The geography of a creative life is different than that of a normal one. It doesn’t follow predictable arcs, have clearly marked destinations or well-lit paths. It requires you in the words of my friend AJ Leon to “grab a machete and hack your own.” You don’t take the MCAT or pass the bar exam. No certification or diploma makes you qualified to do your work. Instead of choosing from the options in front of you, you take the scenic route and explore the possibilities that around you.
I’ve had many false starts in my life.
- I quit Muy Thai, Bass Lessons, and Capoeira within a few weeks of starting
- I started a dozen writing projects, one of many digital graveyards where early incarnations of my work are buried
Everyone has false starts. Entire industries thrive on false starts.
- We sign up for a class but never remove the shrink-wrap. Or we look for the next thing that’s going to solve our problem when we haven’t used the first one.
- We join the gym but never attend.
- We purchase an instrument but never practice
A false start is better than standing still. You try something. You learn something. False starts allow you to collect data points and pay attention to what you find engaging. False starts are only a problem when they stop us in our tracks for good.
When I was 20, I had a plan. But I quickly realized that life rarely goes according to plan, especially if you make that plan when you’re 20. I was fired on my 25th birthday, graduated into two recessions, and was near broke at 30. You couldn’t have planned such lousy timing.,
If you choose to pursue a life of meaning, intention, and purpose, you’ll hit dead ends. You don’t choose this kind of life if you want to get from A to B without stopping anywhere along the way. Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom to reach your peak. New beginnings are often disguised as endings, and dead ends precede significant change.
Dead ends hurt. When a book doesn’t sell copies, the album is a dud, and the project fails we hit dead ends. “Artistic losses” are our miscarriages said, Julia Cameron.
Every creative journey has a layover between the beginning and the final destination. Day jobs and whatever else we need to do to pay the bills are layovers in the geography of a creative life:
- Steven Pressfield picked fruit and drove trucks
- Michael Crichton went to Law School
- John Legend Worked for the Boston Consulting Group
People on a layover know it’s temporary. They spend a small part of life they’re life doing what they need to do so they can do what they were born to do. Dyana Valentine says that you should treat your day job as the first angel investor in your dream or company. Treat your layovers accordingly.
In the detours of a creative life, we arrive at what Elle Luna calls the crossroads of should and must. We begin a part of the journey where everything is unknown, and anything is possible:
- When a doctor quits her practice to pursue some humanitarian effort, she takes a detour
- When a designer walks away from a startup to make art, she takes a detour
Detours take us into uncharted territory. We can approach them like a person who drives across the country and only stops for gas. Or we can stop and look around. All it takes is one turn in a different direction to end up at a different destination. When you arrive at the detour, you’ll be encouraged to take the tried and true path, and discouraged from enduring the uncertainty of an unproven path. The detour is the call in every hero’s journey.
Peaks and Valleys
In 2013, I was on top of the world. I became a WSJ best selling author. I made more progress with my career in 6 months than I had in all the years prior. By the summer of 2014, I was in a dark valley, my crucible, or what I referred to in my previous book as the impact zone. You’re taking wave after wave on the head, and it seems like you’re never coming back up for air. We canceled an event because we didn’t sell enough tickets. A few weeks later an editor contacted me about writing a book.
When you’re in a dark valley, it can be hard to find reasons to live. The wounds feel like they’re never going to close. It’s been said that cracks are how the lights get in, but in the midst of grief that light passes through you, quickly fading back into darkness. Every experience is intensified, and every emotion is heightened.
You feel beyond lonely, yet you can’t be around people.
You want to climb, but you can barely stand.
You want to feel intimacy, but all you’re capable of is distance.
But every dark chapter eventually closes. Permanence is diminishing. The wounds close and we’re left with the scars of distant memories, and valuable lessons to carry us into what comes next. The clouds clear. The sun rises again. In the midst of darkness I always reflect on these words from Unmistakable Creative guest Ananta Ajmera:
It’s all about connecting with the sun because when we wake up before the sun, we’re able to see that transition from darkness to light. And I think there’s something so deeply healing to the human psyche about seeing that happen because it’s a reminder to us the darkness is temporary, and it passes and gives way for the light of the sun of the day. So too do these dark habits and destructive patterns and thoughts that we have only have a temporary existence in mind.
All seasons of adversity eventually come to an end. In the dark valleys of a creative life, loss creates an opening. We lose what wasn’t meant to be so we can focus on what we’re destined for.
At the height of his career, when he was so famous that people recognized him on the streets, Ed Helms told Sam Jones “life is a series of false horizons.”
The other day my friend David Burkus asked me “how’s it going?” This is code among writers for “how many copies has it sold.” I told him that I hadn’t checked the Amazon rankings more than once. All I knew was that the book seemed to be resonating with readers.
When we’re not at the mountaintop, we think to reach it will lead to everlasting happiness. When we reach the mountaintop we understand why accomplishing our goals won’t make us happy forever. The expression of your soul’s calling is in a perpetual state of evolution. There is no I’ve made it in moment. There ’s only a craft to master and more work to be done. To be an eternal master, you must be a perpetual student.
If you choose the geography of a creative life, you’ll have more, memories, experiences, scars, wounds, and stamps in your passport. In the geography of a creative life, you’ll learn far more from the journey than the destination. You travel with a compass instead of a map. Most of what ends up in your passport, much like your real passport is collected and created for an audience of one