Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Monkey + Seal is BACK, baby!

Howdy everyone!  Whew!  Long time no see!

First off we'd like to apologize for falling off the blogging bandwagon this year.  There were a lot of changes in our lives this year, and unfortunately, since we always talk about taking care of your artist self and sustainability, we had to follow our own advice and thus the blog suffered.  We wanted to let you know that we are bringing it back (!) in 2014, but with a few changes.  

1) Monkey will be writing here much less frequently.  He'll be focusing his energy and writing over at his new project: Lift Off Art.  He launched Lift Off as a way to really focus on the psychological issues that artists face as well as the marketing and business aspects of it.  Monkey will still be around here (obviously, as it's Monkey + Seal), but if you're a reader interested in progressing forward as an artist, we recommend you go and subscribe to the Lift Off newsletter and blog.  

2) Seal will be holding it down over here at the good ol' M+S blog, but we realized that with our schedules as artists and teachers, we can no longer commit to the weekly post.  We'll post when we can, and will send out a newsletter when we do post.  

Cool, thanks for being understanding!  

Anyway, today (versus tomorrow), we thought it'd be prudent to talk a bit about 2013.  We're always big fans of creating a review of your year in order to remind yourself of all the stuff that you have both accomplished and also stuff that you need to work on.

2013 started out pretty tough. We had a lot of crazy personal stuff happen early on in the year, including bad family health diagnoses, deaths in the family, and close calls making rent early on in the year.  Monkey also had a trip to the ER, and both of our wallets got hit pretty hard with some dental emergencies (don't forget to brush and floss, kids).  However, we also read a lot of great books by amazing authors (Geneen Roth, James Altucher, Danielle LaPorte, etc.) that changed the way we think about life and creating and overall we feel like we had a great year.  

Some of the 2013 highlights are:

- Seal finished work on the Japanese animated feature "Space Pirate Captain Harlock."  The film was released in September in Japan and will be coming to US theaters early next year (so soon!).  You can check out the trailer below (but make sure the English subtitles are on, if you don't speak Japanese).

-Monkey became a sponsored artist for three different art material companies: Crescent Cardboard LLC (a very inauspicious name for the world's leader in mat board), Savoir-Faire (the sole US importer and distributor for Fabriano, Sennelier, Cretacolor, and other high-quality international art material companies), and KRINK (uber-aggressive graffiti ink markers and paint pens).

-Seal also joined the ranks as one of Savoir-Faire's demo artists too!  Woo!

-We did our usual circuit of craft/art shows and had a blast (as per usual) vending at APE, SF Zine Fest, and Bazaar Bizarre SF Holiday show.  We also tried some new shows (for us) including the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival and CthulhuCon (LA chapter) and the Lower Haight Art Walk.

-We had a bunch of awesome live paint opportunities and cool gallery shows.  We participated in group shows at Modern Eden and 111 Minna, and live painted for Oracle, the National Association of Asian American Professionals, and of course, Big Umbrella Studios.

-Seal worked on producing art assets for two different film pitches for a Norwegian film titled "Cargo," and "The Good Citizen" by Khmasea Hoa Bristol.

-This year teaching became a big thing for us, as we taught a team-building art workshop for a team from Apple, Monkey started Lift Off Art, and he also became an instructor for the Academy of Art (he will be teaching two sections of LA 291: Designing Careers next Spring).

-Seal continues to work on two short films (one animated, one live action).  Seal's been working as a Production Designer for two years and a half on LaNoria, an animated film, and as an Art Director on an untitled live-action taking place in San Francisco. La Noria is moving towards the animation phase, and the live action film is currently in post production.

-Monkey started developing table-top games, and is currently collaborating with a friend to playtest one of the many different ideas.

-Seal shifted her focus toward two of her own film ideas, "Skyace Wasteland"(some of you might have already seen and own her early concept art) and "The Ogre and The Daughter," (both working titles) and is currently editing the scripts and producing pre-production visdev assets.

-Seal also took up a position as a Lead Artist for a mobile communication start-up!  Phew!

-Monkey's screen printing business, The Lords of Print, took off, with live print gigs at the Moscone Center, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and many more!  It keeps him busy!

