‘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.
The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated. And the only thing people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.
…that’s how we measure out our real respect for people—by the degree of feeling they can register, the voltage of life they can carry and tolerate—and enjoy. End of sermon. As Buddha says: live like a mighty river. And as the old Greeks said: live as though all your ancestors were living again through you.
– Ted Hughes
Via Letters of Note
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.
The continuing adventures of the Family on Bikes. For the story so far read Week 1 – One Revolution at a Time, Week 2 – Sticking Together? and Week 3 – Decisions, decisions and Week 4 – Semi-Charmed Life and Week 5 – On The Road and Week 6 – Leaps of Faith
The paradox of any huge goal is that the best way to achieve it is to forget about the big picture and concentrate on the next step. Otherwise, you risk getting frozen in the Klieg light of your own ambition. Kids are lucky: they don’t have the same hang-ups. When the Vogels set off on their year-long jaunt through the States Davy and Daryl were only eight years old, and content to follow their parents’ agenda. By the time they set off down the Pan American Highway the boys were in double digits and enthusiastic, seasoned travellers, yet untroubled by creeping adult concerns. They were old enough to understand that 17,000 miles is a tremendous distance; astute enough to trace the winding ribbon of road across two hemispheres; experienced enough to expect hills, rain, cold, heat and aching muscles but young enough to live in the moment. To this day, they don’t see what the big deal is about their journey. “To them, it’s just something they did,” Nancy remarks. Set against the scale of the wilderness and the uncertainties of the road Davy and Daryl’s unself-conscious pragmatism was a blessing, a continuous reminder to take the journey one revolution at a time.
It helped on days when they faced towering mountain ranges, like the 10,000-foot peaks that shot out of the earth in Colombia like impenetrable green walls; or when they encountered blustering wind; or bears. “I told you about the bear, right? No?” Nancy chuckles and settles into story-telling mode. It was in Canada. They were moseying along, minding their own business. She and Daryl stopped for a breather while John and Davy went on. A dark, low-slung figure caught her eye. The form was familiar from a thousand pictures. “You’re supposed to back away from bears, but that’s kind of hard to do on a bike.” The critter ambled towards them, trailing a moustache of half-chewed grass. Voice low, Nancy told Daryl to pull away slowly, hoping it wouldn’t provoke a chase. A split second later, four legs sprang into action. Time compressed into the stroke of a pedal. Bears can up to 30 miles per hour but, Nancy notes, sufficiently motivated cyclists go even faster.
There is a smile in Nancy’s voice as she tells the story that belies some serious thinking. Once the adrenaline rush passed she asked the questions any good parent would: Am I doing the right thing? Is the goal big and important enough to justify the risks? What are my responsibilities? Conventional wisdom would have suggested a swift end to the journey. What kind of mother gambles on turning her child into a bear’s dinner? But Nancy hasn’t spent years asking questions for nothing. The mere act of setting out on the journey demanded a commitment to weigh situations on merit rather than out of habit and to banish automatic judgements. “The vast majority of people aren’t making conscious choices,” Nancy says. Most don’t need to. They have bosses, teachers, husbands, wives, children, parents, preachers, mortgage payments, and television to tell them where they have to be, what they have to do, and how they should live. On the Pan Am highway the Vogles’ only obligation was to each other and their goal. Nobody was there to tell them “go here”, “do this” or “stop now”. Freedom comes with the simple imperative to choose.
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.
The continuing adventures of the Family on Bikes. For the story so far read Week 1 – One Revolution at a Time, Week 2 – Sticking Together? and Week 3 – Decisions, decisions and Week 4 – Semi-Charmed Life and Week 5 – On The Road
The paradox of individualism is that it requires community. As the Vogels tackled the steep hills and steeper learning curve of family travel they developed a new paradigm of self-sufficiency. Safely ensconced in suburbia they didn’t think twice about relying on bus drivers to get the boys to school, teachers to educate them, and friends to shape their free time. But when they swapped those socially-approved dependencies for life on the road Nancy felt like they had to prove they could take care of themselves. “We felt we shouldn’t ask for help,” she admits. This reluctance or embarrassment gradually eased as they discovered their limits and the unexpected scope of strangers’ generosity. “People are basically good and kind. Most will do almost anything to help you out – without even being asked.”
