Wednesday, June 4, 2014

A Professional Kid

 Work and play are words used to describe the same thing under differing conditions.
-Mark Twain

We’ve all heard perky little motivational quotes like “love what you do, do what you love” or “treat work like play. But how many people actually live by that advice? According to the Gallup 2013 State of the American Workplace Survey, 70% of American workers either hate their jobs or admit they are totally disengaged.

World-renowned artist Sean Kenney once fell into that grim majority. The man, who the New York Times calls the “artistic elite of LEGO-building,” worked as a cartoonist, illustrator and web designer for ten years before following his passion that began in childhood. Kenney, who calls himself a “professional kid,” says he was daydreaming about his favorite pastime one day when he symbolically tore off his tie and “just like that” walked out on a sterile desk job. Ten years later, Kenney is the author of several children’s books and his commissioned LEGO creations are in corporate headquarters, galleries and traveling exhibits around the world.

I caught Kenney’s mind-blowing “Nature Connects” exhibit at the Naples Botanical Gardens this past spring. Any guy who keeps two and half million LEGO bricks in his New York studio and tells people with a straight face that he is still 12-years old is my “kidness” hero and a perfect muse for this month’s blog focus on childlike playfulness. Kenney was kind enough to respond to my interview request while anxiously awaiting the overdue birth of his second child. Thanks and congratulations Sean Kenney!

You describe daydreaming and literally walking out of your office one day to follow your dreams. Do you think your practice of continuing to play through out the years contributed to your courageous leap of faith?

Everyone certainly has the context of work=boring, hobby=fun, so I wonder why I decided to take this leap, when others are simply fine leaving their hobby as their hobby?  We don't find every model railroader, garage musician, and hot rod enthusiast eagerly stomping out of the office, yet we seem to always cheer on any that do.  I always get very excited when I learn that a friend is leaving the office to open their own bakery or the like. 

I never had that moment where I walked off the job and said "forget all this, I'm going to make my hobby my career."  Perhaps I was too scared of the myriad of pitfalls that would await?  When I left my job behind, I felt like I was simply leaving one employer and that I'd find myself at another similar one. I was just leaving a job I didn't like.  In the ensuing years as I continued building my LEGO models for fun and profit, I still referred to myself as "unemployed" not "self employed" and still considered the hobby just something I was doing to pass the time.   Albeit, I was already getting commissions here & there, and I saw the potential for the business to grow, but I didn't feel like it was already "there".  Perhaps just the cautiousness in me, but it wasn't until two or three years later that I decided, "yes, this is my job" and fully got over the mental hump of my old career and the idea that I needed a regular job to make ends meet.  

Was that the first time you attempted to make a career change to "professional kid" or were
there other baby steps along the way? Can you describe some of the obstacles in making that change?

I think baby steps are safer and less daunting.  The scariest obstacle in my mind was financial; you'll never have enough work at your side job to be making as much as your day job, which makes taking the plunge a real leap of faith.  Not only did I get paid a lot more per hour/day/year to sit in an office, but I was working more hours at the day job as well.  This "double whammy" causes the hobby-job to seem like an insignificant amount of revenue compared to the day-job, and to appear like either a frivolity or an imprudent career switch.  

But I recall a conversation I had with my wife (girlfriend at the time) about this.  She obviously could see that which I was too close to realize: that I needed to follow my dreams because it was the right path for me as a person.  She gave me her moral support and told me, "just try it! What's the worst that happens?" It took me years to realize what my wife obviously saw in me at the time: My unhappiness at work. My true nature as a creator of things. My desire for freedom.  

The mental hurdle that I mentioned earlier was probably the other major obstacle, but I didn't even realize it was there until I wrote this (ten years later).  That's pretty significant and something I'll need to ponder some more.  

