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The magic of boredom

During the summer as a kid, I remember being bored. I remember being bored a lot throughout childhood, actually. I also remember playing epic games of pretend, creating elaborate music videos and soap operas, and going on a ton of neighborhood adventures.

What I didn’t know when I was small was that the boredom was connected to the fun, creative stuff. It might have even caused it.

This article about letting kids be bored in the summer is getting shared around the social media space right now. Let’s us grown-ups take serious note.

Boredom is creative fuel

When I first started developing Constructive Laziness (something you’ll be hearing about a lot more on this blog in the coming weeks), it was purely as a creative tool. I needed to find a way of working that didn’t flare my anxiety and perfectionism, and make me choke the life out of whatever I was making.

“Take breaks so long you get bored” became one of the central tenets of this nascent practice. When I figured this out, it felt like discovering fire. The longer the breaks I took while working in the studio, the more productive my work became.

Why?

Because boredom leads to curiosity and creativity. A bored mind is an open one. It’s a mind that notices. It’s a mind that wonders and wanders and reaches.

Take a long enough break and you’ll find yourself noodling with the next scene or tracing light patterns with your hands or attempting to hold your legs in the air with as little muscular effort as possible. In other words: you’ll experiment. You’ll get creative. You’ll do the weird shit that kids do with their bodies, minds, and the spaces they occupy also known as…play.

Allowing boredom

But, when’s the last time you were well and truly bored?

We reach for our phones without even thinking about it every chance we get. We work too much. We put too much on ‘the list.’ We feel guilty and weird if there’s empty space in our lives. We don’t know how to relax.

I had a friend once who worked herself sick with a more-than-full-time job and a bunch of freelance clients. She and her partner would zip off on whirlwind four-day trips to Mendoza, then she’d come home and look into buying yet-another rental property. Even her down time was exhausting.

Finally, her body began to talk loud enough that she listened. A close-call with cancer helped her reorganize her priorities and she decided to stop. For at least six months. She took a break long enough she got bored. And getting bored was actually a conscious part of her plan. She’d been running on automatic for so many years, she was curious about what she might be drawn to on the other side.

To me, this was the wisest and most ballsy move she could have made.

Our culture doesn’t value stopping. And it doesn’t value boredom. We’re just like over-programmed kids. We jump from one project or job or hobby or relationship to the next without any space between. We pack our minds full of cat memes, catastrophe, and conflict. We stuff our schedule full of work, parenting, consuming, surviving.

What would happen if we stopped? Long enough to get bored. Long enough for that boredom to turn into something else.

I’ve written about using your intuition to clarify your dreams, but boredom can be just as powerful. If you create space for it.

Escaping the escape hatches

So how do you build a practice around boredom?

Week #5 of The Artist’s Way process is one of the hardest weeks. It’s the one where Julia Cameron tells you not to read anything. No reading. None. Not even a take-out menu. Most folks try to wriggle out of it. They bluster about having to read for their jobs, having to stay current with the news. They throw up blocks and resistance like nobody’s business. They huff, “Ridiculous!” They quit the program.

This is how deep our fear of empty space goes. This is how rigorous a boredom practice needs to be.

But in order to get bored, we need to deke around our escape hatches—those habitual patterns that operate a little like static in our lives. Take note of your own personal favorites. Get really honest about them.

Here, I’ll go first:

  • reaching for my phone and cycling through this obsessive loop: Facebook, email, work chat, repeat;
  • switching between probably five different books;
  • batch- or binge-watching TV (betcha can’t watch just one!);
  • “pre-worrying” about things that may or may not turn out to be actual problems in my future life;
  • just sittin’ there procrastinating;
  • eyeballing various points of entropy in my apartment and feeling defeat and/or failure; and
  • food (thinking obsessing about what my next meal will be, fantasizing about treats I desire and deserve, calculating the distance between my body and said treats, trying to figure out what to make with the four unrelated, possibly rancid ingredients in my fridge, complaining about having to acquire, prepare, and clean up after food. There’s just a whole lot of time eaten up by food. Pun intended.)

These are the things standing in the way of boredom. I’m sure there are more. And when my escape hatches and my self-care practices meet? Whoa. I could spend a whole morning procrastinating about meditating.

Boredom is actually difficult to achieve. And one must be conscious about cultivating it.

Conscious boredom

I now give myself afternoons where I practice Doing Nothing. It’s freaking HARD, y’all. And really not as pointless as it sounds. When I gently and continually guide myself away from reaching for escape hatches (which is a form of meditation), I create a gap. That gap is precious and fleeting and powerful.

Because, friends, it’s the gap between things that pulls us forward into the realm of dreams.

