The things I learn ...
Rambling about the art of making little magical moments.
As with anything we do in life, finding our purpose and our passion can be a daunting affair. with a road that is seemingly endlessly fraught with potholes and steep ledges - just waiting for us to fall into or off of. I make no secret of the fact that what moved us from Texas to Florida was nothing more than desperation - a feeling that we had nothing to lose. I didn’t start drawing at Walt Disney World because, at near 50, that seemed like a great career move. I did it because it was a way to survive. And at first, I will tell you that I was probably not much different than many caricature artists who have a skill and use that skill to create income for themselves and their families - and make no mistake, that is a noble and necessary objective. But as I was nearing the half-century mark, I was anxious to find something more in my work. I had always known that it was possible and that there was something more to be gained from these moments I had with people who sat down to be drawn at my easel. I have always looked at each and every encounter as a potential to make a connection with another human being. I knew it was possible for that few minutes to be more than just me drawing a cute picture, but I had no idea how much more until my wife and I made that crazy decision to, not just fall off that proverbial cliff, but to jump off, arms flailing and screaming with joy the entire way down.
I think a willingness to sometimes jump off the edge is what separates those who find their passions from those who do not. It’s just a key element, being able to do an about-face and change course when you need to. I’m not advocating tossing everything away and blindly leaping into an unknown void with no support system. If you’re going to jump, you have to have something soft to land on, especially if you’re going to jump holding hands with people you rely on you. For us, those people were our sons.
Since the great recession hit and advertising budgets had been slashed and corporations had cut event and entertainment budgets back to almost nothing, my well of work had virtually dried up. Had I been on my own, this wouldn’t have been nearly so scary . I had faced homelessness at times in my life, although then I was young enough to consider myself an artistic troubadour, untethered by the chains of society, but when you’re married with a family, that mindset doesn’t work. I was tethered, happily, to a wife and two boys. My wife and I had to find a way to survive. We were on that road with the potholes and the ciliffs and I think we always knew that we would need to eventually jump, we were just looking for that soft place to land.
My wife, feeling like she had reached a place in life where she was unemployable, had, as so many people do, returned to school. Her efforts to hone a sellable skill landed her in culinary school, something she had always wanted to do. Another great thing about having nothing to lose is that it eliminates a lot of excuses you make for not doing the things that you’ve always wanted to do. This was a great opportunity for her but as she was in her 40’s, it was also a scary time for her. She was filled with the self-doubt that all of us experience and, although she learned quickly and was one of the top students in her class, her time there was almost immediately overshadowed by the requirement that she get an internship before she would be able to graduate. It was this task that plagued her nights and never left her consciousness during the day. She hadn’t really worked in years. Why would anyone take a chance on her when the world was full of young, hotshot 20-somethings to hire. And so when she was walking through the halls of her school and noticed on the bulletin board that recruiters from Walt Disney World were coming to conduct interviews for their culinary internship program, she knew that this might be her shot. She came home that night with the news. You may be wondering what it was about this opportunity that made her feel slightly more confident. You see, she had a history with Disney. In 1989 as a Sophomore in college, she had been selected to participate in the Walt Disney World College Program. This program took selected kids from around the globe and brought them in to work and live at Walt Disney World. My wife was an advertising major at the time and worked in the Magic Kingdom, selling Mickey Mouse watches on Main Street USA. She was also able to take marketing classes from Disney executives and even obtained her “Ducktorate” degree - “graduating” with the highest honors from the College Program. And when she left, she did so reluctantly. She had fallen in love with the company and how they operated but college could not be put on hold - her parents wouldn’t hear of it. And so she returned to Texas, vowing that someday, she’d fine her way back. And then life happened. She got out of school and took a job in Fort Worth, she met a great guy, had two kids and lived life. That dream of working for the Mouse seemed like nothing more than a childhood fantasy. So some 25 years later when she saw that flyer on the billboard at her school, I believe that her reaction to it was much deeper than “Hey, I bet THEY will hire me”, which is how she broached the subject with me. I just think, that like so many desires that we have, she didn’t realize that her soul was pulling her toward this for reasons she didn’t yet understand.
To sign up for an interview with the chef recruiter, Crystal had to go online and fill out a Culinary Program application. Of course, on this application, she noted that she had once worked with the company and had received her “Ducktorate” degree and that she’d always wanted to return. She thought that they would soon call her and set up an interview during the time that they were at her school - more than a month later. Disney did call but it was not to schedule an interview for the next month - it was to schedule a phone interview for the next day. Her suspicions had been right, she was a viable candidate for their internship program. The next day Crystal sailed through the phone interview, answer endless questions about the safe temperature of various foods, something called “HACCP” (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point), which I don’t really understand to this day, and “What does sage taste like?” An abstract question she quickly answered with, “Thanksgiving”, making the recruiter on the other end of the line chuckle. When the call ended, she was relieved and hopeful. She suspected it had gone well. Her suspicions were confirmed a few days later when she received the email titled “Welcome to the Walt Disney World Culinary Program”. This took a huge weight off of Crystal’s chest. It was only September and the program wasn’t to start until May. Her biggest fear about obtaining an internship had been allivieated an it was only September! She had 8 months before the internship would start.
During this time, we often talked about the future and what it looked like. She would be gone for 14 weeks, living in Disney housing and the boys and I would hold down things in Fort Worth. We would miss her but we would survive and she would then return and get a job somewhere in the area, hopefully providing a pillar of stability that we so desperately needed. But as the months wore on and we found ourselves edging closer and closer to that cliff, the conversations started to shift from “What is” to “What if”. I remember the day that she first mentioned the “What if”. It was a few months before she was to leave and we had learned that our home was, most likely, going into foreclosure. Like so many, we had been unable to make those payments for the past few months and, while the bank, had been patient for a while, it looked like we were going to have to let it go. “What if we jumped off the cliff?” Crystal had posed to me as we were driving down a busy street. I knew what she meant but was unable to really process it. Crystal was the sane, responsible one in our family. If SHE thought it might be time to jump, things must really be bad, and they were. The truth is, that, while it seemed in the moment like we were discussing some insane ideas, we were edging close to the cliff and instead of falling off, we were realizing that we could jump on our own terms, and Crystal had spotted a soft place for us to land.
