“From Avocation To Vocation: How I Turned My Hobby Into A Career” With Isaac Myers III of Curlew Quarterly

You’re going to have to make difficult decisions. Feel into the process, and trust your gut and do not rush to make any decision, large or small. Although it can be deeply inspiring and interesting and exciting to live and work in New York; it can also be quite draining. Part of that relates with […]

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You’re going to have to make difficult decisions. Feel into the process, and trust your gut and do not rush to make any decision, large or small. Although it can be deeply inspiring and interesting and exciting to live and work in New York; it can also be quite draining. Part of that relates with all of the decisions that have to be made each day, large and small. If someone would have told me earlier on that I absolutely have to trust my gut when I’m making any decision, and that I can take my time as I do so, then it would have helped me earlier on, when I was first learning the ins and the outs of working with prospective purchasers, as well as homeowners.

As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing Isaac Myers III. Isaac holds an MFA in creative writing from the New School, where he studied poetry and graduated in 2013. His poetry has appeared in Barrow Street as well as the Best American Poetry blog. He graduated from Drake University Law School in 2011 and since then has worked as an attorney in the fields of civil rights, foreclosure defense and bankruptcy. In 2017 he founded Curlew Quarterly, a print literary and photo journal of New York City neighborhoods, which publishes fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction and includes nearly all forms of reporting and journalism, along with portraits and interviews of poets and writers in their homes and writing spaces. Ultimately, the journal aims to help poets and writers carve out residences within the city, and to help keep the fabric of the literary history and tradition of New York City’s ever-changing neighborhoods intact.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

I grew up in the Midwest; Detroit, Michigan; Springfield, Ohio; Indianapolis, Indiana; and remember liking sports very early on in life. I started playing soccer at age four and played all the way through college. There was something about being able to run and move quickly that I enjoyed, and it was even more fun when I could work and play together with other kids.

Although I played soccer, my favorite athlete was Michael Jordan. I remember watching his last three seasons with the Bulls, and although I was still relatively young, I remember being transfixed by his greatness.

My love for poetry and creative writing came later in life. When I was a senior in college, I finally took a creative writing class —I had mostly taken English literature courses for my major. The professor invited us to think more critically about our lives; to look more closely at our decisions; to think independently, and to explore these ideas through writing.

With this newfound excitement for creative writing; although I was already on my way to law school, I decided that after law school, I would pursue an MFA in creative writing. In 2011, I found myself beginning courses at the New School, and had the honor of studying with a few incredible poets, whose influence I still feel in my own work, including but not limited to: David Lehman, Jennifer Michael Hecht, and Elaine Eqiui.

What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?

In New York, after you’ve been admitted to the bar, you can use your law license to also acquire a real estate brokering license. After working at a civil rights Law firm for three years, I decided that I should take advantage of the opportunity to work in real estate that came with my license, and started working as a real estate broker in 2014. It took me a year before I closed my first sale, but I was able to sell a two-family brownstone in Crown Heights in June of 2015.

Shortly thereafter, I was looking for a company name for my work as a real estate broker, and stumbled upon the Peterson’s Field Guide to Eastern Birds (1999) which I had picked up from a bird-watching trip that I went on while in the seventh grade.

As I flipped through the book’s pages, the name and illustration for the Eskimo Curlew drew me in. I checked New York’s DOS Division of Corporations’ website to see whether there were any other real estate companies named Curlew; there weren’t, and I went with it. It wasn’t until a few months later that I discovered Fred Bosworth’s book, the Last of the Curlew (1955), which was also made into a PBS after school special, and tells the beautiful yet haunting story of extinction concerning the Eskimo Curlew.

As of October 2016, I had been working as a real estate broker for about two years, and had closed three sales as well as a few rentals. Although I enjoyed meeting people and showing houses and answering questions and being of service and sharpening my sales skills, I was losing enthusiasm for the real estate brokering profession.

It’s a profession that can offer very sweet rewards; however, the process of purchasing or selling real estate, especially in New York, can bring up a lot of different emotions for people as they navigate the process, as well as the market. As I grew more comfortable and confident as a broker, I began learning and relearning a very important lesson: nothing is final in a real estate deal until the closing is over. And as an attorney, I have to add, and even then! Things can still happen. With that said, as I was contemplating my future in real estate, I was working in an office at 68 Jay Street in Dumbo, and went downstairs to hear some poetry at Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop, on Front Street. It was there that the course of my career and life, changed.

