Starving Artist is Not a Good Color on Me


At The Alexander Group, we have an exceptional team of people who have been with us for many years.  Although our team has an incredible passion for search, they also excel in non search related activities.  This week, meet Sarah Mitchell who manages our San Francisco office.

Sarah J. Mitchell, Associate Director


I lead a bit of a double life, and I highly recommend it.  Should you drift to my Facebook page or catch my ever so effervescent status updates, you will be greeted with the usual workaday fare, office quips, and work travel tales. But you will also see pictures of me dressed as a pilgrim, or in a brown polyester 70s dress with an Anna Wintour wig, along with updates of tech weeks and commutes to the theater after work.  A practical person might have decided long ago to choose to pursue the theater or pursue executive search.  But I can't give up either, no matter how many 80 to 90 hour weeks I face when combining the two.



As I get older (and older) I have come to appreciate more (and more) the balance involved with pursuing a passion while finding my livelihood in a corporate setting.  While some say that you should follow your passion and the money will follow, I suspect that if I had followed my passion outright, I'd be in a cockroach-ridden studio apartment somewhere in Queens, with a handful of off-off-broadway gigs and maybe a commercial here and there to pay the rent.  That is an exhilarating lifestyle for some, and the plight of a starving artist is a romantic one, but I know I would have melted into a puddle of self doubt and angst if I had to depend on the actor's life for my livelihood.  I'm just not built to wonder when my next two month job is going to come along, or to rely upon the fates to cast me in a new sit-com that will be the hit of the decade and ensure that I will be working again next month.  It's one of the reasons I went to Rice University - no theater degree, so I could focus on preparing myself for a career that would satisfy my need for stability and structure. And here's the bonus...the thrill of a search done well, helping a corporate client determine what sort of person they need to hire to make their business hum, and helping a candidate as they make life changing decisions about their career are highs I can't find on the boards.

Here are three good reasons for leaving your passion out of your livelihood: 



2009 was a brutal year for many industries, and certainly for the executive search field. While our firm was able to escape without any layoffs, many search firms were laying off up to a third of their staffs, and my colleagues and I all had to buckle down and tough it out without the reliable highs of years past.  It was a constant challenge to keep the positivity up while facing grim news about the shape of the economy on a daily basis. While the churn and burn happened at the office, I was actually having a great theater year, with roles in exciting productions at theaters in the Bay Area I had admired for years, such as SF Playhouse and Shotgun Players.  Being engaged on the artistic end allowed me to stay positive and find inspiration to come to the office each day and make the best of hand we were dealt. Others can find their inspiration from their kids, or developing their writing skills with a personal blog, or having a great season with a soccer league.




I have regularly called upon my actor's toolkit in my work as a search consultant.  The most obvious way is that I am comfortable whenever I need to present to a group.  In the less obvious column, studying the role of a character I'm playing is not entirely unlike understanding how a candidate got from point A to B and what impact that has on their fit with a client company.  The number one job of a theater actor is to understand the motivations of a character from moment to moment, scene to scene, and in the overall arc of a play.  I can use the same questions to get at a candidate's motivation, as well as understanding why a client is drawn to one candidate over another.  It's all psychology. Likewise, I can use what I learn in meeting the oftentimes big and bold personalities we come across in executive search in my theater world.  As they do say, truth is stranger than fiction, and that can certainly be the case with the human dramas we encounter on a week to week basis in search.


I love the bold, passionate, sometimes irrational, sensitive, creative, and often unpredictable personalities that I work with in the theater.  The relationships I have developed over the years in the theater are some that I hope to have for a lifetime if I play my cards right.  However... theater artists, and yes I'm one of them, can bring the wrong kind of drama along for the ride.  As I often point out, we are a group of people that need to be literally applauded on a regular basis.  That's not normal.  Working in search gives me access to rational, linear thinkers, which I don't often find succeeding in theater.  I don't know if I would appreciate as much the beauty of a bottom-line thinker if I weren't often frustrated by the overly idealistic artist in my theater life.  And vice versa, of course.





Whether your passion is yoga, playing the tuba, sailing, building the perfect balsa wood plane, tennis, or mountain climbing, there is much to be gained from throwing oneself wholly at that passion, but not pursuing it as a career.  Call it overly cautious, excessively pragmatic, and dream-squashing, but I've found it to be a sanity-saving and fulfilling way to go through life. Even if it means I can't answer "What do you do?" very easily at a cocktail party.





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