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21 August 2006

Purge your portfolio

“For many people, an excuse is better than an achievement because an achievement, no matter how great, leaves you having to prove yourself again in the future but an excuse can last for life.” - Eric Hoffer

QtipTwo friends from high school visited several months ago: I hadn’t seen one of them for 29 years, one for 20 years. Let’s call them Steve and Tom. A third was expected, but couldn’t come. Let’s call him Edward. I’m setting aside for the moment my horror at being out of high school thirty years next summer.

Edward is a well-known hairdresser. I dreaded his assessment of my hair, which—now white—looks suspiciously like a bloated Q-tip or, at its finest, a cotton ball. I’m growing it out, so it’s in that horrible, wicked, growing out stage, the ugly one, the one where you feel compelled to tell even strangers on the street that you’re just growing out your hair and that otherwise you’re sure that you would never leave the house looking like this. The hair didn’t get cut before he was to get here. Tom is an accomplished interior designer. Oh, lord, look at my house. I needed to redo the whole thing before he got here. We should paint. I need new furniture. If only the rug matched the couch better! Maybe Gay could fly from San Francisco and tell me how to arrange the furniture. Where’s the nice, funny, bald man from “Surprised by Design” when you need him? The cats have scratched the back of the couch. It looks like Toddler Land in here. Like my hair, the house didn’t get fixed before he got here. Steve is a surgeon for goodness’ sake and we used to disco dance together (if you tell anyone, I’ll have to kill you). I needed to lose about 1000 pounds, color my hair, and polish up my dance steps before he arrived. I didn’t.

Patti_and_her_best_friend_carlos_fuentesEven so, with my puffy misshapen growing-out hair, my house of not-designer furniture, and my child-bearing hips, we had fun. They have each come into their own, leaving the unsure world of high school far behind them, living big lives of travel and success. I kept wanting to say, “well, honestly, I’ve had some great years since high school; I’ve even had years where I looked fantastic, where I was even briefly hot, where I traveled the world and stayed in the Peninsula in Hong Kong and The Oriental Bangkok and dined with sea captains and ambassadors and published a few books and had lunch with the beautiful Carlos Fuentes (see Photo for Proof), and interviewed Stevie Wonder while in my pajamas. You’ve just caught me during an off-year.”

Then I realized that I didn’t need to make excuses in the world anymore. It is what it is. The hips, the hair, the house—they are. They are me. They are my life. This is me!

Our family went to a comic convention a few hours away recently to support Emma’s burgeoning illustration focus and her interest in drawing Japanese Manga. At the suggestion of a comics aficionado, she carried her heavy portfolio of drawings with her, slung across her as we walked for six hours in and among the artists who were all drawing. We talked to a few exhibitors, admired artwork, looked at art supplies, watched artists work. Each time I suggested she show her portfolio, she demurred.

We got ready to leave. “Do you think I should show my portfolio?” she asked quietly as we moved toward the door. “Would you like to? I asked. “I don’t know…no…yes…maybe.” I recognized the internal battle—shy to do so, desperate to. We had talked to several young illustrators from Savannah who had been nice when we stopped by before. “Why don’t we stop by their booth and ask them to take a look at your drawings? I suggested. “You think? I don’t know. You think?” she agonized. “Yes, let’s go,” I said, realizing that she needed me to move her in that direction.

Flute_player_may_06_sm“Emma is a beginning illustrator—do you think you could take a look at her portfolio and give her some advice?” I asked the group of three young illustrators. They immediately said yes and turned toward Emma. “This is exactly what you should do at a show like this,” one of the young men said. “Bring your work and start showing it. It’s tough to do, but it’s important to get used to showing your work,” he said directly to Emma. He talked to her like an adult, making eye contact, not talking to me and not patronizing her as adults sometimes do with kids. “What’s your name?” he asked. “Emma, how old are you?” And so the conversation began. I stepped back to let her own the conversation herself.

The care and attention with which they talked to Emma was tremendous, a real gift. They pored over her drawings, not only praising her efforts, but also giving her straightforward, constructive feedback, the kind that will make her better, create a burning in her for learning more, for drawing more.

As he turned the page once, I heard Emma say quietly, “that’s not really a good one. I don’t like that one too much. It’s not one of my best ones. I wasn’t sure how to…” Emma,” he said, waiting to catch her eye. She looked at him. “If you don’t like something, take it out of your portfolio. You don’t want to have anything in here that you need to make excuses for. When you show this, you don’t want to apologize for any of your work—you want to be very proud of everything you put in front of people.” She maintained eye contact with him. “When you show your portfolio, the people looking at it will focus on the weak pieces if you have them in there—so take them out. Take anything out that you feel you need to make an excuse for.” “I understand,” she said. And, suddenly, so did I.

Those three young illustrators gave Emma their best advice that day in that crowded exhibit hall. I knew how powerful a moment it was for her. As we walked toward the door, she was actually glowing. “I want to sit down and draw right now!” she said. “That was AWESOME!”

ButcherThere is a TV reality show called “Clean Sweep” in which a team of experts swoops into someone’s life, demands that they empty a room in their house onto their lawn—every single item in the room, like photographer Solomon Butcher did in the late 1880s, getting pioneer families to pose in front of their sod houses with all their belongings.

