February 22, 2017

It wasn’t hot, and it wasn’t cold. The sky wasn’t sunny, but it wasn’t dark. The street was quiet, and a shade of gray surrounded us as we sat on Main Street. Ruben wore a black pea coat. His clean-shaven face matched his polished jeans. I sat across from him in all black and matching high-tops – the typical tech uniform.

As a fangirl of Beautify Earth, I wanted to interview him for a blog post about co-founding the organization and the murals that he painted as part of it. I awkwardly asked questions before taking equally awkward photos in front of his “You’re Beautiful” mural.

“Are you going to work now?” Ruben asked as I folded up my tripod. “And what do you do again?”

“Yep, Software Product Manager.”

He seemed surprised, even slightly disappointed. Since meeting at Crossfit, he knew me only as a writer. The creative type.

However, there wasn’t much time to discuss it. Ruben had financial planning meetings with clients, and I was off to document product specs before I could dedicate any time to writing the blog post. We both went our respective ways. The sky was still a muted shade of gray, and, like the sun, our creative pursuits would have to wait.

August 21, 2018

“There was obviously a lot of fear involved. I didn’t know what an artist life looked like,” Ruben said.

His backwards baseball cap pushed back unruly hair and pieces of cantaloupe brushed past his burly mustache as we sat on his patio in the sunshine on a Tuesday at 10am. Paint cans covered the small space in the same way that their bold colors decorated Ruben’s ripped jeans. Cold kombucha quenched my thirst following a bike ride in the warm heat, and we were surrounded by the sound of jackhammers and traffic, the soundtrack to LA.

In the bright daylight I could clearly see what the artist life looked like. Within the past year, Ruben had become a shining example.

“I basically started self-sabotaging,” Ruben said. “Strategic self-sabotaging.”

For the rest of 2017, Ruben teetered the line between careers: half in on his art and half out of finance. In a subconscious effort to prove his path, he sought new finance business less. But still partially in, Ruben found himself unhappy and questioning many things. In other aspects of his life he went full-force, from a daily weight training regiment to soon marrying the love of his life. Why couldn’t his career be that way?

Then, one day, at the end of the year, Ruben just stopped going into the office.

“Ultimately, I wrote something, and it’s based on living half in, half out,” Ruben said. It was the inspiration behind his decision to ultimately go all-in on the artist life as well.

As he searched his iPhone for the exact words of the poem, I thought about my life at the moment, as well as what initially led to this discussion. A few weeks prior, I asked him to connect me with anyone he knew with a story. In the middle of Instagram messages and 3-way texts to his friends, there was an all-hands meeting at work. Devastating news was delivered.

“Also, do you know anyone hiring?” I texted Ruben immediately after. He told me to send him my resumé, along with the follow-up question that I knew was coming.

“And, also, is this what you really want to do?” I told him the conversation would need to be another time. And that time was now the present.

“I need that poem right now,” I said. “I’m so half in, half out in a lot of ways.” Not only did I feel only half in on my career path, the person who I was dating felt half out. The resulting stress gripped each part of my day. Walking the tightrope between the two caused a tension within me as I struggled to maintain my footing and desperately sought solid ground.

“That comes with uncertainty and fear,” Ruben said as he glanced up from his phone. “But that’s when I was like, ‘Look, I’ve never had an issue of living in abundance.’ So, I had no real reason to be afraid.”

The Problem with Lukewarm

Half in, half out
Lukewarm, more cold
Love is all in, boiling hot
Fuck all the bullshit
You love or you don’t…

In his poem, his art, and his life, Ruben uses the word “love” to describe all things good. “I believe life is love or fear,” Ruben said. “If you go at anything in love, you’re on the right track.”

The words echoed through my thoughts as we stood side-by-side atop a lift at Beverly Connection the next day. Layering pink paint onto the large wall between HomeGoods and TJMaxx felt therapeutic as each stroke created beauty that didn’t exist before. On a typical Wednesday afternoon, I would have regularly been seated in a generic office chair, typing product specs under fluorescent lights and waiting on the next appropriate snack time and/or text from a guy. I much preferred Ruben’s workspace instead.

