The standard fit
Ever been to the Smithsonian and seen the kitchen Julia Child’s husband built for her? It’s a grand kitchen. A place for everything and everything in its place. But if you look closely, the countertops are taller than your standard kitchen because Julia Child was 6’2″ and her husband wanted the kitchen to fit her and not the other way around. Makes sense. Cooking requires physical labor. And iterated over and over, every day, things should be optimized to the user. You with me? Easy as breathing.
But imagine the standard real estate agent straight out of HGTV advising Julia and her husband. “That’s a great idea,” she would say, “But it won’t help with resale. Houses are bought for their kitchens and there aren’t a lot of 6’2″ avid cooks who are going to buy this house.”
To Beethoven, “Um, that’s great that you cut off the legs on your piano, but hopefully they screw back on so someone else can use the piano too?”
We live in a world of standardization. Of lowering the bar for the needs and abilities of the middle. Of speaking to the majority. Of telling innovators what can’t be done because it never has to this date in point or because no one is ready for it. To wait, to slow down, to be practical.
Trying on the shoe
I only became innovative to survive. In some ways, a lot of things were tailored for me, but not everything. I was a gifted Mexican girl with sensitivities, with autism, and parents who didn’t know the first thing about how to raise me. They recognized that I was smart. And the answer to that was to shoehorn me into activities and a career field that was for smart people and was a measure of success.
I tried with all my might to fit in. What I recognize now and this giant, brilliant brain was constantly trying, failing, lamenting and trying again. But it rarely worked, and I ended up directing all that frustration inward and hating every molecule in my body. Every single one. From the outside, the problem wasn’t that I was shoehorning a size 9 foot into a size 6 shoe. It was that I should never have been a size 9 foot to begin with. The solution was to cut off my big toe.
And then the most beautiful thing happened. At the age of 36, I was an utter failure. I’d lost my career. I was diagnosed with mental illness. And then with autism. And then a divorce. And then no friends. And then at trying on two different other careers. People stopped caring about me. They chalked me up for a failure by all the standard markers. I’d tried every solution and managed to prove ill-adapted for all of them despite being brilliant. I stopped flailing. I was ready to drown. If they had long stopped waiting for me to save myself, I was actively trying to make sure I could never be saved. And suicide was the best way for me to take control of the situation.
But even at suicide I failed. Even at that.
As Red says in The Shawshank Redemption, “Get busy living or get busy dying.” I came to a reckoning with myself. If I’m stuck on this planet for a while, I might as well try a solution I haven’t tried yet. Nothing else had worked and I couldn’t continue to suffer so profoundly. It was a sentence worse than death.
I got a life coach. My bestie Michael made the connection. I got a therapist. And between the three of us, we broke me down and built me up a million times stronger–something akin to what I’ve only heard described as positive disintegration. How? They challenged every thing I thought I knew to be true. For every “I can’t!” they came back with, “Why not?” Done enough times over all my closely held beliefs, it broke my mind enough times to keep it open. And then I began confronting every problem I had in new ways. Looking for novel solutions. Looking for ways to make my life easier. To end the struggle of me trying to fit a word that wasn’t made with me in mind.
If I’m going to be here for a while, I thought, might as well try and fix things. Before I knew it (not an exaggeration) I was a kinder person. I was a stronger person. I was a more curious person. I had a sense of who my integral self was. And I wanted for fight for that person instead of breaking her down.
People noticed. I hadn’t advertised it. But it must have been obvious. I started receiving positive feedback on these changes. And they informed my subsequent growth. From the back end, all this seems easy. It was not. It was painful. It required a lot of energy. It required a lot of painful figurative sitting with the people I’d hurt and those who had hurt me. Some days the one thing that got me through the pain was the knowledge that it wouldn’t hurt forever because nothing in the past ever had or could.
Here’s where I acknowledge my privilege. I’d gotten a very nice divorce settlement. And I’d invested it in a way to pay for my living expenses. And this allowed me to spend entire days just working on me, which was and is a full time job. At the time I was going through my divorce, I hated myself way more than even my ex. But I fought tooth and nail. If not for who I was then, then for the glimmer of hope for the future Vene, who might actually amount to something. It was the first of many things I’d do right.
So here we are today. I’m not perfect. But I’m also not so self-loathing that my misery is a transmittable disease. What now?
I went to the SENG conference looking for answers. Find a mentor? Check. Accept my gifts/burdens? Check. Devote life to creativity? Check. Be a mentor? Sort of check.
I kept running across the all these utopian suppositions, “What if we create the perfect environment for good things to happen to someone?” “What if this person had all the resources?” “What if we could only get these people to share their experiences?” And realizing that if they hadn’t been given to me, I’d made them happen for me. Great. Awesome. But now what? It can’t be the end of the process because I’m here standing over the precipice and my problems are not solved by a long shot.
To get to where I am, I had to smash a lot of idols. I had to walk against the tide of human nature. I had to break ties with social conventions and those who cannot see past them. I had to survive people calling me crazy or weird or zany or kooky or unrealistic or contrarian. I isolated myself from mainstream jobs. In giving myself the right to be the Me-ist me I can be, I had to close doors to a lot of normal possibilities. I had to slam them, lock the door behind me and cement the opening.
I know who I can’t be. I know I have something to offer. I don’t crave success. But I crave usefulness. And I crave someone who can help guide me. But the more and more I think about it, trekking into the great unknown…to be that iconoclast forging beyond charted territory…means that there are no guides. My gifts have taken me to a place where no one has gone before. It feels a bit daunting. A bit lonely. But if I have anything going for me, it’s that my instincts have gotten me this far. I just need to trust them going ahead.
There has to be a reason why all this came together. Not for me, but for someone else. The existential angst nags at me constantly. I have inklings of what I can do. And I sit with the discomfort of knowing how unconventional they are. And part of me wishes I could be a nun in a convent or a monk in some monastery, my earthly needs taken care of while I ponder away at the bigger questions in life. But my mind is informed by corporal experiences. Sex. Music. Foods. Sunshine.
Part of me says: everyone else has figured it out, why can’t you? And then I remind myself that that idea is both patently false, and even if it were true, it’s still not a reason why I should have. Or that maybe I already have and I’m just not aware of it yet. Maybe, just maybe, I’m the useless piece of metal that finds its way to Titan in Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens Of Titan and my uselessness is only determined until it suddenly becomes the most useful thing of all when placed in the right hands.
Until then, if I’m going to be here, alive on this planet, I might as well enjoy it and stop apologizing for figuring out my problems in novel ways that make it seem like I’m a spoiled brat. I have to stop with the imposter syndrome. All the energy needs to be devoted to looking ahead and dealing with the future.