Speaking to Process
I originally wrote this article in 2018, roughly 2 months after finishing my undergraduate degree in theater and music. While I never got around to publishing these thoughts, they still resonated four years later. After some tweaks, I hope that they speak to some of you as well.
Most of our actions are result-driven. Events are organized to increase a company’s profile. Advertising campaigns are dreamt up to bring more sales or awareness to a product or brand. I set out to make art to change the world - one person at a time. Even the simple act of walking to the grocery store to buy bread for our breakfast is done with the specific outcome in mind of consuming bread in the morning. We undertake actions such as organizing, innovating, and evaluating, so that at the end we can say or write that x-number of people attended our fundraiser and we were able to raise y-amount of money or after running our social media marketing campaign we were able to increase sales by z-%. However, we barely talk about our metaphorical way to the grocery store. We don’t really talk much about our process. Really, what seems to count most is that our actions produce the desired outcome or some version that is equally as good. However, if we were to speak more openly about the how and not always the what, we will, first, increase the transparency of some of our actions and secondly, fill our lives with more honesty and perhaps eventually compassion and shared understanding.
In my search for employment after graduating from university in 2018, I submitted my CV to a website which offered a free CV review. One of the comments I received was the following: “From the way the CV is worded, you come across as a "doer," as opposed to an "achiever." Too many of your job descriptions are task-based rather than results-based. This means that they tell what you did, instead of what you achieved.” Why is it that we value achievement so much? Why is it so important for a possible future employer to see what I achieved? The answer to the latter question was given to me a couple of lines later in the CV review, but the former question still stands. Wouldn’t it be more beneficial for the employer to know how I did something – that I worked as hard as I could; that I prioritized and managed my time effectively; that I did so with integrity and kindness? Maybe this is wishful thinking, but I want to be measured not only by what I achieve but also by how I got there.
As a young graduate I didn’t have big professional achievements yet. What I did have are personal ones, for example, singing Winterreise by Schubert in two parts in my sophomore year, performing a solo recital singing 21 songs in four different languages my senior year, or directing a 30-minute play with 8 actors and a full creative team for my senior thesis. These achievements don’t belong on a professional CV with which one applies for a full-time job in the entertainment sector. Nevertheless, they reveal something about me and my process. In fact, I view them as steps in a much larger process of my personal mission as an artist. For me, the most important thing is not that I did ‘it’, but rather the way I got there. Going on stage and singing is terrifying and exciting at the same time but compared to what I had to do leading up to stepping on that stage, performing was easy. The countless hours of practice and research, a four-hour rehearsal with my vocal coach and pianist leading up to the recital, all of it required discipline and determination. There were many times when I had the time to go to the practice room but didn’t because I was too lazy or didn’t feel like it. And every time I was unable to push myself to practice was a small personal defeat. Mustering up the willpower to sing bar 34 for the umpteenth time with the accompaniment required more determination than singing the entire song in front of an audience. In fact, performing on stage is part of the process of me becoming a better storyteller and performer. Of course, there are slight differences in the kind of discipline and concentration one needs for practice and for the performance, but I am sharing some of this process with you, because I believe that it will in some way speak to you and your endeavors in working on repetition and discipline to accomplish a goal.
So, to return to the question of process and outcome, let me share a personal experience with you when my process was the focus of an interaction, rather than something I had achieved. In my last semester at university, I took two classes with a professor who came to the department when I was studying abroad. I had heard some good things about him but didn’t know him at all. In fact, his focus on music technology initially prevented me from trying to strike up a conversation with him. In the spirit of a liberal arts education and stepping out of one’s comfort zone, however, I took the two classes he offered. In addition, I felt that I would gain tangible skills that would help me in securing employment after graduating. After a couple of weeks of submitting my assignments on time in the required format, I received a comment from him that made me pause. He praised the worked I did (which was nothing new) but rather he commented on how it was done. That last part was new to me. No one in my academic life had ever said anything about how I did my work. Having my process acknowledged so openly created an entirely new drive in me. As a result of the comment, I mustered up the courage to talk to him about working with him in the future. I felt my work would be valued for how it was done, and I could openly talk about the process of the work with him. That summer of 2018, I did work with him for two months as a research assistant, had a great experience, and was pushed out of my intellectual comfort zone many times. Obviously, we researched topics with the product of a book and article in mind, but there were no ‘public’ achievements after the two months. I carry this process with me and have since applies these lessons many times. From a leadership perspective, the fact that my supervisor openly acknowledged and encouraged my process was inspiring and energizing for me as an employee and collaborator.
Another relevant experience I would like to share with you was during the summer before my senior year of college. A very good friend and collaborator of mine wanted to work on a devised theater piece with some of our friends during the summer in New York City and she invited me as a co-director. She was very clear that, for her, this endeavor wasn’t about creating an amazing theater piece, but rather to explore the process of collaborating with other amazing artists and friends. I was on board and so we set out to collect material and create a detailed plan on how to go about exploring process with everyone involved. To this date, this process has been one of the most joyful and invigorating experiences of theater-making in my life. We produced a piece we called Me Before Me and showed it to an invited audience of professors, friends, and other collaborators, realizing that it was way too convoluted and not at all clear to an audience. The reason being that we focused on the how and not the what. The what was something we focused on two weeks before the showing, because we knew that we wanted to present something that one could watch and experience. Had we approached this project with a what in mind, then I am sure we could have produced a more engaging and clearer piece. However, because we wanted to investigate making theater, the ‘product’ wasn’t audience oriented. What every audience member commented on was how much fun the actors seemed to have on stage and how invested they were in the piece. For the two of us, this was a great achievement.
How is my personal experience relevant to you? Well, I think that sharing how you got somewhere is just as important as where you got but talking about your process will inspire the people around you much more than telling them what you have or what you made. I believe that talking about process in a way that is honest and open – with courage – is imperative in our world today. We need to empower and inspire the next generation of leaders, thinkers, and makers by sharing our processes which are riddled with failure, disappointment, and doubt. Talking about these moments with vulnerability and honesty is the most inspiring act we can give to those around us. At the time of writing, I still had not found a job in the UAE. I sent countless emails, applied to a variety of positions, and I experienced failure – in this way – for the first time in my life. It was hard, discouraging, and often frustrating. And yet, I picked myself up every day, tried to find something to occupy myself with and reached out to even more people. I did not give up and stayed true to what I believed in, namely that I would be able to inspire those around me by talking about my process. And that means acknowledging that while I might have been failing in that very moment, I hadn’t failed in the past and I was certainly not going to let a little setback stop me. I was often told to have faith as an artist, that something will come along when I most need it and maybe that’s true. I had faith! Faith that the connections I forged with people, based on mutual trust and respect, would allow me to find my paths in life and would open doors for me that I never dreamt possible. I also had faith in my own abilities. Namely, that my hard work, my drive – my process – propels me forward in seeking out these opportunities. Eventually, that drive, and my connections led me to spend three-and-a-half years at The NYUAD Art Gallery creating events, strengthening partnerships, and communicating the department’s mission to its audiences.
After leaving my position, I am beginning the process of starting my own business (more on that later) which will certainly challenge me on many fronts. In line with this article, I will be reflecting on more of my experiences and processes in the coming weeks and months, in the hope that you will be able to draw some meaning or inspiration from it. When was the last time you shared your process? In what setting? What was the outcome? I would love to hear from you with any stories you are willing to share.