It’s not easy to stay committed to the creative work that matters when there’s no immediate deadline or audience demanding it.
But many of us have a hard time even entering this zone, let alone staying in this zone. We have a hard time admitting to ourselves, “I have creative work to do that matters, that might not pay the bills just yet, that might not have an immediate ‘productive value.’ BUT. IT. MATTERS. Uh, doesn’t it?”
I have to talk to my best self every day to stay with the intangibles I create. The following fable I wrote as much as a conversation with my best self. It’s also a reflection of conversations I have every week with talented people I admire – the thought leaders, business owners, writers, scientists, and artists who are my clients.
I give it to you in hopes it helps you talk to your best self. When Something Startling This Way Comes, we don’t want to acknowledge it. It’s part of what I’m calling Wonder with a 1000 Faces, a reflection of how wonder’s many forms pervade our many cycles of life and pervade Joseph Campbell’s mythic story frame.
Once upon a time, after a day hard at work, a man in the middle of his life stopped at the grocery store to pick up some fruit, maybe some pears, for a cobbler dessert, as his wife had asked.
In the produce section, he reached for two apples. A woman about his age, maybe older, reached for an apple at the same time.
“Go ahead,” the woman said.
“No,” Brian said, “you go ahead.”
“Always letting others go first, eh? You find virtue in sacrifice, don’t you?”
Brian chuckled. “How did you know?”
“I see it in your eyes. And the circles beneath them.”
Brian darted his eyes toward the check-out stand.
“Fine,” the woman said. “I’ll take an apple.” The woman took a ruby red apple and held it up to Brian’s mouth. “Take a bite,” the woman said.
“What? I need to pay for it first.”
“Take a bite. I’ll hold the apple for you. And I’ll defend you against any pesky manager.”
He bit the apple. Juice leaked from his lips. For a moment, he forgot his to-do list. For a moment, something like a memory rumbled in his heart. Something like a longing.
A woman pushed her cart past and smirked.
“There’s something you want to do,” the woman still holding the apple said. “Something in addition to pleasing your customers and paying for groceries and growing your family. You like those things. But there’s something more.”
“Yes,” he said, reluctantly, “there is.”
“What is it?”
“I’d rather not say. It’s stupid. It’s impossible.”
“Go ahead. You can tell me.”
Brian trusted this woman, a virtual stranger. Why he trusted her, he didn’t know, but he did.
“I want to write a book. But not only that. The book is part of something greater. Part of something I can’t even articulate yet. But I know I have to write it.”
“So, what’s stopping you?”
“I don’t have time,” he said. “I work full-time. My two kids will be in college soon. My parents are getting older.”
The woman nodded and listened.
“And I don’t really know what I’m doing. I mean, I know how to write. At least I write a blog, and I write for business. But a book? Seems a little daunting.”
“What does the book matter? What will be different if you write it? If others get to read it?”
“Oh, this book could make a difference.” Brian’s whole face lit up. The dark circles seemed to vanish. “It really could open up some people’s minds and help them.”
The woman nodded. “Don’t you want to make time and find resources to make that difference? To write that book? To craft the next phase of your creative work life?”
Brian turned toward the pears. Why didn’t he just buy some pears instead of apples? His wife likes pears. ‘Creative work life’? Who said anything about that?
“I really should be getting on. My wife is expecting me to bring home some fruit for the salad tonight and some other things.”
“Of course,” the woman said. She smiled and extended her hand. “Here,” she said. “Finish this while you shop for your wife.”
Brian stood at the check-out line and admired his checked-off list of groceries. He felt satisfied he’d systematically whipped through the store in a record 18 minutes despite that strange encounter in the produce section.
The young cashier scanned his items and asked, “Is this yours?” She held up an eaten apple core.
“Oh,” Brian blushed. “I’m afraid so. Uh, this guy, uh, well, yes. I’ll pay extra.”
The cashier smiled. “It’s okay. I’ll spot you.” She bagged his groceries and handed him his sack.
“Thanks,” he said, “and thanks for spotting me.”
“No worries,” she said. “Oh, here.” She handed him what he thought was a coupon sheet.
Brian reached his car, wrapped the passenger seat belt around the grocery bag, and glanced at the coupon list. To his surprise, the sheet had no specials on toilet paper or potatoes. It just said 8 things:
Crack open to what’s possible.
Make a map in your heart to get there.
Your mind and time are allies, not enemies.
Don’t know so much but learn the right things.
Don’t go it alone.
Care about what matters most more than what others think.
Go deep first.
Improve your patch of the planet second.
– Your friend in the apple section
Brian glanced over his shoulder and scanned the parking lot. No sign of the woman. He got in his car. Secured the driver’s seat belt. Put his hands on the steering wheel.
He drove home, the sun setting behind the houses he’d seen a thousand times before. Tonight, he knew though, dinner would taste different. And tomorrow? Well, tomorrow would be the beginning of a brand new quest. He didn’t know exactly where he was going or how he was going to get there, and he knew it wouldn’t be easy. But he had to go, he was going, and he’d never be the same. That much he knew.
And be kind to yourself. You’ll get there. You’ll muster the courage and support to step into the zone. Once you do, it’s wondrous and terrifying all in one, but it’s a fearful joy unlike any other you can imagine. In that fearful joy and joyful fear, so much is possible.