* I originally wrote this post to friends on on FB and to listeners of the Unmistakable Creative Podcast on my 37th b-day, which was just a few days ago.
“Let whatever mysterious starlight that guided you this far guide you onward into whatever crazy beauty awaits.” — Cherly Strayed
Last summer I met an old man in a coffeeshop. It was the best day of his life. At a certain point in life there will be less minutes, hours, days, months, and years in front of you than there are behind you. Like any good story, less words, sentences, and chapters in front of you than there are behind you. Sometimes you won’t even know how much is in front and how much is behind because death is a destination that we all have in common. We can’t book a group flight, charter or cruise.
I’m not sure if there’s less in front of me than there is behind me, so just in case, this is what I thought Id share with you….
The spiritual journey of adulthood is like peeling our layers so that we eventually return to the wild eyed wonder of childhood. The layers, the masks, the capes, and shields are just a few of the many occupational hazards of “growing up.”
We all have this idealized version of ourselves, that we almost never live up to. It’s the one that’s based on a series of checkboxes and expectations (most of which I’ve failed to check off or live up to). Maybe you have too. That’s not entirely a bad thing because the idealized version is based on a map, with preplanned destinations, kind of like a packaged tour where you don’t veer too far off the beaten path. The people on these packaged tours don’t stray too far from the pack. They take photographs from the tour bus, but never get too close to the edges because they’re scared of being eaten by lions (even in places where there are no lions).
But when you don’t live up to all that, you can ditch the map for a compass that might lead you to unexpected places and open you up to possibilities you have never imagined. It’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, just different. You’ll always have what Dani Shapiro calls a “checklist of dreams you pretend not to have”
In some ways it’s better and in others it’s not. Sometimes it will give you an opportunity to take your dreams off the shelf and pursue them with whatever time you might have left….
- Jump out of planes
- Ride a jetski
- Climb a mountain
- Write a novel
- Learn to surf
I don’t know what it is for you. What I do know is that you might have put that dream on the shelf and NOW is a perfect time to take it off.
I’m not sure how any of these two things will come in handy, but I’ll share them with you anyways
- In Tijuana law enforcement is an entrepreneurial profession…. and customer experience takes on a whole new meaning as a result. I learned this at age 21. Since then I’ve never tried to negotiate anything with the police there.
- You will probably get your ass handed to you if you attempt to surf a 13 foot day without enough experience
In your life you’ll do 3 types of work
1) Work You have to Do:
In high school I worked at Mcdonald’s for an angry Jamaican lady (which sounds like an oxymoron). After college I worked at a bunch of jobs where nobody would miss me if I was gone. It was all work I had to do because it paid the bills.
2) The Work You Want to Do:
If you’re lucky you’ll figure this out earlier than I did. My business partner Brian Koehn said to me once “create what’s in your heart and we’ll figure out what to do with it.” When it comes to your work follow the path that your heart leads you down and figure out where to stop along the way. I never did when I was younger.
3) Work that Matters:
This is usually a combination of the first two. If and when you get to do this work, treasure it, love it. I’ve spent far too much of my life doing the first kind of work and it cost me something I can’t ever get back, not just time, but pieces of my heart and soul.
Failure, Loss and Standing After You Fall
Sometimes your wings will catch on fire when you fly too close to the sun and you’ll fall from the sky. The temptation is to never fly again. I hope you resist that temptation and I hope I do too.
When we lose something that matters, whether it be our lovers, our work, whatever… it turns out there’s something called a grief cycle. And apparently the fast forward button on your remote control doesn’t work for this. The only way out is through. But as my friend Jennifer reminded me, eventually sorrow becomes the gateway to our freedom, and you get back to creating your immortal beautiful work. We can get bitter or better. To be honest I got bitter and it was a while before I got better. Better is something I’m working on every single day.
Somewhere in between my last birthday and today I thought about quitting 100 times.
- I failed far more than I succeeded.
- I lost far more than I won.
- I rehearsed farewell episodes of the Unmistakable Creative in my head.
