Inspired Work

Some questions for the world at large that are on my heart:

What do you love and hate about the work you do? What’s most meaningful? Do you ever get stuck in “should I stay or should I go” mentality? How do you let that go and be lighthearted about work? How do you integrate creativity into your work life? What role does inspiration play in your work?

I’m thinking about creativity, inspiration, and work. Specifically, trying to find the right balance for myself, and seeing where there is tension in my internal space around work and creativity.

Life requires a proper balance of creativity and good, old-fashioned work. Because inspiration very well can be one of the guiding forces of your life, yes? And isn’t it the thing that makes life feel magical? Yet structure supports a part of us as well. There’s something meditative in being methodical about putting one foot in front of the other for the sake of moving forward. Sometimes we have to do just that.

Three years ago I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s a 2650-mile-long wilderness trail that connects Mexico to Canada. That was an experience that was a mix of inspiration and work. It was inspired because it was decidedly outside the normal mold; it’s an experience that feels like my own, that was born in my heart, and was brought into my life by me. But the process of bringing it to fruition was, decidedly, work. Very literally physical labor. There was work to do ahead of time to prepare, and then there was work to do every step of the way – climbing up and over things with a backpack on. Hitchhiking into towns to get food and do laundry and rest. Finding places to pitch a tent. Cooking. Eating. Putting one foot in front of the other for 4 1/2 months.

The thing that feels amazing about that trip is that the totality of it seems huge, but in fact it was just a focused effort. For aren’t we always working on something? Most of the time our attention is divided, though, especially these days. I don’t think we realize what we are robbing from ourselves when we say yes to distracted living. We are stealing the possibilities of grandeur from our lives. For grandeur comes from sustained effort, from focus. That hiking trip would never have magically happened if my efforts had been scattered. I devoted my life to it, for a time. And I left with a memory and an imprint of something magnificent, breathtaking, unbelievable.

And was it hard? Absolutely. But it was inspired, so the thought of quitting could never take root in me. My faith in what I was doing was unshakeable – or at least sturdy enough to get me from start to finish.

I think there are different kinds of work we can take part in. We can’t get away from doing work. Work isn’t a problem we need to fix. It can and should be the great joy of our lives, not seen as something separate from our lives, merely a necessary evil. We split ourselves with this kind of thinking, that work and life are two different things. And I think more people are waking up to that reality, trying to find ways to integrate the different parts of them and put their work towards what they care about. Or, another way of putting it… finding ways to work with inspiration.

Inspiration is something to look out for, and to follow. Sometimes doing that requires being different, requires risking looking like a fool. But who cares if you’re a fool, if you’re a happy fool? In fact, we need happy fools. The fool is sacred. She reminds us to let go of our guard and be more open. She helps us to laugh. Without laughter, what is the point of all our work? Do we want to toil away our lives getting from point A to B to C and beyond, without enjoying the journey?

I’ve personally measured myself often, in my life, by some of the traditional measures of success. In school, it was by my grades and, to some extent, my athletic performance. Later it was about financial independence. Then it became about participating in a respectable vocation. Because bartending was fun and paid the bills, but part of me was ashamed to stay there – and wanted to move on. So I moved on, in the direction that suited my ego’s desire for recognition and success. I always knew there was imbalance in my approach; but sometimes we have to learn by doing nonetheless, for action is still better than inaction. I knew coding wasn’t the “calling of my soul”, but it was something to do next, and it felt like a step up – probably more in the direction of ‘work’ than of ‘inspiration’, but not entirely uninspired. So now, I’ve been here for a little while. I’ve been a full-time software engineer for some months. I’m figuring it out, getting better, and whatnot. Some days I have fun at work, even in the work itself. And other days I fear my work and procrastinate. I hate those days. It feels like I am split down the middle, with some rebellious, creative part of me feeling caged in and lashing out. And every day I wrestle with this situation: what do I do next? Is there a way for me to be more integrated at this job? Plenty of people are finding ways to break out of the 9-to-5 mold and live life more on their own terms, which is an idea that appeals to me… but it also feels like ‘quitting’.

