Tag Archives: Elizabeth Spiers

The Art of George W. Bush and the Importance of Play

Former President George W. Bush is a man of many distinctive qualities, which, depending on how one feels about his tenure as president, may be described either in glowing terms or in terms that wouldn’t be printable in a family publication. (In the interest of full disclosure, I prefer the latter.) But it came as a surprise last week that he could fairly claim a descriptor no one would have guessed: painter.

The reaction was mixed. New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz likes them, more or less, and his wife Roberta Smith, writing in the New York Times, calls him a serious amateur. (She asserts that he’s a better painter than Hitler, which in certain circles must pass for a compliment.)

Two of the described paintings are nude self-portraits, which makes them sound more terrifying than they are. In the painting pictured above, 43 is in the shower, staring into a shaving mirror from the back. In the second, we see through his own gaze his lower legs and feet submerged in bathwater. As Roberta Smith notes, these viewpoints and self-as-subject could alternately suggest introspection or narcissism, but the reality is we can’t be exactly sure of the artist’s motivations or what he is trying to convey.

Why is the former president painting himself? Why is he even painting? The rest of the criticism centers on the quality of the work and how to classify it. Is it worthy of collecting or displaying in a gallery? Is he, by definition, an outsider artist? How does he stack up against the professionals?

These are interesting questions. But maybe the answers don’t matter.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that George W. Bush is not an artist by anyone’s definition. His work is laughably bad. He should not be mentioned in the same breath with painters who make art for a living.

These are not reasons for 43 to abandon painting. They’re not reasons for anyone to stop painting — or fail to start.

There are plenty of reasons to engage in creative activity that has no possibility of being professionalized and won’t receive external validation. We paint because it’s therapeutic. We paint because it gives us new perspectives on the world around us. We paint because the act of creating is just as important as the creation. We paint because, god forbid, it’s fun, which is its own justification.

We all remember a time when we understood that intuitively. We were probably six or seven. We were encouraged to draw, to paint, to sing, to build things out of other things, and it never occurred to us that being good at any of it was relevant.

But as we grew older, we found that all of our creative pursuits were tethered to achievement and it was a waste of time, if not an embarrassment, to spend energy on creative projects that couldn’t be displayed or judged worthwhile or result in professional gain. This is a shame.

What it means in practice is that we tend to spend free time consuming culture instead of making it. Instead of writing a story or attempting to paint something or learning a piece of music, we watch TV or go to a movie.

There’s nothing wrong with consuming culture, of course. But what are we losing if that time is never spent making things, and making them for their own sake?

I recently had a conversation with a friend about taking what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call a “creative vacation.” I tend to travel when I’m burned out or need a change of scenery, but I also view that time as an opportunity for creative regeneration: grabbing some art supplies and writing paper and heading to my own personal Walden. My friend concurred. His exact words were, “I’d like to just find a cabin in the woods somewhere and Jackson Pollock the shit out of a canvas.” My friend was less interested in creative work than creative play, but who’s to say that play isn’t as important as work? I’d wager that play has some advantages:

It’s easier to experiment when you don’t think your creative project will be judged. It’s allowed to be bad. It can be really, really bad, in fact. (I’d argue that George W. Bush’s paintings are not even in the really, really bad category, but I could show you some of my own work that is, and I don’t think I’d have ever made those things if they were going to be judged professionally.) Sometimes it’s important in a professional context to do bad work in order to improve, but making things that are flawed and accepting that they are going to be flawed — because let’s face it, we are not exactly Rembrandt — has value as well. We don’t have to be good at everything. We don’t even have to try to be good at everything, despite the fact that our delicate egos often make it feel like a moral imperative.

There’s a certain joy in being really, really bad at something and doing it anyway. We were probably bad painters at the age of six, but who doesn’t remember the fun of smearing paint on a piece of paper in order to render what our teachers would have described as alternately “a sort of flower” or “a map of Germany”? There’s no reason why painting flowers of questionable quality shouldn’t be just as enjoyable now. (And for what it’s worth, it probably uses more brain cells than watching all of season six on Netflix.)

Maybe that’s all the former president was thinking as he rendered his bathroom tiles in oil paint. Maybe he had no aspirations of being admired as an artist or validated by the art market. Maybe he just wanted to Jackson Pollock the shit out of a canvas. As well he should have.

