You’ve found a project you’re passionate about. You think you’d be good at it. You’re excited! You tell your friends and family and… pfffft, the air goes out of the balloon. Nobody’s interested. What now?
This has happened to me more than once over the years, so I feel you. The natural feeling, when you’re excited about something, is that the people around you will see how great it is and get excited about it, too. Or at least be excited for you. You’re hoping for encouragement, for someone else to be excited for you, happy that you’re happy. If you run headfirst into a wall of indifference, it can bring your momentum to a halt. There you stand, looking around, baffled and hurt — why doesn’t anybody seem to give a fig? Don’t they care about you?
I used to let that stop me. If the people around me weren’t interested, then ( so I thought) either (1) whatever I was excited about wasn’t important, or not “worthy,” or (2) I wasn’t important or worthy. That is not true, and here’s why.
People who like you like you. They may or may not like your work, or be interested in the same things you are. They may enjoy your company and think you’re great and still not get your work. I have a couple of really good friends who, so far as I can tell, don’t get what I do. Everything isn’t for everyone, just as every person isn’t for everyone. I don’t much care for cauliflower, or the paintings of Jackson Pollock. This doesn’t mean that cauliflower is bad, or that Jackson Pollock’s paintings aren’t “worthy.” It means that neither does much for me.
Yet I might have liked Jackson Pollock, and I can like someone who is passionate about the paintings of Jackson Pollock (a passion for cauliflower might be harder to take. I really don’t like the smell). The people who like you have found something they enjoy, or admire, or both, in you. But they might look at your painting, or whatever your project is, and be mystified, or disinterested. It doesn’t move them — you do.
The flip side of this is that you shouldn’t let their reactions determine how you view your project. Get it out there and let your work find its tribe. Chances are there will be someone who will look at it and know just what you were trying to do, and be excited about it. Just as you have your tribe, so will your work.
Case in point… I put together an art show for a local radio station. Eight artists were involved (including me). It was, by design, a range of styles, disciplines and media. Everything from painting and sculpting to jewelry and clothing. The reception was a crush, a great crowd, many of them very enthusiastic. But there was one man, nicely-dressed, who looked over the gallery and asked, “Why jewelry? Why clothes? I understand why you’d include sculpture and painting, but,” and here he actually sniffed in disdain, “why would you include crafts?” And he said “crafts” with great condescension.
The inclusion of jewelry and clothing was deliberate, I explained. Personal ornamentation is one of the oldest forms of art, possibly the oldest. Most major museums have collections of jewelry and clothing. He wasn’t convinced, but said that it did offer “the uneducated” something they could “understand,” which was “probably clever” on my part. (*sigh*). So he clearly didn’t get it. That didn’t make my choices wrong. Most of the people at the show didn’t even question the “why” of that, and enjoyed the show.
My latest project, the Love Bead Safe Harbor Pin Project? Most people who know me could not possibly care less about it. They like me, but they aren’t interested in my work or this project. But over 500 people so far are. They get it. They understand that those little pins are a symbol of an important idea. They think the pins are fun. They get that the pins start conversations. They like the idea of deciding, consciously, to try to treat other people, even people they might not understand or approve of, with respect. They are my project’s “tribe.”
The acceptance rate for the pins is about 91%. Nine out of ten people offered pins accepted them. Their reactions range from mildly pleased to very enthusiastic. I get to have interesting, challenging, enjoyable conversations with so many people about respect, who we give it to and why, what it means… all because of a pair of little, beaded safety pins in a packet. Another artist said she thought this was “the most important work of social art” she had heard of in years, and I’m still dumbfounded by that. People hug me. They tell me their stories. Parents talk to their kids about respect. It has been amazing — and had I not put it out there, I’d have missed it.
Yes, you might put your work out there and it might prove hard to find its tribe. But for sure you won’t find that tribe if you don’t try. People can’t want what they can’t conceive of, and they can’t conceive of your project before you put it out there. If the people in your life don’t get it, accept that and keep moving.
The people who like you, but don’t get your work? Appreciate the role they play in your life, even if it’s just to enjoy your company. You need them. It’s great to have people like your work… but it’s just as great to have people like you as a person. On days when the work just won’t cooperate, you’ll be glad to have someone who, independent of your work, looks forward to talking to you, to seeing you.
And when you do find people who get your work, listen to them! Let the opinions of people who have experienced what you’re trying to do weigh more than those who haven’t. When I would get discouraged, my husband Mark kept saying, “Listen to the people who have experienced what you’re doing and told you that it meant something to them. They know what you’re doing.” They are my project’s tribe, and I wouldn’t have found them if I hadn’t taken a chance that they might be out there.