An Understanding of Living Fully

The biggest, most important question on Earth is and always will be: What is the meaning of life? On a global scale, this is unanswerable. But on a personal scale, it might not be.

The question then becomes: What is the meaning of my life?

It’s something that I’ve thought about and struggled with since gaining adult rationality. How do I get the most out of life? Series of late night conversations, desperately emailing friends for guidance, introspectively exploring and questioning how I spend my days in search of meaning — wondering if I’m on the right path or if I’ve been overlooking something simple.

Two years ago I explored this topic in depth in a post titled “An Investigation Into Living Fully,” attempting to define and clarify the issue but failing to come up with any sort of epiphany or resolution.

Today, I’m excited to claim, with great reverence and a sense of humility for my position in the universe, that I seem to have found an answer.

Picking up where my previous post left off, I had concluded that to this point living fully had always meant making stuff. But this felt somewhat unsatisfying. And the reason lies in what my previous understanding of my purpose was — to leave the world a more interesting place than I found it.

That purpose sounds nice and still makes sense to me. However, it is inherently defined by me affecting the world. I minimized the scale of this task by concluding that by creating anything interesting, even a blog post, that I have made the world more interesting. The problem with this — and the reason why it’s unsatisfying — is that you end up judging your creation by the impact it has. So when I write books that no one reads it feels like a waste of time. Then you inevitably end up comparing yourself to the successful published authors you enjoy and feel like a failure.

And then Brittany recommended I read a book that changed how I view art, creativity and myself. The book is Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert.

It’s hard to describe the feeling of wrestling with these questions, soul-seeking for literally 20 years, to one day start a book that feels like it was written just for you. One that is ready to present the answers that you’ve been looking for.

A personal digression: I entered college in 2001 not knowing what major or career I should select. I was content to explore and wasn’t in a rush to figure it out. I knew I had a passion for creative writing and I took creative writing classes on Poetry and Short Stories. They were incredible, by the way, and I wish I could have taken them every semester and then some. I remember sitting in my dorm, Allen Hall, in front of a word document. I was debating between pursuing a career in creative writing (fiction author) or a career in psychology, the other classes I enjoyed the most. At one point in 2002, I came to the conclusion that I could always write in my free time as a Psych major, but that I couldn’t have a professional career in psychology with a creative writing major. I was on track to become a Psychology major. This despite the fact, that I didn’t want to go to grad school, become a Psychologist or know any other way to use that degree.

Once again, Brittany stepped into my life and in the summer of 2002 mailed me a packet of printed out job descriptions from the government’s official Occupational Outlook Handbook. She could have emailed them — it would have been easier — but instead she printed them out and highlighted the jobs she thought would interest me. There were several related to psychology but also creative writing. In that stack, I read for the first time about creative advertising writing (copywriting.) That summer I decided that was the career for me. There was not a lot of back and forth hand-wringing. It felt obvious. I was already enrolled in specific classes for the fall 2002 semester, so I went online and dropped anything that didn’t fulfill requirements for an Advertising major and enrolled in two or three advertising classes.

All of this is to say, for 20 years I’ve been thinking about what to do with my life and if it should be a life of the arts or something else entirely. And now I feel like I’ve figured something out.

Claiming to have figured it out myself is a rather large claim, since it’s basically in the first 50 pages of Big Magic. And also, in fact, in the subtitle.

Once I read it, it clicked. Because in many ways it’s how I’ve been living and yet I often felt like a failure because I hadn’t had a book sell well, or a tweet go viral, or a video attract an audience. But instead of judging myself based upon my effect on the world, what if I defined my purpose differently? What if it was this:

To live a creative life. A curious, amplified life. To express myself creatively — as often and deeply as possible. To pursue new experiences. Instead of affecting the world, what if I strive to extract everything interesting and curious from this world. To invite the universe to leave its mark upon me through my creative expression. That in fact, the sum of my creative outlets is what awakens my soul, brings light to my life, and makes me vividly alive.

I suppose to some it might not seem like an epiphany — not that much different than what I had previously written about. But there’s an important shift. Previously, I was too concerned with finding success. Even my most recent book, I picked it in part because I thought it was a commercially viable idea. So when it didn’t move copies I ended up questioning why I spent a year writing it. But now I don’t. Now I’ve shifted the goalposts. I can view it on its own creative merits and I see it as a success. I’m proud of it. I’m glad I wrote it. It is one piece of my journey to live a creative life, not a mundane life.

Even a week ago, I questioned why I was motivated to create these things when it doesn’t pay off in the literal sense. Despite being drawn to create these things, it’s easy to paint them as a waste of time and energy. But now I see that the creation itself was the point. Something inside me draws me to create and I should listen to that voice. Maybe in fact, that’s the best definition of the soul that I’ve ever heard. (Man, epiphanies flying around here left and right!) Your soul might want you to travel, or teach people, or volunteer, or play music, or study history, or learn five languages. If my soul wants me to create, I should create. I should not fret and worry about if other people will like it or buy it or leave good reviews. I can’t control that anyways. I can only control my creative discipline.

I no longer have to compare myself to published authors and feel inferior nor feel the need to compare myself to any peers that are seemingly not living a life based around the arts. I need only stay focused on my mission and remind myself that I am capable of great things. I want to push myself to produce my best creations and not define myself by others. For comparison is the thief of joy.

I’ve used the phrase “create things” so much that I think it warrants defining it further. (Also, it makes my soul feel good to see a current list of everything in one place, so here we go.)