I hate this in-between space. Part of me knows that sticking with something for some time produces results. Like the PCT trip – I had to follow that through from start to finish and believe in it the whole way. But that trip was inspired! What do you do when you find yourself doing something that’s less black and white? This job wasn’t exactly inspired, you know? At least, that’s what a part of me thinks. There’s plenty of room for doubt, and I spend time in doubt almost every day, which eats at me. I wish I was strong enough to just put those thoughts underneath me and choose to do the work that is in front of me, to quit fighting and actually enjoy the unfolding of my life in this moment. Sometimes I do. Sometimes something clicks, and I let go of the mental resistance. I really don’t know how that works. I don’t know if I’m here to figure out how to do that better, or if I should wait for the voice of inspiration to come singing to me, and to follow her.

And you know what? She has. I’m just scared when inspiration tells me to leave where I am. My mind has lots of reasons to stay.

Therein lies a dichotomy – should I stay or should I go? – that creates unnecessary resistance. It’s never either-or, it’s always yes-and. So yes, I stay… but that doesn’t mean stay still. We can never stay still, remember? We are always changing, like it or not. So yes, I also leave… I leave this moment behind and move into the next one. I don’t have to dramatically depart my life. I certainly can, at some point, if that feels inspired to me. But I also can find ways to listen to the voice of inspiration when it tells me what’s next, without fearing leaving what’s here. I can make a gradual transition. I don’t have to be on guard. I can set the tone. I can make it just right for me. And maybe, if I do it right, it will help me make sense out of where I am. When I know that something isn’t going to last forever, I’m less likely to take it for granted, and more likely to enjoy the pieces of it that I can enjoy. That’s what it’s all about, right? We want to get better at enjoying life. We’re here no matter what. We want to enjoy it.

The should-I-stay-or-go tug-of-war is something I feel a lot in my life, actually. It’s with me in my relationship with my job now. It was there in my relationship with my last job. It was there in my relationship with Mathew, maybe for a long time. Is it something I can transcend? Objectively, this is just a mental habit, and it’s one that creates a lot of pain for me. It’s based in the old model of war, instead of the new model of love. What does a shift into love look like, from here?

Well, with my relationship, the thing that resolved my internal tension wasn’t me making a decision. It was something bigger making a decision for me. When it was time, I was told. There was clarity. Clarity didn’t come from toiling in a prolonged state of indecision. It came from an act of grace. It came from a moment of inspiration.

All that agony, leading up to then… it now feels so pointless. It was like I didn’t trust that an inspired moment would come along and tell me what to do. I thought I had to figure it all out by myself, and I labored in doing so, wearing myself out mentally, analyzing and judging and being, generally, in a place of fear. Which, sadly, is toxic. When we are in doubt, we are hurting that which we are doubting. Any moment I spent doubting my relationship, I was doing damage to it. Hindsight is 20-20. Hindsight tells me… it would have been better just to love. And not to take love for granted.

And that’s a little bit harder of a game to play. It’s something my present-self doesn’t always want to hear. Like okay… am I supposed to love the job I’m at instead of looking for ways that it isn’t right? How do I do that?

I guess I do what I do every day; I work on it. I work on the balance of work and creativity. I work on forgiving myself, on having a sense of humor about it all. I work on being willing to be a fool, being willing to dream big dreams, willing to invest my heart in my life, say yes to things that inspire joy and curiosity in me, even when they seem strange. The winding path is a worthwhile one. The path with a heart brings feeling and unique kinds of fulfillment. And work will always be there; it comes to us in different ways. Sometimes I work when I’m at my job. Sometimes I work when I’m at my desk writing. Sometimes I work to be present and do the right thing when something confusing and triggering is happening between me and someone else – when I have to drop into my heart and speak honestly, instead of hiding behind my facade. That kind of work, the work of the heart, is maybe the most important, more worth spending my time thinking about than my job. We’re used to looking at our jobs, and how we create our livelihoods. But there’s more to life than that, you know? Especially today. I’m interested in the what’s-more. Interested in the voice of inspiration, wherever she takes me. Interested in choosing love over war, or at least doing my best.

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