The benefits of keeping a journal: paper time machines and thoughts from the soul

I keep a hand-written journal, to log the often boring, redundant, silly, serious, terrible, hopeful, vulnerable thoughts that I have. My current journal is handmade and has a sister that I gave to one of my best friends back in 2009. Since she and I have never gotten to see each other much, I decided to make us these “sister” journals to exchange every time we met up. The journals have sections divided by envelopes to hold whatever each of us found that we wanted to share with the other.

The first three sections of this journal are her entries, interleaved with some of my own. But it’s been a long time since we’ve even been in the same country. When I filled up my last journal in 2015, I finally turned to this one to complete the last seven sections as mine.

There are still a few pages left in it for 2017, and typed below is my first entry over breakfast this morning. I felt it was worth sharing.

Important Lessons / Thoughts from the Soul

  • People are their most attractive, most magnetic, most impressive selves when they are doing what they love.
  • The idealistic man is rarely also the ideal man himself.
  • What we hate in others is often what we hate in ourselves.
  • What we fear in others is often what we fear in ourselves.
  • What we hope for in others is often what we hope for in ourselves.
  • Opposites are not the same as differences.
  • Interesting interests do not make an interesting person.
  • It is good to believe in your ideals if you can also learn to use them to guide your pragmatism. Professing your love for an ideal and then flagellating yourself and others with it is destructive to yourself and a destruction of/disservice to that ideal.
  • Judgment can be good. Judgmentalness is never good.
  • Announce your values. Be your brand. Campaign. Market. Protest. Or call whatever it is you do how you need to call it. Just be mindful that you don’t become the caricature in place of your complexities.
  • (And this one’s not mine, but) living well is the best revenge. (Thanks, George Herbert.)
  • People can be so certain about their uncertainties of others, and yet be so ambivalent about the things which could otherwise be guaranteed.
  • This society disadvantages and advantages extroverts and introverts in different ways. Society celebrates the extroverts and binds them up in social nets disguised as social networks. Society ignores the introverts, perceives them as boring or not leader-like, and they then get to quietly produce results in the background (of a world full of increasingly hotter air) while living out a peaceful life. I envy introverts, but man, do I (usually) love being an extrovert.
2010 entry.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma and Love: A Theory & Meditation on Love

Is the trouble with love anything like the prisoner’s dilemma? There is (ideally) no middleman in the game of love to corrupt us or pit us against each other. There’s only us.

And yet…

Because you know how easily I could leave or change my heart, you withhold the part of you I need to feel confident that you love me.

Because I know how easily you could leave or change your heart, I withhold the part of me you need to fall in love with me.

Love takes a certain amount of compromise, a willingness to stop looking for something else, an agreement to stop questioning what we could have with someone else, to work through our imperfections together. Each of us has the option to walk away, and the “prize” of walking away first is a preservation of ego and the cold comfort of not having to deal with the pain of finding out, “Who loved whom more? Who didn’t want the other one enough?” We could also both walk away and both lose. The individual fear that we could both have more than this keeps us from cooperating. The collective fear is that cooperation, while mutually beneficial, doesn’t get us “high” and is potentially not very romantic.

But it’s worth repeating: being idealistic is not the same as living the ideal. So don’t let your ideals and your pragmatism become a false dichotomy. Don’t let your fears make you doubt or sabotage your emotional bravery.

My Paper Time Machine

A few pages I flipped back to that seemed interesting.

2010. Me: some strange rambling. Her: “Hope. You can’t stop.”
2009. Her: “Lonely! 31 July, I have no idea when I wrote this or why I was so lonely. I puzzle myself.”
Me (in response): “Even angry fish has friends. Don’t be lonely.”
My entries on the two days before the presidential election. If I only knew then…

I have three pages left to fill before starting a new journal for 2017. At the end of the journal I found this entry from my friend. What a nice surprise. Where in the world are you, hon? Regardless, thanks for the note.

A love letter from 2010. It’s taken over six years to “find” it again. It was a nice thing to read at the start of 2017.

What God Looks Like

My mother once told me the story of a cartoon she saw in a newspaper some years ago, which explained God.

In the cartoon, God is a faceless, featureless oval on a table. People come to see and give thanks for all that God has done. They see that God has nothing, no way to see or feel or hear or think. So out of gratitude, the first person gives God a mouth, the next a nose, the next ears, and finally, when God has all the qualities that people have, God dies.

Every once in a while, my mind drifts back to that cartoon whose message I learned secondhand, and the ways one can interpret it.

It implies the same things as the sayings, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” or “No good deed goes unpunished.” It bears the ideas of how we, as people, can often try to fulfill needs that don’t exist, offer unsolicited advice, promote solutions that worked for us but may not work for others, or in general do things that evidence how we need so badly to be needed. All of which I think reveals our generosity more so than our selfishness, is more exemplary of our desire to be valuable and useful than of our ignorance. We want to relate and we want to be relatable. We want to find ourselves in others. And so it is that we may also want to design God–or whatever our beliefs may be–in our own image, not purely out of egotism, but out of some sort of self-validation or even vindication.

Of course, other times, my thinking is a little less…philosophical. Like on this warm, summery day, while I was out for a run, I thought about romance, gender wars, and whether God is more manly or womanly. And I concluded that God must be a woman, because Moses found his faith and calling by tending to the wishes of a flaming bush.

It figures that one of the most powerful women in history who got shit done was a fiery, hot bitch. Chill girls and accommodating women seldom get what they want, or make history, for that matter.

To believe and not believe

I grew up in a non-religious family, though many of my extended family members and hometown community (Kansas, for the record, heart of the Midwest) were very religious. And for that reason, I grew up with both the chance and the motivation to choose, a la carte, the things that made sense for me. I grew up with more questions than set-in-stone facts, because anything and everything that a friend, neighbor, or relative might believe in could be challenged by what another friend, neighbor, or relative valued. I grew up without celebrating holidays, which pushed me to ask myself what I would want out of the kind of gatherings that others felt so obligated to be a part of.

We did not celebrate birthdays in my family, or pray, or “break bread” together, and so I think I came to hunger for the rituals and acts of gathering that happen around those things, but not for the fluff or the stuff. As a result, there are few things I cherish more in my adult life than a meal with friends. And few things sadden me so much as any kind of meet-up, where despite everyone being bright and interesting in their own right, the social energy is somehow amiss or misdirected, and the loneliness/guardedness in our advanced and blessed society is so obvious.

Anyhow, as someone who grew up surrounded by a lot of religion despite not having one, I was asked and therefore made to reflect on whether I believe in God. It’s safe to say that I am in many ways a ritualistic person, and that I’ve pursued a lot of unlikely dreams, which requires faith against the skepticism of the “known” world. My answer to believing in God has changed over the years, and for the majority of the time I’ve probably been agnostic. But I have since concluded that yes, I do believe in God. I believe in the way that I believe in money.

What I understand is this: money exists because people agree that it exists, and what we collectively believe in becomes the truth. Money–like so many of our creations–could be the great equalizer. It gives us an objective measure so we don’t have to question what part of our lives is worth four cattle or ten kilos of tomatoes. It’s part of the agreement of living in a collective, a society with rules and infrastructure. Enough of it buys us freedom and teaches us responsibility. Too much or too little both destroys freedom and incites blame. But when we add distance between ourselves and the true value of the things we exchange and consume–while developing an overly-emotional attachment to this thing called money that by itself means nothing–money becomes evil and we become lost.

Like money and all the things we try to organize ourselves around, I think God has the chance to be a great equalizer. I don’t believe God is capable of existing without people or the living. Even if God were an old, white man in the heavens in the most traditional, Western sense, there wouldn’t be much to lord over without us. Regardless of what or who God is, it’s important for us as people to have something to believe in, some purpose to serve and strive for. “I am who I am,” said God to Moses, because God is not a name but a representation of what we care about, a term around which we can organize our understanding of this connection whose feeling we know but cannot easily explain. “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.”

“And did you have a better plan for freeing the Hebrews?” said God.
And so it is that we design God in our image. He is a man for all the men who have for generations carried the social pressures of wealth, war, and status, for the men who have not had the public’s permission to be weak. She is a woman for all the women who have been vessels for somebody else’s dreams, who still bears fruit, though we abuse Mother Nature and make a whore out of her for giving us the resources to fuel our vices. They is/are whomever we need to encourage us, to convince us that our aspirations are worthy of admiration that supersedes godly, and therefore humanly, judgment. God is our image of ideal leadership, a leader that does not exist without people to lead, a leader who looks like us, who is us. God is evidence that humankind does not want to be evil; just as people smile when their children take after them and hope they’ll become better versions of themselves, so, too, do people look to their origins, and hope to have inherited the best of their ancestors.

