Don't Blow the Balloon

"Balloon Man Running", 2008, polychrome wood. Artist: Sean O'Meallie. Photo courtesy the artist
Interspersed among some of my latest posts are a few of my work-derived aphorisms. For instance

Give it your all for one full minute.

That is, give your problem your full concentration for one full minute. Because one fully focused minute of your time and attention is typically all anyone needs to figure many things out that might otherwise cause weeks, months, or possibly even years of headache. Just one minute! All by oneself!

Sure, there are caveats. Sometimes, a second minute is warranted. Once confronted head on and diagnosed rather than swept under the carpet, the fix itself might require considerably more time/assistance. And there are plenty of bigger ticket items that can't be fully resolved in short order. 

Obviously. For instance, you can forget one or two minutes - it takes at least an hour to decide which movie to watch on Netflix or Amazon, etc.

Today, a related caveat.  

To set it up, I recall one of the first pivotal meetings I had back in the first year I ran a solo fabrication shop, and the first one where I'd been approached by someone word-of-mouth; a principal of an ad agency that occasionally designed projects in the mid six-figure range. 

I'd been asked to bring examples of my prior work, and, only a few months and three projects into my new venture, I only had perhaps six or so photos to show. Green in business as I was, the prospect of such a make-or-break encounter made me just a bit nervous, and when I get nervous, I get goofy. If I'm smart, I'll reserve the full force of the unhelpful behavior to private interactions with my wife. I recall that, the night prior to the meeting, I told her I planned on using the following line, "What I lack in experience, you'll gain in inexperience!" Thankfully, the next day, I didn't try to augment my insubstantial portfolio with a comedic act, and, after viewing the photos of my work and describing the scale of the projects they usually worked on, one of the ad execs said they had something they'd like me to take a look at. A project!

In comparison with the work they showed me, my three prior projects were minuscule, and dollar signs began to cha-ching in my head, but I knew I wasn't about to be handed anything orders-of-magnitude out of my league. No, I thought they'd probably start me out with something in the $10,000 - $20,000 range. A mere morsel for them but a feast for me (and my family, at least until the next scheduled famine).

One of the producers leaned under the conference table and produced a 5" dia. hard shelled soccer ball, completely white, and handed it to me. There was a coiled phone cord coming out of one end and some little holes on the other. I was told that one of their other "vendors", a word I had to look up later, had embedded a speaker in the ball, and that it was part of a multimedia sporting display said vendor was fabricating. I was asked if I'd be interested in taking the ball back to my shop and painting various of its pentagonal faces black and red.

There was an audible sound of a record needle scratching and the internal flag of enthusiasm which had been wildly snapping in a stout wind of anticipation immediately went slack. However, I fought the urge to betray any sign of disappointment, and replied that I would love to.

I was asked what I'd charge. Something told me to be careful; this was only a test.

I looked at the ball. Quick - what to charge? I calculated the time it would take me to meticulously paint the ball - a few hours at a minimum - but realized that there was no way I could let the corresponding amount of money escape my lips. Yet if I said I'd do it for free or for significantly less than my time was worth, I'd project that I'd do anything short of selling my children for work. (And that would be inaccurate - for the right price, I would sell them. Heck, I could always make more - and did).

So yeah, sometimes we aren't given a full minute or two to devote our full powers of concentration on a problem. What do we do then? And how did I respond?

Times like that, I find it helps to have cultivated an internal conversation with a voice of wisdom - the one that argues against all the foolish or unhealthy things we entertain. And not just a conversation, either, but a history of aligning our actions with it. Without said history, it's not easy to either recognize the voice or follow its bidding when we really need to.  

Thankfully, although I hadn't calculated my day rate or the corresponding hourly rate at the time, in the span of perhaps five seconds, I settled on an amount that, while not eliciting any internal spasms of rapture, would be palatable to both parties - $50. We shook hands, parted, and I spent the rest of the day carefully painting the small sphere at my dining room table while listening to a book on tape entitled Get Top Dollar for Your Progeny.

The next day, I returned with the embellished ball. After a cursory examination, one of the producers said, "We have another project we'd like you to take a look at," and proceeded to describe a project that involved building a four-foot diameter rotating globe display for a welcome center they'd designed. Was I interested? 

Let's just say I was able to fatten up my children for a few more months.

More to the point of today's post. Just as the soccer ball trial project had been, the much larger globe display project itself was a kind of trial balloon that led to larger projects for the ad agency. It also led to other clients and larger projects, ones that eventually led to the position I held for a decade at the Colorado College (another opportunity delivered via word-of-mouth, this time, Sean O'Meallie's, the artist whose work book ends this post), which led to my making a return to art, five years ago, which has led to so many other opportunities both in my life and in many others'. Why, it's a veritable example of the butterfly effect.  

Am I saying that every opportunity that has appeared at my door since the fateful moment I was "floated a trial balloon", not to mention didn't deliver any unhelpful comedic lines, hinged on that one brief moment? No. How scary would that be? Thankfully, one is typically given plenty of chances to make wise decisions in life. Course corrections. What I will say is that I agree with Rodgers, Hammerstein, and Parmenides:

Nothing comes from nothing; nothing ever could.

But it's not simply those pivotal times in one's youth or childhood, critical as they can be, when we encounter trial balloons in life. It's much more often than one might think that they're being floated in our direction - in school, in our careers, in our relationships at work and personally. In chance encounters.

Look around you - do you see any trial balloons? Don't expect them to be very obvious. Did you check under the table? In my experience, they're usually no more than, oh, about 5" in dia., and hopefully accompanied by a quiet, calm, yet insistent voice of reason.

The latter component is key. Without cultivating an ongoing relationship with the voice of wisdom, my automatic 'bent' is to blow the balloon - to fail the test, pass-fail, grading on a curve, even accounting for participation points. So I suppose I'm writing this down less for you than for me - thanks for obliging. You know, I ought to tattoo it, in reverse, on my forehead. 

Mmm... something tells me that wouldn't be wise. 

Ok, so, in lieu of that, Andy,

Don't blow the balloons and realize that they're more way common (and hard to see) than you think. Remember, the ones that they might lead to could be orders-of-magnitude larger. 

"Balloon Man Running", 2016, Central Park Station, Denver, CO. 12' tall Forton public art sculpture atop a 20' pillar. Artist: Sean O'Meallie. Photo: Andrew Tirado


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