When we begin a new thing (and assuming it’s the right thing at the right time), the experience can be exhilarating. We are presented with a path. The perfect challenge is set before us. The world is our oyster. It’s an invitation, a call to adventure.
It might be intimidating, a veritable Everest. We may reject the hero’s call at first. Nevertheless, if it’s our mountain to climb, we are stimulated to forward action. We take our first tentative steps. We rise, we stumble, we rise again. Soon enough, we gain traction and momentum. We’re in a cycle tailor-made for learning and growth.
Such times are characterized by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s “Flow State.”
Flow (or being “in the zone”) is a phenomenon of mental absorption that has us so rapt and focused that we lose track of time, we forget to eat, we might even disobey the signals coming from our bladders. There is one thing and one thing only. The thing before us.
Some consider this the definition of happiness.
If we’re lucky, we can sustain a depth of interest in our domain that has us going with the flow for years, long after the novelty of a thing has worn off. But just as likely, fires tend to blaze before burning down to embers. Then ashes.
Even when we’re at our self-aware best, when we know enough to feed the fire, we may be giving it damp wood or insufficient oxygen. I’m speaking in metaphor, but fill in the blanks with whatever is relatable and near to you.
Perseverance is a coin of the realm for creatives. It’s what separates men from boys, lords from lads. Pressing on can make all the difference, especially when it’s a road less traveled, fraught. Take out your machete and marshal on. Cut through. Soon enough, you’ll find the clearing, you’ll pick up the trail.
Then again, maybe you won’t.
There are those special times when we must face facts. The trail evades us. Our compass is faulty. We. Are. Lost.
Or in inspirational terms: For all our exertions, for all of our rubbing the lamp and wishing, the muse has departed. The gift has taken a vacation. Is it permanent? Darned if we can say. All we know is that it’s hard going. The wind isn’t filling our sails and we’re in stagnant water. We detect a stench.
To mix the metaphor some more, we might be asking, “What’s that bad taste in my mouth?” What once was sweet is now bitter to our tongues. We’ve chewed the sugar out of the gum. Finally owning up, we acquiesce to the fact that our thing is all used up. And so we spit it out.
Focus and loss of focus. Sometimes, it’s not a failure of daily discipline that kills creative drive. It’s deeper, and it requires self-psychoanalysis. (Keyword: Self. Don’t go to a shrink, they’re mostly a waste of money.) You can usually figure things out for yourself.
Sit down and write. Write non-stop for a while. Set a timer and spill your thoughts onto paper (or the computer screen) without stopping to fix and edit. Writing is thinking. All you want to do is think onto paper and empty yourself of thoughts.
Do this day after day after day. This will drain you of top-of-mind detritus and keep you digging until you hit pay dirt. Your shovel is questions: “What’s changed in my environment?”, “What’s bothering me?”, “Am I at a fork in the road?”, Etcetera.
Ask yourself, “Should I Stick or Quit?” (Seth Godin wrote a great little book (The Dip) based on this question.) Sometimes it’s time to let go — to quit — and it can be liberating.
Especially ask yourself, “What’s bothering me?”
If you’re old enough to remember, Detective Columbo asked himself that question often. And he’d say it to others, “There’s something that’s bothering me….” and this would lead to more questions.
Like a rumpled Socrates in a raincoat, he’d press others for knowledge. We can, too. In other words, we can expand our scope of inquiry. Sometimes we’re standing in our own blindspot. Sometimes the epiphany will be triggered by people who have a better vantage point on us than we do. Or as Dylan sang…
“When you wake up in the mornin’, baby, look inside your mirror…
…I’d just be curious to know if you can see yourself as clear
As someone who has had you on his mind”
When the looking glass fails, look to the mirror of other people — good friends who can reflect back and help.
In all likelihood, we’re at a fork in the road. We’ve graduated from one thing and are ready for another. Like Moses or Paul, who experienced wilderness years, desert years, we’re engaged in the act of reemerging. This is exciting news.
Or like the caterpillar, we’ve gone through a lonely and uncomfortable period. But paradoxically, the pain has given us wings. We’re just not aware that they’re there or what to do with them.
But we will. Soon enough, we will.
The best is yet to come.