Big Magic, you say? Yes, please!
Is it the circus or a Vegas act? Not quite. It’s your life. Really.
If you know of Elizabeth Gilbert, it’s probably because she wrote Eat, Pray, Love, the 2006 book that became a New York Times best seller.
Eventually, everyone seemed to have heard of this book and most people either loved it or hated it… even the ones who never actually read it. I was one of the few in-between ‘meh’-sayers. Now there’s a movie too. So, when I saw positive reviews for Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, I decided to give Ms. Gilbert another try.
This book is less prominent as well as less controversial. It’s a little bit hippy, with some magical thinking and a positive attitude about creative living and specifically about being a writer, but this positivity applies to any avenue in life. Plus, it’s a fairly quick and easy read. Despite being 273 pages, it has wide margins and short chapters and flows beautifully with many colorful anecdotes to keep those pages turning.
Big Magic’s formula for success into six parts: Courage, Enchantment, Permission, Persistence, Trust, and Divinity. I absolutely recommend reading the full book and deciding for yourself. However, read on to learn what rang most true and inspirational for me personally.
You inherently know that life isn’t easy. Following your dreams isn’t easy. Fear can be paralyzing if you let it, so the key is to not let it. Easier said than done, right?
Ms. Gilbert sees life as a challenge. She writes,
The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them.
While fear will likely always be present on our journeys to find these jewels, she defines success as
living a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear.
Her mother forced her (kicking and screaming) to face her fears head-on until she eventually decided for herself that she was tired of the monotony of feeling afraid.
Fear will always be present and in some situations even helpful, especially for maintaining physical safety, but obeying fear in all aspects of life was boring. It was time to relegate fear to the back seat, even if she couldn’t kick it out of the car.
We’ve all heard these sentiments before, yet we all benefit from frequent reminders and Gilbert’s version is thoughtfully written. One school of thought is to not have a backup plan before jumping into a scary venture and thus to force yourself to succeed.
I’m not there yet. I like a nice, massive, strong-as-steel safety net before I take any plunge larger than choosing what to eat for a snack. This security helps me make better decisions along the way because I’m less anxious.
Did I quit my day job and bet the farm on this blog? Not a chance. Did I still have to face my fears of failure? You bet.
What if it doesn’t work out? What if no one reads it? What if comment trolls hurt my feelings? What if it’s a colossal waste of time, money, and effort? What if I make a complete fool of myself and melt into a puddle of humiliation that evaporates in the Arizona sun? What if…?
The more I focus on the worst case scenario, the more I realize that even if it happens, I will survive.
Even if not a single person reads a single word, this adventure has already been a success. My neurons are firing and new synapses are forming. I’ve learned to build a website, create a logo, edit images, and countless other skills that I may or may not ever use again, but you can be sure there was a happy dance with each small victory.
Yes, my nine year-old cousins could have done it for me in a fraction of the time, but that’s okay. My family lives to our nineties, so there’s no rush.
If I have doubts, I remember the scariest ‘what if’ of all: What if I never even try?
[C]hills ran up my arms. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up for an instant, and I felt a little sick, a little dizzy. I felt like I was falling in love, or had just heard alarming news, or was looking over a precipice at something beautiful and mesmerizing, but dangerous… This is what it feels like when an idea comes to you.
Gilbert calls it magic, I call it inspiration, and you can call it your muse or whatever else you want, but be sure to welcome it with your arms wide open. Gilbert believes that ideas swarm around us looking for human partners. If you’re not ready or willing to partner with them, they’ll move on to someone else.
If you miss them this time, there will be more. However, hard work and discipline make an excellent landing ground for the ‘fairy dust’ of creative genius.
Furthermore, creating art and following your dreams needn’t involve suffering nor torment. It should be joyful (at least sometimes) or else you should rethink your approach.
Finally, it isn’t a zero-sum game. There is plenty of inspiration/joy/creativity/dreaming to go around, even if the same idea or inspiration strikes multiple people at once. Sometimes the time is just right for a movement, and each person involved in the wave will have a unique variation that adds value.
My blog is only one of millions, but maybe you’d rather hear from a young(ish) child-free woman with a dry sense of humor and unique life experiences than someone with 1.87 kids and a dog or yet another dusty silver-haired man who is trying his hand at this newfangled interwebs.
Gilbert describes her parents as responsible, upstanding people who danced to the beat of their own drummers. Her father was a beekeeper by way of chemical engineering and Christmas tree farming. Her mother
smiled sweetly at everyone and always acted like a total cooperator– but then she shaped her own world exactly to her liking while nobody was looking.
Both parents had a patina of normalcy, but
just beyond the reach of their basic good citizenship[,] my parents did whatever the hell they wanted to do with their lives, and they did it with a rather fabulous sense of insouciance.
The family had a rule that if you could support yourself financially without hurting or disturbing anyone else, you were free to do whatever you wanted with your own life. (I love this!)
You may have heard that it’s better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission, but her family chose neither. They just did their own thing and usually succeeded. Who’s to say that they’re right and you’re wrong, or that they have more of a right to this shared space on Earth than you do? You have just as much right to exist and create as anyone else.
You may also hear that you must be original and do important work. Why? That’s a heck of a lot of pressure when you’re just getting started.
True originality is overrated. Very few things are earth-shatteringly unique. So, put your own stamp on things that already exist and make your version better than the original. Be authentic. Be yourself.
Your creative work also doesn’t have to intentionally be important. Live your dreams for yourself, and if your efforts happen to help others too, then so much the better. They usually do.
