Alain de Botton on How to Overcome the Pressure to Be Exceptional

In our accomplishment-obsessed culture, the best thing you can be is exceptional.  To be ordinary is to be a loser.  Think about it.  Who do we most revere: the everyday average Joe or glittery movie stars and billionaire CEOs?  The fact is we worship “great” men and only study the monumental moments of mankind in our history books.

Like the tragic casualty of the American Dream, Jay Gatsby, we have grand visions for our futures: to write the next Great American Novel, to lead nations, to found multi-million dollar companies, to make revolutionary medical breakthroughs.  When we were asked what we wanted to be when we grew up, we gave only the most ambitious answers: to be the first woman president of the United States, to be cowboys, to be astronauts, to be world-famous ballerinas.  We never aspired to ordinary jobs.  After all, who would want to be a store clerk or mail man when you could be a rock star or a chef at a five star restaurant?

In his illuminating A More Exciting Life, the most recent edition to the School of Life series, Alain de Botton explains that though our culture thinks success consists of “sports cars, tropical islands, fame, an exalted destiny, first-class air travel and being very busy,” true success is often far less exciting.  To illustrate his notion of authentic success, he uses the example of Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer.  Much like 18th century French painter Jean Baptiste Chardin, who preferred bowls of fruit to grand palaces and English statesmen, Vermeer found beauty in the simplest of scenes and most ordinary places: a quiet street, a girl reading at the window, a maid pouring milk. 

By conferring dignity on the commonplace, Vermeer reminds us that even the most “unremarkable” lives are worthwhile.  It might, he seems to suggests, be just as noble to make dinner for our lover as it is to sail the seven seas or rule over a kingdom.  We don’t have to achieve great things to be lovable.  It is enough to merely maintain a loving marriage over many decades; to tenderly play with our children; to keep an orderly home; to laugh often; to savor good wine; to create for its own sake; to connect with other beautiful souls; to generally be good and gracious; to listen sympathetically to a struggling friend; and to give our every task our heartfelt attention.

As de Botton charmingly concludes, once we overcome the pressure to be somebody, we realize “life’s true luxuries might comprise nothing more or less than simplicity, quiet friendship based on vulnerability, creativity without an audience, love without too much hope or despair, hot baths and dried fruits and the odd sliver of very dark chocolate.”

Alain de Botton on Self-Knowledge as the Key to Contentment

In our hurried lives, we rarely have time for reflection.  From the moment we rise from our beds, we’re rushing to the next thing: the next email, the next phone call, the next board meeting, the next subway station.  Our lives embody what the ancients called the vita activa, the path of action, rather than the vita contemplativa, the path of reflection.  When we do carve out time for contemplation, it’s usually to weigh the pros and cons of practical decisions: we might spend several weeks researching the purchase of a new car, many years deciding upon the right career.  Yet we devote almost no time to what ancient philosophers believed was the most important goal of all: understanding ourselves.

cezanne fruit

In his insightful field guide, A More Exciting Life, which taught us how to deal with depression, overcome the pressure to be exceptional, be more pessimistic, prioritize small pleasures, lengthen our life, and listen to our boredom, beloved philosopher behind the School of Life, Alain de Botton, suggests we can only find contentment if we truly know ourselves.  Rather than take the time to define our own tastes, he argues most of us “assume that what will work for others will work for us too.”

The problem?

We most certainly are not other people.

While many might enjoy the bright lights and blaring electronic music of a dance club, we’d much rather spend our Saturday night cozying up in bed with a cup of chamomile tea and a good book. 

While some might rejoice in the excitement of an evening with strangers, we despise dinner parties and would rather get a root canal than have to ask, yet again, “so what do you do?”.

And while some might love the effortless model-off-duty look of athleisure, we prefer heels and dresses to sneakers and sweatshirts.

Artistsmore than anyonecan teach us how to know and be who we are.  According to de Botton, what we call a great artist is someone who has the strength to “discover and then stay faithful” to themselves.  Van Gogh, Andy Warhol: each was committed to their own aesthetic, their own vision— regardless of anyone else.  Did Picasso sanitize the strange shapes and brutal anti-war imagery of “Guernica” to have more commercial appeal?  Did he abandon his monstrous bull and dying soldiers for a classic bowl of fruit and pretty daffodils?  No, he refused to paint in a way that was more traditional.  Picassolike all artistsuncompromisingly defended his own point-of-view.

All of us are artists of the everyday: we get to make our lives as beautiful as we want.  Instead of mindlessly follow the masses (go to sweaty dance clubs, engage in empty-headed chatter between bites of spinach quiche, spend hundreds of dollars on trendy Lululemon pants and sneakers), we— like Picasso— can refuse to conform to convention and discover what genuinely gives us pleasure.

Imagine a first date.  We look lovingly across a candlelit dinner as a sharply-dressed man in a pinstriped suit plays the piano.  What makes the evening so charming is not the romance of the music or our glass of Merlot but the fact that our potential paramour is endlessly curious about us.  Where did we grow up?  What’s our favorite book?  our favorite film?  Where would we live if we could live anywhere in the world?

We should adopt a similarly inquisitive attitude toward ourselves.

What kind of work do we enjoy?  Do we feel happiest when we’re collaborating with people or working alone?  Do we like using our hands or find gratification in the intellectual challenge of solving complex problems?

What are the most important qualities of a romantic partner?  charm?  intelligence?  ambition?  a good sense of humor?  emotional intelligence?  empathy and understanding?  a willingness to examine their own issues?  Is it important that our partner can provide financial security?  that he/she has a 401k and a stable job?  