Once I began down this path, I certainly faced obstacles, plenty you'd find with any self-employed venture.  But unique to my line of work was overcoming the image of a hobbyist, someone who was not serious or professional:  "Play" does not seem like work, and therefore it's hard to justify getting your client to pay for it. It's important to note, I suppose, that constructing something on commission or with an otherwise similar end goal in mind is not play, per se, but rather it's design and creation.  How is designing a LEGO model any different than designing a skyscraper or the score for a movie?   I've met plenty more "professional kids" in my travels: A man who has does nothing but take photographs of Muppets and Sesame Street for thirty five years

To that end, I also suffer (still) with client education on the realities of how expensive it is to create custom LEGO sculptures. It stems from the "how hard can it be, anyone can do LEGO", and we are routinely approached by clients ranging from architecture firms to moms that tried first and realized they needed to call in a professional. (I suppose the same could be said of industries like auto repair or home renovation, where the process of creating something commonplace is more complicated than the end result would imply.).  We still get myriad absurd requests for projects with no budget or appropriate schedule, most of which are great for a laugh, but in the beginning this wasn't funny: it was difficult and frustrating because not enough work was coming in.  This week a request came in to " build something creative and abstract with 1 million LEGO pieces that we can auction off for charity next month", which of course would have a quarter million dollars of LEGO, take 4.8 years to create, and would occupy a footprint the size of a house, but I digress.

As a parent, how important is it to encourage play as serious business? How was your love of play nurtured?

My daughter is three and half and we have another due any day now, so on the parenting side we haven't gotten into the world of careers and employment yet.  But I find that nearly every life-lesson that comes out of my mouth when raising my daughter is influenced by my decision to leave the desk job behind. When she's coloring and wants to make the sky purple with green splots, I gleefully encourage her go right ahead.  I'll count for her "uno, two, triangle, four, δΊ” ..." she calls me silly but is probably making much better mental pathways by drawing her own connections.

I try to avoid saying "no" as a parent when teaching things.  (Disciplining, of course, gets a heck of a lot of NO NO NOs).  But I think "incorrect" is a bad thing to say to a kid.  I'm honestly more curious why my daughter came to a particular conclusion, rather than that the conclusion was wrong. Because the way she learns fascinates me and it teaches me how to teach her better.

I know that I won't ever force the "go get a good job" mantra on her, but by the same token I don't want my personal preferences to taint her own.. what if she just really wants to be an accountant at a major financial firm?  Ok, sure.  But in the meantime seeing her now, I try to encourage her creative tendencies as much as possible...  She's got a great natural sense of rhythm and an ear for identifying music and song.  She loves to color and draw.  So like any good parent I'll toss as much at her as I can and see what sticks.  

Any advice for grown ups who don't remember what it is like to play or who think that work

and play have to be mutually exclusive?

It's funny that we denounce playfulness as being "childish", and not simply "child-like".  I think the latter is seriously lacking in adulthood.  There's nothing wrong with mulling around on an idea, or sleeping on it, or bouncing something off someone.  It's giving your brain an unstructured way to get your thoughts together on something.  It's messing around with an idea until you get it right.  That's play.   Why do we fear making mistakes?  Our system of education is to penalize errors, but ironically we learn a lot more from mistakes than from being right.   I encourage risk-taking and mistake-making at my studio so long as we do them in a controlled and recoverable way.  (Save a copy first.  Don't glue that yet.  Undo!  Make two and let's look at them both.  That's probably not strong enough so let's reinforce it this-and-that way.)  

I also try to actively encourage creative growth in my staff of assistants.  Everyone on my team is an artist in their own right - painters, sculptors, musicians, animators, etc - and I know they weren't put on this earth to build LEGO sculptures for me.  I make sure to give their work a priority... many will take multi-month sabbaticals for an artist's retreat or a personal project, or a week off to install a gallery show, etc.   Everyone's is different, but for example one of my senior designers is the kind of person that needs lots of unstructured time to go deep into her head and to create, so she works four nine-hour days each week instead of five 8 hour days...  This gives her longer chunks of time at my studio to explore her designs more deeply and also a free day each week to spend at her own painting studio.

For more information on Sean Kenney’s brilliant work or to find an exhibit near you, visit

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