-Seal went to the CTN animation expo and met up with some of the top names in the industry!  Woo!

-Monkey got to go on some cool business trips, including Minneapolis (snow!), and Miami's Art Week (sun!).

So all in all, we feel like while we're going to take a few punches every year, we're really thankful for all of our opportunities and support we've received this year and we can close it the year feeling really good about it.

Next year (tomorrow!  Gads!) has a lot of stuff already going on for us, so we're looking forward to a lot as well:

-The first film Seal worked on three years ago, a feature animated film for Unicorn Studios, is slated for an international release next year!

-Monkey's new gig as instructor for AAU (if you have to still take LA 291, he'll be teaching sections LA 291.16 and 291.20 on Mondays) starts in late January!

-Monkey will be teaching his Artrepreneurship 101 course at the Fine Art school at AAU!

-Expect to see Monkey + Seal at your local Bay Area artist supply store doing demos!

-We're looking to expand our craft show circuit to include WonderCon and Maker Faire, among others!  More shows! Better booths!  And new products in development!  At least, that's what we're hoping :)  Perhaps a new shiny website (although realistically, we've been talking about this for years...)

-New art books and comics in the works!  Gah!

-Just MORE ART.  Monkey + Seal are both doing a lot more speed paints, so look forward to those!  Sharpen that saw!  Practice practice practice!

ANYWAY, we're definitely looking forward to start back up the writing, and we want to thank you for your patience and your support all these years.  We hope you'll continue to read, make art, and follow us on our journey.  Hope you have a safe and happy NYE tonight, and stop by tomorrow for our first post of the 2014!

Much love,
Rick + Eve

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Other Side . . .

Throughout city college, I worked at Starbucks located in a bookstore. I grew up in a working-class city. I had an incompetent boss who was inching for his retirement package and co-workers who were nice enough and though had good hearts competed for the few-hour shifts that were available. I was making $7/hr. If I bought coffee from my own store at retail value, that was more than half my hourly wage. Many of the barista girls including myself were schooling ourselves through college. At the end of the night when the company ordered us to throw away 2-day old pastries, we snuck them home to our families. Most of my dinner when I came home at 1am after closing shift was stale, brick-hard croissants. One of my good friends from high school studied for his college exam at the cafe there, but pretended not to know me. A random date my friends set me up on for homecoming years ago would repeatedly come in with his prized girlfriend and gave me the sleaziest wink, then asked me to microwave his Tupperware in the company breakroom. At that time, the biggest dream I could believe in was that someday I would be standing on the other side of the counter and able to afford coffee whenever I wanted.

You have to start somewhere.

After my first day of work as a barista and messing up on orders since there were several recipes to remember, I asked to take home the company manual along with its recipes. During breaks, I would memorize. I learned drinks had to made within certain minutes or the customers get it free. During down times, I practiced the recipes and rearranged the area to make it more efficient and systematic. The bookstore manager noticed. I was trained to be a bookseller. I wasn't very fast in math, so I borrowed a few math books from the library and copied the practice sheets and did the exercises during my other odd jobs of being a stage hand for the local theater. I became very proficient in numbers and alphabetizing all the books. It became much faster to find the books and serve the customers in the check-out line. I was generating more sales than average and co-workers couldn't figure out how. If you fix the root of the problem, the surface becomes clearer. I was handed the vault key. Because other booksellers didn't want to deal with customers they often sent them to me. I ran a lot of my co-workers errands and came to know both the bookstore and cafe better than the managers. When the cafe manager retired, I became a trainer for new employees. But the booksellers needed more experienced employees so I was offered lead position in both. As a lead, my new pay afforded to buy "fancy coffee" now and then. Though I couldn't buy one every day or whenever I wanted, I stood on the other side of the counter. The new pay afforded my books and tuition at city college where I eventually transfered to UC Berkeley.

Watching my dad work odd jobs, I learned that it doesn't matter what you are doing, as long as you do it well. You can make any job into a craft. And it would be even better if that job is exactly what you love.

