I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the pressure we feel to know where we’re going in life. How little room we leave for mystery, curiosity, the unknown, magic. I’ve had several conversations lately with people in transition, some have been thrown into unexpected and unwanted change, others have a deeper sense that there is more for them and so they’ve set out to find out what that more feels, looks, tastes like. What they all have in common is the sense that they “should” know or pressure to “just decide and get on with it.”
Why does not knowing where you are going in life make people around you so squeamish? Why are people scared when someone admits they don’t know what they want to do or where they want to go in life? It’s as if people simply can’t stand uncertainty in others for more than a few moments, and if you linger “too long” in the Land of Uncertainty, they write you off as unstable or immature, or one of those people who “doesn’t have it together.”
How together are we supposed to be? Career, marriage, home ownership, children, their college, retirement savings. Maybe squeeze a few days of vacation in there somewhere. Follow the path and everyone stays comfortable, right? Why? Because then others don’t have to second guess their choices in life. They can stay on the path and settle for the happiness it offers up, instead of going out there and defining happiness for themselves. It’s just easier (or so we are taught) to stay small and conventional and safe. Since everyone else believes this path is paved with gold, it feels warm and comfortable.
Until it doesn’t. Or something stops working. And a part of you wakes up and realizes there just might be other paths.
Granted, some of the traditional path can indeed bring you genuine happiness. And a life on another path doesn’t necessarily guarantee you’ll be any happier. But what staying on the safe path does is keep you from realizing how powerful you truly are – it keeps you from playing big, from reaching for genuine joy instead of settling for others’ definition of purpose and destination. It keeps you from ever finding out how much of an impact you can actually make on this journey on earth.
Don’t you want to find out? What if life can really be more meaningful, joy-filled, driven by a purpose led by Spirit? What if these times of transition are not times of being “lost” – but instead absolute gifts that allow you to rebuild and redesign your life to be even better than before?
I’ve always followed intuition more than logic, and I can honestly say doing so has never led me wrong. Down uncertain paths that were unknown? Yes. Through months, sometimes years of sensing where I might be going, but not seeing how everything fit? Yes. Along detours that actually turned out to be the path I was meant to be on? Yes. I’ve lived in the Land of Uncertainty. I know what it feels like. I’ve built up a tolerance for it; I’ve seen time and again how the Universe works its magic and delivers something far better than I could ever come up with on my own.
So, I trust it. I know the periods of blindness in life are just as important as the periods of vision. I know that after the darkness the light will come – it always comes. I know that it takes patience and faith and that you have to fight to choose patience and faith, over and over and over again. But the fight is worth it.
Not knowing where you are going is a sign that you are indeed right where you need to be. Now. You are led, not by desperation or taking action because fear is driving you, but because the Universe works to orchestrate everything needed to bring you to the next place.
And remember, the Universe always works for the highest good for the most people possible. It’s NOT all about YOU, as much as it IS about you. Sometimes we are held in place because there is someone else our life needs to bless before we can move on.
Early on in my self-employed career, I was going through that phase where you seek out a million articles on how to market your work. Fear drives that process more than true learning and pretty soon you’re overwhelmed. Everyone has an opinion about how you should market your work, what you should and shouldn’t do, and the deadly sins to avoid. At that time there was a huge push toward internet information marketing, and at that time, everything in me said: no.
I didn’t want to run an internet information business. I didn’t want to grow a list. I didn’t want to do A, B, & C and get E, F & G. It felt pushy, it felt inauthentic. I still cringe at those long-form web pages that try to convince you of how much you’re getting while you scroll for miles to find the “discounted” price is $299.
Oh, I understood the sales logic behind it all. But it wasn’t me.
And when you’re just starting out, you aren’t sure if it’s okay to be you. What if you do it wrong? What if everyone else is right? I was in that confused state when I ran across the following short blog post by artist Keri Smith, whose message gave me permission to be me and whose words of advice I have kept as my guiding light when seeking clients and promoting my work. I’ll let her speak to you here, because her message is what being an artist is about. Authenticity. Trust. Knowing that you are led. Responding to what moves you.