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Why Developing Serious Relationships in Your 20s Matters

Are you in your twenties? Are you an entrepreneur? Have you been told by your friends, your advisors, and your professional peers that now is your time to build your own life and not worry about things like settling down and having children — especially if you’re a female entrepreneur?

It makes sense, right? This is the only time in your life when you have no ties, no mortgage, no kids to support. This is the only time you can really do something ambitious, if you’re being practical.

And let’s face it, you’re not ready anyway. You’re busy building your company, figuring out who you are, what you want. You get laid on a regular basis; it’s not like you don’t have a love life. A “love” life.

And everyone around you agrees. Everyone!

Now is the time to live! (By which you mean building the next change-the-world company, of course.) You’ve moved to New York. Or San Francisco. Or Palo Alto. Or Boston. With the express purpose of building something.

This is a noble cause. There is nothing more professionally satisfying as building something. Something you love. Something you can “get behind.”


There was this girl. This guy.

Eh, fuck it. You’re busy. You have more important things to do. Changing the world is a full-time job and if you don’t do it now, when will you?

Here’s the thing: I know you. You’re probably one of the many people I’ve mentored or hired. On multiple occasions, you’ve explained to me (as if I were your batty old aunt, but I’m not taking it personally) that you have no time to get to know anyone because you’re busy doing your work.

This is a complete fallacy. Work and relationships are not incompatible. (Ask Mark Zuckerberg.)

I’ll wager that there is something about big transient cities that distorts everyone’s sense of time. You become convinced that you have time for everything you find challenging, that your ultimate horizon is infinite. This is only the beginning for you.

But you don’t know how much time you have. And even if things go well for you, your time is finite. You can’t figure out your professional life now and your personal life later. (Unless you’re the rare thirteen-year-old entrepreneur, in which case, I might demur.)

And here is why: As with coding and management and matters of finance and marketing, relationships have a learning curve. You learn the basics of “relationshiptiva” (note to copyed: yes, I made up that word): How to deal with sexual etiquette, mundane everyday things, scheduling, and appropriate meetings with close friends, and some equitable plan for who’s supposed to pay for dinner or wash the dishesthis time. These are basics. And if you’re learning them in your thirties, it’s going to be much harder.

Because in a few years, however young you think yourself (how old is thirty, really?), you will be approaching midlife and you won’t be as adaptable as you once were. There are reasons for this, many of which are biological. Your body won’t respond the same way. You’ll have knee problems that didn’t exist when you were running sophomore track. You can’t stay out till 4:00 a.m. anymore, because now the same alcohol intake has somehow resulted in a hangover that’s a multiple of what it once was — and you will never ever have appreciated a nice soft pillow more. And if you think you can fend these things off with diet and exercise, you should probably buy a good solid book on the aging process or find a professional athlete over the age of thirty to talk to. They will speak of massage therapists and bone density and necessary nutritional supplements. You can mitigate these things, but you can’t entirely avoid them.

But that is not the point. The point is that thirty (or thirty-two, or thirty-five) is not the age when you want to be practicing serious relationships for the first time. Because learning how to develop a meaningful, sustainable relationship and keep it healthy takes some extended practice. You have to get beyond the basics — the sexual negotiations and the decisions about whose clothes go where and how to talk about exes. You have to figure out how to fight well, how to negotiate major value conflicts (if you can — some are impossible), and how to deal with the inevitabilities that come your way.

And those inevitabilities are myriad: At some point, you and your partner will go through a period of disillusionment when someone else turns your head or your partner’s. Maybe you have an affair, maybe you don’t. At some point, one of you will have significantly more career success than the other. This will become a point of tension. As will the disparity in income that usually accompanies it. At some point, you will disagree on how to raise your child and you will each wield the child as the ultimate weapon in a battle of wills. (I’m just doing what’s best forour child!) And at some point, one of you will have a major life issue that costs you everything or close (cancer, financial ruin, miscellaneous crisis), and the other person will have to decide to commit to or not.

It’s not a question of whether each of these things will happen; it’s a question of when. And if you do decide to spend a life with someone, you have to decide that you are willing to face all of these things and acknowledge that some of them could happen sooner than you expect.

