Think of a work of art.
I’ve been writing since the sixth grade, and I’ve been writing professionally, on and off, since I was twenty years old. I have spent countless hours penning articles, columns, short stories, reviews, and press releases for magazines, newspapers, literary journals, blogs, and everything in-between, as well as hurrying through a languorously written novel. There have been times when it feels as if the words were passing through me and onto paper as swiftly and flawlessly as if I were translating a feeling not yet discovered, and thoughts that were coming from somewhere between instinct and ambition. And there have been times when writing has met me with resistance, when the writing felt like “work.”
In these times, for me, it’s the writing process that softens the lines between work and art: finding the perfect word, shaping the ideal sentence, and polishing a paragraph, every one of us has a similar process, for you it might be writing, or another craft, or it might be how you manage or develop people, how you interact with people, or in the process farming, or communicating with computers, or in research. The truth of it is that if you are truly exploring your passion, with little care for its outcome, there are no lines distinguishing between art and work. The Latin for “work,” is “opus.” An Opus is a great masterpiece, a composition. To work is how we create and how we contribute, work is how we make a difference and introduce our composition to the world. When people refuse work, they are refusing their contribution to the world and, worse even, they are refusing to recognize in themselves what their opus is: what their purpose is.
Our society's segregation of art and work and our disdain and resentment for working, in coalition with the declining importance of certain cardinal prerequisites, are at the root of many escalating problems that we misattribute. The connotation of what it means to “work,” has become a negative one, the context in today’s world has developed into thinking of work as something to, simply, “pay the bills;” and a way to control and to manipulate us. There is a pseudo idea that work, and art, are different things, and that work might interfere with the practice of one’s art. Our mindset of what is possible and what it might take to create or build one’s life has shifted to a belief that life shouldn’t be “wasted,” working. Our culture is in the habit of reinforcing the negative connotation. We are encouraged to do and to be whatever we want until we actually try to do and to be whomever that might be, and then we are told “that [it’s] not practical.” Instead of blaming others, finding comfort in bitterness, and forswearing any effort that might be necessary to change not only our circumstances but those of future generations, washing our hands of accountability and lying in wait for someone else to take responsibility for the residual consequences, we really do need to turn our focus inward to the process of developing ourselves.
The fact that we have to work is not the problem, and it’s not even among the many problems. What is most attributable to our disdain for work is our unwillingness to explore who it is that we are and then apply the effort to become that person. With that said, there doesn’t exist an industry or a line of work that wasn’t developed as someone’s work of art, and as someone’s passion, and that doesn’t present the opportunity for many of us to pursue our own passions more smoothly. Humankind’s purpose precedes us and compels us to discover who we are and what our individual passions might be, to learn how to develop ourselves via our art, and then to figure out how to become that person, and how to build a career on behalf of that art. Many of us are waiting for someone to give us the opportunity to be who we believe we already are, without exploring our own reasons for wanting the opportunity. An artist has a responsibility to humanity, and understands that responsibility, and will practice their art for the betterment of humankind. An artist knows, too, that the enrichment of humanity, although constructive, is not the reason for exploring their art, their work. It is in the act of creating the opus, in spite of purpose, and in spite of however the world might benefit from that purpose, that is behind both the desire and the need to work.
When I was in my late teens, I was as unhappy with expectations and conformity, policies and procedures, and being practical and duteous as anyone. I, too, wholeheartedly believed that life was not meant to be wasted working. I didn’t want to go to college and study marketing or business, no, what I wanted was to be a writer. Actually, at some point during my sophomore year of high school I was introduced to psychology, and I started pursuing the idea of becoming a clinical psychologist. Going into college I thought that what I wanted was to sit down with an individual and help them to explore their troubles and their traumas until I realized, late in my education, that the expectations of our society, of the practice of therapy, and my own expectations didn’t really knit too well. What I really wanted to do wasn’t “practical,” instead I quested in discovering the next best thing. I knew that I didn’t want to spend my life doing conventional work. I wanted to create my own circumstances. I didn’t want to have to “climb the ladder,” or wear a tie, or sit in a cubicle; I didn’t want to play the game.
