Push Yourself

You are young and you are the future
So suck it up and tough it out
And be the best you can
John Mellencamp, Minutes to Memories

Welcome back to the Creative Life Adventure.

When I was in 6th grade, our class was given a weekly syllabus of assignments. If we finished those before the week was over, optional extra credit was available to us. Otherwise, we were free to read while our classmates finished their assignments. Most weeks, I was one of a handful of students who finished the week’s work by Thursday morning. I typically did some of the extra credit and, because I’ve always loved reading, I would read library books in class the rest of the week. It was only later that I realized our teacher thought I was lazy. All the way through high school, whenever I bumped into my 6th grade teacher (surprisingly easy in a small town), he gave me the same message: “You’re smart but you don’t work very hard.” I can never bring myself to agree with him, but was he right?

I’m not a parent, so I understand I have limited credibility on the subject of parenting. But I have to think that some of the changing attitudes toward parenting in the post-World War II years have not all been for the best. There is certainly evidence that permissive parenting styles, extreme emphasis on competition, and the looming burden of student debt have caused emotional turmoil. Instead of raising our children within close-knit extended families, we often abandon them to tranquilizing technology.

Black and white photo of two women on bicycles
Don’t wait until you have to make up for lost time – push yourself now.

Whatever the cause, doesn’t it often feel that we have become weaker, and more self-entitled, with each generation? This is not an anti-Millenial rant, as this trend (if it is a trend) would have certainly started with or before my own generation. And finding a balance between nurturing and coddling can’t be easy for parents of any generation.

For years, an endless cycle of self-help books have given us the message of self-love. The top priority, we’re told over and over, is to forgive ourselves, nurture ourselves, and care for ourselves. The message is almost entirely about pampering the self, with little regard for service to others or the general messiness of life. Even Buddhism has been conscripted for Western consumption through a focus largely on self-contemplative meditation while ignoring the Noble Eightfold Path (that includes renunciation of worldly pleasures and avoiding frivolous chatter, for example).

A recent essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books discusses how important is it to accept the limitations of our desires.”If you really got everything you wanted,” Samuel Loncar writes, “you would find out your desires destroyed you.” And yet, as John Mellencamp says in another of his songs, “We keep no check on our appetites.” Social media has hijacked our minds and our communities by turning our desires into corporate algorithms. That might explain why, as I write this, Avengers: Endgame is about to become the height of our pop culture as, in the words of The New York Times, “a monument to adequacy.”

Is this all part of a self-destructive vicious cycle, each of us pandering to our own vanity and becoming weaker, and less mindful, in the process? We even seem to be growing physically weaker, and we might be living shorter lives because of it.

How does all of this relate to creativity? Because creativity is not a lightning bolt of inspiration that you should wait for. It’s a practice, a habit, and it requires discipline and sacrifice. As one of my college professors used to remind his students, “Life is a series of trade-offs.” The trade-off for a creative life is that you might have a quieter personal life, or you might get to travel less, you might have to set the alarm a little earlier every morning, or you might have to say no to binge-watching that latest Netflix series.

In a grander sense, babying ourselves to the point of narcissism allows us to dodge our responsibilities to the world, and I believe creative output (if that’s the path you’ve chosen) to be one of those responsibilities. Our lives our richer for the gifts of writers, painters, filmmakers, and other artists. If you plan to be one of those artists, my argument is that you should never forget your duty to the people who will receive your art.

Photo of two men rowing a kayak on a river
Those waves won’t make themselves – start rowing now

I’ve written in the blog about Chuck Berry, Robert Caro, J.K. Rowling, Lebron James, and Vincent Van Gogh, among others. Those people didn’t achieve success by going easy on themselves, but by giving themselves to their work. Working on his Years of Lyndon Johnson series, Robert Caro once commented that the only limitation on his research effort was the operating hours of the LBJ Presidential Library. During the fifteen months he lived in Arles, in the south of France, Van Gogh created nearly 200 paintings and hundreds of sketches.

A little self-attention can go a long way and life isn’t getting any longer. So knuckle down and stay focused on your priorities. There is work to be done, and never forget all those people waiting for your poem, your painting, your film, or your performance. They’re counting on you.

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