So, to be a “good boy,” and later on, a “real man,” I made sure I kept my moments of sadness and hurt to myself. In fact, you could even say I built my identity around being able to tolerate pain without protest.
After all, in my mid-to-late twenties, I spent most of my time in my office at a law firm, striving to handle as many matters as possible without a peep of discontentment, and show I was tough enough to take on any task the “higher-ups” threw my way.
How I Got Caught Singing
Sure, this attitude had its perks. Some people admired my inhuman discipline and stamina. But one night, I had a chat with a coworker that revamped my worldview.
I had the door to my office closed, and I didn’t think anyone else was in the building. Believing I was alone, I momentarily dropped the tough-guy façade and started singing. The song was “Remember,” which Josh Groban sings at the end of the Troy soundtrack.
Suddenly, there was a knock on my door. My colleague walked in and said “I didn’t know you could sing.”
My first reaction was to be mortified. Not only did my coworker hear me singing, but she heard me singing a mournful ballad originally recorded by a guy who does Christmas song duets with Celine Dion.
I mean, couldn’t it at least have been something macho and aggressive like Metallica? Something more in keeping with the hard-as-nails image I wanted to project? Didn’t this episode make me look like kind of a wuss?
How “Wussiness” Feeds My Creativity
Actually, though, she seemed excited by my singing. “I always imagined you doing something creative,” she said. “I’m glad to hear it’s true.”
This was a surprise. Not only did she appreciate my singing, but she enjoyed hearing me perform a song that showed my softer side. To her, it didn’t mean I was weak — it just meant I was a creative guy.
It occurred to me, in that moment, that my creativity was closely tied to my “vulnerable” feelings — hurt, sadness, embarrassment, and so on. By hiding those emotions in order to look tough, I was actually stifling my creativity, and depriving the world of what I had to offer.
Soon after this realization, I started getting back into songwriting and performing, which I hadn’t done for a long time. Writing songs was easiest, I noticed, when I based them on difficult experiences from my life. My “vulnerability” became more of a well to draw on for creative inspiration, rather than a weakness I had to hide.
I hope other people who feel scared to share their creative parts are fortunate enough to have someone in their lives who catches them singing.
I’ve definitely come to see how creating something, especially something long-term and time-intensive like my show, requires us to put a lot of faith in ourselves and the goodness of the universe.
To stay motivated to keep working on creative projects, we need to believe some super-optimistic stuff — ideas many people would dismiss as unrealistic, egocentric or airy-fairy. These include ideas like:
1. People will relate to my experiences. I haven’t easily fit into every environment I’ve been in, and sometimes I’ve felt like a downright outcast.
Why, then, should I assume other people will relate to the life experiences I talk about in my creative work? Maybe my quirky way of seeing the world (e.g., the fact that I like composing video game music for outdated systems) and the events of my life will seem totally alien to most people out there.
And yet, to keep pushing forward in a creative project — at least, one I’m hoping other people will see and enjoy — I need to have faith that what I say will strike a chord with a sizable bunch of folks.
2. My experiences are unique. It’s not enough just to believe that people will relate to my experiences. After all, my experiences might be relatable, and yet totally humdrum and run-of-the-mill.
For example, lots of people can “relate” to the experience of putting on a pair of pants in the morning, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anyone wants to watch a film, or look at a painting, showing somebody putting on pants.
So, to sustain my drive to create, I have to make two almost contradictory leaps of faith, telling myself my experiences are both one-of-a-kind and relatable.
3. The process will be fun. To start a big creative project like a musical, a book or a business plan, I think, we need to have some degree of conviction that we’re going to enjoy ourselves over the long haul, and that working on our project won’t become too miserable to bear.
This isn’t necessarily a rational way of thinking. After all, even the collected works of great authors are littered with unfinished stories that those writers lost the desire, or didn’t live long enough, to complete. Why should “everyday schmoes” like us assume we’ll have the intestinal fortitude to push through to the end?
So, it seems there are a lot of reasons not to believe the three ideas I just talked about. Why, then, would I choose to believe them anyway?
