THE BRAZEN CAREERIST- Joker's wild: Dilettantism moves you forward

Did you ever notice that most Starbucks have art on the wall? In hyper-competitive New York City, the waiting list for putting art on the wall at Starbucks was two years. I signed up anyway.

I know, you're thinking, Penelope was an artist? The answer is, sort of: paint and collage. Every once in a while, someone would say, "Do you sell those?" and I'd say, "Okay, yeah, I'll sell one." And then I'd think, Well, in that case, then I'm an artist.

So I did what other artists do when they're beginning. I put my name on the list to put my art on the walls at Starbucks. And a long time later, there was a message on my voicemail from the manager of Starbucks asking when I would hang my art.

The answer: never.

There are two ways to do art: by yourself, in your home, for no one but you, or in public, to be a rip-roaring success. I wanted the second. I tried to want the first, but I keep wondering how well I could do if I tried really hard. And then I thought, If you're going to be a critical success, you probably don't want to be known as the person hanging her stuff in Starbucks. Starbucks is for dilettantes.

I think I was a dilettante five years ago, when I put my name on the list. But during the two years it took to get my name to the top of the list, I decided I wanted to be more serious. I had started calling my art "collage," and I glued stuff back on when it fell off instead of just throwing it out. I recognized that people who are serious don't let high school kids pick at their paintings in the back corner of a coffee shop.

It's embarrassing when you're on the cusp of dilettantism, but you want to be taken seriously. You still look like a joker, but it's an extreme joker because you no longer want to admit to being a joker.

I remember the point when I decided I was a serious writer: I reorganized the folders on my desktop so that the Writing folder was inside my Work folder instead of below it. But I didn't do that until I had been supporting myself writing for more than a year. It's a big step to take yourself seriously. The move away from dilettantism is slow– and nervous. Today all I can muster in the art department is to tell Starbucks no.

But I know it's a step in the right direction because research conducted by Herminia Ibarra, a professor of organizational behavior, shows that the most effective way make a serious move in your life is to do it in a not-so-serious way. It's more effective to try something out for a few hours a week. That way, if you don't like your new self, you can go back to your old self. And if you like the two hours, try two more. Or maybe use your vacation time to test out your new self.

I did that. I told myself I was an artist, and I set aside a week to pretend I was an artist full time. This is what happened: I wrote. I'm a writer, not a visual artist. But still, I like the idea of doing art. I just have to figure out how it fits into my life. So I'm taking the advice of Ibarra and imagining myself in different situations until I find one that fits.

Change in one's life does not require a career change. In fact, a career change should be last after you experiment with small steps to find out who you really are. That's how I found out, again, that I'm a writer.