Who Should Write Your Letter of Recommendation?

This past spring, I coached an artist in putting together an application for a visual arts residency program. Our work focused on reviewing the guidelines, tailoring the essays to match the host organization’s goals, and paring down her big collection of paintings and illustrations to the six that would best represent her capabilities.

Additionally, there was one item in the checklist that required a Letter of Recommendation. We assembled the usual criteria for identifying its author:

  • Someone who is familiar with the applicant’s art and work ethic.
  • Also, someone having an attractive title or an affiliation with a known organization would a plus.

Simple enough, yes?

An Important Extra…

And then I added an important extra:

  • Someone who is currently happily employed. Or more vital, someone who is present, has peace of mind, and is overall, appreciative of their life.

She got a kick out of that. I admit, it’s funny. But I am also speaking from experience (experiences, rather, since life has had to teach me more than once) when I say that a reference’s personal life is equally if not more influential than their professional credentials. Job satisfaction or lack thereof, by itself, is meaningless. However, it can make a decent predictor for someone’s general sense of well-being or fulfillment or belonging in the world.


Just because someone looks good on paper, doesn’t mean they’re best suited to represent you.


Why is that a thing to pay attention to? Discontent people generally have a difficult time maintaining focus, finding cause for celebration, and practicing generosity. All of which are absolutely necessary when having to recall a candidate’s best qualities in order to make a strong recommendation. Just because someone looks good on paper, doesn’t mean they’re best suited to represent you.

As touchy-feely as it sounds, when appointing your delegates, it is important that you consider their current mood or “vibe” as well as their achievements. For example, between two pros that know you fairly well, it might be better to pick a humble Shift Manager with an even keel than a popular Executive Director facing a private meltdown. As I mentioned in the “Is Your Success Predetermined?” post, your selection of your team is critical. And how you decide can greatly set you back or boost you forward – so, choose wisely.


Original Bay Area hip hop group, Foreign Legion. Song: “Reference Check” from the album Kidnapper Van released in 2000.


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