How do we most want to spend our weekends?  Browsing a book store?  Going hiking?  Having a midday picnic?  Would we rather spend our Friday night baking a cranberry apple pie or hitting the hottest club?  Is our ideal Saturday morning an early yoga class or a ritzy mimosa brunch?

What sort of books do we pull off the shelves?  Fiction or non-fiction?  Bloody true crime or heart-racing thrillers?  Are we obsessed with trashy paperback novels or do we exclusively read New York Times bestsellers?

What is our dream destination: meditating on a hilltop in Thailand or leading the dolce vita in Rome?  How would we like to spend our getaway: doing daring deeds like climbing mountains and swimming with sharks or lounging on a beach in a tropical paradise?  Do we prefer every hour of our itinerary to be jam packed with action and activity or do we like to have a few aimless hours to sunbathe in our swimsuits?  Would we rather explore magical cenotes in Cancun or appreciate Italian renaissance art in the Louvre?

As de Botton so succinctly sums up, “which of our hitherto stray or guilty pleasures might we dare begin to focus and anchor our days around?  What might we learn to say no to and, in contrast, to emphasize going forward?”

It is only when we ask ourselves such probing questions that we can unearth our authentic selves.  “I was drifting without rudder or compass swept in all directions by influence from custom, tradition, fashion, swayed by standards uncritically accepted from my friends, my family, my countrymen,” Marion Milner once wrote in her aptly titled memoir A Life of One’s Own.  Like Ms. Marion, if we want to be happy, we must find our own compass instead of rely on the winds of convention to determine our direction and propel our sails.

Alain De Botton on Luxury as a Restorative Form of Self-Love

What is luxury?  To some, luxury is synonymous with chandeliers, caviar and champagne.  To others, luxury calls to mind diamonds and pearls.  To still others, it’s wrapped in fancy cars and fur stoles.

Regardless of how we conceive of luxury, most of us believe the “good life” is something reserved for other people.  Only the wealthy can bear the expense of a $10,000 a night villa and afford Christian Louboutin shoes and Veuve Clicquot Brut Yellow Label.  How could we, ordinary common people with five figure salaries and overdue credit card bills, ever taste luxury’s celebratory bubbles.

luxury final #2

In his eye-opening A More Exciting Life, paradigm-shifting British philosopher Alain de Botton argues we don’t have to spend thousands of dollars to pamper ourselves.  Anyone can elevate the everyday regardless of the status of their bank account.  “We too often forget,” de Botton writes, “especially on our sadder and more restricted days…that the core pleasures of luxury also exist in small forms that can be accessed at a far more manageable cost.”

Luxury doesn’t have to be a first-class plane ticket or a taffeta bungalow— it can be a bottle of perfume, a sleek black and white candle, an impossibly soft pair of cashmere socks, a silk robe.  Luxury can be as affordable as an ivy plant for the windowsill, as simple as adding freshly shaved chocolate to our hot cocoa.

Are many luxurious things beyond our bank account?

Of course, obviously most of us can’t justify daily massages and summers along the Amalfi coast but that doesn’t mean we can’t find similar qualities of pleasure and beauty in our lives as they’re constituted now.

Say we want Yves Saint Laurent’s latest shoulder bag because it captivates us with its smooth black calfskin and streamlined design.  We might not be able to afford its hefty $2,000 price tag, but we can find just as much elegance and sophistication in the brand’s lipstick for $38.99.  

Or maybe we long for the immaculately designed multi-million dollar homes in Vogue and Elle.  Rather than max out our credit cards, we can find small ways to elevate our home.  Love the clean, simple lines of mid-century modern design?  We might not be able to afford a vintage velvet coach or an entirely new dining table but we can certainly treat ourselves to a Picasso print or a chic 1960s vase from our local thrift store.

After an exhausting few months of work, we might dream of getting away for awhile— to a remote cabin in the woods, perhaps, or a serene Greek spa.  We might not be able to bake in a sauna in Santorini but we can recreate some semblance of a spa in our own homes: we can light candles, pour ourselves our finest glass of wine, play a soothing Beethoven sonata and submerge ourselves in a blissful bath of sweet-scented bubbles.  If we want to restore our bodies and replenish our souls— de Botton suggests— we don’t have to flock to a Greek spa halfway across the world; we can transform our bathroom into an oasis of calm as long as we pay attention to detail.

chanel shopping bags

But all this begs the question: isn’t a love of luxury materialistic?  showy and superficial?  Aren’t there more important things we should concern ourselves with, the declining middle class, for example, or the impending threat of global warming or the millions of starving children across the world?

Though our culture condemns the pursuit of pleasure as hopelessly shallow (if not downright immoral), we should prioritize luxury for the sole reason that it can comfort and console.  Life rarely goes as it’s supposed to: our marriage ends, we never achieve our dream of becoming a Broadway star.  Our day-to-day is defined by great catastrophes— death, divorce— and seemingly small but equally dispiriting difficulties— a self-centered mother, a moody sister, a demanding boss.  During the span of a single day, we have to endure countless disappointments and humiliations: we might get beat out for a promotion, leave the office and find we got a $200 parking ticket, lose our favorite coat, and return home only to be the object of our husband’s derision and ridicule.

Because the world cares nothing for us, we must be kind and care for ourselves.  A glass of champagne or Gucci loafers won’t completely cure our ills but they can certainly cheer us when life is cruel.