To this point in my life, I’ve created:

  • three books (one choose your own adventure, one novel and one personal essay collection)
  • four short films (should be five…one day)
  • three blogs: (one personal, one family, and one dedicated to writerly pieces)
  • a tabletop game
  • a cookbook
  • a youtube series
  • a podcast
  • two albums in a high school band
  • a twitter account where I pretend to be a comedian
  • a restaurant concept with full menu
  • two web riddles
  • a side business designing book covers

That’s a fair list of creative expressions. But I’ve also completed some challenges and activities that for me fall under the category of creative living:

  • fasted for 48 hours
  • stopped talking for a day
  • went without sleep for 32 hours
  • ate only cereal for a week
  • went vegetarian for a month
  • a two-hour solo walk at midnight
  • went hang gliding in Rio
  • visited ten escape rooms

Most of these occurred not only in college, but in the first two years of college. Apparently, I arrived on campus ready to try anything. Seems like a good attitude to have — something I should challenge myself to find again.

A cynical, but fair critique of this new found purpose might be that it sounds like giving up. That I haven’t found commercial success so I’m moving the goalposts out of weakness. This is not me inventing an imaginary strawman — this is the voice of the critic within myself, my own fear. The part inside me that tells not to try things because I might fail. The part that says “Why bother writing something if no one will read it?”

But today I see this as a sign of strength. I’m freeing myself so that I can focus on being creative for my own sake and writing the things that I want to write and make the things that I want to make and not be concerned at all with what will sell or what other people might like. My soul urges me to create the best work that I can. Not to become famous or rich. Not to create something that has the necessary elements to succeed on a national level. For example, years ago on a walk with Brittany we talked about what the massive hits Harry Potter and Twilight have in common. It’s not super complicated. Adolescents with super powers and a love story. I haven’t read or watched either one and even I know that. So I created an outline for a book (that has the potential for a series, that has the potential for a movie franchise). It has the elements to be successful. But I’ve never written it because I’ve never wanted to. The story doesn’t speak to me. Whenever I release something that doesn’t sell I think back to that idea. The reality is that there is no guarantee that this idea would be commercially successful at all. And if I’m going to spend my time and energy on something that will only sell 10 copies, I want it to be worth it for me. I have to invest in the projects that I’ll be satisfied with those results.

To find our soul’s purpose, we should ask ourselves exactly that: What would you do even if you knew it was very likely to fail? (Here I’m using fail in the conventional, financial sense even though that’s not how I view things.) What would be worth doing if you knew there was no pay off outside of yourself?

Would you go to med school if you know you could not become a doctor?

Would you paint a painting if you knew no one would see it?

Would you write a book if you knew no one would read it?

If you find yourself saying yes to this kind of question, that’s probably because it’s your soul’s purpose. That this venture would make you feel the most alive — so success and failure cease to be relevant.

In fact, as Gilbert points out, failure has a purpose. It asks the question of you: Are you ready to continue making things? It is easy to create when everything goes well. If everyone knew they were guaranteed financial success, millions would start writing screenplays and painting and sculpting. It is hard to create when financial success seems impossible. When you still want to create after experiencing that, that’s when you know it’s the voice of your soul and not just a desire for fame or money.

Another critique might be this: If my purpose is about doing things solely for me, why even write this post? Why not just keep it to myself?

Well for one, I never know what I think about something until I write it down. Often, I write to clarify the jumble of tangled thoughts in my head. By writing publicly I force myself to record this as elegantly as possible

And also, just because it’s on the internet doesn’t mean that it’s not for me. Beyond a few close friends who I think might enjoy this sort of thing, it doesn’t matter if strangers read this. It only matters that I read this and refer back to it as often as I need to to stay focused and feed my soul.

Sometimes even I’ve wondered why on a Friday night, I’m at home tabulating election results under imaginary circumstances or proposing solutions to NFL problems that no one will read. Now I have the answer. I have a curious soul. And scratching that itch gives me a sense of peace.

Now that I’ve identified my purpose and answered the critic within, I’d like to add some notes from Big Magic that I found helpful, so I can refer back and be inspired again one day.

  • According to Gilbert, the Romans believed that you had a genius, not that you were a genius. That a genius was a source of inspiration that guided you on your journey. I don’t even care if this is true. I like it and will be using it.
  • The creative process is a road trip with three passengers. Myself, creativity and fear are all along for the ride. Fear will ride with us, but does not get to vote where we go and certainly does not get to drive. I am behind the wheel and creativity is riding shotgun. We will be making the decisions, focused on the road ahead.
  • The goal does not have to be that your art financially take care of you. A better goal would be to financially take care of yourself so that you can always create your art.

There is a danger in declaring that you have figured out the meaning of your life because life itself is fragile. Things can change in an instant and one day I might read this and think it’s a bunch of garbage. I hope that day doesn’t come and I don’t think it will, but I must remain open to the possibility. The future is fluid and new epiphanies may enter at any moment. I have titled this an understanding — singular — leaving room for further growth and wisdom.

As it turns out, I feel like I’ve done a pretty job living in harmony with this purpose to this point. (So that’s a bonus.) I have created the things that I’ve wanted to create. And from time to time, I have lived curiously and creatively. This is a purpose without an endpoint. I will never cross this off the list. It will be my guide, through the inevitable periods of feeling lost, weak and afraid. And hopefully lead to further creative expressions and a sense that I have vividly lived.