Within weeks, the plan had gone from an abstract “What if” to an actual strategy. Crystal would go to Orlando in May and live in the housing that Disney provided. I would stay behind with the boys and allow them to finish out the school year. In early June, the boys and I would throw what we could into our car and either store or sell the rest and we would head to Florida. When we got there, we’d find a place to live and I would get a job with the company that provides caricature artists for Disney - just until I was able to build up my own business again. Disney had become our soft spot on which to land.
Crystal had also hypothesized that having my best friend, Al in Florida would help cushion the landing as well. Al is a friend who is more like a brother. We’ve been through a lot together and he was even the Best Man at our wedding. Shortly after we married, he had returned to his Miami roots and was working as a caricature artist in that area, and doing it quite successfully. He was yet another lifeline we had to hold on to if we were going to survive the landing.
It’s important to note that, at this point, we had not even brought this up to our teenagers. We wanted to know (as much as it’s possible to know) how things would work. Our boys had veto power over the idea. Sometimes you have to make big life choices and your kids just have to live with them. That is a fact, but this was not one of those times and we knew it. We didn’t HAVE to do this and if they were completely opposed, we would have slammed on the breaks. I’m not sure they every realized they had that power but they did. We had always attempted to protect them from the troubles that we had faced as much as possible but when it came down to this moment, it all hinged on their reaction. And so we called a “family dinner” one night. Crystal made their favorite dishes, just to ensure that everyone was happy. When the meal was finished, Crystal was the first to dive in. “So how would you feel about moving to Orlando?” (she was never one to beat around the bush). The boys sat silent for a moment and looked confused. She then continued, detailing out our “soft landing” plan. We knew that the biggest obstacle was going to be our older son, Collin. He was a high school baseball player, heading into his sophomore year. We knew he’d be tough sell. Luckily, Central Florida is a great baseball area and there were many great schools with great teams, including the High School that was currently sitting at #2 in the nation. Crystal knew this an threw it in for good measure. By the time she finished her spiel, she had made quite the case for adventure. The boys both agreed. We were leaving Texas - something we’d thought we’d never do. This was happening!
The time from that point forward seemed to race by at break-neck speed. There were so many things to do, things to sell, things to pack, things to store and so many friends to tell (we quickly had to come up with a “short version” of the story). And then there were the goodbyes. We had grown excited about the future and hopeful that things were finally turning around but we had lived in Texas for more than 40 years and had developed some roots that ran very, very deep. If we described this time as “bittersweet” then it was because of the goodbyes and I’m not sure that until Crystal got on that plane, I would have deemed the bitter to be worth the sweet. But it was happening and I knew that coming to terms with the leaving was a key part of being able to enjoy the new. It didn’t help that when the day came for Crystal to fly out to Florida and begin the first phase of the adventure, she was a nervous, excited, sad mess. The tears flowed freely as she said goodbye to the boys and I, knowing that she wouldn’t see us again for 6 weeks, the longest we had ever been apart. And when I stood in the security area of Love Field in Dallas and bid her farewell, I was a little sad too - not only because she was leaving but because I knew what laid ahead and what I was about to leave behind.
The next six weeks were a whirlwind of goodbyes and getting our truly treasured items into storage and letting go of the rest. There was little time to worry or do much of anything. During this time, Crystal started working as a culinary cast member at Disney’s Port Orleans Resort. She immediately liked the people she worked with and was relieved when her roommate, Claudia, turned out not to be a 20-year-old sorority girl from LSU but a 40+ year old wife and mother who, like Crystal, was pursuing something new. Crystal’s primary objective was simple: Do well enough that she could get hired on permanently. That meager hourly income and the insurance benefits that came with it were going to be the backbone of making this work and she knew it. The stakes were high.
Many people, when relocating, have the luxury of scouting trips. Learning the area, finding a place to live. We did not. Not only did we not have the money required for any of this, but Crystal was working so much and did not have a car with her in Florida, meaning that scouting the location was next to impossible. The boys and I were heading out, not even knowing where we would end up once we were in Orlando. It was a little scary but it was mostly exciting. Once we had wrapped our heads around the idea of moving, the initial worry was superseded by plans and anticipation. On the second Sunday in June, we woke up at crack of dawn, put our duffle bags, television, art supplies and dog, Crockett into our Honda Fit and headed east, letting go of what had been and head toward what would be. And what would that be? It would be whatever we made it. At this point, I didn’t have all of the answers but I was positive that we would survive and maybe even thrive.
The trip to Florida was mostly uneventful, filled with a lot of music, some typical road games and moments of me being the only one awake. The boys were excited and got noticeably more so when they saw the first palm tree along our journey. For me, our objectives were clear, get to Orlando, find a place to crash and see my wife. Nothing else really mattered beyond that. We arrived in Orlando on Monday afternoon and we were road weary and in need of a shower. I found a hotel near downtown that allowed pets and would charge us a weekly rate. At the time, I had no idea how safe the surround area was (it wasn’t!) but I knew that it was a place to spend the night. We took our bags and our dog in, cleaned up and laid around a bit. The hotel room was small but it was clean and were here. In this adventure we knew that we were going to have to learn to appreciate the little things - because there might not be big things to appreciate for a while. It was going to be a difficult journey and we knew it. All of this raced through my head as I stood under the hot shower, thankful for the moment and anxious for more.
That evening when Crystal got off of work, we were there to surprise her. The tears flowed again but this time, there was nothing but happiness. The first big obstacle, leaving Texas, had been handled. It was now time to play. We headed to Disney World for the first time since 2001 and decided to focus on some of the good things that were in our immediate future. Little did we know that back at our hotel, a little of the bad was creeping in.
