Winging It

Rearview mirror. Hindsight.

This is where most stories live, because stories are told in retrospect.

By definition, stories have already happened, even if you’re telling a story that takes place in the future. Truth, myth, whatever the story may be, the structure moves through a beginning and middle towards an end, which has already happened, too.

That’s what makes them stories.

So here’s something to consider. Maybe you want to accomplish something, and you search out the stories of people who’ve done what you want to do. You’re interested in what the beginning and middle of their stories looks like, because you want the same kind of ending. Fair enough. You may get some needed inspiration from their experience.

But remember that their experience happened in real-time.

Sure, the end of the story makes sense now, given the beginning and middle.

But the people in the story didn’t know how it was going to end. They probably didn’t even know they were in the beginning of a story, or the middle. The end determines those things.

They were winging it, just like we all are.

So don’t get too caught up in the particulars of someone else’s story. Their story is a map, your heart is a compass.

In other words, nobody really knows what the hell is going on in real-time.

Even your heroes.

So follow your heart.

Are you even good enough?

Here’s the latest installment of reminders to myself.

Are you even good enough?

Stop trying to make a living from what you love to do.

Make a life from it, by all means. But unless you’re already making a killing (and this involves a fair bit of luck as much as anything else… whoever says it’s all talent is full of shit), for the love of God stop trying.

Focus on the doing. For it’s own sake. Because you are creating something beautiful, because you are filling a deep hole in your soul, because the doing makes you feel alive.

The market rarely rewards great art in its own time. And because of that, great artists throughout history have depended on patrons to survive. In ancient Rome they were wealthy benefactors with big family names like the Medici’s. More recently they’ve looked like record companies paying advances to young artists to keep them in beer, weed, and takeout (although those days for the most part are also ancient history). And in every era in between, moneyed people have supported struggling artists they believe in until the market catches on, if it ever does.

So you don’t have a wealthy benefactor, huh?

I see.

No one’s hiring you to paint the Sistine Chapel for an absurd amount of money?

I see.

Have you committed every free waking moment possible to getting better at what you do?

Before school, after work, when the kids have gone to bed, have you been focusing on mastering your craft?

In other words:

Are you even good enough to paint the Sistine Chapel?

Life as a Cow (or, Journeying Backwards)

“Emerson says that he found roads out West that began broad, then narrowed to a squirrel path, and finally took refuge up a tree. But he must have been journeying backwards. These roads probably began in a tree, passed into a squirrel path, widened into a hog path, swelled into a cow path and graduated into a man path. Road-building does not go backward.”

I found this in the 1912 University of Virginia Alumni Bulletin. I wasn’t around in 1912 and I didn’t go to the University of Virginia.

So why was I reading this at all?

That’s a good question, with an unimportant answer.

Here’s what’s important.

Most of the roads we’re on in life were started by someone else in the past, begun with a single small step after coming out of “a tree” with an idea. These “squirrel” paths evolve into bigger and bigger paths, until by the time we discover them, they’re already interstates.

You can use that metaphor for almost anything. Social media? That started in a tree, with one idea, which evolved into bigger and bigger executions of that idea, and now you’re checking your phone every fifteen minutes for proof you exist.

Time in the tree was the birth of inspiration. That massive network of apps and profiles and likes and comments and whatever else the idea became is the interstate.

One lesson is clear: if you want to build a road, come down from the tree with your idea and start walking the smallest of paths, cutting your own path through the underbrush. As more people follow you, the path will get bigger and bigger until you’re Forrest Gump running on the interstate with a legion of believers beside you.

But what if people don’t follow you? What if the squirrel path stays a squirrel path?

That’s the other lesson, which isn’t quite as obvious. And this is where whoever wrote that Alumni Bulletin from 1912 was wrong.

Because road-building can go backwards. Sometimes it must.

Maybe it’s time for you to head the other direction. Maybe you need to simplify, simplify, simplify, as Emerson himself put it, and journey backwards. Turn around and travel the interstate, as it becomes a two-lane road and then a single dirt road and then a cow path and then a hog path and then a squirrel path, until you’re up in the tree where the squirrel started.

And when it’s time, come back down and start again.