Overview: Lisa Congdon is an illustrator, and the author of eight books, most recently: “Find Your Artistic Voice: The Essential Guide to Working Your Creative Magic.” Her client list runs deep, including the Obama Campaign, the United Nations, Lululemon, Crate & Barrel, MoMA, REI, AirBnB, Martha Stewart Living …
In this conversation, we talk about failure, impostor syndrome, and the stories and experiences that shape us. We get into spirituality and authenticity, conformity and fear. Lisa speaks on white privilege and anti-racism, and her activism for LGBTQ rights. We talk about a crucial, “magical” chapter in her story while living in San Francisco in the 90s, her breast cancer diagnosis in recent months, and what she’s learned from friends-slash-idols Brené Brown, Elizabeth Gilbert and Debbie Millman.
These things and more in this episode of the Humanitou Podcast.
Also on Apple, Spotify, Pandora, Stitcher, YouTube, Google and other players.
Ep 96 SHOW NOTES, LINKS & INTRO TRANSCRIPT
Connect with Lisa Congdon
Books: Find Your Artistic Voice | Art, Inc.
Debbie Millman | Design Matters
Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic
Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way
Brené Brown, Unlocking Us
Ira Glass, This American Life
Connect with Adam Williams & Humanitou
Humanitou on LinkedIn
Subscribe to Humanitou Newsletter
Media Kit for Humanitou
Adam: Welcome to Humanitou. I’m Adam Williams, creator and host of this podcast series that empowers connection through conversations of humanness and creativity.
Today, I’m talking with illustrator, artist and author Lisa Congdon.
I am super excited to share this conversation with you. I’ve followed Lisa’s work on Instagram for quite some time and I’ve read her books. I tremendously value her voice in the world as one that’s strong and confident, generous and uplifting — and so I have wanted to be able to talk with her for Humanitou for at least a couple years now.
I finally reached out. She said “yes.” And here we are! — or soon will be.
First I’m going to give you the rundown. Just some of the highlights, mind you. …
Lisa is the author of eight books — and counting. Most recently, you might have read her book, “Find Your Artistic Voice: The Essential Guide to Working Your Creative Magic.” If not, you can get a signed copy from Lisa through her website.
She works and has worked as an illustrator with many esteemed clients, like … the Obama Campaign, the United Nations, Lululemon, Crate & Barrel, MoMA (the Museum of Modern Art), REI, AirBnB, Martha Stewart, Harvard University … the list goes on.
She also was named one of 40 Women Over 40 to watch a few years ago. I love that there’s a list for over-40, and that Lisa is on it. Because, one last bullet-point here, Lisa also published this book, “A Glorious Freedom: Older Women Leading Extraordinary Lives.”
I tell you all those things, just to give you a hint of the experience Lisa brings to our conversation today — because that’s not much of what we talk about, actually. Not in specific, anyway.
In today’s conversation, we talk about failure and impostor syndrome. We talk about childhood mythology, and the stories and experiences that shape us. We get into spirituality and authenticity, conformity and fear.
Lisa speaks to white privilege and anti-racism, and activism for LGBTQ rights, and about a crucial chapter in her story while living in San Francisco in the 90s.
I think I say we cover a lot in these conversations. And with Lisa, I think we cover even more that is so significant. I mean, I didn’t even mention she was diagnosed with breast cancer several months ago, or who her friend-slash-idols are. I’ll let her tell you that, because we talk about it all.
My conversation with the amazing Lisa Congdon.
Adam: (00:03:19) Lisa, welcome to Humanitou. I am incredibly honored to have you here for a conversation with me today.
Lisa: Thank you for having me, Adam.
Adam: You know, you have experienced a lot of success, I think by any measure, and to outsiders, meaning anyone who is not intimately engaged in the process of another’s work, you know, it’s easy to only see those successes.
So what I want to do to start off here, is take a few moments to just appreciate the unsung value of failure. Okay? Can we start with failure? How has failure factored into your path of success? And when I say that, I mean, as illustrator, book author, artist, competitive athlete, any way you look at it.
Lisa: (00:03:58) Yeah, well, it’s interesting. I think that part of why I have become successful is because I got really comfortable with failure, or at least with the aspects of the creative process or, um, even, you know, sort of training in my athletic pursuits.
Um, I’ve gotten really, really comfortable with the, with the struggle. And I think that’s the thing that is so hard for so many people. Um, and part of what makes my story a little different than, um, than that of a lot of professional artists is that I didn’t actually start until I was a bit older. Like, I didn’t start drawing or painting until I was in my early thirties. And I was about 39 when I launched my professional career. Right?
And I’ve been doing it for about 13 years, but I had sort of reached this point in my life where I understood on a deep level that in order to make something work, I had to try it over and over and over.
(00:05:05) And I had to sort of push through all of the discomfort and all of the, the, you know, for lack of a better word, failure, you know? Um, and there were, I think, you know, in the big, you know, they’re sort of like micro failures, the showing up at your drawing table, or, you know, if you’re a writer or showing up at your computer or your, your drawing, your writing pad or whatever, and like having an idea that you’re really excited about, but that after two hours you can’t seem to manifest, right?
Um, those are sort of like the micro failures, and then the bigger failures where you publish a book and you work on it for like a year and a half, and then no one buys it. And I’ve experienced, you know, every range of that kind of failure. And, um, and I think the great thing is for me, I had enough, I’ve sort of gotten to this place where I understand that those are opportunities for learning and maybe doing it differently the next time instead of giving up.
And I think a lot of people out there experience some kind of failure and then are hesitant to show up again, and to get anywhere you sort of have to get comfortable making mistakes, failing, practicing, not having things work out the way you want them to. And continuing to show up for the next thing and try again.
Adam: (00:06:30) I think that there is something, especially when we’re starting out, so maybe in that sense of where amateurs, we’re just trying to learn and go through these processes where sometimes there’s a, there is an impatience, like, “I want to just see the results. I don’t want to go through the process.”
And I’m wondering if you had to go through that part, and it just took time for you to realize, “okay, I can relax a bit, because it’s the process that gets me someplace.” Or, uh, did you have that out of the gate, knowing “I just love doing this so much that I’ll pound away at it until I’m better”?
Lisa: (00:07:08) I think it was probably a little bit of both. So I think because I started my career later in life, I had already had a lot of practice in, in failure essentially, or in things not going my way, because even though my former career was in something totally different than art, I had kind of developed this muscle of being, um, you know, having gone through experiences in the work environment, or through my athletic pursuits where I felt a bit beat beaten down or, um, or I had something really humiliating happen or, um, you know, where I sort of had to like pick up and carry on.
So a little bit of it was sort of already ingrained in me. And I’m also– I always joke that I’m like, uh, like quintessential Capricorn, um, you know, in the fact that I’m sort of tenacious and hard working and, you know, a little bit competitive even like when I fail, I have to sort of pick myself up and prove that I can do it next time.
(00:08:09) And I’ve sort of been like that since I was a kid, but I definitely think that in the beginning, especially in the beginning of my, sort of my art making journey, I definitely had a little bit of that, you know, “Oh, I have this vision for the kind of work that I want to make.” And I felt an enormous amount of disappointment that I couldn’t achieve it immediately.
