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Of all the thoughts that bounce around our skulls each day, death is rarely one of them. There has never been a safer time to be alive.
And still, it's right there, always.
In his new book, Show Your Work!, Austin Kleon recommends the daily practice of reading obituaries. Kleon explains:
You don't have to go looking for trouble to practice realizing the terrifying truth that this will end. Meditate on it enough and it should be your guide.
This is the strategy of the samurai. Business Insider blogger Eric Barker recently questioned what made ancient samurais so cool with death being in their job description. The answer: control. Meditating on the ultimate possibility of being stabbed in battle gave them clarity and purpose. They didn't need to distract or busy themselves with thoughts about all the dangers. They just fought.
It wasn't a matter of life or death when Michael Phelps hit the water, but the same idea applies when he swam in the 2008 Summer Olympics. Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, wrote that Phelps was so ingrained in his process that he was prepared for any scenario. And when water filled Phelps' goggles halfway through the 200-meter butterfly race, he was able to keep calm and carry on, blindly swimming to victory, another gold medal and a world record.
You need to quiet your mind from the destructiveness of your own thoughts. If you can calmly comprehend the worst case scenario and prepare for it, there is no reason to panic. Yes, you will fail and, yes, you will die. If you can remind yourself of that, you'll have the inspiration to live without fear stalling or freezing you.
Of course, it's all in how you accept it. I wrote an obituary for myself in an undergraduate journalism class and it was crushing. I was too young to feel like I accomplished anything and death would have meant ultimate failure. Life felt reduced to a paragraph.
With death as the backdrop, the all-important questions of life can be answered every day when you take action. Waking up to know it could end means you can cherish every breath, e-mail, hug, or beer. You have a plan of action when shit goes down. You're always ready to spring into sword-wielding, blind-swimming action.
If you get one life to live and one obituary to sum up your days, what do you want it to say?
Our Paleolithic blood is still pumping. Past our physical and mental and technological leaps from the knuckle-draggers, we're still just beings on the prowl. We live in the Land of Abundance where we're able to look past the chains of survival. Food is readily available and medicine has never been better. Immorality is closer than ever!
And how did we get here? How did we flourish to seven billion and counting, sharing one big rock? I don't dare attempt a scientific explanation because, at this point, I don't have one. What I plan to offer is ideas. We're hunter-gatherers, through and through, and I think we're even more than that.
Look closer and we're pieces. We're fingernails, hair, eyeballs, and guts. Grab a microscope and we're cells. We're bacteria and viruses. Split the atoms and we're chromosomes and DNA and neutrons and protons. Go deeper and I couldn't even tell you where we go next. Something tells me there is more to that two-and-a-half-pound grey mass in our heads. Step back from it all and these collections are just mechanisms to express the intangible. Our brains fire off the instructions to dance numbers and martial arts. The sum of our teeth, tongues, saliva, and nerves make up the languages of our cultures. Further and further, the collections we call ourselves deliver the coordinates for us to explode further into deep space than we've ever known.
And what does it all mean? The collections that make up us end up collecting the world around us. Think of it this way: Forrest Gump said life is like a box of chocolates, but he forgot that boxes of chocolates often have the flavors printed on the inside. We can choose to be surprised or we can choose to engineer delicious choices.
Instead of leaving it up to chance and traffic and a long day at work this past week, I put the pedal to the floor and rocketed toward The City. Artist and writer Austin Kleon was speaking at the McNally Jackson bookstore and I was not going to miss it. Steal Like An Artist is his newest book and after living online for months as a Powerpoint, the printed version has become a New York Times Bestseller. It is such a simple and beautiful breakdown of the essence of creativity. It has resonated for me far beyond the first read. And there I was.
To delve into creativity and stolen art, Kleon hosted a panel discussion with three female bloggers - litblogger Maud Newton, the creator of Brain Pickings, Maria Popova, and creator of Tumblr Slaughterhouse 90210 Maris Kreizman. Pouring over favorite television shows and their individual creative processes, the guts of the show really got to one of my favorite ideas in Steal Like An Artist. On lucky page number 13, Kleon wrote, "The artist is a collector. Not a hoarder, mind you, there's a difference: Hoarders collect indiscriminately, artists collect selectively. They only collect things that they really love."
As kids, we had rock collections and baseball cards. We had action figures and Barbie dolls. What do we have to collect now? Are we collecting currency in the hopes that it will change our circumstances, maybe take us further away from the reminder that some people have to hunt and gather in an age of abundance? Are we collecting friends to extend our social circle further and guarantee our security from "predators" or creditors? Are we collecting degrees with the shaky promise that it will assure our success in the systems our ancestors and us have slowly built?
What we really need to collect is what sent us forward. From hairy monkeys to straight-backed brainiacs, ideas gave us the freedom to evolve. Everything that has even been created by a human has first and foremost been an idea. Even that idea is an idea I collected from someone else I can't remember. We're building on top of one another to get to higher ground. Immortality is right around the corner!
