Monday, September 19, 2016

more, better, faster

Potters are generally people who like to get things done. When you're on the wheel, you can whip off cup after cup, bowl after bowl in a matter of minutes. When you get good at making pottery, it's easy to be productive, and we like to be productive. To be a successful potter, it's all about production, which comes down to this: more, better, faster.

When I first started creating the new body of work I'm into now, it forced me to slow down because I didn't know what I was doing. The technique and approach meant that making one piece could take a half day or more, which short-circuited my production-oriented mind. But I did what I always do, what all potters do, which is problem solve and figure out better ways of doing things so I could move faster through the process and make more work. This is all well and good, since getting bogged down in a slow, labor intensive and repetitve process is torture. Unless you like that kind of thing. And if you do, you are likely not a potter.

I've come up with two different collections that I can make relatively easily and don't have a lot of things that can go wrong, which makes it ideal for wholesale. I haven't done a push for wholesale accounts in years, because I've managed to sell my work on my own without having to mark it down to wholesale prices. But sales are still slow, so I feel like I need to get more work out there through wholesale.

If you've read this blog for any length of time, you know I do not like wholesale. I have to come up with a price that's low enough for retailers to be able to double the price and still be able to sell the piece, which just puts any maker into kind of a bad spot. Because then I have to sell the piece for that same price, I can't undercut my retailers. It's a very uncomfortable balancing act. And I wonder is it's even worth it-- it's not like the retailers are banging the door down anyway. Would it be better to just give a lower price to my own customers and forget wholesale completely, once and for all? I would rather have one good customer of my own over any single wholesale account any day.

But then the question is, how much can you lower your price before you start undermining the value of your own work? I think having a lot of wholesale accounts can erode a pottery business' finances because you're doing all of the work for half the pay, but there is the fact that they are marketing your work at a certain price point, creating an expectation of what your work will cost. Does that balance out the cost to the business?

A lot of questions today, and not a lot of answers. I'd love to know what you think. Go ahead, tell me what to do!

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

more thoughts on burnout

I have mentioned before my serious love for podcasts. I have a long list of favorite podcasts and shows that I listen to regularly. One of them is called Millennial, a show about getting through life as a 20-something millennial. That probably sounds awful to a lot of you, especially for us cranky Gen-Xer's who are so disgusted by the Millennial cultivation of nostalgia for the artifacts of our 80's and 90's youth, which has effectively delivered the message that we are old. And that sentence right there shows exactly how old I am. I'm sure I annoyed Boomers in the exact same way with my love for the Doors, hippy skirts from India, and acid trips.

Anyway, I like Millennial quite a bit because the host, Megan Tan, is delightful, and smart, and shares the experience of being a 20-something in a way that is interesting and engaging, and reminds me to not judge Millennials too harshly. They are just trying to figure it out, like we all are. Millennials just happen to be younger and more energetic, which they totally take for granted, and that is the most galling thing of all.

One of the latest episodes resonated with me because it was about burnout. Everyone who has read this blog for any length of time knows that I have been in a back-and-forth battle with creative burnout. Right now I am in a good place, and have been for at least 2 1/2 years, but I also had to take a yearlong break away from pottery to get there.

Many of my friends are creatives in different fields. These are people who have worked for themselves for going on two decades blowing glass, making films, composing music, throwing pottery, making paintings, teaching and writing.  And almost all of them have experienced the same kinds of creative burnout I did, and some of them are in the thick of it right now.

Burnout in mid-life is especially difficult, because it comes with two questions: Do I want to do this thing anymore? And if the answer is "no", then what the hell do I do instead? Changing what you do for a living in your 40's and 50's is fucking scary. And it can also be the first real acknowledgement that you are no longer young, and just dropping one thing to try something else comes with real consequences that you may not be able to ride out easily.

I used to view burnout as an inevitable result of making a living as an artist. To be even marginally successful, you have to be obsessed, and work much harder than the average person is willing to work. That's the deal. Obsession brings imbalance, and with that comes the boredom, the indifference, the fatigue and irritability that are all hallmarks of burnout. Now that I've been to the dark side of burnout and back, I wonder if burnout is avoidable?

One of the things I like about Megan Tan is that she asks for help. Basically her entire podcast is about how to leap frog from lily pad to lily pad, and asking for help along the way. I didn't ask for help when I was in my 20's. I thought it showed strength to figure to out for myself, and as we all know, I like to learn things the hard way. If I can't learn it the hard way, then I don't want to learn it. Now that I know better, part of the reason that I still write this blog is so I can share what I've learned and make it easier for other people.

So here is my current list of things creatives should do to avoid or manage their burnout:

  1. Take a break. Obvious, right? But how do you take breaks when you are busy and really really into whatever it is that you are doing? I've started a practice of stopping work for the day while I am still in that space of wanting to do more. I leave the studio with desire in my heart, not with exhaustion because I worked for too long. Also, I take a walk around the block after lunch even though what I want to do is get back to work. I'm trying to cultivate a constant tension of slight hunger for my work. No more bingeing. Also, vacations. Go away and do whatever it takes to get your mind off work.
  2. Try new things, in your work, in other mediums. Go out of the zone we all set up for
    ourselves. Right now I am making some porcelain jewelry. It's something I've thought about for years, but I never made time for it. It is such a pain in the ass to switch gears and try new things, but it is so good for your brain and your work. Once I can get over the hump of pulling out different tools and ideas for a new thing, it's totally absorbing and fun. 
  3. Speaking of fun-- have some. Are you having fun in your work? If you are a creative not having fun in your work it's as painful as having a knife in your heart 24 hours a day. Even if you think you can't make any money off some harebrained idea you have, do it anyway just for the fun of it.
  4. Don't look at what other people are doing: We all know social media brings with it an urge to judge and compare. If you are dealing with feelings of burnout that urge can harden into bitterness and resentment at all the people in your field who are doing so great and live totally fulfilling lives. In reality, they struggle just like you but also take really nice pictures. Take a month or more off of social media. You won't miss anyone or anything, plus you will be welcomed back with open arms and almost no one will notice that you were even gone.  
  5. Take care of your body: This is what I do to take care of my body-- I go to bed early and try to get 8 hours of sleep every night. I exercise for an hour every day first thing in the morning. I meditate for 15 minutes 5 days a week. I drink too much beer every once in a while but I generally avoid hard alcohol and daily drinking. I eat good food. It's taken me years to put all of that together, and it's not perfect every day, but if I stop taking care of myself it has a cascade effect that eventually crashes into my work. I have to stay strong physically and mentally.
That's my current prescription for managing and avoiding burnout. Does this sound familiar? It's because I keep writing about these things over and over again. I can't hear it enough, and hopefully you can't either. Are you suffering from burnout? What are you doing of what have you done to manage it? Post your thoughts below.