In 2015, I was at a turning point. After finishing a PhD and teaching at a college, I took a big personal risk. I wanted to see what would happen if I wrote and drew full time. I knew I wouldn’t make much money, but I needed to try it. If I didn’t I would always wonder what might have been. So for six months I met daily and weekly work quotas and dedicated myself to learning new skills. I developed my personal practice. I learned a lot—there were meaningful challenges everywhere. When my self-sponsored residency was finished, I wanted to use my experience to segue into fulfilling, paying work. But how?
In a series of conversations with people I admire, I set out to explore how to take meaningful risks and make big decisions. How did people get to where they are? How did they know it was right for them—or wrong? What is the good life, anyway? Here are some of those encounters.
(And if you make it all the way to the end, I’ll tell you what happened next!)
Seeing Clearly with Leslie
I met up with Leslie to talk about how she decided to leave a career in optometry to play the violin. Now she’s an accomplished performer with a tenure position at the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra and in 2014 she produced, created, and performed a project called “Speculation: How absence can change an experience,” about sight, blindness, and family. One of my favourite things about conversations with Leslie is how she’s able to think through uncertainty with such… certainty! She told me about learning to calm a sense of worry so that she can listen to an inner voice that usually knows when something isn’t working. It reminded me that I don’t always know what’s right for me, but I usually know pretty quickly what’s wrong for me. Does that mean that the best way to find out what fits is to try as many options as possible?
For more about Leslie, check out http://leslieting.com/
Changing Cities and Starting Businesses with Peter and Samantha
How do you decide to start a business? What inspires a move from rural to urban? The first time I met Peter, in 2007, he was singing songs in Spanish at a potluck in Montreal, and for weeks I thought his name was Pedro. Since then, Peter has moved to Toronto and co-founded Grantbook, a social purpose business that supports grantmakers and their networks. Samantha is a family doctor who moved to Toronto in 2014 after working in northern Canada. They dropped by on a sunny afternoon to chat about how they each decided to do what they’re doing now. One of the things that stood out for me from our conversation was the way that a change of place makes room for new ideas. In moving, I leave behind some aspects of my routine, shedding goals that may no longer fit, and in the new place take on habits and intentions that match who I want to become. But does this mean I will always move?
Interview Tips with Tom
The conversations were off to a good start, but the audio recordings were not going well: while I was talking to Leslie in a cafe, the barrista was banging a mallet against the counter again and again with a violent thud that made the track unlistenable. When I was talking to Peter and Samantha, I didn’t know about headphones, and so the levels were no good. I needed to talk to Tom.
Tom does a lot. He’s a producer of the show “Ideas” at CBC Radio and author of the book The Rude Story of English, which chronicles the life of this curious language I’m writing in now. He’s also the front man of the folk-pop sensation Doctor Realist’s Comeback Tour, which played to rave reviews in Montreal and Toronto (full disclosure: I am also in this band). Tom is the only person I know who has worked as a lexicographer, writing definitions for the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. I met up with Tom to drink Pimm’s in his garden and chat about what makes a good interview.
Listening to Space with Kaila
It was just about to rain when Kaila and I met up in a park to talk about how she decided to take a break from working as a Foreign Service Officer to do a Master’s in Immigration and Settlement Studies. She told me about the moment when she knew she wanted to work at the embassy in Ethiopia and about the dynamic environment at AIDS-Free World, where she works now. I could hear how passionately she cares about the projects she’s involved in, and how much energy she gives to them and gets back from them, too.
Our conversation made me think of a decision making model that is a malleable shape surrounding what one knows. By stretching the shape with new challenges, interests, and skills, I can make room for new experiences without ignoring the experience that I already have. Even though I sometimes feel like my interests in academia, counselling, and art are unrelated, it’s comforting to think that there’s a connection between what I’ve done and what I will do. I don’t have to abandon the past in order to figure out my future.
Painting with Charlie
Charlie paints for a living. I’m going to write that again because it’s so incredible: Charlie paints for a living. A few years ago, Charlie took a break from a successful career in advertising to try two new things: he moved to Canada from the UK, and he committed to painting. When I asked him about the uncertainty he faced in leaving a secure job to pursue art, his answer was totally refreshing: he said he actually felt more certain than ever. Sure the market was unpredictable. But the real uncertainty had come from doing one job while thinking about what it would be like to do another. Now that he was painting, a lot of things were falling into place. Charlie and I connected on Skype to talk about how taking a meaningful risk can actually lead to more, not less, certainty, and about the pleasure of creative process over creative product.
Check out Charlie’s paintings here: http://charlieeaston.com/wordpress/
Committing to Community with Sarah
Sarah knows about stress—she has a PhD in it. Her research looked at the ways that immigrant youth on Vancouver Island use stress as a way to talk about the challenges they face, and how stress can be reframed as resilience. One of the things I admire about Sarah is her commitment to place: she has been in Victoria for many years and is now raising a family there, while keeping busy with community health projects up and down Vancouver Island. We talked about how that longevity in a place builds community connections and about how staying, not just moving, is a kind of risk, too.