If I allow that gap to be there, stretchy and billowing and light, eventually something will pull me. I will be drawn to the things I actually desire. Instead of picking up my phone, I’ll pick up my piece of rose quartz. Instead of staring at the TV, I’ll stare at my tiny potted tree. I’ll reach for my sketchbook instead of my Kindle.

What happens after that is nothing short of magical.

As I sit there, gazing at my tiny potted tree (whose name is Happy Plant), I begin to notice things. Three new baby leaves starting. An interesting row of dots along one of the broader, larger leaves. Soil that needs watering. I feel a desire to tend to this plant, and so I do. I water the tree and somehow I can feel its appreciation. I think about how satisfying and beautiful it is to tend to a living thing. To care for something. To notice its progress and its subtle transformation.

I might think about ways I could care more tenderly for other beings in my life. Or for myself. I might contemplate how much joy I could generate by tending to other plants. What if I started a garden? I might wonder where Happy Plant grows natively and think about traveling there. I might contemplate which environments help me to thrive.

My desire, curiosity, and impulses are now free to take me absolutely anywhere. I am generative. I am dreaming. I am creating my life, instead of being pushed around by it.

I have subverted the frenetic feedback loop of constant stimulus. I’ve embraced empty space. More profoundly, I’ve created agency within myself. Presence of mind. Nuanced awareness. I’ve tapped into the world as it is—stretchy, billowing—not as “productivity” would have me see it—tight-arsed and urgent.

This stretchy, malleable space is the space I grew up in. This is the space where, after my boredom pulled me forward, I started creating scenes, epic dramas, characters. I became a storyteller here. A maker of plays. Down in the basement on a misshapen piece of green carpet, dress-up box yawning wide, I became myself on the other side of boredom. Why would this be different now, decades later?

What lies are we carrying about what it means to be adult?

I have a friend whose child is homeschooled. Her school work only takes up about half of the day, leaving her several open hours. “What does she do with that time?” I asked my friend. “She builds worlds,” he said.

How has boredom led you to build worlds? What world is asking to be built now?

Can’t stop, won’t stop

So, you get through a really rough, chaotic time where you did more than your fair share of heavy-lifting and you think, ‘Ah, I’ve done it. It’s over. I can rest.’ And then, exactly seven minutes later, the Next F*cking Thing hits and all your special occasion, top shelf uncharitable thoughts come out, along with some flying spittle.

Life as a grown-up human feels relentless. It seems there’s no respite, or not nearly enough. Especially for those of us who are bad at relaxing (raises hand).

Looking for rest in all the wrong places

We think that if we go through all this struggle and strain, the universe should balance out somehow and give us a break. And the thought of that rest, that dangling carrot of peace, is partly what gets us through the rough times, but somehow we never actually get a good grip on the carrot even if we get a chance to catch up.

Why? Oh, because we made it up. Yeah, the carrot isn’t a thing.

There’s no vacation on the other end. That’s the bad news. The good news is, there’s a whole other way to look at it.

Look for the spaces between things

Where we get hung up is this idea of Big Effort = Big Rest. We see things in these large chunks when really, it’s better to bring it down the pixel level or the molecular one.

Taking things down to the microscopic, zooming right in, we get to see all sorts of lovely space around and between things, like the gaps between cells under a microscope.

We see that A Stressful Day is not one thing, but many things. Many things surrounded by buffers of space, like commutes or bathroom breaks or waiting in line at the impound lot where you can rest your attention on a nice, long inhale and a big, beautiful exhale. Spaces where, because the trains are all effed, you need to walk to the appointment and move at a slower pace.

This can be a practice—looking for the spaces around things. It can be practice to place yourself consciously in those spaces instead of rushing through the transitions. To make something of them. To find peace within them. To rest all the way through the process instead of hoping it arrives at the end.

Get your finger off the trigger

Problem is, the mind wants to latch on to how small these spaces are, and how they are drudgery, too, like all the other drudgery. Going to the bathroom isn’t a break! How can I possibly find peace while squatting over a reeking john with toilet paper stuck to my shoe?!

And I say: Chill, dear mind. Use your powers for good.

We get to train our cute brainboxes to see about anything. And thus far, they’ve practiced seeing the solid block of intensity. They’ve practiced seeing lack and ‘here we go again.’ They’ve rehearsed the “I’m so stressed ouuuuuuuut” speech for so long, they’ve forgotten there are other scripts to perform…and to write.

But, the first step is noticing what storylines are running on automatic. And how they’re contributing to your overall freaked-outedness. And if there’s a way to just delicately lift the needle off the record player and start looking around for other tunes to play.