Bell Hooks on Why We Shouldn’t Prioritize Products Over People

The U.S. is one of the richest countries in the world because it has perfected the art of making people loathe themselves.  Glamorous fashion magazines and accelerated trend cycles make us feel as if we need more: more sunglasses, more shoes, more Chanel perfumes, more Dolce and Gabbana belts.  In order to sustain itself, capitalism ultimately must make us feel like who we are and what we have isn’t enough.  After all, why would we spend money to acquire more things unless we were discontent with ourselves?  Dissatisfaction equals profit.  As historian Frederick Allen once wrote, the consumer must be persuaded to “buy and buy lavishly” or else “the whole stream of six-cylinder cars, super heterodynes, cigarettes, rouge compacts and electric ice boxes” will not sell.

Shiny shopping malls glitter with the promise of solving our problems.  Too shy?  Buy a sophisticated blazer and finally be bold enough to speak up at board meetings.  Too klutzy?  Buy an expensive pair of designer heels and you’ll strut like a supermodel instead of stumble through the streets awkwardly.  The secret to being happy/lovable/charismatic/confident—we believe— lies in clothing racks and checkout lines.

When we empty our wallets, we’re not just buying an object— we’re buying an idea.  Why do you think women have loyally bought Chanel N°5 since 1921?  Do they dish out over a hundred dollars for the mysterious scent of rose and jasmine, bright citrus top notes, and sensual touch of vanilla?  Or do they buy it for its timeless rectangular bottle?

No, Chanel N°5 remains the world’s most iconic perfume because of its mystique, its aura.  N°5 isn’t just a fragrance: it’s a pathway to becoming the woman in the ad, a classic beauty in diamond earrings and fur stole.  Millions of women flock to the perfume counter for this world-famous fragrance in hopes that it will transmit the qualities of Chanel: effortless elegance, enduring style.  As loyal citizens of America, the cellophane-wrapped land of McDonald’s and Coca Cola, we swipe our credit cards because we believe what we buy will transform us into better versions of ourselves.

chanel no 5

But despite what our consumerist culture tries to convince us, a bottle of perfume or Prada bag can’t solve our complex psychological problems.  If we call ourselves disgusting fat cows every time we look in the mirror, no piece of clothing, no matter how stunning, will ever make us feel beautiful.  Love, happiness, self-worth: all are internal issues.

In her revelatory All About Love, scholar, feminist and cultural critic bell hooks argues our society is sick because we care more about things than people.  Since the 1950s, we’ve descended into a netherworld of materialism where we seek material solutions to spiritual problems; if we’re bored, we buy the latest trend on TikTok; if we’re overcome with existential dread during our lunch hour, we buy new shoes.  Such material things might offer a momentary thrill but they never really get to the heart of our issues.  As hooks, writes:

“Although we live in close contact with neighbors, masses of people in our society feel alienated, cut off, alone.  Isolation and loneliness are central causes of depression and despair.  Yet they are the outcome of life in a culture where things matter more than people.  Materialism creates a world of narcissism in which the focus of life is solely on acquisition and consumption.  A culture of narcissism is not a place where love can flourish…Left alone in ‘me’ culture, we consume and consume with no thought of others.  Greed and exploitation become the norm where an ethic of domination prevails.  They bring in their wake alienation and lovelessness.  Intense spiritual and emotional lack in our lives is the perfect breeding ground for material greed and over-consumption.  In a world without love the passion to connect can be replaced by the passion to possess.”

1950s television

Rather than seek fulfillment from objects and prioritize products over people, hooks believes we should focus on loving, both ourselves and other people.  Love— what she defines as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth”— is ultimately what makes life worthwhile.

Bell Hooks on What Love Is & What Love Is Not

The definitions of love are many.  For poetess and prototypical feminist Sylvia Plath, love is a Venn diagram of two independent but intersecting identities.  For fellow feminist Edna St. Vincent Millay, love might not be “all,” but “many a man is making friends with death for lack of love alone.”  Perhaps the best definition is no definition at all; as poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman writes, “love is the great intangible.”

In her revelatory All About Love, scholar, feminist and cultural critic bell hooks aims to clarify this all about loveindefinite emotion.  Though at first love seems beyond definition, too elusive to be captured in a semantic net of description, hooks attempts to define love because “our confusion about what we mean when we use the word “love” is the source of our difficulty in loving.  If our society had a commonly held understanding of the meaning of love, the act of loving would not be so mystifying.”  After all, we can only love (and be loved) if we know what love is.  As Rebecca Solnit once so elegantly expressed, calling things by their true names “isn’t all there is to changing the world, but it’s a key step.”

Our cultural conception of love is often unrealistic.  Hollywood movies portray happy couples prancing off into the sunset, the moment of a couple’s romantic reunion at the airport or tender first kiss— never tense dinners in silence or squabbles over dirty dishes.  We usually only see the idealized initial stages of love but what happens after the end credits?  Had Jack not froze to death at the end of Titanic, would him and Rose have made it?  Would they have rode horses along the beach like they had imagined?  Would they be happily married or would Rose resent having to relinquish the material comforts of her aristocratic existence?  Would she eventually regret leaving the millionaire steel tycoon for the starving artist?

Most romantic movies end before the couple has to grapple with the difficulties of being in a long-term relationship.  Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles: all end with the beginning of a relationship: a first kiss, a grand declaration of love and reconciliation.  Because we only witness love in its intoxicating early stages, we have unrealistic standards for our real-life romances.  We equate love with uncontrollable passion, Gone With the Wind kisses and bouquets of roses.  If our partner is truly destined for us, we believe, things should be easy: we should finish each other’s sentences, always want to have sex, and never quarrel.  Our partner should know that we hate the volume too loud on the TV without us having to say so.