If you’d like to read more about one of Sarah’s recent projects, check out: http://www.medanthrotheory.org/read/4834/stress-resilience
Risk Management with Veronique
Some PhDs are more dangerous than others. Véronique’s was about humanitarian engagement with armed non-state actors. (Mine was about metaphors and how we learn from them—very gently, it turns out.) Her research and subsequent work with the World Food Program took her to South Sudan, Sudan, Kenya, and Mali. After years of movement, Véronique decided to take six months off to consider her options. During that time, she met with people who were doing the kind of work she wanted to be doing next. She got her current job the old fashioned way, applying for a posting she saw online, but it was the time spent talking to people about their work that helped her realize what she wanted to do. Check out part of our conversation about choosing meaningful work that makes room for other relationships, and about how Véronique fended off a group of highjackers by punching them in the face!
Taking a Trip with Hodman
Hodman was housesitting at a friend’s 12th floor apartment when we met up to chat about her decision to take a break from Toronto. I was impressed by her decisiveness and clarity—she just knew that she was ready for something different. Her certainty reminded me that a decision that seems ‘big’ to others can actually feel ‘right’ to the person who takes it. The little adjustments and reflections that one goes through each day become the decisions that make sense when traced in retrospect. Looking south over the city, with Bean the dog puttering nearby, Hodman and I talked about how to cultivate friendships that are a positive influence and how to build the strength to be alone before setting off on an adventure.
Wilderness First Aid and Harmonizing with Erin
I stopped by Erin’s place to help hang lights on her patio and talk about how to make decisions. The first decision we faced was whether to arrange the lights in a neat line along the ridge of the roof or hang them in long bows to take up some of the unused spaces. The next decision was whether to hide them in the foliage or set them in plain view. It reminded me that I often frame decisions as dichotomies: left or right, school or work, should I stay or should I go now. Over the last few days I’ve come to think that I have been following three interests: academia, counselling, and art. Instead of choosing one, I wonder where my trichotomy converges?
Listen to part of our chat about making decisions in wilderness first aid and singing harmony.
Artist Residencies and Meditation Retreats with Rachel
It was really windy in the park where Rachel and I met up to chat, so we hunkered against the wall beside a drainpipe just as a little boy was declaring to his dad that he was going to “punch him in the wiener” if he didn’t give him back his ball, to which the father sagely replied, “That’s not very nice.”
Our conversation was much better: Rachel told me about some of the similarities between her meditation practice and her artistic practice, each different means of exploring an inner life. During the past year, Rachel has lived at a silent meditation retreat in Massachusetts for three months, in Vienna as an Artist in Residence for three months, in Toronto to reconnect with art, friends, and family for three months, and then went back to Europe on a painting fellowship (guess for how long!). It got me thinking about how one maintains a sense of community over time and space. Check out part of our conversation about being a thoughtful artist in times of change and movement.
Fatherhood and Finding Time with Sean
I’ve known Sean all my life. Born just months apart on Quadra Island, we have built forts together, thrown pine cones at each other, dragged our bikes through forests, and jumped in lakes. He’s one of the people that reminds me, just by being out there, that I come from an amazing place of adventure, community, and friendship. Sean has done a lot since the days when we took the ferry to school: he has trained to be a firefighter, worked as a personal trainer, and now is an occupational therapist, husband, and father. Here’s a clip about how Sean’s experience of risk and even time itself have been changed by becoming a dad.
Cultivating Curiosity with Maroussia
I met Maroussia on a dance floor in Montreal in 2008 and dancing has been a big part of our friendship ever since—talking about dancing, going dancing, and recovering from dancing. During one of those recovery phases we talked on Skype about making decisions based on a structured system of possibilities, like in Maroussia’s work as a lawyer, and decisions based on intuition and exploration, like in personal choices about where to go, what to do, and who to be with. It reminded me that intuition as a source of truth and insight has been moving through these conversations like a bassline. How do I learn to hear it better?
One of my favourite parts of our chat was when I lamented that I was just now starting to do work that really mattered to me, and how I felt like I was late to the party. “Your party starts whenever you get there,” Maroussia said.
Ready or Not with Sonja
Sonja and I met in Colombia in 2012. I have good memories of talking on the steps of a church in Cartagena while vendors sold fried dinner from carts and a little boy clattered over the cobblestone in a pair of rollerblades. Conversations with Sonja are astute and insightful, cut with laughter, and usually end with me feeling bewildered by things that seem obvious once they’re named. This time we talked about making something from the experience that one already has, instead of delaying with more certification. I often feel, for example, that I need to read just one more book before I can write one of my own, that I need to go on one more trip to understand something of the world, or that I need one more degree to do what I want to do. But instead of focusing only on the supply side (how can I have more to offer?) I can consider the demand side, too (what place is there for what I already have?). Our conversation reminded me that 22 years of education, from kindergarten to PhD, is more than enough to work with.