Relationships are too important to learn how to face those issues at the last minute. You have to go through a few of them to know how to properly conduct one. You have to fail. You have to date a few terrible people. You have to be the asshole yourself sometimes. You have to learn how not to be the asshole. You have to spend tons of time together — so much time that sometimes you feel indistinguishable from each other and you find that both reassuring and disturbing. You have to have a vicious fight and know it’s not ending you and that you’re going to have to work to repair it and that the effort is worthwhile. These things take time.

I’m not suggesting, mind you, that you settle down in your twenties. I don’t envision you in a ranch home in the suburbs at twenty-six, feeding your toddlers Cheerios and pureed organic carrots and carting them to and from soccer practice in the family [Missouri: Suburban; SoCal: Prius].

I’m just saying that it’s worth it to look at your romantic relationships nakedly. (Metaphorically, not literally. Unless that’s your thing — in which case, contemplate in the nude as much as you want.) Work at a relationship the way you work at your work. Spend the time. Make the effort.

You need the practice. You need to learn. Some of you can wait another ten or twenty years to do that. And some of you may be the rare bachelors and bachelorettes who have no intention of ever being in a serious committed relationship ever. But not most of you, especially if you’re envisioning a spouse and kids sometime before you can start collecting social security. You need time — and lots of it.

And you need to remember that work is not everything. I met my fiancé at work, which is not a way that Detached Professional Me would ever advise anyone to go about meeting people. Under the circumstances, we had to decide fairly quickly whether we were willing to get fired. What was more important: the job or the relationship? We picked the latter. Fortunately, nobody got fired. But if I had been sent packing, I wouldn’t regret it. Jobs are replaceable. People you truly love are not.

I think it’s fair to say — with no scientific evidence — that deathbed wishes rarely include, “If only I had put another twenty hours a week in at the office! That slightly cleaner product release would have made all the difference.” But that guy, that girl? You might regret that.

Further Reading

Confessions of a Part-Time Vegan

 — Eating vegan before six with Mark Bittman

On Dilettantism and the Virtues of Pursuing Multiple Interests

 — When I think back to my childhood, I have a lot of fond memories involving family and friends, but the fact is, I hated being a kid.

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What You Do Is Not (Necessarily) Who You Are

What You Do Is Not (Necessarily) Who You Are


Among the niceties and travails of meeting people for the first time, there’s no more loaded question than “What do you do?” I would almost prefer to respond to “What is your favorite sexual position?” or “How do you feel about your mother?” because people would be less likely to read into my answer.

I have European friends who loathe the question because they think it’s coded language that only means one thing: How much money do you make? But that’s only part of it. It means that, and several other things. It can also mean: Is what you do significant? Do you have control over what you do? Where are you in the hierarchy of your company? Are you allowed to be creative in your job? Does your job give you status, professionally and personally? and so on.

Then, more implications: What does your work say about who you are? What does it say about where you came from and where you are now?

In its most innocuous version, the question means, do we have anything in common? Is what you do something interesting we could talk about? But given all of the other implications, it’s hard to feel like you’re not being assessed in a much larger way..

English: Tim Hetherington at a Hudson Union So...
English: Tim Hetherington at a Hudson Union Society event with Sebastian Junger, co-director of the Oscar-nominated, Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize-winning documentary, Restrepo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s a good reason for that. For most of us who actively chose what we do, it’s usually a reflection of, at the very least, our interests. If you’re well-educated and mostly unencumbered by serious financial constraints you likely made a conscious decision to go into your field. (And by serious financial constraints, I mean supporting a family in another country, astronomical medical bills, etc. I am not referring to paying off student loans until your grandkids are in college, which I will probably be doing myself.) It’s unlikely that you woke up one day and decided to become a periodontist “just because.”

This is because we are fortunate enough to have “careers” and not merely jobs. My dad had a job—for over forty years—and the same one at that. He was a local lineman for the Alabama Power Company. He didn’t hate his job, but he certainly didn’t consider it a career. For my dad, “What do you do?” was a boring question. But if you wanted to know what his interests were, you could talk about what he did on the side: he was also a part-time contractor, and I grew up in a wonderful house he built from the ground up. Building things was a part of who he was, but not necessarily what he did.

For me, the question is often complicated. At various points in my career, I’ve been an equity analyst, an entrepreneur, a journalist, a blogger, an editor, an adjunct professor, a marketing director, and a strategy consultant. Now I do bits of several of those things, so my clunky answer to what do you do is, “Uh, a bunch of stuff?” Until a few months ago, I was the editor-in-chief of the New York Observer, and if there was one thing about that job that was easy and convenient, it was that it made “what do you do?” easier and less irritating to answer. No one needs an explanation of what a newspaper editor does. (But for the five years prior to the Observer, the answer was, as it is now, a bunch of stuff.)

