The motivating and scary allure of expressing yourself in your work
The thing with lines in the sand is that they create division.
What if you draw one and your audience/customers/people you care about are on the other side of it? What if you offend or turn off the people you’re trying to serve? What if people see the real you and your true expression, and simply aren’t interested?
Most lines in the sand come from opinions on self-expression—which isn’t a necessity. I don’t have to swear in books. I don’t have to talk about feminism if it’s not my job. I don’t have to be public about my passions, pet rats, or vegan ramblings.
So why bother?
For me, it comes down to who I want to surround me. So if someone is offended that I think gay/women’s rights are really just human rights (and just as necessary), then I’m happy to offend someone like that. I would not enjoy being hired by them any more than, as a vegan, I’d enjoy being hired by a butcher. If someone thinks I’m an uncreative writer with invalid opinions due to my occasional use of profanity, that’s on them to find someone else to read, not on me to change. Dissent and critical thought are important, even if it’s of my own work (it’s encouraged even). But there must be openness to discussion and learning, and not closed-minded thinking and hate.
I’m often asked if being open about what I care about hurts or helps my business. To be honest, I don’t know. Maybe I’d get more customers or sell more books if I shut up about certain topics or didn’t express my personality as much. Or, as I’m often told, if I just wrote without cuss words because it’s possible to write without swearing. And mostly I do actually write without swearing. So why not always do that?
While I don’t know if being open and expressive helps the bottom line of my business, I do know—for 100% certain—that it attracts the type of people I enjoy working with and interacting with. There is no doubt that I attract these sorts of people, because it’s easy for them to see what I stand for. And more importantly, they see themselves standing on my side of the line.
To (unfortunately) mix oceanfront metaphors, the line in the sand is a like a lighthouse beacon. Standing for something puts out into the world a set of beliefs that others can be drawn to. Yes, sometimes it can attract the pirates, pillagers, trolls, haters. Because that spotlight makes for easier target practice. But it also lets others who are like you, or relate to you, draw closer.
I always come back to the line in the sand. The line is what defines me—as a person, as a creative, as someone who puts work out into the world. Without that line there’s no difference between myself and any other designer, any other writer, or any other creative. The line is how and why I’m different. The line is how any of us are different. The expression we have, while not a necessity, speaks to who we are. Why not amplify that?
As someone who “makes stuff” for a living, I know that I’m responsible for what I put out into the world. So why not let it be a true reflection of me? I’m flawed, sometimes crass, opinionated as all get out, and I don’t back down (to a fault).
I’m also often told that it’s all well and good for me to be opinionated because I’ve already established myself in what I do. [Insert already having an audience, already having books that sell, already having a career, etc.] I would posit, however, that that’s precisely what established me in the first place.
Not being able to compete with better writers, better designers, better programmers, better role models, I instead focused on just being myself, publicly.
Like most other creatives, I struggle with self-sabotage, self-doubt, and feeling like an imposter more often than not. I struggle with expressing myself, because it does sometimes feel easier or “safer” not to.
There’s obviously a time and place for everything, though. I’m not going to go to an elementary school to talk about working in a creative field and drop f-bombs left and right (as funny as that might be to imagine for a minute). Or launch into a two-hour diatribe about pet rats on a sales call. But I’m also not going to hide who I am when the occasion calls for it.
What makes any of us us isn’t our set of skills, experience or accolades—it’s how we use our personalities and self-expression in our work. Otherwise, we’d all be the same, with the same pitches for the work we do, the same books on the same topics, and the same everything else.
I'd rather succeed or fail as myself than do it pretending to be someone else, or worse, do it without infusing any of myself into my work.
So I’m going to keep expressing myself and drawing those lines in the sand. The alternative would both bore the heck out of me and be so un-motivating that I wouldn’t want to continue creating.
Hi, I'm Paul Jarvis. I write a weekly newsletter called the Sunday Dispatches where I share articles about working and living online with 35k subscribers: