Talulah Derailed

The story:

A twenty-seven year old woman smiled as she walked across the stage to receive her Master of Fine Arts Degree from a well-respected graduate program. Let’s call the woman Talulah. Family and friends were there to shout her on. She had come to the end of a long, but deeply engaging education for which she worked hard and taken on no small amount of debt—considering her chosen field. This was two years ago last May.

Last week, Talulah went back to her alma mater to take care of some left over charges, return a book that had been lost and visit some of her professors. In her office she found the professor with whom she had connected most during her time there. They sat and talked for an hour. At first the conversation was mostly small talk, but then it became clear that Talulah was in some despair. Things in the past two years had not worked out as she had hoped. She’d spent most of her time looking for, and applying for, college teaching jobs. She had not landed one.

“But I thought you wanted to be an artist,” the professor said.

“I do. What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Teaching art is not the same priority as making art.”

“I can’t afford to just be an artist!”

“You just spend six years and I don’t know how many hundreds of thousands of dollars learning to do one thing, and now you want to go and do another that you haven’t studied at all—that you had never even aspired to. And what do you mean, just an artist?”

“But…,” Talulah rushed to object but without the words. Instead she sat, motionless, looking at a point in space—her head cocked to the side.

The easy explanation for why Talulah didn’t even consider trying to build her art career before “falling back” on teaching is that fear held her back. Writer/blogger Seth Godin calls it “the lizard brain.” “It’s always fear,” Godin says.

I don’t know, it seems to me that it’s pretty unusual to judge yourself as the one in 1,000 artists who will be able to live on your work. What kind of person would believe that they could do that?

It’s what we expect a lot of people to do. We look at people who come from difficult circumstances—people who might become that one in a hundred or even one a thousand if they achieved in the way we might like them to—escaping the orbit of their surroundings. While we might understand Talulah’s decision, many would judge others who don’t muster exceptional strength. You just want to ask them, “Are you that person? Are you exceptional? Where would you be by now if you were?”

WhoWeAm has spent this past year looking at cultural dynamics, but equally puzzling are the choices we make as individuals.