Full text of artist and writer Kent Grosswiler’s talk: Overcoming Your Own Worst Enemy…YOU at TEDxYearlingRoad conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here:
Kent Grosswiler – Artist
Hello. I’m curious how many people here have had a project or a potential hobby? Something you want to try on the back burner?
Or, something you maybe started into a little bit and decided you were no good and quit? If I could see a show of hands, please… okay! So we can relate to one another on this.
That’s been the story of my life and I’m not really sure where those messages came from.
I don’t remember anybody telling me stuff like this when I was a little kid. I know I have some friends – maybe it was their parents or older siblings or a teacher or a coach gave them some negative self messages.
But you know a lot of my life, if somebody would tell me I can’t do something, I would get kind of aggressive and say ‘Watch me!’ And I’ve always been really puzzled with this.
When certain things were offered like ‘You should try this’, or even if I would think myself like, ‘I want to try this’, this voice up here would be like, ‘Oh man, you’re not going to be, any good at that; like so why even bother!’
And a lot of things, when I was a child I would start. My parents enrolled me in all kinds of different activities – gymnastics lessons, different kinds of sports, piano lessons, swimming lessons.
And you know there would be this disconnect. I would see older kids who had been doing it so much longer. And I particularly remembered it at gymnastics lessons. I was doing my little forward rolls and I was watching older kids do handsprings and back flips, and there was just this disconnect in-between like where I was at in this timeline with work involved and where they were at’. And so I quit.
And I would quit everything I did up to a period of time.
Like one thing, as I got a little older… one thing like that I did stick with for a while was playing drums. I’m a musician. But I need to tell you like by the time I got into high school I was starting to drink a lot and I would start to do a lot of drugs.
And you know a little bit further into high school, I had begun my own criminal enterprise. And of course that was one of those things people like, ‘Dude, you can’t do stuff like that’, I was like, ‘Yeah, watch me.’
But you know when it came to anything productive, I mean just the negative self-talk up here like I would always quit or not even bother. Like the amount of space in the top of my skull would like probably fit in a soccer ball, like it’s not very much space but to me like it’s the wild wild west, or it’s the set of a Mad Max movie.
And that serves me really well in my creative endeavors. But like the voices up there can be awful like the jury that I put myself up against or the committee, and all the talking.
I mean even right now like maybe you’ll think, ‘I’m doing a good job’, but there’s voices up here like, ‘Dude, you can’t give a TED talk.’ And you know I’ve moved through it long enough to it’s like, ‘Oh that’s funny, because I’m doing one right now.’
The one thing that I was doing and was starting to do okay at (is) playing the drums. Other things I was doing just snow balled and I eventually like eradicated all the good opportunities I could have had as a musician.
And so you know I’m getting into like going to fast forward a lot of this, and I do want to say like I may or may not be a member of a certain organization that follows this 12-step agenda and meets with some regularity in church basements and serve some of the worst coffee on the planet.
This talk involves a little bit of that. But this talk isn’t about that because you know if I were a member of that, you guys could come hear me give that talk for free. And I’m not trying to create a bunch of drama with the TEDx organizers and y’all want your money back like once you can find out that fact.
Late 2000 I was 31 years old and I pretty much wrecked my life. I was looking at getting my left hand amputated. I was looking at some prison time.
And so maybe the first time ever I thought that I’d try something new which I did not want to do. I ended up going to a treatment center, six-month inpatient treatment center. I really did what I was told to do while I was there. It was not easy and I look back and I laughed because they really weren’t telling me anything crazy. It was like…
- Get up at the same time every day
- Be on time for the meals
- Make your bed
- Don’t be a jerk
- Don’t sass staff
Like really simple stuff. But at that point in time in my life it seemed impossible. But you know I was willing to try something new. And at the end of that tenure we had to go apply for jobs and I didn’t even know. I was 31 years old (and) didn’t know how to fill out a job application.