Without knowing it, I have been giving lectures based on a “do-nothing” approach to illustration and design, employing terms like “don’t promote”, “ignore your audience”, “fuck the money.” A recent interview I did goes into this a little more. This is not to say I “do nothing” to promote my work, you do have to put things out in the world so that others can see and respond to them. But I do feel strongly that all of the techniques, calculating, obsessing, entering contests, trying to get awards (annuals), wanting to be a rock star in your field, trying to land “the” great job, trying to be like someone else who is successful, trying to target your portfolio, trying to be cool, and schmoozing, don’t actually help to move your career forward.
If i look back over the course of my career so far, it is only when I stopped trying to do all of those things and focused on the work that the good stuff started to happen. Only when I relinquished control to some extent and focused on the things that moved me did I start to attract some kind of success. And this method of “doing the opposite” of what I was taught required much less effort in the long run. (Instead of sending out hundreds of mailers, as they tell you to do in art school, I sent out a few here and there to places I really responded to.)
So I guess the questions that I learned to ask myself where, “what the hell makes me want to stay up all night so I can work on it, forgetting entirely about the fact that sleep exists as a possibility?” “what makes you get up in the middle of the night to scribble something down?” “what is in my nature?” (NOT “what should go in my portfolio?”, “how do I target an audience?”, “how do I get more work?”) none of the artist’s whose work I respond to try to ‘target an audience’.” – Keri Smith
When we respond to what moves us, we follow our hearts and the Universe’s guidance for what aligns with us.
It’s okay to be yourself. It’s more than okay, it’s necessary.
What if it all works out?
What if it turns out better than you imagine?
What if every moment spent in fear and doubt isn’t wasted, but necessary to grow faith and confidence?
What if you make what you want to make?
What if you say what you want to say?
What if no one actually has the power to stop you?
What if you stop worrying about “what if’s”?
What if you being you is all that actually matters?
What if you say “yes” before you get over the fear?
What if there is nothing to overcome, and only everything to become?
Yes. What if.
When was the last time you thought about what it is that you believe in? I’m not talking about religion (though relevant), but that essential belief that, at the end of the day, gets you through the doubt and fear inherent in creative life? That one thing that gives you the strength to pick yourself up after rejection, doubt and uncertainty have thrashed you to pieces and left you in a bloody heap. What do you believe in? Luck? Fate? Karma? God? Success? Hard work?
We don’t often think about it, but it matters; because the creative life isn’t for the faint of heart. And no matter how much others encourage, praise, award, buy, and respond to our work, at the end of the day, every artist is alone with the work, with his or herself, and with the decision to get up or stay down.
Tenacity is what is required; but tenacity built on sheer will power won’t last. It’s the thought that you refuse to stop believing in that will either keep you in or out of your power.
What is that thought?
If you’ve never thought about this, I encourage you to take some time for yourself and ponder it. It doesn’t matter if you are starting off on your creative journey or if you’ve been on it for a long time. Now is the time to pause and consider:
1. What you believe in will determine where you go. It’s so easy to externalize the beliefs for whether or not we achieve what we set out to do. The market, competition, circumstances, budgets, rejection, misalignment with representation — they may make the journey tougher, they may cause us to change course, but they can never prevent us from creating the work itself. If you believe in these external factors, you give others the power to determine your identity. You may easily see your dreams and your voice die at the hands of others.
2. Success isn’t strong enough to save your artistic life. Success tempts us to believe in it as our source of strength. If we succeeded once, we should again, right? This sounds comforting and logical, but it’s not necessarily accurate. Past performance cannot predict future performance. Why? Because the challenges change, the stakes grow, the qualities that helped us succeed before may not be the ones we need to succeed in the future. Relying on a belief in past success sets us up for giving up too easily when the future presents challenges that we need to grow into.
3. What you believe in will determine the quality of your experience. This comes down to our power to choose our perspective. If you believe in something greater than pleasing others or hinging your value on others’ opinions, then joy will be yours even in the midst of pain. You will find satisfaction in the process of creation no matter what the commercial result may be.