When I tell you that we handled leaving Texas quite well, I’m talking about the boys and I. I am not talking about our dog, Crockett. While Crockett never seemed to be agitated or upset, the stress of leaving combined with the long road trip had left him tired and confused. On that day that we had headed to Disney World, he had stayed behind in the hotel room and we never thought much about it. He was often left on his own at home and had always handled it well. He had food, he had water and he had been walked. But this was different. Being left in a strange place had been too much for him and his anxiety kicked in. By the time we returned to the hotel, he had scratched the bathroom door to pieces. Have you ever seen Monsters, Inc? So you remember how Boo’s door looked at the end when it was in shards? Then you get the idea. Not only had our sweet puppy destroyed hotel property but he had made enough noise to concern the neighbors - who had alerted the front desk. When we returned to he hotel - just a few hours later, security was waiting as we packed up our belongings, paid for the door and were sent on our way.
One of the many things that I’ve learned on this journey is that there really is something to the old adage that “everything happens for a reason” Knowing this has gotten me through a lot of ordeals that would have otherwise seemed unbearable. In this case, that hotel was not where we needed to be hanging our hats for any length of time. It was a long way from Disney and although we didn’t yet know it, was in a very unsafe part of town. We had made a bad decision in choosing that hotel and Crockett had unwittingly given us the opportunity to rectify it. As we looked for a new temporary home, we decided to find a place much closer to Disney. We drove up and down the main drag of Kissimmee, looking for a decent hotel that would allow pets, charge by the week and be a place we could stay for a few weeks. It wasn’t long before we settled into what would become our home for, not the next we weeks, but the next couple of months. A man, two boys and a dog in a hotel room with two queen beds, a TV, microwave and mini-fridge. What had we done? Crystal had elected to stay in Disney housing until she completed her internship (I couldn’t blame her) but we knew that in a few weeks, she’d be joining us as well. Our goal now was simple, get an apartment before school starts in the fall.
As I look back on that time, I’m amazed at how well we all adjusted to it. They boys were champs and I think it taught them some valuable life-lessons. It also taught them that they never want to eat Cup-O-Ramen again but as a family, we grew closer. We only had each other and we thrived on those moments that made us laugh, we thrived on our relationships and the things that would happen outside of that hotel room. We remember the funny moments. These were moments that my grandmother used to describe and “if we didn’t laugh, we’d cry moments” Like the time the upstairs neighbor tossed a lit cigarette over his balcony. The cigarette landed on the top of a nearby palm tree, which promptly ignited, turning into a flaming ball of palm fronds - quite the spectator sport for those of us watching,
For me, my one and only personal goal was to get a source of income. And that turned out to be by drawing smiles at the Walt Disney World Resort. I had no idea the impact this would have on my life. I truly thought that it was just a temporary jumping-off point for reestablishing my free-lance and character career. And make no mistake, it did all of those things. It gave us the money that we needed to live and to eventually move into a real apartment near the high school that my son wanted to attend. That job was a life-line for us and even more importantly, it allowed me to rediscover what I loved about caricaturing - something I had gradually gotten away from in Texas as I began doing more advertising and design work. That job is what reminded me of how much I loved to draw smiles.
I have been a caricature artist for many years. In that time, as you can imagine, I have had some crazy experiences. Some have been good, some have been incredible, some have been frightening and others have just been weird. And yet, through it all, the truth that I get to wake up and live every single day is that I love what I do. I love the people I meet and the stories I hear. As a caricaturist at Walt Disney World, I love being a part of what, for some, is a once-in-a-lifetime vacation. I love people and almost every day that I stand behind that easel, I’m gifted with a memory
Several years back I received a gig from an agent. It was a birthday party for a 3-year old girl so I pictured myself drawing a lot of little princesses with big eyes and soft features. At the time, the only things that struck me as odd about this request were the length of time for which they wanted an artist, and the time at which the party was going to start. I was scheduled to work this little girls birthday party from 8:00-11:00 p.m. I thought that surely the agent had misunderstood the request and that the party was really for a 30-year-old. However, when I called the client to confirm the gig and find out what they wanted printed on the paper, it was, in fact, “Happy 3rd Birthday Mikayla!”. It was strange but I’ve seen strange before, I’m a caricature artist. As I drove to the gig on that Saturday night, my GPS sent me out into a remote area of South Fort Worth. There were no houses out there, just land and horses and cows. There were so many cows. And then I saw something in the distance. Was that a Ferris Wheel? Sure enough, this is where I was headed. As I approached the gate, I could make out several carnival rides on the horizon. The Ferris Wheel was the most obvious but it looked as if a midway had materialized in the middle of nowhere. When I had talked to my client, a jovial man named Javier, he had given me a passcode to get into the gate. This was not odd as many neighborhoods are now gated and require a passcode to enter. What was odd about this particular gate, however, was that there was no keypad - or landscaped wall announcing the name of the subdivision. There was no subdivision. Just a locked gate and a speaker with a button. I pressed the button and the static crackled over the old rusty speaker. “PASSCODE?” I heard a gruff voice ask. At this point I’m starting to feel a bit uneasy about the entire situation. What was I getting myself into? I steadied my voice and read off the series of numbers that Javier had given me when we spoke on that phone. I began to tell him that I was the caricature artist for the party but before I could get that out, the gate beeped and slowly began to open. I was suddenly on a small dirt road headed off toward the horizon and the Ferris Wheel in the middle of Nowhere, Texas. It seemed to take a very long time for that dirt road to eventually lead anywhere. As I traveled closer, I started to make out more of the party. There were 3 circus tents, carnival rides and several motorhomes, one that had a wrap touting the name of a Mexican band. Past all of the festivities, I started to see a very large home, ornately gilded with fountains and impeccable landscaping. Approximately 10 miles from the gate, I came to a lot that had been designated for parking. I was met by two armed parking attendants, who questioned me (just to make sure I wasn’t lost) and showed me where to park. Once out of the car, I was escorted to a security outpost where my things were all inspected. After the security team was convinced I wasn’t a threat, I was told to proceed to the second circus tent where I would meet the event planner who had hired me. As I was walking toward my tent, down that dirt farm road, I noticed the fencing along the way. There was a wooden fence that seemed to be supporting a shorter chain fence. Leaning up against this permanent fence were many curved pieces of fencing that looked like they would fit together to form a large oval. As my brain began to process what I was looking at, there was a loud, angry rush from the other side as, what sounded like, dozens of angry dogs hit the fence, which shook under their force. I jumped back, even loaded down with my equipment and the dogs continued to bark and growl. My brain quickly went back to that fencing. Angry dogs, metal arena…. OH! I picked up my pace as the dogs continued to snarl.