And I didn’t want to wait for life to happen. I was eager to start my life, although I didn’t actually know how (and I wouldn’t until well into my thirties). I believed that after knowing what it was that I wanted out of life the rest of my life would fall into place, and the course of my life would start to make sense. It took me twenty years to recognize that I spent twenty years looking for the finish line, without actually having run the race. The bizarre thing is that I believed that I was running the race, in part because I loaned my life to working retail. I neglected what inspired me, I neglected to develop the one thing that I knew would be my contribution to society. I was running, but I was running in the wrong direction, so I wasn’t actually going anywhere: I wasn’t learning, I wasn’t developing, I wasn’t exploring, at least not in a way that would ever really fulfill me, and so I started to get bitter. After generations of people who have spent a lifetime ignoring the development of their passion, their contribution—doing the wrong work—of course they’re going to believe that life is wasted on work, and yet none of us has no one else to blame but ourselves for not escaping our resentment. Our art is our work, and it doesn’t start once we’ve accepted just any job, the work begins when we become the pursuit of our passion, and we have to acknowledge, pursue, develop, and explore who we are inasmuch as—and/or in order to—bridge societies erroneous distinction between art and work. We have to become our passion, and once we have done that, how our passion and our career align, will become more transparent. It is our responsibility to ourselves and to the world to make our work and our art one and the same, we are not resigned to a career in marketing or business or retail unless the evolution of passion drives us in that direction, and it absolutely may.
I recognized that I never actually made the effort to create my circumstances—not really—and, as I’ve mentioned earlier, for years, I did genuinely believe that I was making that effort. Still, I continued to find myself working the same jobs in familiar industries, and working my way up a retail ladder that I didn’t even want to be on. I have worked a variety of jobs in relatively diverse fields but working retail, and selling books in particular, was something that I could easily fall back on because the work was comfortable. As a teenager I worked at a Borders Books, Music, and Café and a Starbucks and the experience that I accumulated there took me to Hastings Entertainment, 3 different Barnes & Noble Booksellers (one of which I managed), Op. Cit. Books (an independently owned bookstore), all of which led me to opening my own small bookstore. It was never as simple, for me, as finding a niche in retail management. The work wasn’t a passion, it was my resignation. In my life I also oversaw the marketing for an art gallery, served as tour guide and host on an excursion train, operated packing machinery for a potato processing plant’s graveyard shift, completed data entry for a publishing company, monitored the front desk as the night attendant of one of Anthony Bourdain’s top ten favorite hotels in the world, wrote a music column for a newspaper, probed as a staff writer for a magazine as well as a newspaper, penned book reviews for a journal, and flirted with freelance photography. In a sense, I was hoping to slip into place somewhere, and the only thing that ever came close to realizing my passion, of course, were my writing gigs. “Close,” because, even then, I was focused on the product not the process; when your focus is on the process part of the naturally occurring process is growth and development, and when your focus is on the product what you experience instead is doubt and struggle.
Several years ago, I was making somewhat of a meteoric climb up the ladder of Vitamin Cottage Natural Grocers. Before I started working for the Colorado based health food store chain, I had been spending most of my time on my couch building and operating this website. The website, communiteabooks.com, was what I believed to be the best interim between closing one bookstore and opening another. I had resigned myself to the belief that owning a bookstore was the closest, and most practical thing to a passion that I was going to get, after psychology. I had all but given up on writing. I sat on my couch for years looking for the next opportunity to open a storefront until I realized that the work I was doing on my website was averse to a social life, so I started looking for a job; because that, of course, is what, and all jobs are, a banal necessity to pass or control our time. I discovered that Natural Grocers was opening a store in a nearby town, and I was familiar with Natural Grocers, as a customer. I accepted the job, content with being a low-level crewmember—Good4UCrew—and had planned on buying my time.
After a few months of stocking shelves, cashiering, being a body, my manager asked me to apply for an available position that involved a promotion, I said, “no;” she asked me again and I conceded. In a few years, I was the assistant store manager of the Natural Grocers in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and with that position I set aside— “at least for a while…”—the pursuit of reopening my bookstore, I wanted to see where this management thing would take me. A year later I was offered the position managing the Barnes & Noble Booksellers in Bozeman, Montana, and suddenly I was U-hauling it up to Livingston where I rented a small two-bedroom house, twenty miles east of Bozeman (Livingston living was considerably more affordable). I started in January, and truth be told I was excited, I was really excited to have the opportunity. I had worked for Barnes & Noble Booksellers before, it was a bookstore, and I was managing, which were things that, at the very least, I enjoyed, and thought I was good at. The experience was awful. I was miserable. I was depressed. I was anxious. I was stressed. I was angry; I had a lot of anger that had accumulated from years of betrayal, and thoughtlessness, and manipulation, indifference, resentment, and pain; some of the misery, stress, and anxiety I attributed to management, and especially my time at the Natural Grocers in Santa Fe.
