What Do You Want?
I'm Megan J. Robinson, and this is Creative\\Proofing, a space to think, feel, and design out loud. Every Thursday I'll send you a newsletter exploring the intersection of creativity, spirituality, and productivity, and what that looks like for each of us. In each issue of Creative\\Proofing, I’ll dig into various questions, ideas, and topics by sharing what other thinkers, feelers, and doers have said, followed by my take, and then, what it do and what it mean for us going forward. I’ll also try to throw in reader feedback, recommendations, and maybe something I’m enjoying that week. Stick around to find out more, hmmm?
Follow Your Heart...Sorta
Over the last few weeks, we've looked at what it means to grow in self-awareness, understand ourselves as creative , and get done those things that matter. We've also begun to understand the multiple centers of intelligence that we each possess — heart, head, hands — and how, by listening to and trusting ourselves, we can truly begin living out of the rich meaning and deep purpose we seek in our lives.
Now, let's narrow our focus just a bit, and begin to look at the ways in which we can discern and practice self-awareness, creativity, and action in our lives. You'll notice a pattern of starting with the heart center, though not because I'm a huge fan of the advice to follow one's heart. (Let's be honest, that advice often lands us in...situations.) I start with our heart because I think we need to pay attention to it, if for no other reason than to stay connected to our motivations, values, desires, and dreams (as well as their shadow side: greeds, deficiencies, and hostilities).
Us crazy kids have bundled within ourselves a complex mixture of interests, values, and goals, some that point toward the best of which we're capable, and some that leave scorched paths behind us. One ancient writer notes that, much like plants produce fruit or blooms according to their roots and nutrition, humans inevitably reflect what we carry within our hearts. So, if we're trying to figure out what matters to us, which path to take in life, and the kind of person we'd like to become, well...oh, all right...follow your heart (at least for a little while).
A Quick Note
I work from within the Christian tradition, and understand the Divine as the Trinity of father, son, holy spirit. That said, I know we all have different ways of understanding the Divine, so if you wish to insert [Other] when I use that phrase, please feel free to do so.
What Others Say
In looking for contemporary discussions of values, desires, and vision, I encountered an interesting conundrum. When I did a web search for personal values, as in identifying or defining them, the top 10-15 results I got focused on knowing your personal values so you can...work better. Y'all. I'm a little flummoxed by this. It never occurred to me that values would be filtered through the lens of making oneself or an organization more marketable. So, I decided to regroup, and zoom back out a bit, and start with this question: what do you want?
In Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, brothers Chip and Dan Heath share the metaphor of an elephant and its rider: the elephant is the mover, the shaker, the energy for the trip; the rider is the planner and guide, making sure that the destination stays front and center (with only a couple of side trips for the Largest Ball of Twine, naturally). Applying that metaphor here, our raw wants and desires are the elephant of our identity, and our values and goals are the rider that helps us stay on track. So how do you discern what you want most in life, what is most authentically you?
Interestingly enough, Jennifer Beer observes in Scientific American that we feel most authentic when what we like and want lines up with...socially approved likes and wants. Wait, what? The key idea here is conformity. She goes on to say that studies show we're perceived as more authentic and relatable when we conform to a given set of norms, and perceived as more radical and less human when we deviate from those norms. To continue with this week's metaphor, our respective wants and desires are the elephant, but this time, the rider can be understood as the larger social conventions shaping our values and goals. Most of us want to be liked and welcomed, so we generally tend to conform, at least on some things.
If this is the case, then answering the question of "what do you want?" becomes more about understanding how we listen to, and come to own, those stories of defining and pursuing a "good life" that surround us: do we receive these stories from other people, or do we construct them ourselves (or is it a combination of the two)? Philosopher Charles Taylor observes that our identities —who we are in relation to and in contrast with others — arise out of forming and defining ideas of what is better, right, good (or worse, wrong, bad) in life, and thus making a life worth living. The stories told across societies, within groups and families: they provide us with rich, complex, contradictory, and often conflicting visions of the "good life," or indeed, the many good lives available to us.