“Where AM I and WHO are these people?” I’m thinking as I come upon the first real attraction of this three-year-old’s birthday party - a car show. Here in this grassy area sat dozen of low-riders with lots of chrome and paint that would change color as the light hit it. There were SUVs painted solid gold that had hydraulics to make them seems as if they were “dancing” and each vehicle was decked out to the hilt, seemingly screaming for your attention. Two armed men covered in tattoos with gold jewelry that seemed to match the cars were standing by. I was out of place here, no doubt.
By this point, I was beginning to near the heart of the event. I walked through a row of motor homes and tour buses making my way toward that second tent. As I walked past the bus that obviously belonged to the band, the door opened and I was greeted with a large waft of skunks-smelling smoke. Through the cloud, a few members of the horns section emerged, laughing and joking in their silky puffy-sleeved shirts and rhinestone-laden bell bottoms. I immediately hoped that I would be able to set up next to the band as they were obviously going to be putting on a great show. I always draw better with music.
As I arrived at the first tent, I noticed rows of long buffet tables filled with food and dozens of service staff busting around like ants to try to keep everything replenished. Between the first and second tents was the “bounce section” with just about every inflatable house, slide and obstacle course you can imagine. Young children were running from one to the other squealing with delight. This was the first time I had actually seen anything that even remotely resembled a 3-year-old’s birthday party.
Past the second tent I could finally make out the midway area. Aside from the Ferris Wheel that I had first noticed, there was a Zipper, the Disco Toboggin, the Spinning Barrel of Anti-Puke thingy, a Fun House and many other things that are staples at most State Fairs. Once again “WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE” dominates my thoughts.
About this time, I came to my destination, the second tent. Here I met with the event planner who walked me around and introduced me to some of the other entertainers lucky enough to work this gig. There were several face-painters, balloon artists, a couple of psychics and another caricature artist. She showed me where I was to set up and disappeared. I began to unpack my easel, happily noticing that I could hear the Tejano music of the band well but I wasn’t so close to them that I’d have trouble hearing my guests.
Once we were set up, and just before the sun set, our event planner brought around the host of the party to meet us. I have no idea if this was the “Javier” I had spoken to on the phone, as his name was never given in the introductions but I instantly liked him. He was a short, portly man with beautifully groomed hair and a braided rattail that fell down past his belt. He was wearing large gold rings on each finger and about five pounds of gold on each wrist and around his neck that was laden with turquoise and other jewels. As I was introduced, he shook my hand and flashed me a brilliant, warm smile. We conversed for a few moments and I liked him almost instantly. I suddenly had no real desire to know anything about the dogs or the skunky band guys or what might be in the private lake just beyond the mansion.
Once I was set up and began to actually draw, it was much like any other event. I drew couples that looked like they had come to the party straight from church. I drew children with their parents. I drew men who looked like they were audtioning for a role in the Mexican Sopranos. I even drew one of these men who when I asked what he did for a living (a question that I had sworn I wouldn’t ask but old habits die hard), he told me that he works in the “family body shop.” I left that one alone. It was one of the friendliest and most diverse crowds I had every drawn. Everyone was friendly and the host came around with “Cervezas” often enough to keep us loose and happy.
At the end of the gig, when most of the guests had left, the band had retreated to their tour bus and the other artists were packing up and preparing to make the long walk back to their cars, the host came around again, this time carrying a large roll of bills instead of beer. He came by and said, “Thank you” to each and every one of us and I noticed that at the end of each conversation, He would peel off several bills and hand them to the entertainer. When it was my turn, he again shook my hand using a warm two-handed grip, looked me directly in the eye and thanked me for making “Mikayla’s” birthday so special and memorable. (I don’t think I ever even actually met Mikayla to tell you the truth) but the host was thrilled and therefore, so was I. As he had done with the other artists, he peeled off three $100 bills and handed them to me. I thanked him and he began to laugh, his eyes sparkling. He told me how he had been watching me throughout the evening and how much he appreciated my humor and talented. I was flattered. He then placed his arm around me and asks without a hint of teasing in his voice, “Hey…. you wanna girl?” I was shocked and silent, my brain trying to find a way to respond. He took my silence for confusion. “A girl.” He said. “You know, my way of showing you how much I appreciate your time with us tonight. I’ve got plenty up at the house. If you want one for the night, she’s yours.” By now my brain had caught up and I sputtered out a “Thanks but no thanks” type of reply. “I have a great girl waiting for me at home” I said. He stared at me for, what seemed like, an eternity. I wondered if I had offended him by turning down his offer. At this point, I wanted to get my things and leave. I envied the guys in the tour bus probably without a care in the world. Suddenly, with his arm still around me, the host broke out into, at first, a warm smile and then a hearty laugh. He removed his arm from around my neck and fist-bumped me on the shoulder. “You’re a good guy!” he said. “Here, go home to your woman and then take her out for a nice dinner on me.” He then peeled off three more hundred-dollar bills and handed them to me. “She’s lucky to have you”. And with that, I headed off with my easel toward past the tents and the car show and the angry dogs, knowing that I had just experienced something the likes of which I might never see again.
I never found out who they were and I’m all but certain that I couldn’t find that house again if I had to, nor would I want to. I think of it a bit like the Island on ‘LOST’. It was there and now it isn’t but it definitely left an impression on me. It was a truly enjoyable gig and to this day, I can honestly say that for all of the amazing tips Ive received, that is the only time in my life that I have been offered “a girl”.
We talked earlier in the book about the importance of trusting your own creativity. You may be thinking of exploring that creativity by taking up a new hobby, such as painting or writing music. In these cases, trusting yourself may be enough. But you may be thinking about investing in your innate creativity as an entrepreneur and starting something new and exciting! I truly believe that it is important that we are all confident in our ability to be creative. Without that confidence, we are hesitant to take chances and chances are absolutely necessary if we want to move forward and follow our dreams. But entrepreneurship is rarely risk free and for those endeavors I believe wholeheartedly in the power of having a community who can give you feedback, encouragement and help along the way.
