“The Second Shift Artist”

Starting from left to right: Miranda July, Sheila Heti, and Thao Nyugen (See the bottom of this page for more details on each artist).

“Most humans are in some kind of bind, some kind of challenge. Thats why we need art …and thats why we need to write and start in that place. Its also the rightful place from which the best art can come”.

Miranda July

I attended a City Arts and Lecture event this week as part of a Product Management project I’m working on at General Assembly. Normally, this would have been a treat for me as at times I’ve debated a pivot to pursue a career in improv comedy and the arts. But this particular evening, I was tired, I wanted to go home (I had slept less than four hours the night before bc of a stomach bug), but I was on a mission to interview random people who attend local events, specifically symposiums and speaker series. I didn’t know much about Miranda July or Sheila Heti coming into the event, but to my delight, the entire interview was inspiring, odd, hilarious, and brutally honest. I was in complete awe of these artists and their choice of dialogue. I found myself jotting down notes, belly laughing, and thanking the worldly spirit that puts you in pleasant places sometimes despite yourself.

There were a few moments from this evening that have stuck with me and play over and over again as I continue to think about how applicable they are to Product Management.

Miranda July was asked, “what is your advice for second shift artists?”…She took a moment to consider the answer and said:

“Most humans are in some kind of bind, some kind of challenge. Thats why we need art …and thats why we need to write and start in that place. Its also the rightful place from which the best art can come from. Embrace where you are and the struggle”.

I realized, I need to continue to embrace where I am as a PM. Its early, its hard, its also delightful and soul filling. I feel a magnetic pull to become a producer of this form of art. I can’t turn this part of me off. Its been passed over for other roles for too long and so I must embrace the struggle. Miranda’s comments were empowering to hear and also echo Ben Horowitz’s famous guidance that,“Life is struggle. Embrace the struggle”.

The other poignant moment for me that evening was when Miranda and Sheila were asked, “how do you take on a big project like writing a book, or making a movie? How do have the courage to do it?”. Miranda replied, “believe your lies”. By that she went on to say how in the beginning of a project, she envisions her acceptable speech at The Oscars (which she quickly admits its weird to care about), and all these wonderful things happen because of your movie/book/work of art. She believes “she can do it, she will succeed brilliantly”! But then about two years into the project, “you forget about all of that. It doesn’t even cross your mind. You could care less about the notoriety. You are tired, you feel alone, but you know you must garner the muster to get up that mountain”.

Sheila Heti brilliantly answered this question by saying: “do not be a lone genius”

“Turn yourself inside out and get as much feedback on your work as you can. Send it to 100 people, anyone you can. The other brains are just as good as yours (get over yourself) and you can learn from their feedback”.

This advice is so spot on it makes me wiggle with inner applause (its actually a stadium doing the wave)and appreciation. The process of building a new product, of developing assumptions and testing them with strangers often feels like these two responses. You start off on a project with a high, “ah, we will build a solution that is unlike anything else and it will be amazing”! You envision your teachers will say, “we’ve never seen this kind of work at such an early stage! I’m speechless!”. And, you believe it.

Then…you take your chicken scratch wireframes and sketches to Bart, to a college campus, or to Nourse Theatre (in my case, all three this week) and things get real. You talk to as many people as you can. We’ve been taught that you have to draw upon your inner strength to go there with the user, not be embarrassed to ask for their feedback and follow wherever the journey leads you. Your goal is to be empathic of their problems, and derive a solution based on hard work and the data. You have to believe you can do it, but you are also confused as to how you’ll get up that mountain bc they really hate everything you’ve built for them so far. But then you realize along the way, is that its not about you. Your goal is to apply empathy + analysis to every problem. You are not the user. And, in the end, you do get across the finish line because you became the most informed person about this particular problem and how to solve it. You spoke to a 100+ people, and each one’s brain contributed to the product’s success. And people now want to use your product because they built it with you and have a real need for it. And then somehow, you naturally find yourself saying, “lets do it again”!

So, as I wrap up this week. I end with a smile and passion to continue learning this discipline. Pursuing a career as a PM or developing these processes into innate skills to take to any startup (even one I might found), is all about “believing your lies” and “being a second shift artist”…bc thats whats real. That’s what creates the outcomes you’re in search of.

Miranda July, me, and Sheila Heti.

Background on the Artists:

Filmmaker, artist, and author Miranda July, is known for her off beat and independent short films and performance art. Her videos, performances, and web-based projects have been presented at the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum, and in two Whitney Biennials. In 2005, July starred in and directed her first feature-length film, Me and You and Everyone We Know, and in 2011, she wrote and starred in The Future. July’s fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, Harper’s, and The New Yorker. She published her first collection of stories, No One Belongs Here More Than You, in 2007, and her first novel, The First Bad Man, in 2015.

Sheila Heti is the author of seven books, including How Should a Person Be? which The New York Times Book Review called an “odd, original, and nearly unclassifiable book,” and which was named as a best book of the year by The New York Times, The New Yorker, and Salon. Recently, she published the New York Times bestseller, Women in Clothes, a collaboration with Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton, featuring the writing and wardrobes of 639 women. She is also the author of Ticknor and The Chairs Are Where the People Go. McSweeney’s recently published her play, All Our Happy Days are Stupid.

Thao Nguyen is an American singer-songwriter originally from Virginia, now based in San Francisco. She is a member of the band Thao & The Get Down Stay Down, with whom she has toured extensively and collaborated with other artists such as Joanna Newsom and Andrew Bird. In additional to her musical endeavors, she has worked with 826 Valencia and California Coalition for Women Prisoners. Her advocacy and support of CCWP inspired the band’s most recent album, We The Common.