Not long ago, my youngest daughter and I were talking about high school popularity.
“But Mom, you weren’t cool in high school, right?”
“Oh I was extremely cool,” I said. “It’s just that no one knew it.”
See, from my point of view, being popular in high school (for most people) meant giving up part of yourself. Maybe in junior high you wore Star Wars shirts to school every day, but in high school, if you wanted to hang with the popular kids, you had to stop. You had to change your hair style and the way you talked, and ditch some of your old friends. Some of the popular kids appeared to be blazing their own trails, but once those trails were cut, they were sort of stuck. If they wanted to veer a different direction, they couldn’t. People now expected something from them.
And this bookish, semi-nerdy, goody-two-shoes actually liked herself the way she was. I had no intention of giving up carrying a novel with me everywhere I went or cutting my waist-length hair or dumping a single friend I still liked. I wanted to do the things that made me happy and filled me with creative energy, and if those things were not cool, so be it.
That’s kind of how I approach my art, too. There are decisions I could have made along the way that would have put me a bit closer to the “in crowd.” I could have chosen a more popular genre, or gone with a traditional publisher, or written about people who already had name recognition. Instead, I stuck with the things that gave me excitement, fulfillment, and a sense of purpose.
The interesting thing about the arts, though, is that not everyone who is seeking popularity achieves it. To try to manufacture the cool factor is harder than it looks. On the flip side, I’ve known many an artist who doubted their work would ever be popular and it took off.
The question then is not whether you or your work are “cool” enough to succeed, the question is whether you are remaining true to yourself. Because trust me, you do not want to play games in order to succeed, nor do you want to compromise your beliefs, principles, or talents. You’ll then be stuck in a trap of your own making. Instead, focus on your strengths and the things that give you energy, and if they make you popular, great. And if not, at least you can walk down the hallway with your head held high.
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