If the rider is asleep, the elephant may wander far off course (and do unintentional damage along the way). If the rider only uses someone else's map, the destination may turn out to be underwhelming or downright terrible. But if the rider has thoughtfully and carefully discerned the best destination, and guides the elephant with clarity and purpose, together, they can arrive at a good life that reflects both the best of the collective stories and our unique choices.
With the world available in the palm of our hand, it's not surprising that we end up adopting or adapting to socially acceptable stories of making a good life, and so feeling our best, most authentic selves for as long as we conform. The sheer volume of information becomes so much static noise, or perhaps David Foster Wallace's "this is water" parable is more apt: we float in a sea of abundance, and all we know as necessary for life is all that surrounds us. Both Alan Jacobsand James K.A. Smith observe that it's those things that capture and keep our attention, whether from proximity or habit, that command our love. And what we love commands our lives. Those things that fill our hearts — whether material or spiritual — shape our days and, like a compass or a homing beacon, point toward an assumed, desired, or half-glimpsed "good life" destination. Smith also notes that we "may not love what we think," especially if we're flooded (sure, pun intended) with multiple or competing options.
And so: what do you want? What's your vision of the good life? What do you love and value? Answering this question can become truly transformative if we allow ourselves to begin the journey from the familiar and comfortable to the unknown and possible. Do you want to?
It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to. -J. R. R. Tolkien
What I Say
I recognize that probing at questions of identity, social and personal stories, and things we hold dear can feel a bit threatening, or at least a little unnerving. Sometimes there exist very real costs to questioning social or familial narratives, and I don't take such costs lightly. But I also know that completely conforming to such narratives has its costs as well, and sometimes it's as simple as never knowing fully what you're capable of doing, or what new things are possible, if you just stepped outside a particular box. I guess what I'm trying to say here is that I never grew up from that kid always asking "WHY," and I've never been satisfied with the easy answers.
As an Ennea4, my life pretty much centers around discovering, curating, and cultivating those things that genuinely reflect my values, dreams, and goals. I love living in the liminal spaces between what's known and yet to be, and I hope, if nothing else, this week's thoughts help you discover or reaffirm what your heart longs for, and where you want to go.
What's It All Mean?
Do you remember any moments when you had to make a choice — say, picking a sandwich for lunch — and you felt totally paralyzed by the options in front of you? All the flavors sounded good to you, you had the money to buy it, and you just...couldn't figure it out. It's possible that you simply didn't know which sandwich you wanted at the time. Seems like a silly example, right? Okay. Let's up the stakes a bit.
Let's say you have a choice of two job offers in front of you. They both pay about the same, good benefits, similar titles, no obvious evil corporation vibes. But one requires you to travel four days per week, work twenty hours a day, and commit to an executive leadership career track over the next five years. The other position requires you to travel regionally 1-2 days per week, supports a company culture of defined work hours and community volunteering, and provides a strong mentoring and education program that helps you grow your knowledge and skills to move around within the company. Which one do you choose?
Here's where some understanding of what you want, and what you value, most can help. Say, for example, that community, balance, and meaningful work are high values: you want to stay connected to your relationships, and make sure that, while you earn your money doing something that matters to you, you're also not spending all your time at work. Which job opportunity will help you live those values well? But perhaps achievement, authority, and respect are your highest values. Putting yourself in a position in which you steadily move up in an organization, demonstrating the results of your efforts and gaining more influence over the company's future might be your best choice, in that case.
One choice lets you flourish across multiple spheres of your life; another choice focuses your flourishing within your professional life. (I know: after complaining earlier about web search results focused on work, a scenario about work.)
The next time you have a significant choice in front of you, use that opportunity to evaluate your vision of "the good life" and the values that support that life.
Oddly enough, discovering the philosophy of minimalism provided a great framework for helping me think through my values, and the loves that filled my heart. By questioning what filled my life, I began to question why those things were there at all. It didn't lead to throwing everything but one spoon, a pair of socks, and a dishrag, but it did help me become much more intentional about how I invested my time, money, and attention.
Here's a few folks who helped me with that: