“The meaning of life is that is to be lived.” — Bruce Lee
I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of identity.
I remember spending many angst-ridden teenage nights laying awake in my bedroom, melancholy, overcome with this urge of knowing who I am. It must have been puberty, or a Fine Arts degree, or maybe hippy parents. I’d stare out the window hoping the midnight wind would answer in some Zen Koan. But, the universe didn’t answer.
Life goes on, I got older, I learn lessons, I gain some kind of wisdom.
Fast forward another 15 years and I am understanding that an identity isn’t something to be discovered, it is something that is built. There seems to be a fair few writers and philosophers that seem to think so, Bruce Lee is one example (yes, he is a philosopher too). It makes sense. I’m paraphrasing here, based on a TED talk his daughter gave recently, but Bruce said “I am means, and there are only means”. By that he is suggesting that your actions define who you are. It’s how you do things that is most important, not why nor what.
In this way to build an identity is like building a habit, the more you do a particular thing, the more you are one who does that particular thing. Seems simple enough idea right? But a pretty tough one to execute if you are inclined to entertain a bit of self doubt every now and then… erm, like me.
Personally I can struggle with saying that I am “an artist”, because my bias says “you aren’t an artist unless you sell your works for $x,” or “unless you are famous for your art”. Wowsers, what a limiting belief eh? This is basically tying an identity to a marker. A million dollar painting or huge following on instagram. Are these the right metrics?
What if instead I approach it like this: an artist is one who practices art. That’s it. One who practices art. A person is x if they do x. This is just as, if not even more, true a statement.
I am means, and there are only means.
Identity is in the consistent action and not the recognition. It’s in the consistent doing, not the thinking. It’s fluid and dynamic, and by that same token, it expires. Doesn’t matter if you’re any good, you just have to do it and do it often. Consistency is key. Otherwise I’d have interpretive dancer on my business card. Nope, once at primary school was enough.
So herein lies the problem. My current struggle with saying I am an artist is that I’ve not really created art in a while. Johan the artist is a past ghost fading away in the midst the daily grind. The answer is simple enough. If I want to be an artist, practice and make art. Hence the birth of this blog. I’m doing it not for the money nor the followers. I’m doing it for the practice of art and creation. Slowly, but surely, reclaiming the identity I wished for in my teenage emo days.
Let me say this one more time so that I may tattoo this into my memory… be a doer. Identity through action.
Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us just show up and get to work. — Chuck Close, painter
I’ve said this before, but for those who missed it, I’m a creator. But the thing is I seldom create without a great deal of anguish. So, for people like me quotes like Chuck Close’s are a great reminder to just get up and get on with it. Yeah! Fuck inspiration!
Motivation is a double-edged sword. A great dopamine hit, but usually for me the inspiration is short-lived and the novelty wears off. Many a night I’ve sat myself at the desk ready for greatness to flow through me, sparked by some kind of inspiration, before freezing stiff at the sight of the blinking cursor. Nek minnit, it’s past my bedtime and I’m scrolling through Instagram.
Life is like a box of chocolates, and so are motivational quotes. It’s full of empty calories.
But it’s not like I don’t want to create! “OK Google, how do I get started?” … I’m sorry, I can’t help with that. Dammit. What should I do when I’m at the precipice of creation and don’t have anything to say. What if the only thing I can come up with is garbage. The world is polluted enough as it is. But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? Is… is that, a catchy pop tune with a metaphor for me?
Can you meet me halfway, right at the borderline
Is where I’m gonna wait, for you
I’ll be looking out, night n’ day…
— Black Eyed Peas, singing about where I can find my inspiration
So there it is, Black Eyed Peas with the answer to the universe’s great question on creation. Make the first move. A little bit like getting your first kiss, the creative process is a leap of faith and I just have to lean in. Like, reaaally lean in (in my case) and commit to the make-out session, no matter how awkward.
That means writing straight garbage for 15 minutes until inspiration strikes. Like, gobbledegook until I achieve some kind of flow. Suck it up and get on with it. No-one’s watching anyway, so may as well get into the groove. It’s a decent mantra and has helped me break through some pretty lame excuses these last few weeks. I’m writing now, for the first time in years. It feels great.
Maybe I needed to commit to writing daily. Maybe I needed to get over myself. Maybe I expected it to be easy. Man, I was wrong. It’s still a punish, but after time the process becomes the reward. Admittedly I’m not there yet but I have faith.
The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon is the term for when you learn about something new, or it comes to your attention, then all of a sudden you see it everywhere.
This is exactly what happened when I came across the idea that walking is good for creative thinking. I first heard it in a podcast three days ago, then a TED talk with a similar topic popped up last night, then I remember it in a book I read last week. The gist of it being that going for a stroll kick-starts one’s creative juices, shifting an idle mind to a more dynamic state.
Baader-Meinhof and the universe wanted me to take this idea for a test drive. So this morning my wife and I thought that while our kids were being babysat (heaven) that we should go for a stroll on the bike track. I had high hopes.
You know, the thing with having children under six (and we have two of them) is that you have very little time to yourself. In fact, kids nap times are the best time. You get a moment’s silence to respect the peace of mind we used to have.
We are either on and play games, feed and change nappies, or we are off, exhausted and surrendering into the soft embrace of the couch. Often falling asleep to the sweet lullaby of a light Tasmanian Pinot. Maybe we have a drinking problem. Anyway, you are either entertaining or you are unwinding. One is rarely bored. I miss being bored.
Apparently, and here’s another idea for you, being bored is also good for the mind. It’s great for creativity, don’t just take my word — there are studies on it. Boredom can stimulate creativity and problem-solving by letting the mind to daydream. A luxury my wife and I don’t have anymore.
So this is how our walk went this morning… we left for a stroll and at first talked small talk (while catching our breath) about needing to wee already, or how our front garden needs mowing. A kilometre in and we started looking at other people’s yards and house projects and I felt my first synapse firing.
“Huh, I wonder what house projects are a metaphor for.”
I noticed a mother bouncing a baby on her lap as she looked on to watch her husband build a pool in their already crowded back yard. “Does he want a perfect family life by having an amazing back yard, when all his wife wants is to spend more time together with their young baby?”. I know, not super profound, but I was looking to peel under surface level observations.
By the halfway point we already started to play games on who would say “hello” first between ourselves and other walkers passing by. We started noticing things and playing silly games. I even tried some slam poetry. My wife didn’t approve. Piew! Piew! The synapses firing like spark plugs.
It was amazing to just be outside. In silence. Not needing to feed a constantly hungry toddler in the stroller, or talk to an attention seeking boy on his scooter. We sought to fill the warm, comforting silence instead with the ideas that were bubbling under the surface.
By the time we finished our walk we had two sets of sweaty armpits and a handful of novel business and life ideas. The former left us questioning our choice to shower before the walk, the latter confirming the idea that walks are a gateway to creativity.
Note to self. If you can’t be bored, be moving. It works.
Don’t take my word for it. Give it a try.
I like to measure things. No, not like that.
You see, I have a terrible metric when looking at art, especially when it’s my own. I am a creative, like a proud peacock showing off my plumage, I express myself and I can’t help it, it’s in my DNA man. And, it feels good.
What makes this creative process sticky and more complicated than a 16 box sudoku is that I usually have to wrestle with internal demons along the way. If the finished artwork is the princess, self doubt is the dragon I have to slay to get there.
Usually what happens is that when I finish making something, that piece of art is then at the mercy of the judge — my ego. A thumbs up and I share it online, a pollice verso and it hides in a sub-sub-subfolder somewhere.. I don’t even give the artwork the respect of giving it a name (it’s easier that way).
That metric I was talking about? It’s having a binary view of good or bad artwork. Show-off or hide away. This will make people like me more, or, this will make people think less of me. Geez, talk about toxic self talk.
See, the difference with me
When I do what I do
I do what I’m doing
But I’m doing it like I’m doing it for TV
The surprising thing is that I see this in my five year old too and it pains me to see him struggle through the same thing. As an outsider I see that this filter gets in the way of creating a historical artifact. I see him draw something and then say “I don’t like it” then start scrawling over it in disgust. Boy, what you just created is a snapshot of this very moment of your life — of your interest, your emotions, your point of view — and you willingly destroy it?! You know how valuable that is? I want to remember this, I want to remember you like this.
The pain for me is two fold. One, to see my son fighting internal battles so early and, two, seeing this artifact of history being thrown in the trash. He won’t be this little forever and this is a snippet of him I want to look back on.
“OK then hypocrite” — I say to myself — why do you destroy your artworks? Or even worse, why do you let them live but not show them to others. There are four hard drives worth of songs, drawings, poems, stories, laying there collecting dust in the garage.
Sadly to that I don’t have a better answer than to say ”Because it’s not me” or rather “it’s not the me I want to portray”. And so I kidnap the art and lock it up in the dungeon that is my portable hard drive so that one day, maybe, my son will stumble upon them. He’ll look through it and say to me “Dad, why did you never show me these?!”
O Captain, my Captain.
Just watched Dead Poet’s Society, amazing..
Man I love a good story. They’re like a meticulously wrapped Christmas present. Full of mystery and crisp around the edges. Did you know that we all look at the world around us through the lens of a narrative (if you didn’t know, now you know). It’s how humans make sense of the chaos that is our life. We live our days through a series of causes and effects, often laden extra thick with sweet sticky layers of meaning. .
I went into the woods because I wanted to live deliberately. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life… to put to rout all that was not life; and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
Great stories are about change. Our story telling brain loves this shit, absolutely frothing for it. Every scene in a good movie or chapter in a good book moving the audience along a series of changes. It keeps the story interesting.
Change is everything
If changes in a story = great story,
and life = story, then
changes = great life
Change is also one of those big abstract, esoteric words that you throw around quite easily. In fact, my design business is about helping change-makers. What is change anyways? The dictionary in my computer says that it’s to make, or be different. Hmmm to be different. As simple as either doing or not doing.
Maybe it’s that binary. Maybe it is that easy. It is, if it weren’t for that pesky mind crippling fear. Can we overcome fear through logical reasoning?
Maybe not but this analogy is a great place to start.