Musings: Picking Roles and the Practice of Art

Musings: Picking Roles and the Practice of Art

You are reading a Stream of Consciousness (aka SOC) blog entry. These are written from a personal point of view when I am right in the moment of figuring something out. People unfamiliar with my writing over the years may find it hard to follow. All are welcome to read, but keep in mind that these entries are raw and not representative of how I may actually feel/think about a given topic.

Continuing from yesterday’s musings on distinguishing between identity and role, I dig deeper into why focusing on ROLE might be a better strategy for expanding the community-oriented aspects of my personal mission.

Identity and Role Face Different Directions

Yesterday I made a distinction between one’s identity versus role. In matters of community, I have tended to first focus on clarifying my sense of identity; my reasoning is that if I understand myself better then the right community fit would be easier to find. I think this is a decent approach, but there are two drawbacks to it:

  • IDENTITY is focused on the self, not on community. This is the opposite attitude that one ideally has with a community!
  • Using IDENTITY as the criterion for whether a community is a “good fit for me” creates a lot of opportunity for conflict, generating more reasons not to be in a community.

This attitude probably stems from my long-time distrust of other people’s agendas, and it needs to change. Don’t get me wrong: using my own values grounded and sense of self had empowered me to pursue my own goals in the first place. However, the limits of this kind of thinking are becoming more apparent to me.

ROLES are another way for me to think about how I want to engage with other people. I like having a role, because it’s about working toward a community-focused result. This is easier to assess, I think, than using an identity-focused criterion like, “does this make me happy?” or “am I accepted for who I am?” Instead, I can ask questions like, “does this action improve the status quo for more people?” and “did I contribute to our shared initiative meaningfully?” I like how thinking of inhabiting a role de-emphasizes the focus on me as an individual with an implied quantity of “social worth”. Roles are to communities as tasks are to projects, and I believe that the needs of communities/projects should rise above the personal agenda of individual desire in favor of shared desire for the good of all.

Relation to the The Practice of Art

So, the upshot of this discussion is that I have yet another distinction to make between “my private self” versus “my public role”. I have tended to blur the two together because I thought it was more “authentic”. However, there is a select circle of people who “get who I am” (identity) and the larger group of those who “like something I do” (role). There’s a parallel here in how I see the practice of my so-called “art”: there’s a few people who “understand the totality of what I’m doing” in terms of design and writing as a personal journey of exploration, and then there’s the larger group of people who like some small shard of my body of work for different reasons. The negative reaction that people have to engaging the larger group is called selling out, but I have argued that it’s not selling out IF you maintain that inner core of beauty. It’s entirely OK that other people have different understandings and uses of what I do, and if I can make some kind of living doing that it is fine. It does not have to devalue the core of who I am and why I do the things I do, if I decide that this is the case.

To successfully inhabit a role, one needs to have a measure of confidence in one’s ability to perform in it. Since I’m assigning MYSELF a role, I think there’s a good chance that I can perform adequately. I know myself pretty well from all the identity-related thinking I’ve done over the years, and I should be able to define the parameters of my chosen role so there’s a good fit. Selecting a role also provides more context than merely “choosing what I want to do”, because roles require some kind of external relationship. This is an excellent fit for my productivity philosophy of making and sharing. I also like not defining what I do as “a service” or “being helpful”, because that is not my focus. I’m WAAAAY too egotistic for that :-) I WANT TO DO COOL STUFF AND BE KNOWN FOR IT. Being of service and helpfulness are hopefully the by-products of my activity because I like that, but it’s not my desire to be someone else’s support system. The whole point of creative independence is to do my own thing.

Now What?

So the next question I have is what role(s) do I want to pursue? These are like coming up with job descriptions with the added criterion of identifying who benefits. Here’s my first shot at it:

  • Host of Creative Possibilities Coworking Space (related to the LIVING ROOM CAFE project). ROLE CRITERIA: maintaining an inviting space for collaborative meeting; creating events and inviting compatible people to work together; get people excited about following through on ideas and meeting other people. SELF BENEFIT: inspiration, energy, fellowship.

  • Accessible Solo Creative Entrepreneur (related to design, stationery, development pursuits). ROLE CRITERIA: write publicly about pursuits with integrity; provide well-organized useful resources for free and also for sale; create opportunities to discuss these topics face-to-face or real time; connect people I meet with other people who should know about each other; actively grow ties with other solo creative entrepreneurs. SELF BENEFIT: get to talk shop, venting, finding resources, creative fellowship.

  • Nerd (related to everything else I do). ROLE CRITERIA: collect nerdy information and trivia; organize and share nerd information with other nerds; find more nerds and joyously assemble with them; share the joy of nerdy investigation and the cultural joy of making stuff / making stuff up; become authoritative on selected nerd sub-fields. SELF BENEFIT: glee, friendship, co-conspirators, having fun.

These roles are very much what I am doing already, but instead of just declaring that this is what I’m doing because I want to do it, I’ve made specific connections to how other people benefit too. Before, I had expressed all of these as personal goals and they just didn’t have much pull by themselves. Perhaps by reframing my goals as roles, I can get back on track.


  1. Christian 8 years ago

    My thinking went from a similar distinction into a different direction. Modern lifestyle has made the distinction between a multitudes of roles we take on during daily life useful, likely, but also painful. Because you need to integrate everything in the end into a whole personality, that is what you call “identity.” If you fail to do so, it will be a very painful experience. And a lasting one, perhaps.

