I Am an Expert … Yesterday

How Can I Relate My Experience to Beginners In 2021

I have no idea what it must be like trying to begin as an illustrator today. Things are so different. When I started getting inklings about the possibility of a creative career, it was the early aughts. The dot-com boom and crash was in the rear-view mirror. The economy was in an upswing, after the disastrous double hit, first of 9/11 and then the stock market crash. Opportunity still seemed boundless.

It could have been my tender age and my general ignorance about most things outside of my small life at the time.

I had the space and time to explore and ruminate. I had no obligations. I was my own man. And I had indescribably good luck (or undeserved blessings) in making connections early on as well. The long story short: although I experienced a great many inner battles, including depression, loneliness, and insecurity (to the extreme), for some reason, opportunity rained on me like a torrent. My struggle was not whether I could do almost anything I wanted, but with my own inner demons.

I did quite badly in high school. Almost failed, but graduated with the minimum requirements. I had no goals in life. But between graduating and a few years later, when I discovered what I believed was my true calling (a creative career), I was somehow earning a decent salary at a job with almost limitless freedom, working shoulder to shoulder with engineers and CEOs who gave me hours of their time and mentorship. Of course, on my way to these advantages, I had a bit of an awakening shortly after high school and starting setting goals and working harder. But I feel like whatever effort I was pouring in was matched two or three times over by the good fortune that came from it. By the time I decided to go to art school (the point in my own hero’s journey when I answered the call to adventure), I was very much set up and poised for success.

At 26, I was a thousand times more confident as a human, and increasingly at peace with myself. As I left from my home in Toronto to my art school adventure on Canada’s East Coast, I even had income security, with the opportunity to work remotely for the employer that had given me so much freedom and opportunity up to that point—even to the point of supporting my departure for art school. Yes, there were surprises and growth on the horizon, and much more inner struggling, but whatever was trying to take me down just a few years prior was gone; it had been defeated.

All this to say, I don’t know why things worked out so well at my beginning—externally and materially speaking. I know that along the way I participated, reciprocated: I truly did pour in my heart and soul into developing as a creative. I had the right spirit, the enthusiasm, and the blind determination necessary to move forward. I can almost take credit for that part—the effort and focus. But the ground was fertile. The weather and terroir were perfect. As a seedling, all I had to do was push out my cotyledons out to the sun and let the elements do their work.

Today, over one year into a raging, ongoing global pandemic, during unprecedentedly tumultuous political upheaval, facing a global climate crisis, in a society completely overshadowed and increasingly threatened by technology, our freedoms seemingly increasingly dissolving … this run-on sentence writes itself … these are hard times for most people.

Personally, I don’t know what to do other than to keep doing what I do anyway. I try to balance staying informed on one hand, and practicing a certain level of willful ignorance on the other—lest I despair. While my recovery from my personal failures in my late teens and early 20s was almost miraculous, I am still shell-shocked from the inner instability I experienced in my early and mid-twenties. I have learned what triggers to avoid; I’ve found my happy place, my balance, by building walls around those things that I know could take me back to a dark place. I consider myself somewhat brave in facing my own demons head on, but I do have my limits.

What am I getting at?

As I continue working toward writing my book—the intentional presentation of my expertise—I am now wondering what I really know about what it’s like to forge a creative career from scratch today. Yesterday, I wrote a piece called Late Bloomers, a reflection on what it’s like to discover and begin developing a creative career later in life (compared to those around us). I posted a short summary of the piece on Instagram as well, which elicited quite a response in the comments. It resonated with a lot of people (as I suspected it might). I tried my best, in the article, to relate to those in their 30s, 40s, and 50s who are reinventing themselves, discovering their own creativity, and facing this feeling of having lost so much time. (It turns out there are even people in their 60s and older going through this same metamorphosis, which at my relatively tender age of 40 honestly seems inconceivable! And inspiring!). My posts don’t always generate so much discussion and sharing, so it was natural for me to feel like I somehow struck a nerve, that I have personally identified a key “pain point” that I can somehow leverage as content for my book. Of course, there’s truth in this, but when I read through the comments (I am trying to read through all of them!), I see that my situation is in many ways different from others. For instance, there are a lot of mothers who had to put their lives and ambitions on hold for a long time and are just now able to get back into it. And yes, there are also dads who have been dutifully working their day jobs for their families, longing for the time when they could start pursuing a creative career. There are also people who have had seemingly more freedom, but who face arduous internal struggles with mental health or debilitating ADHD. These are just some examples I gleaned from the comments. These situations seem a far cry from what I felt were my struggles early on. Whatever struggles I went through, I still had a lot going for me.

It’s important that I acknowledge this because I don’t want to have any false sense of empathy. Whatever struggles I have faced, they are at best only symbolically relatable. My struggles were hard for me, given who I am. And I can relate to the experience of overcoming them, blasting through self doubt and actively seeking help and community from others. I can relate to the all important act of saying “yes” to the call to adventure in spite of my doubts. I can offer practical insights and steps forward. I can outline a possible path, which is helpful to a point. But I am not going to know how things will play out for my readers in the end. For some, perhaps something I teach or write about will be exactly what they need to advance to the next step. For others, maybe their struggles will just be well beyond anything I can speak to. Maybe they’ll never reach a point of joy or satisfaction in their creative development, and it won’t be for not trying.

I don’t want to be discouraging or to feed anybody’s doubts. I just have to be honest about my own limits. I suppose this just means I can write from a place of empathy, but my empathy is limited. If we are all circles on the Venn diagram of life, the spaces where we intersect are mere slivers. As a writer, teacher, and visual communicator, my job is to identify those slivers and to dig in as deep as I can. These points of overlap are where our interactions have meaning. I’m just looking for these overlaps and offering what I can to help. But it is humbling to realize that as time goes on, as our world changes around us, as life in 2021 is almost indistinguishable from life in 2001, whatever I think I have experience to draw from, it’s not going to be the same for those starting out today.

As a guide to aspiring and working illustrators, whether early birds or late bloomers, all I can do is show what I know. Listen to the questions. Pay attention to what is happening today. See how the terrain has changed. Even though things are different today, I have experience and age, and therefore a bit of wisdom to share. There’s a part of me that wants to save everyone from every struggle, but that’s not at all my job nor something to aspire to. Instead, what I know I can do, is simply identify universal principles, give them names, and perhaps, place them on a map. Even though the landscape has changed, the ground still exists. There are still places to be and new places to go.

Illustrator. Creatively Empowering Teacher/Speaker. Represented by Making Pictures/UK & Dot Array/USA. Top Teacher on @skillshare. www.tomfroese.com/links

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