Whew, Who Knew Finding Your Passion Was Such Hard Work?

Back in July there was an interesting piece in The Atlantic examining the value of the claim “find your passion and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

As I was reading the article, I saw that this concept had a lot in common with the idea that artistic achievement is the result of inspiration or genius rather than the result of a long period of practice, experimentation and experience. I have written about this idea often in the distant and recent past.  The study reported on in The Atlantic piece continues to extend and add evidence to my thinking on this topic by suggesting you develop your passion rather than being struck by it in a momentary flash.

Another reason not to buy into the fixed theory is that it can cause people to give up too easily. If something becomes difficult, it’s easy to assume that it simply must not have been your passion, after all. In one portion of this study, the students who thought interests were fixed were also less likely to think that pursuing a passion would be difficult at times. Instead, they thought it would provide “endless motivation.”

[…]

People who have a growth mind-set about their own intelligence tend to be less afraid of failure, according to her research, because they believe smarts are cultivated, not inherent. Interests are related to, but distinct from, abilities, the study authors told me: You can be interested in something but not very good at it. “I’ve been playing guitar for 25 years, but I can’t say that my abilities have gotten that much better in the past 10 years,” O’Keefe said.

Dweck told me that “find your passion” has a laudable history. “Before that, people were saying, ‘Find your genius,’ and that was so intimidating. It implied that only people who were really brilliant at something could succeed,” she said. “‘Find your passion’ felt more democratic. Everybody can have an interest.” But this study suggests that even the idea of finding your “true” interest can intimidate people and keep them from digging further into a field.

I was particularly interested by this idea that “find your passion” developed out of a desire remove the intimidation factor inherent in “find your genius.” It seems like something of an admonition to pay attention to the inherent implications of any new phrases that crop up to replace “find your passion.”

More Tales From The Crammed Conference Luncheon Table

I have suspected it before, but now I really am convinced that Seth Godin is reading my mind. Right after I made my post about perceived value of conference professional development sessions last week, Godin posts a retrospective of past posts where he talked about how to make conferences more valuable for attendees. (He drills down to ideas for meetings between two people so they are worth a read.)

Of the four posts he links to, I think my favorite is the skewering of the 10 person banquet table.  He says those tables are ideal for the catering manager, but counterproductive for forging relationships with other conference attendees which is the whole reason for spending so much money to show up in person.

If you have ever been crammed at a table with 9 other people I need not enumerate the disadvantages of this set up.

In my experience–I’m sharing a hugely valuable secret here–you score a big win when you put five people at tables for four instead. Five people, that magical prime number, pushes everyone to talk to everyone. The close proximity makes it more difficult to find a place for the bread basket, but far, far easier for people to actually do what they came to do, which is connect with one another.

[…]

If you want to let the banquet manager run your next event, by all means, feel free. Just understand that his goals are different from yours.

Another one I liked was his post on how to organize a retreat. In it, he lists all sorts of atypical activities for people to engage in. He hooked me with his prohibition on having people go around the room and name their favorite vegetable.

Instead, a week ahead of time, give each person an assignment for a presentation at the event. It might be the answer to a question like, “what are you working on,” or “what’s bothering you,” or “what can you teach us.” Each person gets 300 seconds, that’s it.

Have 11 people present their five minutes in an hour. Never do more than an hour in a row.

This idea was from a 2010 before the pecha kucha became a fixture at conferences. I think the concept of using it in the place of going around the room asking people to make off the cuff statements is a much more constructive approach.

Some other ideas from that post:

  • Solve problems. Get into small groups and have the groups build something, analyze something, create something totally irrelevant to what the organization does. The purpose is to put people in close proximity with just enough pressure to allow them to drop their shields.
  • Challenge attendees to describe a favorite film scene to you before the event. Pick a few and show them, then discuss.
  • Serve delicious food, weird food, vegan food, funky food. Just because you can.

In a third post, he deals more directly with the physical setting and technology employed in a conference. Some of his suggestions like not forcing people to listen to a speaker in the same room they eat a meal because, “No one ever heard a speech that changed their lives when sitting around a round table having just eaten a lousy lunch,” probably will please a lot of people.

Other suggestions like holding sessions in too small a room and forcing people to stand in order to ratchet up the energy level probably needs to be applied with a degree of caution lest you face a mutiny.

Diverse Faces In Spaces Does Not Equal Diversity

You know I am a sucker for fun and interesting ideas for arts organization so I read Danielle Jackson’s recent piece on Artsy, Art Spaces Can Bridge Social Divides—But First You Need to Know Your Neighbor, with some interest.

Jackson makes a good observation about the appearance of involving  and engaging diverse members of a community vs. the practice of engaging those diverse members. (my emphasis)

However, just as sitting in a diverse crowd at a baseball game doesn’t necessarily create social bridges, merely standing around at an art opening together isn’t social bridging, either. For these bridges to truly form, an exchange of conversation and ideas is vital. Most importantly, it cannot happen successfully when one group is thought of as irrelevant. And though bridging may entail making resources available to those who need it, it is not the same as charity. You give and you take; it is not one-directional.

