Sunday, January 1, 2012

New Year's Revolutions

The delineation of the “new” year is completely arbitrary, based on calculations made by Vatican mathematicians half a millennium ago, adapting even older Roman numbers. Yet, based on the human desire to find patterns, it actually makes a good time to consciously evaluate the past, and plan for the future. Based on my recent personal inventories, let me invite you to join me in the following three self-improvement efforts:

1. I will build a specific place for creative work.

I have gone to museums in the past where I have stood amazed at recreations of spaces where our greatest minds have done their best work. Scientists like Charles Darwin, artists like Pablo Picasso, and writers like Virginia Woolf have always had dedicated spaces in which to create. Some, like Jackson Pollock, have had an entire dedicated building for their own. Others, like Jane Austen, had only a desk in a corner of the room.

No matter what kind of space they had, they shared a sense of dedication: this was the space they entered to create, and they only entered this space to create. Even Emily Dickinson, as she came to occupy only one room in her house, reserved a specific corner of that room for writing. Reserving that space as a “studio” creates a psychological bond, permitting the thinker to enter that space and immediately enter a creative state of mind.

By no means do all creative people have a dedicated space. René Descartes and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe reputedly did their best work sitting up in bed. But for people like me, subject to life’s distractions, a dedicated territory in space lets me stake out a dedicated territory in time, and a dedicated territory in my soul, for specific creative work. Like great minds of the past, a specific space will help me do more and better work.

2. I will not let fear of failure limit my horizons.

As an undergraduate, I spent an extra year in school studying art, not because I thought I’d ever be very good at it, but just for self-improvement purposes. That time spent exercising my senses and correlating what I see with what I create had a discernible effect on my writing. I really improved as a writer—and my stabs at painting, like Ball Lightning in Space (pictured here) aren’t half bad as art, either.

But I have scarcely touched my pencils or my paints since. I don’t know when I learned that failure was a worse consequence than not even trying; maybe in school, or maybe from parents who taught me to plan for failure more than success. Who can say? I still have all my art supplies, many still unopened and ready for me to apply myself. but my fear of failure has paralyzed me.

And not just as an artist, either.

Children, left to themselves, will take profound risks, challenge themselves, and learn. About the age when they enter school, they learn that risks are bad, because adults reprimand them for failure—and so, eventually, do their peers. But if fear of failure is a learned reaction, I believe it can be unlearned through effort and exposure. And only when I take that stab will I cross into the heights of accomplishment.

3. I will seek out a wider range of new experiences.

I produced my series on modern mythology after reading books applying Joseph Campbell’s principles to popular media franchises. That opportunity to see something new and different challenged me to see in new and more inventive ways. Likewise, accepting a factory job while continuing to teach part time at the university has encouraged dynamic new insights into what education should accomplish.

Now that it looks like my teaching career has temporarily ended, I have time to seek new experiences. I’ve recently confronted my fear of math, and begun self-guided study in spatial geometry. I would also like to learn new skills: for instance, as I approach forty, I will soon qualify for Masters athletic competitions. Now would be a good time to start training for the triathlon. That’s just for starters.

Diversity has the obvious advantage of making me a better artist. I can write better about humanity if I’ve lived a wider cross-section of experiences. But more important, as I venture forward into a complex and increasingly fractious world, learning a few new experiences will equip me to learn even more new experiences. I will simply be better prepared for our strange, innovative world.

1 comment:

  1. Impressive post. I'd second those notions. Career diversity has definitely made a difference in how I see and do things.
    And it was @about your current age that I went completely off my rails, widening my perspective a million percent. Triathlon is definitely out of the question. That isn't even a fear of failure, that's certainty given that I almost succumbed to ARDS last year.
    Thanks for writing this. I'll be back.