Wednesday, June 14, 2017

life after advice

My undergraduate degree was a BA in Studio Art with teacher certification.  I wanted to be a teacher and I thought that working in a K-12 public school was probably the way to go.  Near the end of my degree, one of my mentor professors had a conversation with me and told me I should switch to the BFA degree.  At the time this was nonsense to me.  I had a year to go, I was going to get married and I was going to coast into a teaching job.  

That professor was Paul Martyka.  If that name means anything to you, you will understand just how significant it was for him to be encouraging me to move into a more professional studio art degree.  I understood that he was wise and quite good at discerning artistic ability in a student, but I was not able to clearly see what he saw.  Even while knowing that he must have been right, I could not take his advice.  

A year later I was graduated, married and dreading the process of interviewing for the teaching jobs.  I had a very eye opening experience while student teaching during my senior year and I knew that I probably wasn't going to be happy teaching K-12.  Martyka had been right, as he always seemed to be, and now it was too late for me to follow his advice.  

I only interviewed for a few teaching jobs but I lucked into this weirdly advertised job as a graphic artist for an embroidery company.  After a couple of years, I managed to turn that into a great paying job.  But designing for not-so-creative customers was not exactly thrilling.  It wasn't something that energized me and made me a better person.  This was not my place in the world.  It was simply, a job.  After another couple of years I found myself in Paul Martyka's studio back on campus talking about coming back to grad school for an MFA.  Only now can I appreciate how he must have felt having that conversation.  I'm sure he wanted to shake me and say, "You idiot!  Why didn't you listen to me years ago?  I could have saved you so much time and effort."

I've been teaching at the university level now for almost 15 years and in that role I've found myself on Martyka's end of those types of conversations.  With the aid of experience and "old people perspective" I can very often see where a student is headed either personally or professionally or both.  But most often, the student can't see it.  Even when they understand and logically they agree, they often can't bring themselves to follow the advice.

This is frustrating beyond explanation.  

And I'm not even talking about unsolicited advice.  Lord knows I give that on a daily basis.  I can't stop myself.  I see it, I say it.  I hear it's hereditary.  What I'm talking about here is someone coming to me and explaining a situation and asking for advice.  I assess the situation and factor in what I have figured out about that person and I provide guidance out loud.  Then the seeker ignores the advice.  

Sometimes I'm wrong.  It happens.  And when it turns out that I'm wrong, I don't sit around and marvel at the advice seeker ignoring my advice.  I'm just glad they did.  It only bothers me when I'm right.  

I've thought about Paul Martyka's advice recently.  What if I had taken it?  What would my life look like now?    

If I speculated, it would look a lot different.  In fact, I'm not sure that I would be in the wonderful place I am now if I had listened to him.  It's weird to think about it that way.  He was right, but I had to ignore his sound advice and accurate assessment of me in order to be where I am today.  I had to take the wrong turns in order to realize where I did not want to be.  I gained experience along the way that better prepared me for the day I got back on track.  

The five years of working as a graphic artist-turned-graphic designer not only showed me that I didn't want to work for customers, it also gave me a background and interest in typography, surface design and composition.  I also had five years of being a "semi-adult" which gave me some life experience to draw from conceptually.  Each of these Legos stacked up, one on top of the next until I was prepared for grad school.  

It's tough to be on the student end of these situations.  You're trying to figure out why you're in college - like, really why you're in college.  Not because it's expected or you were encouraged.  You're trying to figure out how what you've learned is going to be applicable in the years after college.  You're struggling with the youthful idea of rebellion against authority and the semi-adult idea of trusting respected sources of information.  And there's some part of you that just wants to just get a job and a mortgage and a family and try out being a real citizen.  

I'm realizing it's even tougher to be on the Martyka end of these situations.  You can see clear as day what path a student should take.  You can pull strings and send emails and open those doors for them.  You have been there already, you can stand in the path and tell them which direction is best.  And then you have to sit silently by and watch them ignore your advice.  You have to watch them struggle and stumble and fall.  

Eventually they'll learn and experience what they need and they'll have an epiphany.  It won't feel like an epiphany, but they'll start stacking up their own Legos one by one, each decision better than the last.  They may be back for advice or they may just find their own way.  It may take a couple of months.  Or a couple of years.  Or a lifetime.  And maybe they'll send an email so you can enjoy their success.  

But you'll keep giving advice because they keep asking.  And because that's a part of your place in this world.  And you'll realize how lucky you are to be able to give it.

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