The Secret Stance to Create What Matters


1. To Stand & Stare

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?
– W. H. Davies

(from Good Poems, Selected by Garrison Keillor)

That’s one question I’m living in these days.  

It’s a stance to take these digit-dazed days, to stand and stare.

This is a non-action action vital to optimal productivity over the long haul. And it’s crucial to the numerous thriving creatives and scholars with whom I work and talk.

I’m less interested in quick creative spurts or in serial creative entrepreneurship for profit’s sake.

I’m more interested in what factors help us shape a meaningful, coherent, creative life over four, five, six, seven decades. Not years. In what helps us craft a life that includes both revenue and purpose and captivating creativity – the kind of creativity that holds you captive plus holds your tribes spellbound.

Case in point: One of my client’s first books comes out with Ann Godoff and Penguin Press in July. The book, Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists, traces the spiritual life of John Cage, arguably the mid-twentieth century’s most controversial and most influential thinker and artist.

“This is the result of 15 years of work,” the art critic-cum practitioner-cum author Kay Larson recently told me. 15 years! And she’s working with one of publishing’s star editors and preparing to launch an extraordinary tour of talks and events. That’s stamina that captivates me.

I’m interested in what factors help us sustain our creative momentum and make of this one wild life a creative quest.

One of those factors is space.  A Mind Break is a shaped space between create-and-work flows. The capacity to take Mind Breaks and shape space inside and outside – that’s crucial. Why?

2. Space to Persist

Poet W.H. Davies understood the question’s full implications. His early days spent as a

Davies, wonder-tracker

recalcitrant teen and hobo, a train accident severed one of his legs and most of his adventures. But with a British vagabond’s determination, he self-published his first collection of poetry in 1907, The Soul’s Destroyer, and mailed copies to wealthy and influential people, asking them for payment in return. Of 200 copies, he sold 60, including to a journalist who later helped Davies become among the most popular poets of his day.

(When someone complains to me about the nature of publishing today, I think of Davies.)

A wooden leg and literary life later that included the likes of W.B. Yeats and Ezra Pound, Davies held onto what mattered – namely the spaces between work and doing that make life livable.

A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

And that stance to stand and stare must contribute to persistence.

3.  Space for What Matters

Being indolent can even be democratic. Mark Slouka makes that case in his seminal essay “Quitting the Paint Factory: on the virtues of idleness.” His reasoning? It’s when we’re not hustling and bustling that we can stand and stare at the big questions about not only our own lives but also about government, justice, and truth.

We know best rest practices for optimal creativity and productivity. We know now that most of us human beings can go in create-and-work flows for 75, 90, 120 minutes.   We know that musicians who rest every 90 minutes during practice are more likely to excel in performance  – and more likely to endure for the long course of being a professional musician. After that, we’re starting to operate on “generator energy.”

We also know that 20 minute breaks of doing nothing and 20 minute naps can refresh the creative mind.

But there’s more.

More: We’re driven when purpose drives profit and meaning drives money – not the other way around.

 Mind Breaks make space for acting on what matters.

Let me put it this way: Every day is a series of decisions, some small, some monumental. Yet when a thousand thoughts compete for attention at any given moment, the mind’s debris clouds our ability to decide, invent, innovate, and create with any real wherewithal.

When our mind is crowded, we default to the safest route that requires the least resistance and least energy. And we likely cannot make gut decisions aligned with our intuition because mental debris blocks the signals. Gut? What gut?

But taking Mind Breaks clears mental debris that often makes us immune to change and the unknown. And we know the province where things change in unknown ways is the territory of true wonder and of captivating and enchanting creativity.

Slouka is right: Stopping the personal production line can toss the worker into serious reflection. At the very least, three or four times a day during your “Mind Breaks,” you can check in with the big personal questions:

–          What question am I living in today? (The Question of Questions)

–          What am I writing this article for?

–          What am I making this product for?

–          How is this activity part of my larger vision?

–          How is my larger vision part of something that matters to me and the world?

Imagine your day like a piece of clay. How will you shape it? And where, among the clay, will you make spaces? First thing in the morning? Lunch break? Mid-afternoon? Evening time? Before bed?

Oh, the spaces a day makes if we stand and stare.

When we live in such questions every day, this one wild life – regardless of the occupational suit and habit we wear – becomes a creative quest.

“Kindred Spirits” by T Cole


Is there a real correlation between taking regular Mind Breaks and acting on what matters most? How is it possible to counter the Cult of the Busy? Am I a fool for championing idleness? Any insight or resources you can share?

See you in the woods,

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    1. Sue, I’m glad the Big 5 resonate. And, yes, Davies – what a curious inspiration.

      Here’s to your blooming and standing and staring at magnolias & more.