I heard Jason Koo, the founder of Brooklyn Poets, read a poem, “Morning, Motherfucker,” which, to begin with, is an incredibly funny and thoughtful poem; but just as importantly, it tells the story of the plight of one of the few remaining poets who live in Brooklyn Heights, where Koo was living at the time. In short, within the poem, and in real life his landlord told him she was selling her house, and he had to be out of in thirty days. One morning he is up and moving through the apartment in his bathrobe and the person who would be purchasing the house made a visit, which prompted Koo to reflect on how many poets are left in Brooklyn Heights.

The poem is all the more powerful and poignant given the fact that Brooklyn Heights is a neighborhood that has longed gained a reputation as a hub for writers. Although Koo’s poem is focused on Brooklyn Heights, the effects of the rising costs of housing in New York, and the difficulties that those costs create for individuals who want to write and create and pursue unique paths in our city, is impossible to ignore.

Having heard Koo’s poem, as a real estate broker, and as a poet, I felt uniquely positioned to create something that could work toward making living here a bit easier for poets and writers. Hence, the next afternoon, the idea for Curlew Quarterly arrived in my mind, and was placed within my heart.

I decided that I would run a residential real estate company that publishes a literary journal. In time, the company would be able to purchase properties in New York, and set up writing residences for poets and writers who show particular merit.

There are no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?

I’ve been lucky. When I first had the idea for Curlew Quarterly, I had friends from the New School who could help me with stories, and poems, and essays to fill the Quarterly with; however, I knew that these pieces would have to be paired with interviews and portraits, and I didn’t know any photographers who would be able to help.

One afternoon in November of 2016, an incredible photographer and digital retoucher, Emily Fishman, showed up and started working out of the same work space in Dumbo that I had called home. A few months later, I met Alexandra Bildsoe, a master illustrator and photographer, and someone who has deeply inspired me throughout the Curlew journey.

Together, Emily and Alex brought home the photography portion of the first issue of Curlew Quarterly, and their work continues to appear within our pages.

Shortly after we printed and launched Issue №1 — Summer 2017, I met Adrian Moens, whose photographs continue to blow me away, and help create the exact mood and feel and tone for the Quarterly that I always imagined.

What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?

Start small. You don’t have to do it for a living at first, but break things down into small pieces; and you can always pretend as though you’re doing it for a living for a few hours a day, or for a few weekends, and the more you’re playing with the idea of it, the closer you’ll get to turning the play into reality.

It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?

It all starts with our contributors. I’m continually impressed and inspired by the people who I’m lucky enough to meet with and interview — to read their work, and to have them trust me with it, and trust me with helping to tell their stories, and allowing their stories and interviews and photographs from their home to appear within Curlew Quarterly, that’s what always makes the process worthwhile; and that’s how I’ve been able to keep the process of bringing each issue to print fresh and enjoyable.

What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?

I love the possibility; short term as well as long term, with the short term being: I wonder what opportunities and good fortunes today will bring, and the long term being: I wonder what we can actually accomplish over the next three years, five years, ten years?

The downsides have been those moments of doubt, when I’ve lost faith, and have questioned whether the goals that we’re moving toward are actually worth seeking. To overcome those moments, and states, I’ll usually take a step back from the business, which allows me to assess where my heart is, and whether I still believe in the goal, and am still willing to put my life and heart and time and mind behind the goal.

This always helps, as after a while, I’ll usually start to miss working on Curlew New York, and Curlew Quarterly, and will then trust that if I’m starting to miss the businesses that I’ve created, then it must mean that our work isn’t over yet; which allows me to dive back in with a renewed enthusiasm, which really helps.

Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

To be honest, I can’t detect that many differences. Curlew New York, the real estate company, and Curlew Quarterly, the literary journal, were two ideas that came to me before I had much time, if any at all, to assess what either job might be like.

Hence, it’s difficult to draw comparisons between my expectations and my realities for the work, as I didn’t really have the time to set expectations — things just started happening, and thankfully, I’ve been able to go with it.

Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a “real” job”? If so how did you overcome it?