My answer is: Because they make life more livable.
I feel more energetic, and more contented, when I accept that I’m a one-of-a-kind person, and yet have things to say that resonate with lots of people — and that the creative process is just as thrilling as its final product.
Sure, these assumptions don’t always prove to be true — sometimes people can’t relate to the things I write and/or find my writing boring, and sometimes the act of creation can be a trying slog.
But because they drive me to create, and make the world a more inviting place to live in, I think they’re still worth believing.
I’m pleased to announce that I’ve contributed an article to the latest Productive Magazine, “What Yoga Can Teach Us About Productivity.” As you can probably tell from the title, this is a different take on getting work done than what we usually see in the popular literature, and I’m grateful to the magazine staff for their willingness to “explore strange new worlds” with me as far as this type of material is concerned.
By the way, you can read previous articles of mine in Productive Magazine here:
* “3 Keys to Developing Inner Productivity,” Productive Magazine Issue #9
* “How Getting Used to Silence Can Help Your Productivity,” Productive Magazine Issue #8
* “Three Ways Your Breathing Can Help Your Productivity,” Productive Magazine Issue #7
Recent Guest Posts
I didn’t announce these posts here earlier, because they are meant as introductions to my work, and I know this blog is only read by my advanced, graduate-level students. :) But seriously, I thought I’d mention them here in the hope that my regular readers might get some value out of them. I hope you are among those value-getting readers!
Upcoming Talk and Workshop at EastWest Bookstore
Also, I wanted to mention that I and yoga instructor Rosy Moon will be offering an interactive talk on July 1, and a full-day workshop on July 2, at EastWest Bookstore in Mountain View, California. If you’re in the Bay Area and you’re interested in finding more focus, peace and motivation in your work, this is definitely the place to be. Looking forward to meeting you in person if I haven’t done so yet.
Here’s something that doesn’t make much logical sense.
I imagine that, at some point in your life, you worked on a task that felt really “make or break” to you. Maybe it was a project for an important client at work, or perhaps you were a student and preparing to take a test worth a big share of your grade. Whatever it was, your whole career seemed to depend on your success at it, and “failure was not an option.”
When Starting Is Not An Option
Have you ever noticed that these “make or break” projects are actually the ones you have the most trouble starting? That, the more that seems to be “riding” on the outcome, the harder it is to make progress?
From a rational perspective, this is hard to understand. You’d think we’d dive headfirst into a task we see as “mission critical.” Isn’t that what all the motivational bestsellers tell us — that we need to “chase success as if our lives depend on it”?
But when we look at this issue from an emotional perspective, it starts to make sense. After all, if I really believe that making a mistake in my project could “break” me or my career, that probably means I’m basing my sense of self-worth on how well I perform.
If my self-worth depends on how my work is received, of course I’m not going to start my project. This is because, if I finish my task and present it to the world, I’ll run the risk that people will see what I’ve done as inadequate, and then I’ll have to feel inadequate.
I think this is one reason so many people seem to have a book they’ve been “meaning” to write, or a business they’ve been “planning” to start, for the last ten years. They’re worried that, if they come out with a final product and others don’t appreciate it, they’ll stop appreciating themselves.
Being Okay With Our Non-Okayness
Now, it would be easy for me to say that “the solution is to be okay with yourself no matter what.” But as I think you know, that’s not so easy in practice. Building up our basic sense of “okayness,” in my experience, takes work, and there’s no “30-day miracle cure.”
One practice I’ve found simple and effective, though, is to watch carefully for moments when you’re basing your sense of self-worth on the results you get in your work. When you notice yourself thinking this way, just acknowledge what’s going on, without trying to change it. Simply admit to yourself: “I’m worrying that, if people don’t approve of my work, I won’t approve of myself.”
When I do this, I often feel the sense of heaviness in my body dropping away, and find myself chuckling out loud. When I look directly at the painful story I’m telling myself, rather than trying to push it aside or pretend it isn’t there, the light of my awareness tends to burn it away, like the sun burning off the clouds.
On a practical level, when I let go of the sense that a project can “make or break me,” and see it more as a chance to play and experiment, I find concentrating and finishing my work so much easier.
I do something kind of unusual when I’m writing. (I know, shockingly enough.) I keep a journal of what I’m feeling and thinking when I’m faced with writer’s block.
To an outside reader, this journal would probably seem painfully repetitive, because it talks about the same worries again and again. Some common themes are:
* “I think I had the last decent idea of my life a few days ago, and the well has officially run dry.”
* “I’m not sure I have the brain cells left to do this kind of piece anymore.”
* “I’m never going to finish this article — I might as well delete it.”
Why would I want to keep an angst-filled journal like this? Because I’m a masochist?
I’ve Been Through It All Before
Actually, this has been one of the most helpful techniques I’ve discovered in a while for staying focused and motivated as I write. The fact that the journal sounds like such a broken record is really what makes it so helpful.
Why? Because the goal of this journal is to remind me that, no matter how much hand-wringing I may be doing as I’m writing something, I’ve been through it before. There’s no moment of blankness, doubt about the originality of what I’m saying, or concern that I’ve “lost my mojo” that I haven’t experienced in the past.
And yet, even in the face of those doubts and fears, I’ve managed to finish my piece.
On one level, this is simply a reminder that I have the strength to handle whatever writing-induced suffering I’m going through. But at a deeper level, it’s a way to keep in mind that, just like every experience we have as human beings, that creative blankness we call writer’s block is fleeting. It passes away quickly.
From Black Hole to Break Time
My sense, from looking inside myself and talking to people, is that a lot of the suffering we do around writer’s block happens when we worry that it will never go away. That sense that we’re empty of ideas can actually be kind of scary — almost as if the emptiness might grow and swallow us up if we let it.
Naturally, many of us tend to write in fits and starts, running off to fold our socks or play Solitaire when the emptiness arises. Unfortunately, when we write this way, we usually don’t make as much progress as we’d like.
But when we keep in mind that the emptiness is fleeting, those blank moments become so much easier to be with. Instead of looking like a black hole threatening to devour us, that blankness starts to seem more like a welcome moment of rest before we unleash our creative energies again — just as our bodies naturally cycle between waking and sleeping.
I think “this too shall pass” is a great mantra for moments when we’re feeling creatively empty, just as it is in other parts of life.
I’ve published a post over at The Change Blog, “Why Craving ‘Results’ Gets Us No Results,” about how the fear of “not getting results” in our work can limit how much we accomplish, and how we can let go of that fear. I hope you enjoy it, and I’m looking forward to your feedback!
A common idea in personal development circles is that “what you focus on expands.” For instance, if you’re feeling sad, focusing your attention on your sadness will only make you sadder. Instead, you need to distract yourself from your sadness by visualizing rainbows, playing with your cat, or doing something else to take your mind off what you’re feeling.
In my experience, the opposite is actually true. I’ve found that, when I turn my attention toward an uncomfortable emotion, or a place in my body that’s tense, I actually find myself relaxing, and starting to put the discomfort into perspective.
Getting To Know My Back Pain
For example, as with many people, my lower back sometimes tightens up. I used to buy the conventional wisdom that people just get “back pain” from time to time, and nothing much can be done about it short of taking medication.
Today, however, I have a practice for dealing with tension in my lower back that’s worked wonders. I just focus my attention on the discomfort. I get familiar with where it is, whether it’s sharp or dull, whether the painful area has a shape, and so on. You could say I get intimate with it.
Does this practice “attract” more pain? Not at all. Instead, I usually find that the sensation I’m feeling begins to shift, and the tight spot begins to loosen. By probing around in that area with my awareness, I get a sense of how I’m creating the tension, and often that’s enough to have the discomfort fall away.
Feeling Into “Bad Feelings”
I’ve had the same kind of experience when it comes to “negative” or “uncomfortable” emotions. In our culture, we’re conditioned to think that, when we’re “feeling bad,” we should do something to push the feeling away — taking a warm bath, drinking alcohol, saying affirmations, or something else.