Create consciously

And now, having practiced seeing lovely empty spaces, having raised a sceptical eyebrow at habitual storylines, having shifted the onus of great power and great responsibility onto your capable, muscular shoulders, you become an artist.

You peer into these variously shaped spaces with curiosity and creativity—and you think, ‘What shall I make in here?’

Is this a moment where I make a ritual of observing the trees I pass on the way to the subway? All the different tree personalities? How green they look in in the rain? How the wind moves them and shapes their branches?

Is this a moment where, in the in-breath between the kids leaving and the work email binging, I take up a pen and write several sentences all in a row? Whether it’s a journal practice or a novel or a I-dunno-I-just-have-this-idea.

It might even be the kind of moment where you see a pattern you’re ready to stop. A boundary that it’s time to build. A hole you patch up, for real this time, instead of leaking your precious life force out of it and giving away your power.

And I should tell you there’s no limit to possibility here.

A dear friend of mine and I have created an imaginary escape hatch for days that are Entirely Too Much. It’s a magical place called Fuckthisshit Island and no one is invited there but us. We have BBQs and fancy cocktails and dig our toes into the warm sand. We leave all the bullshit behind and take a moment to catch our breath.

Choose again

So then, the task is to gently build a little muscle around making these conscious choices.

We don’t need to make an epic project out of it. It’s just seeing, ah, I can do this again. And if you can do it again then it can become a real thing in your life. You create a habit, you make something, but more deeply affecting than that: you build trust.

Trust starts to knit itself between the part of you that really needs a rope to hang onto when things get squirrelly and the part of you that knows, now, how to make that happen.

Because it isn’t necessarily Life And The Universe keeping you from rest or from the space to create, it’s that subtle, fragile trust in yourself. That when the opportunity comes, you won’t sell yourself out.

That you’ll allow yourself to notice the spaces and to bring gentleness into your experience. That you’ll fill the spaces well and for your highest good. That when the chance to fill the spaces comes again, you’ll build the muscles you really want to build. The present, creative, funny ones.

The muscle to hold a spacious moment in your hands like a tiny bird and ask, “Should we sing now? Should we sleep? Or should we fly?”

Inner work, outer effort

The process of realizing dreams or bringing creative projects to life is always a balance between internal and external work.

This is, for me, a distinction between dreams and goals. Goals and goal setting always has this kind of aggressive rah-rah quality of articulating a specific, measurable goal, giving yourself a deadline, and Doing All The Things to get that shit done. Lose ten pounds by Christmas! Sell a million copies by April 2020! Get married and have a kid by…ech.

I used to love goals. But honestly, after My Lost Year, focusing on outcomes and taking on arbitrary, anxiety-provoking deadlines no longer resonates. Too much stuff has gone sideways in my life for me to feel okay within the rigid structure of goals.

But I do have dreams and very clear aspirations, some of which come with specific timelines. And I know these things will change me on some deep, alchemical level. Because the juicy stuff always does.

Dreams bump you up against all your stuff: limiting beliefs, unprocessed pain, and your own individual cosmic curriculum of lessons and areas for growth. They also take a lot of hard, boots-on-the-ground work.

Dream doing always involves efforting on the inside and the outside.

Which is why getting attached to goal-like outcomes is a dangerous gig. You may think that, say, writing your screenplay is about starting your career as a professional screenwriter and selling your first script. But this project may be actually about developing a writing practice and learning to self-promote. The outcome of selling a script is your (and your ego’s) idea of what this project is ‘for,’ but your cosmic curriculum might be different.

So, let’s just jump over to the idea of a cosmic curriculum (and I promise I’ll stop using that term).

We all have a path. Whether it was determined before we arrived on the planet or whether it’s being written as it’s being lived is really irrelevant. You are here to be, do, and learn very specific things. You don’t get a course syllabus printed out for you at the beginning of life. You find out about your assignments as you live them out.

And, once again, we continually bump up against our ego as we move through our assignments, who has definite opinions about what should be on the curriculum: fame! loads of money! sexy brunch every Sunday! easily identifiable markers of success which come at regular and predictable intervals!

This is why we’re so baffled when our expectations aren’t met by the outcomes of our projects and dreams…because we believe our egos to be in line with our path.

What we seek are outcomes. What we get is growth.

Case in point: In 2011, about a year after I arrived in New York, I did a long run of a show I made. My intention, and my material need at the time, was to make money. Our goal was to sell tickets and get paid. That didn’t happen. Throughout the seven weeks of the run, I freaked out about how we were failing to achieve our goals. I was so obsessed with how much or how little revenue we were bringing in that I couldn’t see the true function of this production.