Despite these prevailing myths, love is often difficult.  In All About Love’s opening chapter “Clarity: Give Love Words,” hooks argues love isn’t a noun, it’s a verb.  In other words, loving is a choice we make day after day, it’s something we do.  It’s easy to choose love in the beginning of a relationship, when our beloved is a distant crush we’ve barely uttered “hello” to.  It’s far more difficult to choose love— to compromise, to sacrifice, to hold our tongue, to listen attentively, to express gratitude— the longer we’ve been with someone.

In the first dizzy days of love, we think our beloved is an idol, a god.  But this is a chimera.  When we obtain the object of our desire, when the crush we admired from afar finally becomes our significant other, we realize they’re just as flawed as we are: they’re occasionally petty, often jealous, insufferable after a long day of work and grouchy when tired.  To love any one for any length of time requires we forgive these frailties and foibles. 

According to M. Scott Peck, love is “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.”  Though we usually imagine love is accepting someone for who they are, hooks maintains—much like charmingly cynical philosopher and unlikely love guru Alain de Botton— that love is a form of education.  Our significant others are instructors in the school of life, coaches who challenge us to build upon our strengths and remedy our weaknesses.

While it’s true your partner shouldn’t try to shape you into something you’re not, growth is the cornerstone of the greatest relationships.  Each of us— no matter how intelligent or attractive or accomplished— are flawed: we sulk when our feelings are hurt, we throw fits when we lose at trivia, we furiously honk our horns and cut people off when driving on the highway during rush hour.  A good partner will possess the qualities we lack and teach us how to express our emotions, control our road rage and stop being such a sore loser.  As hooks writes, when we commit to love, we commit to being changed by another.Ultimately, love is care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, trust, and honest, open communication.  Love isn’t abuse, belittlement, cruelty, or humiliation.  In a moment that is as revelatory as it is painfully obvious, hooks declares “love and abuse cannot coexist.”  Though it seems self-evident that love is incompatible with mistreatment, many of us— especially those who were abused as children— struggle to accept this fact.  As any psychologist will tell you, our conception of love begins with our family of origin.  If we were physically, psychologically, or emotionally abused, if we were constantly criticized or compared to another sibling, if we were simply neglected and never listened to, we will make the logical leap that love = pain/neglect/abuse.

As adults, we replicate the same childhood scripts but find different actors to play the roles of our dysfunctional parents.  If our father beat us after one too many gin and tonics, we marry an alcoholic who’s just as short-tempered and just as violent; if our mother was a narcissist, we only find ourselves attracted to the most self-absorbed women.

Hooks contends that if we grew up in a dysfunctional home where our parents said “I love you” but also hurt us, called us names, minimized our feelings or acted as if we didn’t exist, we have to come to terms with a devastating fact: we do not know what love is.  We’ve never known love and, sadly, have spent much of our lives in a state of lovelessness.

The good news is that love is a skill: we can learn to love just as we learned the state capitals and letters of the alphabet.  Want more insight into this rare and immensely important ability?  Read Alain de Botton on love’s two stages: idealization and disillusionment, how heartbreak dispels our hubris, love as the origin of beauty, the lover as a detective obsessed with decoding symbols and discerning meaning, and dating as a form of performative playacting.  Longing for even more lessons on how to love?  Revisit French novelist Marcel Proust on how to be happy in love and philosopher, painter and poet Kahlil Gibran’s timeless meditations on love as our most demanding work.

Elizabeth Gilbert on the Scavenger Hunt of Curiosity

When Sylvia Plath wrote her perennial classic The Bell Jar, we imagine she was overcome by a burning passion for her subject, that she was obsessed with the repressive patriarchy of the 1950s, mental hospitals and electro-shock treatments.  But what if she wasn’t immediately infatuated with her concept?  What if The Bell Jar began as a simple attempt to recreate that “queer, sultry summer” in 1953 when she was a guest editor at Mademoiselle and the Rosenbergs were electrocuted?

I write often about how we romanticize the artist’s life.  We glamorize the tired and trite “suffering artist” archetype, we worship the myth of the “muse.”  But perhaps one of the most persistent (and pernicious) myths about art is that the artist only creates because he “has” to.  To write— we think— the writer must be seized by a Big Idea.  In a sudden burst of ecstatic inspiration, he has no choice but to obey the callings of the muse.  His productivity is frenzied, fiery.  He can’t sleep, he can’t eat.  All his thoughts unceasingly circulate around one thing: his idea.  His work most closely resembles a passionate love affair.

I myself rarely have this experience.  Indeed, at first, I almost never am “in love” with an idea.  A topic might interest me like a handsome, mysterious man in the corner of a bar.  Do I want to dramatically kiss him like we’re Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca?  No, but I’m intrigued enough to walk across the room, spark a conversation and buy him a beer.

In her wondrous Big Magic, the ever-endearing Elizabeth Gilbert makes an unconventional argument: if you want to write, you need curiosity, not passion.  In our passion-crazed culture, we believe our work should be a consuming love affair as steamy as a clandestine kiss stolen in an elevator.  However, our next idea rarely (if ever) arrives in a lighting bolt of inspiration— it comes in hints, murmurs, and whispers.