This is a striking contradiction to the received wisdom that humans are inherently selfish, if not downright ill-intentioned. Aren’t we supposed to avoid strangers, lock our doors, keep a close grip on our luggage and look out for suspicious behaviour? Nancy doesn’t think so: “I’ve been around the world a few times and my belief comes from my experiences. There are very few bad people. Most will help if you need it.” Ask for examples of uncommon kindness and she chuckles: “How long do you have?” She rattles off a list of spontaneous gestures of goodwill: the man in Mexico who pulled over and offered them a gunnysack of fresh tomatoes; another Mexican family who filled their panniers with oranges; a date-farmer in California who invited them camp in his fields and let Davy and Daryl help out the irrigation system. “If we asked for help people would respond, no problem,” Nancy recalls. “Most of the time though they came out of the woodwork and just offered. This gives you a sense of security, a willingness to put yourself in a situation you wouldn’t otherwise.”
The family’s next epic journey put this trust to the test as they set out on a 17,000 mile traverse of the Pan-American Highway. Before the first turn of the wheel Nancy and John had to make a major decision. The Pan-Am highway, which was built in a desperate hurry during World War II to provide a land route for Allied war shipments, does not have a single, definitive official route. They could credibly begin in Anchorage, Alaska, or even Canada. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, however, the highway stretches from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska on the shore of the Arctic Ocean. If they set off from there Davy and Daryl would be eligible for a World Record. The chance to be in the Guinness Book was a big deal for the adventurous ten-year-olds. They had no qualms about Alaska. But Nancy was nervous.
When she and John initially decided to travel with Davy and Daryl their mantra was: “Expect them to go out and have the time of their life, to love the freedom and opportunities, and they will.” The boys had proved their mettle in the States but they couldn’t possibly understand the scale of the new challenge. The Dalton Highway, which makes up the Alaskan stretch of the Pan-Am highway, crosses five hundred miles of mountain and tundra, uninhabited apart from a couple of erstwhile mining villages. The Vogels would be out of reach of phone signal, back-up supplies and extra food. If a bike broke down or one of them got sick or injured they would be on their own. Once again Nancy wondered what her responsibilities were as a mother. She took leap of faith: they would start in Prudhoe Bay. Life is risky. Was the Dalton Highway more dangerous than Boise? Maybe. But they were a team. Davy and Daryl had more than lived up to John and Nancy’s faith; now it was their turn to trust and respect the boys’ wishes.
The official northern end of the Pan Am Highway is Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, which lies seventy degrees north of the equator on the shore of the Arctic Ocean. There is nothing in the stark landscape or local legends to reassure a mother with two young children. Kevin Sanders, who leads motorbike tours down the Dalton highway, knows the challenges: “You don’t know what’s coming. We’ve had sunshine in July and we’ve had blizzards. There’s two hundred miles between towns that’s nothing but wilderness and bears. If you get in trouble,” he adds, “no one’s coming to the rescue.” The Official State of Alaska Travel Information warns that: “[Dalton] is also one of Alaska’s most remote and challenging roads. The road is mostly gravel, and motorists need to watch for ruts, rocks, dust in dry weather, potholes in wet weather… The volume of truck traffic… can be high and it is recommended motorists give these trucks the right of way.” It doesn’t say what cyclists should do. Presumably officials don’t expect anyone to be crazy enough to try it on two wheels.
The limitations of peddle power weighed on Nancy’s mind. They had never attempted such a long, remote ride. If they got into trouble there would be no one to call for help. Davy and Daryl were full of the insouciant confidence that comes with being 10 years old; John was physically the strongest. It was left to Nancy to wonder: will we have enough food? Will the boys stay healthy? Will the bikes break down? Will my troublesome knees be up to the task? Any one of these questions could have been an excuse to call the trip off or, at least, confine it to more civilised roads. Most dreams die because the dreamers can’t take the requisite and always terrifying step into the unknown. The best laid plans and sincerest intentions are no protection against the stomach-lurching sensation when you let go of the lifeline.
