“It’s Only Life or Death”: Disaster and Opportunity Interview with John Unger
This is the story of John T. Unger, a working artist who actually makes a good living. Despite the recession, each month in 2009 he’s made more money than in the same month last year, in addition to more than he did in every corporate job held long ago.
But that’s not the most interesting thing about John.
What’s interesting is what happened before his art business started taking off. The way John puts it, the best thing that ever happened to him was nearly being killed in a diner by a crazed taxi driver who held a gun to his head. (It taught him perspective, he says.)
The second best thing was suddenly losing his entire freelance workload in 2000. (He decided to stop freelancing and go all-in with his “real” art.)
The third best thing was having the roof of his studio cave in while he was standing on top of it, which nearly brought him to bankruptcy but ended up as the catalyst for the full-time art career he has now.
To learn more, go and read this article on John’s site—it’s excellent and deserves wider attention. (If you have to choose between the rest of this post and the article, read the article.)
I caught up with John last week to talk about recovering from disaster (and a few other things). The Q&A is below:
- Why do you think you were able to create an opportunity where other people would have only seen the disaster?
In a word: “practice.” I’ve started over with nothing more than once. In fact, one of my favorite lines about how I started my art career is “I did it with nothing, because nothing is free.” The world is full of stuff that no one wants or that no one sees. Learning to use those to build something is the same kind of thinking that goes into turning a disaster into an opportunity.
Part of my resilience is that I know from experience that just because it seems like the apocalypse, it doesn’t mean tomorrow isn’t coming. I figure that the world ends every second, and it starts over the very next second. I’ve seen the end of the world so many times I’m just not impressed by it anymore.
It takes some faith, courage or self-confidence to walk through a fire, sure. But you decide to keep going, and then you figure out how. My experience as an artist is really helpful for me in this because in some ways I view my job as “building a world.” Not the whole thing, but the parts that are important to me. I work mostly from found objects, and so my creative life isn’t just about inventing, it’s about re-inventing. I take what I find and I build.
You don’t notice opportunities if you limit what you’re looking for to a specific goal. It’s vital to maintain some fluidity, so that you can act on unexpected opportunities. Because I’m in the habit of always looking for new ideas, possibilities or opportunities it comes naturally to do so in times of distress.
- Is there ever a good time to give up? If so, when?
Yes and no. If your current plan or strategy or practice really isn’t working then it may be time to redirect your energy and focus. I don’t think you should ever give up on your core values or dreams, but sometimes it turns out that there’s a better way to implement them.
For instance, my first career was as a writer and poet. Despite some fairly high profile gigs, I was unable to support myself financially with words at the time. But those skills have made my current career as a visual artist possible— the fifteen years I spent pursuing poetry had a direct effect on how I deal with subject matter, meaning and metaphor as a visual artist. They bring a greater depth to my sculpture which makes it meaningful to people.
Also, my ability to write about my art helped enormously in building a successful career. Almost all of my sales, including galleries, come through my blog. I’ve shipped my work to all but a few states and at least seven countries. That reach would have been impossible for me before the internet, and if I had been limited to the local economy I would probably not have been able to make a full time living in the arts.
The irony in a way is that I’ve had my work included in ten books now as an artist, and am starting to see opportunities for finally publishing books of my own. So now it finally comes full circle.
- You said that the advice your friends gave you when you were in the middle of the disasters wasn’t helpful. What would you say to someone who’s in a similar situation?
In the article, I wrote, “The only way you can tell the difference between disaster and opportunity is to decide to make an opportunity out of every event.” That’s both easier and harder than it sounds. It’s easy to decide to make a change when your back is against the wall, but unless you follow through with acting on the decision, it won’t save you. Taking action is the hard part, especially if you lack resources after a fall.
When things fall apart, it usually requires an extremely creative approach to build the world again. There are techniques I’ve developed that make that easier for me.
The first thing I do is assess the situation unemotionally and try to see it for exactly what it really is. With any problem solving situation in my creative work, it’s important to look at what things do rather than what things are supposed to do. The same is true for problem solving in life events. You have to know what you’re working with in order to successfully influence it. Or subvert it.
The next step is to see if there is some way to leverage the force of the disaster itself to provide a solution. I regard this as a form of Tai Chi. I’ve never formally studied Tai Chi, but the core concept of redirecting an external force rather than meeting it with an attack has worked for me in all kinds of contexts. Any real disaster has some momentum, and if you can find a way to leverage that force, or turn it to your benefit, you may be able to accomplish a solution more quickly or easily. When my studio caved in, I was able to use the situation to find a solution that just wouldn’t have happened otherwise, and both the bank and I came out ahead the long run.
Finally, as an artist, I believe that almost nothing is impossible but many things are less than obvious. Ultimately, the solution to many problems is to approach from the side, or behind, or upside down or backwards. Part of what makes me good at this kind of problem solving is that I practice all day long by reversing and inverting ideas to see what else they hold when held up to a mirror.