4. Your beliefs are the ONLY thing that can crush you. What we believe in is the only thing that has true power over us. While we may feel as if others’ beliefs determine our journey, that in itself is just another belief we continue to believe. We always live what we truly believe. That’s why some people can achieve high levels of success and appreciation by others and never be able to embrace it and feel it – their own beliefs about their success prevent them from enjoying it. It’s also why some people are incredibly happy continuing to create art even when they find little commercial success.
5. You can choose your beliefs. That’s the good news. When you examine what your beliefs are, you can choose to change them. You can let go of beliefs that no longer serve you and try on new ones. Left unexamined, you’ll go on believing whatever it is that you default to and it may or may not support you as an artist.
If we put so much effort into learning our craft, and become highly skilled, shouldn’t we put as much effort into making sure our own beliefs are the ones that will truly support us?
Ultimately, you need something to believe in. And that something is you. It may be you supported by a higher power, but it is you. Because at the end of the day, your faith in yourself is the only thing strong enough to pick you off that floor, wipe the blood away and start again.
You write about boldness, trust, and courage in creative work. What do these mean to you and where do you struggle?
I think the greatest struggle, and perhaps the one we all ultimately face, is having the courage and boldness to trust ourselves. We grow up taught that other people hold the authority to approve or disapprove of us and our creative expressions. Maybe this comes from the grading system in schools, I don’t know. But we quickly learn to create something, offer it to the appropriate “authority” and wait to see whether or not they validate it (and us). We hand over what should be our authority alone to say “yes, we have created what we intended, it is good and pure, and it matters because it is of us.” I grew up with this like everyone else and I am still climbing out of the system. I’ve spent years giving others a voice – individuals and corporations – and it has taken me a long time to put my own voice in my own creative work, and put it out there and let it stand for itself. So this is where I struggle most and what I find to ultimately be the most important. Trusting your own opinion more than anyone else’s. Not that you shouldn’t seek and heed feedback from trusted advisors; but ultimately, you have to give that approval to yourself and your work. And that is very challenging to do.
Talk a little bit about tenacity.
Tenacity is really just refusing to give up when it gets tough or you get slammed with self-doubt and fear. It’s a term of endurance and like any long-distance activity, it means there are going to be times when you stop and rest, but when you’re done resting you get up and continue. It’s really a matter of not giving yourself the option to not finishing what you started out to do. People need a motivation that means something to them in order to make that kind of commitment. As a writer, it’s the writing process and the relationships with characters that are my rewards. It’s knowing when I start out that the characters and story are going to change me as much as it will change them. So there is this wonderful, rich, fertile soil that stories rise up from and all this activity and effort and growth happening in the writer and characters underneath the soil, if you will. I love that. I love knowing that when you trust your characters it’s going to pay off. I have spent the last two years on a feature drama script, and the year prior to that on a novel – and I can unequivocally say that I am bolder, stronger, and more willing to step up to my dreams today because of having spent the last three years in the presence of amazingly tenacious and vulnerable characters. When you think about it, tenacity is really the core requirement for a protagonist and antagonist. Without that the conflict and tension disappears. The same is true for our lives.
What’s the difference between quitting and letting go?
Quitting comes from a place of defeat. Letting go comes from a place of power. I’m not playing on words. The result of either one is cessation. But the intention is entirely different. When you quit it’s because of fear or exhaustion – either way, you’re not coming from a place of empowerment. When you let go of something, it’s life-giving. It releases you from what has inhibited you, what has held you under water, and the result is that your spirit bounces back up to the surface and you breathe. And sometimes breathing is more important than anything else you could do. Letting go involves trust. Trust in the Universe, trust in yourself. It’s a result of growth. Either we outgrow our dreams and desires or they outgrow us; either way, letting go opens the doors to possibilities. And that’s where you want to be. Open, breathing, relaxed, trusting. That’s when the Universe can give you more than you ever imagined in far more aligned ways than you could orchestrate. Ultimately, when you let go, you do so with faith that no matter what happens, you’re going to be okay.