If you stick around long enough writing books and essays and giving talks, people come to you for advice. Very often, the requests I get turn on choices between alternate futures. Graduating students, youngish artists and activists, members of an older generation considering “encore” careers or avocations—sometimes, people seek me out for advice on what they should do. The presenting question tends to focus on impact: what’s most needed now? What will be most effective in terms of effort and impact?
No matter what the field—regardless of whether the seeker is an artist, activist, or falls into another category altogether—I always offer the same response. “Do what gives you pleasure,” I say. “When do you feel most aligned? When do you feel that your gifts are being used most fully? Imagine yourself as a musical instrument: when do you know you are playing the music you were created to make?”
If I had captured them with a camera, I could make a really cool little art piece out of the microexpressions this elicits: delight, puzzlement, renewed delight, skepticism, thrill, anxiety, a perpetually renewing cascade of conflicting feelings. Here’s how I read them: Really? I can be happy? Wait! That sounds selfish! But it would feel so great…just imagine! But why should my feelings matter: don’t I have to listen to those who know best? Can I really have this? I hope so! And so on.
It’s a mini-treatise on our common culture, isn’t it? We’re forever being exhorted to seek happiness through consumption, each proffered purchase promising the beginning of bliss. And we’re forever being told to condition our life-choices on some calculation in which presumed necessity, conventionally accepted odds of success, and expert predictions figure much more prominently than the pleasure of living fully into our natures and capacities.
I recognize that not everyone is granted the opportunity to pursue a vocation that feels more like delight than drudgery. (Believe me, hacking a path through several decades as a self-employed artist and public intellectual has had its longueurs, and still I don’t mistake it for mining coal, sewing piecework, or standing at a cash-register). But even a hard livelihood has moments of grace (if you didn’t read about Trash Dance back in the spring, for instance, check it out now). And it isn’t just a question of livelihood, but also of avocation, passion, and pastime.
Why is my advice to seekers unfailingly the same? For four reasons:
(1) Despite a plethora of expert opinions, computer projections, and authoritative pronouncements, no one really knows a best way to bring about positive social change. In part, that’s because we human beings are so different in character and habit: what reaches me may turn you off and vice versa. As my old friend Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank used to say (riffing from a passage in Isaiah), “Holy, holy, holy is the Mother of Multiplicity.”
(2) Expert opinion gushes and morphs constantly, but pause the flow anywhere for a moment: if you correlate past predictions with actual outcomes, experts tend to fall flat. I greatly admire Philip Tetlock’s work on this, which has shown an inverse correlation between expertise and correct predictions: the more honors, titles, and endowed chairs you have, the more likely you are to ignore your own biases and misread the signs. So why be guided by an expert’s fondness for his or her own opinions? Your guess may be just as good.
(3) The only law I have seen to be observed more often than violated is the law of unintended consequences. So many of the things that afflict us today are rooted in good intentions: our constipated bureaucracies result from the accumulation of checks and balances; our mushrooming prison-industrial complex was justified in the name of public safety; our soul-crushing “teach to the tests” educational system was conditioned on a sincere (if wildly misconceived) desire to improve education; and so on. Think twice about taking actions because they promise fantastic results; the fantasy may play out more as a horror-story than a fairytale. We can never know the longterm consequences of our actions, but we can judge whether they feel deeply aligned, deeply satisfying, as we take them and be guided by that.
(4) You, as one human being in this glorious garden of multiplicity, will have the most energy, capability, and skill if you are aligned with your essence and pleasure. You will have more staying-power instead of getting discouraged when dramatic results fail to show up instantly. What you do will be infused with love, beauty, and meaning, rather than the grudging sense of duty that makes some activism grim and counterproductive. In experiencing the pleasure of being alive and using your gifts fully, you will afford others a glimpse of that possibility, inspiring them to do the same, adding to your positive impact.
I like this Janiva Magness version of “Things Left Undone.”
When your life is over, and you’re reaching in the end,
River of Jordan is around the bend,
Will you be counting all the trophies that you won?
Or will you look back on the things left undone?