- You say that things are going well now, but what does that mean? Can you be more specific?
I’ve built enough of a reputation for my work and ideas that I find I can easily reach out to other artists, thinkers and people who interest me. Having the respect of my peers is probably the most rewarding aspect of what I do. I’ve gotten a lot of nice media attention, had my work profiled or featured in books, radio, TV, magazines, etc.
Sales of my work have increased every year, and I now have a comfortable and reliable income. In fact, I’ve done better every month of 2009 than the same month in 2008, so even during the rough economy I’ve done better than I would have in a more traditional job.
I continue to try new projects, some of which succeed and some of which don’t but it keeps the work interesting and it’s nice to be able to make new work without having to worry about money like I used to.
I’ve been able to provide a lot of work for other people, both my own employees and other business who supply me and I feel really good about that. I like the fact that my business generates opportunities and income for other people as well.
To me, John’s story represents the triumph of the human spirit and the creativity of the desperate. As John points out, it’s not just about optimism, at least not in a passive sense. Mere optimism doesn’t pay the rent. When you come to the point of desperation, you do more than just hope for something.
As John puts it:
“The only way you can tell the difference between disaster and opportunity is to decide to make an opportunity out of every event.”
Disasters suck. No one thinks the recession is good. But sometimes the best things arrive in disaster form, and it’s up to you to decide how to respond.
Big congratulations to John for making it out of three big disasters—not that he needs validation from me or anyone else. And good luck to all of you with your next disaster.
Find me on Twitter: twitter.com/chrisguillebeau
Join AONC on Facebook: facebook.com/artofnonconformity
Image courtesy of John T. Unger
Wow, that’s a hell of a story, and really inspirational. Seems to draw a lot of Stoicism…being able to embrace life because of having faced the worst that can happen (in this case several times over). Really great interview!
“how I started my art career is ‘I did it with nothing, because nothing is free.'”
I love this. And it’s the best thing about the internet. It allows many more individuals to start new things and pursue their dreams than if their were high costs and high barriers to entry.
However, if it’s free to start, that leaves few excuses not to.
Very inspiring article! I love the tenacity and passion that artists bring to the world. I am surrounded by them and am grateful every day. The world is a better place as a result of them.
I think the biggest lesson in this blog post is that nothing has changed really. Even before the Internet existed man had to make a choice when disaster hit their lives. Some got back on their feet and others carried their grief until they died.
What I find remarkable though is how this topic seems to be a trend now that social media has taken over our lives! 🙂
Then a disaster for me may not be one in your books – that’s the beauty of learning from others mistakes!
Fantastic quote: “When things fall apart, it usually requires an extremely creative approach to build the world again.” I’m working with a company right now where things are falling apart, but it’s not just a bad thing, although layoffs are difficult; it’s also providing positive pressure for extreme creativity and re-envisioning that’s inspiring and necessary. Great post…
This is just so deliciously gorgeous that there’s nothing else I can say. Thanks for shining a light on John’s story and process.
My favorite part: “Ultimately, the solution to many problems is to approach from the side, or behind, or upside down or backwards. Part of what makes me good at this kind of problem solving is that I practice all day long by reversing and inverting ideas to see what else they hold when held up to a mirror.”
And I thought I’ve had rough times…I’ve got nothing on him 🙂
Very Zen like of him, especially in the way that he takes an almost completely objective approach to each situation.
Hey Chris and John.
That is good material for keeping a good outlook. We can see disasters, or what we deem as disasters, as opportunities. This would mean seeing a problem that causes us anguish as exactly what we needed. Then, it is the opportunity we have been waiting for. This is hard at the time, but anything good takes some mental effort.
That’s a good point also about missing opportunities when only focused on a specific goal. Yesterday I pointed out on my Twitter that I had missed various opportunities that had jumped in front of my face, and this would be the reason why. I maintain a bit more flexibility now.
Thanks for this real-world interview.
Thanks for this article. This is so much like how I think. I loved reading it. I wish more people thought this way. I’m sending it on to some of my friends.
Wow, I like his attitude. I am at a point in my life where I really don’t like my job, and would rather be doing something else. I realized that the only thing that is holding me back are my student loans. I face the worst thing comfort. I haven’t been in a life or death situation so I haven’t hit bottom yet. Its inspiring to see some guys actually having success working for themselves.
I read John’s story a few months ago and was really inspired by it.
I’ve seen other stories similar to John’s and been inspired by them as well. The common thread seems to be that all have built their businesses from nothing. They’ve come from nothing, realize that it’s not that scary, and take risks that could potentially send them back to it. However, the risks are calculated and tend to send them the other direction.
They let go of the fear of calculated risk and benefited tremendously from it.
