The story of my book continues! The next instalment of my column in the Daily Star’s Saturday Literary Review is here.
“I’m not afraid of storms, for I’m learning how to sail my ship.” ― Louisa May Alcott
On the last day of my short visit to London two weeks ago, I went to the wonderful Prince Charles Cinema to see the documentary film, Finding Vivian Maier. American-born Maier took well over 150,000 photographs from the 1950s onwards. They were only discovered after her death in 2009, by a young man, John Maloof, who won an auction bid on the storage container where Maier had kept her negatives (many still undeveloped).
The film, made by Maloof, is a wonderful piece of filmmaking, and, despite current legal issues that I won’t get into here, he deserves every credit for painstakingly bringing Maier’s work to the world’s attention. But the real gem is the extraordinary work of Vivian Maier. I majored in photography at university, spending years studying what’s usually called photojournalism. Unlike, say, fashion photography, there is something inherently unsettling about photojournalism. Its study of the human condition forces us to confront ourselves. Maier’s work has that piercing quality that haunts you for days, and in my case, weeks. This shall likely become months and years, as with many of my favourite photographers’ work, which her talent easily matches.
So, here was this exceptionally gifted artist who had the compulsion to produce a massive volume of work that has now taken the art world by storm. Only she kept it a secret and instead worked as – wait for it – a children’s nanny and housekeeper.
We’ll probably never know why she didn’t pursue this professionally. Her would-be peers, including women, were successful and respected; there was no stigma attached to being a photographer. And by some accounts in the film, she wasn’t a happy woman in her day job.
It makes me ask: why do we not do what we really want to do?
It has become the norm for us to be weary of money. Without work, we can’t get money. And, more often than not, we associate work with something we have to tolerate just enough so that we can then go off and do the fun stuff we really want to do.
When I lived in London in the 2000s, there were a number of popular local television shows about 30-somethings, usually couples, leaving the rat race in the cities to move to Italy or Greece to run a B&B. In one go, they discarded their business suits, the grey and the rain, commutes to work, and stressful jobs answering to other people; replacing them with shorts, sandals, sunshine and being their own boss. We’d watch as they restored old villas or struggled to keep the grapes healthy in order to make the wine to pay the mortgage. It made for compelling TV (before reality shows became a contest to see who could be more outrageous). As fun as it was to watch them, the takeaway nonetheless, at least for me, was: lovely idea, but I couldn’t do it.
In these times
The formula for success expected in our parents’ generation of getting the right qualifications to get the secure job that we would keep until retirement is not just gone, it’s buried. Job security doesn’t exist any more. Big Business is too big indeed, not to mention unwieldy and vulnerable.
When everything is shifting on such a seismic scale in our age of information, it’s a good time to ask ourselves: what is it that we really want to do? A job shouldn’t be something to grit our teeth through so we can treat ourselves to some nice clothes and a holiday once in a while. And unlike even 15 years ago, now we don’t have to leave one tedious life to exchange it for one we’re not even qualified for (I know I couldn’t handle taking care of a vineyard, whatever lifestyle I got with it).
Our work should be an extension of ourselves. We should do what we really love to do and figure out a way to make it finance our expenses.
Would we rather work for The Man, look over our shoulders lest someone younger/more hungry wants to take our cubicle, and fight through office politics, and keep our head just below the radar so that we don’t upset the mediocrity of the work force?
Or would we rather work for ourselves, be fresh and passionate, and contained and nimble enough to evolve with the times?
We are living increasingly in a peer-to-peer world. Instead of banks or (heavens forbid) loan sharks, we can turn to crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter to raise capital for our venture. When we have money, we can also invest that in peer-to-peer lending circles, helping others who need to borrow funds,while we get a higher rate of interest than from a bank, and spread our risk with other investors. Instead of hotel rooms, we can rent apartments directly from their owners through AirBnB. We can meet people through social media instead of formal introductions.
In fact, the last five out of ten new people I’ve met have been through this blog. I trust the advice on the travel blogs I read over magazine articles sponsored by hotels and cruises. I prefer the lovingly handmade (and often custom-made) work of individuals through the online market, Etsy; recently, when I wanted a green wool shawl, I found a woman in Thailand through Etsy who made it to my specifications and couriered it to me. It cost half of what I’d have spent in a department store.
The biggest-ever IPO in history – US$25 billion – was made this month by the China-based Alibaba Group, which uses a similar peer-to-peer model of selling (only in their case it’s usually industrial airplane parts instead of handmade shawls…).
Doing it for ourselves
For me, this idea of Doing What I Love To Do is both old and new at the same time. I kept my independence by working freelance for most of my film years and taking assignment-based jobs over bosses/offices/nine-to-fives. When the 2008 financial crash happened, friends of the lawyer/banker variety were fretting (okay, freaking out), but I was already used to an unpredictable and sometimes volatile work schedule.
At the same time, I am planning a very clear shift in my life right now, and feel that everything as I know it is about to change quite radically. I’m becoming more focused about what I want and that’s very exciting.
What I am certain about is that when we do what we really want to do, and do it for ourselves, then more often than not, we can make it our life’s work too.
This is our one shot at life. Are we going to be like Vivian Maier and keep our real selves sealed in a container to be sold after our death?
Or are we going to spend it doing what makes our heart sing?
“Often people attempt to live their lives backwards: they try to have more things, or more money, in order to do more of what they want so that they will be happier. The way it actually works is the reverse. You must first be who you really are, then do what you need to do, in order to have what you want.” ― Margaret Young
This book has opened my eyes to fresh, realistic approaches to what can be an intimidating prospect. The author advises how to start a new venture without even leaving your current job, and with no start-up funds required. It’s packed with exercises that you’ll need to do to get the full benefits, so it will take some time to get through it, but oh! I’m so excited for you when you do. If you want to be your own boss and set your own rules then definitely do please read Free Range Humans by Marianne Cantwell.
If you’re a creative type, and are nervous about how to navigate this new world where everything is offered for free online (as in, how the hell will I make any money?) and where the thought of “networking” is only slightly better than having each fingernail pulled out one by one, then read Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon, and a free Penguin ebook, 10 Ways to Make Money in a Free World by Nicholas Lovell (available only in the UK as of now) to understand how to do it with dignity and fun.
Jon Favreau started as a writer and actor on smart indies like Swingers, then went on to direct some heavy-duty blockbusters like Iron Man and Iron Man 2, making him the toast of Hollywood. Then came Cowboys and Aliens, which didn’t do well, rubbing off some of his sheen. So, he went lo-fi and made a smart indie again: Chef. It’s about a man who’s unhappy working under a controlling boss, so he leaves it and… you get the picture.
With three science degrees from MIT and an MBA from Harvard Business School, it made perfect sense that the cousin of Salman Khan would turn to him for advice on her maths homework. When this proved useful, more people asked for the same, and he started making short videos on YouTube to help them more easily. This has since grown to over 100,000 tutorials provided completely free to everyone in the world through his non-profit educational organisation, Khan Academy. They have been watched close to 500 million times, eclipsing MIT’s own online tutorials. Watch Salman Khan (of Bangladeshi origin – hooray!) explain how and why he did it in his 2011 TED talk, Let’s Use Video to Reinvent Education.