I tried to tell myself that I needed to find a way to let go of the anger, and then, from there, to start looking deeper into myself in search of the past resentment and the pain and the guilt, and to find a way to let it go. My circumstances didn’t make the process easy. I would tell myself to let go of the anger and a voice in the back of my head would respond, “…but your anger is justified. Other people should let go of their anger, but yours is justified, because…” It’s difficult to accept, but if your drive is fueled by anger then there is no benefit, regardless of your intention. If your drive is fueled by anger then you are causing harm, even if you feel your anger is justified. Eventually, I heard my own message, and I recognized that I needed to reevaluate everything. I didn’t know how I was going to survive, but I gave Barnes & Noble my notice, and overnight—although I was terrified of how I would meet my obligations—I released a weight that had been situated and compressing over my chest for longer than I can remember, that was in July of the same year. The next few months were incredibly difficult, but I had a goal, and I was awarded clarity (that would be challenged often over the next several months). I had become born again, in a lot of ways, and I started to focus on my art, and I started to focus on the process. I gave up a lot in order to realize my passion. I accepted a part-time job as the night attendant for a world-famous historic hotel, I moved into the hotel—I was living now like Bob Dylan, Mark Twain, Tennessee Williams, and Jack Kerouac all once had; Sam Peckinpah had even lived in this same hotel—I spend a lot of time now developing myself and my art—my work. Both who I am, and the work that I create, now are almost contrary to who and where I was even this time last year.
These last several years especially, when people talk about work with negativity, it’s really bugged me, and, in conversation, I might have attributed my annoyance to laziness or misdirected accountability, but the truth of it is, and it’s taken me until now to recognize it, that we are no longer developing as a society. We once worked because we had the drive to, we had the desire, and we had shared in a mutual passion to explore the best of ourselves and I don’t see that anymore; I see a shared desire to point out the worst in others, and to explore the worst in people to the most extreme degree. Not only is the mindset stagnant it is, perhaps, degenerative to what we have accomplished physiologically and culturally.
There’s a popular story that I’ve heard often throughout my life. There was a little girl who struggled to keep up with her peers in school, she had trouble staying still, and was considered a disruption in class. At the school’s breaking point, the little girl’s mother was asked to remedy the out-of-control problem, and so the mother took the girl to see a doctor. The little girl and her mother sat across the desk from the doctor discussing the “problem,” during which the doctor was, of course, observing the girl’s behavior. The doctor asked the girl’s mother if the two of them could step outside to continue the conversation in the hall, turning the radio on as the pair left the room, and while outside the office, they watched the little girl who was now out of her seat and dancing around the room. After a few moments, the doctor turned to the girl’s mother and told her that there was nothing wrong with her daughter, but that her daughter was a dancer. Gillian Lynne, after leading a long career as a dancer, went on to choreograph a number of the greatest musicals in history including Cats, the Phantom of the Opera, Cabaret, My Fair Lady, and Gigi.
Think of a work of art. Imagine approaching your life as that work of art, The psychology of work considers the process of becoming, it describes the soul’s journey, and I made the mistake of waiting for my journey to start, telling myself that it would start once someone gave me the opportunity. When no one jumped at the opportunity to give me an opportunity, and, while waiting, I spent years wondering what I was doing wrong. Those of us that “make it,” do so because they focus on the process, because they think of their life as a work of art; a single work of art that they are always in the process of creating by realizing their passion and exploring that passion. That’s it; that is the difference between us and them; we have the extent of our teens and twenties to expand on who we are, and yet most of us donate our time to irrelevant pursuits.
Jim Carrey points out that, “you can fail at what you don’t want, so we might as well take a chance on doing what you love.” The language Carrey chose to get that point across is interesting, it’s a reflection of our mindset today. He says, “take a chance…” but you’re only truly leaving it to chance if you give up or worse, you never actually start.
Now, think of your work of art.