Over the past few years I have taken to a meditation practice. Like anyone else who has embarked on the same mindful endeavor, I am not a perfect practitioner. However, through this practice I have learned some skills that have improved my creative process — and my everyday life — tremendously. If I had to pick the most valuable, it would be recognizing and changing my relationship with my thoughts. Most of us assume that all of our thoughts are both true and valuable, and as a result, we tend to ruminate on them. In reality, our thoughts come and go; some may be profound, but more often, they are just passing. By letting thoughts simply pass without inspection, I have become aware that thoughts of busyness and success consistently pervade my focus. Our culture tends to ascribe disproportionate value to both while simultaneously diluting them of any real meaning. The truth is that neither exists on its own, but on a spectrum. We spend so much time and mental capacity on these spectrums that I believe they detrimentally affect societal productivity, but more importantly, personal happiness. This awareness has significantly impacted my life, and, I think, could do the same for you.
Think back to the last time you ran into someone you hadn’t seen in a while. How was the conversation? What were the topics? I would be willing to bet that at least one of you remarked on how busy you are, but what does that really mean? Busy-ness has a number of potential interpretations: I have a long to do list. I consider everything I am doing urgent. I am juggling multiple relationships and projects. I feel stressed all the time. I heard a great line the other day: if you ask someone who isn’t all that buys how they are, they will compensate and say,
If you ask someone who truly is busy (think single mom working two jobs to provide for her family while raising two kids and trying to date) how they are doing, they will say something like,
Busy doesn’t manifest as busy, but we often wear it as a false badge of honor. Saying that we are busy humble brags that we — our time, our skills, ourselves — are in high demand. In contrast, to have free time is an “indulgence” of the lazy, unambitious, or untalented. Sometimes I’ll catch myself in casual conversation respond with something like, “I’m good thanks. Just staying busy…,” and afterwards reflect that I am indeed doing the opposite. So why did I say that? My hypothesis is that we relate being occupied to being valuable. We say, “I’m just so busy,” but what we really mean is, “Other people value me, so I am worthy or your value as well.” As a culture, we have glorified the word busy in so much pervasive overuse that it has become meaningless.
Personally, I have found it delightfully liberating to reframe to a spectrum and ascribe real meaning to the extremes.
There are many ways you could reframe this spectrum to lend it some actual meaning. Whatever feels most germane to you, it will allow you to take a deep breath, pick your head up (perhaps even literally, from your phone or your computer), and live your life much more intentionally. That may mean spending more time with your family or actually enjoying your vacation or just taking a nap. For me it most often means allowing myself to take a day to go fishing. However it reframes your life, I promise that giving yourself permission to enjoy your time rather than grinding to prove you are socially valuable, will feel like a rebirth.
Failure has been written about extensively over the last few years. By now I think it is safe to take for granted that we all understand a fear of failure precludes us from taking risks and that quick failure mitigates risk and allows us to iterate to success. But again, what does failure mean? On the opposite end of the spectrum, what does success mean? Despite the increased acceptability of failure, without a definition or ascription of some form, failure is much scarier and success feels much less likely. When you assign meaning to what constitutes failure and success in your specific context, this spectrum seems to shorten. What felt like such disparate extremes starts to feel like two manageable outcomes. Not only that, it becomes more clear that “success” requires “failure,” and to get to either, both must be part of a process. “Failures” become small leanings that lay the foundation for success.
I heard another intriguing conversation between Elizabeth Gilbert and Brene Brown discussing the evolution of the provocative question:
I am suggesting being even more specific. Would you write a book even if it didn’t get published? Would you take a sabbatical even if you got fired? Would you try a Kickstarter campaign even if nobody funded it? The real question is what are you so curious about, that you would find resilience to continue in the face of what you have defined as failure? Defining this spectrum can be foundational building blocks of courage. It either makes a specific challenge or problem approachable or identifies that the juice isn’t worth the squeeze, so the next time that thought pops up, you can freely let it pass.