Fast forward. Things got a little bit more a year later. I mean I spent a lot of time there. I lived close to it, felt really safe, and I was there a lot. I would do volunteer work and I got a phone call from a friend of mine who you know had the program manager position. He was like, ‘Man, why don’t you come work for us as a counselor’s aid?’
And it took him like in my head it’s like, ‘Oh! I can’t do that… like I just don’t think I can do it.’ And fortunately his persistence, he made an offering its like, ‘Look if it doesn’t work out, I’ll keep you on retainer, you know, if you just want to do like different little projects here and there.’ So I did it.
And about a month into that he put in his two weeks’ notice and there’s again you know this voice up in my head like, ‘Man, that looks like a really cool job. Like you should go talk to the director and telling me we’re interested’
then this other voice is like, ‘No, no, and that’s an adults job. You can’t do that job!’ And then the other voice over here is like, ‘Look you’re 32 years old, like that qualifies as an adult. So maybe it’s time you get an adult’s job!’
And so I went and told the executive director I was interested in it. I got the job and I ended up working there for seven and a half years. And after my first year I had that my first year evaluation and he said, ‘What were your goals, you know, within your first year?’
I said, ‘Not to get fired!’
And he said, ‘That’s it!’
I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s it.’
And he was like, ‘Well, you far exceeded that!’
And the same can be said for today if somebody were to ask me like, ‘What are your goals for your TED talk?’ Like the first thing I thought of is like, ‘Not to get escorted out of the building by the authorities!’
And you know I think about it for a minute like, ‘Oh, hopefully to help somebody!’ I’ve got no experience giving a TED talk but I probably could get a PhD, like being dragged out of places by the cops.
And so anyway a few years into that job, this isn’t a work related story, but like it was a new friendship, a local artist. His name’s Rob Jones. He’s phenomenal. I was just blown away by his artwork and we bonded over art, in music and we had hung out a couple times. He and his wife moved and they had bought a new house.
It’s my first time over there and I thought where he was going to have a beer. I was going to have a soda or some coffee and uh you know talk and listen to music and just like bond and get to know one another.
He’s showing me a studio in the basement and he said, ‘I need you to paint the door.’ And I’m like, oh my god like he might as well ask me that like, ‘Go take a bath’, and told like he was going to watch.
I could not imagine anything more uncomfortable. I hadn’t worked on any art since junior high art class and the periods of time when I was younger and would like work on a bunch of art at home like one day. It was the same as everything else; I’m not good at this. I quit.
And so I painted the door. And I didn’t know how to paint. I kind of drew some outlines and it’s the one here on the left. I colored it in. I mean it was a door, so it was a big painting and it wasn’t immediately done.
It took several visits and it kind of started to be fun. And I liked hanging out with him. And so but that being said I was relieved when it was done. It’s like okay cool like that’s it, no more painting and he’s like, ‘Now you got to paint the other side of the door.’
And so I started asking questions. I started looking at his paintings and trying to the best of my ability copy what I saw and it still didn’t take right away. You know for maybe five years at the end of every year like I’d have two or three paintings at his house. But that was fine, like it was just a fun way to spend time with him.
In the beginning of 2010, I came to work one day and found out that that treatment center job was no more. I left on good terms. It was like strictly a budget issue. I’d been to enough staff meetings to know like that the budget was always really potentially scary. And I was lost.
I had no idea what to do with myself. My work history prior to that was not something I could go back to doing. And my identity was really tied up in that job. It was like the longest you know I had an adult’s job and like the accrued vacation time that came with that I was just lost.
In the spring of 2010, you know, again it was just another social event. I was going to my buddy Rob’s. We were going to paint. The weather was starting to get nice and I really had no idea what was about to happen.
But you know I started painting and this time I got obsessed. And I really think it could have been anything. Like maybe if I were going to play music with some people that day I would have started working harder on my drumming.