And so it is that we are responsible for creating God in the image of whom we would like to become. We are responsible for being just if we expect justice. We are responsible for choosing the qualities that we value in our leadership. We are responsible for our individual thinking, that fractals out into the design of our collective imagination. We are responsible for a creative and smart God who takes after us, because we take after Them. And we are responsible, too, for a God who embodies that which we lack, for the people we are not, but coexist with. For the people we are not, but wish to be. For the people we are not, but that our children may become.

An unexpected gift from my last visit to Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison! This bonsai is my loveliest new studiomate. :)

Lessons of departure: the heart and mind of a rural town in a tourists’ economy

Lanesboro Arts Center is beautiful. The space is bright, open, welcoming, and full of activity. They regularly host artists and writers to use the space as a getaway to focus on projects, as well as workshops and seminars for the community. When the directors offered to show my work there, they also kindly took the time to make sure I would have a place to stay.

Jenie Gao at Lanesboro Arts
Jenie Gao at Lanesboro Arts

Having said that, as nice as the reception was, getting to spend time in Lanesboro itself was the real reward. Lanesboro is small, with a population of under 750 people. I stayed with a couple and their two Labrador retrievers in an old Victorian House, who spoiled me rotten, from the food to the stories to the history of their art collection to their library, which could keep me busy for eons.

The couple bought the house to renovate a year ago. They are among several people I met who are newcomers to the town, who all moved there for similar motivations. These are people who either changed jobs or shifted priorities after the economic crash in 2008, when they got laid off, when they realized that their jobs were not so secure, or when city life lost the glamor and glitz that initially drew them there. So they’re moving (back) to towns like Lanesboro, and inevitably invite the locals’ skepticism. It’s just like immigration/migration anywhere…zoom in on the tiniest communities, and it’s the same game as everywhere else, where the only thing that’s different is the scale. The long-term locals are hesitant of the rise of tourism and resulting, changing legislation needed to accommodate it. Lanesboro teems with tens of thousands of tourists in the summer who come for the trails, the river tubing, the respite. While some residents are at odds with this, the reality is that without tourism, small towns like this one are dying. It’s undeniable that those motivated to move to these towns are the ones who can…the ones who have jobs in Rochester or the twin cities, or the ones who can telecommute for their professions.

So these are the questions they face. What does it mean to fund things like education and the arts in rural towns? What responsibility do the new residents have, now that many of them head the committees that will guide the city’s economic growth? What does it mean to justify sustainability with economic needs?

It should come as no surprise that I believe access to the arts and humanities is vital, especially in either secluded or impoverished areas. In a society that measures success by the dollar, short-term thinking will tell us that these kids are better off learning a vocational trade, or focusing on math and science if they are to have any chance of pursuing higher learning. But in the long run, this is exactly what keeps society stratified and makes it harder and harder to achieve a balance in power. This is what makes it hard to have conversations on a local level about the social and political topics that affect us as a nation. Creativity and the humanities become the territory of the privileged class. Even then, in a world that is increasingly commercialized, the worth of creativity depends upon what it is useful for or how sellable it is. We risk losing out on how creativity can challenge us, and on its role in making us capable of being equal partners in a society that we’re all responsible for shaping. We risk losing out on how the arts can not only superficially entertain us, but give depth and richness to our lives.

Someone recently said to me, “I like reading because it helps me empathize with other people.” A mentor of mine recently also said, “I don’t make art because I need to prove anything. I make art because I’m alive.”

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At a re-sale shop in Lanesboro

In perhaps a perfect parallel with my trip to Lanesboro for the art show, I just recently got accepted to do a public art project with a charter school in Milwaukee. I may have been the interviewee, but the moment that sold me happened while I was waiting for the interviewers. I struck up a conversation with the science teacher who said, “We take the class down by the river to learn about its role in the ecosystem as well as what it means economically for the city. But above that, we emphasize how the river is not only useful, but enjoyable, and that’s not something we should ever overlook.”

In another appropriate parallel, I was listening to an audiobook during my drive between Madison and Lanesboro. The book is called Excellent Sheep, which thankfully isn’t as campaign-y as the title seemed to be. I appreciated how comprehensive the book is. The author addresses the history of how our academic system evolved to reward success over learning, and how this affects people on every social tier. He addresses the social pressure for children with privilege to maintain status or jump through even tougher hoops. He addresses the pressures on underprivileged children who successfully break through their constraints to then maintain the same things that keep the class system alive. He addresses how often in our conversations about increasing diversity in academia and business, we over-focus on race and under-focus on socioeconomic status. If we truly believe in diversity and equal opportunity, then we need to be as diligent about what we do for poor, rural white areas as what we do to address urban areas, immigration, and affirmative action. That is how we begin to reach inclusiveness, rather than perpetuating a mutual ignorance that allows all of us to be leveraged across party lines.

The trouble I noticed in these rural areas is that even when the new residents who don’t have kids still want to fund public education and understand the necessity of it, there just aren’t enough kids or young people moving in who are starting families. It’s hard to bring challenging material to a small community when as few as four families per class have power over what they want the schools to teach. It’s also hard to bring challenging material to a town that depends on tourism to reinvigorate the economy.

Just walking through the house where I stayed sent a chill through me. It was beautiful and I felt spoiled and pampered by my hosts. I also felt sad at moments as I looked around at the space, understanding its history in the passive details. The house has two front entrances that lead to separate rooms, one for distinguished guests and one for…the not so genuinely welcome. The quality of the wood for the doors and trim changes when you move from the family’s to servants’ quarters. It’s uncomfortable to think of design as a thing that segregates rather than integrates. I find myself wondering what it means to preserve and restore history so that we might always learn from it, and yet at the same time not allow ourselves ever to forget it.

A sign in a re-sale shop in Lanesboro
A sign in a re-sale shop in Lanesboro. So what does it mean to lead a beautiful life?

To my surprise, a couple I met in Madison now live in Lanesboro, to be close to family again and help with their family’s farm. They got burned out working at Epic Systems (a software company for healthcare in Madison) and moved back when the “grass on the other side” no longer seemed greener, thanks to windowless offices and high work pressures.

It could be the groups I end up hanging out with, but I almost feel like a stereotype now. I know more and more people who in spite of a bad job market are leaving their jobs. I know more and more people who quit their jobs when they get burnt out, some to travel, others to start their own businesses or to consult. I wonder what it means when at the same time, many people are unemployed, underemployed, in debt, and often extremely critical of those of us who have “taken a leap” from security and what, in many ways, reeks of privilege. I wonder what it means that the “winners” and “losers” in our society are so dissatisfied, and for the shared reason that our success has such a narrow definition. We live in a culture of veiled bribery with the way education is structured, and even those of us who seem to have gotten out become players in a very similar game. I listened to a consultant recently, who flies every week from Miami to Madison, talk about how happy he is to have the flexibility and freedom that consulting gives him…though he usually ends up in Wisconsin, and the work, at least to me, sounded like a drag. I listened to him and thought, “People have such different definitions of what freedom really is. And your ‘freedom’ doesn’t sound like the kind I’m looking for.”

I reflect on this “hunt” that I seem to be on, this unnamed hunger I can never be free of, this “a la carte” lifestyle and education that increasingly defines me or maybe has always defined me. I think about the artwork I’ll get to create outside soon and the students I’ll get to work with; that makes me happy. I think about the answers that don’t come quickly enough and the questions I can never ask enough of.

The students in my interview asked, “Why do you draw so many trees?” I’ve gotten asked that question a lot over the years, so I think by now I’ve got a decent answer.

“Because they’re always growing, even though we can’t perceive it, and they remind me to be patient about the changes I cannot see. Because they don’t need to move or be fast to make a difference. Because even though they can’t move themselves, they give me books and an education, which can take me anywhere. Because they give us air.”

A welcome interruption: a letter for busy people

Ink drawings of Trees by Jenie Gao

We are a culture in transit, both for the joy and the agony of it. Our long work commutes depress us, while ideas of travel and escape excite us. In one of the great contradictions of the human condition, we talk about the journey being more important than the destination, despite what we might think of that inspirational cliché when we’re stuck in traffic.

