(Originally posted on RAWartists’ I am Indie blog, accessible here.)
I love my career. At 28, I have a job I love as the Educational Programs Manager at Center Theatre Group. I also serve as the volunteer Director of Development for Circle X Theatre Co. In late 2010, I joined the national Emerging Leader Council through Americans for the Arts, and have Co-Chaired the council for the past year.
Everything is great, but then I try to balance one– more– spinning– plate– like agreeing to help with a friend’s really cool art project, or assisting with the coordination of a local conference.
And all of those things are great too. That’s the hard part. Because as much as I want to do them, sometimes taking on one additional project is what pushes my life from awesomely fulfilling to overwhelming and stressful.
I am a strong proponent of volunteering for events or projects within the community where you want to work, whether that’s geographic or discipline-based. In 2005, I started volunteering within the Los Angeles theatre community, and it helped me find my creative home and hone the management skills I’d use to build my career. Hours spent behind check-in tables continue to pay dividends; at a recent Los Angeles County Arts Commission grantee event, the Circle X board member I’d arrived with was impressed that I seemed to know everyone in the room. Becoming this kind of ‘known quantity’ did not happen overnight. I have been successful as an arts manager because I say yes to things, and then do them. (That last part is the important bit.) I like being someone my colleagues reach out to when they need a reliable, organized person who gets stuff done.
To say no to an opportunity seems anathema to how I’ve carved a niche for myself in the LA theatre management scene. Eventually, though, I need to become more strategic about saying yes to things.
How do you know when you’ve reached the point in your career when it’s okay to politely decline a high-profile, but potentially high-stress, request?
I think the key lies in selfishness. This can be a dirty word for artists and arts managers used to valuing collaboration, putting the group above the individual, and ensemble creation– all hallmarks of theatre and many other disciplines, too. But each member of an ensemble is still an individual, and that individual’s physical and emotional health has a major impact on the success of the group.
I love cooking, and curating a career and artistic life seems much like improvising a new recipe. I know I want to include family, my job at CTG and my volunteer gig at Circle X. That leaves room for perhaps one or two more flavors each month. One month maybe it’s a mentorship opportunity; the next, helping a colleague produce an event.
Just as in cooking, though, adding everything to that recipe spoils the balance and detracts from the quality of the individual elements.
We emerging artists and arts leaders need to honor that balance by saying no, even when our gut reaction is yes. It’s a skill that will become increasingly important as we become leaders of our field. We– I– need to trust that opportunities will continue to come, and giving 100% to the projects we take on is more important than spreading ourselves too thin by trying to take on the world.