Starting with Why

Roads and ideas converge at a crossroads. I have been reading a lot over the past year: books and blogs, articles and essays. Fascinatingly, I have found some writers are like travellers converging from different directions bearing gifts—complementary ideas—that resonate with each other and with me, arriving at a time I’m prepared to listen.

Click to read this man's latest postATTITUDE
As I’ve been gearing up, preparing for what I called the new expansion, one of the things I started reading was Seth Godin’s blog. He writes no wall of words the way I do—his posts are needle-sharp and on point. He’s obstensibly talking about business but for me, he often winds up making me think about life.

Arguably, his brevity allows you to project whatever you like into his words which, presumably, is how I make the jump. Over a year ago, he wrote about “The Hierarchy of Success” (a particularly long-winded post, for him). I didn’t stumble on the essay until sometime this summer, but I was impressed by the idea that Attitude and Approach had to come before Goals or Execution.

Despite the criticisms of a former compatriot of mine, I have had freelancing goals all along. I have wanted to make enough money doing what I do to buy the time needed to keep doing more: more new art, more writing, more Making. As the goblins say, “Time is money, friend.” And after all, anyone in business, freelance or otherwise, is trying to make enough scratch to stay in business. But I think Godin would assert that that is not the point.

The question that does not always get asked is WHY. Why this business? What makes this important to you? What is the attitude you bring to the table? What makes it valuable enough for others to buy?

To continue the analogy I used last week, saying “I am on a quest” would be appropriate, but I encountered another traveller at the crossroads. He too carried a gift, which inspired the title of this post: Start with Why.

Simon Sinek is also talking about business, about “how great leaders inspire action” and that isn’t exactly the point for me. However, I could still apply the points he was making to my efforts to reboot my freelancing life. Sinek’s TED talk came out the same time as Godin’s Hierarchy blog post, and again I didn’t see it until very recently. His base message:

The words fell on fertile ground. I already know why I do what I do, what motivates me. The message I took from Sinek, the message I needed to understand? Why matters, and it matters to others. You still must have a WHAT you do and a HOW you do it, but without putting WHY front and center, it’s easy to sink into a meaningless treadmill of “I guess I oughta, wish I coulda, prolly shoulda.”

On the whole, I find “mission statements” silly and self-importantly self-referential. I also find them useful to cut through the chatter to create a bit of clarity. My old website had a carefully crafted mission statement, now lost to the vagaries of electronic data loss and accidental deletion. However, I believe the values that underlie my mission, my quest, have not changed.

  • I want to open windows to visions and vistas only I can find. Then I want to share those panoramas, and I want to introduce my viewers and readers to the interesting people I find there.
  • I am happiest when engaged in creative works that I believe will reach the eyes and ears and minds and hearts of others. I’m not one of those “pure” Artistes who create Art for Art’s Sake. Sorry to disappoint you if that’s your thing; it’s not mine. For me, being a Maker is about communicating, about my unique ability to crack open that window to another time and place that only I know the road to. I want people to see what I draw, to read what I write. I’m not interested in performing to an empty theatre, or to my dear dogs no matter how much endless approval they offer me.

    Unfinished murloc sculpture

    Stepping back from the self-important and self-referential ickiness, let me assure you the process of making art is fun and interesting, in and of itself. I love experimenting with new techniques, new media, playing around with things I have never done, or did once upon a time but have not touched in decades.

    Most such things come to naught: you won’t find my efforts to make decorative bowls from recycled paper anywhere on my website. You might, however, find a murloc sculpted from wire, newsprint, and cloth. My mosaicking materials might all be in storage for the moment, but I’m happy to show you some of what I did. I plan to share with you some of my works-in-progress as we roll along here, both my missteps and my delights. I’ll be serious and I’ll play around, and in the process I expect to find new vistas and new “people” to offer.

    Things come in threes, they say. Scott Taylor contacted me late last summer, asking me if I might be interested in joining a project he was doing. What project? asked I.

    He set out to assemble, in his words, “the greatest fantasy role-playing artists for a single shared project.” Each artist would contribute their vision of Lyssa, one of his tabletop role-playing characters, in their best known style. When complete, the project would run in the Black Gate magazine (“Adventures in Fantasy Literature”) and he would be starting with my old friend Jeff Laubenstein. The other names he had already lined up awed me—Todd Lockwood, Larry Elmore, David Deitrick and others—and I knew I wanted to participate. Trouble was, I couldn’t figure out how to make the time.

    Courty mageAs with most things that matter, you sacrifice something else to make time, somehow. I couldn’t carve out enough time for a painting, much as I wanted to. My Lyssa would be pen and inkwork, with elaborate gravity-defying draperies and Celtic-styled knotworks, iconic elements of “my best known style.” I asked Steve Crompton, whom I’ve known for decades, to colorize the finished piece with Photoshop skills I lack; he had done some very nice work on my B&Ws before (like this courtly mage). I could only hope my version of Lyssa would stand up artistically in the rarified company she’d be keeping.

    Scott wrote about fourteen artists before he got to me. He talked about the artists and the games they’d worked on, what those games meant in his gamer’s life, about his adventures cajoling the reluctant ones to take part in the project, about getting to know the sometimes quirky personalities of the people behind the artwork. Some essays were funny, some were touching. What he wrote about Larry Elmore brought tears to my eyes. And then he got to me.

    I was nervous about what Scott would write. I knew he liked my work. I knew some of the other artists had strongly encouraged him to include me in the project, which was awfully nice to hear. But Scott and I corresponded about a lot of things: my enjoyment of World of Warcraft (which he started playing recently), my advocacy for games in libraries. Then there was the day I got up on my high horse and lambasted him for buying into certain shallow stereotypes about MMOs, WoW, and gamers in general.

    I didn’t expect him to be so complimentary. I’m still a little speechless: who is this paragon he’s describing? Seeing myself through the lens of his words, I see someone much older than I feel, and much more influential than I would have imagined. I’ve learned to nod politely when complimented for my work, to smile and say “thank you.” It’s hard to believe, regardless.

    He’s right that I’m a better ink and line-artist than I am a painter. In that regard, I wish he could have used more examples of my B&W work instead of the covers he did. I’m not ashamed of those there but I’ve done better. Unfortunately most of the examples I’d call “better” also suffer being tied down with rights restrictions that would prevent him from using them in such an article. Look through my game-art gallery here for a broader selection of my work, both color and B&W.

    The bottom line is that work I did made a difference to someone: I made a difference to Scott. My work also made a difference to Sasha, something I described on these pages last Februrary, when talking about the nature of accomplishments. And that, at the core of it, is why communicating with you who read these words, who see my art, who I hope will see work I have yet to make, is important to me.

    This is WHY.

    I’m neither a particularly religious nor spiritual person but as I write on this Christmas Eve, it seems appropriate to acknowledge the magi who shared their gifts when our paths converged at this crossroads: the golden Attitude, the frankincense of Why, and the myrrh carried from the Black Gate. It’s exciting to travel without a road map but hard to reach one’s destination. These gifts give me a road map and yet a real delight in recognizing that the trip itself is one incredibly interesting destination.

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