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Why I call my ego Karen and other epiphanies from reading “Big Magic” by Elizabeth Gilbert

Colouring at the Design Museum in Copenhagen — because why not?

There are many conversations, books and movies that have, luckily, kept me going on my creative journey. They have not taught me about whatever form(s) of art I’ve been exploring. They have taught me a lot about the attitude I need to make it out alive — and sane. “Big Magic” by Elizabeth Gilbert has triggered another epiphany. It’s actually a summary of all the epiphanies I’ve had at various points in my life and even some new ones.

The reason I want to share them today is that Gilbert made them beautiful, impactful and user-friendly. Which is something I care about as a web designer. Get to the point quickly or I’m out.

The universe as a source of inspiration

Something unknown is doing we don’t know what.

- Sir Arthur Eddington

The notion of “universe” Gilbert refers to in her book, is one I had explored in a series of portraits and interviews I threw myself into after a nasty breakup. I can’t tell you why I thought of the word “universe” at the time. It’s just what came to me. Reading Gilbert’s book and meeting this notion by accident again, I smiled. Although I know better now than to think it was an accident.

Many creative people talk about the universe. We give it various names. Some people call it God, others speak about a source of inspiration or a system of rules and logic shaping our lives.

For example, someone leaves you and your heart gets shattered into pieces. Later on, when you’re feeling better and doing things you’d never have done if this person had not left, you get to say “it was God’s doing”, or “it was a blessing in disguise”. Or you can say “it was the universe working out its magic”. I believe in the latter, like a big ball of energy whose power goes above and beyond what I can understand — or even wish to understand. But what we decide to call this doesn’t matter. The important part is to know it works.

Chasing inspiration’s clues like a treasure hunt

I believe this is one of the oldest and most generous tricks the universe plays on us human beings, both for its own amusement and for ours: The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them. The hunt to uncover those jewels — that’s creative living.

- Elizabeth Gilbert

In her book, Gilbert transforms what I used to see as a tormenting challenge into a playground. With this analogy, Gilbert shows a much lighter perspective on inspiration and creativity, like it’s a treasure hunt for children. I love this concept because, in this one, the outcome doesn’t impact the pleasure of creating.

Gilbert also talks about eudaimonia. This inspirational muse watching over your shoulder and sometimes dropping clues about what you should pursue. I love to believe in that. Because, no, I’m not inspired 24/7 and I need someone to blame for it.

As Gilbert explains, success comes from talent, luck and perseverance. Since you can’t do anything about the first two, you might as well triple your efforts on perseverance. Especially as this eudaimonia will only visit if she deems you worthy enough. So, we might as well try and look like we want her to come to us. Otherwise, it’s a little bit like inviting guests over and leaving the lights off to pretend you’re not home.

The creative process goes in pair with fear

The graveyard is the richest place on earth, because it is here that you will find all the hopes and dreams that were never fulfilled, the books that were never written, the songs that were never sung, the inventions that were never shared, the cures that were never discovered, all because someone was too afraid to take that first step, keep with the problem, or determined to carry out their dream.

- Lee Brown

You can’t talk about the creative process without mentioning its fiercest opponent: fear. As Gilbert explains, creative work triggers fear in all of us. The outcome we imagine and dream of is always uncertain. And that uncertainty is sometimes paralysing.

I know about fear. Because of fear, I didn’t go to drama school. I went to film school instead, thinking that I could become an actor after becoming a technician. I won’t leave you with any sort of suspense, I became neither. I failed for many reasons and got a day job in marketing instead.

But, with my day job securing financial stability, I started doing photography. And without the pressure of money or recognition, I started to enjoy myself, genuinely. I worked on projects I was very passionate about. I went back and forth to Venice for a year shooting sinking palaces to raise awareness and funds. I also travelled the world, using my day job’s money, to shoot the world architectural heritage. I didn’t do any of those things for whatever elevator pitch I’d be able to leverage in society. I did it for fun.

The reason I had fun is that I kicked fear out of my process. There was nothing at stake apart from having fun. But what is interesting as I read “Big Magic” is that I realised I needed to hear the lesson again. I’ve been working freelance as a web designer for about a year now. And there’s always a time where things get difficult. When that happens, I need to get better at remembering what’s at stake. Before anything, I’m doing this because I have the luxury of having fun. It is “just” a website.

Commitment speaks louder than success

A lot of creative people measure themselves by how successful they are. It applies to jobs, relationships and hobbies. In Gilbert’s book, I was reminded that this is the wrong approach. A kinder approach would be to measure how committed you are to whatever creative work you’ve decided to take on. The time you spend improving, learning, educating yourself. That’s the only setting to look at if you want to check whether you’re doing ok or not.

However, it’s all very nice and humble but we’re still human beings made of egos. So, unless you’re the new Buddha, you probably struggle with ego on a daily basis. Guess what? That’s ok. Being aware of what pushed you to do something allows you to tell this ego to sit down and shut the f*ck up. I call my ego Karen. It helps me to detach myself from her as much as possible.