Lisa: And, um, Ira Glass has this great, you know, um, little thing, you can find it if you Google it, um, on This American Life, it’s, it’s called the beginner gap. And, you know, it’s like this, you know, when we start out at something, when we were beginner at something, you know, we have this in, our taste is always far ahead of our ability, right? And we want to be an artist or we want to be a writer. We want to be a dancer. We want to, you know, do the thing, you know, be, um, you know, a great runner, whatever the thing is. Right?
(00:08:59) And so we envision ourselves doing that thing that we want to do really well, and that’s why we get into it. Um, but then we try to do it and we suck at it, because we’re a beginner, you know? Um, and there’s this gap between where we start and where we want to be. And what he talks about is that most people, um, are so mortified by the fact that they can’t do the thing they want to do immediately, that they quit. Right? And they walk away.
And that’s, I think, especially true with creative endeavors, because we’re taught that, you know, some people are born with artistic skill and some people aren’t. So if we can’t do the thing immediately, that must mean that we don’t have the skill, and people who are actually able to develop skill or develop taste, or get to the place where their skill matches their taste level, um, is, is sort of what separates the, you know, people’s ability to kind of go inside that gap, go into that abyss, go into that maze of not knowing and of having to work hard, and try over and over to get to that place.
(00:10:21) Like that’s what separates the quitters from the people who actually eventually get there. And I definitely think that I have that, um, mentality, or I learned pretty quickly that I was going to need to work really hard to get to the place where I am now. And that was, of course, incredibly frustrating to me in the beginning. But, um, but I, I managed to persevere. There is a certain amount of grit that is required, for sure.
Adam: (00:10:51) You know, I think we tend to, in our, maybe naivete and immaturity when we’re starting out at whatever age that is, we have this picture, like I said, with the beginning of this, the highlights of someone else’s career and we think, “wow, it’s all success. It’s all easy. They’re so super talented.”
And so we’re making these comparisons, which leads me to impostor syndrome.
Adam: So as we’re trying to figure this out and we have our eye on the end of this and think, “well, that’s where I’m supposed to be.”
And you have experienced impostor syndrome. I, I imagine that every one of us who create does, maybe perpetually, I don’t know. And I’m curious if you have figured out what actually– is it perpetual? Is it something you can overcome or is it something you can use as an energy? Or what have you learned about getting through that impostor syndrome to then succeed and reach the dreams that you have?
Lisa: (00:11:50) Well, to answer your question in the sort of shortest form, I do feel like I’ve overcome it. It creeps in every now and again. And I have a few, a few stories that illustrate that, but I was deeply affected by impostor syndrome when I first started out. And for me, it actually started when I started getting recognition for my work.
Um, it, it, for me, it wasn’t like, “Oh, I can’t do this because I’m, I never went to art school or because I’m in my forties, and everyone else, you know, is 22.” It was more like, for me, it crept in when I started getting work and becoming more well known. That’s when I, the insecurity really crept in for me, you know, like, “who am I to do this? Um, my work still sucks. Like I shouldn’t be getting kudos for this.” You know, it was weird.
(00:12:44) Like that was, um, you know, I think particularly for women, this idea that, um, we’re just lucky if we’re successful, that it really, you know, we sort of diminish our skill because, you know, we’ve been taught that, you know, that we’re sort of like that we should hang back or that, you know, that we should stay humble.
And, um, so I was experiencing a lot of like, “who am I to be here? My work isn’t really any good,” almost this sense of embarrassment. And, um, and then I started getting invited to speak at conferences and, and, and I, I was sort of mortified, um, and felt like I didn’t deserve to be there. And yet I said, “yes.” I accepted the speaking engagements. I said, “yes,” to the jobs I was getting.
And for, uh, several years there, I was really wracked with enormous insecurity about my skills, and who I was and whether or not I was respected, um, almost to a point that it was debilitating, in terms of my anxiety.
(00:13:57) And I think it’s really important for people to understand that is completely normal, I’ve learned since then. Um, but at the time, I didn’t know that what I was experiencing was, um, impostor syndrome. And until somebody pointed that term out to me, and I was like, “Oh, okay. Yeah.”
Um, and, at one point, I think I woke up one day so frustrated with the level of fear that I was having that accompanied every step of my career. And I just said, “you know, this is BS. Like, I have to be able to move past this. Like when is this going to become real for me? Um, when can I just relax into the fact that this is happening, this is real, and I should enjoy it, instead of letting it make me feel shame and embarrassment.”
And I really worked hard on that. And I, I really, um, I was working with a business coach at the time who, who sort of has a spiritual practice on the side, um, was actually become a very integral part of his, how he operates.
(00:15:05) And he really helped me work through my impostor syndrome by asking me a lot of important questions. And eventually I started to really just like allow myself to sit with feeling good and happy. And, um, and I really do feel, I don’t have very much of that anymore. I really can honestly say, I think you can overcome it.
Now that said, every now and again, you know, it creeps in. Uh, a couple of years ago, a few years ago, I was, uh, invited to be the commencement speaker at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. And I never went to art school. So I’m there and I’ve got the cap and gown on, which was very surreal for me. And I’m, like, marching in with all of the, you know, the college president and all of the faculty. And it was both this very thrilling moment for me. And also a moment where I was definitely like my, all of my impostor syndrome just sort of like search to the surface. Right?
(00:15:58) ’Cause all of these people were, like, “who are you? And why are you here? And did you go to college here? And why are you the commencement speaker?” And I was like, ah, you know, um– So that is all to say, like, yes, you can overcome it, but it, but there is maybe part, you know, there’s that sort of, like, that part of all of us that, you know, is like, this is too good to be true, or I don’t really deserve this.
And I think, you know, in a way that functions as a way to kind of keep us humble, which is a good thing. But, um, but at the same time, like if it, if it sort of overtakes your, you know, your brain, it can be really damaging. I think, um, so working to overcome it is I think really important.
Adam: (00:16:48) You know, and a lot of things that you share in these kinds of conversations, things that you’ve written, uh, like in your books, Find Your Artistic Voice, Art, Inc. There are things there that help, uh, the rest of us to feel encouraged, like what you were just saying: We can get over impostor syndrome.
And there are other people who write these books as well. I’m sure you’re familiar with, familiar with all of them, you know, Julia Cameron in, The Artist’s Way.” Uh, and you talked with Elizabeth Gilbert, interviewing her in front of a live audience about her book, Big Magic.
And in that, uh, I love that you asked her to read some of that list of all those scary things that keep us from being creative out there, because it clearly, it clearly resonated with you and with the audience, because it’s so on the nose, all these things, these excuses we give: “somebody’s already done it, everybody’s already done it, they’ve done it better,” whatever.
(00:17:44) And I’m curious who are some of the people in your life, or some of the resources that you turn to, maybe it’s more in the past since impostor syndrome is not such a frequent, frequently occurring matter for you now, but who are some of those people, whether they’re friends, mentors, or how you go to connect with that common, that shared sense of understanding what impostor syndrome as a creative is. Right?
Because I think when we read these books or we hear you talk about it, we feel better. Like what you just shared, we feel better. “Yes, I can conquer impostor syndrome.” Who is it you go to is your resource to help you in those moments when you’re feeling that way?
Lisa: (00:18:24) Well, you know, it’s interesting, you should mention, um, Elizabeth Gilbert, ’cause, I think, you know, she is somebody who, we all sort of, those of us who follow her, like, look to as this person who has an enormous amount of confidence, right? She exudes sort of this, like, love of life and confidence, and also a certain vulnerability to try new things and put them out into the world. And we all sort of look at her as this person who’s got it all figured out.
