I don’t know if I gave this piece the right title. Maybe it should be called Nothing they told me would make me happy actually makes me happy.
Or what about this title? Too long? Do people even say “having it all” anymore? Why are we still acting like that’s something we should pursue?
Or maybe it’s I’ve found the secret to MY happiness, how about you? Hope mine lasts more than five minutes!
This missive, mussing, essay, whateveryouwannacallit began as a letter for the folks in Lead your Self, my self-paced, self-coaching program. It’s a cautionary tale about how saying “I’m behind” can make it harder to engage freely with the material and your intentions. I thought others would be interested too. And you know who is really interested in this topic? My “you think too much” brain.
Do you have a “You think too much” brain?
People told me this all the time in my youth. (My youth! It’s gone! It was just here, but I can’t remember where I put it!). I would be digging in, asking all sorts of whatabout musings, trying to figure out all-the-things with a deep seeded sense of existential angst and some guy, clearly not interested in my tangent, would say “You think too much.”
I would proceed to give some thought to the possibility that I think too much, a meta thought that hurt my brain.
Well, guess what, some guy!?!?! All that thinking has blossomed into some pretty satisfying Life’s Work. So there. People read the results of my thinking too much all the time! It’s happening right now, some guy!
So I was thinking about being behind. Do you feel behind? Do you look at what you wanted or meant to get to and feel like you dropped the ball? Do you look at others who seem like they’re ahead?
So many metrics to be behind in, oh my!
Like we’re on a conveyer belt of achievement or acquisition or self-realization and if you weren’t such a numbskull or flake or procrastinator or scaredy cat you too would be up there, further along on that conveyer belt! Clearly, up there is better! Further along, is desirable! Doesn’t being ahead cause happiness?!?!
I think it’s important to think far too much about these things.
Here’s something I think might be true even though it’s a bit arrogant to claim authority over other people’s experiences. I happen to be an expert in helping people give language to their experiences. Maybe not yours, not yet, but if you feel like you’re behind, see if this resonates…
If you’re “behind” the suffering you experience is sourced from the meaning you make and the conclusions you draw about who you are and what’s possible for you due to being “behind”. The circumstances of your life may cause pain, but the additional self-doubt, self-recrimination, loss of faith, disappointment, pressure and anxiety that laps at your shores is some version of “I’m bad because I’ve failed to be further along and if I were better, and further, I would suffer less.”
I know this is true for at least some of you because we work together and people tell me things!
I’m here to say to you friend…humans have an incredible capacity to turn reality into problems. It’s my favourite hobby. Make problems. Solve problems. I’ve known and worked with all sorts of people who are very far along on that conveyor belt in myriad contexts and they too find things to suffer about. People who’ve “arrived” haven’t.
Being right where you are is hard work. Jumping from the past to the future and back again with one’s attention is what most of us spend our lives doing. Not being here, right on time, accepting and satisfied with what is, while pursuing whatever’s next, right on time.
So whether you’re one of the VERY COOL PEOPLE in Lead your Self, or you’re engaged in something else (a career, course, culturally prescribed metrics that don’t matter at all and yet seem like they’re supposed to matter) and you feel like you’re falling behind, perhaps the move isn’t to stress about catching up but to gaze at the notion of “behind/ahead” like you’re gazing at your navel.
Are you really behind? Or is death simply terrifying?
What does identifying with “being behind” do to your sense of Self?
Contemplate it. Consider the ways “being behind energy” actually thwarts your intentions, stops you from starting, makes you judge your efforts and progress, or maybe even gives you an excuse not to do the brave and risky things because what’s the point, you’ll never catch up, or there are too many things to catch up with, who has the energy to do brave and remarkable things? Please don’t tell me it’s just me doing this!?
But why be behind when you could decide you’re just fine?
Perhaps being behind lights a fire under the proverbial ass. A fire that inspires one to Catch Up!
Catch up to what?
I know, I know, the dreams and ambitions and the visions we hold for ourselves! Sometimes I run toward them with such ferocity that I use up every last ounce of energy I have. I want to keep going, but I collapse and shake my fist at the sky and say “Youth! Yooooouth! Where did you go???!”
Side note: I’m not one to wallow in regret, because these are the things of life. BUT…so much of that endless energy of my youth was wasted spinning and thrashing. These days I feel clear and ambitious and excited. Very happy and creatively on fire. But quite tired. Like, “Sorry I will not be attending your event that begins at 8 pm because I go to bed before my children” tired. End side note.
There are contexts in which “being behind” doesn’t need to be overthought or treated like a koan, like if you have a timeline you’ve agreed to and you’re not meeting that timeline and it’s annoying for your colleagues. Or you’re late for an event and your wife is sitting in the car, annoyed, because how can it possibly take you longer to get ready? (I’m the wife). Those are times when being behind is legit a real thing.
But at life? At art? At the pursuit of the things that matter to us?
Are you behind? Or are you right where you are? And if you’ve abandoned the thing that matters to you, over and over, for whatever reasons, if you’ve collected a whole bunch of evidence that you can’t have what you want because you’re so behind, consider this instead…
You’re right on time. And now is the time to learn how to creatively pursue. Not to catch up or even get somewhere but for the sheer satisfaction of doing The Thing!
I have found the secret to my happiness. For now. Things change. But here it is.