In Renata Adler’s Gone: The Last Days of the New Yorker, a memoir of her time there and analysis of its state in the late ‘90s, she writes that the imprimatur of The New Yorker was strong enough to render moot any other significant cultural or class signifiers:

“There are many ways, in the contemporary world, in which people who have never met meet, appraise, and identify one another. Accents, clothes, how much they spend, airline class in which they travel, people whom they know, universities they have attended, things more subtle and ineffable. Nothing, for Americans at least, seems more immediate than institutional affiliation, the place where they work, and in what capacity. Among jobs, in those days, there was no qualification for meeting people that seemed, everywhere, less subject to question than working for a respected newspaper or magazine.”

As someone who has worked for several respected newspapers and magazines (though not The New Yorker), I think she exaggerates a bit. People who work in journalism put The New Yorker and magazines like it on a pedestal that’s many a story higher than the average person who does not work in journalism—even the more enthusiastic readers. But there is some refuge in institutional affiliation, as there is in certain job titles.

But what do all of these things really say about who we are? There’s a danger in conflating work with self, even if work has consumed everything we do. In Sebastian Junger’s recent documentary on the late photographer and documentary filmmaker Tim Hetherington, Which Way to the Front Line?, Junger chronicles Hetherington’s work in West Africa, Afghanistan, and Misrata, Libya, where he was eventually killed. Hetherington did extremely important work, and in his documentary, Diary, he explores the tension between his life at home and his life in the field. Just before he left for Libya, he expressed reservations about continuing to work in conflict zones. It had cannibalized other parts of his life. He wanted to pursue a long-term relationship with his girlfriend. He wanted a family. He wanted to explore doing different kinds of work. But he decided to go back into the field one last time and didn’t come back.

It would be disingenuous to argue that Hetherington’s work wasn’t part of who he was, but as Junger’s documentary so beautifully illustrates, it wasn’t all there was of Tim Hetherington.

Producing good work has many benefits, and it certainly contributes to a stronger sense of identity and purpose. But fullness of self is about more than that. It’s about those ancillary but more direct questions: What are our interests? What are our values? Where did we come from, and where are we now? All of these things are qualities that can develop in tandem with work, but they’d probably develop even if we had a job and not a career.

There’s a D.H. Lawrence quote I found in Geoff Dyer’s smart and wickedly funny book, Out of Sheer Ragewherein the author chronicles his aspirations to write a biography of Lawrence and epic procrastinations at doing so—that speaks to this perfectly. “I don’t think that to work is to live,” Lawrence says. “Work is alright in proportion: but one wants to have a certain richness and satisfaction in oneself, which is more than anything produced. One wants to be.

There’s nothing wrong with asking someone what they do, and certainly no harm in answering the question. But don’t assume the answer means everything.

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On Dilettantism and the Virtues of Pursuing Multiple Interests


When I think back to my childhood, I have a lot of fond memories involving family and friends, but the fact is, I hated being a kid. Not for the reasons you’d think: I wasn’t bullied on the playground, I didn’t have a tormented relationship with my parents and while we never had money, I don’t think it made our experiences any less rich for lack of resources.

I mostly hated being a kid because I wanted to be more independent. I loved my family, but I would have probably moved out of the house at 10 if it had been remotely feasible. (In fact, I may have tried to move into the treehouse in the backyard on one or two occasions, but those periodic forays into independent living were usually kiboshed by dinnertime.)

My parents didn’t take it personally; they just allowed me to make independent choices where I could and encouraged me to pursue anything I found interesting, as long as we could afford it. It was a way of letting me be independent by giving me control over how I spent my time and how I chose to express myself. I took piano lessons, preferring “Wind Beneath My Wings” to Symphony No. 2 in D Major (I was 10, in my defense); learned to oil paint in Bob Ross-ian fashion, though my clouds were less “happy” than vaguely morose on a good day; played basketball (point guard, mostly on the bench), and sang (badly) in the church choir. I also wrote terrible poetry on a secondhand wordprocessor that ran on DOS, built dangerous contraptions in the garage with tools from my dad’s workshop, and if you had asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up at the age of nine, I would have told you I either wanted to be a lawyer, an auto mechanic or President of the United States. (It’s much to my dad’s credit that it never occurred to me that those were all male-dominated or exclusively male professions.) My parents never pushed me in a particular direction, and were just happy that I was occupied and engaged in things that were constructive.

