Came home from a walk with my wife and wrote down this list. It’s going on the wall in my studio.
When my dad brought home girlfriends, my grandpa, rather obnoxiously, would quiz them from his arm chair. I’m told the first question was usually, “So, what’s your philosophy of life?” (I’m not sure what my mother answered.)
I was thinking of my grandpa last week when I was asked a similarly baffling and broad question during an interview: “What is your definition of success?”
I hemmed and hawed a bit, until I finally said, “I suppose success is your days looking the way you want them to look.”
Sounded okay, but after I said it, I wondered what the hell it meant.
“What do you want your days to look like?” is a question I ask myself whenever I’m trying to make a decision about what to do next. In fact, I believe that most questions about what to do with one’s life can be replaced by this question.
What career should I choose? Should I go back to school? Where should I live? Should I get married? Should I have kids? Should I get a dog? Should I take up the piano?
“What do you want your days to look like?” forces you to imagine the day in, day out realities that making such choices will present you with.
Albert Camus once told a reporter, “One has to pass the time somehow.” And how you pass the time, what your days look like, well, as Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
Maybe success is just a matter of how the reality of the days match up to the ones in your imagination.
That’s not to say my ambitions these days are all that lofty. In 1851, Nathaniel Hawthorne, after spending the day with his five-year-old son, wrote in his journal, “We got rid of the day as well as we could.”
Whether that’s aiming too low or not, it sounds like success to me.
I recently talked to Brad Listi for over an hour about creativity, my books, and all sorts of stuff.
My inbox is full of more questions than I could possibly answer and still get any work done, so once a month, I try to schedule a set period of time to hold “office hours” over on my tumblr, where people can ask me anything they can’t google.
Oftentimes, the answers are just remixed thoughts from my books (how much more is there to say?), but sometimes I hit on something interesting. Below are a few answers from yesterday’s hours minus the questions…
It was definitely one of the most intense afternoons I’ve had in a while. I used to hate playing in competitive sports. The only sports I ever enjoyed taking part in were pretty solitary: golf and long distance running. Practicing both of those sports, mostly you’re just trying to beat your own score or time. (Honestly, I hated them, too. Just not a sports dude.)
I think one reason I’m drawn to writing and art is that I don’t have to be competitive — if I’m competing with anyone, it’s against myself, or a bunch of my favorite (most of them dead) artists, or it’s a kind of friendly competition spurred on by seeing other folks’ work in the world. And even then, I’m not competing to be the best at what I do, I’m trying to be the only one who does what I do.
But there was something about the combination of the pressure of the match and what Kelli threw at me that pushed me to come up with stuff I wouldn’t have come up with otherwise…
Don’t be deceived by life’s outcomes. Life’s outcomes, while not entirely random, have a huge amount of luck baked into them.
Some mornings, after our walk, my 21-month-old son and I will sit on our front steps and draw on a little square of the sidewalk with chalk. Birds (“brrr!”), trucks (“chuck!”) and maybe the letter S (“esh!”) or B (“buh!”) It never gets old, but it gets hot, so when we’re sweaty enough, I stick the little box of sidewalk chalk behind a potted plant on our porch, and we go back inside the house.
* * *
This morning when we got back from our walk, I noticed someone had taken the red chalk from the box and written down the sidewalk:
COMPOST!!! COMPLETES THE CYCLE. CREATES COMMUNITY. “CATCHING.”
At first I was puzzled by the graffiti, but then I looked across the street at the signs stuck in my neighbors’ tree lawns, advertising the URL of the local “bike-powered compost recycling” startup. And like Will Graham in an episode Hannibal, I blinked my eyes a couple times, and reconstructed the scene: The Composter, biking the big barrel around, collecting the green buckets from porches, comes across my porch, which is bucketless. The Composter takes in our drawings, notices the sidewalk chalk, and sees not a marketing opportunity, no, but a chance to spread the message.
* * *
I’ve been feeling cranky lately about the slogans I’ve seen coming from the “creative” slash “entrepreneural” slash “startup” worlds:
MAKE YOUR MARK.
PUT A DENT IN THE UNIVERSE.
It strikes me that both of these metaphors involve vandalism.
Kurt Vonnegut thought every story has a shape that can be graphed — each has a beginning and an end (plotted on the x-axis) and every character goes through “good fortune” and “ill fortune” (plotted on the y-axis). I put a bunch of them together for this chart in Show Your Work!:
I think our days have shapes, too — each has a beginning and an end, and we go through good and ill fortune as it progresses. Read the rest of this entry »