Wherever you look, if you look closely enough, you just might find yourself.
I’d like to introduce you to Alison Hardy (the one who painted the picture above). Ali is a self-described 21st century muthatruckin’ Renaissance woman. If you’ve read some other things I’ve written, then you know I have both mad respect and deep empathy for Renaissance people. Respect might be self-explanatory. But empathy, you ask?
Well here’s what the world basically tells us:
Find your one and only calling in life and make that your career. And find your one and only soul mate and make that person your spouse. Then you’ll be happy.
The problem is… that formula (and I’ll focus on the career part) just doesn’t work for everyone. Because, some people are 21st century Renaissance people dammit. (A.K.A. multipotentialites).
This specific group of people tends to have spotted resumes and when viewed through the eyes of conventional wisdom, they often look like they are lost in life or unable to focus. People tell them nobody will want to hire them because their resumes are so damn eclectic. (My former boss recently told me I was “unemployable”). And if these people listen to what society or their former bosses tell them, they can be made to feel as though they are defective in some way. What was once a virtue back in the Renaissance period has become a liability in this age of super-specialization. And I think it’s a pity, because Renaissance people are totally awesome. But I digress, as usual.
Alison Hardy grew up in Jackson, Michigan. She was a piano player from the age of 4, as well as a saxophone and French horn player. In her freshman year of high school, she discovered she had a propensity for learning languages, and became fluent in German. She went on to study foreign languages and international relations and was on the edge of settling in Germany, but met her future husband (a Brit bound for the U.S. of A.) and decided living abroad didn’t feel like the right move.
So, newly U.S.-bound herself, she became a federal IT consultant, working in supply chain consulting for IBM. She did this for seven years before pivoting and going back to school for speech pathology. She now works in behavior analysis with a focus on autism.
Oh and did I mention she’s a mom too? Or should I say, she’s a mom and she’s all this other stuff on the side.
So what about the art?
Well that’s a pretty recent thing. Or that’s the case with the latest manifestation of her creative side.
About a year ago, Ali started going to “wine and painting” social events with her friends. (Quick side note—I recently went to my first one of these. I don’t want this article about Ali to get cluttered with the first “piece” I’ve attempted since basically failing my elementary school studio art class and never touching the visual arts again, so instead, here’s a link to my painting: Bird With Fat Thighs. I am currently auctioning this piece off. If you are interested, please contact me. The suggested opening bid is $250,000.)
Ali found these social painting events to be really fun, but she also found it to be a bit uninspiring in terms of what you could paint. Around the same time, she and her husband had bought a fire damaged home. There was a rooster emblazoned on the wall, left there by the previous owners. Then, something clicked.
Ali’s first piece was born.
It’s not often you get to see somebody’s “first.” But lucky for you and lucky for me… boom. You’re welcome.
What happened next is that she shared this piece on the social medias, and received warm responses about it. So she did a little more art and more positive feedback flooded in.
And almost overnight (which are my words, chosen by comparing this to the gradual process that happens for so many others), Ali was doing commissioned artwork on the side. Here is an example of a recent commissioned piece of hers:
Ali went from zero to making a fair bit of money from her newly discovered artistic talents in less than one year. Someone once said “the internet is an amazing thing.” That someone was Ali.
Ali currently works four days a week at her job in behavior analysis, which she loves; she spends one full day a week doing the artwork that seems to have fallen into her lap, which she loves (some of the art is for herself, some of it is working on her growing base of commissioned work); and she spends the weekend with her family, who she loves—a perfectly balanced life for a mom and a Renaissance woman.
And she lived happily ever after.
Whoa whoa whoa… that’s it?
But what about the struggle? The strife? The sacrifice? What about the gradual and grueling process of building up a portfolio, a client base, an audience? What about putting in crazy hours stringing together multiple sources of income while tirelessly pursuing art on the side in the hopes that one day you can move from ramen noodles to rice and beans and maybe even somewhere beyond that?
Too embarrassed to admit this to Ali at the time, those were some of the thoughts that first went through my mind when she shared with me this story of the last year of her life. I think I even felt some disappointment. It was like there was a part of me that was rejecting it because it felt too picture-perfect, too easy. Or it didn’t fit some preconceived notion I had of how this kind of thing typically progresses for people.
The next thoughts that came up for me went something like this: Is there something wrong with me? Do I want people to struggle? Is someone’s creative success less valid when there isn’t pain and heartache and a slog through huge mounds of shit before having one’s passion finally bear some fruit?
I had my own Rooster moment. ‘Twas a wake-up call.
I realized some part of me hadn’t even really been internalizing Ali’s journey. For some reason, my brain conceived of it starting with wine and painting with friends, followed by things magically falling into place in a matter of weeks.