If you're collecting things you don't love, stop it. Stop it right now. There is no time or space or energy worth collecting something that doesn't resonate with you. We forget that we make the choices and when we forget that, we become victims to the hoards. We're bombarded everyday and we fall prey to the big, bad world.
Unplug and reset. Start the game over. Matter of fact, pretend it's a game. Unleash your beast mode onto the world and collect gems along the way. You'll defeat demons and kiss princesses and climb down tall flagpoles. Right now, I'm sure there are probably some ideas swirling around in your head that you hold dear. Worship them. Brand them on your forearms and revel in the pain. It could be that you believe there are aliens out there, watching us. Or you think Bobcat Goldthwait deserves more attention for his movies. Or you're sure, in your heart of hearts, that Zooey Deschanel just might be that cute in person too.
Seriously, we've all done it before. Collected ideas make up our workouts and study habits and recipes. Experience is the trail we follow to collecting these ideas, and as long as we remember what we brought along with us, it only makes us a more interesting and invested character. Think of Jesus, or Lance Armstrong. Crucifix necklaces and yellow plastic bracelets remind us to simply be more. It is a constant reminder. Why not develop your own system? Collect the right thoughts and collect the right ideas and until next time we explode into space.
Some of my best ideas have come from storms of conversations in dark bars or while yelling playfully with friends over campfires.Nothing makes me feel more alive than having a discussion where I end up understanding the world better than I did before. It teases me that there is a meaning to nail down. You have the meaning of life by the tail just a bit more when you can bounce your ideas off of someone else. It's orgasmic in a different way. It’s idea sex.
Ideas may sometimes come as jolts. That's true. But visual artist Ann Hamilton makes a point when she jokes that no one sits down to be creative. There is no punch clock, there is no finish line.
Don’t be fooled, there is actual work to creativity. It just feels like some big secret. We pretend artists and writers are a special group of people destined to be weird and moody. But as E.B. White, author of Charlotte's Web, wrote, "A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper." It's not a one-and-done process, it is a meditation, a lifestyle. What Hamilton was poking at is that creativity is not a noun, it’s a verb. It is making the time to open your mind and ask questions. It is the practice you need to produce your best work. We don’t know when it will come and we don’t know if it will come, but you need to sit down and do the work.
The Good Stuff
The process in and of itself can be maddening. There is an intense pressure of a billion tiny thoughts firing in your brain when you’re trying to create something to move you and the world around you. It’s no surprise some of the most amazing artists of our time have been seriously fucked up.
Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, beautifully challenged the tormented artist image in her TED talk “Your Elusive Creative Genius”. Gilbert found comfort in the ancient Greek and Roman ideas of a creative genius not being within you but being an external divine presence grateful enough to loan their powers to us mere mortals for some time. It took the burden off the “artist” to acknowledge that his “genius” or divine partner did or did not deliver. No artistic ego or suffering needed.
I’d like to take that idea one step further from Gilbert and the Greek genius. I believe we are all divine partners of one another. You’ve heard the theories. We’re all One. You’re the sum of your five closest friends. And now with the magic of the Internet, we’re all connected, sharing ideas and colliding off one another.
Every tweet is an invitation to idea sex.
The work of creativity multiplies with idea sex. And we can have it all the time. We can have multiple partners. We can do weird stuff. It is some freaky, tantric sex connection where your ideas and others collide to make something new. It is the pleasure of sex and the joy of birth all in a moment. Sharing anything less is masturbation.
When I write, I need to reference other people. Each of the thinkers that have influenced me have put ideas out into the world for others to take and do what they will. There is no pretending for me that my thoughts are only my own. It is just the unique, swirling combination of my experiences and my days.
The trouble is none of this is possible if we don’t share our thoughts and our work.
You have to make yourself available and vulnerable in a completely human way. It’s terrifying and exciting all at once. And it requires you to sort out your thoughts and make something.
Blackout poet and author Austin Kleon takes the creative process to heart. While inspiration or genius, or whatever you may call it, may not come every time we sit down, Kleon believes in the process of delivering and publishing work constantly to draw that genius closer. Sometimes it hits, sometimes it doesn’t.
We're meant to do this. Idea sex is the new evolution. As psychedelic explorer Terence McKenna put it, biological evolution ended with language. We have transformed the landscape of the world with our idea sex. And the more we come together, the more complex we get. Matt Ridley points out in his brilliant TED talk that no single person in this world knows how to make a pencil, much less a computer mouse. Comedian Joe Rogan considers the sophisticated level of which our world operates by asking, "If I left you alone in the woods with a hatchet, how long before you can send me an email?" We are nothing without one another because there is no artist without audience. There is no artist without art.
Nothing is original. Nothing is instant. So go have idea sex and you’re sure to change the world in the process.