And what I loved in reading Big Magic is that, you know, there is this list, like it’s in the first chapter, maybe not, in the beginning of the book, where she just talks about all of the things that, you know, we’re too this, or we’re too that, or we’re, you know, like all the things that hold us back, right? All of these fears we have that prevent us from starting things that we dream about.
(00:19:11) And the only reason that Liz knows that, knows that list is because she’s experienced it herself, and there’s this comfort. Right? And knowing that other people are afraid, like, I think you alluded in the beginning of our interview to this idea that, you know, we, we want to try something and we want it to work out immediately. Right? And we’re so afraid of, you know, because we’re so afraid of failing.
Like we don’t, it’s such a vulnerable thing to be creative, and knowing that other creative people have tried things and failed or that they, they just period, you know, have fears is so real, you know? ’Cause we always, I think we always think we’re the only one, right? Everyone else has got it figured out.
And so Liz is, is a very, is a mentor to me in that regard. Like, I’ve read her books and now we’re friends and I’ve like, you know, um, I’ve gotten to have conversations with her and that, you know, she’s, she’s, uh, any, I think anybody who, who sort of, uh– Brené Brown is another one of my friends-slash-idols who I think has been a great teacher to me, because she’s another example of somebody who readily admits that she screws up, or that she has fears or that she doesn’t have it all figured out.
(00:20:26) And there’s this quote that she’s been batting about recently, which is, you know, “I’m not here to be right. I’m here to get it right.” And this idea that, you know, this, that everything we embark on, whether it’s creativity or anti-racism work or, um, you know, or relationship work that, like, this isn’t about being right. It’s about learning and growth and being better.
And, um, I really look up to women who are willing to, and men, too, who are willing to say, like, “I, I, I’m on the path to getting it right. But I know I’m imperfect and I know I’m going to screw up.”
Um, and I think that’s such for, you know, it’s like role models who are human and, and really talk about their humanity, I think, are the best kinds of role models for all of us. Because if we are aspiring to be like somebody who we think has it all figured out, like where is– How are we ever going to get there, right? Because that picture seems so unrealistic. So, yeah.
Adam: (00:21:32) Right. I feel that way as a father of two sons, um, for example, in that if, if I were the dad who never would apologize, never would own up to the mistakes, well, what I’m doing is establishing this bar of perfection, which, of course, then they won’t be able to attain.
And whether it’s parents or teachers or coaches or people whose books we read out in the world, you know, I think it’s a similar thing, to see their vulnerability and behind the scenes, uh– Mentioning Brené Brown, her name came to mind when you said the word “shame” before, because shame comes to mind for me with impostor syndrome.
And I now can’t hear or think or say the word “shame” without thinking of what Brené Brown gives us about it.
Lisa: (00:22:13) Yeah. If, she’s like such a powerful voice for, like, giving us a vocabulary and language to talk about these really painful feelings that we have. And, um, and shame is like one of the most painful feelings and, um, and you know, shame that is unexpressed turns into things like denial and violence and inability to be intimate with others.
And, um, and I think, you know, this example of your, of your sons is so important, if we are, if I, as a social media, um, somebody who is an influencer or somebody who, who a lot of, you know, if I can’t admit that I’m struggling with things, and yet people look up to me, what are they looking up to, right? They’re look– they’re trying to look up to some kind of, you know, idea of, you know, having a perfect life or a perfect art practice or a perfect marriage.
And I think that while a lot of parts of my life are really happy and great, and I definitely talk about those things, I also try to really be real about what I’m struggling with and what I’m, you know, because I think that’s, to me, whether you’re a parent or a mentor or, um, a boss or, you know, like modeling, um, making mistakes helps other people make mistakes, and move on from them and learn from them so much more easily.
Adam: (00:23:44) Right? Yes. I want to change gears here for a minute, or several, and go back to childhood with you.
I love that in another conversation you used the word mythology. I usually think of, you know, the stories of childhood and when some things seem to have been put into cement. We were given or accepted certain views of what life was, and what our own personal stories were.
And, in your case, you have talked about how you have two siblings, right? A sister and a brother. And I think it, if I recall correctly, you were the one of the three who seem to have been handed a story that you were not the creative one, not the artist. Right?
Lisa: That’s right.
Adam: And of course, here we are with you having this career all these years later. But what I’m wondering about, if you recall, or maybe it’s through hindsight, how you internalized that story and might have felt that for what ended up being many years until, at 32, you started taking art classes.
Lisa: (00:24:53) Yeah, I, so I grew up in a, in a suburban Northern California town, like, a pretty typical white middle-class family. My parents are still married. They’re in their eighties now. But, um, grew up in the seventies in the eighties and I was the middle child. And from a very young age, I remember understanding on some deep level, not that this was the truth, but this was my understanding that, um, my brother and sister were the smart, creative ones and I was not.
And I don’t think that my parents, in fact, I know my parents didn’t intentionally sort of plan this mythology as me as one thing and them as another, like, I, I truly think that they wanted me to be held up for something different, because they saw me differently. Um, and I was the hard worker, so I was definitely given compliments and I was definitely held up, but in a very different way than my brother and sister.
(00:25:56) But, of course, I always wanted to be the gifted one. I wanted to be the creative one because in my mind that was the better thing to be. And there’s a story that I tell often about like, you know, it’s kind of like this story– You know those things from your childhood that you just never forget, and they sort of shape who you become? There are these moments that get crystallized in time.
And one day, um, I asked my mother– So my brother and sister had both been tested for the gifted and talented program at school. I think we had moved to a new town. So they had to be, like, retested. My brother’s two years older and my sister’s two years younger. And I hadn’t been tested, and so I asked my mother why I hadn’t been tested for the, for, for the gifted and talented program at school.
(00:26:44) And she said, “You, Lisa, are, are not gifted. You are a hard worker.” And I think what she meant to say was, you know, you’re this other thing that’s really awesome. But in my mind, all I heard was, like, “You’re not gifted. You’re not smart. You’re not creative.” And, um, and I internalized that, and that became who I was and this idea of a mythology, right?
That, that we sort of start labeling kids when they’re really young. And we tell stories about them that may or may not even be true, right? And then we internalize our own mythologies that are created in our family structure. And my mythology was that I was this hardworking, um, kid that I, you know, I was responsible and I helped my parents to get things done. And in fact, I was oftentimes lauded and held up for that more than my brother and sister were lauded and held up for being gifted.
(00:27:38) But like, to me, that other thing was always, felt more important. And so I went into my adult life, um, you know, just constantly wanting to prove to my parents that I was in fact smart and gifted. And I remember, like, working my tail off in college and, like, winning this research prize and just like, oh, you know, graduating at the top of my class. Like I was– it manifested itself in me constantly trying to prove myself to my parents.
And it’s still to this day, Adam, I, I do that to a certain extent. Like I want them to see me as smart and gifted, not just successful, but you know, having these, um, talents that I didn’t feel I had when I was a kid. And I know that I’m talented and that I have artistic prowess and all of those things now. Like, I’m old enough to figure that out, but it’s just, like, that took me so many years to overcome.
(00:28:32) And, and when I started making art, I really began to realize that this wasn’t, you know, this, this was potentially not natural skill, but if I worked hard enough, I could, like, acquire some artistic skill and that I had a lot of sort of natural creativity inside of me. And, um, eventually I, you know, all of the kudos that I wished I had got from my parents around being creative and talented, I started getting from other people just by virtue of the fact that I was, like, making art and putting it out into the world.
