Seven

I am pretty allergic to lists, especially those that profess to be steps to a better you, or a summation of platitudes. But let’s be honest… a personal blog requires the writer to engage in a certain amount of navel-gazing self-reflection, layered with a strong sense of self-confidence. How else could I share my life and thoughts with total strangers… When I see lists that purport to be a path to personal happiness or creative success I cringe. But this morning I saw a short list that really resonated with me. Maria Popova authors one of my favorite sites, called Brain Pickings, and her list really struck a chord, so I personalized it.

Here are seven things I believe:

Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind. Cultivate that capacity for negative capability. I struggle with this in my images all the time. I often feel this need to explain every aspect of my image, to justify every creative choice within the context of the project’s style. I usually feel like I have to earn the right to a certain way of expressing things creatively. We live in a culture where one of the greatest social disgraces is not having an opinion, so we often form our “opinions” based on superficial impressions or the borrowed ideas of others, without investing the time and thought that cultivating true conviction necessitates. Regardless of what we do, we’re expected to have an opinion, an artist statement. This will bleed all the way into creative expression, the choice of a certain visual vernacular. We then go around asserting these donned opinions and clinging to them as anchors to our own reality. It’s enormously disorienting to simply say, “I don’t know why I like this.” But it’s infinitely more rewarding to understand than to be right — even if that means changing your mind about a topic, an ideology, or, above all, yourself. My current project (The Sacred & Profane) has been through so many iterations that I doubt the images I created a year ago will even be part of the final selection.

Do nothing for prestige or status or money or approval alone. As Paul Graham observed, “prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.” Those extrinsic motivators are fine and can feel life-affirming in the moment, but they ultimately don’t make it thrilling to get up in the morning and gratifying to go to sleep at night — and, in fact, they can often distract and detract from the things that do offer those deeper rewards. Obviously you shouldn’t ignore opportunities that will lead to recognition, but make sure you’re clear about the choices you make, and what they mean to you.

Be generous. I live by this rule. It drives every decision I make. Be generous with your time and your resources and with giving credit and, especially, with your words. It’s so much easier to be a critic than a celebrator. Always remember there is a human being on the other end of every exchange and behind every cultural artifact being critiqued. Help everyone you can; it won’t always be reciprocal, but if you can think of no other reason then do it simply because it will come back to you in volume. You will always come out ahead if you’re generous… but don’t be taken for granted. The minute it is clear someone doesn’t appreciate who you are and what you offer you need to shut them down completely. They had their chance.

Build pockets of stillness into your life. Ride your bike going nowhere in particular. Run. Go for walks with smart music. Meditate, if you know how to… I don’t, but I like to set endorphins free. Zone out on the elliptoid machine at the gym. There is a creative purpose to daydreaming… It used to irritate my father when my eyes glazed over and my mind wandered… but I was actually processing the lesson at hand, or visualizing an outcome. The best ideas come to us when we stop actively trying to coax the muse into manifesting and let the fragments of experience float around our unconscious mind in order to click into new combinations. AND: It is really important to step away from distractions… there are entire social networks, video games and websites that can be dismissed as guilty little pleasures… but every minute spent there deprives you of the chance to be creative.

Most importantly, sleep. Besides being the greatest creative aphrodisiac, sleep also affects our every waking moment. You need to dream, you need to give your psyche a chance to be part of the creative conversation. That means giving your mind and body time to rest while your subconscious chews through the materials. Be as disciplined about your sleep as you are about your work. We tend to wear our ability to get by on little sleep as some sort of badge of honor that validates our work ethic. But it’s really just a profound failure of self-respect and lack of priorities. What could possibly be more important than your health and your sanity, from which all else springs? Stay out late and play occasionally. And keep whatever schedule works for you… if you prefer working late at night then sleep late. But get a lot of sleep. I function best in the morning, and I like to get up early, which means I go to bed surprisingly early.

When people tell you who they are you should believe them. Don’t be snarky, suspicious, dismissive or condescending. Just as importantly, however, when people try to tell you who You are, don’t believe them. You are the only custodian of your own integrity, and the assumptions made by those that misunderstand who You are (and what you stand for) reveal a great deal about them… but absolutely nothing about you. Try being a business man and artist at the same time! It’s hard for me. Believe me, people will see what they want to see. And that often means that people who like you will see a lot of great things, and people who don’t will only see things they dislike. But you are You, and you get to create You. It’s your job. It’s the meaning of life. Make up a version of You, and then live in You.

“Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time.” Our culture of immediacy seems to overlook this at will. The myth of the overnight success is just that — a myth — as well as a reminder that our present definition of success needs serious retuning. The flower doesn’t go from bud to blossom in one spritely burst and yet, as a culture, we’re disinterested in the tedium of the blossoming. But that’s where all the real magic unfolds in the making of one’s character and destiny.

So that’s a short list …and those who remember my old “Circa 100 Things I Believe” list will be pleased to know that I’m about to resurrect that list.

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