Life Lessons for Everyone in the Arts

Perhaps you have been following David Brooks’ series of op-eds in The New York Times. He asked people over 70 to send him “Life Reports” — essays about their own lives and what they’d done poorly and well.

No need to wait until we turn 70 to reflect on these “life lessons” and devise our own, especially as we approach the time for New Year’s resolutions.

Formulating lessons are important for all of us who work in the arts, whether as a performer, an administrator, an advocate, or an educator. These lessons are especially important because of the nature of our field — low wages, long hours, competition for jobs, among other obvious challenges.

What can we learn from Brooks and those who submitted “Life Reports?”

Divide your life into chapters: Brooks talks about “the happiest of his correspondents being those that divided time into (somewhat artificial) phases.” He describes these people as those who could see time as “something divisible into chunks” and they could more easily stop and self-appraise. This approach, he says, “gave them more control over their lives.”

How often have we talked to students/teachers/artists who struggle with indecision about their next steps as if it is their final step? If we could only help them to see that through experimenting with one role or another they will build their skills and realize their vision. Chapters, yes. End points, no.

Beware rumination: “The most impressive people were strategic self-deceivers. When something bad was done to them, they forgot it, forgave it, or were grateful for it.”

Can we as artists, arts educators, and administrators become “strategic self-deceivers?” Can we forgive ourselves when the performance, the class, or the board meeting doesn’t go so well? Can we go around the barriers to achieve our ambitious goals?

Lean toward risk: “Many seniors”, Brooks reports, “regret the risks that they didn’t take.”

And how relevant that is to so many organizations, boards, administrators, and artists who don’t understand that to grow we must take on the unknown. How many organizations won’t hire that next person who they know will make all the difference, take on a more ambitious script, or commit to innovation because they are risk averse?

Can we learn from these seniors before we turn 70?

In 2012, let’s pledge to reflect actively on where we are and how we will proceed, forgiving ourselves, moving ahead, and writing new chapters.