Your Art and Your Distraction

“The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation …” – Henry David Thoreau

This is my nightmare; looking back and not feeling as though I ever really lived life. That I didn’t take advantage of this precious gift I was given. I spend a lot of time listening and learning from others who I believe are making the most out of their lives and making the world a better place in the process.

How did Brene Brown come to know herself well enough to gain the clarity and confidence to commit to the movement she’s leading now? I’m sure there is something significant that I’m supposed to be doing. If I can just figure out how she did it, I’m sure I can do the same for myself.

Recently I’ve been listening to Jerry Colonna on the Reboot podcast as he coaches CEOs of startups on how to lead companies and live life in a more sustainable and joyful way. As someone who has aspired to be an entrepreneur leading a business that makes the world a better place I’ve loved listening and learning the common pitfalls founders make with respect to the relationship they have with themselves.

I know I can be an enlightened leader of my company and avoid these mistakes. I just need to have more self-awareness, meditate, treat my co-founder as if we’re married, put others first, etc. I’m not diving into this head first without thinking about these things. I’m smarter. I’m more enlighten.

A common question Jerry often ask people is, “How are you complicit in creating the conditions of your life that you say you don’t want?”

When I reflect on this question, the truth is I feel like I’m on a treadmill. I’m trying desperately to learn how to not lead a life of quiet desperation and yet I feel like I still am. But the people who aren’t are learners. They’re sponges that soak up everything around them. They listen to podcast, read books, watch TED Talks, and pick up on all the juicy morsels that are lying around. This is what successful people do so I should imitate them. If I do some “radical self-inquiry” as Jerry likes to call it, there is a deeper more insidious reason why I’m spending so much time “learning.” I’m afraid to fail. I’m afraid to put myself out there. I’m afraid to be vulnerable and see if I actually do have any real original ideas. That maybe I don’t have what it takes to sustain myself on creativity, talent, and my skills alone. That maybe I’m not enough. See, I’ve played a Jedi mind trick on myself. I’ve taken something that I like doing and that is good for me, learning, and turned it into a defense mechanism to avoid doing the work that is much scarier, where there is more risk of actual failure.

I started off this morning wanting to write a blog post. I ended up watching a 2 hour video a good friend sent me instead that was squarely in the self-discovery space. I didn’t need to watch it, but it felt good and it was easier than sitting down in front of the blank page risking that I would get there and not be able to think of anything to write, potentially confirming my worst fears that I don’t have anything of value to contribute to this world.

This lead me to another connection. This past year I was incredibly lucky to become a faculty champion for a group of students at Virginia Tech involved in the University Innovation Fellows program developed by Stanford’s D-School. I’ll have to do a more in-depth post about this at some point, but the short description for UIF is disruption of higher education through students advocating for their own educational interest. A primary way they’re doing this is by teaching students how to use design thinking processes to solve problems and inspire other students. I’m fascinated by the idea that students might be more effective in creating change within institutions of higher education than faculty and administrators because they don’t have the same red tape and pressures. Students are part of the higher education system but don’t have to play the higher ed “career game” and can therefore take risks, disrupt, and even piss people off. After all they’re the people the institution is supposed to be serving. Through my experience with UIF, I’ve become a big believer in the principles of Human Centered Design and Design Thinking. One of the primary tenants of the process is that identifying solutions to problems is much easier by “doing” rather than “thinking.” It’s better to create a low fidelity prototype of your product out of play dough, experience it yourself, and watch other people experience it as opposed to think about what it would be like to hold a play dough prototype or think about people holding it. Experiencing is just miles away different than thinking about what that experience would be like in our minds eye.

So what should I or anyone else who finds themselves in this negative cycle do? I’ve been reading, Range by David Epstein, he reminded me of a oft quoted story.

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

-Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland

The answer to what you should do is start doing as much as possible. Experience your way to more clarity and confidence about who you are and how to manifest that in your work. We’re all playing Jedi mind tricks on ourselves to avoid doing the things that are hard or cause us to feel vulnerable. Stop and think about what you’re avoiding right now. It’s likely whatever you’re avoiding is exactly the thing you should actually be doing with your time.

So … are you procrastinating by reading this post right now? Stop. No more thinking. No more agonizing over if it’s the best thing to be doing. Just go do it. Make your art. The world needs it.