When I graduated art school, I learned quickly that my skills in art were still lacking. When you are no longer a "student" you are now competing with other professionals in your industry, including your former teachers. I had to start at the beginning again. I had to put in "my dues" - though I caution, it was not in a disciplinary way, but came of love of the craft and curiosity. (Only resentment comes from disciplined practice.) "I wonder what would happen if I did this . . . " or "how can I get better at x? I really want to learn . . ."

A lot of my paintings now have robots and trees. Funny, those were the things I couldn't paint when I was in school. My landscapes looked like shit and I couldn't paint metal and didn't know how to mix color. So after I graduated, during job searches, I practiced. I practiced out of love and wonderment.

It doesn't take away from the frustrations of being a small fish at times, but it helps to see that life is a bit of cycle. You'll always be a beginner and you'll always be a master in something. You don't have to master everything, especially the things you don't like to do (leave that to other masters of that field)

But the point is, you have to start someplace. You have to have a vision of where you want to go, even if it is just a step towards the other side of the counter. And you have to take actions to manifest your vision and enjoy the process. Because sometimes it's short and sometimes it's a long road between your dream and its reality and your life is made up of the spaces in between here and the "other side."

Thursday, February 14, 2013

When someone believes in you . . . (Part I)

As a junior in high school, I knew I wanted to be an artist. I gathered my random drawings and doodles and applied to Art Center College of Design. I received a four-semester full tuition at their illustration department. During the rest of my high school years, my mother was diagnosed with cancer, my father was laid off from his office job due to work politics, and my sister developed manic depression. So when I finished senior year and couldn’t afford to continue at Art Center, I took on two jobs and schooled myself through city college while helping to pay the bills at home. The first semester of junior college, I took painting, acting, and dance classes. To this day, that was one of the most memorable years. As I immersed myself at my jobs and academics, I slowly lost track of my direction. My parents, though well-meaning in their quest for our family’s survival, told me to “stop dreaming,” that “art was just a hobby,” and “it won’t pay the bills.” They told me that even if an artist were even able to “make it,” it would be because they started out already really, really good, that they had talent and had wanted it since at a very young age. Since I didn’t express my interest in art until high school, I believed them: I believed that whatever passion I had for art, was not enough to begin with. I didn’t show an overwhelming promise. I didn’t start early enough, I thought. They took me aside and looked at me with pleading eyes, “You don’t really want to go into art now, do you?” I was confused. I nodded. I would forever regret my own collusion and betrayal.

I doubled my focus on work and academics and found that I loved Literature. In my last year of English class at city college, my teacher Ms. Allison Murray assigned the class to write personal essays based on the UC school application themes. It was a required final essay to pass the class. I turned mine in, not expecting much. “You should actually apply to the UC with this essay, “ she confronted me in the hallway. I thought of my entire extended family, most of who never finished beyond junior high. I thought of my mother who finished her masters in engineering, whose degree wasn’t recognized in the US, who worked at Gatorade bottling juice and vacuumed offices as a janitor, and my Dad who would glue little tabs unto A frames so when people had displays at stores, these A frames would stand properly. At that time, I worked two jobs and didn’t even pass the ESL test even though I grew up in the US, there was no way a four-year college was possible for me. For the next two weeks, Ms. Murray pestered me, emailed me, called me, “Did you turn in your essay and application to the UC?” The answer was always the same, “I’ll think about it.” Seeing my mother worried about bills at night by the kitchen light, my father pulling double work shifts, and my sister struggling through her own school, I didn’t think I had a right to apply.

I prepared myself to disappoint Ms.Murray by telling her I wasn’t going to apply after all. After class, I took my time to leave, hoping to talk to her alone. She said goodbye to the students leaving and our gaze met, her eyes narrowed, her voice quieted and slowed with intensity she said, “You.Can.Do.This.”

I thought about why it was I was drawn to art and literature in the first place and even though it was hard to pursue, why I wanted to continue: I wanted to find the key to myself and I wanted to express myself through art and writing. I also wanted to encourage others to climb their own mountains and grab a hold of their own individual keys. I turned in my essay to the UC system. In the spring, I was accepted to all of the five schools I applied for: Berkeley, UCLA, Irvine, Santa Cruz, and San Diego.

When someone believes in you, it is the greatest selfless love that one can give.