Nancy drew on a core of courage developed, pearl-wise, throughthe years. She knew that sometimes you have to just go. Confidence comes later. “At time I was so nervous I didn’t realise that Alaska, and especially the tundra, would end up being one of my favourite parts.” No amount of trust could alter the fact the four of them were alone, together, in a land that was vast beyond imagination. The sweeping, treeless grasslands stretched as far as the eye could see, the green rippling like a sea beneath the driving wind. Herds of caribou grazed free. Snow-capped mountains shrugged jagged shoulders against the clear arc of the sky. They set off in high summer, where 2AM and 2PM looked identical beneath the unblinking Arctic sun. The road offered no comforting illusions of security: no houses, hospitals, gas stations, power-lines, police, or any of the other taken-for-granted tokens of civilisation. “I felt overwhelmed by Mother Nature,” Nancy recalls. “Everything was so big and we were so small. We were dwarfed by the sheer magnificence of nature.”
After finishing university with its routine of “required” reading I moved to London to work at a music magazine. To my sheer delight I was surrounded by, inundated with, magazines. All the monthlies I couldn’t afford arrived on subscription: Vanity Fair, Esquire, GQ, Vogue, Details, plus Rolling Stone and a weekly dose of high-gloss, low-IQ celebrity fare from OK! and Hello. Plus unlimited access to Q, Mojo, Mixmag, and Arena which were produced in the offices around me.
With that journalistic goldmine to hand, I got out of the habit of reading actual books. The only two that made the trip from Philly to London were my dog-eared Franny & Zooey and a signed copy of Trainspotting, sentimental relics of my teenage years. Occasionally I borrowed a beach-read from my flatmate, but for the most part I read in 50 to 1500 word chunks of magazine-speak. A couple years later my company launched the future publishing phenomena that was Closer and Grazia, to join Heat in the ranks of the half-million-plus selling women’s weeklies. They were as were as brightly-wrapped as the contents of the office Cadbury Roses tin, and twice as addictive.
Books were passé. They were demanding and required concentration. Why bother when I could get instant fix on every page of Closer? At some point I said, half-joking, that I’d forgotten how to read: “Gossip magazines are turning me illiterate.” It wasn’t far off the truth. My attention span and love of words – honed over 17 years of serious reading – had fallen apart. My exposure to new ideas and information, and my ability to absorb and analyse, was being chipped away by a diet of mental junk food that bloated my mind with vapid nonsense. Realising that I had fallen into the mental equivalent of Supersize Me, I made a conscious decision to read more books.
It was like swapping chips for carrot sticks. Sure, it was good for me, but I had to work at reading books. There was a rhythm and a discipline to engaging with a long piece of text that I had lost. The shiny weeklies winked and pleaded: read me instead. I started rationing: Vanity Fair and Vogue once a month; Grazia or Closer as a Friday treat. Gradually, the diet of full paragraphs and polysyllabic words got easier to digest.
My main excuse for junk reading was the plea of many fast-food fiends: “I don’t have the time/money/energy to get something nutritious.” Turns out that, as with food, cheap and good-for-you is easy to come by if you know what you want and plan ahead. Thanks to Kindle, I have an accessible, wide-ranging selection of books perpetually to hand. But an e-reader is no more necessary to good literary fare than one of those prepared-meals delivery services is to a good diet. The best and most intriguing source of books is charity or second-hand shops. Unlike Amazon, which overwhelms with options and makes you wait for delivery, they offer an instant fix. Browsing the shelves you can snap up everything from the latest best-sellers to arcane anthropological tomes. Second-hand shops gifted me Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House, Henry James’s The Aspern Papers and Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington. They’ve introduced me to Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Mead, Anton Chekhov, Alice Walker, and Kurt Vonnegut. My handbag currently contains Hard Travelin’, Kenneth Allsop’s brilliant history of the migrant American workforce, purchased for £1.40 in a Marie Curie shop.
Accustomed, once again, to a feast of words and ideas, I happily turn my nose up at Metro and the gimcrack lure of Closer and its cousins. I still subscribe to Vogue, and occasionally spend an hour perusing magazines at Waterstone’s, but my compulsion to keep up with the Brangelina marriage saga, or to find out who has cellulite/forgot her mascara/fired her nanny is gone. Quitting junk food does a body good – and the same is doubly true of the mind.