Over the course of the run, we attracted something like 20 or 30 reviews. Everything from major news outlets to well respected magazines to bloggers moved to write about the work. This? Is unheard of.

One reviewer attended what ended up being a private, one-on-one performance. Before the show started, I was devastated and crushed there was no one in the audience but her. But that show turned out to be the single most intimate, magical performance I’ve ever done in my life.

The purpose and results of that production, while not ones I sought, formed the perfect set-up for what came in the two years following: big international tours that relied heavily on our press coverage for their success, and the beginnings of me learning to actually trust the process.

Often the roadblocks we encounter come from ‘inside the house.’

A need to inhabit a new, leadership role can force you to look at old, unresolved feelings of unworthiness. These feelings must be worked through or you can’t fully become a leader. The inner work is necessary for the outer work to get done.

These moments of internal effort often have the effect of pausing progress or activity on the external level. Which can be provoking. It might make you feel like the internal work is a distraction or taking you off course. It might feel like a waste of time. I assure you, it’s as much a part of the success of this project as any other effort.

The key is to be aware of what’s happening.

I was just part of another project where the intended outcome was money. Money, however, was the last thing that was coming to us. What came instead were communication problems, interpersonal confusion, and frustration. Finally, I realized I needed to let go of the money outcome completely and focus in on understanding what the actual (larger, deeper) purpose of this project was. When I did, I saw that I needed shift into a heart-centered place of compassion and serve the project from that place. I stepped into a spiritual leadership role I had neither acknowledged or fulfilled in my quest for dollars.

Then, of course, everything in the project started to flow—the external work could progress unabated because the internal work had been done.

So much of the personal and spiritual progress I’ve made in my life is thanks to my biggest dreams and creative endeavors. My dreams have asked me to face deep-seated fears and the way I keep myself small. These are not self-help side-projects—they’re necessary for moving forward with the project at hand.

Think of them as assignments within the larger assignments of our dreams.

The beauty of realizing dreams is not that we get to check a box that something got done or achieved. The real purpose and value of pursuing our dreams is that they ask us to grow as human beings. Dreams and creative work will always offer us opportunities for hard work where we roll up our sleeves and get things done. But they’ll also offer us the vulnerable, foundation-layer opportunity to look at ourselves and transform ways we don’t expect, but deeply need.

What is your dream asking of you now? How does it want you to grow?

On having a backup plan

As a young artist, my dad always used to encourage me to have a fallback plan. The deeper I got into my creative work, the more looming this nebulous thing became.

Fallback.

What did it mean?

I assumed it meant there was no effing way I’d make a living in theatre and dance. Or it meant that I would probably fail, so I should have something else ready to occupy my time and pay the bills.

Over the years, it got so I wasn’t able to think about my creative passions without Plan B sidling up beside it, like a plus-one at a party. I didn’t necessarily invite the backup plan, but there it was, drinking rum punch.

Eventually, that connection solidified even more. Like: if I am creating, then a backup plan must be present.

This caused a series of problems.

First, it assumed that the creative work was not the backup plan. That these were two distinct, and probably antagonistic, entities. It implied that the backup plan would pay the bills and the creative work would not. And buried in all of that was the assumption that paying bills should be part of my creative work’s job description in the first place.

But, should it?

In the history of Melanie Makes Art, which began when I was a toddler, making money has almost never been part of the motivation, drive, and urgency to express my human experience in various forms.

Granted, Paying Bills becomes prevalent in life at a certain point. But why did it get suddenly and fervently get mushed together with creativity like an incredibly high-stakes blind date? Jane, meet Susan. Susan, meet Jane. You two will be moving in together now.

This doesn’t mean income can’t be part of the motivation to do creative work, or that motivations can’t change over time. But the danger comes when unconscious associations happen in our brains without our consent. Beliefs like these limit us in ways we aren’t aware of, because we can’t even see them. We don’t know they’re operating or how they got in.

And yet: there they are.

Somewhere along the way, Art + Backup Plan got linked in my brain. And Money was the unexamined bassline rumbling underneath it all.

So, for fun, let’s just sit for a moment and give a new idea some space:

Creativity can exist separately from a backup plan.

God, what could it mean for us?

If our creative work was free from backup plannery:

  • We could just do our creative work. Like, actually focus on it. Without feeling like we’ve left the stove on or forgotten our kid in a Target parking lot.
  • We might feel super motivated to kick all kinds of ass.
  • We might also discover we’re terrified. That the backup plan was our security blankie and, now that it’s gone, we’re really wigged out.
  • We might feel pressure. Uh oh, we’re actually on the hook for producing something.
  • The problem of paying bills would still exist and still be a thing we need to figure out. But it’s over there now. A little further away, like at least three inches.
  • We might feel lighter and looser, or we might feel untethered and lost.
  • We might fail at our creative thing and be mortally embarrassed and/or disappointed.

Okay. So nobody dies from cutting the lil’ imaginary umbilical cord between Dreams and Plan Bs. The sky does not fall. The earth’s crust does not crack.

But all of our problems don’t suddenly solve themselves, either.

In fact, we may have more problems. Raw feelings like fear and pressure to produce and vulnerability. Which might attract some tag-along barnacles like resistance and futility. We might have to encounter failure. And then we might wonder what the point of creative work is.

So, it’s worth acknowledging that we actually get some pay-off from this backup plan thing.

Plan B keeps a whole lot of complication at bay. It lets you have one foot in and one foot out of your dreams. It allows you not to fully commit, or to risk, or to fail. It’s a back-alley permission slip to not be 100% authentically you and, as a bonus, you get to blame someone else for it! Thanks Dad. Your backup plan crap kept me from being a really successful artist.

Oh dear.

Now, what the hell do you do?

For my money, you find a really comfy spot on the couch and settle in for a spell. Because this is officially A Lot To Process. In unpacking the unexamined connections between Plan B and your dream, you’ve also had to confront a bunch of big feelings about letting those two things be separate, and in the process realized that the payoff from not fully committing to your creative stuff may be holding you back, but that committing to it might mean failure and humiliation.

Here, have a muffin. Still warm.

Okay.

So, here’s the real stuff. I only personally know one or two artists (and by know, I mean, like, I’ve met them in person a couple of times) who don’t have something resembling a side gig, day job, or patchwork of various forms of hustle in addition to their artistic practice. In fact, even the artists I know who can live off their art and solely their art still earn income from projects that are more work-for-hire than their own pristine artistic vision.

There is no Artist Rule Book in which it’s stated: Thou art not a real artist if thou hast a side gig.

So, reframing the backup plan as a standard issue day job is a possible strategy.

But. It’s not really about that, is it?

It’s about the commitment piece. Fully inhabiting your unruly, creative, authentic self. Without reserve. Both feet in. No backup plan.

There is no fallback to being 100% You.

Even though being you is, at times, terrifying, expensive, confusing, complicated, inconvenient, upsetting, boring, exhilarating, unappetizing, exhausting, and about sixty-seven other very descriptive words.

Can I posit here that it’s not your creative work that needs to be divested from the heavy burden of The No-Fail QuikPay Securify Backup Plan 2000, but…you?

That your trembling, beautiful, tender-unfurling-leaf of a self just needs to be allowed some real breathing room? Without the pressure to deliver or perform? That you get to be an artist because you say you’re an artist and that self-defining is your right (and possibly your superpower)? And that the expansive, airy quality of running around naked with no backup plan has its own unexpected payoff, I promise?

You as naked, authentic person might fail. You might feel pain, or you might cause it. You might fully commit to a thing that just stops appealing to you at a certain point along the way. You might change your mind seventy-eight times. You might have dozens of false starts and never get a project off the ground and give up completely and sell the farm and dye your hair green and say fuck it all, I’m going to live on a boat and homeschool my children.

All of this is totally okay. I believe it’s what scientists call Living.

But, we can choose to live without burdening ourselves unnecessarily. And punishing ourselves for not carrying that weight “well.”

C’mon.

Set it down. Let’s go skinny dipping.

 

The air we breathe

I realized the big dream of my life eight years ago this month. I traveled to Paris, solo, to write. The intention was to immerse myself in artistry in a city that had captured my heart and soul ten years before—and to change my own life. I knew I was supposed to be an artist. I knew that’s who my true, authentic self needed to be.

I finally let her.

But, when I got home (a small city in Western Canada), everything fell apart. The re-entry was rough. I no longer fit in my own life. I was stifled. I didn’t know how to bring my Paris self into my world back home. Depression moved in.

I remember one night, unable to sleep, I slipped out of bed and went to the room I used as an office. I was desperate, reeling and coming unhinged. I didn’t know what to do. I reached for my journal and tried to write my way to clarity. As I wrote, I began to combust with a blinding, white rage. I collapsed on the floor, ripping at the pages of the journal, gripping its hardback cover with white knuckles, and tearing the book in half.

I sobbed and sobbed, on my knees, ruined journal still in my hands. I was lost.

There are times when we see with devastating clarity that our dreams—our authentic selves—refuse to stay quiet. We understand that marginalizing them and making them small is killing us. We feel the rage take over. Our bodies rebel. It’s terrifying.

But, what did we expect?

That our true selves would tolerate being shoved aside? That day jobs and dinner parties and placid status quos would satisfy the wild, unbridled, creative spirits we are?

It doesn’t work.

We are uncontainable and we will not abide.

Oh god, I wish we could. I long to be satisfied by a straight-ahead life. I wish I wanted what The Other People seem to want. Martha Graham called this a blessed unrest, but how difficult it is to remember the blessedness.

I’m so sorry. You’re going to have to live your dreams and inhabit your authentic self. No matter how inconvenient or uneconomical. No matter how much strife it may cause. No matter whose feelings you hurt.

You have to.

Your authenticity is the oxygen your body requires.

There’s nothing more to it than that. And so you must, without knowing how any of it will work out or what ruination may await, get yourself into a studio. You must write your poems. You must finish your film. You must let your insatiable curiosity gorge itself on the world.

You must, as I just did, bear the annual crisis of faith when you file your taxes and see how little you made and how much you spent on your creative work, your self-care.

See moments like this as reckonings with the true cost of your survival.

They are.

This isn’t to say you’ll never make money at your passions. That’s beside the point. The point is, the world was not built for the wild-haired creatures of light that we are and that costs us something. We learn to bear it or, better yet, budget it in.

Without it, you don’t exist. You go dry and curled at the edges. You become a husk. You fade. Your rage sets you on fire and eats you alive.

There is nothing wrong with you.

God, I want to scream it. There is nothing wrong with you.

You are a precious flicker of light. A candle in the vast blanket of bland darkness. Your anger is real and it’s true. Your pain, your hunger, I believe them. Your longings are a bread crumb path out of prison. Follow them. Please. Suck in the breath of air you so desperately need. Let your rage burn down the walls that contain you. Know that many of us are where you are, or have been, or will be. And that becoming yourself, while done alone, is not done in isolation.

Claiming space for yourself claims it for all of us. The benevolent colonization of an empire of secret gardens, tangled woods. A country built of light and clean breath. A place where we can live.

How has your authentic self asserted itself in your life? How did you respond? Share your stories in the comments below.

 

Let yourself be

So often, we hold our dreams or authenticity or creative practice hostage. We tie them up, swing a naked bulb over their heads, and scream in their faces: GIMME ANSWERS.

We look for anchors in the storm, believing our dreams to be the storm.

We ask our creative work to pay our bills and rent, or else. We demand our nascent passions to achieve excellence no matter what, our creative meanderings to be going somewhere, leading to something. We force matters of the heart and soul to answer the question, “What is the point?”

Uncertainty isn’t the problem, adulting is

Somewhere along the way we were lied to.

Someone or a bunch of someones told us that being an adult means knowing things for sure. It means having a plan and making things happen. It means making a contribution, whether it’s financial, spiritual, or societal. It means delivering.

And yeah, as an adult human, you have to show up for Regular Life. You have to get yourself to work and pay the electric bill and make sure the kids are fed. You have to function. In spite of a lot of things, sometimes.

But you also need to understand where the practice, expectation, and skill set of being a grown-up ends. You need to know the places in which you can stop being so damned efficient. And Such A Good Person all the time.

The challenge is, once we wade into those waters—the murky spaces of self-care, creativity, authenticity, spiritual practice, and frivolous dreams of Thai cooking classes and adventures in Kenya—once we step off the adulthood assembly line, we’re quickly out of our depth.

We don’t know how to play for the sake of playing. We don’t know how to noodle. How to drift. How to let an idea or a poem or a moment just be, unfolding as it will, changing shape, and merely existing. We fear the open, rich potential of uncertainty.

We demand things have purpose. We look for measurable outcomes. We turn ideas into products and projects, and require immediate results. We drag the tender sprouts of our dreams back onto the assembly line as fast as we can.

But they refuse to go.

The rigor of allowing

Miles Davis said, “Man, sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.”

Allowing yourself to be in the open, unstructured space of creativity, intuition, and dreams is a practice. A rigorous practice. It’s a skill that artists understand implicitly and work extremely hard at. For decades.

Do not underestimate how challenging it is to be authentic.

For me, as an artist, that is the work.

Getting out of my own way and allowing the words, ideas, and images to flow through me and onto the page. Letting the weirdness be weird. Asking for it to be even more strange. More surprising. I want my work to tell me something I don’t know. To articulate something I didn’t know I felt. To clarify what it means to be alive in a way my Very Smart Rational Adult Brain just can’t with its to-do lists and timelines.

This, by the way, is why we love art and artists. This is why we crave adventure.

Not because it’s predictable or contained. Easily digestible. Rational. But because it stops us in our tracks with its wild honesty. It cuts us to the core. Makes us feel human and alive.