Has someone believed in you and made a lasting impact on your life? Be sure to thank them and let them know how you’re doing!

I have many people to thank in my creative and self-discovery journey (Rick, Martha, Carlos to name a few) and they all deserve their own post and recognition.  So please stayed tuned for Part II of “When Someone Believes in You . . . “

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Creating Good Habits

Sometimes people have things that cause them to do the same thing over and over again.  Invisible scripts.  Inherent trait X.  Habits.   Whatever you want to call it, we all have them, both good or bad.  Sometimes our bad habits get in the way of being awesome, and you may stop and think "Ugh, I wish I didn't always do X."  Whether "X" is spending too much time reading celebrity gossip, or constantly checking your email instead of working, how do we break them?

First off, we have to understand why are habits so hard to break.  Habits are really neurological pathways that have been reinforced over years and years of doing them.  It's no wonder that they come so naturally to us.  They are literally wired inside our brains.  In fact, the lame part is that once we have a habit, the pathway in our brain never goes away.  So the downside is that if you have a habit of always criticizing your art as soon as you're done with it, no matter how much work you do to change that, it'll always be there, no matter what.

However, there is good news.  We can create new, positive habits that will reinforce what you want to do.  Besides, making things habitual is easier in the long run, than constantly fighting your current bad habits.

How to create positive habits?  It's about designing systems that allow you to create the habits you want through a reward system.  We need as much help as we can get when trying to replace old habits with new ones, so by creating an outside system that will encourage you to follow through.  

Want to wake up earlier?  Have an early-bird friend call you every morning to hold you accountable.  Give that friend $60 at the start of a month, and every time you don't answer your phone, they get to keep $2.  Buy your favorite breakfast food (whatever you want, whether that's Lucky Charms or creme brulee), but you only get to eat it if you wake up early.  Basically, the more reward/punishment systems you can set up to hold yourself accountable, the better. The good news is that rewarding good behaviors works faster than punishing not following through.  So make sure to get that extra box of pop tarts.

Additionally, when you do reward yourself, make sure that you enjoy the reward, guilt-free.  If you are rewarding yourself with time allotted for video games, then don't play the games and think about how you "should" be working.  Just play the games for that set amount of time and have fun.  Just like if you're rewarding yourself with cookies, don't mourn the amount of butter in the cookies, just enjoy the cookies!

To help out anyone wanting to change a habit, we'll even offer to help you out.  Email us (info [at] monkeyandseal.com) with your name, email, and habit that you want to create, and we'll email you once a day for a week to offer words of encouragement and check in with you.  You can do it!  Start building a good habit today!

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Monkey + Games Part 2: Finding Your Dream

Hola, everyone.  This is part two of a two-part post by Monkey about his recent discoveries via Facebook online games.

Hi everyone.  So last week I talked about procrastination, and how, if you're a semi-spastic, easily distracted person like myself, you can turn it into productivity.   Today, I wanted to talk about how you can find out what you really want by really looking at your actions.

The title of this mini-series is "Monkey + Games."  You see, I've long had an adversarial bout with gaming.  As much as I love playing games, my addictive and competitive personality really used to put game playing at odd with my life.  A slightly embarrassing truth is that Seal and I have had only three major issues to overcome in our relationship, and World of Warcraft was one of those three.

I would get repetitive stress injuries from computer use, but not from typing, but from playing WoW or Bejeweled Blitz.  Sometimes my shoulder would hurt too much to paint.  Other times I'd be playing board games with friends for 14 hours straight.  People would be absolutely exhausted, but I would want to keep playing.  Not the healthiest way of pursing a hobby.

However, for games to be such a large part of my life (I also played Magic: the Gathering fervently for nearly 8 years), I still couldn't reconcile them in a healthy manner.  I always saw them as a guilty pleasure, or a waste of time that could be better used elsewhere.  However, I recently came to (at least what seems to me) a life-changing conclusion.

I am meant to be a game designer.

I came upon this conclusion when talking to Seal one night.  I shouldn't really say that I discovered it or anything, as Seal just straight up told me "You know, you should be a game designer."  We were talking about me and whether I would ever be able to go back to a "day job."  We agreed that a majority of jobs with fixed work hours and a fixed location probably wouldn't be for me, and somehow Seal came upon the epiphany that I should be a game designer.

