186 The Art of Play in Entrepreneurship: Aydika James on Innovating for Social Good

Aydika James is an entrepreneur, artist and innovator who combines her talents to innovate for social good. Founder of Secret Samurai Productions, Aydika combines art, play, psychology, technology and more to create mobile marketing vehicles – including some incredible “art cars” at Burning Man through to epic social impact works like the transformation of an old WW2 ship into a giant sculptural “Art Reef” eco-dive site in the British Virgin Islands. We talk about what to do when we feel blocked, experience self-doubt or hold ourselves to impossible standards.

Melinda Wittstock:              Welcome to WINGS, Aydika.

Aydika James:                   Hi, Melinda. Thanks. It’s great to be here.

Melinda Wittstock:         Oh, it’s great to have you. I am so excited to hear what’s inspiring you in your life right now.

Aydika James:                   Oh, my goodness. I think honestly just being inspired is the first thing that inspires me. It feels really good. I think anybody who’s on any kind of journey, but especially when you a creator, you’re an entrepreneur, chances are there’s some period in your life that you just feel stuck. I don’t know. Maybe I’m just speaking for myself and some people I know, but there’s definitely been some periods where I felt like I lost my mojo and the stuff that used to really get me hot and bothered just wasn’t doing it anymore. I felt dead. That’s one of the worst feelings on the planet for someone who’s a creator because you’re naturally a really passionate person.

I think that’s just part of a growth process and when you grow out of something there’s this weird, funky, awkward period in between. I think I’m past it enough because I’m exhausted with all the excitement that I have with all the stuff I’m working on. It just feels really good to be inspired.

Melinda Wittstock:         That’s wonderful. I know we’re both big fans of Ping Fu who was on this podcast, inventing 3D printing among other things that she’s done in her life. She once told me that the problem with climbing to the top of the mountain is that there’s only one view and you have to come back down again so you’re able to go up to the next one.

Melinda Wittstock:         This is just part of the creative process, but what’s really tricky is when you’re in that funk and stuck, it’s sometimes easy to lose perspective. You think, “Oh, God. This is it,” without remembering that you will come out of it at the right time when you’re ready to take that next leap.

Aydika James:                   Yeah. Yeah. I think it’s also it’s easy to get caught in being really serious when you’re in those funks and really hard on yourself. What’s wrong with me? Why am I not motivated? What happens when you’re not excited about what you’re working on? Well, for me I get lazy. I procrastinate more than I normally do. I don’t perform well because I’m just not into it. Not knowing what excites you when you know you have so much horsepower can be really, really frustrating. I think that’s a time to surrender and just be in the gap for a little bit.

I think if someone had told me that this was just part of the process the first couple times around, it would have helped a lot. It would have helped remove that, “What’s wrong with me? Where did my mojo go? Am I not as talented as I used to be?” It really is just part of a growth process and I think it’s uncomfortable for a reason. The reason is because there’s something else that’s trying to merge. What you were doing before, you’re done with that. Just like what Ping Fu said, you completed that even if it doesn’t look like what your version of complete was going to look like. Something in you was done and it’s ready to move on.

Melinda Wittstock:         Absolutely. I love that. Be inspired by being inspired is great. So, what’s challenging you right now? Is there anything in your life that’s tricky? All of us women who are ‘entrepioneering’ – there is always something!

Aydika James:                   Oh, no. I’ve got this down. Nothing bothers me.

Melinda Wittstock:         You’ve got this.

Aydika James:                   Oh, man. A big one is … It’s just self-doubt. I’m like, “When am I going to grow up and stop having these little fear moments?” Entrepreneurs, you basically just signed up for the ride of … You’re going to be a little bit manic. You’re going to go through periods where you’re like, “I’m the man. I’ve got this.” Then, something happens that’s incredibly humbling.

I catch myself going from total confidence and calm to getting really excited about what I’m doing and feeling okay with stumbling through it to one little thing. It will get in my head and it will really upset me. It will cause anxiety. It’s all about this self-doubt. Am I good enough? Did I produce that well? I think it’s hard when sometimes what we see in our head is so perfect and so grand and that in itself can be one of my frustrations.

Taking a big vision that’s in your head that has a lot of interconnecting dots and really fully understanding it and trying to find a way to communicate that to the world around you. Especially when you’re in the beginning of a project or you’re in the ideation stage and you’re looking to communicate this to locate the right partners. I wish I would just have a mind-meld sometimes and just go, “Here’s the big picture.” There’s so many different ways that that can be expressed visually, in writing, speaking.