The idea of feedback is nothing new or innovative. Feedback has been an essential component of the business world for years. In most cases, however, this kind of feedback is not what I’m talking about. For several years, I was a creative director at RadioShack. It was a good job in a great location, right in the heart of Downtown Fort Worth. We had a shiny new campus and it seemed as if RadioShack might finally be moving out of the early 1980’s where it had seemed stuck for so long. The advertising department was in a nice open space, there were bicycles we could use to ride up and down the banks of the Trinity river. There was great art that hung throughout the building. Things were looking up for this little early innovator in the computer industry. It may not have been Silicon Valley with their tennis courts and Ultimate Frisbee fields but it was a pretty nice place to be. I hadn’t been there for very long before I realized that, building aside, not much had changed at RadioShack and that they were probably destined for more of the same stagnant growth - except now it was going happen with the expense of that incredible new campus hanging over their heads. The first thing that clued me in was not my department itself - the art department was a good one that was being run by people who seemed to ‘get it’. The problem was in the feedback process. Behind that facade of a new and shiny RadioShack was the same old, stagnant, uncreative management structure. When you looked past the cool building, bicycles and art it was still a hierarchal structure with each person in that structure looking for a way to make his or her mark - and none of it benefitted the creative process.
The process of getting an ad to print looked something like this: Our department would be tasked to create some sort of promotional piece. We’d brainstorm, we’d collaborate and eventually we’d develop an idea. We’d then develop the art, write the copy, spend a day or two at a photoshoot, put everything together, get it on paper and then print out the ad and place it in an interoffice mail envelope where it would then make the rounds through RadioShack management - not creative or ad managers, but all of them. Each manager, regardless of level, would make his or her necessary notations on the ad, return it to the envelope and send it on. Eventually the ad would come back to us, full of changes, contradictions and frankly, some ridiculous suggestions but there was no discussion or collaboration or genuine constructive feedback that had occurred - just managers wanting to put their mark on a piece of paper. This is how I knew that RadioShack had not evolved. They were still the stuffy brown suit and tie company they had become known to be. They were too set in their ways to change.
What I learned from this experience is not that feedback is bad. Feedback can be extremely valuable and is absolutely necessary when you’re creating something new or starting a new enterprise. I want you to trust yourself but I also want you to surround yourself with people you trust who can see things in a different way and provide constructive feedback that will help you to succeed.
When putting together a group of people who will serve as your sounding board for an idea or endeavor, there are characteristics that each of these people need to have - and not to have to truly make your feedback sessions productive.
I think the first and most important thing that you need to consider when assembling your feedback group is trust. You need to trust that their opinions are valid and appropriate. You may not take all of them and they will certainly not always agree on everything but you need to know that their views are of value. They also need to trust themselves enough to speak out and offer feedback. That is a difficult thing for some people and not everyone is able to critique another’s work but everyone in your feedback group should be comfortable with the process.
It is also important that each person you select for your group has the ability to be tactful. “That’s a terrible idea” is not useful feedback. Each person should be able to not only offer critique, but throw out potential solutions for whatever you are addressing. Not every idea brainstormed will be good but they should be presented and tossed around before dismissing. This also leads me to a third point, which is that every person in your feedback group needs to feel equal. It’s not a strong, useful feedback session if people are concerned with their own position or feel less-important compared to other voices in the room.
Keeping a hierarchy from sneaking into a room is a difficult thing, even if you don’t intend for it to happen. When I was at RadioShack, there were times that we might attend a brainstorming session where ideas would be tossed around. These sessions, however, were conducted in board rooms that had one long table. The person in charge of the session would sit at the head of the table and those that came in with him would get the seats closest to him. Everyone else would fill in the seats at the far end of the table. It didn’t take long for it to become apparent that the session was really for the leader and those seated immediately around him. The farther away from that end of the room you got, the less significant people felt. This is a mistake made far too often in companies and it seriously limits the value of a feedback session. Keep the group equal - you will get far better results if people feel free to offer their opinions and suggestions.
You also want to limit the number of people in your feedback group. Once you have identified those people in your life or business who will be most helpful to you, be careful to keep exposure of ideas to them. As we said earlier, not everyone is good at feedback and not all ideas are valid. One of the pet peeves of most designers I know it the idea of “Design by Committee”.
Design by committee works something like this: I work with a client to create something. We work together and get it to a point where it looks good to me, it looks good to them but it’s not quite 100% done. This is the point at which you may look to your feedback group - a small group of people you trust to offer insight and opinion, which may or may not be acted on. Design by committee comes in when the client says, “Let’s email this out to everyone in the organization and let them tell us what they think” Surely, they think, 500 opinions will be better than 10, right? Wrong. The truth is that I can draw a small circle on a page and if I send it out to enough people, some are going to say, “That circle looks sad” Design by Committee does nothing more than invite unuseful input from people feel the need to speak up and make their mark - even if they really don’t have anything to say. Keep your feedback group small but mighty and your ideas will truly reap the rewards.
While we’ve addressed the things that you want to look for in a small group of superheroes to help you advance you’re own creative dreams, we have yet to consider the things that you need do to ensure that you are getting the most from this group.
Trust your ideas - but also really listen to others. Making good use of feedback involves a bit of humility. Don’t be so committed to your idea that you’re not willing to change it or even abandon it if that becomes the best thing to do. It is also important to develop a thick skin. It’s very easy for us to take offense when someone criticizes our ugly baby. Instead, view that criticism as someone who is wanting to see that baby florish into a beautiful adult.
Give proper consideration and respect to everything that comes out of your feedback group. Will you take every piece of advice offered? Of course not, some of it will be terrible advice but you want to make sure that you’re always considering everything so that you don’t miss the great advice when it comes through.
Do not ignore pitfalls or problems that are sussed out by your feedback group. Groups are usually good at identifying real problems - even if the solutions they offer are not the right ones. If a group of people you trust identifies an issue with your idea or work, trust that this issue exists and needs to be addressed. Don’t fail to address the problem just because you don’t come up with an immediate fix.
Feedback groups are essential development. They are like a magic mirror that allows us to magically see things we may have otherwise missed. And if put together well, they can make the difference between an idea thats developed into a dream and one that just withers on the vine.
Most of us are afraid of failure to some extent. And yet, all of us fail at some point. Even the most brilliant minds of the day and history have been faced with failure. At one time JK Rowling was an unemployed single-mom sitting in a coffee shop scribbling stories about wizards onto napkins. Up to that point, much of her life probably looked like failure and yet, we all know what that failure led to.
Steve Jobs was once ousted from the company that he created in his garage. That must have felt like failure. And yet, he was later reinstated on his own terms and allowed to turn that company into the Apple we know today. In high school, Michael Jordan was on the bench, having been told by his coach that he wasn’t good enough. His mother addressed his disappointment with a great piece of advice “The best thing you can do is prove to the coach that he made a mistake” and Michael Jordan did, letting go of the criticism and using that knowledge to get better and get better he did!
Walt Disney suffered massive failures during the upstart phase of his animation company – even losing the rights to his beloved character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. But Walt Disney had a dream and knew that to make that dream come true, he would have to get back up and go in a different direction. After losing almost everything, a dejected Walt got on a train and, instead of giving up, sketched out a new character – Mickey Mouse. You may have heard of him.
How many of us are almost parallized at the idea of failing? We are raised with the idea that failure is not an option – and there are situations where that may be true. Many fail-safes have to be in place to ensure that surgeons do not operate on the wrong part of the body, or to make sure that airplanes do not fall out of the sky. There are situations where failure will result in catastrophe. The good news is that chances are, your potential failure isn’t one of those.
In my time as a caricature artist, graphic designer, ad guy and anything-else-you-need man, I’ve done a fair share of logos for start ups. I’ve seen people throw everything they have into an idea that may or may not work out for them. One of my favorite upstart logo designs was for a man named, Tony. Tony had been one of those lucky ones that got in on the computer/tech industry when it was still in its infancy. He had invested what little money he had just out of college in stocks that did pretty well. He was living life on his terms and enjoying every minute of it. In the late 90s he invested in what was to be his golden egg. A company that was sure to bring him a lifetime of ease. He was so sure of this company that he invested most of what he had, banking on its future success. That company was named: Enron. As you have probably already figured out, Enron didn’t prove to be what Tony thought it would be. He lost much of what he had then and several years later would lose even more after the housing bubble burst and subsequent stock market crash in 2008.
Tony’s funds were depleted, he was lost, he was broken and he didn’t know what he was going to do. In December of 2008 Tony went home to Texas to spend Christmas with his family. His parents had immigrated from Mexico when he was a teenager and Christmas was always a festive affair with all of the Hispanic traditions. On the morning of Christmas Eve, he woke up to a familiar aroma. His mother had started the annual tradition of making Christmas Eve tamales that they would later package up and take to all of their friends. Tony spent the day helping his mother and aunts meticulously make each bundle of seasoned pork with masa – lovingly crafted to bring joy to the neighborhood. That evening, when they delivered the hundreds of tamales to their friends, he saw the joy that they brought. Several days later he drove home with an idea. He would make tamales.
Now, making tamales is a far cry from investing in tech stocks but often the best ideas can come from a sense of desperation. Tony didn’t have the funds to invest in a massive start up – but he could buy a food truck. He didn’t have the ability to acquire a large staff – but he and his wife could make tamales. He had the recipes and the skill and most importantly, he had the desire to make people happy.
That was nearly 8 years ago and Tony’s tamales are a huge success. When he failed, he didn’t give in, he didn’t even continue on in the same direction because he knew that the direction he was facing was no longer a good path for him. What he did is find something he enjoyed doing (making people happy with food) and put his heart into it.
One of the keys in failure is simply to know how to fail early. Fail as quickly as you can – when you’ve not invested a huge amount of capital or time. And then be prepared to turn and go a different way. Don’t hold on to bad ideas stubbornly. Recognize that they are bad, admit the failure and then go and find a way to succeed. When I’m designing a project like the Illustrated Idea graphic novels, which require many hours of work, I try to fail as quickly as possible. What does that mean? I don’t send full-color beautifully-worked finished pieces in a first, second or usually even third proof. If I’m not on the right track, I want to know as early in the process as possible, so that I don’t waste my time and effort. The first proof is always a sketchy black and white layout of the story and the panels. If that isn’t right for my client, we can fix it there and not waste time. Once that concept is approved, I move on to less sketchy black and white drawings, and the approval process begins again. Only when I have full approval do I move into the tedious phase of coloring – the point of no return.
As I tell you to fail quickly, I also want to caution you against judging your own creative endeavors too quickly. We all image that the beautiful things that we see in this work were always so. Think about a movie that you love – a beautiful movie – a movie that is perfect for you. It’s probably hard to image that at one time, that movie, that script, that art that you have come to love so much was a horrible mess. Most works of art don’t start out that way. Most books are not published from their first draft. Even the most talented of artists usually start with something less-than-good when they are creating.
Ed Catmull of Pixar likes to refer to the first version of their films as “Ugly Babies”. But the thing is, ugly babies can grow into beautiful adults. They just need to be nurtured, taught and allowed to become the best that they can be.
When I talk about failing quickly and allowing your ugly baby to grow, they may seem like incompatible ideas but they are not. You can have an ugly baby that will turn into a beautiful adult but the process of nurturing it into adulthood is where the failure comes and needs to be recognized so that things can be adjusted quickly enough that we don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak.