So after being intrigued by the notion of this new job I had never really thought about, it all made sense.  While I love painting and illustrating, I also love writing stories.  I also really really love games.  I like playing them, and discussing how to tweak sometime ambiguous rules in order to create a better game.  I made a board game in elementary school, and created my own card games in junior high.

Okay, so it's obvious I love games, writing, and painting.  What sort of crazy job would let me do all three at the same time?  I thought no one in their right mind would pay someone to, you know, design a  game that has really cool art and a great storyline...


So while I am in no way giving up my dreams of being an established gallery artist, or of having short stories published in major magazines and anthologies, I have now found a position that might be able to encapsulate all my interests into one package.

I  think that if you look at what really gets you excited and can keep you up at night, maybe you can find a job you never knew existed.  Like reading celebrity gossip magazines?  Maybe you should be in the guest relations industry, where you get to talk to lots of people, or maybe you should go into journalism or blogging.  Really into beer?  What about becoming a professional brewer, or a bartender at an establishment that has a huge beer selection.  Maybe a buyer for a beverage store?  Like doodling?  What about becoming an illustrator?

My point is that if you have any reservations about a hobby or interest because you think it's a waste of time, or that you can't get paid for it, think again.  While it might be hard to find a job that pays you to eat pizza all day and watch television (TV producer, maybe?), you can find something aligned with those interests.  Just as I don't expect to be illustrating all the concept art for a game but I can offer my own illustrations as ideas, maybe you can find a job that allows you to do an aspect of your interest that is the most appealing part.

So while games might have been my muse for these past two posts, games don't have to be your inspiration.  Whatever inspires you, and makes you happy, and makes you want to keep on living doing just that - well, you should go do more of it (in a productive way, of course).

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Monkey + Games Part 1: Turning Procrastination Into Productivity

Heyo, Monkey here.  This is part one of a two-part series.  Hope you like it!

Today I wanted to talk a little bit about procrastination.

Generally, we think of procrastination as "wasting time," or "doing nothing."  Speaking for myself, I often find hours that I should have been working on a project suddenly gone - eaten up by gaming.  Ugh.

Then, I heard someone saw that procrastination isn't "doing nothing," but "just doing something else.  That slight change of intellectual framework made me think that perhaps procrastination isn't about the time-devouring action (in my case, facebook games), but more about the avoidance of doing what I "should" be doing (in my case, illustrations, event planning emails, screenprinting, etc. etc.).

This inspired me to try and turn procrastination into productivity.  If I wasn't going to be working diligently on project A, then I could be working on project B, or C, or D.   I decided that I would use my natural tendency to work on many different projects to experiment whether or not I could stay focused a bit longer by distracting myself with different "productive" endeavors (basically, anything that wasn't playing games online).

Enter: Self Control.  Self Control is a free program for Macs (there's a similar program for Windows, I believe), that basically prevents you from accessing a certain website.  You create a blacklist, and whatever is on the blacklist when you activate it cannot be accessed by any browser until the user-set time is up.  So if I, say, need to write a blog post, I can set the timer for an hour or so and then I won't be tempted to open up Zuma Blitz because I can't access facebook at all (even if I restart the computer or uninstall the program).

A quick side note: I've found that usually 20-30 minutes of Self Control is great when I'm doing a task -I usually want to switch over within the first ten minutes or so, then eventually get lost in what I'm doing and forget about the need to go play games.

Now that I had a way of actively blocking out chunks of time for work where I literally was unable to play games,  I went about making a list of things I have to do as well as what I want to do.  My list looked like this:

-finish "The Siren's Call" comic
-work on top secret collaborative project
-develop Zombie board game
-develop dark wizard card game
-paint more items for The Dark Wizard's One Stop Shop
-scan, color correct, and post said illustrations on my site
-read psychology books
-screen print any outstanding orders
-work on event planning contract
-write new short stories
-edit old short stories
-watch self-improvement/business classes online

I then created a schedule for my work day, and set about dealing with the most pressing (ie. stuff I was getting directly paid to do) items first.

