I really dig wrestling with ideals in my head and then figuring out ways to apply them to my life. Surprisingly, the actionable items that result from a sparring session occasionally work and I move further towards living out my values. Other times they fail miserably and I fall flat on my face - it's all part of the fun. Intentionally working towards living out ideals is where the rubber meets the road for me, and I expect that there will always be failures along the way.
Once in a while, the gray matter turns into more of a gray area. Times where I am going along, minding my own business attempting to live intentionally, and my brain starts to wrestle with an ideal all over again. I hate it when that happens.
Getting in the ring for a second time with an ideal can be a bad sign. It usually means my subconscious is trying to tell me one of two things: either the ideal is misguided, or I haven't thought through all of the angles and a course correction is looming. While I am alright with abandoning a course of action when it proves to be going nowhere, it's the re-thinking-all-the-angles scenario that usually poses me the most difficulty. Inevitably, I end up on some train of thought that leads to solving the problem of world peace or something. In other words, it becomes an exercise in futility.
So it started with creativity...
I have learned a lot by watching my kids, it's kind of like going back to first principles. They are a lot closer to the source than I am, having had less time to be stained by the world. There is a purity of life within them that I would like to try to tap into.
One thing I have observed is that my children love to craft. Actually, a more accurate statement would be that my children live to craft. They completely lose themselves in the process for hours on end. The creative process gives them tremendous joy and a sense of satisfaction.
When I look at grown-ups on the other hand, the picture is a lot different. Many adults appear to be seeking fulfillment through consumption: food, media, gadgets, cars, houses... we are a society of consumers. I know, I have been there (I probably still am there but trying desperately to break free). We have somehow been brainwashed into thinking that by collecting shiny things we will find joy in life. I guess sitting down with a piece of paper and box of crayons just doesn't cut it anymore.
A striking difference between the two mindsets is that although children aren't actively seeking it, they find joy through creativity. Whereas many adults actively seek joy through consumption but never find it. Maybe the kids are onto something.
Somewhere along the line we have been sold a lie. We have traded creativity for consumption and robbed ourselves of joy in the process. Since consumption requires resources (i.e. money), the desire to consume turns into a pursuit of resources. The pursuit of resources causes us to choose careers based on income earning potential rather than our passions. Once in those careers we find ourselves trapped because we are afraid of the loss should we decide to leave. To make ourselves feel better we buy more stuff. Of course the lustre of the stuff fades quickly and all we are left with a life that is unfulfilled and more complicated.
The pursuit of consumption will always leave us wanting more. We will never be able to earn enough money to satisfy our desire, there will always be someone else with more, and there will always be something new to want.
So what is the alternative? Observing my kids had revealed the answer. I decided to get creative.
I thought about some of the things I really liked to do: I love the outdoors, I love adventure, I am an engineer at heart, I love to program computers, and I love to spend time with my family (to name a few...). I took those interests and thought about creative ways to enjoy them without having to rely on buying things. I started a blog - a creative process that combined writing, my computer skills, and the outdoors (the topic of my blog). I started to sew outdoor gear and clothing - an incredibly satisfying activity that melds the outdoors, engineering, and creativity. In all of that I mixed-in a family focus by spending time in the outdoors with my family, writing about it, and sewing them clothes.
Through the process of exploring beauty (spending time in the outdoors), and creating beauty (through writing, blogging, and sewing), something amazing happened. I actually started to enjoy the process more than the end result. All of a sudden what became important to me was figuring out ways to continue in my creativity. Material things didn't matter so much any more, in fact they started to feel like a burden. The only possessions that mattered were the ones that I needed for basic living, and those that supported my creative endeavors. Hence began a quest for minimizing stuff in order to maximize life.
So there I was, enjoying my new found revelation: I could get way more joy and satisfaction from life if I pursued creativity instead of consumption. I was starting to live it and had resolved in my mind that this was what I wanted to teach my children.
This was the point where my brain decided to downshift while I had my foot on the accelerator. I was back in the ring with creativity.
The downside to all of the crafting my children do is the volume of completed projects we collect. Their love for the creative process means that when one project is complete, another one will be started soon afterwards. This doesn't bode well for a family that is trying to live a simple life in a modest home and a strong aversion to storage space.