And, and that was very, a very healing process for me. Like I was able to kind of overcome a lot of that, like trauma of my childhood. Um, and now of course, you know, my brother and sister are both still incredibly creative people, but I’m the one with an art career. So it’s just sort of like ironic. Right?
Adam: (00:29:25) And do your parents now see that, do they know anything of this, this story, the impact of something that they didn’t intend, but here it is? And now you do have this amazing creative life and career happening. Do they, do they, uh, appreciate that?
Lisa: (00:29:43) I mean, I’m pretty, I’m pretty sure my mom does. Um, I think that my mom probably has a lot of, you know, of shame about the fact that, or might not even agree that that message that I felt I got when I was a kid was, is accurate. You know, like, I think as parents, you invent your own story about how you raised your children, right? Um, and it might be different than what my memories are.
Um, I have, we have talked about it to a certain extent. Um, and I think my mom, um, would certainly acknowledge that, um, that she didn’t see me in the same way that she saw my brother and sister to a certain extent, and that there were other things about me that seemed to shine when I was a kid. And, but I don’t, we’ve never had like a sort of formal reckoning, you know what I mean?
(00:30:38) Um, and then I haven’t actually talked to my dad about it. I know my parents are proud of me. They, you know, and I know that my mom in particular has a lot of, sort of appreciation for what I’ve been able to accomplish, and for my work. And so–
You know, my parents are from a different generation. They’re, you know, they’re, they’re not even baby boomers. They’re like older than baby boomers and they both grew up in the depression. And so they’re, they’re sort of, like, not overly complimentary or overly like gushing, you know, they’ll come to my art shows and just be like, not say a word, just be like, “Oh, I like that painting,” but that’s it right?
And so I’m always a little bit like, feel a little insecure around my parents. And that’s the thing it’s like, I’m 52 years old and I still have this kind of awkward, insecure relationship with, with people in my family. And that’s just something that I think never goes away, you know?
(00:31:34) And that’s why it’s also important to, to try to move, you know, while that’s the case, it’s also like you gotta find the love for yourself and your own sense of appreciation for yourself, and your own sense of accomplishment and create people, a family of people in your life, who do sort of give you the validation and love that you need. Um, because your family isn’t always going to give it to you.
I mean, some people are lucky and have families that are incredibly verbally and overtly supportive of them in their endeavors, but that’s not always going to be the case. And so I think it’s up to us as individuals to figure out how to create that for ourselves, both internally and in the people we choose to have in our lives.
Adam: (00:32:28) When you did start with our, again, early thirties, you started taking some classes, were you making a connection at all to there’s all these years of this story that I’m now starting to, to overcome? Was that at all weighing on you when you went to those classes with this potentially the thought in mind, “I’m not going to be good at this”?
Lisa: (00:32:53) Yeah, for sure. I mean, in the beginning, I, you know, when I started taking the art classes, I think I was kind of in a, like, you know, in a space where I was like, well, screw everything anybody’s ever told me. I’m not– by the way I wasn’t taking art classes because I thought I was going to become a professional artist in the beginning. So there’s, you know, there was this part of me that didn’t really care, because I was sort of– interestingly, the first art class I took was with my brother.
So, you know, both of us were kind of, I think like while my brother was often lauded as being really smart and gifted, he wasn’t necessarily a lot of as being artistic. So we both kind of sat in the back of the room and, like, goofed off and had fun together, which was actually a really great bonding experience for the two of us.
(00:33:36) But, but I think like in the beginning I sort of, it was very freeing actually, because, you know, aside from my brother who was sitting there, I didn’t, nobody, there was no social media at the time. I wasn’t sharing the work I was making. So I was doing it because I wanted to have fun. I wasn’t, like, paralyzed with fear around, “I’m not going to be good at this.” I think I was able in those classes to sort of let go of that and just try my best to enjoy myself. And it was a very private experience for me.
And so, yeah, of course, you know, I probably had a certain amount of insecurity around, you know, is this going to be any good or am I going to be the best one in the class, because I’m also, I have this weird, competitive thing about me, which I think is part of what drives me. And I just let go of a lot of that and had a good time.
(00:34:27) And then it was really the enjoyment of the process that brought me back. Not that I thought, Oh, I’m really good at this. Or maybe I should take this up as a way to make a living. And within a few years, then I started sharing stuff on social media because, um, well actually not even social media was like Flicker, you know, this was before Instagram or Facebook. And so it was like, or sharing my work online. And I had a blog and that was when I started interacting with an audience about my work.
And of course the audience was extremely small at the time, but I went public essentially. Um, and that’s where everything kind of started for me. And that’s, I think, when eventually within a few years of that, when I started getting recognition and opportunity, when the impostor syndrome actually started, because in the beginning it was like, this is just a fun hobby, you know.
Adam: No self-expectations.
Lisa: (00:35:21) Yeah, exactly. And I think that’s so hard for people to get these days, because the expectation is you take an art class and then you post your progress on the internet, you know. And inherent in that is some amount of judgment from other people: “This is good. This is bad. You should stick with this. You should do this professionally. You should keep this to yourself.” Whatever.
And, um, I think that the internet makes it harder for people to have that very pure, authentic experience of making. I’m planning some workshops right now that I’m going to teach in-person workshops for next year. And I’ve thought a lot about like, what if I instructed my students over the course of the three to five days that we’re working together, that they can’t actually go on the internet or post their work during the class. They can take pictures and post them later.
(00:36:09) But like, what would that experience be like of just freeing yourself up from, from, you know, this kind of, like, cycle we have of sharing everything we make. Not that there aren’t positive aspects to that, but I do think it’s very inhibiting for some people because–
Adam: I think they’ll thank you.
Lisa: Yeah. Right? I think I might integrate that into my classes, ’cause I think it’s so important. And it was such an important part of my own creative process in the beginning. Like, when I was starting out there, there was no pressure to share or be perfect or have the thing be perfect, because, you know, the internet didn’t exist. And so it was a very private, personal experience for me.
Adam: (00:36:45) What we talked about a little bit ago, how this idea of looking at what we think it’s supposed to be, or wanting to get to that taste level, like you mentioned with Ira Glass describing it, but we don’t really have the skills yet, but now growing up for those who are younger in that internet and especially social media age, where everything is about showing everything you’re doing.
And so you’re, you’re not even giving yourself, you know, those people that are experiencing this, they are not giving themselves the opportunity to just experience and grow and sit with their own feelings on it, because they’re also in a culture that says, like you said, post it, share it. And that by the way is the way to get fame. That’s the way potentially if it’s good to get noticed, but it’s also the defeat of you if you are taking in those bad, bad vibes and comments from it too, too soon.
Lisa: (00:37:38) Yes, exactly. And yeah, it’s like, it’s a double-edged sword. And I, when I talk about social media to the folks that I mentor, or on social media itself, um, ’cause I, I get, I get pretty meta about social media on social media. Um, I talk about the fact that it’s, it’s a very, it’s a complicated place because it’s this place where you can get feedback, you can build a community of other people who are interested in similar things.
You can, um, potentially build a career and get work from it as an artist. Um, there’s all these really amazing benefits to being on social media, even as an amateur artist. Even as somebody who has zero intention of making a living, um, there’s all of these platforms for learning. Even on Instagram people post tutorials, like there’s just so much richness there, but there’s also a potential.