While sometimes the pressing items had to be done, I would find that I would try to put them off by going to play games online again.  Fortunately, Self Control was there for me, and I had to figure some other way to use up my time.  I then started jumping back and forth between projects.  I would start inking a comic page, then when I'd get bored, I'd start writing down ideas for the game, then I might pick up any of the two-three books I'd be reading and read ten-fifteen pages, then I'd go back to the comic, then I might brainstorm some game mechanics.  Around and around I went, skipping around, until I finally sat down and scheduled meetings and responded to emails and did the work I was otherwise trying to avoid.

If you've been reading our blog, I'm sure you've heard of Geneen Roth, one of the authors that Seal follows closely.  One of her main points of advice is to follow your body - it knows what you want more than anything else.  Just as this applies to how you eat, I was advised to apply it to how I work.  By giving myself just a bit of constraint (via Self Control), I let myself work on whatever I wanted to work on.

While it might seem like I'm wasting a lot of time jumping from one thing to another, I actually got more done during this trial than I would when I would try to sit myself down and buckle down.

While if you're not naturally someone who likes to juggle a lot of projects at once, then you probably don't have as much trouble focusing and getting anything done.  However, for all you artists who easily get distracted, have more ideas than time to complete them, or find yourself staring projects but never finishing them, I think embracing your natural way of working as much as you can will actually lead you to getting more stuff done.

While I concluded that a lot of my game playing was done out of wanting to "do something else," I did find that I still really, really, really like games.  This revelation was sort of life-changing, but that'll have to wait until Part Two, next week.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Building a Strong Foundation (In Life)

Before you decorate the roof, you must first build the foundations of the house deep into the ground.

In filmmaking, we call this “finding the broad stroke.” A couple of months ago, I sat at a film story-brainstorming meeting. We were all very excited about a new story we were working on. We had the details down to the characters’ colors, the time of day in which the story takes place, and we were chattering up a storm when one of the soft-spoken writers raised his hand, “But what is this film really about? In one sentence what is the backbone to the story?”

Now I ask you, what is the backbone to your dreams? Sure you can decorate your dreams with shingles, pretty flowers on the front porch, and a tire swing in the backyard, but what is it build upon? What is driving you? What is the reason?

Since I was in high school, I had dreams of being an art director. I didn’t know why I wanted to become one, just that I did and I worked really hard towards that trajectory. At age 19, I was given creative directorial duties at the community college theater program. At age 20, I was promoted at my work at Walt Disney into a supervisory creative role. At age 22-25, I directed plays at UC Berkeley. I am now currently working on two films as an art director. I had many chances at the role in the past and I messed up quite a bit in some of them. Because even when I had the title at an early age, I didn’t have a strong foundation to build my dreams upon. Growing up in a highly critical house being the shadow of my artistic older sister, I was constantly riddled with self-doubt, self-sabotage, and lack of belief in my own inner potential. I had no foundation. I may have looked like an accomplished decorated titled house on the outside, but the inside was bare bones.

It was as if I peered into the hood of a car and realized there was no engine. Perhaps the car had moved on its own because it was on a hill and gravity pulled it down into the valley at top speed. But when I found myself at the bottom of the pit, what drove my car, my dreams, up against the mountain?

It doesn’t take science to know that if you are empty or wounded on the inside, you cannot give much towards your dreams.

So how do you build the foundation for your dreams? It will differ from person to person. But first you must find the reason behind your dream. Then you must heal yourself from any physical, emotional, or mental splinters you might have had, so the trunks and roots of your dreams can grow deep into the ground. For a prominent blogger and millionaire business venture artist James Altucher, his physical and mental foundations are what were most important for him. If he is tired, and didn’t get enough sleep, or didn’t eat enough nutritional meals, he has a hard time focusing on his writing. So he makes sleep, exercise, and meals a priority. For Seal, her foundation is taking care of the physical body (yoga/jogging), meditation to quiet her inner critics (simple 5-10 minutes quiet time after she wakes up to know what to focus on during the day), as well as filling her creative life with daily adventures (visiting a bookstore, etc). When she sees new sights or experiences a new technique to approach her painting, the natural high can help her push pass the funk and challenges of going after her dreams. Her other foundation pillars also include integrity (she can’t take on a job if it goes against her values), community building (she wants other people to reach their dreams too, and she knows there are people she can count on when she’s down), optimism (you don’t know what’s going to happen within the next second, so why not hope for the best possible outcome?), and last but not least, her reason. At the heart of her dreams of being an artist, is the simple wish to share and be heard. To feel connected to other people through her art and her inner world. That’s it. Not as hard to accomplish and focus on her dreams when it’s narrowed down to a simple wish of living among other people and being understood.

What is your dream? What are your foundations to build upon?

Thursday, January 3, 2013

How Self-Improvement Will Destroy You

A very non-serious .gif by Monkey for a serious post by Seal. What a silly Monkey.

When I was seven years old, I started my first to-do list. I was quite simple, with only three items I wanted to accomplish every day.

  • Put away my toys
  • Make up my bed
  • Help parents clean the apartment

Ten years later, when I was seventeen, the list grew to more than a 100 items. It was no longer a daily list, but a resolution for life. I titled it “Goals in Life”. It included travel destinations, languages to learn, running record times to break, things to become . . .

  • Travel to Nepal, Africa, France, London
  • Learn French, Spanish, Mandarin, Japanese
  • Run 6 minute mile
  • Run 20 minute 3 mile (standard xcountry race)
  • Draw in 20 sketchbooks (I gave myself 6 years)
  • Read all of Shakespeare
  • All Greek Mythology
  • Collect stamps
  • Wrtie a novel
  • Make a film
  • Learn how to brew my own beer
  • Learn how to make my own cheese

The list went on, page after page. If you can’t tell, I was a very serious person who wanted to accomplish very big things. But at the heart of this list, there was something terribly wrong.

Although I read all of Shakespeare’s work in both junior college and in Berkeley, I couldn’t really use my knowledge of Old English and Literature in my everyday conversations. I hated Greek Mythology. I started a stamp collection, but I don’t even like collecting stamps. I managed to learn conversational Japanese and French on my own, but I have a high resistance to learning tonal languages such as mandarin. I don’t seem to have an ear for it. My friends make better beer and cheese that I did, so why not bum some off of them instead? And as I ran everyday and got close to breaking into 7-minute mile, I suffered an injury that put me out most of the x-country season during my senior year. I never did break that 6-minute mile or 20 minute 3 mile. And although I accomplished quite a lot from my giant list and I was generally happy, when I completed a task and crossed it off my list, the joy didn’t last as long as I thought it would. The experience of accomplishing a goal was tinged with a bit of disappointment. Since I didn’t want to think of what that would mean, I’d hurry onto the next task. My obsession with x-country record time was replaced by the next item on the list. At one point it was literature/ narrative theory at Berkeley, and now it’s art and film.

At the heart of these goals and resolution lists, I couldn't leave myself alone. Under the guise of self-improvement, I had rejected myself. Somewhere along, I believed that who I was at the core was not good enough and I needed to improve. I was thoroughly convinced that if I had accomplished certain things, it would sure to make myself feel worthy. I was busy trying to become someone else. I constructed a parallel life: someone that knew French, Spanish, Mandarin, and Japanese, someone who was a dedicated and revered marathon runner, someone who was cultured in Shakespeare and Greek Mythology, someone who could entertain her guests with beer and cheese made from her own very backyard.

“Self improvement” became self-rejection, a mad haste to becoming someone other than myself. I was always either “squeezing myself into a narrow version of revered behavior or crashing and rebelling against everything that constricted me.” No amount of goals I accomplished, no amount of tasks crossed off, satisfied me. “I had to keep doing more and more to silence the part of me that knows my actions were based on fear of what would happen if I didn’t try so hard” (Geneen Roth).

Stephen Levine, a meditation teacher once said, “Hell is wanting to be something and somewhere different from where you are.” If that’s true, then I spent a good number of my life in hell.

For a long time, I did this with art too. I signed up for workshop courses, made myself watch art videos everyday, draw everyday, paint everyday. I was so busy “climbing up the art career” until one day, I had pain and tightness in my wrist and tiredness in my eyes and I was forced to do anything else except for art. That same year, my aunt passed away. I hadn’t seen her for 20 years. There were so many words left unsaid.