But maybe it’s not an either-or question; we can’t have a destination without a way to get there, or vice-versa. And maybe what matters isn’t the destination but that we will encounter other places, people, and experiences along the way. We will choose to stop not only for food and fuel, but also for rest, play, and affection. We will stop at the quiet places that ask nothing of us and sell nothing to us. We will stop for someone who interrupts us, to share the moment together. We will stop for a pair of pigeons who, like us, are homeward bound, and who are also willing to pause the journey to enjoy each other’s company.

A Welcome Interruption - two pigeons - ink drawing
A Welcome Interruption, 5 x 7 inch ink drawing by Jenie Gao

We are a culture in transaction. It is well to remember the things we readily stopped for, while we were searching for something else. It is well to notice that life happens in the small moments, and not to miss them while we use our busyness to earn the chance of someday going slow.

This is a letter for friends, family, loved ones, and anyone looking for a reason to pause, reflect, and find center again.

My past week in artwork:

Ink drawings of trees, a study for Jenie Gao's Illuminate Madison project
Ink drawings of trees, studies for Jenie Gao’s Illuminate Madison public project.
Ink drawings of Trees by Jenie Gao
More ink drawings of trees, part of a series for Jenie Gao’s Illuminate Madison public project. Exploring themes of power/disempowerment, future states, and education.
A Welcome Interruption - Pigeons Kissing
A Welcome Interruption, 5 x 7 inch ink drawing by Jenie Gao
Giclee print on canvas of "Redamancy," by Jenie Gao
Picked up a giclee print of my woodcut, Redamancy, from a local printer in Madison. As someone who’s worked in commercial printing, I’m in love with their quality. And man…this itty-bitty canvas is almost too cute for me…
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But this guy never gets too cute for me.

My past week in writing:

Art and Leadership: The Power and Purpose of Creativity, re-published on The Abundant Artist

Who Controls the Content? Our Role in Creating What We Want to Consume, published on Madison365

The love affair of art & politics-and the culture they create

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The chase. The game. Love it or hate it, love it and hate it. Choose to play, choose not to play. There’s no getting away from it. Our existence depends on relationships and our fulfillment on how well we play with others.

Today, I’d like to invite you to play a game of make believe.

Let’s imagine that the artist and the politician are the Mom and Dad of society, two idealists with (big egos and) the dream of creating a life together. The communication and balance of power between them can teach us a lot about what kind of culture they’ll create, either together or in spite of each other.

There’s the charitable relationship of art and politics. Mom throws the best dinner parties and Dad always supports what she’s doing. The family does a lot of charity runs and bake sales. The house is always warm and well decorated and the gratitude aplenty. The Jones are jealous of how good we have it. There are still homeless people outside, but that justifies our charity even more. Dad feels important and Mom feels needed. It’s how things have always been, and as long as things are stable, we have no need to question, critique, or innovate upon a working system, so we go with it.

Of course, eventually the problems are more than the feel good stories can mask. Why? Well, it’s funny. Turns out, it has nothing to do with this Mom and Dad (at first), but with what others either don’t have or maybe don’t even want. People start asking questions. Ahhh, gossip and comparison, the beginning of the death of happiness. It’s funny how you don’t worry about problems until people start pointing them out. Mom begins to ask if she should have done something different with her life. Both parents worry about how to preserve their image. Society at large starts pondering different ways of being.

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This leads to a transactional partnership of art and politics that talks a lot about equality and fairness. It’s a practical marriage, but it always feels a little tense and manipulative. It probably didn’t help that we had to sign and agree to a lot of Terms & Conditions, a liability waiver, and a prenuptial beforehand (but, you know, just in case). It also probably didn’t help that we exchanged “keeping up with the Jones” with tit-for-tat-measure-for-measure. Anyway, we probably didn’t agree to enough policies, because it’s obvious that the politician still wears the pants, even if the artist does the talking. But it’s the best picture of equality we’ve got so far, and who’s going to tell Mom she’s getting used for her ideals when she finally has an identity built on her ambition rather than on raising the kids? Who’s going to tell Dad that he’s not the man he says he is?

The arts become a part of our economic infrastructure via propaganda, advertising, and mass media. Despite what the campaigns say, we know where the walls of this box are and whose sandbox we can’t make comments about, even if our company is new and doesn’t have cubicles or a verbalized hierarchy. We either become brainwashed and complacent with how we’re told to behave or disgustingly adolescent and contradictory to resist control. Your choices as a kid growing up in this generation are between being a sheep and a black sheep.

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Now we’ve got a bigger problem. Things weren’t always easy, but at least they were clear when Mom and Dad had set roles. We knew it would get harder when we challenged the status quo, but it would be more gratifying…right? But now we’ve got unclear roles and ideals that we’ve failed to live up to thus far. We’ve maybe even become a part of the problem. It would be a really good idea to talk things through at this point, but now we’re ___ years in. There are kids and money in the mix and a reputation to maintain. The smallest disruption could send us tailspinning into a catastrophe.

Sure enough, the marriage of art and politics falls apart in a dazzlingly dramatic spectacle. The couple fights openly and shamelessly in front of the kids and tries to get them to pick sides. The respect in this relationship is dead. Neither party was actually ever fit or ready to be a parent or a leader, but the position at least looked good on paper.

Mom turns to any avenue to protest and blast her voice and cutting criticisms: graffiti, caricatures, satirical papers, poetry slams, the classic breakup song. Her story will not be silenced. Her ex-husband politician used to love her wit. Now, the jokes are a little too close to much more painful truths. He writes policies and launches campaigns trying to censor or shame her. He didn’t used to be a bad guy. His intentions were good and once upon a time, he, too, was living up to someone else’s expectations before trying to set his own on others. But we’ve forgotten that as this affair became a quarrel. Now, both parties waste their time telling the other to change or to justify his or her value. Anxiety runs high. Blame is rampant. Issues become very black and white. One parent fights for anarchy while the other fights for militance. One fights for expressionism while the other for utilitarianism. Side with one, and you’ll automatically reject the other, without considering whether this is truly an either-or situation. Are we striving for peace or staying at war? And are we talking about war or just how to win the next battle? Are we creating something new or just destroying what someone else has made?

If you can’t relate to either parent, you’ll repress or hate where you come from. The irony of harboring hate, of course, is that you’ll for damned sure remember the impression it made on you. And some day, just like how you lacked respect for all the dogmas and actions of your parents, you’ll grow up to face those same ticks and tendencies in yourself that undoubtedly came from your upbringing. You might then become a pessimist or at best finally grow a sense of empathy.

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But before you let your ideals give into harsh reality, there’s a shift that makes it possible for art and politics to work together.

There comes a point when we learn both to acknowledge and accept the baggage and damage done. We need to make peace with the fact that yes, it should be easier than this, but it isn’t, and since we can’t take back the sins of yesterday, we have to start focusing on today.

It doesn’t matter whether we are the powerful or the powerless. We need to understand how empathy works without falling into the trappings of pity. We need to recognize when staying in a bad relationship becomes as much our own choice as someone else’s. We need to let go of pride and shame alike, to know what we can and cannot do on our own, but also what we are willing to learn to do, so that others can truly help us. We need to understand how to be honest and critical without being disrespectful, of ourselves or other people.

We have to stop comparing this relationship with the good and bad of others’ and our own experiences. We have to learn to build for the new, and to know that letting go of the old does not have to be the same as exploiting, disrespecting, or being ignorant of it. And for us to truly live up to the morals we recognize internally, we have to know what our goals are.

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From here, the artist and politician can become equal partners and leaders, and we see the greater effect of the example they set for anyone willing to pay attention. It is about the example we choose to set, in whatever roles we play. Positivity and negativity are equally contagious, though neither are overnight phenomenons.

We see change begin in our willingness to forgive others’ flaws as we address our own. We see it when we can each let go of control of the outcome of things, not because we don’t care, but because we have the building blocks of trust. We see it when we can set standards–without matching them with judgments.

We see change when we stop creating and abusing loopholes in a system of messy policies that were designed to protect us but in the process failed to educate us. We see it when instead we create policies that foster collective responsibility rather than drive oppression and stalemates. We see it when honesty is a gift and a given from the individual instead of the demand of surveillance, of fear in the name of safety.