(00:38:36) Um, and I think most people experience this for an enormous amount of self judgment, even judgment of other people. There’s a lot of, um, I mean, think about it. Like, you put a picture up a photograph that you’ve taken, you put up, um, a drawing you’ve made, a piece of ceramics you finished. And the whole point of that is for people to comment on it and, and like it. And so I’ve had to do a lot of personal work, like, in the last, you know, let’s see, I joined Instagram in 2011, so it’s been almost 10 years for me.
You know, I’ve had to do a lot of work over those 10 years of like, “Oh, just because this thing that I made that I was really proud of only got this number of likes doesn’t mean that it’s not a good piece of art.” Right? Or it doesn’t mean that it wasn’t transformative for me. It just means that it’s maybe not Instagram friendly. Right?
(00:39:22) And I think that that has been such important work for me to do, like being confronted with– And people think that people at my level don’t have insecurity about posting stuff. And let me tell you, we do. And I’m not the only one. I have a lot of friends who also have a lot of followers and who are very accomplished and, and really get twisted in a knot over social media.
And you know, it can make the best of us feel really insecure. And so that is just constant work. And again, like impostor syndrome, I’ve grown so much in my perspective around social media. It can be done, but it is, it does require work because it can be a place that makes us feel really insecure and comparing ourselves to other people, and all of those things that don’t feel good.
Adam: (00:40:19) Absolutely. So you live in Portland now. But when you had started with your art classes and art career, uh, was in San Francisco, and so you moved there when you were, what right out of college, is that right?
Lisa: Yeah. The day after I graduated.
Adam: Oh, wow. Okay. And you have described that your life prior to that, that suburban life was a bit of a one-note experience compared to then what you went into with San Francisco being this whole world of things, with the cultural things and art and diversity and just, you know, there’s a lot there.
I lived out in Monterey myself for a couple of years in the late nineties and would spend as much time as possible in San Francisco. So I, I love the city and I am interested in talking with you about it, because I know that you described for another woman who, uh, is a friend, became a friend to you, who has a recognizable name, Debbie Millman.
She has the podcast Design Matters. And on one of those conversations you had on Design Matters with Debbie, you described your time living in the nineties, in San Francisco as a magical, magical experience. And I’m curious, one, why you went to San Francisco at all, like, how that was the place? But then also what was the magic for you in that time in place?
Lisa: (00:41:41) Um, I should also mention that if you had, um, pushed me to continue, continue my list of mentors, Debbie would definitely be on that list. We’ve become really good friends, um, really close friends, but she, she’s just an amazing, um, human being and so creative and so supportive.
Yeah, so, San Francisco let’s see. I ended up there, because, well, I grew up in the Bay area. I moved to the Bay area when I was eight years old and I, and I went to college in the Bay area. And the day after college — I went to college in a small Catholic liberal arts college called St. Mary’s, which is in Moraga, California, which is about 30 minutes outside San Francisco — and so, you know, for, I would say there are some exceptions to this, but for a lot of us who went to college in the Bay area and wanted to move to a city after college, we would move to San Francisco, because it’s the biggest city.
Lisa: (00:42:33) And some people went to LA some to New York, but I think a lot of it was proximity. And I had been to San Francisco a lot during college, and even growing up, my parents would take us there. I grew up about an hour south of San Francisco. So it was the place that, you know, was part of like the bigger city that was still part of my, like, wider world at the time. It wasn’t as unknown to me as New York or, or, you know, LA. And so it felt like the natural place for me to go.
And part of the reason I went there is, I think, that I, I realize now, but I don’t know that it was conscious at the time, but I had this like, um, I was, sort of, had grown up with a very kind of conventional life, right?
(00:43:17) My parents are pretty, pretty progressive politics and I, you know, was introduced to art and design and stuff when I was a kid, and my parents are big readers. And so I wasn’t necessarily sheltered, but I was sheltered in the sense that I, I mostly grew up in the suburbs. And so I, I had this ache in me to get out into the bigger world and, um, San Francisco made sense, and I ended up coming out as a lesbian within a year.
So I didn’t realize at the time, but I think that was another draw for me, right? That this was a place where I could feel safe, because there was something inside of me that knew it needed to, like, emerge. And I do really think that that first year in San Francisco was literally me kind of coming out of my cocoon, um, in the introduction to my latest book, Find Your Artistic Voice, which you may have read, I, I talk about the fact that, like, literally, you know, conformity was sort of my desire my entire life.
(00:44:09) I just wanted to fit in. Everything was about fitting in, to me. And in college, I, I, I did all the things to try to fit in. And then when I moved to San Francisco, I just had this almost immediately. It was almost like there was something in the air there, you know, that I was breathing that was, like, being different, like, you know, having differences was actually exciting and beautiful.
And I started going to art museums, and I started reading more books about, you know, interesting people, and reading about, like, you know, Paris in the 1920s and sort of romanticizing, you know, urban life. And, um, and even things like homosexuality and things like that. And I, I just started getting really comfortable with and excited about living in a place where I was exposed to all of the stuff that I had never been exposed to before, including all different cultures and ethnicities and sexual orientations and gender identities.
(00:45:23) And like, it all became, you know, really exciting and interesting to me. And then I eventually, you know, came out myself and became part of that, that you know, that interesting world. And I ended up living there for 25 years. So leaving to move to Portland was, um, was kind of like losing a limb for me and–
Don’t get me wrong. I love Portland. And it was the right place for me to move. But because San Francisco also changed dramatically over those 25 years. But yeah, that conversation with Debbie, I do remember it. It was like that, that was such an important time for me. And it, it makes me realize that for a lot of young people, um, exposure is so important. And if you live in a place where you don’t have exposure– And I think it was especially important back in the nineties, right now, kids can go on Tik Tok or Instagram or YouTube and get exposed to all kinds of things.
But when I was 22, um, I didn’t have that. I had to move to a city to get exposed to those things. And the world was much smaller at the time. And, and I’m so, so, so grateful that I made that decision, and that I had that ache and that I got there and that my world exploded, because I don’t know that I ever would have eventually made art even, if that hadn’t, if I hadn’t moved there when I was 22. It was so important to me.
Adam: (00:46:53) Well, and speaking of that, uh, the influence of that for you making art, but I also have wondered, because of that, that safe community, that, that place that you felt like you belonged, you ended up coming out as gay, but had thought that you were gay since the time you were 13.
So now, the environment of that and everything that you found there, and what that has meant to your life as an artist now, to, as the human being, that you are, someone who advocates for LGBTQ matters, uh, it sounds like just such an incredible, transitional, important, influential period in your life.
Lisa: (00:47:36) It really was. I mean– So I should say, I, I think, I am pretty sure I knew I was gay since I was 13. I probably more accurately feared I was gay, since I was 13. So I was, until I came out and realized that the world wasn’t going to come crashing down. But I, but yeah, I definitely remember having these, like, waves of anxiety that were associated with these feelings that I might not be quote normal.
And, um, and I worked really hard in high school and college to be normal. And I think that’s why conformity felt so important to me. Right? Because deep down inside, I felt that I, that I wasn’t normal. So I latched onto anything that would make me appear normal or seem normal, and San Francisco as a place, and I’m sure this probably would have happened in, in, in any other big city as well, but, like, as a place was, yeah, so important for me to land there, because it was like, “Oh, there are other people like me, you know, and I don’t have to like be this version of myself.”
