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How I Found a Success Strategy in a 20-Year-Old Tattoo

When I graduated from SIU with my Theatre degree back in 2003, I did what any young, idealistic, aspiring theatre artist would do to commemorate the occasion: I got a lower back tattoo.

Pictured: Not me.

I deliberated intensely before selecting a message that would express my distinctive personal mantra. Yes, for permanent emblazoning on my tailbone, I chose the Greek words ἀγάπη ("agape", meaning unconditional love) and καρτερία ("kartería", meaning perseverance). Why Greek? Not because of any sorority affiliation, but rather, because as a half-Jewish, half-Italian American, I determined the Greek language and culture to be the common denominator of my split heritage. Why the placement on the lower back? Why, indeed.

With dreams of artistic success and acclaim, I left college with the understanding that a career in the arts was "going to be a difficult path". Having internalized this often-reinforced refrain imparted to me by my family, teachers, and role models, I anticipated needing unconditional love and perseverance to sustain my journey. At the time, I interpreted unconditional love to mean open-mindedness. It meant being a great collaborator, receptive to inspiration in any form. It also meant loving myself through anxiety and fear.

Perseverance meant being patient, steadfast, and above all, never giving up. It meant being focused, dedicated, and relentless-- I would have to be all-in. Or- I would be "out".

And so, my endeavors began. I worked continuously, and intensively for ten years. Then came the cycles of rejection, re-commitment, burnout, depression, inspiration, and exclusion. I struggled to balance my artistic pursuits with my basic needs. My creative spirit was damaged and diminished by a decade's worth of bootstrapping and I found myself miles away from my objectives, both literally and figuratively.

I've shared in previous social media posts and podcast episodes about how I grieved over what I believed to be my failed Theatre Directing career trajectory. I was artistically lost until I founded Smartistry in 2018.

Once I had my new direction, I channeled my unconditional love once again. I persevered in trying to make an impact and sharing my vision of sustainability with the world. I hustled my way through the pandemic and continued creating content, producing, again pushing water uphill. After all, as Sondheim wrote, "Art isn't easy." Running my own company is my biggest creative challenge yet, and I'm constantly at risk of burnout.

I'm relaunching Smartistry this year, and my exciting new business strategy includes an improved Melissa Sustainability Plan. I call it... Rest.

Yes, that four-letter word that we often see as a luxury we can't afford. But I'm here to tell you that rest isn't a luxury - it's a necessity. And it's not just about physical rest, but mental and emotional rest as well.

Rest isn't a weakness - it's a strength. It takes strength to admit that you need a break, that you need to take care of yourself. Resting is proof that you love yourself unconditionally, without fail. When you take the time to rest, you come back to your work with renewed energy, fresh ideas, and a sense of purpose.

It seems that I'm finally circling back to that 20-year-old tattoo, but with a new understanding. Unconditional love and perseverance are necessities for all of us. Sometimes, we confuse unconditional love with obsession and perseverance with pushing ourselves to the brink of exhaustion. We tell ourselves that we have to keep going, no matter what, and that rest is for the weak. But that's not true.

As our toxic capitalist culture demands, we're all juggling a lot of responsibilities. Maybe you're also a parent, a partner, a caregiver, a business owner, or all of the above. And on top of that, you're an artist. You have a passion burning inside you, and you want to create, to express yourself, to share your unique perspective with the world. But often, it feels like you just can't keep your internal flame lit.

You might think that rest is the enemy of productivity, that you can't afford to take a break because you have so much to do. But the truth is, rest is the key to productivity. When you're tired, stressed, and burnt out, your creativity suffers. Your work becomes stagnant, and you feel like you're just going through the motions.

So, I want to encourage you to make rest a priority in your life. Prioritize time for it, just like you schedule time for your work. And when you take that time, don't feel guilty about it. Embrace it. Rest, recharge, and come back to your work with a renewed sense of purpose.

You don't have to tattoo these words on your body, but please, don't forget about unconditional love and perseverance. When you're rested, you're better equipped to commit to your work, to persevere through the challenges and setbacks, to keep going even when it feels like the world is against you. So, let's promise ourselves we'll work on finding that balance between rest and commitment, and we'll be unstoppable.

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