In one of my favorite chapters “The Scavenger Hunt,” Gilbert describes the process of writing her page-turning period piece The Signature of All Things, a tale of adventure and discovery that traces the story of Alma Whittaker, a brilliant botanist during the 19th century.  Before she embarked on The Signature of All Things, Gilbert was experiencing a dry spell.  What— she wondered for months— did she want to do next?  Did she want to write a sweeping historical novel?  a piece of non-fiction?  another Eat, Pray, Love-style memoir?

Like many of us, Gilbert longed for irrepressible desire; she wanted her next project to give her goosebumps and butterflies, to sweep her off her feet, to court and woo her.  When such an idea never came, she decided to settle for curiosity.  Rather than wait for the idea to magically fall from the sky, she asked herself a simple question: was there anything she was interested in?  anything at all?  As Gilbert writes,

“I kept waiting for a big idea to arrive, and I kept announcing to the universe that I was ready for a big idea to arrive, but no big ideas arrived.  There were no goose bumps, no hair standing on the back of my neck, no butterflies in my stomach.  There was no miracle.

[…]

Most days, this is what life is like.  I poked about for a while in my everyday chores— writing emails, shopping for socks, resolving small emergencies, sending out birthday cards.  I took care of the orderly business of life.  As time ticked by and an impassioned idea still hadn’t ignited me, I didn’t panic.  Instead, I did what I have done so many times before: I turned my attention away from passion and toward curiosity.

I asked myself, Is there anything you’re interested in right now, Liz?

Anything?

Even a tiny bit?

No matter how mundane or small?”

Once Gilbert decided to let go of the need for passion and instead follow her curiosity, she realized she was interested in something: gardening.  Was she obsessed with gardening?  Would she die for a field of red carnations?  No, but she was curious.  She had just moved to a small town in rural New Jersey and wanted to plant a garden.  So she planted heirloom irises and lilacs and tulips.  In the process, she discovered that many of the gorgeous flowers in her garden actually originated in faraway, exotic places.  Her tulips were from Turkey; her irises were from Syria.  Every little flower in her garden contained a history she had not been aware of.

The more Gilbert learned, the more her curiosity bloomed.  She read books about botanists and explorers; she trekked across the globe from her small town in New Jersey to the horticultural libraries of England to the medieval pharmaceutical gardens of Holland to the moss-covered caves of Polynesia; she poured over historical documents and interviewed experts.  Soon Gilbert was so fanatically obsessed with botanical history that she decided to write a book.

Had Gilbert disregarded her interest in gardening, she would have never written The Signature of All Things.  As she confesses with equal parts humor and humility,

“It was a novel I never saw coming.  It had started with nearly nothing.  I did not leap into that book with my hair on fire; I inched toward it, clue by clue.  But by the time I looked up from my scavenger hunt and began to write, I was completely consumed with passion about nineteenth-century botanical exploration.  Three years earlier, I had never even heard of nineteenth-century botanical exploration—  all I’d wanted was a modest garden in my backyard!— but now I was writing a massive story about plants, and science, and evolution, and abolition, and love, and loss, and one woman’s journey into intellectual transcendence.

So it worked.  But it only worked because I said yes to every single tiny clue of curiosity.”

If you’re feeling stuck and having trouble choosing your next project, heed Ms. Gilbert’s advice: stop romanticizing the drama and excitement of passion and instead follow the not-so-obvious clues of your curiosity.

Elizabeth Gilbert: What’s Your Favorite Flavor of Shit Sandwich?

In her radiant, resplendent Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert, who taught us how to embrace the paradoxical principles of creative living and rejoice in the marvels and mysteries of existence, tells the story of one of her friends who was an aspiring writer.  Much like her, he wanted nothing more than to be published.  Despite his determination, the only thing in his mailbox were rejections.  As time went on, the young writer got more and more discouraged.  What was the point?  Why write at all if he wasn’t going to “make” something of it?  “I don’t want to be just sitting around,” he grumbled to Gilbert, “I want this to all add up to something.  I want this to become my job!”  Tormented by the thought that all his hard work would come to “nothing,” the young writer sank into a serious depression.  Eventually, he put down his pen and paper and gave up.

Why did this young man stop writing?  Simple: he wasn’t willing to eat the shit sandwich.

What’s a shit sandwich?

The shit sandwich is a concept Ms. Gilbert borrowed from the four-letter-word-loving provocateur Mark Manson.  The idea goes that anything worthwhile comes with its own stinky brand of shit sandwich.  Every relationship, every city, every job, every profession has disadvantages.

The man of your dreams may possess everything you’ve ever wanted— a sharp mind, a good sense of humor, a gentle, sensitive nature— but have one serious flaw; perhaps he has an obnoxious obsession with recounting movie plots or has children from a previous partner.

The city you’ve always romanticized may be picturesque on postcards but have sidewalks littered with heroin needles and a serious homeless problem.