(00:48:47) I can be, you know, really just be myself. And, um, I also got really inspired once I moved there to, like, work in public education, which was my first career. And prior to moving to San Francisco, I really didn’t have any idea what I wanted to do with my life, you know, and in San Francisco also sort of helped me become an artist, which was my second career.
And I think that I, I got so much from that place, from being exposed to everything that was there and the friends that I made there, and the community that I became part of. And yeah, it was, you know, it was so, so, so important. I get emails a lot from young people who live in places like Alabama and Mississippi and Tennessee saying, “you know, my, my parents don’t know I’m gay. I, you know, I follow you on Instagram and you give me so much hope and inspiration that my life can be normal one day,” you know, and, and or “that I can have a normal life as a gay person, because every message I get is from my church,” or wherever is the complete opposite of that.
(00:49:49) And, and, and I just want to tell those, those young people, you know, like, maybe the first thing you need to do is get out and go to college somewhere else. Because, you know, I think there are just parts of this country that are, that are apt to be, like, truly transformative for some young people. And San Francisco is definitely one of those.
Adam: Just exposure.
Lisa: Yes, exactly. And San Francisco now is so expensive that it’s really hard for young people to move there, although the pandemic may be changing that. But if, but when I moved there in the nineties, and part of why I loved San Francisco in the nineties is it was pre dotcom. You know, it was pre- like, it was like, you could get a janky apartment and have an art studio, and there was feminist bookstores and, you know, it wasn’t so wealthy as it’s become.
And, uh, there was just experimental music and punk rock shows. And, um, you could be openly queer and walk down the street holding hands with your partner, you know, and this was, you know, this was, like, just, uh, it was, it was absolutely magical. And I think more places are like that now, but I feel so lucky to have gotten to experience San Francisco in those years.
Adam: (00:51:02) You recently wrote on Instagram that “being gay has been the greatest gift of my life,” you said. and to hear you now speak about people who reach out to you because of messages like that, that you share openly and confidently, and that they look up to you. It’s, um, it’s amazing. I hope they’re all doing okay.
And I’m glad that they reach out to you, because, well, I’m going to lead into this: You and your wife, Clay, have now been married for seven years, but when you came out in the early nineties, a very different landscape, culturally, politically. You know, the prospect of legal gay marriage was still so far from being realized.
And so, I guess, what I’m thinking is that you’ve lived that cultural shift in such an intimate and direct way. And now, like I mentioned, you do advocate, you are an activist on behalf of LGBTQ issues. And so there are kids that are reaching out to you.
And I’m wondering what activism means to you, what that looks like, or maybe how that has changed over the past 30 years in your life, and how you experienced that and step into that, that piece of you?
Lisa: (00:52:20) Yeah. And that’s an interesting question. I don’t think I would have necessarily described myself as an activist until about five or six years ago, even though I was, I know now that I was, like, doing activism and, but in a very different way than, you know– I think a lot of times people think of activists as people who, you know, uh, march on the streets, which is, by the way, very important, or, you know, sit in phone banks and call people to register to vote, or, um, support a cause, or stand on street corners with clipboards, you know?
And all of those things are really important, but there are so many ways to be an activist. And I found that writing about my own personal experience was one of the most authentic ways that I could be an activist in particular for LGBTQ rights, ’cause I had all this, my own personal experience, you know, having, having, as you said, having lived through that, the cultural shift that we’ve experienced in the last 25 years.
(00:53:21) And ow I write about my own personal experience in, you know, working to be as anti-racist as I possibly can, as well. So it’s like, you know, I’ve grown this platform over the last almost 10 years. And at one point in the last five years, I had this sort of like, uh, you know, this moment where I was like, I, “what am I going to do with this?” Right? Like, “what’s, you know, what’s going to make this meaningful to me? This can’t just be about posting pretty pictures and selling products, like, that doesn’t feel right to me.”
Of course, I want to make a living as an artist and I’m going to sell stuff through my Instagram, like, the stuff I make that people want to buy, but how else can I use my platform and my voice to be a force in the world?
(00:54:10) And so I made this very, uh, like, very intentional decision to use my platform for activism. And it’s not like every day I’m posting about some social issue, you know, but I do it fairly frequently. And I have, um, since the 2016 election, it’s really been ramped up, but, and that’s really when I, you know, was like, “okay, I’ve got to, I’ve got to do this.”
And I found that I’ve, sort of ,been able to talk about stuff that’s hard to talk about to engage people in conversations around stuff that is hard to talk about. I’m not always right. And like I said, I’m not here to be right. I’m here to get it right. Eventually. So lots of interesting conversations, lots of, um, talking about stuff– You know, I have a mostly female, mostly, uh, thirties, forties, fifties, female audience. A lot of, um, middle class, white women. And so, you know, whatever I can do to influence that group of people around anti-racism or LGBTQ rights, um, is, feels like work that’s important, and maybe any, any other social issues that are important.
(00:55:13) And so, so yeah, it really has become about, like, using my voice, my artwork, my writing ability to, to talk about stuff that’s important in the world and get people on board with, with their own activism, and, um, sharing resources and raising money. That’s another thing I do quite a bit of, uh, raising money for causes.
So it’s weird. I, I wouldn’t have expected this where I would end up and I wouldn’t have even defined myself as an activist. And now it’s like a big part of who I am and about, of my identity and actually even my work. And so, yeah, it’s kind of crazy how it happened, but, um, it’s, it’s been good. Yeah.
Adam: Life is a ride, isn’t it? All the chapters and the things that you’ve done, and the, and yeah.
Adam: (00:56:24) I’m wondering if you have a spiritual framework that you are working, experiencing life from, doing things like this, activism and in your creative business-owning career, just everything. Is there a spiritual framework that you look to in guiding that or fueling it?
Lisa: (00:56:46) Yeah. You know, I, um, I do consider myself a pretty spiritual person. I’m not at all religious, but I, I definitely have, I definitely made a shift in my thirties when I was going through an enormous amount of therapy for, um, what had been, you know, a lot of anxiety and depression, which I occasionally experienced now, but, um, you know, by and large I’ve sort of worked to overcome.
Um, but in, in that period, I did a lot of exploring and soul searching around, you know, finding my spiritual center. And one of the, one of the things that has really driven my approach to life is, sort of, trying not to avoid hardship or struggle. Um, but rather to know that hardship and struggle are part of the human experience, and that it’s my job as a human to use those, um, experiences as opportunities to learn and grow and connect.
(00:57:58) And my spiritual framework for that is often meditation and, uh, like a sense of openness about kind of allowing, allowing things to happen and not trying to control other people, but really trying to focus my locus of control on myself. Like, how can I respond to this? How can I, how can I be a force of good in the world? How can I be the light in this situation, even when bad things are happening to me? Right?
Um, and like, for example, in December, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I, um, fortunately they caught it really early. I was super lucky, but, like, I was more filled with gratitude when I got my diagnosis than I was with fear. And I think, and I don’t say that at all to say, you know, that I have some spiritual superpower, it’s just like, after years of practice in gratitude, like that was, that just sort of, like, happened for me.
(00:59:01) And I think that if my cancer had been more dire, that might not have been the case, but in any event, you know, I have sort of like gotten to this place where I can very quickly and easily kind of shift my focus to like, “how can I make this difficult situation, something that is, uh, a way for me to learn and grow in myself, or be a light in the world?”