Holding on and Letting go with Eva
One of the best parts of this project has been reconnecting with old friends. Eva and I hadn’t talked in fifteen years when we finally caught up over Skype. It turns out that a lot has happened since 2000. One day in particular, though, was especially powerful: Eva described the moment when her son Ashwynn was born, and how it helped her to forgive past grudges, focus on work that could sustain her, and build community as a single mom. We talked about her awareness of mortality, too, and with a laugh she described the ways in which she makes plans to ensure that Ashwynn will grow up supported and loved no matter what happens. I got the sense that they were a team, that they worked together everyday, and that their lives were made rich by the solidarity and love that they shared. “My son saved my life,” Eva beamed.
Music and Food with James
One of the most thoughtful culinary experiences I’ve ever had was at James’ house in Montreal. As if making a multi-course dinner for twelve of his friends wasn’t enough, he included a specially modified dish just for me in consideration of my weird food allergies. It was one of the few times I ate with total confidence in food I hadn’t prepared myself. Since then, James has worked as a chef at Sala Rosa Resto, a Spanish tapas restaurant, and runs his own catering company, Baryton, featuring locally sourced ingredients. He’s also a trained classical violist, and I have good memories of attending his graduation recital when his glasses kept sliding down his nose as he played. Sitting on the steps in front of a high school, James described the musicality of food and how spices were like chords, complete with harmonies, progressions, and root notes. It made me think that even when the content of a decision feels new, it often resembles a familiar form. Maybe that form is the recurring tension between freedom and responsibility, or ambition and humility, or solitude and companionship. But every one of my decisions needn’t necessarily redefine all the rules I live by. There are genres and patterns; there are recipes and chords.
Happiness and Facing Fears with Molly
How do you know if you’re taking the right risks? Molly stopped by with her guitar and sang a song that she had written during evenings in Zambia. She described how, in moments of uncertainty, she imagines herself as a grandmother looking back on her life. The grandmother inside her wants her to live an exciting and meaningful life and to survive to become the person that she imagines. Grandmother Molly in the wisdom of her experience is the advisor to Molly Today, who encounters newness all the time, asking “what would my future self hope I had found the courage to do now?”
Preparing for Novelty with Henry
The first time I heard Henry sing and play the guitar was in the basement of a church in Sackville, New Brunswick, in 2001. I remember being as impressed by his candid sincerity as I was perplexed by his time signature. Since then we have hitchhiked to Halifax, acted on stages in Montreal and Toronto, sang badly in Vancouver (I did), grilled chicken in London, and most recently, caught up again in Toronto. One of my favourite memories is the time when Henry and I were sleeping on a friend’s balcony in Montreal (we were young and we were Artists) and it started to rain in the middle of the night. “Henry, get under the table,” I said, and we dragged our sleeping bags to a shelter that was no bigger than a chessboard and carried on sleeping like this was a totally normal way to live.
Henry dropped by the Kensington Residency to chat about the virtues of routine, about working steadily and in solitude during the day, and about how “the time for novelty is after eight o’clock.”
Saying Yes with Virpi
How did I end up in Toronto? I was visiting Toronto in May 2014 and met up with Virpi for coffee (we had met in Montreal five years earlier, playing music in a park). I had just finished my PhD and didn’t know what to do next but knew that I wanted to confront some questions I had about the place of art and writing in my life. I was rambling on about my uncertainty when Virpi stopped me mid-sentence and said, “Adrian, it’s simple, all you need to do is live in my apartment. I’m going away, and I have a studio and a room in a house in Kensington Market with some great people. You will like them, I know it. It’s what you need to do.” Usually I self-identify as a dithery person, slow to make decisions. I go for a lot of walks, I make long lists, I try to imagine every possible consequence, but this was different. I went back to Vancouver, sold most of my stuff, and three weeks later I moved to Toronto and began what I have called since then The Kensington Residency. Virpi was right—it’s just what I needed to do.
We connected on Skype to talk about that moment when she invited me to make a change, what she saw, and how she knew it would work. It was the beginning of a great year.
Wrapping Up with Adrian
Friends, that’s all for now! Thank you to the people who participated in this project, who wrote comments or sent messages, who dropped by for a chat or made time for a long distance call. Even your ‘Like’s on Facebook went a long way to help me feel that these questions mattered and that I wasn’t alone in this search for meaningful work. If I’ve learned anything from these encounters (and I have!) it’s that our uncertainty unites us. Our questions about how to live bring us closer together than having the answers does, for there will always be adjustments, new ideas, and changes. Thank you for being a part of living some of that uncertainty with me. Let’s call this Season One of what I hope will be an ongoing series of encounters. I’m already looking forward to our next conversation.
*And what happened next? Funny thing. About two weeks after wrapping up these conversations, I got a letter in the mail. My application for a two-year fellowship to study how people learn from metaphors, which had been denied three months earlier, was now accepted. If ever you feel lost, I recommend that you Crowdsource your Destiny.
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