And all I was really trying to do I think with the exception of painting was to keep myself from going insane, because I was terrified. I was 40 years old and my career was done and I just couldn’t put together what was going to happen next.
And I was a little stubborn too. Sometimes I would think of starting back at scratch with no accrued vacation time and half the pay and I would just I’d shudder and I would get scared.
So I kept at it and slowly started getting a little bit better and slowly started getting the courage to maybe try something else than just paint.
The beginning of 2011, I decided to go to school and my first thought was I’ve got all this experience working in a treatment center, I’m going to get a drug and alcohol counsellor degree.
And I failed to realize like a different good friend reminded me of like the last little bit of my tenure at that treatment center like I was exhausted. I didn’t know what was going on but I just wasn’t doing as strong a work as I was doing.
The first six years I was there and I basically fell right into the seven-year Social Work statistic burnout. I was just kind of fried.
And my very first class back when I went to college was in English class and I loved reading and I liked dabbling and writing but never really thought much of it.
And so when it came time to start scheduling classes for the next semester I just have the good fortune of spending some time with a different friend and he was, ‘Well, you know, what course of study you’re going to pursue?’
And I was like, ‘Oh, I’m getting a counselling degree.’
And he just shook his head like he was scolding some five-year-olds. And he said, ‘You don’t listen to anything I say man. I’ve been trying to tell you for like a couple years now. You can dream. You can do whatever you want.’
And so yeah I decided to pursue an English and creative writing degree and you know some of my friends would tease me a little bit. They’d say, ‘Well, what are you majoring in?’
And I’d say ‘English.’
And they’re like, ‘What are you going to do with that? Work at a gas station?’
And I was like, ‘I’m going to have fun at school and I’m going to roll the dice and see what happens!’
And I’m winding that; that’s cooling down and I really did not expect any of this stuff to happen.
When I started painting with regularity, it was just basically so I wouldn’t lose my mind, like I was chewing my fingernails off at the time… I was chewing into my fingers. I was chewing up the inside of my mouth just from stress and fear and anxiety.
And when I would paint all that would stop and my head would quiet down. And so suddenly somebody offered me some money for a painting one day and I was like blown away.
And that process has continued and I’ve continued to work hard at it.
And what I’ve learned from all of this is I don’t get better at anything unless I do it a lot. And it’s impossible for me to do anything a lot, if I don’t try it in the first place or I quit as soon as I do try.
So you know all you folks that raised your hands and want to try something new but you’re telling yourself stuff like,
‘I’m too busy, or, I don’t have enough time, or, I’m not as good as this guy, or not as good is this woman, or like I’m too old or I’m too young’,
Or the vast array of excuses we tell ourselves… Those are just really fancy phrases for self-doubt and self-centered fear. I had the fortune of having some light bulb moments in my life and some people to say like. ‘You should try this’ and the willingness to try it.
So that’s what I’m hoping to do for you today. If a couple people leave here and they go and try something new and stick with it I mean then my works done. That’s a huge victory.
I never went into any of these endeavors trying to be like John Bonham or Pablo Picasso or Flannery O’Connor. I just want to be the best Kent Grosswiler I could be. And I did this stuff because it made me… it helped me to feel better about myself. And some of it’s starting to turn into a career.
- I’ve had some pieces of writing published over the last couple years.
- I’ve won some Fiction Awards at Ohio State.
- I got to play drums on a Columbus based internationally known hip-hop artists record.
- I played drums on a song on a copyrights record that just came out recently.
And all of it just has to do like just trying stuff, and hopefully I’ve made it clear that that doesn’t come easy to me.
I’m a former low-rent North-end junkie drug-dealer. Guys like me end up in dumpsters. But instead I’m doing some stuff like this. And I’m a firm believer that you all can do it too. Just try it. Have a go at it.
I know for myself I’m just trying to pay some of this stuff forward and 31 years was a long time not to try anything new.