So allow me to back up and tell you what really happened (according to me… always good to remember that).
Ali was a multi-faceted, highly talented overachiever who had a picture in her mind of what her life would look like and hundreds of pounds of expectations she placed onto herself to go along with it. She expected herself to have a big corporate job. Her parents had been in the business world and she grew up thinking of her creative passions as hobbies, not as something you pursue for real.
After making a pretty radical switch away from the notion of living abroad in Germany, she landed in just that type of big corporate job she envisioned—working for IBM. And she was damn good at that too. And along with being damn good at a big corporate consulting job came all of the trappings—like the outstanding pay (which easily becomes a shiny pair of golden handcuffs) and a wonderful self-image you get to portray to your friends, your family, and anyone else you meet.
The problem was that the job began sucking her soul. The hours were brutal, the travel was intense, it was definitely not a calling for her, and it even made her feel like an outright fraud. For years, she would express this overwhelm and emotion to her husband, and he actively encouraged her to leave – “You don’t need to do this, do something you love,” he would say. But for some reason, she kept with it.
The golden handcuffs may have played a role, but the real reason was tied more to self-image. (Identity almost always plays a role. Pay attention to it.)
Ali was proud of her self-image of being an IBMer and having this big corporate job. She was proud enough of that to put herself through a significant amount of hardship. Even when it wasn’t working for her, she clung to it. And doing so led to a ton of self-loathing. She couldn’t understand what she was doing or why she was doing it, yet in many ways she was stuck and couldn’t seem to free herself. She was in a very not-good place.
And then, just a few years ago, when she first became a mom, she was dealt another hardship—postpartum depression.
This was the Dark Period for her. Not only was there no creative energy, there wasn’t much energy in general. Just soul-sucking job followed by depression. Yay.
There was a small silver lining though. It probably went unnoticed at first. Silver linings usually do. Something about this Dark Period triggered a change deep inside Ali’s heart. Something in her broke down. Something finally shifted.
What shifted was this: No longer did she feel the need to fit into this idea that society placed on her, or that other people placed on her, or that she was placing on herself through her own expectations. No longer was she handcuffed by her own sense of pride. Instead, she got in touch with a glimmer inside that led her to pursue a very different form of livelihood, one that felt meaningful and fulfilling. This was when she decided to enroll in school for speech pathology. This was the first significant domino to fall.
Make no mistake. Even with all the pain and angst that was being caused by the trajectory she was on, it was not easy for Ali to give up her career and all of the things she had thought were so important to her. It was incredibly difficult, and it took a lot of time.
And during that Dark Period, there was a really important part of Ali that also went completely dark. She had completely lost her creative and artistic spark. She had no urge or energy to do anything artistic whatsoever. After fourteen years of music lessons and all the years after that of playing, she didn’t even have the desire to sit down and play the piano.
And this is purely my own editorial, not hers, but it takes an immense amount of psychic energy to live a life that is not authentic to you. So I am not the least bit surprised that between that and the postpartum depression, there was literally nothing left in her for the creative energy to flower.
Meeting Ali has opened my eyes to a number of things. But there is one thing her story has taught me most, and it is this:
Find yourself, and your art will find you.
Or your passion will find you, if art isn’t your thing. But you have to find yourself first. That’s the lead domino.
Had Ali not gone through her painful process of self-discovery—almost a form of rebirth—she never would have opened the door for these amazing talents to flourish.
I know there is a lot more to it than that, but I see it as the essence. And it’s undeniable that things are better because of it. The world probably didn’t need Ali the consultant. We’re a lot better off having her art, and the work she does in autism, and I’m guessing she’s a better mother because of all of this too.
Ali being a Renaissance woman, she also happens to have a black belt in dropping some wisdom on people. I share this philosophical nugget with you because it would be selfish to keep it all for myself in my own private notebook.
To all people with a passion to pursue:
“Let go of expectations. Let go of what you think everyone thinks you should be doing. Just let it go and follow that little voice inside of you. If every free minute you have, you’re looking at art on the internet, or you’re listening to music, that should tell you something. You have to listen to what it is that you feel passionate about. And don’t worry about the money because the money will come if you’re really good at something or you love something. Because that shows through in what you do.” –A.H.
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Many of us feel the need for what we do to be aligned with a greater sense of purpose. But how do you figure that out? How do you know? Read the next story about a guy whose story can help you figure out, is it a calling?
Feeling generous? Consider sharing this post and let’s push some more people to do what they love.
Thank you Ali, for the contagious positive energy and the reminder of what can happen when you follow what you love.