The Beauty of Being a Hack

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(Working Title: Fake it until you make it… and beyond)

Let’s assume that change is good. We’ll call it positive change. Change typically means being placed in situations that are unfamiliar. The unfamiliar has the ability to produce discomfort. Let’s introduce the concept of positive discomfort.

In order to grow, discomfort needs to be recognized as a good thing.

In conversation #8 of 100 Conversations, a goal was phrased as wanting to speak with authority about a subject. It was also phrased in wanting to get to the point of not feeling like a hack. The phrase “fake it until you make it” came to mind. I think that we have all been there, or are still there. It can take a long time until we achieve expertise (or close to it), and it sometimes takes even longer to actually realize that we’ve made it there. The trip to expertise is long and gradual, so we probably carry the feeling of being a hack with us beyond when we could have left it behind.

So, we get to a point where we have the tools and skills to deal with the majority of what we encounter. Things become more static, and there is a resultant decrease in discomfort. Well… in theory. The truth is that we find ourselves opening doors to new opportunity for new experiences, and the accompanying ability to be a hack again. This time you get to be an experienced hack rather than a freshman hack. Reassuring, right?

[I’m going to try a new thing in my blog posts. You’ve just reached the first point that I’d like to make: we do fake it until we make it, and then keep on faking it BUT in a more controlled/experienced manner. It’s normal. You can head on over to People magazine now, or continue on for an expansion of this reassurance.]

There is truth in this ever renewed hackdom. Most of us seek to develop a core expertise, and then we build upon it or expand it in new ways. When my work is directly related to my company’s mission statement, I am a landscape architect and apply that skillset for our clients. The episodes of truly being a hack relate to major chapters in our lives. I can be a landscape architect with my eyes closed, but when it comes to the current chapter where I’m the guy running the company? That’s where my discomfort lies. That’s my current chapter. These chapters take the form of receiving a big promotion, moving to a new company, changing careers, having a kid, etc…

The conversation that spurred this blog post was with an artist. And, my brain is finding some challenge with processing where it wants to go within this discussion. Let’s assume that success is predicated on having a specific set of skills to apply to a specific set of problems. Most careers are based on someone approaching us for a specific expected outcome. What happens when the specific expected outcome IS being new and different?

We look to artists to provide us with things of aesthetic beauty (which is in the eye of the beholder), but we also sometimes seek a deeper need to have them connect us to new ways of looking at our world. The easiest “specific expected outcome” for an artist is to provide us with something of beauty. An artist can achieve an expertise and spend their life creating the things of beauty that we surround ourselves with. This can be their career.

If their artistic identity is grounded within a higher level of engaging an audience with ways of looking at the world, then comfort is a stale sign. Positive discomfort is the indicator that they are in the place that they should be. The level of discomfort probably being directly proportional to whether growth is incremental, or a massive shift. My empathy for artists is huge. “Success” is grounded within finding popularity. The majority of people like the familiar. How many times does our culture reject the “new” that our artists create? At a concert do you shout loudest for the new songs, or the old one that you know by heart? How did you feel when Picasso entered his blue period? [you probably don’t have first-hand experience unless you’re immortal]. So not only does discomfort arise from the challenge of investigating a new approach to your art, it comes from how people will react when you change how pleasing you are to them.

As a landscape architect, I am in a design profession. We exist within a spectrum between the functional and the artistic. Technical expertise. Craft. Art. The discomfort that I experience relates to the vagaries of running a business, and trying to do new things.  We do artistic things, but are we artists? At least in my world, I don’t think we have enough discomfort to be artists. Our artistic efforts are grounded in function.

The tangent I find myself considering now in this post is how much discomfort can we accommodate? At the moment, I spend much energy on the discomfort that arises from running a business, managing clients and the challenges of communicating with all involved. I think my discomfort quota is mostly full. That (unfortunately) leaves less room to seek the discomfort of the artistic side of what we do. I think that’s typical to our world and what happens as we age and gain expertise.

This leads to the beauty of patrons. Perhaps the most important role of a patron is that they free artists from the discomfort and constraints of ‘fitting into’ society and ‘making a living’. They can focus their discomfort quota toward pursuing the change and vitality of examining (and shifting) views of the world within and around us. They gain the freedom to seek discomfort.

So, back to the concept of being a hack. Over time most of us pursue vocations or careers where we incrementally develop our knowns and the certainty that tomorrow will look mostly like today. We get better at being a hack, as the hack we were yesterday looks like the hack we’ll be tomorrow. For artists (or creatives in general), the beauty and pain of it is that they might wake up as a completely new and different hack. Perhaps yesterday provides some tools for them, but maybe not. What they carry with them as their core certainty is a desire to look at the world and show others what they see. Comfortable or not.

Well, I find myself at the concluding paragraph (and once again, it just feels like I spent hours contemplating something that is just obvious once I get to it). Most of us are like kids in a scouting program. We work within a system where each badge you get prepares you a bit more for the next one, and the sash that you wear them on illustrates your incremental momentum toward being less and less of a hack. There are those around us who just wander off into the woods alone to create their own badges. The freedom of discomfort. The perpetual hack.

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