‘How To Do What You Love’
Although doing great work takes less discipline than people think — because the way to do great work is to find something you like so much that you don’t have to force yourself to do it — finding work you love does usually require discipline. […]
Sometimes jumping from one sort of work to another is a sign of energy, and sometimes it’s a sign of laziness. Are you dropping out, or boldly carving a new path? You often can’t tell yourself. Plenty of people who will later do great things seem to be disappointments early on, when they’re trying to find their niche.
Is there some test you can use to keep yourself honest? One is to try to do a good job at whatever you’re doing, even if you don’t like it. Then at least you’ll know you’re not using dissatisfaction as an excuse for being lazy. Perhaps more importantly, you’ll get into the habit of doing things well.
Another test you can use is: always produce. For example, if you have a day job you don’t take seriously because you plan to be a novelist, are you producing? Are you writing pages of fiction, however bad? As long as you’re producing, you’ll know you’re not merely using the hazy vision of the grand novel you plan to write one day as an opiate. The view of it will be obstructed by the all too palpably flawed one you’re actually writing.
“Always produce” is also a heuristic for finding the work you love. If you subject yourself to that constraint, it will automatically push you away from things you think you’re supposed to work on, toward things you actually like. “Always produce” will discover your life’s work the way water, with the aid of gravity, finds the hole in your roof.
I’ve been in one of my Hemingway periods (long bouts of thinking followed by short bursts of writing) and find work on The Book slow as a consequence. To that end I promised myself three hours of today of proper pen-to-paper writing.
For me, the following rough-cut excerpt is the closest I’ve yet come to saying what I want to say. What do you think? If this was the introduction would you keep reading?
Each story you are about to read hinges on this simple truth: extraordinary people become who they are by fixing their eyes on a goal and moving towards it. That’s it.
Their magnificent, heart-warming, inspiring stories are possible because they are doers. There is no magic formula, no prerequisite, no mystery to their success. They simply set out to do something, to live a certain way, and the act of doing it was the sole precondition for their success.
Along the way each of them developed the skills, knowledge, and beliefs that sustain them and help them progress, but those only followed the first, the essential thing: action.
They have lives like Goldberg Devices – fantastic contraptions that no one else would have dreamed up, with outcomes decided by a single motion transferred through weird and wonderful mechanisms. Unexpected twists, peculiar levers and unnamed bits of machinery that come together to propel their lives forward.
They stopped waiting for the perfect moment, the clear-cut path, the secure position, the external affirmation. They decided: this is what I’m going to do, and did it, without guarantee or assurance.
Once they took that step, things happened. They found ideas, courage, inspiration, experience, friendships and knowledge that became part of their progress. As they moved forward, each step revealed the next. They gained momentum. They achieved their goals. They created news lives and saw the world through new eyes.
They discovered that those who do, can.
What matters isn’t what you have or know; where you live or how much you earn. What matters is what you are willing to do. As you’ll discover, anything is possible. You can conquer illness, climb mountains, unite a nation, change your career or save a child’s life. You can become an artist, an explorer, an athlete, a hero. You can live the life you’ve always dreamed of – if you will.
High on the list of books I cannot live without is Walden, Henry David Thoreau’s masterpiece. My dogeared, pencil-lined copy is one of my prized, and most frequently reread, possessions. The following is from its final chapter.
I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains. I do not wish to go below now.
I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams and endevours to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will but some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favaour in a more liberalse sense, and he will live with the licence of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.
~Henry David Thoreau
Terrific post about writing from Molly Flatt, and it applies to any creative field. In a nutshell: do what you love, do it for the right reasons and don’t sweat the rest. Wisdom I’ll be taking to Creative Writing Ibiza with me in just a few hours!
Focus on the work itself, create goals you can control, and make sure the journey is as satisfying as the end game. Become a happy amateur, and you might just have a chance of becoming a happy professional after all.
If people are highly successful in the professions they lose their senses. Sight goes. They have no time to look at pictures. Sound goes. They have no time to listen to music. Speech goes. They have no time for conversation. They lose their sense of proportion – the relations between one thing and another. Humanity goes. Money making becomes so important that they must work by night as well as by day. Health goes.
— Virginia Woolf
Magical words from Ray Bradbury (Paris Review interview)
I don’t believe in optimism. I believe in optimal behavior. That’s a different thing. If you behave every day of your life to the top of your genetics, what can you do? Test it. Find out. You don’t know—you haven’t done it yet. You must live life at the top of your voice! At the top of your lungs shout and listen to the echoes….
Action is hope. At the end of each day, when you’ve done your work, you lie there and think, Well, I’ll be damned, I did this today. It doesn’t matter how good it is, or how bad—you did it. At the end of the week you’ll have a certain amount of accumulation. At the end of a year, you look back and say, I’ll be damned, it’s been a good year.
As I’ve chipped away at the Family on Bikes story (a paragraph or two over Saturday morning coffee, a stolen few minutes between advertising case studies at work) one word is always on my mind: choice.
The Vogel’s story is, at root, a story about making decisions. About waking up to the fact that if you don’t call the shots in your life someone else will because someone has to. (Shots get called. That’s how it works.) Talking to Nancy has made me aware of the gap between how we perceive decision making and how we do it. I suspect we give ourselves more credit for autonomy than we actually deserve. We think we’re free-wheeling, decision making machines. But how many of our choices are honest? How often do we stop and reflect on what we really want as opposed to simply reacting to what we think is expected of us?
Nancy bumped up against this when John suggested hitting the road with Daryl and Davy. Her knee-jerk “that’s not what parents do” seemed like a decision until she thought about it, mulled it over, and realised it was just a reaction. Parsing her response helped her choose based what she really valued versus what she thought she was supposed to value.
That is real decision making and it is absolutely a discipline. To make good decisions we have to reclaim our instinctive selfishness. Children, and adults who have a healthy level of self-interest, make decisions based on what makes them happy, satisfies their physical needs, and makes them feel loved and secure. Education warps this innate good sense by teaching that there are more important things than love, health, and self-determination. Money is accepted as a definition of “success” and culturally-constructed notions of what people “should” do are given priority. “Normal” takes over from natural as a guiding principle. The process is insidious. Most people are barely conscious of having sacrificed their freedom to simple convention. Nancy discovered she was not immune. “Quitting your job and putting your kids on a bicycle just wasn’t done. I had no role model,” she says. “Nothing out there that was telling me this was okay, this was do-able. It was an internal struggle.”
The struggle is essential and inevitable. It forces you to decide what you value, which may not be as obvious as it sounds. Fantasising about hitch-hiking across Mongolia is one thing but if you can’t imagine life without HD TV and an espresso machine you need to reconsider. Making good decisions means being honest about what you want, not what you think you should want, or what someone else expects you to want.
Above all, see that your work is easily and happily done, else it will never make anybody else happy; but while you thus give the rein to all your impulses, see that those impulses be headed and centred by one noble impulse; and let that be Love – triple love – for the art which you practice, the creation in which you move, and the creatures to whom you minister.