And allowing me to do all of those things had some practical value when I applied to college, which was definitely not something that they anticipated. (No one in my family was a college grad and it wasn’t a given that my brothers and I were going to go, though we all did.) But as a function of all the dabbling in things and racing from lessons to practice and so on, I was “well-rounded.” I knew a bit about a lot of things and excelled at one or two. At the time, at least, this was incredibly advantageous. I only applied to one school, but it valued specialists and generalists fairly equally, and I got in. But despite stellar grades and test scores, I’m not sure I’d get in now, because I think we live in a culture that heavily favors specialization.

English: Alan Lightman, an American physicist,...
English: Alan Lightman, an American physicist, novelist and essayist, proffessor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Which is a shame, because learning to pick up new skills in a variety of different areas and being encouraged to dig into things I’m curious about is a key part of what has helped me in my career, both as a writer/editor, and as an entrepreneur. It made it easier to transition into different job roles, to figure out the intricacies of new industries and modes of work, and taught me be to be unafraid of trying something for fear of not being good at it. (And I’ve been very bad at a lot of things I’ve tried.) This is not to say there’s no value in specialization, of course, but I think there aren’t a lot of models for working and living in a way that encourages pursuit of multiple disparate interests and disciplines.

The Renaissance Man is rare, and where he exists, he’s often derided as a dilettante—a soft pejorative that connotes a lack of seriousness but originally meant a person who practices a discipline as a non-professional. Or an amateur, which can be an innocuous word in some senses but also has the same negative connotation. And I tend to project that onto non-professionals myself, even though I’m aware of the bias. I only feel comfortable self-identifying as a writer and an entrepreneur because I’ve been professionally compensated to do both. Which is silly and speaks to my own insecurities, but nonetheless…

In Jack Hitt’s book, Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American Character, he argues that amateur-ism is an essential part of the American experience and that we can point to plenty of innovations in the arts and sciences that were the products of tinkering by non-professionals who were simply passionate about their subjects. But most of us don’t take the physicist-moonlighting-as-a-novelist seriously until the book sells and it’s on the Times Best Seller List, pace Alan Lightman.

And why is that? I don’t think there’s one answer, but here are my theories:

Our educational systems are fundamentally engineered toward specialization, especially at research universities, no matter how many departmental programs describe their curriculum as “multi-disciplinary”.

We are type A individuals who don’t see the point in spending time and effort on something at which we may not excel.

United States
United States (Photo credit: Moyan_Brenn)

We think narrowly about skill acquisition as something that is valuable only in a direct professional context, despite the fact that continued learning has a variety of benefits (potentially increasing neuroplasticity, feeding creativity through cross-pollination, etc.) that are additive indirectly, both professionally and personally.

It’s very difficult to structure a commercial institution—especially a large one—in such a way that pre-defined roles are flexible enough to accomodate and exploit (in the best sense) different skill sets and encourages employees to develop disparate skill sets.

I don’t have any brilliant solutions about how to change that, but it’s something I think about as a manager and sometime mentor to other people. (If you have brilliant solutions, please send them to me!)

When J-school kids ask me for advice, I always tell them to pick up a skill that has nothing to do with journalism. Learn to code. Learn Mandarin. Learn to poach halibut in olive oil. Learn something else! I tell them it’s a practical thing to do. If this journalism doesn’t work out for you, I say, it won’t be the only thing you’re capable of doing. And if you’re the rare bird who can code, write a great feature story and then translate it into Mandarin, there are going to be a lot of opportunities for you.

But the truth is, I just think it’ll make them better journalists. Learning to code will make them think about logic and argumentation in a different way. Learning Mandarin will force them to more closely examine the structure of language. (Granted, learning to poach halibut in olive oil may not make you a better journalist, but I can tell you from experience that it’s a good way to wind down after a rough close.)

And if they pursue those things with passion and really enjoy them, I just think it will give them more personal satisfaction and a greater understanding of the world around them. And no one needs a professional rationale for that.

Source Medium – > https://medium.com/i-m-h-o/5b0423f5956c