And so, if that’s a spiritual framework, I think that’s my spiritual framework, is like– and that’s something that I also have learned more recently. And my knowledge of that has deepened from Elizabeth Gilbert, like, that is kind of like how she moves through the world. And, and something that I’ve learned a lot from her in her writing is this idea of accepting what is, and, and really, like, using it in, you know, to be a change-agent.
(00:59:53) And, um, I’m not always exceptional at it, but again, it’s just that that’s also in and of itself a learning process. So, um, and I think that this, I think the surrendering of control is it’s, to me, spiritually, like one of the most powerful– and so many religious traditions advocate for surrendering control, either to a higher power or to, you know, to the universe or to, you know, um– and that doesn’t mean that I don’t get angry and I don’t fight hard for things or that I don’t, you know, um– I think that, like, experiencing anger is a really important part of processing emotions and moving toward action and, and being a light and being a change-agent in the world.
Adam: (01:00:38) I absolutely think that it’s a spiritual framework. I also meditate. I practice the spiritual practices of yoga, and teach it as well. Um, and that is where I’ve learned about allowing. That was a key word when that came to mind from a teacher of mine. And I’m thinking also of, people might not recognize this as a spiritual practice, but the book and movie, The Secret, which focuses a lot — you know, by Rhonda Byrne –that focuses a lot on intention, but also on gratitude, and that practice of letting go of the worries of things, to feel good, and to just feel grateful for the things that we have, that we have a life of abundance.
And I’m wondering if that, that sort of attitude, not necessarily The Secret, specifically, but your practices of gratitude have, if you have directly linked that practice to how you feel about success in your life and career?
Lisa: (01:01:37) I think most definitely. I mean, I can’t necessarily attribute my success to, you know, entirely to my gratitude. I do think that an enormous amount of hustling and hard work went into it and, um, and probably too much in some, in some cases, ’cause I’ve experienced a bit of burnout in the last few years, but the, but there is this way that, um, this openness that I have to, to experiences and also a gratitude, even for the failures and the difficulties that, um, that I think has allowed me to sort of persevere.
And there is a way that, you know, I, I have a lot of difficulty saying that I manifest things, um, for whatever reason. ’Cause I think my white privilege has a lot to do with why I’ve been successful, but, but a lot of times people will say to me, “how do you manage, you know, you’re manifesting this,” and if I am manifesting stuff, it, I’m sure that the amount of gratitude I have about what I’ve, what I’ve accomplished, um, and, and about like, not just my accomplishments, but about like the love that I get in the world from people around my work, um, and the community that I’ve built. I think that feeds itself, right?
(01:02:44) There’s a way that, like, gratitude gives us a sense of peace, which allows us to show up in the world, you know, and in new and, um, helpful ways. And it’s like, it is like this sort of cycle of positivity that, you know, that is, that is, I think really helped my career for sure.
And that’s not to say that there hasn’t been struggle, or there hasn’t been anger and there hasn’t been, you know, loss and frustration and, you know, things that I, that I bitch about to my friends. It’s not all hunky-dory, but, like, focusing on the positive stuff and really moving with that is, is really, I think, been super helpful to my path.
Adam: (01:03:45) Well, of course, um, certainly not to take away from the hard work and that effort that you have, have put in and built, but that brings me to a question that I know I wanted to ask you. So here we are.
I sort of am baffled by this certain thing in success. And that is this: If all things are equal, two people are talented, two people have worked at it and developed those skills, and so on, the trajectory could potentially be the same, however, one of the people maybe doesn’t intersect that hard work and talent with the luck and the doors of opportunity, and another person for reasons — this is where I get baffled — does intersect with those moments of luck and the right introductions and the right doors of opportunity–
Some people absolutely deserve their work to be out there in the world and for them to feel successful in every way. And some people do receive that. And I’m curious why? You know, that’s the part that confuses me. And I wonder if you have any idea of what makes the difference between two deserving people, but one of them never gets to see the light of day with their work and their career and their success in that, in that way.
Lisa: (01:04:56) Yeah. I mean, I, honestly, I think it’s just, there are so many factors that people often ask me, like, “what do you attribute your success to?” And I, of course, you know, my opinion is, like, completely biased, because it’s coming from me and, like, the way that I perceive things, and other people might perceive things differently. But there are so many factors that I think contribute to why certain people quote make it.
And, um, and in every single person, there are a sort of a different configuration of factors that either make this kind of cogent formula or, or don’t. And I’m going to name a few factors that I think contribute to whether people are successful or not. And I’m probably leaving a lot of things out and it, it’s not always all of these things, but it usually involves some of these things. So I’m going to, I’m going to, I’m going to screw this list up, cause I’m doing it off the top of my head.
(01:05:52) But, um, but I think first and foremost, there is sort of like opportunity that’s connected to privilege and race, um, education, which is also, you know, um, connected to those things, and I think that’s something that’s important to acknowledge. I think that in addition to that, there is a certain work ethic and an ability to push through discomfort, like a certain grit that some people have.
And we talked about that earlier, right? This like ability to, like, feel the fear, feel the anxiety and, and, and, and do it anyway, and then plow onto the next thing, even though the last thing you did, wasn’t perfect. I think there is, um, also an ability to communicate well with others. That’s really important. Um, a lot of artists make really great work, but communicating with clients is really, really, or galleries or people who are going to consume their work, is not their strong suit.
(01:06:47) There’s a certain amount of learned behavior, or sometimes natural ability to be organized around your work and to plan and to get shit done, um, that I think some people are really good at. There’s this confidence to promote your work, especially in the world today, like, this ability and a confidence in a sort of, or even if you’re not confident, like a willingness to put it out there anyway that contributes to whether or not people are going to actually see it.
You know, how willing are you to, to put your work into the world and, and, and promote it, right? And, uh, as opposed to, you know, sort of keeping it secret because you’re, you’re either afraid someone’s gonna copy it or your, um, you’re worried it’s not good enough yet, so you’re not ready to put it out into the world. I think that, that for a lot of us who are successful, there’s this way that we’re not perfectionist, right?
(01:07:43) Like, we might want to make really good work, but it’s more important to us to like, create a volume of work and put it out into the world rather than working really hard to make every piece quote, perfect. Cause what is perfect anyway, right?
Um, there is this, uh, for a visual artist, you know, I write about this in my book, Find Your Artistic Voice, there is a way that you, it’s important to get to this place where you’re, where your voice is very clear and recognizable to people, um, and that you’re making a body of work that really resonates for folks, and that is focused. There’s a certain amount of business acumen that, that is, sort of, important that they don’t many times teach in art school.
I’m leaving so many things out, but, and then as you mentioned too, there’s like connections, like people who just happen to know the right person, who’s going to put their work in front of a million people, or happens to have met a literary agent who sees something in them, signs them on, helps them write a book. And the book then, you know, becomes a thing.
(01:08:39) So, you know, that, I think there are probably 20 other things I could name, but those are some of the things that are often part of this formula of success for, especially for visual artists. And, you know, so much of it is timing. And so much of it is willingness to, like, be uncomfortable, but you know, there’s some formula. And if there are a lot of people out there who have maybe a couple of those things, but they don’t have the right formula. So their, their work never sees the light of day or it sees the light of day, but it just doesn’t, you know, end up getting to the place where it financially supports them and they can, you know, so that they can do it all the time.
Adam: (01:09:24) These are great examples. I think we have to be honest with ourselves as creators, when we look at that list: Are we really fulfilling every aspect of that, that we do, we need to be, that we can?
