Three Lessons on Putting Yourself Out There: Mudra Dance Studio

When you take a risk and try something new, you never know where it will lead. That’s what makes it a risk, I guess! In my experience, quite often, taking a leap has led to significant, unforgettable experiences and lifelong relationships.

In 2004 I was just starting my Digital Design program and one of my teachers (Michelle Carpenter, who is still an inspiration to me today), urged our class to do some design work for a non-profit. Her rationale was that many non-profits can benefit greatly from some free, good quality design work because of limited marketing budgets. She also said it was a great way to build up your portfolio – especially if it’s for a cause that inspires you.

I never had any involvement with the Indian community in Colorado, but I saw Mudra Dance Studio (MDS) perform one of their shows, and instantly felt a connection. I sent an email to their founder, Namita Khanna Nariani, and explained I wanted to help them with their design work. I was a young, fresh-faced, 20-year-old design student in the middle of my design program.

I never heard back from her, but fortunately I bumped into her at a party and I took the opportunity to bring it up in person. I let her know a bit about my background and suggested that perhaps I could help with some visual work. She agreed and suggested I could help with flyers.

What began with a single flyer has turned into much more than I imagined: late night photography sessions, countless videos, video mapping, playing the bass guitar, having a role in some fantastic productions, and making friends for life. This May will mark 15 years that I have been working with MDS, and aside from getting involved in the community and making new friends, there are other valuable lessons I have learned along the way.

First Flyer in 2004 (Ouch!)

The first is about creativity. Creativity is like a muscle that needs working out.  The more creative outlets you have, the more it energizes other parts of your life. Engaging in artistic work with no expectations helps build that creative “muscle”.  Yes, you can complete the project to the best of your ability, given your limited time and capacity, but still, there is a voice in your head that says, “That sucks, you can do better than that. How can I push myself to make the project better?”

I also learned a lot about collaboration and navigating relationships. Working with MDS also introduced me to the challenge and the joy of collaborating with a diverse group of people. The dancers’ ages range from 3-60 years old and they come from a variety of different backgrounds. It forced me to relate to different people and to work together to get things done. Since MDS is a non-profit, many of the people aren’t getting paid, but they want to help. In this context, there are no hard and fast rules like in a business, you just have to make it work. It’s important to treat each other with respect otherwise, friction can easily build up and start to drive people away from the organization. It’s a valuable experience that pays off when you start your career!

Lastly, I learned that the skills and experience paid off in my career too. When I was in the process of applying for jobs, the time I spent working for the dance studio was often a topic that came up during interviews. Besides being intrigued by some of the projects, many people that interviewed me felt it made me a more well-rounded candidate. I’m not just a guy who wants to clock in and clock out. I have hobbies, and my involvement with MDS revealed a part of my personality that showed real conviction and a sense of responsibility. If you commit to something, I believe that you should follow through regardless of payment.

If you are a young designer/artist, please don’t misinterpret what I’m saying. I’m not advocating that you should take on free work solely for learning and picking up some skills. You should value your time. It’s entirely up to you what you want to charge (or not) for it. I’m saying put yourself out there. Explore activities connected to your craft and personal cause. It can lead to some amazing experiences. You can be part of something bigger than yourself.

What started out as a casual email inquiry to a non-profit dance studio, grew into much more. My daughter now dances for the studio. My nephew is fully involved with the creative side of the organization. I was able to throw myself into learning many different skills that were foreign to me, all because of MDS.  Not only have I developed creatively, but I have also developed a great friendship with Namita. During times of crises, Namita is one of the first people I call. There are no formalities – we are all a family. If you take a chance and put yourself out there, it could shape your work, your character and your life forever.

Shawn Herbert
info@shawnherbertdesign.com