Yes! I’ve definitely had those moments. In the past, I’ve overcome them by taking a bit of time away from the work. Also, it helps when I’ve been more intentional about carving out time for my own creative work, my poetry, as well as a few screenplays that I’ve been working on, which has helped remind me of the emotional value that always accompanies sitting down to write.

In addition, and more recently, I’ve realized that at some point, probably within the last six months, I arrived at a point where it’s actually easier to stay the course, and see this Curlew New York and Curlew Quarterly idea all the way through, rather than set the idea aside, and find a job with a law firm or real estate brokerage, and start all over again, and always be left wondering: what could have been?

Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?

My parents. My father grew up in Harlem, New York, and was valedictorian of his high school, and decided to study medicine at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, where he met my mother. He is now the Chief Medical Officer at Baptist Health Memorial Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky, and has a team of hundreds of doctors, nurses, and executives who are working toward delivering better and more efficient healthcare to individuals and families across the Midwest.

He has inspired me, as well as my brother and sisters, to create rewarding lives for ourselves. And his story is particularly inspiring for me, as he packed up everything from New York in the 1970’s, and decided that he wanted a different life for himself, and that he wanted to raise a family in a place that would allow his children to be successful.

Throughout my time in New York, which has now reached a little over eight years, my mother has always helped me to keep the faith. She has always believed in me, and I know that I received my love for reading and creative writing from her.

I’m also grateful for her decision and support very early on, when she insisted that I begin my education at a Montessori school. I have no question that my time in the Montessori school set the initial foundation for the freedom and independence that I’ve been fortunate enough to create in my life.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

It makes me proud to say that Curlew Quarterly is a paying publication. Although we haven’t yet been able to purchase properties in New York, and set up writing residencies, I knew from the beginning that I wanted to find a way to honor the poets and writers who we’ve worked with, and although it’s not a space to live, the $250 honorarium that we pay each of our contributors for their feature in our journal has meaning.

As for a more philosophical answer, I like to think that anyone who has taken and continues to take a traditional path, and anyone who is true to his, her, or their own view of the world and is also in service to something larger, has made the world a better place just by providing an example, and inspiring others to step out on a limb, and try something that they may not have previously imagined to be possible.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. No one will notice for a while. But if you keep going, people will start to notice. In other words, and I heard this from a core energetics practitioner who I’ve been working with, Lubna Khalid, “First people will ask you why you are you doing it, then they will ask you how you did it?”
    This advise would have been helpful in 2016 when I was first imagining the pages for the first issue of Curlew Quarterly; as it makes for great encouragement to keep going.
  2. You’re going to have to make difficult decisions. Feel into the process, and trust your gut and do not rush to make any decision, large or small.
    Although it can be deeply inspiring and interesting and exciting to live and work in New York; it can also be quite draining. Part of that relates with all of the decisions that have to be made each day, large and small.
    If someone would have told me earlier on that I absolutely have to trust my gut when I’m making any decision, and that I can take my time as I do so, then it would have helped me earlier on, when I was first learning the ins and the outs of working with prospective purchasers, as well as homeowners.
  3. Meditate. This one, thankfully, I learned about two years ago. In January of 2017; I really dove into meditation, carving out at least an hour every evening, a practice which I still stay true to today.
    The practice of meditation has done so much for my life and business. It allows me to see opportunities and chances and solutions that I would not have been able to see without sitting still, and settling my heart and mind, and allowing the universe to step in, work its magic, and support me.
  4. You’re going to have to learn to speak up, and use your voice. It won’t always be easy, but the more often you do it, the easier it will be.
    This applies to all areas of my life, and not just business. It’s something that I remember my dad telling me very early on, which I wasn’t quite ready to hear.
    Not everyone has always agreed with my take on things, and part of my growth as an entrepreneur, and as a human being, has related with being able to speak up, speak my truth, have difficult conversations, and then move toward a resolution from there.
  5. You have to take care of yourself, your mind and body, and spirit. I think intuitively, I’ve known this for a while; however, more recently I’ve been discovering just how important this is. I like to think that over the last four years, I’ve built Curlew New York and Curlew Quarterly, together, into a business that’s sustainable over the long term. With that said, the same has to be true for me, i.e., I have to be set up for the long term, so I’ve been asking myself that more often: am I taking care of myself? Am I eating right and running and cycling as often as I’d like to be? What are my friendships like, and how are my relationship with my family and loved ones?
    It would have been helpful to hear something like this earlier on in my journey; not just the idea of taking care of myself, but the idea of just how absolutely important and pivotal it is to take care of myself.