We claim credit on grant reports for counting new and different faces entering our venues, but we may not have created any sort of new, authentic connection with those people.

Jackson writes about an event she attended at Bronx River Art Center where people got to smack away at pinatas created by over 20 artists.  Tell me you don’t want to steal this idea or adapt it to your own purposes.

The organizers, artists Blanka Amezkua and Ronny Quevedo, made sure the event took place later in the evening so that local people with jobs could attend. Not only were there artists of different races present at a time when so many openings were attended by self-segregating crowds, but the room was alive with cousins and uncles and grandparents from the neighborhood, who came despite it being in the dead of winter, just after New Year’s Day. I marvelled as everyone took turns handing off the bats to one another,  joyously breaking open the piñatas together.

Jackson also relates some steps her organization, Bronx Documentary Center, has taken to solicit gain insight and act as a connector in their local community,

For example, during an exhibition on Mexican photographers chronicling American life, the gallery created a working group of “community curators” culled from local Mexican-American organizations, who provided context and feedback on how the photographs might be presented.

And during an installation of an exhibition examining the war in Iraq, it came to the BDC’s attention that one of the soldiers who discovered Saddam Hussein in hiding lived within walking distance from the gallery. This might have presented an opportunity to organize a public program highlighting how global issues hit close to home. However, since he struggled with anxiety related to PTSD, we invited him to participate in a way that would feel most comfortable to him: by having a quiet meeting in the gallery with the Marine and the journalists behind the exhibition, all of whom had also spent significant time in Iraq.

I appreciated her use of the Iraq veteran as an illustration regarding how an initial instinct about the way an installation ties to the local community may not be sensitive to the needs of the community members. While the quiet meeting she described may not have had as wide reaching an influence in the community as a public program, it sounds like it was probably a meaningful experience for those that were involved.

There are other examples in her article about ways to ford social divides, some as simple as lending snow shovels and folding chairs and it worth a full read for those ideas.

Show Of Hands- Conference Professional Development Sessions Mostly BS Or Sources of Valuable Info?

While I wasn’t scheduled to sit on any panels at the ArtsMidwest conference last week, I did end up leading (or at least shepherding) one.

Actually, I made a tongue-in-cheek claim I was hijacking the session because it was originally cancelled but I decided it should go on if there was enough interest.  What had been scheduled was a book club type discussion of Nina Simon’s The Art of Relevance. The person who had been scheduled to lead the session couldn’t make it so I decided if enough people walked up and expressed disappointment at seeing the cancellation notice, I would pull the sign down and make sure it happened.

Sure enough, two other people quickly came up and said “awww” so I pulled down the sign and took over the room. We ended up having about 15 people attend, half of whom had read the book and the other half who intended to read it and wanted to know more.

Given that mix of experience and perspectives, it was pretty easy to provide a valuable and informative session. (Though if I had had more notice, I might have tried to get a computer so we could show one of Nina’s TEDx talks)

Earlier in the week, there was another session that had been cancelled because the presenter couldn’t make it. This one was geared toward helping people take a look at the physical surroundings of an arts venue from a different perspective to identify what features might be sending unwelcoming messages to some groups.

From the session description:

“Oftentimes the greatest asset of any arts program is its physical space, and yet it’s frequently overlooked when it comes to access, inclusion and diversity…if we aren’t paying attention we can inadvertently send the wrong messages. Like tourists with fresh eyes participants will go on a walking tour of the Indiana Convention Center and explore how to identify and mitigate the psychological, emotional and physical reactions that occur in response to a physical space.”

I had seen this at previous conferences and had conflicts so I intended to participate this year and I was a little disappointed that it got cancelled.

I overheard a number of other people express similar disappointment at it being cancelled and then rhetorically ask if the conference couldn’t have just found someone else to run the session instead.  My feeling is that being sensitive to and aware of these problematic features is a pretty specific skill set.  It isn’t as easy to find a suitable substitute as it was for me and others to step in and lead the book club discussion.

I mentioned this to a couple of those making these comments and they seemed pretty reluctant to concede this was the case. This reaction made me wonder if conference attendees perceived the content of these sessions to be marginally valuable BS that presenters spouted and therefore was easily substituted on short notice by other people who happened to be around.

And yes, granted a lot of times conference content can be full of empty platitudes about how everyone must love the arts but sessions like these are more about specialized practical skills and less about advocating for the value of the arts.

I suppose a more charitable read could be the perception that everyone in attendance but oneself is a highly qualified expert practitioner and therefore could step in to provide illuminating perspective on the problem.

But if it is the assumption that half of what you are hearing is B.S., then arts conferences have a challenge about communicating their value for professional development.

Thoughts?

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