how do I explain what I do?

“Help, How Do I Explain What I Do?”

Because being judged isn't fun.

Here’s an excellent question from Kasia.

I hate when someone asks me what I do…and I have to explain it. My work evolved out of the intuitive healing work I did for many years.

Not being a professional artist before, and not having the lingo to describe my process, I’m at loss for words. The story about how I got started feels bulky and long and cumbersome, but I don’t necessarily want a 30 second elevator pitch either. So how do I explain what I do?”

Well, we’re diving in at the deep end with this one.

Sherlock Holmes would call it a two pipe problem, although instead of smoking tobacco I’ll be crunching a biscotti.

This question is about the fear of being judged.

Artists often wrestle with this, and no wonder. The lovely thing you make is an expression of your talent and unique experience of the world. It says something about who you really are. Sharing that with other people makes you vulnerable.

And when you’re vulnerable, you can get hurt.

Now, that crazily smart brain of yours doesn’t want you to get hurt. It rightly thinks you’re amazing and it wants to keep you safe forever and ever.

So when the possibility of your getting hurt looms into view, your brain tries to head it off at the pass. Until you convince it otherwise, it doesn’t want you to give a clear, straightforward reply to the question “What do you do?”

It would rather you mumble or blush than tell the truth and receive a judgemental arched eyebrow in return.

In other words, getting flustered or not knowing what to say when a stranger asks about your job isn’t a sign that you suck.

It’s a defence mechanism.

After all, there are plenty of painful experiences available to creative people. When you make your living as an artist, the world is full of them. Why sign up for another if you don’t have to, right?

But there is another school of thought on this, which can be summed up as:

“Why do you EVEN CARE what people think?”

If you make mixed media paintings using your own menstrual flow and a dead rat stapled to the canvas, you’re a FRIKKIN’ MENSTRUAL RAT STAPLER. Own it!

Filling out a form at the dentist? Menstrual rat stapler.

At a dinner party? Menstrual rat stapler.

Mortgage lady needs to know your occupation? Menstrual rat stapler.

Don’t hide who you are! Live your truth! If they can’t handle it, that’s their problem!

And so on.

This approach is pretty common among creative people, and if it works for you that’s wonderful. But as far I’m concerned there’s one big problem.

Have you ever tried NOT to care about something – and actually succeeded?

Yeah, me too.

It’s all very well saying “Who cares what people think?” but the trouble is you already care. You’re human, and humans generally want other humans to think well of them. Trying not to care is a waste of energy.

So where does that leave us? What do you say when someone asks “What do you do?”

I have some ideas. First, please get a piece of paper and a pen. I’ve got a biscotti stub. I’ll wait.

Make a little cross in the middle of your page. That’s you.

Now draw three concentric circles around it, like an archery target.

In the outer circle, we’re going to put all the random people you come across while going about your daily business. Your postman. Some guy you were at school with. Your mum’s hairdresser. A waiter. Everyone who might occasionally drift into your life and then drift off again.

These people are only distantly connected to you. There’s no particular on-going relationship between you, and although they may show a vague interest in your work, it’s superficial at best.

In short, they’re not your people – and that’s fine.

When someone in this circle asks what you do, there’s no need to get into it. In most cases, you can usually say “I’m an artist” and leave it at that. Their momentary interest is satisfied, you’ve politely avoided being judged by someone who probably won’t get what you do, and now you can get on with ordering a cinnamon cronut.

In the middle circle, we’re going to put everyone you can loosely term a potential buyer. People at craft fairs. People who follow you on twitter. People who see your work on Etsy or your own website. People who don’t even know about you yet, but who totally dig your kind of item.

Now, in order to help those people out – and hopefully make some sales – you need to be much more specific.

Saying “I’m an artist” doesn’t help those potential buyers figure out whether you’ve got something they want. They’re knee-deep in artists and want a more definitive answer before they open their wallets.

Do you make sarcastic birthday cards, or are yours more heart-felt and emotional?

Is your work monochrome or colourful?

Are you this menstrual rat stapler everyone’s talking about?

Middle circle people are drowning in options. If you want them to spend their money with you instead of someone else, you have to give them more to go on. I have a system to help you do that here.

When you’ve gone through this process, you can respond to “So what do you do” with something like:

“I’m a glassblower for people who love the colours of the sea.”

“I make paintings for people who are interested in the energy of the human body.”

“I’m a silversmith for people who want to feel glamorous, even when they’re washing the dishes.”

You can go on to give more detail as the situation requires, but you’ve defined the boundaries. This helps you out in a couple of ways.

First, it lets your brain off the hook. When you’ve got this kind of succinct reply in your pocket, the chances of you getting hurt are diminished. It’s not impossible, but it’s less likely.

As a result, your brain doesn’t have to freak out any more and can carry on thinking about quesadillas.

It will also turn some potential buyers away.

Wait! That’s a good thing.

When you’re upfront about what you do, you’ll naturally turn some people off. That’s fine, because they were never going to buy anything from you anyway. If they want something you don’t provide, it’s better that they hit the road as soon as possible, making space for the ones who do love what you do.

Which brings us to the final circle. This is your inner sanctum. We’re going to reserve this VIP area for your superfans.

That might just be your mum and that one lady in Milton Keynes at the moment, but if you play your cards right it won’t stay that way for long.

Your inner circle is for repeat buyers who want and need to hear more about what you do. Kasia said she was worried about her story being bulky, long and cumbersome? Her superfans would eat it up and be hungry for more.

Have you ever read a book and wanted to marry the author’s brain?

Like, reading every word they’ve ever written isn’t enough – you still want more?

That’s how your superfans feel about you. They get what you do at the deepest level and are a willing audience for the full story of your work in all its complexity.

So here are your takeaways.

1. Not always being able to clearly explain what you do does not mean you suck.

2. You don’t have to pretend not to care what other people think.

3. You don’t have to share your story with everyone in the same way.

This is a twisty little issue and it goes to the heart of some very big, very private stuff.

But it’s worth working on. Because when you expand into this territory, you’re going to feel a little bit better, stronger and more confident on a daily basis.

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