You can toil on a book, rehearse a talk, strategize a launch, stretch yourself to create a new product or offer or a whole new business, but you cannot control outcome.
You can craft to design experiences to take people where you promised, you can have meetings to plan, and you can gather and lead exceptional people on your team, but ultimately you have to get out of the way.
When you build something, you never ultimately know how it will be experienced.
Something happened a few years back that as I recall it still sends me reeling.
Out of control
For five days and beyond, something extraordinary happened among 20 people from the United States, Canada, and South Africa.
Four members of the Tracking Wonder team decided to build out a learning expedition, Your Brave New Story. Your Brave New Story is an intensive for authors and thought leaders who are ready to stand up for the Story they feel compelled shape, share and use to create impact.
We held the event at the 19th-century Victorian castle Mohonk Mountain House Resort perched on a ridge that overlooks New York’s Catskill Mountains. The staff was impeccable. The locale, stunning. (In fact, I’ve recently just returned from Mohonk again after a week long Mastermind Intensive with 10 thought leaders and change-makers.)
Initially I was a little unsure of how this creative experiment might turn out. This was an expedition, not a tour. An intensive, not a retreat.
The event was live. Intense. Real. It puts us all on fire. My team and I were on from 7am to 9pm every day.
Breakdown of What Happened
Yes, I delivered substantial content that led each one where we promised. Yes, the team facilitated heart-opening, mind-blowing experiences that offered emotional depth, assimilation, resonance.
But there was a vital element beyond our control.
The adventurers themselves. They together created the afterglow that still lingers in each of us days later. All 20 of them are the ones who are braving rings of creative fire.
They reminded me of how challenging it is to be brave, of what it takes in the early 21st century to stand up for what matters and to build it sometimes among the ruins of a creative mess.
They reminded me that when you create something that it’s quite often the case that you are not the hero.
Engaging what’s real
On Day One, we each stood up among our peers to claim our devotions to our respective Brave New Story.
Everyone looked wide-eyed.
By the end of Day Two, we had unpacked what it might take to shape that 20 pages of a nonfiction book into 200 captivating ones or to reshape that 70,000-word fiction manuscript into a captivating Story. They had officially crossed the threshold. Doubt reared up. Tears flowed.
Why would I create a situation at a world-class resort for people to experience profound doubt right smack in the middle of our five-day event?
Together, we created something real to help all of us face what’s real. We created experiences together so that when we each return home we do not resent the rest of our life as getting in the way of a fantasy of writing and publishing and sharing a book or the fantasy of building a real presence in the world.
We each returned equipped to scale our respective mountains on our own – and together. To shape our life as business artists – writers, entrepreneurs, consultants, teachers, coaches who have potent medicine to share with their audiences.
As Kay Larson, art critic and author, noted toward the end, “I finally get the value of The Pack!” She compared the experience to a writer’s sesshin – the Zen practice of intensive meditation that translates to “gathering of the mind.”
The challenging nature of the learning expedition required each of us to choose – we could hide out or we could bond with each other.
We bonded. Every one of us.
CEO of Xpidian Francoise Coetzee – a consultant and storyteller who’s standing up for a whole different way for speakers to engage and uplift their audiences – came from South Africa to New York. What he was most surprised to gain became his newfound devotion – CONNECTION.
Every one of these adventurous business artists let themselves go deep and dive into the Heart of the Story. People like consultant and spiritual leader Jim Lockard came with one stellar book idea about how to change organizations but left with a much more intimate connection to another possible book.
What he and every one of the adventurers read on the culminating Brave Author Reading night required, indeed, whole-hearted and whole-minded bravery.
And they let themselves be vulnerable in courageous ways on behalf of their Story.
Every day I felt a little more astonished by the beauty of our willingness to be unravelled and to connect with each other that we might reassemble.
They taught me more than they know.
The brave creative
Isn’t this the life we signed on for? Not a care-free, cushy life where we check out on the beach and soak up “passive income”?
But a quest where we muster the meaning and purpose in facing the creative challenges of our choosing and finesse from those challenges the capacity to make art, make a right livelihood, and make a difference?
Of finding the means to stretch ourselves beyond our comfort zone that we might not only express ourselves but that we also expand our sense of self?
Several years ago, I walked past my wife’s and my burnt-out kitchen and collapsed ceiling to the very back of our stripped-down farmhouse where my studio once stood. On this one gray March day there were only floors, no ceilings or walls.
Eight months earlier on a July afternoon, a freakish lightning bolt fried electric wires in our attic that sent a fire blazing mostly through my studio and wasted much of the rest of the house. A long and ultimately victorious battle with the insurance company’s adjustor stretched into the winter.
At last, in March, my wife and I then five months pregnant with our first child, the contractors could begin work. Their first job: Level my studio’s walls and begin again.
When I reached the studio without walls, papers singed around the edges fluttered like strips of light white birch bark. I grabbed them in the wind. They were shards of manuscripts stored in the attic where the fire had started.
Among them were pages from the first bad draft of The Journey from the Center to the Page I had submitted to my editor at Penguin. And pages from a letter that editor had sent me in response to that bad draft. 11 single-spaced pages, most of it patiently explaining why most of the 240-page overwritten manuscript would need to be, in essence, burned and rebuilt.
And after a good 48-hour sulk, I started doing so. I rebuilt that book. And it was better for it. Much better for it.
The March wind kept blowing those pages toward our pond, but I rounded up just enough. Once we returned to our rebuilt home, I placed those pages in a safe place in my studio. They remind me each day of the fires I have passed through and of the ones I will still pass through.
By necessity and by choice.
But I never, ever pass through a single ring alone.
If you’re looking for a community of though leaders, content creators and bloggers for feedback, support and accountability most of us need to move forward effectively you might consider checking out the Writing Den. As part of the Writing Den, every month I host a live call where we can speak directly, and bi-weekly prompts help you bust through resistance and really get you thinking strategically about what you’re writing and how to present it.
The Writing Den is open for registration for for two weeks only. Find out more here.