No matter how glittery or glamorous a job may seem, there will always be tedious things lurking beneath its glossy exterior.  A fashion editor, for instance, may get free Prada handbags and sip champagne in chiffon, but she may also have to work on a tight deadline and deal with constantly being chewed out by her tyrannical boss.  A famous musician may get to play in front of thousands of screaming fans but also have to live out of a suitcase on a tour bus.  A doctor may possess the prestige of a PhD and make a six figure salary, but also have to rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt before he can call himself a doctor.  As Gilbert writes:

“What Manson means is that every single pursuit…comes with its own brand of shit sandwich, its own lousy side effects.  As Manson writes with profound wisdom, “Everything sucks, some of the time.”  You just have to decide what sort of suckage you’re willing to deal with.  So the question is not so much ‘What are you passionate about?’  The question is ‘What are you passionate enough about that you can endure the most disagreeable aspects of the work?'”

elizabeth gilbert #2

Gilbert’s friend claimed he wanted to be a writer but he wasn’t willing to do what it took to be a writer.  The demoralizing rejection letters, the lack of respect or recognition, the concerned looks of sensible relatives: this is the stomach-churning shit you have to eat if you want to be a writer.  Writing isn’t just Pulitzer prizes and interviews with Oprah: it’s years of toiling away in obscurity, it’s hurtful criticism, it’s losing contest after contest, it’s impersonal form rejection letters.  But if you love writing— or anything— enough, you can tolerate the shit sandwich that accompanies your sumptuous feast of a three-course dinner.  The joy of writing— of simply putting one word against another— makes up for the heartbreaking years of being a nobody and the sting of a harsh review in the New Yorker.

The Paradoxical Principles of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Philosophy of Creativity

When we talk about our writing lives, we often exist in the confining black and white binary of either/or.

Either we write the next Great American Novel or a trashy paperback. 

Either we quit our jobs and be “real” artists or suffer the soul-sucking 9-to-5 and slowly lose our will to live in a dreary gray cubicle

Either we write a massively successful New York Times best seller or fail.

Either we’re darlings of the critics or dismissed, shunned and ignored. 

Either we catapult to literary superstardom or toil away for years, pathetic and unknown. 

Either art sparks revolutions, changes people’s lives and makes a difference in the world or it sits, limpid and lifeless, on book shelves and gallery walls. 

Either art expands our hearts and stirs our souls or provides momentary entertainment— nothing more.

Either what we create matters or it doesn’t matter at all.

However if we are to live a creative life, bubbly, buoyant Elizabeth Gilbert suggests we should embrace the puzzling paradox of “and” and reject the overly simplistic mindset of “either/or.”  Much like Gretchen Rubin, who observed that the opposite of a great truth is also true, Gilbert believes two contradictory ideas can be correct at the same time.  Art is useless and worthwhile.  Composing a poem is not nearly as important as stopping global warming or finding a cure for cancer and it’s just as crucial.  Sonnets and symphonies are both pointless pleasures and nourishment for the soul.  Making things is a frivolous pastime and a miracle.

elizabeth gilbert signature of all things

In the conclusion to her gleeful guide to creative living Big Magic, which I’ve reread at least once a year since first discovering it three years ago, Gilbert shares her creative manifesto:

           “Creativity is sacred, and it is not sacred.

           What we make matters enormously, and it doesn’t matter at all.

           We toil alone, and we are accompanied by spirits.

           We are terrified, and we are brave.

           Art is a crushing chore and a wonderful privilege.

           Only when we are at our most playful can divinity finally get serious with us.”

In the end, if you want to write (or paint or sculpt or film or draw or sew), you must love your work deeply yet regard it lightly, you must take what you do seriously yet not care about it at all.  Writing a sentence, you consider each word: its meaning, its melody, its connotations, its tone.  In much the same way a chef considers whether his roasted duck will pair well with Merlot, you select your sentences with care and savor the sumptuous feast of your every word.  However— if after all your labor— you realize what you wrote doesn’t work, you’re willing to send it to the chopping block and start over.  As Gilbert says with refreshing irreverence, what we create is sacred and not sacred: our words are just words.

Big Magic is as indispensable to a writer’s library as The Artist’s Way, as wondrous as If You Want to Write, and as consoling and comforting as Bird by Bird.  Want more maps to chart the at times difficult writing life?  Read Anne Lamott on the antidote to overwhelm and the beauty of short assignments, Brenda Ueland on why Van Gogh painted irises and night skies and Rilke on how to know you’re an artist and why you must be patient if you’re going to lead a creative life.

3 Revolutionary Scientists’ Rituals & Routines

Here are the rituals and routines of yet 3 more remarkable people profiled in Mason Currey’s delightful Daily Rituals:

1. Charles Darwin

At the ripe age of 22, Darwin boarded the HMS Beagle and set sail for the Galapagos.  At this time, his life was romantic and adventure-filled: he traveled to faraway lands with foreign customs and strange people who spoke in even stranger languages, marveled at the boundless biodiversity of our improbable blue planet, studied his now famous finches and began to formulate his earth-shattering theory of evolution.

However, his life while actually writing On the Origins of Species was rather dull by comparison.  To escape the commotion of city life and work without disturbance, Darwin and his family left London in 1842 and moved to the quaint English countryside.  There they made their home at Down House, a former parsonage in Kent, about 14 miles southeast of London’s Charing Cross.  Darwin loved his secluded home— the “edge of the world” he called it— because he could be alone with his controversial thoughts.  He knew his theory of evolution would cause an uproar.  Not only did his thesis directly contradict a literal interpretation of the Bible, it suggested that man, who was supposedly created in the image of God, was just another beast in the animal kingdom.  Man descended from monkeys?  He knew such a blasphemous notion would cause an outcry and potentially ruin his career (time proved Mr. Darwin right; after he published his theory, one critic raged, “Darwin’s story begins in the mud, has a monkey in the middle and an infidel at the tail.”)

Still, Darwin worked steadily in secret on his ideas.  At Down House, Darwin led a simple, solitary life.  After waking, eating breakfast and taking a morning stroll, the great scientist settled into work.  There he labored for an hour and a half before meeting his wife, Emma, in the drawing room, where she’d read him the family letters and a portion of a novel.  At 10:30, Darwin returned to his study and worked for another hour and a half, which he considered a good day’s work.