The trouble with running from an emotion we don’t like, in my experience, is that pushing it away actually puts it in control of our lives. The “bad” emotion, not us, ends up in the driver’s seat.
Why? Take boredom, for example. When we’re working on a task and we start feeling the discomfort we call boredom, many of us are in the habit of automatically doing something to “take the edge off” — playing Solitaire on the computer, Twittering, or something else.
But here’s the problem: if we, like Pavlov’s dogs, automatically surf the web every time we feel bored, that means our boredom gets to control our work schedule. If we don’t have the ability to keep making progress in our work, even when boredom is coming up, we’re basically slaves to our boredom.
The solution for me has been, instead of turning my attention away from boredom, to turn toward it. Just as I do with back pain, I get conscious of where the boredom is in my body, what it feels like (perhaps aching, itching, or tightness), and so on.
The more familiar I get with my boredom, the more comfortable I become with it. It no longer feels so weird and disturbing — instead, it’s just another sensation I feel in my body from time to time. And the more comfortable I get with being bored, the more I can choose to move forward in my work, even when boredom is arising.
I think it’s amazing how much we can do just by shifting the focus of our attention.
My focus used to be on helping people find fulfilling careers. Like many of us, I assumed that, as soon as we find the “right” career — something we’re passionate about, that pays the bills, that gives us a flexible schedule, or has whatever else we’re looking for in a “dream job” — we’ll get the joy we want out of our work.
After spending more time talking and working with people, I noticed something that changed my mind. What I saw was that, after they changed careers, people tended to gripe about their new jobs or businesses in exactly the same ways they once complained about their old ones.
Back when a friend of mine was working a 9-to-5 job, he used to say, when asked about his work, that he “didn’t want to talk about it.” Eventually, he started his own business, hoping to “do something that didn’t feel like a job.” Unfortunately, a few months into his entrepreneurial stint, he began noticing himself telling people he “didn’t want to talk about” how his business was doing.
Wherever You Work, There You Are
Examples like this taught me that, while we usually think we dislike our work because we have a bad job, often the problem has more to do with our relationship with ourselves. My sense with the friend I mentioned, for instance, is that, on some level, he simply doesn’t see himself and what he does as worth talking about. It’s no wonder, then, that he keeps “not wanting to talk about” everything he takes part in.
Perhaps you’ve heard this kind of talk before — “wherever you go, there you are,” and all that. What we don’t usually hear, however, are suggestions for how to become aware of, and transform, these habits of thinking and feeling. I’ll talk about an approach I’ve found useful.
An Awareness-Building Exercise
Believe it or not, in the productivity workshop I lead with a yoga teacher, one of the exercises involves sitting in front of a wall, and staring at a piece of tape for half an hour. The only thing the participants have to do is, whenever their minds wander away, simply bring their attention back to the tape.
After the exercise, we ask people what they experienced as they did it. We usually find that they had a wide range of thoughts and sensations — some felt antsy, some got sleepy, some were annoyed at me for “making them” go through this process, and so on.
But we almost always learn that, no matter what a person feels while staring at the wall, it’ll be a feeling they’ve had before. For example, if they notice themselves internally griping “there’s no point in doing this” during the exercise, that’s probably something they often think while they’re doing a project at work.
In other words, what this exercise teaches people is that they – not their jobs, their bosses, the office furniture or anything else — are the ones creating the suffering they’re going through in their work.
Just getting conscious of this, I’ve found, can create a big shift in perspective. In my experience, when we become aware of how much power we have over the way we experience the world, we often find ourselves spontaneously using that power to let go of ways of thinking that have troubled us in the past.
I’ve just published a guest post at The Change Blog, “Getting Productive By ‘Getting Real,’” which is about how letting go of our need to create an image for the people we work with — whether we’re trying to look tough, likable, or something else — can actually help us get more done and find more joy in what we do. I hope you enjoy it.