The practice of working in this open, surprising space is not easy.

(I mean, it was easy, when we were kids. But now, we’ve been adulting so long, we have to relearn all the kooky wonderful genius we had when we were seven.)

Recovering yourself

Michelangelo sculpted by removing the rock that wasn’t the statue. Read that again. The sculpture already existed, fully formed, within the block of stone. Michelangelo’s job wasn’t to create the work of art. It was to remove everything that wasn’t the work of art trying to get made.

Same goes for you.

It’s not about adding artistry. It’s about uncovering authenticity.

Your task is to rigorously, relentlessly remove everything that isn’t authentically you. This is vastly harder than it sounds.

And so to demand unreasonable and inappropriate things of your creative, dream-chasing self (have purpose! pay bills! serve the greater good!) works against this already-difficult job.

We’ll get to all that

If you haven’t already, go find the work of poet Nayyirah Waheed. Fall into her tiny droplets of image and feeling and wisdom, and swim around for an hour. This artist is deeply and irrevocably herself. She speaks from the center of her being and, you can feel it, writes to heal and understand her experience. The work’s authenticity is crystal clear.

But her impact goes way beyond that.

She answers questions I didn’t know I was asking. She articulates my humanity in ways that stun me. She opens me. She heals me.

The effect of her authenticity ripples out way beyond her.

We are all like this.

We don’t do it in the same way. We’re not all going to be famous or published poets. That part doesn’t matter in the least. We all have an impact that is much larger than ourselves. Regardless of whether we’re “professionals” at whatever it is we do.

Just by existing. Just be being you in the world. I urge you not to underestimate this.

Your impact is clarified and magnified by the work of becoming authentic. The intentional effort of allowing. The courage to step off the assembly line and into the murk. Of chipping away the stone that isn’t you.

This what we’re doing here, people.

This is what dreams are. What creativity does. What self-care facilitates. This is why it’s critical that you let yourself journal and experiment with writing plays. Why your futzing around with paints while the kids nap is deeply important. Why your longings for mountain peaks aren’t distractions, but necessary clues. Why that weird “thing” you doodled on a napkin isn’t something to be feared, but to be followed.

This—the studied practice of letting yourself be and do whatever the hell feels delicious and true—is the Why behind everything I write to you each week and the work I’m asking you with all my heart to do.

What is your authentic self asking you to do now? How can you allow this space and time enough to be? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

 

 

Make a mess

Whether it’s out of fear or a crystal-clear vision that came to us on a mountaintop, we often hope our dreams maintain a kind of hermetically sealed perfection. You can come in, we tell them, but don’t mess with my relationships, my schedule, my clean kitchen. Don’t freaking change anything.

Dreams are, by definition, harbingers of change.

They are the coming attractions of where your life, and your heart, is headed. They are the way we as individuals evolve, grow, and progress down our life’s path.

Change is inevitable and constant.

This is the part we conveniently forget. And try to control.

I’ve tried to tell Change how to operate in my life, how big of an impact it’s allowed to have. It never listens. But, when I let Change do its thing, when I allow it to unfold, it’s a much gentler process than you’d think.

It’s just messy, that’s all.

Change is not a linear process. It’s not contained. It’s sprawling and its tentacles get everywhere.

The rubber hits the road when you embrace the mess.

I had an artistic mentor who told me again and again to “stay messy.” I didn’t understand what she meant. I thought she was saying “let your creative project change,” but it was far more all-encompassing and DNA-level than that.

She was asking me to inject so much air into my process and practice that everything I made had a loose, sketched-in quality. Scenes were slightly off-hand, drafted, not clean or pretty. As a recovering perfectionist, this felt like being lazy or sloppy.

But, giving my work this much space allowed for happy accidents and surprising revelations. It let me throw things together just to see what happened, not because I was hoping for a certain outcome. It freed me to make scenes and songs that were “stupid” or ridiculous—which meant I had actual fun in the making. Work became delightful, revelatory, fresh.

(Before, my creative work was very much “work,” which seems sad to me now.)

I developed a practice with myself. Whenever I felt myself getting tense or pressured or scared, I’d intentionally make the worst version of something. I’d write a scene so operatically terrible, I made myself laugh. Then, like a miracle, I’d be joyful and in a flow state again. I freed myself to create.

Messiness is not a cute trick. It’s a necessary antidote to perfectionism.

Perfectionism and the need to be good or right squeezes the life—and the humanity—out of whatever you do. It sucks out all the air and light. It turns us into productive robots instead of the fluid, warm, adaptable love-machines we are.