We see change in how people care for public and private spaces. We see it in when cities that shut us up and shut us down with noise, ads, and sales pitches give way to ones designed with artistry, when our surroundings beckon us to look and listen, to flow and rest in rhythm rather than stop and go in discord. We see it in our culture’s readiness to appreciate beauty, and integrate it into daily life rather than categorize, monetize, and institutionalize it.

We see change in the style of our learning, in how interdisciplinary we are. We see it in how well we understand the relationship (rather than the conflict) of creativity and logic and of intellect and emotion. We see it in our language, in how comfortably and expressively we communicate when we trust one another. We see it in how we playful we are, in how confidence grows when people don’t take themselves so seriously.

We come to understand how passion can be quiet and peace can be vibrant. The crazy thing is, when we look back, we don’t remember the pledges, the campaigns, or even the courtship dance. We just remember having a life.

**I spend a lot of my personal time writing and playing with different ideas and storytelling structures. It’s not hard for me to write a few thousand words and I usually make time to write on most days. Having said that, while it’s a fantastic exercise for me, it’s hard for me to know whether what I write is always productive or worth sharing. This blog post is a byproduct of these writing explorations. Feel free to let me know what works and what doesn’t work. There’s a reason I’ve called this place “Learning to See.” It’s as much a reminder for me to keep learning as it is a way to share what I’ve learned with others.

The myth of the starving artist–and what it can teach us about job security

"The Light Within Us We Do Not Use," 20 x 30 in drawing, by Jenie Gao

“What do you do?”

This is the number one small talk question we ask people, on par with discussing the weather. It’s a question we either don’t care about at all, because most people hate their jobs, or use to size up other people.

Are we on the same tier? Are you also in a dead end job? Can we commiserate? Are you a baller and crushing your career? Can I puff up my chest and impress you? Can I outweigh you? Can I leverage you? Are we in totally different ponds? All right, have a nice life, then.

“I’m an artist,” I tell people.

This generates a whole range of reactions.

“Oh.” Awkward pause. “Like, for a living?”

“Yep.” Full stop. No explanation. Sometimes, I’ll add, “I’m still figuring it out. I quit my corporate job a year ago.”

“It must be nice, getting to live your dream.” This is a good indication that the conversation won’t continue in a meaningful way.

Things can definitely go better than that, and can even go extraordinarily well.

But (yes, there’s a but) here’s the dish. I almost never leave the conversation without looking like a unicorn.

Amiable conversation, but not terribly productive

Asker: “So, how has that been working out?”

Me: “Well, it’s a work-in-progress. I’m still figuring it out, but it’s really no different than any other business or job.”

Less amiable, worth getting out of as quickly as possible

Asker: “So, is that all you do? Can you really make money?”

Me: “Well, I’m a consultant, too.”

Asker: “Ah, gotcha.” People usually don’t care what kind of consultant. But now I’m not a unicorn and can move on with my life.

Amiable, though misguided, but has potential

Asker: “So what were you doing before?”

Me: “I was working in lean manufacturing. I led projects improving efficiency and reducing waste in business operations.”

Asker: “Wow, that’s really different. It’s pretty rare/weird for someone to be creative and logical, right? To be both left and right brained? I mean, it’s cool if you can be both.”

Me (being cheeky): “Well, not really. I was born with two halves of my brain for a reason. Why would I have both if I were only supposed to use one side?”

Asker: “I guess that’s a good point.” It’s obvious that the person isn’t convinced, and here’s where it’d be really easy to let the idealist in me wither and die.

Luckily, I’m not so easy. ;)

And for every well-meaning person who doesn’t know how to react to an artist, this is the burning question that I have to ask.

How is it more logical for me to tell you…

“I make my living telling other people what to do.”

…than to tell you, “I make stuff. And then I sell it.”

Why is that so weird? How is that illogical?

More importantly, how is that not the most straightforward thing I could say in response to, “What do you do?”

How is it any different than any other job you would choose to do or pursue? Chances are, your job has something to do with making stuff or selling it or both. The only difference is layers.

I make my own stuff. I sell my own stuff.

That’s not to say what I do is easy. It’s not. It’s hard. It’s uncertain, and not even just when I’m busy. When you work for a company, you still make a bi-weekly paycheck on the slow days, whether or not you’re productive. On the days when I don’t make a sale or have a client, I’m worth $0 to society. I haven’t made it yet. I will, but I also have to be willing to show up everyday and work without a guarantee. That’s not any different than working for a company that could lay you off or fire you, but back to the layers. I have none, so reality is right in front of me.

That’s worth saying again. Reality is right in front of me. Mind you, I make up imaginary beings for a living. Even so, reality is right in front of every artist. Every maker.

It takes a lot of responsibility, to own up to and believe in your actions, to the marks you make and will on people.

So what does that tell us about the stigma, that making something with your own hands is unrealistic, irresponsible, or impractical?

What does that tell us about our culture, if we’ve branded art as something not all of us are meant to have or understand?

What does that tell us about the resulting, sick joke our economy and job culture have played on us, about what’s realistic and what’s not?

What does that tell us about how our confidence has been manipulated, to rely on things that can’t be shaped with our own hands? To not recognize these hands in all their capacity and capability, to touch and connect with other people?

What does it say about us, that we expect people who do make things with their own hands to fail and to starve?

mis_manos

A mural I saw in Valparaíso, Chile. It reads, "And my hands are the only thing I have, they are my love and my sustenance."
A mural I saw in Valparaíso, Chile. It reads, “And my hands are the only thing I have, they are my love and my sustenance.”

“But art isn’t necessary for survival!!!” Many will say, and you may say it, too.

Canned food wasn’t necessary until we invented it. Smart phones, credit cards, books, envelopes, cars, jewelry….none of these ever had to do with need. A college education isn’t about need, or even want for many people, as much as it is about obligation. Yet the average American student carries $29,000 in debt for that obligation, and this is what many people have collectively agreed is the responsible way to live. And what we collectively agree to believe in, rational or not, beneficial or not, becomes the truth.

Maybe that’s the part we fear the most, that what we do…nobody needs. As long as we don’t talk about it, maybe we can keep pretending and nobody will get hurt.

Is what I do necessary? Nope. It isn’t a question of need to do or even always want to do, and the work guarantees no rewards.

But that doesn’t stop me from knowing why I do it.

I’m willing to do really great work for no promise of success. Creative work. Beautiful work. Work that can light up people’s hearts as easily as it can make them cry. Work that moves people. Work that both exposes human nature and makes it safe to show our scars. Work that can also be play. Work that reminds us why we’re here, why we bother, and why we fall in love in the wake of heartbreak.

Why? Because this is the “impractical” part. I’m doing it for love, which has no guarantee. Getting paid is just a means to an end, and because I know that what I’ve made is worth something.

There’s something else that’s weird to me, though.

That my way is harder, when the model is so much simpler, so much leaner, than the vast majority of jobs and businesses we’re trying to create and protect. And that many of the people who hate their jobs want my job to be the harder one, to be the impossible, impractical one. That mindset is hurting all of us, in the short and long run.

I make stuff. I sell it.

It doesn’t get more “left-brained” than that.

So here’s the big secret.

I’m not living my “childhood dream.” I’m just doing what I innately understood, as a kid, to be common sense, before others convinced me otherwise. I’m doing something with my hands, with what I have. I’m making something to share what’s inside me with other people, which is as old as human existence and expression.

Here’s something else. I really don’t care if you “get” art or not. I just don’t agree that it’s so damn weird or out of line. And I’m sad about how many things it tells us, that the outliers in our culture are the ones who tap the deepest into their own souls.

To call this the road to starvation doesn’t just hurt and limit artists. It cripples anyone in any job who says, “I’m not an artist.” It cripples culture. It destroys connection. It kills change.

If you believe the myth that artists must starve, then of course you would never want to be an artist. Of course you don’t appreciate or value art, or see the artistry in what you do. And I don’t blame you.

But if you can’t see artistry, then you won’t value creativity. You will fear creators rather than strive to be one. You won’t believe you can add true beauty to this world, through whatever your skillset might be. You won’t see magic in the things that you do, or that other people do. You won’t understand value. You won’t understand your own voice. You’ll get played by other people and other companies and never know how to break the cycle. You might think you want security, when really you want security in your position, more so than security that comes from within yourself. If you have a little more confidence than that, then you might want status. You might want power. But you don’t actually want to make anything better, or if you do, you don’t truly believe that you can. And that sucks.

