Are You On the Right Course?
Maida Barbour, 41, from Austin, Texas
You don't need X-ray vision to see that Maida Barbour is brilliant. Articulate, perceptive, and hilarious, she's the kind of person you'd imagine would have an Oscar® stuffed somewhere in an artfully cluttered home office. Maida's sister wrote that when she was younger, "sometimes Maida scared me. She'd speak so confidently about her aesthetic vision and philosophy...how she'd take on the world."
But something went awry. She'd spent the past few years in Austin, Texas, limping along from job to job—office manager at an IT firm, organizer of fairs for inventors—trying to find one that felt right. As Maida wrote: "I'm 41, and I still haven't figured out what I'm meant to be. I spent parts of the past 20 years working in film because it seemed like the richest, most creative field possible. But I never really found my niche. ... I want to make a living doing a job that fits me, but I don't even know what my job title is, let alone what credentials to get."
I recognized Maida's combination of giftedness and aimlessness; some of my favorite people wear similar disguises. I also noticed that, while I loved Maida's witty, acerbic description of her own career struggles, she tended to talk in circles.
"If you're going to be creative, you need to do something unprecedented," Maida said. "But of course, if there's no precedence for your work, no one accepts it."
This self-defeating logic is typical of an alter ego I call the Clever Critic. Creative work can be incredibly hard, the odds of failure astronomical. To avoid this grueling, scary road, many geniuses think themselves into paralysis, finding reasons to abort their ideas almost before conceiving them. Maida's Clark Kent specs were wraparound sunglasses that looked oh so hip but kept her groping around in a very dark world. When I presented this theory, she agreed with me.
"So what should I do?" she said.
"Start working. Immediately. Daily. Religiously."
"I guess I could write a book," she said. "I have some ideas."
"Brilliant! Grab a pen. Start now."
"But I don't have the right credentials...," mumbled Maida, going into her Clever Critic.
"My dear," I said, "if I had a dime for every time I've heard someone claim to need credentials that definitely aren't necessary and probably don't even exist, I could afford enough gum to last me a month."
"That's a really lame image," said Maida.
"I know," I growled. "And do you see that stopping me?"
For the rest of that hour, we discussed several sophisticated, ingenious ideas for Maida's future books.
"Fabulous," I told her. "Start writing three pages a day. No excuses."
The next time we talked, she sounded different: wearier, warier, slightly on edge, like a Chihuahua in cold weather. The voice of a working artist.
"I'm writing," she said, "but it's all garbage."