A good example of this from my life comes with The Illustrated Idea. I first had the idea for The Illustrated Idea – graphic novel-style recaps created for business and organizations to communicate with employees following meetings and conferences to help their teams understand and remember the information shared long after the event had ended. I knew that the idea was solid and I knew that I would be able to execute it in a way that would entice businesses looking to communicate better, especially with the younger generation of workers. What I hadn’t done, was any of the real work to figure out how it would take shape. In other words, this was my ugly baby. All idea – no execution. Around this time, I was approached by one of the leading graphic facilitators in the country. She was putting a group together to do live graphic recording at technology week at SXSW. I jumped at the chance to perform, thinking that this was a great way to advance my idea at warp speed. I’ve been speed-drawing for audiences for most of my life. How different could taking graphic notes at a live event be? On the day of my first event (we drew every day that week), I got up on the stage and came face-to-face with my “canvas” – a 4x8-foot piece of paper. I knew the objective – Capture what the speaker was saying in graphic form – turn his words into a work of art. “Easy enough. I’ve got this” I thought. As I sat and pondered my first marker stroke, the lights in the audience of about 5,000 dimmed. Bright, hot lights suddenly illuminated, not only the dias where the speaker would stand, but my paper. My perfectly white paper now stark and beaconing under the warm light. The speaker came out to rousing applause and I was introduced. Everyone in that room knew who I was. The speaker began his lecture on the creative innovation happening in technology and I began to draw. I was crafting a beautiful picture of a computer that would be the centerpiece of my elaborate design. I was focused and performing well, my brain fully engaged to what I was drawing on the paper. I was lost in creating my art. And then suddenly, something jarred my brain back to the room. The speaker had moved on. He was now talking about something different. “Wait? What was that? I missed those key points.” “Can you repeat that” “WAIT!”….
I failed that day. I went into SXSW underestimating the amount of preparation I needed to do for live graphic recording. I learned that live graphic recording is not about art – it’s about note taking. I learned that my strengths do not lie in quickly sketching other peoples words and having it presented as a finished product. I was far too concerned with the quality of the art and that is not what live graphic recording is. But I also realized that my Illustrated Idea was not the same thing as live graphic recording. I could have easily experienced that failure and given up on the ugly baby. Instead, I refocused on what I wanted to accomplish and learned how to make that happen.
Today, I travel all over the world producing graphic novels from meetings and conferences. I sit in a meeting and I take visual notes on my digital tablet. Sometimes, those notes are even projected so that the attendees can enjoy the process. But those notes are not the finished product and I don’t have to worry about their perfection. I can take notes and then go home and spend many hours transforming those notes into a beautiful finished product that companies keep and circulate for years following their events. That is how I work best and that is how I grew my ugly baby into a beautiful adult.
But that failure also did something else for me. I learned things I didn’t know about live graphic recording. I learned what kind of person it takes to be successful at it and I realized that, while I am not cut out for it, my wife, Crystal certainly is. We have now added live graphic recording to the services that we offer and she thrives on it. She also services as living proof of my belief that anyone can learn to draw. Five years ago she would have never had the confidence to put marker to paper but once we learned that graphic note taking was “not art”, she gave it a try and was wildly successful!
Failure can do a lot of things. It can teach you what not to do, it can give you direction in life, it can educate you in ways that you never imagined. Just make sure that when you fail, you fail as quickly as possible. Don’t allow yourself to get so far in process that when the inevitable failure occurs, it takes far too much from you. You always want to ensure that you have the energy and resources to be able to pick up that ugly baby, change paths and carry it into a beautiful adulthood.
When my friend, Dave was in elementary school, he loved to paint. Each day in his kindergarten class they would have “art time” and he would head right to the easel. He loved the small pots of paint and mixing the colors and the way his brush felt against the paper. One day, during art time, Dave decided that he was going to paint a farm. He painted the barn with it’s big red doors and silo, he painted a black wooden fence surrounding the barn and inside the fence, he painted pigs. Now, as so often happens in the kindergarten art world, he was forced to think outside the box as there was no pink paint. So once he was done, his barnyard was filled with big, beautiful, blue pigs. Dave was so proud of his work. When he put the brush down, he beamed at his work. He had created this. Dave was anxious for his friends to see his masterpiece and so he called his buddy Steven over to see. Steven, who was obviously a budding art critic took a look at the painting and asked about the large blue circles on the paper. “They’re PIGS” Dave said proudly. And how did Steven reply? “Those don’t look like pigs”
Everyone is born with the ability to create. Everyone is born with the desire to be creative and the ability to see the world from a unique perspective. Sadly, we are also born with fragile egos and a need to be liked and accepted. In many cases, it only takes one moment to set us on the path of “I’m not creative” or “I can’t draw” or “I hate art”. In many cases it’s a friend telling you that your creative work isn’t good or maybe it’s a parent who think that, in your best interest, they’re setting you on a more successful path toward business or science. And for many, that is the right path. Where would we be if there were no scientists or mathmaticians or engineers? And yet, so often these paths come with the great fallacy of people thinking that they are not creative.
If you ask most people to name someone creative, they will almost certainly reach for the great artists. Picasso – he was creative. Walt Disney – definately creative. Michael Jackson? Yep. Stephen King – absolutely! You are almost never going to hear someone talk about the creativity of Rainer Weiss, Barry Barish or Kip Thorne – the 2017 winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics because they found Gravitational Waves that Einstein had theorized in his General Theory of relativity. And yet, these gentlemen, concepted, engineered and built a completely new device that could actually measure gravitational waves – something that up until very recently had just been a vague idea. This, is creativity at it’s best and were we not creative beings, there would not be scientific discovery or ideas that revolutionize business. The mere existence of progress proves that we are creative.
So maybe now you’re believing that you’re creative. Great! But you may still be in the “I can’t draw” or “I can’t paint” or “I can’t sculpt” mindset. Maybe doing those things doesn’t interest you, and that’s fine but most of us are born wanting to create some sort of art. Did you ever get one of those big boxes of crayons when you were young? The kind with the sharpener in the back? Did you love Play Dough? Silly Putty? Was finger painting your thing? What happened? You grew up.
This reminds me of another friend of my, John. I met John when I was in my early 20’s. I was teaching a drawing class that was geared toward business types who wanted to find a way to think differently, rediscover their creativity and take a break from the day-to-day rigors of the corporate world. John was a technical engineer for a fiber optics company – which was new and exciting technology at that time. He had a good career but needed to find a hobby to relieve his stress. So the two things that he chose – art and Tai Kwan Do. I was lucky enough to have John in my class. He was friendly, intelligent and willing to learn to draw. And he did. He drew like an engineer – but at least he drew.
