Find Your Sweet Spot
In this excerpt from her new book, Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert maps out the path to "an amplified existence"—a life infused with passion, creativity and, most importantly, fulfillment.
Getty ImagesThis, I believe, is the central question upon which all creative living hinges: Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you?
Look, I don't know what's hidden within you. You yourself may barely know, although I suspect you've caught glimpses. I don't know your capacities, your aspirations, your longings, your secret talents. But surely something wonderful is sheltered inside you. I say this with all confidence, because I happen to believe we are all walking repositories of buried treasure. I believe this is one of the oldest and most generous tricks the universe plays on us human beings, both for its own amusement and for ours: The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them.
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The hunt to uncover those jewels—that's creative living. The courage to go on that hunt in the first place—that's what separates a mundane existence from a more enchanted one.
The often surprising results of that hunt—that's what I call Big Magic.
When I talk about "creative living" here, please understand that I am not necessarily talking about pursuing a life that is professionally or exclusively devoted to the arts. When I refer to "creative living," I am speaking more broadly. I'm talking about living a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear.
One of the coolest examples of creative living that I've seen in recent years, for instance, came from my friend Susan, who took up figure skating when she was 40 years old. To be more precise, she actually already knew how to skate. She had competed in figure skating as a child, but she'd quit the sport during adolescence when it became clear she didn't have quite enough talent to be a champion.
For the next quarter of a century, Susan did not skate. Then she turned 40. She was restless. She felt drab and heavy. She asked herself when was the last time she'd felt truly light, joyous and—yes—creative in her own skin. To her shock, she realized that the last time she'd experienced such feelings had been as a teenager, back when she was still figure skating. She was appalled to discover that she had denied herself this life-affirming pursuit for so long, and she was curious to see if she still loved it.
So she followed her curiosity. She bought a pair of skates, found a rink, hired a coach. She ignored the voice within her that told her she was being self-indulgent and preposterous to do this crazy thing. She tamped down her feelings of extreme self-consciousness at being the only middle-aged woman on the ice, with all those tiny, feathery nine-year-old girls.
She just did it.
Three mornings a week, Susan awoke before dawn and went skating. And she skated and skated and skated. And yes, she loved it, even more than ever, perhaps, because now, as an adult, she finally had the perspective to appreciate the value of her own joy. Skating made her feel alive and ageless. She stopped feeling like she was nothing more than a consumer, nothing more than the sum of her daily obligations and duties. She was making something of herself, making something with herself.
Next Page: It was a literal revolution, as she spun to life again on the ice. [ pagebreak ]
Getty ImagesIt was a literal revolution, as she spun to life again on the ice.
Please note that my friend did not quit her job and move to Toronto to study 70 hours a week with an Olympic-level skating coach. And no, this story does not end with her winning any medals. In fact, this story does not end at all, because Susan is still figure skating—simply because skating is still the best way for her to unfold a certain beauty and transcendence within her life. That's what I call creative living.
And while the paths and outcomes of creative living will vary wildly from person to person, I can guarantee you this: A creative life is an amplified life. It's a bigger life, a happier life, an expanded life and a hell of a lot more interesting life. Living in this manner is a fine art, in and of itself.
Scary, scary, scary
Let's talk about courage now. Because creative living is a path for the brave. And we all know that when courage dies, creativity dies with it. We all know that fear is a desolate boneyard where our dreams go to desiccate in the hot sun. This is common knowledge; sometimes we just don't know what to do about it.
Let me list for you some of the many ways in which you might be afraid to live a more creative life: You're afraid you have no talent. You're afraid you'll be rejected or criticized or ridiculed or misunderstood or—worst of all—ignored. You're afraid you don't have the right kind of discipline. You're afraid you're too old to start.
The list is bottomless. I'll just sum up this way: scary, scary, scary.
Everything is so goddamn scary.
Now you probably think I'm going to tell you that you must become fearless in order to live a more creative life. But I'm not. Creativity is a path for the brave, yes, but it is not a path for the fearless, and it's important to recognize the distinction.
Bravery means doing something scary.
Fearlessness means not even understanding what the word scary means.
If your goal in life is to become fearless, then I believe you're already on the wrong path, because the only truly fearless people I've ever met were straight-up sociopaths and a few exceptionally reckless three-year-olds—and those aren't good role models for anyone.
The truth is, you need your fear, for obvious reasons of basic survival. Evolution did well to install a fear reflex within you, because if you didn't have any fear, you would lead a short, crazy, stupid life. You would walk into traffic. You would drift off into the woods and be eaten by bears. You would marry a guy who said on the first date, "I don't necessarily believe people were designed by nature to be monogamous."
So, yes, you absolutely do need your fear, in order to protect you from actual dangers. But you do not need your fear in the realm of creative expression.
Next Page: Of course that doesn't mean your fear won't show up. [ pagebreak ]
Getty ImagesOf course that doesn't mean your fear won't show up. Your fear will always be triggered by your creativity, because creativity asks you to enter into realms of uncertain outcome, and fear hates uncertain outcomes. Your fear—programmed by evolution to be insanely overprotective—will always assume that any uncertain outcome is destined to end in a bloody, horrible death. Basically, your fear is like a mall cop who thinks he's a Navy SEAL: He hasn't slept in days, he's all hopped up on Red Bull and he's liable to shoot at his own shadow in an absurd effort to keep everyone "safe."
The road trip
Here's how I've learned to deal with my fear: I made a decision that if I want creativity in my life—and I do—then I will have to make space for fear, too.
Plenty of space.
I decided that I would need to build an expansive enough interior life that my fear and my creativity could peacefully coexist.
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In fact, I cordially invite fear to come along with me everywhere I go. I even have a welcoming speech prepared for fear, which I deliver right before embarking upon any new project or big adventure. It goes something like this:
"Dearest Fear: Creativity and I are about to go on a road trip. I understand you'll be joining us, because you always do. I acknowledge that you believe you have an important job to do. But I will also be doing my job, which is to work hard and stay focused. And Creativity will be doing its job, which is to remain stimulating and inspiring. There's plenty of room in this vehicle for all of us, but understand this: Creativity and I are the only ones who will be making any decisions along the way. You're not allowed to suggest detours. You're not allowed to fiddle with the temperature. Dude, you're not even allowed to touch the radio. But above all else, you are absolutely forbidden to drive."
Then we head off—me and creativity and fear—advancing into the terrifying but marvelous terrain of unknown outcome. It isn't always comfortable or easy but it's always worth it, because if you can't learn to travel comfortably alongside your fear, then you'll never be able to go anywhere interesting. And that would be a pity, because your life is short and rare and amazing, and you want to do really interesting things while you're still here.
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And you have treasures hidden within you, and so do I, and so does everyone around us. And bringing those treasures to light takes work and faith and devotion, and the clock is ticking, and the world is spinning, and we simply do not have time anymore to think so small.
Excerpted from the forthcoming Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, by Elizabeth Gilbert. Published by arrangement with Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright 2015 by Elizabeth Gilbert.