For that matter, formal education in the arts or anything else is not mandatory. It certainly may have intangible benefits such as internal validation, networking, etc. but there are other ways to learn and some learning comes from the best classroom: life itself.
And finally, Gilbert reminds us that
people’s judgments about you are none of your business.
People’s reactions and opinions will be all over the map. You can’t control them. You can only control what you do, so keep doing it.
This is perhaps my biggest struggle. I yearn for a smile, a nod of approval, a “Good work!” from everyone, too often even from people I don’t like or respect. Only after working for years at jobs where the official goals were internally contradictory and mutually exclusive did I realize I was chasing my own tail and would never catch it. It was completely impossible to make everyone happy.
It was a fork in the road: I had to decide where to place my faith, loyalty, and effort. Once I realized that it was a choice, making the decision was easy: my conscience was the clear winner.
I choose to do what (I believe) is right, even if it doesn’t lead down the easiest path. If it hurts the bottom line, so be it. My company can fire me but I will survive somehow. If a patient visit takes a little longer, so what? People with non-emergent problems will have to wait a few more minutes. If a patient or family sues me, it will totally suck and will shake me to the core, but I’ll at least have the consolation of knowing that I gave them my best effort. If I annoy some people or make life more difficult for my coworkers, I’m very sorry.
I choose to honor the only person I can’t escape from. To be able to respect and trust the person who stares back from the mirror every night as I brush my teeth is essential and priceless.
It’s a cycle: creation, rejection, frustration, and renewed energy. Don’t quit at the frustration phase and miss out on your second wind. Wait out the tough times and keep at it.
What’s your favorite flavor of shit sandwich?
Life will not always be easy. In fact, it will usually not be easy. There will be good times and bad, but that’s true for all of us no matter our choices. Life is tough for teachers, for pilots, for bank robbers, and for princesses. So what type of bad times would you like to choose?
You might find yourself giving up nights and weekends to chase your art or your dream. You might find yourself bitter over this, but if you don’t love your goal enough to sacrifice some free time for it, find something to chase.
When times get especially tough, though, there are a few tried-and-true coping strategies you should learn.
First, fake it til you make it. We’re not talking about performing neurosurgery without the proper training. We’re talking about plastering on a million-watt smile, standing up straight, and giving that speech even though your knees are shaking so much you’ll fall over if you let go of the podium. We’re talking about attending that party where you don’t know anyone and having a great time and making a new friend.
We’re talking about all those times when you’d rather stay at home in your pajamas and
binge-watch Netflix read a book but you go out anyway and are so glad you did.
Second, forget about perfection. Quite possibly the best line in the whole book is:
You must learn how to become a deeply disciplined half-ass.
Perfection is unachievable. Instead of holding out for the impossible, work hard, improve, and do what you can. If you wait until you are/your work is perfect then you’ll never start or never get anywhere.
You do what you can do, as competently as possible within a reasonable time frame, and then you let it go.
Lastly, realize that people aren’t thinking about you because they’re too busy thinking about themselves. This fact is truly, amazingly, liberating.
How would you treat a friend who made a small typo in a prize-winning novel or had a lipstick smudge on her teeth during a big presentation? You probably didn’t even notice, but if you did, you’d still tell her the truth: that she did great. Treat yourself with this same kindness and encouragement.
We usually think about trusting other people or trusting intuition, but Gilbert wants us to trust our creativity. She says if we love it, it loves us back. And why not? Maybe it’s a delusion, but if so, what’s the harm? It’s certainly better than believing it is out to get us.
Sometimes bad things happen despite our best attitudes and efforts, but there’s no reason to seek out negativity. Furthermore, these events don’t give us the right to treat others badly. Suffering isn’t required for success, and neither are depression, drugs, booze, etc. despite what the media would have you believe.
Rather than taking everything so seriously, she wants us to be tricksters, to lighten up, to make it all a game and play, to have faith that everything will be all right. To this, I say it’s a lot easier to do if you have that safety net of steel we talked about earlier. But if you’re one of those easygoing masters of the universe who take everything in stride, then more power to you.
She also shares my reflex to roll my eyes at people who say to “follow your passion.” What if you don’t know what that is? Gilbert’s answer: If you don’t know your passion, follow your curiosity. You never know where it might lead.
Whether curiosity ultimately leads to your passion or to an interesting story to tell at your next cocktail party, it’s true that
Interesting outcomes, after all, are just awful outcomes with the volume of drama turned way down.
I remember as a child telling my cousin that her new haircut was “inn-terr-ess-ting.” My tone made it quite clear that I was in awe of her bravery and also very glad that I wasn’t in her shoes on that particular day. She was the coolest person I knew, and she responded perfectly with a smile and a “thank you.” She was having none of my drama.
Sometimes life will be more than interesting. You will fail. Your ego will hurt. So move on to something else. Distract yourself with anything, and in a while you can try again. Trust that this, too, shall pass.
Big Magic fizzles to a close with a short vignette describing the blurry and evolving line between the sacred and the profane. You’ll never agree with or please everyone, so define your own version of ‘divine’ according to your personal beliefs.
There you have it: a magical tour through one woman’s struggle to follow her dreams, though in countless ways she represents us all. Whether your goal is to be a writer or an astronaut, we can take advantage of her hard-learned lessons to achieve our dreams too.
- Success isn’t guaranteed.
- Life isn’t fair.
- Play the game anyway.
- Enjoy the adventure.
There. I’ve saved you a trip to the library and hours of reading. You’re welcome. Seriously, though, take a look for yourself and let me know what you think.
What have been your biggest struggles in following your dreams? What advice would you give yourself if you could travel back in time five or ten years?
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