For that, as unapologetically honest as I can be, I am truly, deeply sorry.

But I only have to be sorry for as long as you, as any of us, continues to agree, that this current way must always be the only way.

I invite you to see the ordinariness in what I do, as a way to see how simple the special things we’re all after could really be.

I challenge you to let go of needing validation from the things that hold you back.

 

"The Light Within Us We Do Not Use," 20 x 30 in drawing, by Jenie Gao
“The Light Within Us We Do Not Use,” 20 x 30 in drawing, by Jenie Gao, from the series, Self Awareness.

 

How to Catch a Counterfeit (or how to focus on what matters)

"A Circulatory System," Ink and Watercolor Drawing, 10 x 14 inches, by Jenie Gao

Back when I started working in manufacturing, I had a boss who would ask our team:

“How do you catch a counterfeit?”

The answer?

“Study the real.”

There are infinite variables, infinite ways for a person to create a counterfeit. If you try to become an “expert” of the counterfeits, you’re wasting your time. You could know thousands of variations, and all it takes is one person making one exception that you’ve never seen, and you’ll miss it.

But if you study the real, you can focus your expertise on what’s important. Then the one time that something looks different, you’ll notice immediately.

The concept of opposites

On the surface, this story seems to be about how to tell apart the real from the fake, which it is.

But go one level deeper, and it’s a lesson on how to change focus.

It’s being both aware of yourself and of your context.

How can we do the same things differently? How can focusing on the opposite of what we’re after get us to what we want?

Diversity vs Similarity

The motive of our social campaigns for diversity is inherently good. But we have so many campaigns, and people’s attention is already split across a world checkered with ads, categories, and options.

What would happen if in our conversations about diversity, we focused on what makes us all the same?

We already know we’re different. That’s why it’s hard to find common ground.

But if we focus on the common ground, could we indirectly teach people to notice and appreciate the differences in people on their own, by making them stand out on a canvas of shared human qualities? Could we change our words first to unite people, then to think for themselves?

That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t talk about diversity. But maybe part of changing the game is knowing when to talk about same versus different. Both are important. Both play a role. And as the saying goes, while knowledge is knowing what to say, wisdom is knowing when to say it.

I vs We

There is no “I” in team…but guess what? There isn’t a “we” either.

The other problem with word plays is it only takes a little cleverness to get another player back.

Case and point: there is no “I” in team, but there is an “I” in leadership, ownership, and three of them in responsibility.

So there.

Moving on, should we focus on the individual or the team?

Self awareness or situational awareness?

Hint: It depends, and it’s not an either-or answer.

To stop or to continue…

Where else does the metaphor of the “counterfeit” apply?

How else can a focus on the opposite lead us to what we’re truly after?

What does it tell us about how to solve the problems and pursue the opportunities in front of us?

It isn’t about knowing the difference between what’s real and what isn’t. It’s about knowing which one is important and when. It’s about knowing how to pay attention.

It is helpful to remind ourselves that in a world where we’re taught that growth means good, full means satisfied, and 100% means perfection, life is forever an act of counterbalance.

It is helpful to know our own tendencies, and understand when to go with and counteract them.

"A Circulatory System," Ink and Watercolor Drawing, 10 x 14 inches, by Jenie Gao
“A Circulatory System,” ink and watercolor on paper, 10 x 14 inches, by Jenie Gao. It is a part of the series, “A Test of Vision.”

The competition for our attention. The fight for our love.

Comparison is a blessing and a curse, depending on how we use it.

Comparisons help us understand context. They give us familiarity, which is vital for connection. The same things can be used to drive disconnection.

But if we are rational beings, then tell me.

Why do we believe that businesses can be scalable, but compassion cannot?

Many have died in massacres. Does the death of many diminish the death of one? How do you have many without the existence of one?

Does the value of one social cause automatically cancel out another? If that is so, then by that same logic, does a woman who becomes a wife cease to be a sister and a daughter, and a husband cease to be a brother and a son? Can you love one family member wholeheartedly, and still love all the others?

It is not because we care too much about small problems that we cannot address the big problems.

It is exactly because we have not practiced care and attention on an intimate level that we then become cynical, abusive, and brutal in much bigger ways.

"The Golden Cage," woodcut on paper, 18 x 24 inches, by Jenie Gao
“The Golden Cage,” woodcut on paper, 18 x 24 inches, by Jenie Gao

Parents, do not shame your children or your neighbors’ children when their needs don’t make sense to you. You do not teach them to be better or more mature than you by judging or trivializing them. You help no one by making him or her feel stupid. Do not try to be right. Try to make things right.

Do not stop at the face value of what others tell you. Don’t condemn ignorance. Show the way out of ignorance.

Children, do not criticize your parents for not understanding or agreeing with your needs. Do not criticize their relationships or their methods. They are showing you a way, not the way. Be grateful that you are different from them. It means that you are learning. It means that life is changing.

Communities, neighbors, do not judge others for what they have or do not have. Do not judge those who are more or less free-spirited, more or less rigid, more or less superficial, more or less sensitive than you are. Your neighbors are either pursuing happiness or escaping pain. Exercise your judgment only as far as you need to know how to use your time. Anything beyond that is fertile ground for hypocrisy.

Offer to teach by example, rather than condemn. And accept that not everyone will choose to learn from you.

Companies, start-ups, for-profits, non-profits, do not focus solely on growth of numbers and members. He who has captured the eyes of many may be watched more broadly, but that is not the same as being loved more deeply. No, you do not need love to have popularity or power. But all of your relationships will be transactions. Those who do not love you will not be loyal. They will invest out of self interest, not in your growth. Nurture those who give you the honor of leading them, rather than trying to leverage or maximize on them.

Employers, employees, coworkers, bosses, teammates, do not envy your competitors. They do not steal your time or profit. If they are exploring things that you cannot, let them. They are using their time in one way, so that yours may be free to focus on another. Don’t chase what others have before asking what you actually want.

You do not need to have it all to have enough.

To all my loved ones, if other people disagree with you, it is not because they don’t care, but because they have not lost hope. They have not left the conversation yet. To speak up without the promise of acceptance is not threatening or rebellious. It is brave.

To the people who have lost loved ones, who are crying and suffering, the game of life goes on. Other people are having parties, pursuing sex, searching for love, competing for promotions, showing off success, hiding duress, seeking personal security, shopping, playing, accessorizing, and chasing the next shiny thing.

The world does not stop moving for grief. This is not because the world is cold or petty, but because it is not over yet. Not for us. Not for you.

Cover image: “Attention,” woodcut on canvas, 40 x 60 inches, by Jenie Gao.

"Redamancy," woodcut on paper, 38 x 48 inches, by Jenie Gao
“Redamancy,” woodcut on paper, 38 x 48 inches, by Jenie Gao

What a year of “underemployment” looks like

It’s taken me waaaay too long to finally put this information together, but since a lot of people have asked, here’s what one year of “underemployment” looks like since I quit my corporate job, the good, bad, and ugly, followed by what’s happened since.

For those of you who don’t want the details, there’s a section at the end called “Ten Important Lessons” for you.

