ON VULNERABILITY: JILLIAN ADEL
WNW Member #1370 Jillian Adel is an illustrator with guts. She traded full-time for freelance and NYC for LA all at once. Part of being a freelancer - or a creative, really- is sharing yourself as a sort of personal brand. And with that comes the question: how much of yourself do you share? How personal should you get?
Given her recent move, top of mind for Jillian has been the discussion of vulnerability and how much we as creatives share with the public. The difference between emotional vulnerability and professional vulnerability. If we admit things are hard, do potential hiring managers see us as weak, not confident, and unable to complete the potential task? Yet when we see someone on stage giving a talk about failure or being incredibly vulnerable, the community is moved and a standing ovation is given.
Jillian is a pass-it-forward kind of lady ready to share her story and sing the praises of others. Some of her favorite WNW members include Kelsey Dake, Jacqui Oakley, Laura Bohill, Teresa Wozniak, Rich Tu, Josh Lafayette, Chris Delorenzo, and last but not least, Matt Chase. (No order of importance, they're all equally talented.) Jillian is pretty talented herself, specializing in branding, illustration, and custom typography. Her clients include The New York Times, Fred Water and POP Network.
When not making art or writing about vulnerability, Jillian enjoys getting bitten by her cat, photographing her homemade breakfasts, training at pole dancing, and binge-watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
A few years ago, I fell in love for the first time. I was living in Brooklyn, NY and he lived in Austin, TX. As is the case with many long distance, star-crossed loves, it was an emotional roller coaster of a grey area relationship that inevitably ended in the most bloody crash and burn disaster of the heart I had ever experienced.
Meanwhile, I was designing at a digital media company and still in the first few years of workshopping my knowledge and craft of drawing letterforms. In the midst of a particularly rocky portion of this love story, I spent my lunch break sketching the lyrics of a song in a small notebook with pale pink pages. It read, “All we have are broken promises.” Deep, dark, broken feelings were penciled onto a tiny page, and I called it art. I designed this lettering into a poster of the ocean and sky at night time, moonlight glittering off the calm water. Every element of this poster had meaning, each piece of the composition twisting another key inside of me that unlocked a part of the story of my heartbreak. I decided that this would be the first piece of art I would release for sale. I couldn’t tell you how many it sold. I don’t remember, and it’s beside the point. I do, however, remember what it felt like to tell the boy who caused such an emotional storm in me that the piece was about him. I remember how empowering it was to not only make something I felt was beautiful out of an experience that was so difficult, but to totally and completely own it to both the boy in question and the general public. I felt strong in this moment, but it wasn’t until years later that I realized why. Why did all of this feel so good? Why was I moved to put the most intimate, sensitive parts of myself on parade? And why was it a verifiable antidote to one of the most trying and personal situations I’ve had to deal with to date? I didn’t know the answers yet, but I did know that, whatever the reason, I always wanted to be that vulnerable with my art and my audience.
The vulnerability researcher, author, TED speaker and goddess incarnate, Brené Brown, talks about confronting shame as the path to being vulnerable with ourselves and others. She points out that shame thrives in secrecy and cannot survive when we tell our story, so when we confront our shame, we experience true vulnerability and reclaim our own worthiness. I could quote Brené (we’re on a first name basis now), her talks, and her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, to the ends of the earth. She addresses the desire many of us have to be authentic in a culture that would prefer we “fit in.” I know this to be especially true as creatives with our work. Our industry’s internet microcosm of Twitter, Dribbble, and Instagram, has us vying for Likes to determine our work’s worthiness. Even the place that was invented for the purpose of showing imperfect process work (Dribbble) and a place that has the ability to be voyeuristic (Instagram) has turned into a curated museum where we make our messy parts look “perfectly messy.” We shudder at the thought of ruffling feathers. And sometimes, our concern about sharing a more serious or controversial topic for fear of anyone in our small and incestuous industry bad-mouthing us to a potential client, is a real one. But we have to remember that the path to authenticity and vulnerability is the hardest path there is, and there is no shortcut.
In the last year, I’ve experienced a huge transition. I left New York (my home of 5 years) and the East Coast (my home since birth) to road trip across the country by myself and start a new chapter of my life in Los Angeles. I left the full time agency world to start my independent freelance studio. And amongst all of the new and different things I’ve found in this new phase, a love for pole dancing performance and nutrition have become key players, right alongside design, illustration, and typography. Through this journey of self, I’ve done my best to share these new and developing components of my life as honestly as I can. There are moments of uncertainty, insecurity, and doubt. I wonder how my design audience feels about videos of me dancing, sometimes scantily clad, on a pole popping up in their social media feeds. I wonder if they tire of photos of my breakfast. I wonder if sharing my moments of weakness about starting and building my own business on another side of the country will have anyone think I am any less capable. But a funny thing happens the moment I give those negative thoughts any bit of real estate in my mind: I come across someone who is going through the same exact struggle. The players may not be design and pole dancing, but brand strategy and candle making, writing and bodybuilding, web design and lifestyle blogging. I engage in conversations with these people, and they all seem to be dealing with the same fears and struggles.
The main questions I hear from creative freelancers are: How can I share more of myself and my personal interests without sharing every intimate detail? Where is the line? And how can I be authentic with my community and audience but make sure to not offend, isolate or otherwise turn off anyone from my work in doing so? This could be in regards to a blog, social media, or general correspondence. If you have any of these questions, you are in luck because there is a very simple answer: Man up. Goddess Brené writes that it’s not so much the “act of authenticity” that challenges the status quo but rather the “audacity of authenticity” that can make some people uncomfortable. Sharing personal parts of yourself will never be a) easy or b) accepted by everyone. And there will be growing pains.
There should be a process app for Realness, because it’s not a single point in time and space. There will never be a time where you say, “I made it! I am now fully authentic now!” It’s something that happens with each decision to post about your interests, your philosophies, your ethics or taste and how they inform your work. It’s a way to connect with people in a deeper and more genuine capacity. Luckily, this app actually exists. It’s called all social media, and it’s ours to show ourselves off however we see fit. The decision to be open and honest with the tools at our fingers is ours and ours alone.
But the fear of judgement is real. The fear that we will be considered weak or not able to handle a project by a potential employer if we share that we battle with a disease or disorder, if we show our wounds from hard, emotional experiences, or talk about our insecurities. But what about those who share your same passions or hardships that you have the potential to connect with in mutual support? What about landing that dream project based on that very niche, personal subject you share? Or about the fact that most of us get considered for a job because of our work, but hired because of our persona? What about the fact that we are ALL going through the same struggle, whether or not it shows on a social media feed, and as independent creatives, I’d like to think that most of us are working towards the most solid, authentic versions of ourselves. How do we bring our full selves to each new project as we navigate a diverse range of job environments and personalities?
Although there is no cut and dry scientific equation of when and how to be vulnerable in relation to professional life, I can tell you from experience that as you start to open up and connect, your conversations and work will become so much more lush than you ever thought possible, and the satisfaction from that alone should have you riding so high, that the fear of dissent will become a faint memory. Vulnerability is a trial and error process, and the only way we begin is by beginning. Start small but steadfast, and see what works for you. Surround yourself with supportive people ONLY, both on and offline. Fill up your social media feeds with people who inspire you to be bold, and then be bold. Because practicing vulnerability is the scariest, hardest battle you will ever fight with the largest rewards, but it’s all a little less daunting if we decide to be in it together.