Aydika James:                   Half the time I go through the self-doubt loops, and they have been less and less I would say as I’ve gotten older and stumbled enough and gotten back up again. I would say at least half the time I think something was horrible and then I get some feedback later and someone’s like, “Oh, my God. That was amazing. That was the perfect amount of information. That was exactly what we needed,” or whatever it was. So, so much of this is in our heads.

Melinda Wittstock:         I’m the same. I just realized the older I get, the more I realize, “God, it’s entirely of my own making,” that inner talk or that inner self-critic. If a person came up to you and said the same things to you, you’d slug them. Yet, we accept this stuff from ourselves. It’s like the weirdest thing. You wouldn’t allow your worst enemy to say some of the things. It’s so funny how we do that.

When I find myself doing that thinking, “Oh, God. What was it that triggered that? Okay, here’s an opportunity to let all that go ’cause whatever it is, whatever the emotion is, whatever the memories are, the thought pattern, or something that happened to me when I was four, whatever that is, I was going to let that go.

Aydika James:                   A lot of what we’re talking about is some form of perfectionism. This is a topic that when I’m talking with women in general, I feel like this is one that comes up a lot. Especially recently when we’re just trying to be a lot nicer to ourselves.

I was moaning about this to an amazing mentor of mine who always seems to have the right refrain. She said something so interesting to me and that was, “What is your relationship with perfectionism because it sounds like … We all know that there are a lot of assets to perfectionism, but it’s really not perfectionism itself that is so difficult for us. It’s the attachment to it. When you break it apart, what are the healthy things about perfectionism? It brings us vision and clarity and optimization and beauty and this vision of what could be the most amazing whatever possible. That’s wonderful to have that kind of vision and to have the desire to make something as amazing as possible. It’s the attachment to that outcome that’s the misery point.”

Aydika James:                   We all know nobody’s perfect anyway, so why would they expect that of ourselves? All these voices in our heads it’s also an opinion. The fact that it’s coming from you doesn’t mean it’s not an opinion. You know it’s an opinion when you step back. I’m not perfect. I don’t know you people, but I can tell you, you’re not perfect. Even if you were, I would probably find you totally un-relatable, which would mean you’d be a very lonely person ’cause no one would relate to you.

So much of this is just reframing things instead of trying to eradicate them from our lives. They’re there for a reason and we can laugh at them, we can work with them, or we can fight them.

Melinda Wittstock:         Right. I love that. In a way, you segued so beautifully into the advice portion of this. I’m going to ask you for your top three go-to pieces of advice, but I’m also going to include in that dis-attach from that perfectionism. Brilliantly said.

What are the top three things that you wish perhaps you’d had this advice starting out as an entrepreneur that you would give to other women now?

Aydika James:                   The first thing that I had thought about before was finding the right mentors. I think we all naturally do that though. I’ve been looking for my Mr. Miyagi forever and I have found some amazing mentors. It took me a long time, but people who really live what they teach and they’re amazing because they can help me reframe and that’s been incredible.

I think a thing that’s not the obvious that I’m realizing now is I think something that at least I do very often and it happens as you start to take on bigger and bigger types of projects is we can easily get stuck in serious and we forget to play. Having some kind of reminder, a physical reminder, telling everybody around you, your partner, your friends, “Man, “catch me when I’m getting too serious. because we don’t think that clearly when we get tunnel vision. That’s what happens when you get serious.

Find ways to bring play in your life. Find ways to make things light. So much of what we do, again, it’s just framing. Simple example, I am a lot cleaner around the house than my partner, Mike. We just have different standards. He likes his messes and I really don’t like the messes. Sometimes I’ll get really upset and I’ll be like, “Man, Mike, can you please at least put your dish in the sink just once for me?” I’m going about my day and I’m not even thinking about it and I have that reaction. Now, I’m in the emotion of being really frustrated with him. Of course, that’s not fun for him.

Then, a friend of mine actually she said, “You know what my trick is? I put everything in a song.” So, it would be, “Hey, Mike. I’d love you to put the dish in the sink,” or just something goofy. I made myself do that at one point when I was even still feeling annoyed with him. Just the act of doing it, I started laughing as I was doing it and it was a ridiculous song and it was so ill-placed. He busted out laughing and then it was a non-issue and he actually put the dish in the sink.