August 29, 2014-August 29, 2015, roughly in chronological order

  • had an existential crisis
  • felt guilty
  • realized that I’d worked 10 jobs since my teens with very few work days under 10 hours in the past several years (the worst was probably working multiple jobs both day and night shifts), that I’d been a diligent saver despite major, unexpected setbacks early on, and that I needed to be less of an asshole to myself
  • also realized that I wrote a 65-page succession plan complete with visuals and hyperlinks to supporting documentation to my projects, as well as a tiered training curriculum that could easily be used to eliminate my job by teaching everyone else what I know about Lean methods and setting them up for better career advancement. Seriously. Who does that? I know how to quit in style.
  • took two months off
  • went to Iceland, went inside a volcano, hiked on glaciers and volcanic ground, picnicked on a fjord, saw the northern lights, nearly got lost in the mountains, skinny dipped in geothermal pools, began to restore as a human being
  • took a road trip to Cincinnati to see old college roommates and a new baby in the group, visited my Milwaukee peeps a lot, and reflected on family and community vs my own life choices
  • enjoyed fall to the fullest, corn mazes, pumpkin carving, pie baking, and fall hikes galore
  • participated in Maker Faire, got slaughtered on day 1 by way too many children who wanted to learn to print; charged on day 2, dealt with fewer and better children, and made $150
  • rebuilt my website
  • started making art again :)
  • after two months off, consulted in manufacturing and helped a $20 million printing company reduce paper waste alone by $50,000 in the first few weeks and devised a plan with their Senior Process Manager to cut down on $350,000 waste in the upcoming three months; tried all the things I couldn’t with a boss or larger team, including creating my own educational workshops to help people fight their own battles in the workplace; realized I’d make a killer consultant
  • finally told my mom I quit my job and was relieved she wasn’t angry; began investing in and improving our relationship
  • ran a 10k with my former coworkers and boss, because that’s the kind of ex-employee I am; tried to beat my old boss, lost by a minute
  • practiced what I preached; reduced my cost of living, such as switching to a $10/month phone plan, getting rid of my gym membership, and renting my extra space on Airbnb
  • started this blog
  • “started” learning Spanish
  • flew to Buenos Aires and landed on my birthday; experienced having a summer birthday for the first time
  • lived in Buenos Aires for four weeks, largely as a listener and a mute (would you believe it?)
  • actually started learning Spanish
  • absolutely fell in love with Buenos Aires (did you know it’s the world capital of books?), ate a lot of gelato, dulce de leche, and medialunas and started my Spanish book collection
  • spent three of those weeks in Buenos Aires doing my art residency at Proyecto’Ace; was seriously in the zone; conceptualized, storyboarded, carved, and printed an edition of 18 books, all in woodcut, which you can read about here
  • serendipitously reunited with a friend from Milwaukee in Buenos Aires
  • bought a plane ticket and flew to Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world and the beginning of my Patagonia journey
  • airport lost my baggage; had first encounter trying to explain my problem in Spanish; luckily, most things work out
  • did my annual polar plunge in Ushuaia immediately after a 36km hike since I missed it in Wisconsin, which drew more attention than I was expecting; got hollered at by various Argentines and tourists
  • realized I didn’t miss the U.S. and debated never coming home
  • learned how to ride a motorcycle on a windy day, on a gravel road, on a hill; got really good at picking the motorcycle up
  • hiked through Patagonia for three weeks, met some of the most amazing people (two of whom I’ve since gotten to see again in Madison!)
  • seriously, though, check out The Pack Track’s Facebook page: they are the best Aussie motorcyclists travelling with dogs that I’ve met, possibly the only Aussie motorcyclists travelling with dogs that I’ve met. I got to see them again in Madison and they’ll be touring the US through Christmas.
  • committed to thinking, reading, and speaking almost entirely in Spanish; came out the other side of Patagonia conversational and with a distinct Argentinian flair to my accent, and slightly worse at English
  • really missed fresh vegetables
  • almost got stranded in the mountains again
  • hiked up to see a receding glacier with a group of Argentinian men who didn’t speak English, found a baby bird who died shortly after; wrestled with my exhausted, English deprived brain; thought about my parents, the mountain I was on, life, and death
  • arrived in Bariloche, Argentina, and knew immediately that I would love living there; mountains, lakes, chocolate, beer; $10 a night at a hostel with a lake view; done
  • went hiking with an Israeli woman who had just finished medical school; she asked to see the book I made in Buenos Aires, so I brought the draft copy I had been carrying to dinner at the hostel that night. As soon as I started telling the story, I realized that half the people listening only spoke Spanish, so I had to tell the story in two languages, back and forth, page by page. I nearly gave myself a migraine, but it was a moment that taught me the power of language both to include and exclude, and I must not have done too poorly translating because one of the Argentines in the group later messaged me saying that story was one of the most profound moments of his trip. Anyway, it was at that table of travelers, surrounded by warmth, good people, and good food, that I knew I needed to go home and not cancel or delay my return flight.
  • arrived in Chile, lost all confidence in my Spanish skills
  • took the ferry to the island of Chiloé, started my second art residency at Museo de Arte Moderno
  • found the best produce ever on that island
  • learned pretty quickly that I don’t like living in isolation on a hill
  • tried to make sense of it all, ended up just writing a lot and producing a bunch of shitty to semi-decent drawings
  • loved my host couple, who took me bird watching; thought about all the strange recurring bird themes on my trip and worried about reading too much into things
  • thought about gentrification and tourism over a cup of Yogi tea
  • thought about money and value
  • left Chiloé by yet another 20 hour bus ride
  • arrived in Santiago, hated it immediately; felt super glad I didn’t move there three years beforehand to follow love; took the next bus to Valparaíso
  • loved Valparaíso for its poetic beauty, hated the pollution and consumerist development; agreed to let a local man take me sightseeing on the basis of his Spanish being clearer than any other Chilean I had met (sorry, Chile). He was super sweet and we had a good day, so I only felt slightly bad.
  • thought about how people use people
  • returned to Buenos Aires, totally missed my flight
  • learned how hard it is to argue/reason in a foreign language with airline employees to help you catch a flight before last departure for the night, especially when they don’t give a shit
  • stayed awake for over 36 hours thinking mean things about American Airlines while waiting for the next afternoon flights
  • debated once again about not going back to the U.S.
  • returned to the U.S. and tasted good cheese again
  • drew a lot
  • finished, finessed, and framed all my new work for a solo show
  • exhibited and sold work
  • started selling and commissioning art pieces on my own
  • studied my art sales history and realized I’m a better salesperson than I’ve given myself credit for
  • also realized I’m underselling myself, spending more than I want to spend, making less than I ought to make, and a terrible negotiator
  • realized I had unresolved feelings for a crush that didn’t want me back and took it more poorly than I’d like to admit
  • decided that after a year of not trying for anything serious, I should force myself to start dating again
  • signed up for online dating with some success; began analyzing these online social experiments of human interactions and realizing I’m mainly on OKCupid for the questionnaire and that little personality chart they generate for you
  • faced my hatred of the dating game and went on a lot of dates, both good and shitty ones; didn’t worry about the end game
  • met someone I liked a lot, deflected my feelings like a cop-out
  • started training for the Tough Mudder
  • began forgetting my Spanish
  • went camping and enjoyed the Wisconsin summer to the fullest
  • went to business workshops, some really good, some genuinely worthless
  • started exploring the startup realm; to those of you who’ve drunken the Kool-Aid, I’m here to say, same shit, different place. It’s all the same highs and lows and problems and opportunities as any other type of work setting. That’s not to discourage anyone, but really, don’t buy the hype wherever you choose to go to make a difference. Just do good things, where you are, with what you have. And find people who are better than you, in different ways.
  • questioned human progress
  • met someone else I liked and dated him for two months; came to the mutual conclusion that we were good on paper, but not really right for each other
  • was happy to have learned more about myself in the dating process, but wondered if I would feel that spark again
  • reassured myself that I would feel that spark again and to be patient
  • got asked to consult for a chemical company, a salon, an artist, other consultants, said no
  • got asked to consult for a health clinic, said maybe
  • got asked to consult for a software company, said yes
  • learned that even though I chose that software company based on its values and vision, it still wasn’t the right fit; changed my yes to a no
  • realized there are shit tons of consultants
  • in general, got a lot better at saying no
  • but also got worse at saying no; accidentally triple-booked myself on one occasion, was reminded of the saying, “If you try to please everyone, you’ll end up pleasing no one.”
  • wondered if I might be unemployable
  • got in a better habit of calling my mom; realized that she, too, was finally healing after my dad’s passing; saw her true personality come out, the one my dad must have fallen in love with; got to know her better and love her more deeply; began wondering why I have so many more dad stories than mom stories to share and how to change that
  • read a shit ton of books, even for me (one of these days I’ll put together a favorites library)
  • met one of my former bosses for lunch, told him I would have been a better employee had I known what I know now; made him laugh
  • became super skeptical of coworking spaces after being invited to try one out. A phrase I’ve thought of often since quitting my job, per George Orwell, “Freedom is slavery.” Are we free, or are we just entering a different cage? Per Bob Dylan, “Everybody has to serve somebody.”
  • was attacked at knifepoint near the Madison bike path; fortunately got away, but realized pretty quickly that, like most major things, it would go unresolved until something more serious happened

Tough Mudder

Steamroller Printing at Maker Faire
Steamroller Printing at Maker Faire
Jenie Gao Steamroller Printing at Maker Faire
Steamroller Printing at Maker Faire

