Dear Virgie: What is the Best Piece of Professional Advice You’ve Gotten?
Thanks to one great piece of advice, I have been saved from doing a lot of emotional and physical labor that would have discouraged me and possibly hurt my career.
What is the best piece of professional advice you’ve ever gotten?
I can easily tell you the best piece of professional advice I’ve ever been given. I think that you might be a little bit surprised by how simple it is and also how lacking in magical-woo-feels it is, but I stand by it! And, of course, I have to tell you the story about how I got it!
Several years ago, I went to a Radar Productions reading in Oakland. It was hosted by Michelle Tea, and one of the special benefits of attending the reading was that at the end of the show, one of the featured artists would answer any question that was put into this question box that was passed around among the audience. That night, the presiding question answerer was one of my favorite humans: Canadian artist and megababe Amber Dawn.
Someone had submitted this question: “How do you start your entire life over and become a successful working artist?”
And, of course, everyone kind of laughed at this, but we were all also very curious about what she was going to say. I was really surprised that she only took about a second to start her answer.
The first thing she suggested was that anyone who wants to be a working artist needs to find cheap housing. Though it made total sense immediately upon hearing it, I had never really thought about it. So, it really changed my life. She also advised that you never pay back any of your student loans; you can do with that second piece of advice whatever feels right for you.
She then talked about the fact that a working artist’s best chance at success is living well within their means — and below their means if possible. She was very grounded about the reality that it is a very cheap way of living that allows artists the time and resources to create and promote their work. Creatives need a lot of downtime, because most of the work is mental.
So, for example, when I moved to San Francisco, I quickly started living in an apartment that was rent-controlled and was well within my budget. It was a neighborhood that was foggier than other parts of the city and farther from downtown. It had fewer restaurants and other things that San Franciscans are very snobby about. I got a lot of shit for living in my neighborhood because it wasn’t hip.
I had internalized a lot of shame about where I lived over the years. So for a long time, I thought “okay, the moment I start making more income I’m going to move to a more ‘desirable neighborhood.’” For several years I was looking for another apartment. Almost all of the apartments I was considering were way more expensive and most of them were well beyond my means. But I thought it was okay, because having a pricey apartment near downtown was “adulting.” (Let’s problematize the concept of “adulting” later.)
After thinking more critically about the situation, I realized that I was mostly looking for a new apartment because of what others thought — not what I needed. I’m a pretty modest person in many ways. I loved my apartment. I thought my little breakfast nook was really cute. I loved being able to walk to the beach. I loved living really close to Golden Gate Park. To me, my neighborhood was exactly what I wanted and needed, but it was others’ snobbery that was going to end up landing me in debt and definitely living outside my means. It’s like Capitalism Is a Total Trap 101.
I started to reconsider my desire to move and I realized that it wasn’t a good idea for me — not only from a financial standpoint, but also from an authenticity standpoint. In many ways, a lot of the professional freedom that I have is due to my living in a place that I can super afford to live in.
The freedom my apartment grants me is really important to me for a number of reasons. My work is very intellectually intensive and so I need a lot of time in order to think about what I really want to put out into the world, talk with people to get feedback and inspiration, read books, write things down and edit them. Not having the stress of a really expensive apartment or home has allowed me those things. Further, it’s granted me the freedom to work with the people I’m most excited to work with, and I do not to have to work with people I don’t want to work with. A lot of times people who live beyond their means end up working with people who drain them, but they can’t afford to say no.
Thanks to that great piece of advice, I have been saved from doing a lot of emotional and physical labor that would have discouraged me and possibly curtailed further progress emotionally and professionally. Also, in an interesting twist of fate, a bunch of boutiques, coffee shops and a fancy brunch place moved in near my place and my neighborhood started getting coverage in the New York Times and NPR not long after I decided I wasn’t leaving. It turns out I’m not actually real into hip neighborhoods after all. 😉
I hope that helps!
Virgie Tovar is an author, activist and one of the nation’s leading experts and lecturers on fat discrimination and body image. She is the founder of Babecamp, a 4-week online course designed to help those who are ready to break up with diet culture, and started the hashtag campaign #LoseHateNotWeight.