Common Discourse is a project designed to help others (and ourselves) think through creativity, focus, and intentional work—from Alex Tan & Alice Otieno.
Every Tuesday we share a few ideas, a quote from somebody else, and links worth sharing. On Fridays we invite a guest to share images from their camera roll and a sound that resonates with them. Words from the Journal come once a month.
Alice and I are similar in the way that we’ve carved paths out of seemingly nothing. We’re both generalists. Neither of us are formally trained in the things we do for a living. We wear multiple hats and hop between departments at the studio. We’ve had unorthodox career paths but have landed right where we wanted to. We both like to write and read esoteric articles on the internet. And over time, we’ve sensed how eerily similar two stranger’s lives can be.
On our weekly call, Alice asked how I knew when the right time was to move to a new city. While giving her context for both of my moves from Columbus to Chicago, and then eventually Los Angeles, it struck me that I’ve always been in over my head.
A 6-hour drive to Chicago in my 2004 Mazda 6 the Summer between my Sophomore and Junior year of undergrad was the jump. I knew in the back of my mind that when I backed out of the driveway at my Columbus apartment, I wasn’t coming back. So out the helicopter I went, praying that the parachute would deploy when I yanked the rope, because there was no back-up plan. I’d rather watch paint dry than sit in another Intermediate Accounting course.
I eased my parents into it, unconvincingly claiming I’d be there for only the summer while they didn’t forget to remind me that “You can always do art on the side.”
My peers on campus kept asking, “So you’re going to Chicago to take pictures for Instagram?”
And when I told one of my closest friends my plan, just a few days before leaving, he responded with “I’ll come too.”
I don’t remember inviting him but I’m glad he came.
We settled into a 8ft x 10ft room in the basement of young family who had just had their first child. The moment I showed up on their doorstep was also the moment we had met for the first time. The room was $400 per month and was just big enough to fit both our twin sized mattresses on the floor, touching both the walls and each other in the middle. We should have just shared a king-sized bed.
The following Monday, I emailed every restaurant and small business on Milwaukee Ave. And if they didn’t respond to my email I’d just walk in, ask if a manager was there, and give them my pitch:
“Hundreds of businesses open every day and they’re all fighting to stay alive. If the product is good, they’ll come back, and they’ll tell their friends about it. But how do you plan to get them to come into the doors to begin with?”
The idea was to create idealistic scenarios for local brands and restaurants when visual social platforms were still a new way of communicating. I knew nothing about the business of a restaurant, but I can only imagine it was difficult to turn down a 20 year old kid who had as much confidence and excitement as I did. Whatever I said enabled people to consider that a nicely lit photograph or an idealized lunch table setting could give them the edge over the competitors down the street. Plus, they didn’t have time to do it even if they wanted to, so there I was ready to take it off their plate.
For a couple hundred dollars each time, I paid my rent by making photos like this and this and this. Fast forward several years later, I’ve managed to find myself making that same pitch in bigger and bolder ways, resulting in this.
It took me a long time to realize that there are other routes to confidence outside of entitlement. Maybe it was possible to pursue something I knew nothing about. Maybe it was okay if I didn’t go to art school. Maybe an Asian-American kid from the Midwest with a stay at home Mother and a Chemical Engineering Father could be creative for a living.
What I thought were requirements were just nice-to-haves. I learned to crave momentum and the thrill of betting on myself. I wanted the next thing. The scary thing. The bigger thing. I had nothing to lose, so I went all in. Every single time. I found it much easier to be brave when I never expected to get this far to begin with.
It’s fair to argue that having something handed to you doesn’t come with that same hunger for growth and speed.
In the middle of telling Alice about photographing bowls of ramen, I remembered she didn’t ask for a long-winded story, just a simple answer. I stopped mulling over extraneous details and let out a sigh as I recollected the original question. A non-eloquent response came out of my mouth that went something like,
“In short, you really don’t know. One day you decide to say yes to a scary thing, then something good happens. And then you get the courage to say yes to the next thing. And then the next. Before you know it, you’re somewhere you’d never imagine being, and it’s only because you said yes the first time.”
I know her decision was made long before I got to the end of my bit, but she still thanked me for the encouragement and confidence. As if we needed another reminder that two very different people can walk such similar paths in life, I know that when I said “You’ll be just fine” that she believed it.
“Craving momentum” - I have such a visceral memory of when I started to feel this in my early 20s.
Great sentiments here, a lot that I resonate with from my own experiences coming up, saying yes, being brave, stepping into the unknown. Which can be a bit of a super power in that becuase nothing was handed to me, and there was and is that hunger, that drive it has meant sometimes the path is super unclear and is revealing itself to you as you step forward (or stretch) you are constantly stretching. Which can be exhausting, but for the most part keeps things fresh and sparked.