In the TV version, a lovely man with a British accent arrives to make them sort everything into three piles: keep, sell, toss. When they demand to keep Aunt Sophie’s boxes full of thimbles and Uncle Oscar’s fire hose collection, he dares to raise the question: “if you love them so much, why were they covered in dust under your bed?” The difference between the yard displays of belongings in 1880 and 2006 is dramatic: there is nothing to sell or toss in these scenes of prairie life—everything has a purpose. Not so in our modern world. We have a plethora of things to make excuses for: “I love that skirt; it just needs to have the zipper fixed. I’m planning to replace that rug. I would have exercised more if it wasn’t for my ingrown toenail. I can’t help it, that’s how I was raised. I don’t really like that couch, but it was given to me by Aunt Mabel-Lou.”

That young man at the comic book show may never know how much his taking that time with Emma meant to her—or to me. To have someone engage with your child in such a way is a gift. To really hear his message—don’t have anything in your portfolio that you need to make excuses for—was the bigger gift.

What in my “portfolio” (where “portfolio” means: house, life, brain, relationships) should I keep? What should I sell? What should I toss? How would I feel if Solomon Butcher came along and asked me to pull it all outside for a photo session? What would I try desperately to hide?

~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~

Emma_japan_artAlexander Pope has said, “An excuse is worse than a lie, for an excuse is a lie, guarded.” What lies are my excuses guarding? What weak pieces in my “portfolio” do I feel compelled to create excuses for?

Remember that young illustrator’s words: “If you don’t like something, take it out of your portfolio. You don’t want to have anything in here that you need to make excuses for. When you show this, you don’t want to apologize for any of your work—you want to be very proud of everything you put in front of people.”

Don’t make excuses. Your friends don’t need them and your enemies won’t believe them anyway. We can only get off of a vicious circle by realizing we’re on one. Clean out that portfolio.


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oh! oh! and how i needed to read this just now! i'm going to start tossing/sorting/prioritizing RIGHT NOW. thank you so much!

That is a fantastic idea. Really very simple when you think about it, but framed so well, so easily accessible that it is immediately actionable. Thanks for the gem.


This may be your best post ever, and one that is completely relevant to my life. I am going to link to it, and I thank you yet again for your great work.

So inspiring.

patti-- this might be my new favorite! so many things jumped out at me, i don't know where to start. i can so relate to the class reunion thing, the hair thing, the house thing, actually to every thing you wrote about in this one. and again, i must say, lucky emma. to have you as a mom must be such a great thing for your girls. you must be one of the coolest--- hair, hips, and all!

This site is the absolute embodiment of this post. You tell us that which we already know, but have so quickly and easily forgotten. To craft these essays with such finesse that they provide such a universally resounding resonance for readers is a testament to your ability to tap into your inner wisdom when you write them. I do hope this one will go at the top of your "To Go" sidebar menu. It's a gem.

Posts like this are the ones I keep so I can learn how to empower my little ones as they grow. Because getting my three-year-old daughter to say "I can" when all she wants to say is "I can't" is one of the hardest things I've had to do in my life.

I'm not sure how but you continuously amaze me. I wish I could sit at your feet on the West Coast and catch the drops of brililance that you cast off.
One thing I constantly struggle with is my awareness of not living up to my own potential. And the, the excuses! Enough to make a decent noose. ;-)

This was sheer, solid gold. What a gift your posts are...I am humbled by the wisdom.

Every week, you teach me something new. And I will put this one into practice. So much needs to be tossed!

Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Wow. This is one of the best blog posts I've ever read. Thank you!

Patti (if I may be so bold),
You are just charming, charming, charming.
Wit and wisdom flow out of you seemingly without effort.
Your missives are a joy to read.

lovely. Just what i needed to hear.
and glad to see young talent at work and more experience mentoring in a moment.

Always remember that you are beautiful, just the way you are. Your posts are enlightening and brighten my days! I promise not to tell anyone about the disco dancing! Emma's drawings were beautiful; thank you for sharing them with us! Here's to a portfolio, however we define it, that we can show to the world without excuses.

I have been a regular reader since the beginning of this year, and you never fail at getting to the very core of an issue. There is nothing here at 37 Days that you need to make excuses for - your writing is amazing.

Peter Walsh, the lovely man from Clean Sweep, is actually from Australia - but is doesn't really matter what kind of accent he has or what language he speaks. His message and your message are important in so many ways - what do we value, and what should we value?

Good Luck to Emma in her artistic endeavors! (That is Fu from Samurai Champloo in the second drawing, isn't it? Love it!)

Dear Friends -

Honestly, I am overwhelmed by your gracious and kind and too generous words. Whatever meaning is made through 37days is actually made by each reader bringing his/her own Self to the table, integrating his/her own way of being in the world and sense-making capability to these few words I offer out.

So the thanks is to each person who reads and incorporates some viewpoint, some phrase, some word, some piece of a story of mine into their own story.

I have emailed privately each person who has commented, but wanted to offer a public note of thanks for your generous spirits and ongoing and much-appreciated encouragement to continue telling stories. As Jerome Bruner has said, we make meaning of the world through stories--yes, let's!

Love, Patti

Story exchange is as valuable now as ever. Some let the time be displaced with co-opted canned stories of media. It doesn't bridge the need.

Interesting story of the illustrators who would take her as an equal peer.

The entry raises valuable points. If we want to make excuses for something, we should either stop burdening the other person with the apologies and see the value in what we have or rid ourself of the burden. Most people seem to benefit from getting their chin up and going onward without the neuroticism of wistful cling. Myself included.

What a wonderful post, on many levels ... I too have been purging and prioritizing ... asking myself, what do I need? what brings me joy? what is essential? what is extraneous? Thanks for this lovely piece!
Also, as a first time visitor to your site, I'm enjoying discovering your work - I will be back - again & again!

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