August 30th-present

  • completed the Tough Mudder, which wasn’t that tough except for maybe a couple obstacles, but still a lot of fun. Do it with an awesome group of friends, don’t hesitate on the high jumps or the big moves, and remember to smile because they are taking your picture, or don’t smile if you know how to make fun of yourself.
  • coming down from my endorphin high from the Tough Mudder, I checked my phone that night and saw an article about a woman who had just been raped on the bike path, a block from my own close call
  • got super disillusioned, by survivor’s guilt, by people only rising to action after a catastrophe, by the media sensationalizing more than informing; decided if I didn’t want to become a part of the problem, I should speak up about it
  • also felt encouraged by how good and responsive the Madison community is; seriously, we have some solid people here
  • got interviewed by Wisconsin State Journal when they caught wind of my blog and Facebook post; thought they did a better job than WKOW
  • still worried (and worry) about becoming part of the problem
  • started trying to figure out how I can use my skill set to drive sustainable social change
  • meanwhile, participated in Maker Faire Milwaukee and drove a steamroller to make giant woodblock prints
  • applied for a grant to do a public art project for City of Madison; got the grant, now I need to figure out how to build two light sculptures as prototypes for something bigger :|
  • also got interviewed by Channel 3000, who did a good job addressing community safety and asking what community members can do about it; also, for pointing out, hey, this guy still hasn’t been caught yet, this isn’t over just ’cause we’ve had some fundraisers
  • since the summertime, went to four weddings and two funerals; thought about love and loss and what I might regret not pursuing; felt happy, felt sad, felt grateful for how many examples of strong relationships I now have in my adult life
  • trying to figure out how to resolve my desire for a relationship with my disinterest in the dating scene
  • rewrote my business plan and goals for the next year
  • strategizing
  • combatting imposter syndrome
  • meeting and getting advice from people who are better at business than I am
  • embracing what Nassim Nicholas Taleb said about a monthly salary being one of the most dangerous addictions
  • wondering if we as a culture can surpass the charity mindset
  • working on becoming a better teacher and making sure that education is always a part of what I do for and through work
  • thinking and writing about paradigm shifts
  • scared like you wouldn’t believe
no time
“No Time,” part of an art installation in Chile

Ten Important Lessons, of Many

  1. It’s hard not to feel pressured to live up to certain expectations. It’s hard not taking your ceiling with you. It’s hard saying no to things you don’t want. It’s hard saying yes to things you do want.
  2. When business is slow, it’s a good thing. Use that time to reflect and improve.
  3. While I’m a great go-getter, I’m a lousy get-it-doner. I make it to 90%, and then my perfectionism kicks in. I worked like mad to get my artist’s book, The Golden Cage, finished in three weeks. But even though it’s a childhood dream of mine to publish, I haven’t done it yet. Why? I’m not happy with the cover. I’m not happy with the text. People I show it to love the story, but I don’t think it’s good enough yet. I need to get over this, or else it’ll never happen.
  4. It’s okay to need other people. It’s okay to ask for help. To love others and let them love you, that’s the bravest you’ll ever be.
  5. It can be a very tit for tat world. Be mindful, not all reciprocity is good or for the right reasons. And sometimes, people reject each other, not because they don’t care, but are scared of what they have to lose, of being the one who cares more. Don’t be scared to be the one who cares more.
  6. The things you care about will hurt you. If you didn’t care, it wouldn’t hurt.
  7. You never know what the “by-products” of your actions might be. I quit my job because I knew in my heart, it wasn’t it. Suddenly, I had all this time. So what was a “by-product” I didn’t expect? A better relationship with my mom. I didn’t quit so that I would have time to get to know her, but because I quit, I finally did. If I got nothing else out of this past year, a closer and healthier relationship with my mom would have been enough.
  8. Embrace, acknowledge, and hone your strengths. That’s the only way you can use them for good and prevent them from being used for evil.
  9. Waiting isn’t always a waste. Just like the apple trees need winter to grow apples, learning when and how and on what to wait is important.
  10. Even though I’m a cat person, I have a dog personality. But I love people with cat personalities. Remember to surround yourself with people who are better than you, in different ways.
slow down
Hocking Hills, Ohio

Three words that people keep calling me, and even more so in this past year than previous ones

  • brave, which makes me wonder how people define bravery
  • ballsy, which I hope you find as much humor in as I do
  • unpredictable, despite being reliable

Three critiques I keep getting

  • uncompromising for both better and worse
  • independent to my own demise
  • too nice, too forgiving

Whether you agree or not, it’s important to pay attention to the feedback people give you.

Iceland, Landmannalaugar
Iceland, Landmannalaugar

I wrote the following passage last year and feel it still holds true; it’s a worthy reminder I’ll need to come back to as I pursue my next set of goals.

“Some people have called me brave for being willing to quit without knowing what’s next, and others most definitely think I’m a reckless idiot. But if there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s to trust as much in the counterintuitive as we normally would the obvious or the sensible. To be in control requires a willingness to let go of control. To have stability and security requires that we not need either. To grow, we must always be questioning, always be listening, without needing to find the answers we are searching for.”

Perito Moreno, Glacier Hike
Perito Moreno, Glacier Hike

The challenge of staying bold without being ignorant

"Counter Intuition," by Jenie Gao

It was 1991. I was three years old. My dad was in Seattle and my mom would be alone with me that winter.

The road was covered with ice on her morning drive, and when she parked her car to drop me off at preschool, she was scared to get out and walk with me across the pavement.

When she opened the car door for me, I jumped out immediately, and in alarm, she yelled, “Be careful! Don’t fall!”

To which I responded, “Don’t worry, Mommy! You can hold onto my shoulders. I’ll help you walk across the ice.”


I don’t remember this event, but my mom does, and she remembers the comfort she took in seeing how brave (read: foolhardy) I was, at a time when she felt low, powerless, and lost. All I remember, of course, is how annoyed I was in my early teens, that my mom needed to take my arm in a death grip every winter, whenever there was ice. I complained that she was going to take me down with her. I didn’t know that she was seeking comfort and security in me.

She didn’t tell me this story until yesterday, and who knows, maybe it wouldn’t have had the same gravity (ha) before I reached the age that she was in this story. Whether she intends it or not, through all of her stories, she impresses upon me the understanding that she (and potentially anyone) is paying attention. She’s learning from what I do, and in the process of changing myself, I change her as well. Our unconscious actions are teaching moments, in partnership with the things we say.

When we’re children, we don’t know what our parents don’t know. We don’t know about the size of their fears or failures. We don’t know how much they both cherish and judge us for our ignorance that convention has named innocence. We don’t know that our ignorance is teaching them how to be parents, that we are their test. We don’t know whether they’ll pass this test, whether they’ll choose to protect our “innocence” or feed our curiosity. We don’t know that their compulsion is to keep us safe, but that their job is to teach us how to overcome our ignorance, to be cognizant of our impact, good and bad. We don’t know how difficult of a job that actually is, both to carry out well and then let go of.

And once we do know all of this, we still aren’t necessarily prepared to face the next challenge of growing up, which is to get over the fact that for all our experience we still don’t know, and yet we have to keep going. We have to fight the urge to hide our weaknesses or let them be our limit. We have to fight the urge to be lazy and use arbitrary qualifiers like age to measure our growth.


There is the child who says, “Don’t worry, Mommy! You can hold onto my shoulders. I’ll help you walk across the ice.”

There is the teenager who says, “Don’t hold me. You’re going to take me down with you.”

There is the adult who knows what the teenager knows, the risks and the consequences of being wrong that the child has yet to learn, who then must choose to step up and say, “Don’t worry, you can hold onto me,” and then step down and say, “No, I haven’t been here before. No, I don’t know if we’ll be successful. Yes, I am scared of letting you down. Yes, I’m scared of you letting me down. But yes, I will still help you.”

And be willing to ask, “Will you also help me, and us, cross the ice?”

**Featured image is “Counter Intuition,” part of my series of ink drawings, “A Test of Vision.”

True leaders are teachers

We need to be teachers. Whenever we learn something new, we should immediately ask, “How can we share this?” Our greatest asset as human beings is our ability to actively, purposefully teach one another.  While our chimpanzee friends are wasting time waiting for a chance encounter and observation between one chimp fishing for termites and another chimp that also wants termites, we’re building rocket ships, connecting the knowledge of the past with the innovations of the future.