After he finished with my class, we went our separate ways and I didn’t see John again for a very long time. Almost a decade later, I was working at Blues Festival. During a break I decided to visit the tent that was sponsored by the local arts guild. There were some good paintings, sculputres and photography in there but a few pieces left me dumbfounded. There, in the corner, amidst lesser works, were these large elaborate Italian baroque-period paintings of Jesus. These were dark, emotional masterpieces with drama in each and every brush stroke. You could almost feel the warmth of the sunlight radiating on the flesh of Jesus. I was stopped dead in my tracks over their beauty and the mastery required to paint with such precise skill. As I’m standing, astounded by this work, I hear a familiar voice behind me. “I got better, didn’t I?” I turned around and found myself face-to-face with John, my old engineer art student. “These? Are these YOURS?!?” I asked in amazement. And yes, they were.
I could tell by looking at John that something had changed. His speech was a little off and his dress was less exact and particular than it had been when we first met. I could tell that something was amiss. This is when he told me his story.
He left our art class more than a decade earlier feeling a lack of confidence as he compared himself to the rest of us. He was “just an engineer”, after all. Not an artist. And so he quit drawing and focused on the Martial Arts, at which he had proved to be very good. Tai Kwan Do became his hobby and his passion and after several years of training, he was ready to test out for his black belt. During the completion of one of the black belt requirements, he took a kick to his head, just above the left eye. John finished the match and was later diagnosed with a concussion from the incident and was told to “take it easy” for a week or so. A week or so later, he was driving to the grocery store when he blacked out. Thankfully, the resulting crash did not cause further injury but he was taken to the hospital for assessment. During the test that they ran, they discovered that when he was kicked in the head, some bone fragments had chipped away from his skull and had begun to work their way into his brain, wreaking havoc as they went. Emergency surgery was performed to remove them and no one knew what his recovery would look like.
When John awoke, he had forgotten many things. He no longer knew how to read or write, he had to relearn how to walk and talk and his mental condition had been regressed to about a 6th grade level. And so, he began to learn as a child learns. He began to work with doctors and therapists and tutors. He also begin to draw. At first, just simple cartoons but it was something he could still do. So he started checking out art books from the library and drawing what he saw and he did that for several years. He eventually became confident enough in his skills that he took an oil painting class at the local community college and as he pointed to the canvas said, “And THIS just started to happen.” I began to mimic the Italian Masters.
John eventually passed away as a result of those injuries sustained so many years earlier, but not before his works moved from the community arts guild tent to several religious museums and institutions throughout the world. He became known as a Master himself with a talent inspired by God and rediscovered by a swift kick to the head.
As adults, we need to learn to trust our creativity. This, in turn, helps us to trust our instincts and our decision-making processes. And this, builds self-confidence and a great ability to solve problems and move forward. It’s about so much more than painting pigs that look like pigs
- get acquainted with how you fit.
In my life, the easel has allowed me to share in so many others lives. I have been a part of many marriage proposals (those are always fun!), I have shared time with guests at some of the biggest and best moments of their lives - weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, first birthdays, last birthdays and I’ve witnessed so many Magical Moments during my time Walt Disney World. Often, I’m simply an observer of what’s happening around me but occasionally, I get to be a piece of the puzzle, I get to help bring everything together. Sometimes what I do is an important part of someone else’s life and those are exceptional moments. These are the moments that explain why I’m so passionate about drawing smiles. I truly believe that fulfillment comes from making people happy - whether it’s giving the man on the corner with the cardboard sign a sandwich or being a key player in the most romantic proposal ever, finding how you fit into the happiness of others can help you find both purpose and passion.
One night, as I was working at my easel, I was approached by a large Puerto Rican family who wanted to all be drawn. They were at Walt Disney World celebrating getting through a particularly rough season of life and they wanted matching caricatures to help commemorate the beginning of a new season of happiness and promise. As I began to draw them one by one, more of their story began to emerge. They were a close-knit family living in Puerto Rico. One of the daughters of this family, was a college student, majoring in communications. She was brilliant, astute and destined for a successful life. She had a great boyfriend and loved life. Several months earlier, tragedy had struck this family when the daughter, Natalia, had been in an automobile accident and suffered an injury that had caused her to permanently lose her sight. The family had made it through the initial treatments are were now settling into the “this is our new life” phase - and they were joyful.
After I had drawn Mom, Dad, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, brothers and sisters, Natalia herself sat in my chair. Eduardo, her boyfriend, introduced himself and asked if they could be drawn together. Of course I agreed and I began to draw Natalia, sunglasses and all, as she told me all about their first trip to Walt Disney World and all of the incredible things they had experienced. Eduardo was smitten with Natalia and it was obvious from the beginning that he was a remarkable young man. He had become her eyes and seemed so happy to have that role. It was one of the sweetest moments in caricaturing I had experienced. I drew them together as the rest of the boisterous family laughed, took pictures and shared the experience with those back home. When the caricatures were complete, Eduardo and her family described the picture to her in great detail, using colorful language and animated gestures. As they told her how much they loved the drawing, a radiant smile crossed her face and she sat quietly for a moment. And then she timidly asked her parents, “Can I have him draw me again?” Everyone, including myself, felt a little confused. Had they described something she didn’t like? Was she not happy. She then looked toward me, smiled and quietly asked, “Can you draw me without my glasses? But not the scars? Can you draw me like I looked before the accident? My eyes were green”
My heart broke and my eyes (along with everyone else in the family) misted over. “Of course I will, I’d be honored”. And so I did. She needed me, a stranger, to be able to see past the damage that the accident had caused. She needed me to look at the scars and see the girl. This was a key moment in her recovery from this horrific life event. She needed to know she was still beautiful and her opinion was still valued. The laughter resumed as I took another piece of paper and drew this beautiful college student as the brilliant, smart girl she had always been and would always continue to be.
I’ve been a part of some incredible moments in my career but this one remains one of my favorites. You never really know when you’ll have the opportunity to positively impact someone else’s life but if you’ve found your passion and if you’re doing what you love, those moments will arise and you will be more than prepared for the task of using your puzzle piece to help the entire picture come together.
From Ty Walls:
After four decades drawing smiles I often encounter remarkable people. I've learned to create little special moments for people from all around the world with my simple smile-drawing skills. But sometimes, life creates little magical moments for me. This blog is my attempt to share them with you.