Much like Wordsworth and Thoreau, the father of evolution understood the importance of idleness to creativity and made time for long, meandering walks throughout the day with Polly, his beloved fox terrier.  Afternoons were reserved for leisurely lunches with his family and letter writing (Darwin made an effort to respond to every letter he received no matter how nonsensical or crazy); if he didn’t reply to even a single missive, he’d feel so guilty, he couldn’t get to sleep).  In the evening, he’d have a small dinner (even if his family was indulging in a luxurious feast, he’d only have tea, an egg or small piece of meat), smoke a cigarette or two, play backgammon with his wife and then read and retire to bed around 10:30.

2. Albert Einstein

einstein #2

Perhaps the most influential scientist of all time, Albert Einstein was many things: groundbreaking physicist, champion of the imagination, unwavering believer in human goodness, unapologetic individualist, passionate pacifist, stanch defender of free speech and civil liberty.  In addition to discovering E = mc2 and developing his groundbreaking theory of relativity, he made great contributions to human thought and philosophy. 

When Hitler rose to power and the threat of war began to darken the continent in 1933, Einstein fled to the United States where he joined the faculty at Princeton University.  There, he followed a predictable routine: he read the papers and ate a breakfast of eggs, mushrooms, and honey, then headed to the office.  At 1:30, he returned home for lunch and an afternoon nap.  The rest of the day, Einstein worked, answered letters, and occasionally entertained.

Despite his legendary life, Einstein’s day-to-day wasn’t particularly noteworthy.  Like most remarkable men throughout history, his life wasn’t glamorous or thrilling, filled with fascinating people, faraway places and glittering parties— it was single-mindedly focused on his work which— from the outside— doesn’t look all that interesting.  Picasso could delight in a dinner party now and again, but preferred to paint in his quiet studio in MontparnasseMatisse worked 7 days a week, only taking a brief respite to oar in the harbor and play violinWhen he wasn’t revolutionizing modern poetry, T.S. Eliot was wearing a suit and tie and working a rather regular job at a bank.  As philosopher Bertrand Russell once observed so astutely, “Altogether it will be found that a quiet life is characteristic of great men, and that their pleasures have not been of the sort that would look exciting.”

Indeed, Einstein preferred to do certain things the same way everyday to save valuable time and energy.  Rather than squander a precious hour debating whether to wear a button down shirt or a cashmere sweater, Einstein bought several versions of the same gray suit so he had a “uniform” he could wear everyday.  “The same exact thing…everyday?” you fashionistas may be gasping in horror, “How boring!”  Though his unrelentingly gray wardrobe might seem dreary, Einstein understood life was full of decisions: better to automate as many unimportant ones as possible so you can focus on what truly matters: your mission.  Steve Jobs and his black turtleneck.  Mark Zuckerberg and his uber-casual Silicon Valley uniform of a tee shirt and jeans.  If you want to found a multi-billion dollar company or unlock the scientific mysteries of the universe, the idea goes, simplify your wardrobe and streamline your routine.

3. Margaret Mead

margaret mead

Like most productive people from Joyce Carol Oates to Stephen King, cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead was deeply devoted to her work.  Endlessly energetic, Mead was always working on something, be it her revolutionary study of adolescence in the South Pacific in her controversy-stirring book Coming of Age in Samoa or her PhD.

Mead’s life is a testament to what positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discovered in his fascinating study of “flow”: we’re happiest not when we’re relaxing in leisure but when we’re engaged in something difficult and worthwhile.  Mrs. Mead despised being unproductive and hated nothing more than frittering away hours.  So protective was she of her time that she became enraged at anyone who disrupted her schedule.  On one occasion at a symposium, Mead was outraged to learn that a session had been postponed.  “How dare they,” she exclaimed, “Do they realize what use I could have made of this time?  Do they know that I get up at five o’ clock in the morning to write a thousand words before breakfast?  Why did nobody have the politeness to tell me this meeting had been rescheduled?”

3 Writers Who Had Day Jobs

“Follow your dreams.”  “Take risks.”  “Be brave.”  In hopeful America where ambition is as tall as the Empire State Building, we romanticize the risk-takers who take big, bold steps toward their dreams: the aspiring novelists who quit their soul-sapping day jobs to toil away in anonymity, the artists who sacrifice everything.  We want grand gestures done in the name of creativity: a Leo Tolstoy who sacrifices his material possessions to go on a spiritual quest, a Van Gogh who devotes his life to his art, despite the fact that he can never make a living from his paintings.

In our cultural consciousness, being an artist means living in a bohemian studio in Brooklyn or Montparnasse and leading a Dionysian life of cheap wine, cocaine and excess.  An artist can’t work a conventional job at a bank or an insurance company, he certainly can’t have a normal, quiet life and rejoice in the trappings of the middle-class bourgeoisie.

To be a “real” writer, you have to write full time and make money from your writing.  Working a regular 9-to-5 job while pursuing your art on the side is seen as cowardly.  After all, shouldn’t a “real” writer fearlessly pursue his dreams instead of care too much about practical matters like mortgage payments and 401ks?