Look, I know in the interest of time here, I want to ask you a question, and we can keep this one brief before I get to what is my wrap-up question I ask every guest. So you have been a competitive swimmer. You do cycle on a team, uh, along with your wife actually, and other teammates. And I’m curious about what cycling and competing — you’ve mentioned being competitive a couple of times in our conversation — what is that piece of you that competition– you know, there’s one thing that I’m wondering, “well, is this about health and fun and community and comradery,” or are you also saying that you’re the type of competitor that if you and I pulled out a board game, you’d be out for blood? I mean, what, what, what, what are we talking about here and what role does it serve in your life?
Lisa: (01:10:20) Such interesting question. So I actually, I think Debbie Millman has asked me about this and I’ve been on her podcast three times, but I feel like we’ve talked about competition before in some form, maybe not even using that word, but I think for me, so much of my, sort of, competitive nature, aside from whatever I was born with as a Capricorn, um, comes from this sense as a child of, of not being good enough, right?
That we talked about earlier, which, you know, I think even with the best parenting, many children often feel right. And we grow up into adulthood feeling like I’m not good enough, nothing is ever good enough. And so, for me, I think my competitive nature was about really proving myself. Not that I needed to be the best, but that I could do something exceptional, or–
Adam: Wanted to be seen.
Lisa: Yes! That’s such a good way to put it, Adam.
(01:11:14) I’m like, I wanted to be seen. And I wanted to be seen as, as, as having something special or important about me. And I think, ultimately, we all kind of want that. And so what’s interesting is, like, the older I get, the less competitive I have become.
Um, like, if I sit down at a board game, there was certainly a time in my life where I would have to be the winner. I also am very aware that I am often not the smartest, most talented person in the room. And when I, because I have that awareness, I am very, um, I very easily will allow others to shine. That is something I’ve become very good at as I become older.
So proving myself has become less and less and less and less important. Um, and just sitting with my own confidence and allowing other people to, to win has become more and more and more important to me, and not being right, not being the best.
(01:12:1) So I do think athletics definitely played a role. I’ve been in competitive, competitive athletics since I was eight years old. Um, I don’t, and I actually, while I could, I don’t race cycling and I don’t race in swimming anymore, because competition, because I’m so competitive, it makes me really anxious. And I want to experience those things, especially cycling as fun and community building and all of those things more so.
So, so I haven’t gotten involved in racing, because I want it to be this joyful thing in my life. And often when you make something competition, what does it do? It takes the joy out of it, right? So yeah, if we sat down to a board game, I’d probably want to kick your ass, but you know, but, like, at the same time I would laugh, if, um, if you kicked mine.
I would probably find it, find it amusing and fun anyway. I have a pretty good sense of humor about myself and about my own competitive nature that I think is, comes in really helpful, because, you know, in my line of work, I don’t always get the job. I don’t always win the illustration competition. In fact, I rarely do. And that’s okay, because I’ve, you know, found happiness and success in other things. So, you know, so I really go easy on myself these days.
Adam: (01:13:34) It’s amazing that you just said that you rarely win that competition. When, of course, you have so many fans of your work and people who really appreciate, they follow, they buy your books, tremendous social media following– all of these things. And that is just another sign right there, uh, that you just shared, “Even I don’t win at all.”
Lisa: (01:13:56) Oh yeah. I, like, enter American Illustration every other year or so. And I get an honorable mention every here and here and there, but like, yeah, I haven’t ever been, like, in the book, it’s– And that’s the thing. It’s, like, I used to think that stuff was so important, but really it doesn’t really matter.
So I just, you know, I think that, like, ultimately what matters is, like, the work that is meaningful to me and that I enjoy and that, you know, ultimately allows me to make a living, um, so that I can have a life outside of work, which has really only been my goal.
Like, I don’t want to have a life where I’m working all the time. I want to have a life where, you know, I have some work and then I also go ride my bike and go hiking and spend time with my wife and my dogs. And, um, and I feel really grateful again, that I’m getting to that place in my career. So yeah.
Adam: (01:14:48) That brings us, well, to the final question again, this is something that I ask every guest, uh, in each episode, because Humanitou is about humanness and creativity. And what we’ve just talked about for this whole hour-plus really speaks to these human and creative pieces of you.
What I ask every listener is how do you live humanistic creativity in your life? But then this is the version I’m going to ask you today. So it’s basically a summary thought, perhaps on our conversation, but, what are your core values of humanness and creativity? Like, what is your essential way of being, shining, expressing you in the world?
Lisa: (01:15:32) So I actually think a lot about values all the time. I think of myself as, like, living a values-driven life. And some of the values that I think are the most important to me, in terms of like, just showing up in the world and in my creative practice are acts of service. Like, how can I give back this? I, this, this, this notion of being, of being somebody who gives back, um, stewardship and service are really, really, really important to me.
Also, I know this is a term that a lot of people don’t like, because it’s, it’s really overused, and I think it’s become sort of jargon, but I, authenticity is really important to me, like, to the extent that I can show up as a real human being in my flaws, in my insecurities, in my sense of humor, feels really important to me. And I think that’s ultimately what connects me to other people, um, and connects me to my followers on Instagram.
(01:16:29) And actually I think, hopefully, it gets infused into my artwork and makes it accessible for a lot of people. And, um, I also just, I, I don’t, I don’t want to uphold this idea of, of like love and kindness as the end all and be all, because I think that oftentimes we use the terms love and kindness as, like, an out for the hard work of being anti-racist for example, or, you know, uh, people should all just get along.
But I do also think that part of my humanity is, you know, being authentic, but part of my humanity is, like, working hard every day to treat every person I come into contact with, um, with love and kindness. Um, whether it’s a person who emails me about a question or, you know, shows up in my DMs, um, wanting to let me know that something I wrote inspired them to get through a really hard time or whatever.
(01:17:35) And I, and I try really hard to, to like communicate, um, as just a real human being and not somebody who thinks they’re better than other people. And that is some like, so I guess that’s like also humility, right? Like that while I have achieved a lot of things, I’m still just a regular person. And I work really hard to, to just be a regular person in the world, and to kind of meet people with, with gratitude and love and kindness.
And I don’t want that to ever change, you know, I don’t want anybody to ever meet me and then walk away saying, well, “Oh God, she was a real uppity you-know-what.” So I just want to be a real person.
And that’s been really hard for me lately. ’Cause I can’t hug people during the pandemic, and I’m a real hugger. I love hugging people. Like, people come up to me in the grocery store and they’re, like, “Are you Lisa Congdon?” And I’m like, “yes.” And they’re, like, “I love your work.” And I just want to hug people, you know? And I normally do, so yeah, So those are some of the things that are some of the values that are really important to me.
Adam: (01:18:36) You mentioned humility. I know that that word is tattooed on your wrist. I actually, I have two wrist tattoos myself. They’re the names of my sons.
But that humility, you know, it’s evident here throughout the conversation and in so many ways that you do share. It shines through your generosity, the warmth. Thank you very much, Lisa, for making time in your busy life and career and day to come talk with me and Humanitou.
Lisa: (01:19:00) Oh, thank you for having me. This was a really wonderful conversation.
Adam: (01:19:13) That was my conversation with Lisa Congdon, illustrator, artist and author, in today’s Humanitou conversation of humanness and creativity.
You can learn more about Lisa in the show notes published on our website, at humanitou.com.
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I’m Adam Williams, creator and host of the Humanitou Podcast. Thanks for being here.