- I thought about putting my pen down for good and never writing another word.
But something kept me coming back.
Maybe it was because I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
Maybe it was because I didn’t think I knew how to do anything else.
Or maybe it was because I got back to paying attention to meaning instead of metrics. A friend reminded me to focus on what I could give instead of what I could get. So I started to ask myself these questions everyday
What value could I create for someone else today?
What can I contribute?
And one more that I stole from the Steve Jobs Commencement Speech
If today was the last day of my life, would I want to do what I’m about to do today?
I encourage you to ask yourself that question for 10 days in a row. Print it out, put it on your bathroom mirror, and every morning when you brush your teeth contemplate the answer. It’s actually the most important part of the entire commencement speech. The answers will surprise you. There were days that I said no. But it hasn’t been enough days in a row to make me quit doing my work.
While we’d happily erase some of the most painful memories of our lives, I guess sometimes we have to ask ourselves who we would be without them?
How would we grow without them?
How would we transform without them?
The time between my last birthday in this one has been a series of lessons in resilience.
- It’s been a lesson in believing that there was a light at end of the tunnel.
- It’s been a lesson in rebuilding wings, because they caught on fire when I got too close to the sun.
- It’s been a lesson in letting people like my business partner help rebuild those wings so we could fly again, even closer to the sun the next time.
- It’s been a lesson in changing stories from “how many more months do we have left? to “how can we play a bigger game”
- It’s been a lesson in closing my heart and opening it again, one tiny little, soul smashing, crack at a time.
- It’s been a lesson in exits, entries, and letting go.
Sometimes the only way we learn these kinds of lessons is the hard way. But I suppose that’s better than never having learned them at all. If your inner compass is misaligned it will lead you down a very dark road.
Your life will be filled with a wide spectrum of human emotions and experiences, love and laughter, heartache and tears, courage and fear, grief and joy, sometimes in a short overwhelming window of time between your last birthday and this one. Between 36 and 37 I experienced the whole specturm.
An old marketing professor said to me “wow, I”m surprised you didn’t turn to religion.” I replied “actually, I questioned the existence of God.” Then I read this by Cheryl Strayed
“To use our individual good or bad luck as a litmus test to determine whether or not God exists constructs and illogical dichotomy that reduces our capacity for true compassion.”
I’ve never been particularly religious which is strange considering that my work has apparently reached religious institutions. I’m not sure why but all religious activities in the Indian community are EXTREMELY time consuming and then you add the fact that Indians are horrible with time as it is. That’s probably why we have 3 day weddings. I’ve marked spiritual but not religious on any online dating profile I’ve ever filled out. And I think that still holds true.
Kryptonite makes us human. We all have our weaknesses, our achilles heels, and things that can take us off our game. I guess that’s the price we all pay for having some sort of superpower. I could tell you to stay away from the kryptonite. But it won’t make a difference. In fact that’s one of those things you only learn from getting too close to kryptonite, like the kid who touches a hot stove.
When nothing is known and everything is possible, our job is to dream without limits, without fear and without doubt. Our job is to cover the canvas and paint with the colors of our crazy wild eyed dreams. That’s how we align our inner compass.
After 37 years the only thing I have that might be of any use to you in navigating this crazy journey called life is a compass.
It’s led me to some very unexpected and amazing places:
- An opportunity to write 2 books with a traditional publisher
- An opportunity to have over 500 conversations with some of the most insanely interesting people I’ve ever come across…. and an education that kicked the crap out of the one I got in school (what a friend called an MFA in everything).
- An opportunity to do work far beyond anything I could ever dreamt of when I was using the map that was handed to me the day graduated from college.
- The possibility of an animated series that’s in the works based on interviews from The Unmistakable Creative
It’s my gift to you.
Take as many detours as you feel compelled to.
Veer off the beaten path.
Go down unpaved roads.
See where it leads you, and maybe we’ll cross paths along the way.
I’m the host and founder of The Unmistakable Creative Podcast, Occasional Instigator and author of a book called The Art of Being Unmistakable.