Staying humble in the grand scheme of things

Speaking of Buddha, humility is kind of a big deal for him. It’s something many of us aspire to or claim to have. Nice trait to have, right? Obviously Karen is here to remind me I don’t get to claim this. Any chance she’s got, she’s here to put in her two pennies.

“Big Magic” reminds us that people have been making stuff forever and most of them haven’t made a big fuss about it. So whatever we design, develop or write, it’s unlikely it’ll really, I mean really, have a universal impact. So chill. And if someone really wants to know why you bother doing what you’re doing, just tell them “Why not?”.

That being said, if you’re looking for a cure to COVID-19, a solution to systemic racism or working out a way to end child labour, by all means, brag about it. I’ll even make a website for you. I mean it.

Keeping it sassy

I’ve been called many things from various people. I remember, for example, my first annual review with a former manager complimenting me for my work. But he ended his speech by telling me I was cheeky like it was bad. My American friends call it sass. I know it was supposed to make me feel nervous and get me back on whatever tracks this guy was about. But instead, I felt some kind of twisted pride. The mischievous, twisted and sassy kind of pride. Because, sass, my friend, is everything I enjoy and I’ll never apologise for it.

Leading a creative life, whether your gig is gardening, launching rockets or designing websites, is all about sass. It’s about showing up somewhere experts have already done a lot of amazing work and saying you want to enter the arena too.

But then, why not? Should we stop having singers now Cesaria Evora is dead? Should we stop designing clothes because Coco passed away? I don’t think so. There’s always more you can contribute to this world. And I want to make damn sure I’ve given it my best before it all ends.

This is the only weapon we get to have against Karens. Sass. There’s nothing you can do to stop someone who outrageously believes in what they’re doing and is having fun doing it. Nothing.

Legitimacy doesn’t come from a degree

Legitimacy has been a very big barrier for me. I went to university to study film and then I quit because I couldn’t afford it. English is my second language and nothing I do will ever replace the fact that sometimes, I make mistakes. I never properly studied design with anyone, but I found a supportive community and started getting freelance design contracts.

But Karen, her again, yes, will always leave her den whenever she sees an opportunity to ask me “who do you think you are?”. So, one coping mechanism people look for against their ego is legitimacy. It’s something you can gain from graduating for example.

But unless you are studying to become a doctor, what do you care about a degree in arts? Do you think it’s going to help you navigate your way around networking? No. Do you think it’s going to tell you how to market yourself? No. Do you think it’s going to teach you anything about filling the paperwork to become a freelancer and pay your taxes accordingly? Again, no.

I wish I had read “Big Magic” a long time ago, when I was frustrated and sad that I couldn’t go any further in my studies. I’ve been privileged in many ways, but not graduating has always felt sour to me. Gilbert reminded me that arts students do gain enormously from their education. But if you don’t get to go to college, it’s also ok.

What most people gain from that has nothing to do with the techniques you can learn and practice on your own. It’s 2020. The Internet is here. I’ll listen to you complaining if you come from a village with no running water nor electricity. Otherwise, chill.

Unless you’re a doctor. Go to college, please. I don’t want any failed artist to try and perform surgery on me just because he Googled it.

No one cares about your rants

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good rant. It can be absurd, witty and most of all funny. Usually, I don’t rant out of real outrage but because if I was watching the scene from afar, I’d find this hilarious. Yes, I rant for comedy.

But in the creative industry, where most of us have chosen to dedicate our time doing creative things, what the f*ck are we complaining about? As Gilbert says it best, the topic has been explored and worn out already. Also, it’s annoying. I won’t get into too many details I haven’t experienced, but many people don’t get to choose what they do, let alone experience a pleasant time at work. So chill and think about your privilege for a second.

Which is probably a lesson I needed to hear again as I’m losing patience with a developer because IT’S ALL IN FIGMA FOR CHRIST’S SAKE. But nevermind. Also, as I’ve learnt in this particular episode, no one really listens to someone’s rants. Unless it’s a meme. Memes will probably change the world.

So, what subversive approach remains for those of us who care about originality? Try enjoying your work (and let me know how that goes).

In conclusion, your work isn’t sacred

Gilbert explores many, many more topics in “Big Magic” and I don’t want to give it all away because:

  1. I’m worried it might look like I’m taking ownership of her work.
  2. This article is already quite long and I’m surprised you’re still here.
  3. You should read the book and see what other epiphanies you get.

But basically, what “Big Magic” taught me is this: chill. Do creative work because you love it. Not because you’ve got bills to pay, that’d be a terrible strategy. If you happen to make ends meet with it, good for you. Keep working. Maybe it’ll pay. Maybe not. But be ok with it.

🙏 Thanks for reading!

👋 Have a question or a project you’d like to discuss? Book a call or email me.

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Tamara Sredojevic

Tamara Sredojevic

Freelance UX designer • Accessible, ethical design • iamtamara.design

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