I decided to visualize the process to see if I could determine where this could possibly lead. The progression I saw looked something like this: They would start out by honing their skills and creating "junk" that would eventually just have to be disposed of. That would just be a temporary stage though. As their skills improved they would start to make things for other people, as gifts and such. Then as they continued to progress, their skill would improve to the point where they might be able to sell their creations at a craft fair. At some point their creative skills, provided they continue to develop them, would reach a master status with which they could support themselves.
I then visualized-forward a few years into the future to imagine my eldest daughter as a clothing designer. Because of her love for the creative process, she would continue to improve her craft and the quality of her product. Having a creative mind, she would always be trying new things, some would succeed and others wouldn't. Either way she would feel fulfilled because she pursued a life based on her passion for the creative process.
I then imagined my daughter's future clients. They would purchase her products because they appreciate the fruit of her creative talents. As she produced new and improved products they would want to buy them. They would tell their friends about them. She would gain a following of consumers.
This is when I was hit with the paradox: as pursuers of a creative life, will we just end-up promoting consumption by others? Is it possible that the reason we are a society of consumers is because we are also a society of creators? By pursuing creativity in my life, am I depending on people to needlessly consume? ... an activity that I am trying to eliminate in my own life?
This is where I stared to re-think all of the angles.
In a blog post written by Ryan Jordan entitled The Futility of Going Ultralight for Ultralight's Sake, he wrote in his closing words:
I only want that I can be used to better your life, and the life of others, and that one day, my legacy will be one of service -- because I had the time to serve you, instead of the felt need to worry about my own complicated little world.
In the book Making Ideas Happen by Scott Belsky he writes:
It is not naive or cliche to say that the creative mind holds the answers to all of the world's problems. It is merely a fact. And so, you should balance your desire to use your creativity with a sense of responsibility.
Please take yourself and your creative pursuits seriously. Your ideas must be treated with respect because their importance truly does extend beyond your interests. Every living person benefits from a world that is enriched with ideas made whole - ideas that are made to happen through your passion, commitment, self-awareness, and informed pursuit.
Any activity driven by selfish motives has all of the ingredients to go wrong. If not for ourselves, most definitely for others around us. Selfish pursuits are at the root of a lot of this worlds problems. So whether we are seeking financial gain, or a life of creativity, the end results will ultimately be the same as long as our motives are purely selfish. My initial assessment of pursuing creativity as an ideal had only been analyzed from the selfish perspective. I hadn't thought it all the way through and my subconscious knew it.
After giving this substantial thought, I believe that while creativity may start out as a selfish pursuit, if we are able to fully develop it we will go through four distinct stages:
- Creativity for pleasure. When we initially start out we are just learning, exploring, and being creative for the sheer pleasure of it. We are a sponge, developing our skill, making lots of mistakes along the way, and having lots of fun.
- Creativity for others. Once we become skilled at our craft and proud of what we can do, we get the desire to share it with others. We start to use our creative skills to bring pleasure and joy to people around us.
- Creativity to improve lives. Once we master our craft, we start to look for ways to actually improve people's lives. Not just make them happy, but make their lives better in some way.
- Creativity to make the world better. Once we begin to look beyond ourselves, we start to look beyond our actions as well. This means that we look at how our creative process not only makes the recipients life better, but how it impacts the greater world. We push the envelope further, using our skills to make the world a better place.
The real problem as I see it is that our society predominantly sits in stages 1 and 2. Attempting to maximize our pleasure (profits) by delivering short term pleasure to others without actually trying to make their lives appreciably better. In other words, consumerism. Everything around us seems to be wired this way. As long as we stay there, then yes, creativity will fuel consumption.
To get out of this trap, we need to learn how to move on to stages 3 and 4. This is the hard part. It means learning how to turn creativity into a selfless act, a form of service. There are very few examples in the real world of this, but they do exist if you look around. Take Patagonia for example. They are a creative company that is firmly planted in stage 4: not only are they making products people like (stage 2), they are making products that improve our lives through quality (stage 3), and they are using their creativity to make the world a better place by transforming the way clothing is manufactured to have minimum environmental impact.
My conclusion is this: If you want to break free from consumption in your life, then pursue creativity with a passion. If you want to help break the cycle of consumption in the world, then use that creativity responsibly, intentionally, and selflessly - use it to improve the lives of others, to serve, and make the world a better place.