You have an important gallery show coming in a few months but you’ve fallen behind on your painting. Next week you’re supposed to meet with the gallery owner and you really don’t want to tell him how behind you are. What should you do?
Let’s start with a few things that you shouldn’t do:
1. Don’t take to your bed. Hiding under the covers can’t be the answer. Even if you’re feeling depressed and overwhelmed, try not to throw in the towel. It can feel as warm, inviting, and safe in bed today as it did in childhood, but as an adult you’re harming your career and giving your self-image a battering if you try to avoid the situation.
2. Don’t cavalierly blow it off. Don’t adopt an attitude of “the hell with it!” and get it into your head that it doesn’t matter, that you’re too special to be held to rules, and that the gallery owner is a small-minded bourgeoisie for requiring deadlines. This attitude may make you feel good for a minute as you bask in your “I don’t take anything from anybody!” glory—but then you’ll remember all that you’re losing.
3. Don’t make yourself sick. There is no denying the mind/body connection or that anxiety and emotional distress open people up to illnesses. Ventilate your emotions and practice anxiety management so as to avoid making yourself sick. Learn some discharge techniques like “silently screaming” to ventilate pent-up stress and some anxiety management techniques like deep breathing and guided visualizations to reduce your experience of anxiety.
4. Don’t go to the meeting and then lie through your teeth. Don’t show up with a smile on your face and the intention to tell big, fat lies about your situation. To be sure, it behooves you to speak carefully and strategically about what’s going on and not paint a bleak picture that causes the gallery owner to doubt you and file you in the “never again!” category. But there’s a world of difference between speaking carefully and outright lying.
5. Don’t go and then act out or start apologizing. Don’t show up with the intention of thumbing your nose, asserting your independence, or making a scene—leave your arrogant persona at home. By the same token, don’t show up and immediately start apologizing—leave your meek persona at home as well. These shadowy aspects of personality, whether on the one-up side or the one-down side of the spectrum, do not serve you and have no place at business meetings.
6. Don’t go drunk or high. If you regularly show up at important meetings and events drunk or high, get your hands on Creative Recovery, the book that I wrote with addictions specialist Susan Raeburn in which we spell out the first addiction treatment program specifically designed for the creative person. If substance abuse or substance dependence is an issue for you, make that a top priority matter.
7. Don’t go and start excusing yourself or blaming others. You may have good reasons for falling off schedule, like the flair-up of a chronic illness, and legitimate gripes about the actions of others, like the disrupting influence of your teenage son’s car accident. But unless you are asking for an extension, the bottom line remains the bottom line and the only real issue is whether or not you will get strong paintings to the gallery owner by the agreed-upon deadline. If that is still your intention, there is no pay-off whatsoever in complaining, excusing, or blaming.
What should you do instead?
1. Get to work! Not only will you make progress on your paintings and honor your commitment by getting right to work; you’ll also put yourself in an entirely different frame of my mind for the meeting and factually change what you can legitimately report. Not only will you feel better, you will be able to say with a straight face, “Boy did I work well this week! It’s been a joy getting to the studio!” If you hadn’t started painting again, this would amount to a bold-faced lie. As you did start painting, it is the absolute truth.
2. Plan for the meeting. Decide what outcomes you want. Do you need some clarification or some help from the gallery owner in order to help you get on with your work? This might sound like, “I think we never quite got clear what the size of these paintings should be and I think that’s been a bit of a stumbling block for me. Can we go over that?” Do you want to carefully test the waters to see if turning in fewer paintings might fly? This might sound like, “My crystal ball tells me that I’m going to have four excellent paintings ready by July 1st and I can’t quite tell about the others yet. How should we play that?” Prepare your agenda.
3. Calculate how you want to present your current situation. Think through the precise language you want to use—your talking points. Have a response prepared for each of the questions you predict you might be asked. For instance, to the predictable “How’s it going?”, you might prepare the reply, “Well, it’s been quite a process! I’ve had my ups and downs but this has been a good week.” To the predictable, “This is going to be some strong work, right? I’m looking for your best stuff!” you might prepare the reply, “If this birthing process is any indication, these should be first rate!” Think about what you might be asked and prepare your answers.
4. Show up as an equal, not a supplicant, in as cheerful and enthusiastic a mood as you can muster, with the intention to serve your interests, comport yourself professionally, and conduct a little business. If you’re lucky, you’ll have to negotiate scores of meetings of this sort over the course of your art career. Even if you’ve fallen behind and even if you’re struggling to deal with your anxiety, try to put your best foot forward and make the most of these important interactions.