Melinda Wittstock:         Ah, nice.

Aydika James:                   [crosstalk 00:12:34].

Melinda Wittstock:         Yeah. How interesting that applied to business though or applied to your team or your culture.

Aydika James:                   Mm-hmm. Especially with teams.

Melinda Wittstock:         Right, especially with teams because we can all get serious and it can start to feel like work. However, if you’re creating in that light … I love the word … You used the word lightness. When you’re creating in that joy and play, things align or just manifest better.

Aydika James:                   Mm-hmm. Yeah, I think we’re more open to different ideas than what was in our head too. When you’re just playing with things, it keeps your mind high and light, it keeps the energy high and light, and you notice things in different ways or you notice what’s not as important.

Aydika James:                   I have a little alter ego that you got a little taste of at the last Maverick event. It’s this totally politically incorrect Asian lady, and I can pull that card because I’m half Japanese, but she says the most inappropriate things in my head all the time. She cracks me up. She’s somebody that I’ve shoved down for a while until recently where … Her name’s China Girl and I have this little phrase in my head when I catch myself being serious and that is, “What would China Girl do?” Because she just does really goofy things. She helps me stay light.

If there’s some goofy character in your head or if there’s anything that just makes you giggle, it’s great to have physical reminders of you around until it can start to become and you have it. Just tell as many people as possible, “Hey, catch me when I get too serious ’cause I don’t think clearly. Life’s not fun.” Honestly, when things aren’t fun, why do it?

Melinda Wittstock:         Exactly. Well, I witnessed personally China Girl. You were a judge at the Great Green Gong Show at Camp Maverick. For those of you who don’t know, Maverick it’s a really cool organization of high-performing entrepreneurs and there’s a summer camp for entrepreneurs. Aydika, you were hilarious. You were so-

Aydika James:                   I’m glad you thought so.

Melinda Wittstock:         … funny. My face hurt. I was laughing so hard. It was great and it was such an interesting … Just that lightness and play and innovating or … What’s the word I’m looking for? Improvisation, on the spot. It was amazing.

You’re giving such great advice. We’ve got mentoring. We’ve got dis-attach from perfectionism. We’ve got don’t get stuck in serious and play. I’m going to ask you for one more.

Aydika James:                   One is another reframe and that’s fear. We all face fear when we’re heading into something new and heading into something new is what you do when you’re an entrepreneur. Laurie Gentempo who’s a great mentor of mine, she replaces the word fear with initiation.

I love that because it’s now something I’m stepping into and it’s an opt-in. It speaks to that there’s something past this. Literally any time I’m saying that I’m afraid of something or I’m feeling afraid of something, just looking at it as an initiation, it takes away the chemical emotion of fear and it just makes it something you’re learning. I love that.

The other thing is again, something that I’ve been watching play out in my own life that was something that a mentor said. It was related to when I was stuck and I was looking at a lot of different things that I should be good at, different types of creation, different types of project management. I felt like I was going in these circles and I was just chasing something that I should be good at but I couldn’t get past that mark. I couldn’t really turn it into a business. She said, “Maybe if you’re struggling with what you think you should be good at, you can look at the fact that maybe these are pieces of your highest calling, but that’s not your highest calling. That’s why none of them are working out.”

That was really fascinating to me because what I had really come to love is an amalgamation of all the different individual pieces that I had been doing before. That’s creating, producing, and directing. I grew up doing that as a kid and I didn’t think about it. Then, I focused so much on art and performance and writing and developing a business and all these different things that were some piece of producing and directing, but they were just a piece of a bigger picture.

Melinda Wittstock:         Beautiful. So, Aydika, how can people find you and work with you?

Aydika James:                   Well, you can go to our website, secretsamuraiproductions.com. There’s a little intake form. We generally do wacky, crazy projects. Lot of them are in the philanthropic space. Some of them are private works that tell the stories of people’s lives, but generally do a lot of story-sharing type pieces and what we call impact art and engagement art. The type of work that makes people relate to themselves and each other differently. That can be used in commercial application or in private pieces. If there’s something that you’re wanting to express or to share or message that you’re looking to rally a crowd around but you’re not exactly sure what medium that should take, that’s the kind of stuff that’s our candy.

Melinda Wittstock:         Wonderful. Well, thank you so much for putting on your wings and flying with us.

Aydika James:                   Yeah, thanks for having me. I love your podcast and I’m honored to be here.

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