    So from these analytical musings I came to the conclusion that in the end everything I do has to come from the same source. When I program, I’m not a family person. When I’m with my family, I’m not an artist. But it is still the “I” that matters. I think of it this way: my indie business requires me to do marketing. But sleazy tactics, attention-seeking pop ups, click-bait headlines, and the usual lead generation techniques don’t work for me. Because then I’m not treating my work properly. Properness is when I do good work and present it as such. I’d be discounting my work if I push it on others.

    That’s just an example. It’s still hard to figure out what I ought to do in every single case. I found morals and principles useful to guide me and integrate everything.

    In this post you focus on some roles of creation. Does this pull you into a direction that resonates with you? How’s this consideration changing the rest of your life so far?

  2. Author
    Dave Seah 8 years ago

    Hey Christian! The direction you’re describing is very similar to how I felt I was making decisions. I was focused quite a bit on identity and having that “same source”, or at least a set of personal principles and beliefs that helped me make decisions that I could live with. I think I do have a very strong sense of identity now, but maybe there are some limits to what situations identity can solve. Maybe unpacking identity into its constituent components would be useful. Perhaps there are proactive elements and coping elements.

    I like your use of the word “properness”… there’s a certain way to do one’s work in accordance to one’s values (a big part of identity, I think). Perhaps that’s one part of identity that is always in operation and it’s good. I have become aware, though, that I sometimes use my sense of self as a reason NOT to do something that might otherwise be good for me. The big one that comes to mind is solving the problem of having other people to collaborate and talk with who don’t have the same sense of identity or even think about this question. I want to avoid using identity as a filter that blocks me from certain opportunities just because there is not a match. Incorporating a role-based element in my mix of principles and beliefs (a “greater good” approach, perhaps, that goes behind the self-focused identity emphasis I have had) might be good for me. That’s what I’m trying to figure out.

    As for being pulled in a new direction: it’s a bit too early to say, since I just thought of it! What I think MIGHT happen is (1) more community connection leading to (2) more creative output thanks to (3) increased feedback and sense of shared mission to create cool things with cool people. It has been a lifelong pursuit, but I have never quite achieved it in a lasting sense. My early life was quite introverted and social awkward, so I have a bit of work to do there. It does occur to me that maybe my strategy of avoiding social stress and binding commitments has backfired on me; perhaps the kind of community I want is best formed not through shared values and ideals, but through shared commitment to putting those values into practice.

  3. Christian 8 years ago

    I am torn because of your last remark: which people to surround yourself with and for what reason.

    The utility of having likeminded people in respect to the outcome is a great thing to make stuff happen. It can help overcome inertia. You can push each other. That’s great and all. But what if the things you want change? Are you looking for a Mastermind group to get going or are you looking for a community that does things together?

    To have people with similar principles (as opposed to having similar outcome-oriented wants) creates a much stronger bonding. Like Aristotle’s categories of friendship[1]: there’s the pal you meet weekly for tennis, but if you stop playing tennis, you will stop meeting her; and there’s friends you share your life with just like you would with your family solely because of your shared virtues/morals/beliefs. These “friends in virtue” will stick with you as long as you stay true to the shared bond. (They help you stay in alignment with the values; but that can also backfire if some of your shared values are actually dragging both of you down and no one can muster the strength to grow beyond that.)

    [1]: e.g.:

    I learned not to value the outcome as much as people usually do. Ethically speaking, I’m not a consequentialist who judges actions based on the result/change in the world they produce. This can corrupt people, so I avoid that. Of course I want to have a lasting effect as a creator. But changing my course of action just to maximize reach? Not going to happen. (Or, I should say: that should not happen.) If you try to please the masses, where’s the unifying moment? What does your creation have to do with yourself then?

    Your wish to make games strongly resonates with me. I guess you won’t make any game to please the masses, based on trends and research. Instead you’d create the game you want to see in the world. It’s just what creative people do, I guess :)

    When you first blogged about the Livingroom Café project quite some time ago, I was so jealous that you have so much space to invite people into: how cool would it be to create a physical platform to attract likeminded people who are creative, generous, and want to give back to the group? (Hint: very cool!) Everyone can help everybody else with feedback. Or with their unique skill. What a great vision!

    Also: social awkwardness. I know what you mean. Couldn’t really relate to people in school at all; that never changed much, although I developed an effective public persona that enables me to work with people professionally. But true and deep connection doesn’t happen often. I was lucky and found a good “friend in virtue,” though. We’re sharing an apartment to save money so each of us can do his “solopreneur” thing. Part of our shared values is to shape a part of the world according to our principles. If that weren’t the case, we wouldn’t be much different from the 50yo+ Marxists at University who meet for tea every other day and lament the state of the world without moving a finger to change it.

    As a bonus I now know that there’s a potential to find more people like us and that our work may attract them into our lives. Another reason for me to not just do popular things but to do The Right Thing.™️ Thus coping with my own weirdness has turned into thriving through following my vision to create and gift things to people. — And now I wonder if you really want to ditch all that as part of “identity” or if that’s a hybrid solution you have in mind or what :)

    I’d love to hear more about the “matching” part to grasp your understanding of the concepts. Freak case: I find it’s hard to imagine connecting deeply with a serial killer, for example, no matter how interesting his ideas on game development are. Can you want to disconnect your core values (i.e. valuing life per se) from your gamedev role to have a nice chat with that person?

    I think internal fragmentation is possible and makes room for these kind of particularized connections. But this comes at a high cost: being a fragmented person creates dissonance, drains energy, and may simply not feel good.