Creative Pursuit. Not arrival. Not achievement. Not even productivity because she is a cruel mistress! But simply coming back, over and over, to take the next steps on the projects that make me come alive. Full stop. Not the projects I should do to get somewhere, but the ones that feed my Creative Spirit and fill my energetic field with aliveness. And doing it at a pace that my youthful self would make fun of, but no matter, she’s not tired. I’m tired. Creative Pursuit is energizing.
I’ve stripped the concept of ahead/behind from my existential reality. This has been a hard-won task. Not everyone’s brains function in a linear ticker tape of activity. But mine does. My imagination isn’t full of imagery or music or ideation that swirls like the beautiful dance of the cosmos.
My imagination is a calendar that rolls out indefinitely like a giant slip-in-slide in front of me and every idea or possibility, dream or desire becomes a project that floats down into that calendar and settles in there. Before I’ve even decided if I want to do something, it exists on a visual timeline in my imagination.
This is an annoying brain to have if you don’t want to play the “behind/ahead” game.
For YEARS I felt beholden to these slippery, sliding calendars, as though planning and executing could save me from the unsettling unknown. Planning and executing things I didn’t even choose! Things that planted themselves there through an utterly unconscious, cultural ideal for what I was supposed to pursue. Layer on that the things I did want to pursue and I was left with so much shit to do by Thursday at noon, I was always, relentlessly behind.
I am still behind. I will always be behind. My dreams and ambitions are not yet met. And when I meet or release the ones I have now, new ones will replace them and there will be more to do. My father used to tell me that I will die with a list. He’s not wrong!
I’m at a life stage where I’m just totally done suffering about that. I am not behind. I am not ahead. I am right where I am and if I can be right where I am, I can see what actually makes me happy.
It’s not getting somewhere. It’s being in a state of Creative Pursuit.
Here’s a truth of my experience that’s a bit of a hard pill to swallow. The things I’ve worked toward, personally and professionally, don’t make me happy. I’m not saying they make me miserable, they’re simply not the source of my happiness or joy.
You know the ol’ “things you’re supposed to want and go for” list? Partner, children, education, career, property ownership, “being somebody”?
That “having it all” spell? It’s tiring.
Let me ask the married folks in the crowd…you living happily ever after?
How about the parents…are you blissfully fulfilled rearing the future?
How about those with well-paying careers…are your money stressors over? (laughs maniacally)
That house you bought…do you feel like you’ve arrived, nice and secure?
All of my appliances broke last month and while the dishwasher was crying her final goodbye, she flooded my kitchen (yes this also happened last summer). I was pulling up the flooring at 2am to stop the water pouring into the basement and I yelled “Someone call the landlord!” and I cried “I’m the landlord!!!!”
I am not saying I’m not grateful to have the life I have. I am so grateful. I’m hashtag effing blessed.
I’m saying we must excavate the metrics we think matter to save ourselves from the ill pursuit of shadow priorities. When I’m chasing to catch up, when I’m feeling behind, I cultivate a dysregulated sense of false urgency in my body while my psyche feeds itself in a loop of survival hell.
When I focus too much on the outcome or how quickly I am supposed to “Get somewhere” or when I get pathological about my productivity, I don’t like myself all that much. I don’t enjoy the life I’m building or tending to.
Tracking my life as targets or achievements has proved to be unhelpful. Looking through the lens of cycles and seasonality, as life force arises, moves and passes away – dynamically in all areas at different paces and intensities – this has brought me internal liberation.
When I permit myself to prioritize my creative spirit, the writing and art I want to make, and the connections that matter to me (which these days are with people who also want to turn their lives into an art form of loving), my life force flows.
In the “ahead/behind” paradigm, we live with the “once this then that” narrative. Once I get there, then I’ll be happy. Once I finish this project, then I’ll have space. Once I make more money, then I can relax. Once I’ve found my person, then I can feel loving and joyful and sexy. Once, once, once. I’m behind and failing until…
We can opt out of that.
Turn ONCE into AS.
As I Creatively Pursue the nudges and whispers of my Soul, I’m exposed to delight.
As I tell the truth about how I truly want to live, opportunities and obstacles become more obvious.
As I prioritize making, the mediums I’m called to play in begin to seduce me.
I started applying the metaphors of Seasonality to my life, developmental growth, business and projects almost a decade ago and I truly think it’s saved me from rat-racing myself to dangerous burnout.
Learning what it means to face autumn and heed winter showed me when it was time to tinker with my art. For the health of my body and soul.
From there, I started the Creative Cauldron as a way to signal to my Artist that she mattered and deserved to play most of all. And I made it for other people who suspect their Artist might save the day if given a chance.
The Creative Cauldron is the place I return to free myself from the burdens of daily living. The place where I prioritize creative writing or I turn the regular “things I need to get done” into artful experiments. Where the people who are with me, also doing the same, repeatedly remind me that our creatives projects have their own timelines and when we meet the soul of our projects with the art of Creative Pursuit, there’s no ahead, there’s no behind, there’s simply a Creative Field to give to and receive from and whether we got a ton done or floundered terribly, we feel very good about ourselves for showing up.
If you want a place to make your art, and a community of wise, kind, funny, compassionate, brave and generous people doing it alongside you, I hope you’ll consider joining the Creative Cauldron this Summer. It comes with an early bird bonus until tomorrow (Monday, May 26). Join us now and get free access to The Season You’re In, a course to guide you through applying cycles and seasons to your precious life’s priorities.
For my friends in Lead your Self or anyone who is engaging in the kind of pursuit where you set the pace, may you experience the compassionate resolve to be right where you are, tending to what matters with presence and devotion.