The Shame of Creativity

Hacker News LinkedIn Facebook Twitter by Abby Fichtner

My fall from grace

It’s clear, yet weirdly unspoken, that I confused a lot of people when I decided to go from being Hacker in Residence for Harvard Innovation Lab to creating websites.

I kind of expected it from other devs. I realize that creating websites ain’t writing code for the NSA (my first coding project out of college) or developing the bleeding edge tech for startups that I earned my name for.

But I was really surprised by the equal (if not stronger) adverse reaction that I got from non-developers… and my subsequent fall from grace in the eyes of the community.

If I’m not creating, I might as well be dead

I’m a developer. I get a rush out of figuring out how to make things work. I get great joy out of writing beautiful, elegant code to power the things that we want.

I’m also an artist. I love making beautiful things and unique things and things that make you go Hmmm.


But most of all, I’m a creator. If I’m not creating then I might as well be dead.

Startup guardian angel

Of all the accolades I’ve received, this is one of my proudest. I’ve spent the last 7 or so years dedicating myself to helping hackers and entrepreneurs who were creating the next generation of awesome.

And I’ve loved it.

But… it’s really tough for me to spend all of my time helping others create without getting to create myself. I managed to cut off a really large part of myself, and while it took me way-too-long to make the connection as to what was going on with me, I suffered greatly for it.

I don’t have to fit into this image you’ve created for me

I guess everyone assumed that going back to creating meant going and doing another startup. But, sorry, not sorry.

I’ve already done several startups. I’ve spent my whole career working 100+ hour weeks. Now I’m ready to take more time for my art, and to read and travel and enjoy nature. To play with my (soon to get!) big beautiful dogs, to hang out with friends, and, to simply Have. Fun. And. Enjoy. Life. (dammit)

Websites were perfect. I could develop — but for short, fun, low stress projects that left me time to do other things. I could create beautiful, unique things. And I could continue working with entrepreneurs, helping to show off their awesome to the world.

I’m also a pretty hard core introvert, and so being able to just work alone from home, without being in the middle of 100 students and startup events was really good for me.

How to go from influencer to nobody in 30 days or less

I pretty quickly devolved from being someone viewed as an expert (Harvard’s Hacker In Residence! Top woman in Boston tech! MIT guest lecturer! blah blah blah) to being viewed as… the hired help.

And I couldn’t understand what the hell happened. I mean, here I was just following my creativity and working on what excited me. I was still the same person. With the same knowledge and skills and experiences.

But suddenly nobody was terribly interested in what I had to say.

And I couldn’t figure it out until I read this article by Pia Silva

Service providers vs experts

I’m super paraphrasing Pia here, but her message is basically that…

Service providers are a necessary evil for completing a job you need done. Your interaction with them is primarily about: a) making sure they do what you asked them to do, and b) making sure they don’t rip you off by billing for more hours then they actually work, or working more hours than are actually needed to do the job. Many are interchangeable so make sure you get them for the lowest price possible.

Experts, on the other hand, are the best of the best at what they do and a privilege to get to work with. When you pay them, it’s all about the thrill of (and the value you get from) being able to work with THE expert. You pay them for their expertise and results, not by the number of hours they spend with you. Make sure you let them know how much you want to work with them so they’ll consider working with you.

Holy shit!

I went from being an expert that people would call to ask and hope that I might be able to do them the favor of coming in, to a lowly service provider to be haggled with over minutiae if they felt like doing me the favor of contacting me.

Dr Who - oh my god

The shame of trying new things

In trying something new. Something that I was drawn towards as it allowed me to express my creativity, I fell into this hole of shame.

I went from loving talking about what I did to dreading anyone asking me about it.

It makes me wonder. Especially in a community of people who embrace experimentation and trying new things, why is it looked down upon to try something new that falls outside of the little box that the world has placed us into?

Stay inside the lines

I mean, it’s not like I left Harvard to go clean toilets. Although even if I did, if that’s really what I want, then what’s it to you?

The burden of creativity

I’ve written before about Escaping Success. About how, as soon as we get good at something, the world starts holding us back. They only want to hire us for, or see us doing, the type of work that we already do.

But if we keep doing the same thing over and over, we get bored. And we stagnate. And we stop creating.

And so, if we want to keep creating, we’ve got to keep reinventing ourselves to be something that may not always fit with what the world expects from us, or from what they view us as experts at. It may even mean falling down down down to the level of hired help as we figure out how to weave this new thing into what we are already bad asses at.

Does that mean that if we want to continue to create, we all need to keep falling from grace – time and again? 

If so, it sure says a lot about why so many artists and entrepreneurs live bipolar roller coasters of lives.

  • Damon Poole

    You Rock! End of story! :)

    • Awww, thank you, Damon!! :) Wow, forever time no see! what are you up to these days??

      • Damon Poole

        A new venture. Sent you an email. Cheers! Damon

  • George Des Jardins

    When I was living in San Diego, I ended up working as a contractor (as in construction) for a few weeks for a friend of mine while I was thinking about what to do next. One job I had to do at a warehouse in Compton was rehab the rest rooms, which included remounting, servicing and remounting about 50 urinals. This of course included chipping decades of crystallized uric acid of the porcelain. While I have done many things since then, I will always remember that job. It really focused my priorities, and I was proud of doing a good job. So, I won’t look down on you no matter what you do Abby. In fact, I think sometimes you have to reconnect to different parts of your life. Your creativity and abilities have nothing to do with someone elses label for you. It reminds me of this story:

    A student of the way came to Master Zhaozhou and said, “I have just entered your monastery. Please give me instruction.” Zhaozhou asked, “Have you eaten your rice gruel?” The students said, “yes.” Zhaozhou responded, “Wash your bowl.” With this the student had an insight.

    So, chip urine, wash bowls, build websites, you are still Hacker Chick, and who I would reach out too for any problem without blinking.

    • awww, is that you Tom? There can’t possibly be two Des Jardins who go by Captain Overboard. (I’ll hug him and squeeze him and call him George. Cuz George is my friend?)

      Thank you for the vote of confidence! I will indeed always be hackerchick. But… I don’t get the master zhaozhou story?!? :)

      • George Des Jardins

        It’s me. :-) DIsqus sign in used my real 1st name for some reason….

        The point of the master story is that people bring their own interpretation to events. And you can’t control them. So don’t worry about it.

  • That’s a great look into expertise and stagnation. As another web developer, really looking forward to seeing more of your range of experience and innovation put into this field. And how this all merges into something new.

  • Doug Smith

    Love it, Abby!

    I’m not a big fan of Madonna … or Lady Gaga … or Cher … or Tina Turner … or David Bowie … in the sense that I’ve bought any of their records, or keep listening to their songs. But I greatly admire all of them for continually re-inventing themselves to stay relevant in an enormously fickle business. All of them refused to see an end … they kept getting outside of themselves, expanding themselves, creating multi-decade careers in a business where each record is an ode to obsolescence.

    Darn. I’ll have to find a new guardian angel.

    • Oooh, as an 80s girl – big Madonna fan ;-)

      And yeah, I really do too. Inspiration for all of us.

      Don’t worry though, I’m getting back to working with hackers & entrepreneurs to help them create awesomeness like you are. I just needed a break from it all for a bit with some heads down coding to get back into being true to myself. But am already mentoring a couple of new super cool startups and realizing how much I missed it. Am just working through a way of doing it this time that leaves space for creating things myself as well.

      Stay tuned…