I took a walk to my favorite coffee shop and had some warm chai. I didn’t realize that on that particular day, there was a festival at Japantown. So I sipped my chai and watched the kids playing taiko drums as the wind blew wisps of hair around my cheeks.

We are so afraid that if left to ourselves, without structure, without goals and resolutions, that we won’t accomplish anything, that we will falter and give in to laziness. Most resolutions are created out of fear, force, shame, or guilt. They are focused on “self-improvement”- the belief that something is broken and needed fixing rather than “self-actualization” – the unleashing of your already abundant amazing self and embodying your potential. Trust, that left to yourself, you will not destroy what matters most.

Ten years more, at age 27, I stopped making these resolution lists.

So what would happen if I didn’t try so hard?

I paint and make films. I just stopped counting how many sketchbooks I’ve filled up by a certain time. I do yoga and I jog, but I stopped counting how many calories I burned, how long it takes to run a mile, or how many times I go in a week. I learned enough Japanese to telecommute with my boss at SEGA in Tokyo, Japan, but I still don’t know how to write Kanji so I’ll get Google translator to help me with that. I gave away my stamps to an elementary kid who might have appreciated them more than me. If I do end up picking up Mandarin, great. If I don’t, that’s fine too. For my parties, I buy beer from my friend who is currently going to Beer School and cheese from the local green market ~ I’m never disappointed.

Our society has a very odd way of rewarding self-improvement and New Year’s Resolutions. We never question whether they are right to begin with. I’m not thoroughly against resolutions or goals. I think they are important in that they provide some sort of trajectory to aim for. As well as they are truthful tools to get you closer to self-actualization.

For example, you can begin from where you are. What are my goals? Say, to get a job at a top studio as an art director. What prize are you hoping to receive when you accomplish that goal? Is it fame? Financial reward? Or Creative reward that comes with a big studio? Is it rest from “having to find another job ever again”? or is it the freedom to choose your projects? Do you even like managing other artists (this comes with the responsibilities of being an art director)? So if you were able to narrow down your true desire from your goal, say you want to be an art director at a big studio so you can choose your projects and work with other inspiring top level artists . . . (you don’t really need a big studio or title of an art director to accomplish this true desire) what you, in fact, really wanted is freedom and creativity. Unless you can uncover your deepest desires, goals are elusive from one task to another. But if you ask questions about your goals, their true motives, and  they are very specific towards embodying your full potential; they can become your greatest tool and compass towards the theme of your life - the meaning you are trying to make with your life.

Whether you are just starting out or writing your resolutions for the 100th time, the biggest caveat, is that goals and resolutions should never be created out of fear or punishment (ie, if I don’t exercise, I’ll gain weight), but goals should be born out of trust in becoming and self-care (I like the feeling of moving my body and having strength in my limbs, so I’ll exercise). It shouldn’t be “Draw everyday (because if I don’t I won’t become somebody special, I won't create at all, other artists will pass me up, I won’t get a job, or I won’t have anything to contribute,” it should be “I enjoy the process of creating a visual physical thing from ideas, I love putting my imaginary worlds unto something visible that I can share with other people so I will draw whenever when I can.”

Here at Monkey + Seal, we’re a big fan of goals’ close cousin: themes. An extended explanation from out last post: whereas goals cover measurable units (running 3x a week), themes are broad strokes that highlight the values that are important to you (living a more a healthy lifestyle). With goals, you can get easily disappointed when you run 2 days and fail the 3rd day while with theme, if I fail to run at all in the week, there are many other actions I can take to fulfill the theme of living a healthy lifestyle, I can drink more water, get more rest, eat low cholesterol diet, walk around the block during lunchtime. The same thing could be said for the artist. Instead of “draw everyday, write everyday, or paint everyday” I now “incorporate a more creative life in my moment to moment,” that could mean anything from sipping chai while observing the sounds of steam milk, coffee grinding, and laughter at a cafĂ©, taking photographs outside my window, catching up on the latest film and discussing its cinematography and color, to walking around the block while hashing out the ending to my film.

So what are your themes for this year? For 6 months? This month?

What is your true north?