“When I stopped going to the office, I started making the world my office,” Ruben said. Each day looks a little different for him now. Many days are spent creating art, others involve catching up on emails, and yet, some days allow just enough downtime to welcome the question: “What the hell am I doing?”

Not to mention, many of Ruben’s projects are pro bono. How could he confidently go all-in on something whose ROI was uncertain? And perhaps non-existent?  

These questions would be enough for most people to move towards a more stable path. Enough to allow the heat to cool and settle for lukewarm. Besides, lukewarm guarantees that you won’t get burned. Your moments feel protected under the guise of predictability. Living half in might be boring, but it avoids falling completely out of control. So what is so wrong with it?

“You just can’t do it. You can’t live half in, half out and assume that you’re giving your all to both sides – that applies to work, relationships, fitness, whatever you’re doing,” Ruben explained. “Half in, half out just rips you apart, and you’re going to be mediocre.”

Set Your Heart on Fire

Fuck your fears
Take a risk
Be love, be free
Let it guide you
Be proud of your love
It sets your heart on fire
Love is fucking alive.

The poetry. Ruben’s “Love” hat. Painted sneakers. The panda on his living room wall. The vintage truck that carries his supplies. Die-cut stickers. Wall art that spreads love from San Antonio patrons to Mississippi school children to prisoners in Lancaster, CA.

In most ways, Ruben is still the same friend who I met a year and a half ago. However, in the absence of Ruben the Financial Advisor is an outpouring of Ruben the Artist. By stepping fully into his creative side, his life is doused in meaning and love. One full of abundance. It’s a life I knew was possible but one in which is still hard to believe.

“At the end of the day, we don’t have crystal balls so we don’t know the ROI on anything,” Ruben said. “I’m a big believer in the long-play and just trusting in your vision. Something inside me was guiding me to do this, which is also what helped me take the leap.”

Sometimes we’re forced to take the leap because of a layoff or break-up, and yet, other times there is something inside us that is so uneasy with the mediocrity, so fed up with moments that don’t feel right, that it finally kicks and screams. It’s the internal voice who knows that when the water in the tub turns room temperature, it’s time to get out. It’s the heart that isn’t satisfied for long by smoldering ashes and longs for fiery flames.

“Life is now. It’s never the right time until you make it the right time,” Ruben said. “You’re given a finite amount of time on this planet. You’re given a set of tools. And it’s your job to figure out how to best use your set of tools to create impact in this world. Whatever it is.”

Create Your Moments

As we stood atop the lift again on the second day of painting, a woman yelled out, “Thank you!”

“Thank you!” Ruben called back over his shoulder.

Each paint stroke that I witnessed over the two days was as intentional and as meticulous as I imagined his client’s financial spreadsheets used to be. When Ruben said in the last blog post that everything he does is with love, I could see it. And it was exactly what I needed in those moments.

Somehow I had begun to believe that a boring job would save my creativity, storing it all away in a vault for my personal use on the side. Along the way, I started to think that a quiet relationship calmed my nervous energy, and I bought into the “love is boring” theory to the point that I accepted awkward, mediocre moments as a part of normalcy.

However, witnessing the transformation in Ruben – in all aspects of his life – has taught me that my inner voice was perhaps right all along and that certain friends will hear it even when you don’t.

I still don’t know exactly when I will be able to go all in on my creative ambitions in the same way that Ruben has, even though he has provided me with plenty of ideas. Perhaps, you’re still struggling to understand exactly what your path and timeline will be, as well. But this is what I learned from our long-awaited conversation.

Life is too short for lukewarm or shades of gray. Live life in color and take control of the reigns. Choose where you’re going. Not choosing is a choice and indecision is a decision. Be aware of the moments spent waiting, and instead start creating. Because when you create your own moments, you can create pockets of happiness. Those can, in turn, produce moments of joy for others, too.

Instead of finding comfort in “Love is boring” I’ve discovered excitement in knowing “Love is fucking alive.”

For more Ruben: @rubenrojas | rubenrojas.com
For more Beautify Earth: @beautifyearth | beautifyearth.org
Photos and video footage by me
Video editing by @mrdivine