What person wouldn’t want to work doing something they absolutely love. You are an incredible inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I’m thinking of Jane Jacobs The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), where she writes about how certain neighborhoods within cities fall victim to the “self-destruction of diversity.”

“The self-destruction of diversity can happen in streets, at small nodes of vitality, in groupings of streets, or in whole districts. The last case is the most serious.

Whichever form the self-destruction takes, this, in broad strokes, is what happens: A diversified mixture of uses at some place in the city becomes outstandingly popular and successful as a whole. Because of the location’s success, which is invariably based on flourishing magnetic diversity, ardent competition for space in this locality develops. It is taken up in what amounts to the economic equivalent of a fad.

The winners in the competition for space will represent only a narrow segment of the many uses that together created success. Whichever one or few uses have emerged as the most profitable in the locality will be repeated and repeated, crowding out and overwhelming less profitable forms of use. If tremendous numbers of people, attracted by convenience and interest, or charmed by vigor and excitement, choose to live or work in the area, again the winners of the competition will form a narrow segment of the population of users. Since so many want to get in, those who get in or stay in will be self-sorted by the expense . . .

Thus, from this process, one or few dominating uses finally emerge triumphant. But the triumph is hollow. A most intricate and successful organism of economic mutual support and social mutual support has been destroyed by the process . . . In time, a place that was once so successful and once the object of such ardent competition, wanes and becomes marginal.

Many streets which have already gone through this process and are at rest in their moribundity can be seen in our cities. Others, caught in the process now, can be watched in action. Among those in the neighborhood where I live is Eighth Street, the principal commercial street of Greenwich Village.”

I would want to inspire a movement of people who insist on living more mindfully, and considering more carefully the costs and design of real estate and city life.

I would want to inspire a movement of people who understand that neighborhoods are made up of people, and that although real estate does have intrinsic value as monetary investments, that’s not the entire story, and it can’t be the entire story.

I would want to inspire a moment of people who understand that we have an opportunity to be more mindful concerning the way that way balance the economic benefits of purchasing and developing and selling real estate, with the human factors that relate with what it actually feels like to live in and experience a neighborhood and home.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Always look for and see the good in other people.”

It’s my deep belief that we have more in common with each other than we think; and so far, my life experience has shown that to be true.

Although developers and real estate firms and investors are often accused of ruining neighborhoods, driving up prices, making it impossible for writers and creatively-inclined people to live in these places, and displacing minorities and individuals and families and communities that have long-called these neighborhoods home; it’s complicated.

It is my belief that developers properties is that it helps them support their lifestyle, and their families, which is what we all want: to be able to live well, to be able to support our families and raise our children in a safe and friendly and inspiring environment.

If we could spend more time, reaching across the table with the people who are investing millions of dollars into developing our neighborhoods within New York City; looking for the good in them; and telling and sharing our stories, then I’d imagine that we’d be able to take several small steps, over and over again, toward helping New York remain a place that doesn’t just attract writers, but also supports them, and helps them make their way once they get here.

It’s my belief that this wouldn’t just help writers, but it would help developers and real estate brokers and professionals. As human beings, we have an innate want, when the dust settles, to be able to look back on our lives, and find meaning within them, and to know that we’ve done our best with the tools and circumstances that we were given. If there are more writers who are living comfortably in New York, who can have the quiet and time and mental and emotional space to craft words and sentences and images and stories that help, we would all benefit.

And if Curlew New York and Curlew Quarterly can have anything to do with making that a reality, then I will know that I’ve done my job, and will have fulfilled my life’s purpose.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I would love to meet Barbara Corcoran. I read her book Use What You’ve Got, and Other Business Lessons I Learned from my Mom (2003) in 2015. I love how she describes her early adventures in the world of real estate in New York, and was deeply inspired by how after a certain relationship ended, she decided that she would be successful in real estate; then never looked back.

The book has an incredible honesty about it; and it makes selling real estate in New York feel so easy and fun, which drives home the point that it all starts with belief. She believed in herself. And I would love to meet her.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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