Don’t forget. We are not here on Planet Earth to Get Things Done. We are here to love and be loved. We are generative. We are vulnerable, organic creatures subject to all the laws of the universe: gravity, thermodynamics, change.

Pour cream in your coffee and watch it spiral and swirl. Watch a flock of birds wheeling through the air. This is the profound beauty of messiness. This is the perfection of allowing, of letting life flow through you.

You are here to spiral and dance with the world. This is who you are.

How has messiness (intentional or unintentional!) created surprising results in your life, your work, or your dreams? Post your experiences in the comments below.

Creativity and impossible dreams

I write (and think and talk) a lot about creativity and the creative process. As a practicing writer and performance artist, many of my dreams have been explicitly creative.

But not all of them.

And regardless of whether you want to be an organic rooftop farmer, an artisanal gin producer, or a watercolor painter, creativity is going to play a huge role in your work.

Why?

Because creativity is largely problem solving.

Many people have written eloquently about de-rarifying creativity and I’ll add my enthusiastic voice to that group. Creativity and creative thinking are not solely for people who identify as artists. The business, tech, and science communities have taken on “innovation” as a cute stand-in, but we know what they mean.

They mean having wild, even impossible, ideas and figuring out how to make them.

They mean creativity.

The more out-there the idea, the more creativity you’ll need.

I, personally, am a huge fan of impossible ideas. Nothing rallies your creativity like an impossible idea. I’ve relied on them in my artistic and dream chasing practices for 10 years.

My first-ever big dream was to do an Ironman triathlon. When I signed up for the race, completing an Ironman was firmly in the realm of No Effing Way. Which is partially what drew me toward it, and definitely what fuelled my year of training and preparation. I was freaking terrified.

The gap between What I Wanted and What I Was Currently Capable Of was massive.

This is the sweet spot in the dream chasing business.

When you take on something “impossible,” your brain throws itself into closing that gap. It will come up with solutions and strategies. It will articulate what needs to be accomplished or known first. It will seek out ways to get this thing done in the most efficient way possible.

Some of these ideas may scare the crap out of you.

Because your creativity, when it’s really cooking, doesn’t give a damn about what’s been done before or how things might look to other people. So the ideas might seem weird. Unsettling, even.

When I was creating my first major theatre work, ENDURE, I received a small grant. Originally, the show was about triathlon (my experiences with Ironman, actually). I thought it somehow involved bikes on stage, I guessed. And a pool? Maybe? I didn’t know.

The grant was too small for any of that.

Simply renting a theatre space would eat up all the money I had. Which meant I’d have no money for set, costume, or paying a director and my other collaborators.

So, I had a problem. Actually, I had two.

  1. I needed this grant to pay for everything.
  2. I had to make a show about endurance sport, without spending money on a venue.

The solution came from a friend. “You should perform it running,” he said with a smirk. He might have been joking.

In the moment, I laughed and the conversation moved on. But that idea stuck with me. Like: it rattled around in my brain 24-7 and would not leave. Performing the show running would solve both of my problems instantly.

It would create more problems than it solved, though, but God! Performing it running! How would that even work? The audience would have to run alongside me. They would hate that, wouldn’t they? Runners wouldn’t hate that. Runners would love it.

I was instantly inspired. My delicious, juicy, impossible idea had revealed itself.

I was now too curious to let anything stand in my way. I had to make this show, just to see if I could. And I did. ENDURE: A Run Woman Show was performed over a 3 mile (5 km) route through beautiful Prospect Park in Brooklyn, NY.

Creative thinking is the way to realize impossible dreams.

So, what if your dream is just Kinda Pretty Doable? Creativity can help you out, too. But, I will gently-but-firmly suggest you make your dreams bigger. Kinda Pretty Doable is a dangerous place. It’s the place where complacency might pop up instead of creativity. If your brain doesn’t have a tough problem to tackle, you’ll get bored and the idea will fizzle.

Easy dreams are no kind of dreams.

You need to find the sweet spot. There needs to be a gap between What You Want and What You’re Currently Capable Of. That gap should make you nervous. It should let you know, without a doubt, you’re going to have to grow in order to get there.

That, gentle reader, is why you’re here.

You didn’t show up hoping that you got to stay exactly the same and casually knock off some dreams as you coast through your life. You’re here because you want to shake things up. You want to expand. You want an adventure.

Impossible dreams are the adventure you seek.

Move your dreams and ideas outside the realm of realistic. Nudge those birdies out of the nest and make ’em learn to fly. Think bigger. Be ridiculous. The only goals worth pursuing are the ones that thrill you to your soul.

It’s time to take some action! What dreams are asking you to think bigger right now? How do you tackle thrilling, impossible problems? Post your answers in the comments below.