John’s definitely the only one with a literal gun to his head, though. That certainly provides perspective.
He is a great artist in filling a product niche that people or businesses with alot of money have no clue how to do. Almost worthless scrap steel, cutting, welding and then sales- awesome. $129 for an empty chunk of propane tank base due to the art! Incredible- especially considering when someone can buy an entire portable cooking grill for $129- love it!
A disaster is often a blessing in disguise.
Hitting rock bottom means it can’t get worse, so every choice is an opportunity. It can be emotional, financial, physical. It snaps you out of a routine, forcing you to make a change: alter the way you’re approaching your values and your goals, or re-examine them to begin with.
Like what John said: “Any real disaster has some momentum, and if you can find a way to leverage that force, or turn it to your benefit, you may be able to accomplish a solution more quickly or easily. When my studio caved in, I was able to use the situation to find a solution that just wouldn’t have happened otherwise, and both the bank and I came out ahead the long run.”
Obviously, disasters suck. No one wants to willingly lose money, things, health, relationships. But sometimes a little destruction is the needed kick in the butt to initiate positive change in our lives
Thanks for introducing me to John Unger–I really like the way he thinks and his practical approach to the moments when the world falls down.
As an artist, I also love to hear that an artist is growing and thriving in this economy. I need beauty more that ever–maybe the rest of the world does too!
Thanks for turning us on to John T. Unger, artist of things and life. What came through for me is how we all would do well to approach our lives as artists. I loved reading this part:
“Finally, as an artist, I believe that almost nothing is impossible but many things are less than obvious. Ultimately, the solution to many problems is to approach from the side, or behind, or upside down or backwards.”
I am going to take another look at my own challenges in life and approach them as an artist. Thank you John, thank you Chris.
Wonderful article. I’ve been looking for artist success stories; this fits the bill perfectly.
A good friend (my husband) connected me to your blog. Thanks to you I connected to John’s today as well. Like many of the others who have commented above I am inspired by John’s and your words. And have had a few disasters of my own that have been turned into wonderful opportunities.
Disaster#1: LAYOFF in 2002 – turns into starting own design business, which is very success! This success allowed us to relocate to our hometown (to share in the lives of our family and friends)! We find a wonderful “modern retreat” with the intention of one day restoring it to its splendor.
Disaster#2: RAIN, RAIN AND MORE RAIN in 2008 – flat roof on garage fills with water during 3 hour ER trip with 6 year old son. Flood forces us to begin “remodel” with some additional funds from insurance company. Clean up work takes place June-August, remodeling stops when contractor fraud occurs.
Disaster#3: FIGHTING FOR OUR HOME – still trying to figure out the upside of this one, I know it is out there!
So much in today’s life is just ‘stuff’.
I lived in Africa for a couple of years which was a great way of finding out EXACTLY what is needed in life.
Go and take another look at Maslows Hierarchy of needs.
Then take yourself back to the beginning where there is nothing and start again without all the rubbish that modern life had ‘taught’ us that we need.
Need and want are not interchangeable!
Chris – I needed this today.
Everything happens for a reason. Something the Universe is hoping to teach. Experiences aren’t inherently good or bad, it’s just how you look at them, how you react. John proves this beautifully. And he creates beautifully too. Thanks for this interview Chris.
john’s so on point. obviously, the proof is in the pudding. my first disaster was failing out of my first university. 5 years later i was in grad school at oxford on a full ride. the idea that disaster has a certain momentum to it that can be redirected towards the achievement of a goal—i find this to be so so true. got chills reading that. if you can really internalize that what you perceive as a downward slide really is just ‘movement’, you can begin to manipulate it, harness it, and bring about change in your life.
“A job wasn’t gonna save me. It would just suck all the time and energy I needed to realize my dreams, while keeping me alive enough to resent it.” – WOW
This very sentiment is what has kept me going through some very difficult times, even facing financial devastation, to keep my business and passion alive.
What a fabulous, inspiring story from John T. Unger (I’m so glad he’s willing to share it and inspire/encourage so many others).
Thank you, Chris, for sharing it with us and going so far as to encourage readers to only read his story and not your blog if they’re pressed for time. YOUR blog always gets my time and attention almost as soon as it’s in. The time spent always seems worth it. Thank you! Truly.
When I first saw John’s fire pit sculptures, I was so excited! I knew there was something unique about the way he approached his art. Knowing now that he is a poet explains everything. These sculptures delight the senses but also have a soulful authenticity. They are timeless. John, I’m so glad you put down your pen and carved out this beautiful niche for yourself.
Thanks too for the advice about “redirecting an external force rather than meeting it with an attack.” I think I can use that advice for some smaller sticky stuff right now, not just for disasters.
Thanks Chris, for bringing John in today.