We need to recognize teaching as the greatest example of leadership. Too often we wait for one exceptionally powerful person to make the decisions that supposedly everyone else is incapable of making. Too often we let an initiative die because we can’t organize without “the power of the throne.” Many pursue a role in leadership to push their own agenda. Even those with the best intentions may fall guilty to “superhero syndrome,” saving the day at the cost of others’ chance to speak up or exercise their own influence. True leadership is not about the person who leads, nor is it about one person getting credit for having good ideas. The fruits of teaching come not from the teacher but from the students’ successes. Anyone who actively teaches another is a leader, for leading enables others to lead themselves.

The best teachers understand what many “leaders” don’t, that real power comes from teaching those you lead to be more powerful than you are.

The best teachers understand that they are also, always, students, and that the strength of their leadership depends on their continual education and self evaluation.

The best teachers know when to set an expectation, and when also, to step back and let someone else take the lead.

The best leaders recognize and respect how difficult and vital teaching is.

**I found this passage in one of my old journals. It’s from 2013, and I wrote it shortly after starting my new position at Western States, and I was asking all sorts of questions of what I wanted out of a career and how to match my work with my values. There was a lot I didn’t know then, and as the saying goes, the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know. But as frustrated as I was once upon a time when my parents would sound like broken records, I’m glad to see the consistency of principles that has guided my career thus far, both in whom I choose to surround myself with and strive to be for others.

Recent best business advice: Be firm on your principles, flexible in your approach.

***I took the cover photo in Sauk City, Wisconsin, on a day trip with friends to see pop-up art installations in the fields during their Farm/Art DTour. This piece is by Thomas Ferrella, from his series, A Mutual Curiosity. Art has many powers, not least of all, the ability to surprise and to set new visions.

To my friend who lost her daughter and what you taught me about love

Sunday, July 12th, was a picturesque, idyllic day.

It started with a promising fourth (?) date. We made breakfast in the morning, then walked around Madison’s Art Fair on the Square.

Then I spent the afternoon with friends, picking raspberries, playing with fat farm cats, joking, drinking beer, having dinner, trying not to lose focus on the road in Poynette, Wisconsin, with a passenger whose attention span is as competitively short as my own, and returning home with not only raspberries for myself but enough catnip to keep Charlemagne high for a week.

Sunday was a normal and happy day for me, as it was for you, too.

But while I was driving home that night with a friend who had just discovered a CD of angsty music from my high school days, you were checking on your daughter in the bath, to discover that she must have had a seizure and drowned.

—–

I have to confess, I didn’t cry right away when I learned about Nicole. I know my concept of loss has changed a lot in the last several years, but I think this event was the first event where I felt the difference in my response to the news of a death so close to my circle. I can’t separate the loss from what Nicole has given you. I can’t see the waste of life by death, because this girl, with her severe autism, was never supposed to speak and yet became the greatest voice for you to be here; she gave you the patience and compassion that you serve so many others with. She did exactly what she needed to do with her life. A lot of other people with a “much higher capacity” never get there in three times the amount of years.

So I couldn’t be sad, not until I saw you at the church, this church that was built specifically to serve families with disabilities, a group of people whose faith is in service of something and not just to honor the faith itself.

I saw you, and then I cried. I saw Nancy, Nicole’s caretaker, place her hat that Nicole always asked if she could have on the altar, and that made me cry, too. I cried because I understood, this was not the life she lost, but the life all of you felt the void of.

I talked with former coworkers, some of whom had been grieving with you all week, and I both empathized and felt the difference and distance that this past year has made between my world and all of yours.

I have never been a religious person, but the priest shared a passage that resonated this day:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?

Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin.

Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.

If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you–you of little faith?

I know, and yet I do worry, and I listen and wonder if anyone else is really listening. Maybe, but then it doesn’t take an hour before people are talking about the troubles of life, the long work hours, the failed diets, if it’s not one thing, then it’s another.

I want to believe that I’m not limited by societal expectations, but I am. I haven’t been back in the US for very long, but I feel the pressure to be busy. I don’t want all the same life milestones as other people, or do I? Sometimes it’s hard to tell. I don’t want the same things, but maybe the ideas those things symbolize. I don’t want a safe career, but I do want a meaningful one. I don’t want a big house, but I love shared spaces, and I love having a space to create. I don’t want a fancy car, but I love where modern transportation can take me. I don’t want to belong to a church, but I cherish the meals I share with people–this experience of “breaking bread”–more than anything. I don’t want a wedding, but I do want love.

And I understand that at least for most of us, these things do not come without any sowing or reaping. To discover one’s life’s purpose is a challenging journey. To appreciate the simple pleasures in life usually comes with understanding the difficulty of it. To be in love–to sustain love–requires not only the risk of heartbreak, but the inevitable event of it.

Love takes a shitload of bravery and resilience, a type of bravery I’m not sure I’ve fully developed. It’s easier to dump someone than to be dumped, easier to move on than to let someone else care less than you do. This seems to be the curse of my generation, at least; we have lots of priorities, that give us every excuse and opportunity to treat love (or the attention we associate with it) like an option.

But if we drop it so easily, then it isn’t love.

I came across a quote recently: When there is love, there is no question.

And I thought, “Yeah, okay,” and then, “Fuck….I have so many questions. I always have so many questions.”

It’s always been unquestionable, Dawn, what you would do for your family, and therefore, for love. It had nothing to do with getting enough attention or something in return. It had nothing to do with not having options, either. But there is a dedication in you that many lack. There is an intrinsic happiness in you that many will labor never to find. There is a belief that love begets love, and so for you, it does. And not an ounce of highly sophisticated logic will ever replicate that or be able to overcome the shadow of doubt that always follows reason.

I look at the track I’m on now, and oftentimes think that I can never be heartbroken again. I’ve wisened up too much for that. But damn, that’s cold, if it’s true. I hope it means I’m growing up a little to be able to say, I hope I can be heartbroken again, not devastated again, but open and wholehearted enough to deeply know my loved ones and miss them. And in this age of convenience and objectivity, where the good dates are as easily forgettable as the mediocre ones; where things and people are easily let go, exchanged, and replaced; where understanding that life can and will go on is easier than ever, maybe (the willingness to face) heartbreak is exactly the elixir we need.

To the man who attacked me, here’s how my week went

Painting studies, pain aux raisins, and reading under the trees and a summer breeze.

On Monday, a man with a knife attacked me in my neighborhood.

On Tuesday, I talked details on one of the coolest projects anyone has ever asked me to be a part of.

On Wednesday, I got pain aux raisins over a great peer mentorship conversation with two amazing businesswomen, at the bakery on the street corner where less than 48 hours before I thought I was going to die.

In less than one month, I’m going to be a Tough Mudder.

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To the people of Madison, I’m so grateful to live in a city where 1) I feel safe walking alone and 2) The people nearby responded so proactively. Several people heard me scream, three men went running down the bike path to search for the guy, and the bartender at Willy Street Pub called me inside to give me water and a pen to start writing down the man’s description as I called 911.

Of course, things could have gone better. The K9 could have tracked the guy down, the police could have arrested him. I have no idea if he’ll ever get caught, if he even might be a neighbor that I’ll run into and get startled by one day. To my female friends in Madison especially, take precaution, particularly around the Paterson/Willy Street area. It sucks and it’s not fair, but being a strong, independent woman won’t protect you from getting attacked.

That said, it could have also gone a shit ton worse. Thank goodness my reflex was to scream like hell and run, not freeze. (To anyone who ever criticized me for being “too crazy” or “too loud,” screw you.) Thank goodness he hit me with the hand holding the knife, but not the knife. Thank goodness I have such amazing friends who called as soon as I let them know what happened, and not because I’m weak, but because they love me precisely because I am not weak.

To the guy who attacked me, I’m sorry you consider violence your only option, your greatest option. I’m sorry that your life has made you ignorant enough to be malicious.

The thing is, this could have ruined my week, without him even stabbing me. Just the idea of damage is enough sometimes. But I’m lucky not to be ignorant and to have enough life experience to know that there’s what could have happened, there’s what did happen, and there’s how you respond to both.

And what I’m finding now is this: I can still have dinner near the same corner where I was attacked. I am more anxious about the positive than the negative, about upcoming opportunities, about living up to an expectation (can I really do this?). I still worry about stupid things like dating or whether ice cream for lunch is a good idea (it is). And even when I have doubts, life is always taking turns for the better, and even the bad intention of one person is instant fodder for the good in others.

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