Finding Your Inner Hedgehog…or Identifying Your Artistic Self Image

July 22, 2012

After a long blogging hiatus, partly due to a change in my professional role at Mizzou, I’m finally returning to the blogosphere. As the first article in a couple of months, I wanted to write today about the question of artist identity in the 21st century. This is a sprawling topic, but also one that has personal implications for every creative professional.

It’s also thematic issue that is close to me because just about everything I do professionally tries to address that question, both for myself and for my students. So let’s start small. What do you want to be? 

That’s the first issue I would address with a student who is interested in the idea of pursing entrepreneurism within the arts. What do you want to be? That seems like an obvious question, perhaps, but it is actually one of the hardest and most frightening questions an artist can honestly pose to oneself.

After all, defining what one wishes to be — as a professional, as an artist, as a person — necessitates the delineation of what he or she does not want to become. It draws up the fault lines between success and failure. This is why, I believe, it is something students tend to avoid at all costs.

One way to mediate this reaction is to divert attention away from the absolutes that come with defining personal success at that such an early stage of professional development. It’s problematic, anyways, to ask someone blankly to determine their rubric for success before examining the breadth of possibilities for artists in the 21st century. How does anyone know what they want to be, before trying out the various possibilities?

I prefer to frame the question in a way that asks students to look deeper, to catalyze visioning by demanding a question in return. One way to do this is through introducing the Hedgehog Concept, illustrated neatly by Jim Collins (author of the bestselling business tome Good to Great and consultant extraordinaire).

In short, the Hedgehog Concept is simple. You start by drawing three overlapping circles which (in turn) represent:

1) Your passion (what you “live for”)

2) Your true strengths (what you are “best at”), and

3) What makes you money (your “driving resource,” or what you see demand for in your community)

These ares should be explored independently of one another, and mapped out with equally individual specificity. The resulting intersection of these three dynamics forms a nucleus of potential for your future professional pursuits; it identifies a competitive advantage without diminishing the spectrum of possibilities.

Starting in Fall 2012 I’ll be developing entrepreneurship offerings for musicians, including a new course, at the University of Missouri. It’s exciting, and unfortunately it means I’ll likely be cutting back on the frequency of my blogging, but it also means that I have the opportunity to help students begin the process of self-realization, and, hopefully, empowerment. That’s a long process, but without first examining the different vectors of one’s situation — personal interests (skills and drive) versus larger realities (economic and cultural ecosystems) — it’s very difficult to make progress towards the professional successes that drive a healthy, yet realistic, professional self-image.

So that’s a start. But I’m eager to see how others tackle the tricky waters of artistic self-exploration. What has your experience been? Is there a better way?

2 Responses to “Finding Your Inner Hedgehog…or Identifying Your Artistic Self Image”

  1. Terrific post, Jonathan, and congrats on your new position at the Univ. of Missouri. You ask for examples of what others do to address artistic self-exploration, so here’s a link to a post of mine that includes a 3-step exercise for defining and enacting an artistic vision. When musicians set up consultations with me, I ask them to complete the first two steps in writing and then bring the results to our initial meeting – it has proven most helpful.

  2. Gerald, thanks for the comment and for sharing the valuable resource. I like your approach very much, especially the way you describe vision and openness (flexibility) of your three step process. I’m definitely going to refer to this in the future! I’d be curious to discover the variance in response (content and style) based on background (e.g. instrument/vocal specialization, performance vs. scholarly focus, etc.).

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