But nothing is more damaging to the muse than demanding she support you financially.  No matter how much we glamorize the myth of the starving artist, there’s nothing glamorous about stressing about money.  Buoyant spirit and overall beautiful human being Elizabeth Gilbert is a passionate champion of working to provide for your creativity.  Before she wrote her blockbuster bestseller Eat, Pray, Love, she worked countless jobs to sustain herself while writing.  At various points in her life, she was a tutor, a cook, a waitress, a bartender.  At fifteen, she made a pact with her creativity: “I will never ask you to support me financially.  I will support both of us.”  Instead of “be brave” and quit her day job, Gilbert worked so she could pay the rent and focus on what really mattered: her art.

Despite the destructive myth that being a “real” writer means writing for a living, Mason Currey’s “delightful book of quirks and oddities,” Daily Rituals reveals many of the most distinguished writers held ordinary occupations during the day.  Below are three world class writers who had regular jobs despite their massive success in writing:

1. T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot

Is there anything less poetic than working at bank?  Yet titan of modernist poetry T.S. Eliot worked as a clerk at London’s Lloyd’s Bank for nearly a decade.  From 1917-1925 in between writing some of the most revolutionary poetry of the century, Eliot wore a pin-striped suit, parted his hair seriously to one side and worked what would appear to be a rather dull office job in the bank’s foreign transactions department.  Like the rest of us bread-and-butter slaves, he commuted on a crowded train every morning (“I am sojourning among the termites,” he wrote to British writer and critic Lytton Strachey) and worked Monday through Friday from 9:15-5:30.

The banker’s life may have lacked the thrill and romance of the poet’s, but Eliot was grateful for a steady paycheck and reliable gig.  Before his job at Lloyd’s, he worked as a teacher at Highgate School where he taught French and Latin.  To subsidize his meager income, he wrote book reviews and lectured at evening extension courses at Oxford and University College London.  Not only was teaching exhausting, it narrowly paid the bills and barely left him enough time for his true calling.  Therefore, when he got the position at Lloyd’s, Eliot was overjoyed.  Two days after receiving the appointment, he wrote his mother, “I am now earning two pounds ten shillings a week for sitting in an office from 9:15 to 5:00 with an hour for lunch, and tea served in office…Perhaps it will surprise you that I enjoy the work.  It is not nearly so fatiguing as school teaching and it is more interesting.”

Though Eliot did eventually leave his bourgeois job at the bank for a more “literary” position as an editor at Faber and Gwyer (later Faber and Faber), his years at Lloyd’s helped him establish himself as a writer.  Had he not had the stability afforded by a 9-to-5 job, perhaps Eliot would have never written “The Wasteland” or been able to show us fear in a handful of dust.

2. Wallace Stevens

Profile of Wallace Stevens Smiling

Wallace Stevens was yet another poet who spent his days in a gray-colored cubicle.  Rather than chase his literary dreams after graduating from Harvard, Stevens took his father’s advice and made the sensible choice to attend law school.  He later accepted a position at Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, where his main responsibility was evaluating insurance claims as an insurance lawyer.  Stevens was so successful that he was promoted to vice president of the company in 1934. 

Though it’s hard to imagine a poet indulging in trivial office gossip around the water cooler, Stevens loved the stability of the corporate 9-to-5.  “I find that having a job is one of the best things in the world that could happen to me,” he once confessed, “It introduces discipline and regularity into one’s life.”

Many of us think that to write you need yawning vistas of time: a year long sabbatical, an entire summer, at least an afternoon of uninterrupted hours.  However, we’re often more productive when we have more— not fewer— demands on our time.  When you have a full-time job, you have to make time to write.  Stevens, for example, would write poetry on long walks during his lunch hour (like Henry David Thoreau and William Wordsworth before him, he knew walking was the fertile soil where the seeds of great ideas were planted).  When inspiration unexpectedly struck at the office, Stevens would scribble fragments of poems onto bits of paper, file them in the lower right-hand drawer of his desk, and have his secretary type them.

Like Eliot, Stevens kept a day job because he didn’t want to worry about dollars and cents.  We may romanticize poets who die destitute in garrets, but there’s nothing romantic about being penniless.  In fact, money troubles distract from creativity and cause enormous stress.  Stevens’ substantial salary as a lawyer ($20,000 a year, equivalent to about $350,000 today) promised money— or lack of it— never interfered with his poetry.  “I am just as free as I want to be and of course I have nothing to worry about money,” Stevens once wrote, grateful for his days at the office.

3. Anthony Trollope

Many know that Anthony Trollope was one of the most prolific writers of all time, but fewer know that he wrote many of his 47 novels, 42 short stories and 5 travel books while employed.  From 1834 to 1867, the English novelist worked as a civil servant at the General Post Office and only wrote in the three hours before dressing for breakfast.

Trollope’s routine was strict and unvarying.  In his Autobiography, he admitted, “I allowed myself no mercy.”  Every morning— no matter what— he rose at 5:30 and began working.  To hold himself accountable, he paid an old butler 5 pounds to wake up with him and bring him coffee.  “I owe more to him than to any one else for the success that I have had,” Trollope once said, half-seriously.

With only a few hours before he had to be at the post office, Trollope required himself to produce at least 250 words every quarter of an hour.  By the end of the morning, he’d have written a whole 10 pages of a novel, a pace— if sustained— that would result in 2,400 pages, or several lengthy novels, by the end of a year.

Trollope’s dedication to his craft was no doubt influenced by his mother, who took up writing later in life to support her six children and Trollope’s ailing father.  Like most women throughout history, Mrs. Trollope was primarily responsible for housework and child-rearing.  To be able to write and still fulfill her domestic duties, she rose before sunrise everyday.  Both Trollope and his mother are proof that if you really want to write, you can find the time…even if it’s at 5:30 in the morning.