my whole life.

Treating work like work enables me to live life better. Click To Tweet

My ultimate goal (or calling, if you will) is simply to create a good and just life for my family by earning extra money, having a flexible schedule, and doing meaningful work so I don’t get angry and depressed from hearing the Moana soundtrack 372 times.

I was raised, like many Asian Americans, to value duty and responsibility. Now I’ll be the first to admit that mindset went hellishly toxic for quite some time.

But I like to think I’m reclaiming the idea of duty now by treating my pursuit of creativity not just as a passion but as a duty to myself and my family. Click To Tweet

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