Great that John says one of the key things that kept him going and made him successful was practice. Psychologists have discovered that being persistent is actually more important when it comes to succeeding than intelligence or talent. I wrote an article about it here which might interest you.
Definitely a case of if at first you don’t succeed try try try again.
It is inspiring to see people succeed, especially after they have had a few failures and in the face of tough economic times. Thanks for sharing the story and for spurring all of us on to keep at it:)
I love the article and the comments. I have always felt that the true free spirits left in the country belong to the entrepreneur because they put it on the line. I heard a line a while back that on the other side of fear is freedom. How true.While doing a building inspection the owner told me I should be in business for myself. I said I wanted to wait for the right time. He told me going on my own was like having kids. If you wait for the right time you will never have kids. He by came he came here fifteen years ago and has twenty million in property and business. Thanks
Great article. Take time to reflect on your core values and make the changes to reach for your dreams. Practice opportunity looking all the time. How could that be better, easier,faster, etc?
“The only way you can tell the difference between disaster and opportunity is to decide to make an opportunity out of every event.”
I love it, and agree with Colin at post number 1…very stoic. His story is inspiring and keeps me fueled…every catastrophe or disaster, or failed project just makes you that much more prepared. Eventually there’s a catalyst.
It’s an incredibly inspirational story, thanks for sharing!
There are two things it really makes me think about:
1. I love reading stories about people who do what they love and earn a living from it. It gives me hope that, someday, I can be that lucky too and earn a living writing and taking photographs of cars.
2. It’s a lot easier to make huge life changes or take “big” risks when an external force creates the opportunity. It’s much, much harder when you feel like you’d have to put yourself in that situation. (For me, I’m very much so debating quitting my job, without having another lined up. Just because I know I’d find a way to make it work, if I had to. Comfort is my enemy right now.)
It was really cool to get an inside look behind John’s thought process and the way he approaches unpleasant situations. I think that’s what really makes the difference. Not what happens to you, but how you “happen” to it.
This is an awesome story. With hindsight I have been able to see the silver lining of every major catastrophe I have experienced. This is an inspiration to start consciously making silver linings when disaster strikes. Cheers!
Wow – love the analogy of Tai Chi. Haven’t really thought about that way before, but what a useful way to look at an ‘unfavorable’ event – by asking the question “how can I take the momentum of this and use it to my advantage in a positive way?” Like the ancient wisdom of “don’t resist a force. yield to overcome” Good stuff. Thanks for posting the interview.
This article was perfectly timed. I’m in the midst of reinventing/rebranding myself, facing what would seem an impossible obstacle. But the very obstacle (debt and a client base that no longer exists) is becoming the catalyst to think big, think differently, and not be attached to results. As John said, “The next step is to see if there is some way to leverage the force of the disaster itself to provide a solution… Any real disaster has some momentum, and if you can find a way to leverage that force, or turn it to your benefit, you may be able to accomplish a solution more quickly or easily.” Sometimes that redirection leads to an idea larger than you had previously dared dream. My father was laid off from Boeing during the big layoffs in the early 70s. He took early retirement and built his own marine woodworking business when there was a 14% unemployment rate in Seattle, and never looked back. He was still happy working his business 30 years later, in his 80s.
Article and comments are all very inspiring! I went over and signed up for John’s newsletter, too. Great, great stuff!
I’m in a difficult position right now. It’s not comfort that’s my enemy–I have responsibilities (which I’ve chosen) which keep me a bit chained down. That said, I am working on my goals and building my own venture on the side. I’m taking it slowly, but I hope that one day I, too, can free myself and make money from my creative ventures.
Eyes on the prize, as always!
My favorite part of John’s article was where he talked about his past as a poet and how he brings that to his visual art. I SO relate to that, as I am both a poet and a visual artist. I completely got it, and it was beautiful.
(I love his work, too!)
Thank you Chris.
I read the interview and then went over to John’s page. Great stuff, very inspiring.
These two quotes stick in my mind and have been stuck up on my wall:
“It’s only life and death, it’s always only life and death”
“A job wasn’t gonna save me. It would just suck all the time and energy I needed to realize my dreams, while keeping me alive enough to resent it.”
What a fantastic attitude John displays.
It’s our response to a situation that defines the outcome not the situation itself.
Great reading here, both the interview and the article.
While it wasn’t as extreme as having a gun held to my head, I had a similar revelation a little over a year ago. I was working a meaningless job just to make ends meet. One day I managed to break my foot by stepping on a curb (don’t ask, I still don’t understand it).
During the month I spent immobilized, I realized I was just marking time, wasting my energy trying to make a buck. If I didn’t quit, that job would ultimately break more than just my foot.
The decision to quit wasn’t easy, but it was one of the best one I’ve ever made.
This is an inspiring article. I too am a working artist trying to make a living. I hope to use this article as lesson and influence. Keep up the good work.
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