In the last post <link>, I shared the first part of an ongoing conversation I’ve been having with an e-pistolary friend about finding one’s Onlyness. Geoff, like so many of us, was having trouble identifying what his ‘weird’ is, that thing(s) that only he can contribute to the world. In this installment, things get pretty philosophical. Me? I think he’s trying to avoid feeling uncomfortable.
What is Onlyness if not your own ideas finding a way to be seen? Your own ideas, essence. Whatever the language you might use – purpose, passions, compulsions, the idea is the same. Squint at this for a second,” I wrote. “Keep stewing and then let me know where you are given the original question…”
“Is essence a real thing?” he wrote back.
Geoff had mentioned that he was trying to do what all aware parents do – teach his kids to follow their passions, be purposeful, go after what they want. One of his kids asked him, he wrote to me, “what’s yours?”. And he wrote that “he was having trouble doing it and that was starting to eat away at him”. [He also referred to himself as a curmudgeon on more than one occasion. 😉 ]
“I think most people are just happy existing,” he wrote. “They come home from some mundane job and watch ‘Honey Boo Boo’ or ‘Game of Thrones’ or ‘The Game’ and are content. They don’t really find meaning in anything they do.
“Other people say they find meaning in what they do; but is it meaning, or just a rationalization, or worse, a way of making themselves feel better about themselves? (ie. giving to charity, not because it is the right thing to do, but because of a selfish need to make themselves feel better about all they have.)
“Is it possible to find meaning in something that doesn’t translate back to some selfish motive? Maybe that is OK?”
This part of the exchange really struck me. When you’re beyond what I’ll label “your early years”, people seem to be stuck, even lost when identifying onlyness. Telling our kids to ‘follow their passion’ seems right when it’s still all blank slate. But something else gets in the way later in life.
I didn’t write this to Geoff… but the issue he’s speaking of is that people become distracted by the “givens” – all the messages we have been given by society about who we are, the lives we lead, the obligations we have, the way we must behave.
Any one of the known narratives — the given identities – for example, husband, wife, provider, caregiver, CEO, mechanic, nationality, race, religion, whatever – comes with a to-do list and a not-to-do list. And, a cost.
Think about most of our parents. It was a given that when they grew up, they’d get married. In A Heterosexual Relationship. Have Kids. And typically in a particular order like…
- Get Married.
- Buy a home.
- Get a car. The best one you could afford.
- Produce heirs.
It’s almost like they had to leave their onlyness behind, and step into another body. I think of that as someone zipping themselves into some “grown-up” suit and kiss their “selves” goodbye. Men based on this old narrative would get jobs and provide food, structure, and discipline. Women confirming to this narrative would become mothers and cook the food, tend the home, and kiss the boo-boos large and small. (Forgive the over simplification, for the purpose of this story. My mind wanders to the Dads of friends who later came out after 20 years of heterosexual marriage and so on…) Deviate from this plan and prepare yourself for a lifetime of funny looks from friends and family. That generation had this weird list of commitments they accepted as “true” for them, if they wanted to fit in, be responsible, or “taken seriously.”
In other words, those choices weren’t really choices for the generation before us. And the trappings of their “givens” got heavier over time. And as much as we think our parents had it bad, some of us “zip into” certain suits of what we think we “should do”.
Of course, Geoff found it easier to talk about his kids. Talking to an actual child about their future is to try and create unlimited possibility. But when he talked about himself, he was effectively saying, “hey, I have responsibilities.” Which sounds so noble. And good. And adult. And responsible.
Don’t we all? I asked him (and you and me) to think about living inside a set of constraints that are not his own and limit him. “Which parts are movable and which ones are not? Where is it real, and where is it caricature?”
And, where does money come into this?
As it turns out, there was something a little weird about Geoff that had been gently pried from him as a child. “When I was a kid I told my parents that I wanted to be an artist,” he posted on his blog, Coalescing into Art. “They were a bit frightened since they were sure I’d never be able to make a living as an artist. Even if I was very good, I’d never be able to support a family. Eventually they convinced me to go to engineering school since I have an aptitude for math and science. I finished a degree in Electrical Engineering, got a good job, married, a house and 2 wonderful kids.”
It’s a mature attitude, one that reflects a person deeply in touch with his own good fortune.
Yet, Geoff went on to explain that for all he has, the art thing never really went away for him. He was always that guy who drew – cool stuff for his kids when they were young, portraits of friends, whatever struck his fancy. And his day job still goes well for him. And so, last September (2013), Geoff gave his artistic side a little kick in the right direction. “I got tired of my twitter stream,” he wrote in his blog. “It was filled with engineers posting technical articles of pleas to visit and support their new website. I kicked them all off and added artists and animators from Disney, Pixar, Sony Animation and Nickelodeon. My twitter feed filled up with art.”
Now that he was hanging with the creative crowd (as we wrote about in the last series), synchronicity took over.
[It’s the same thing my pal Austin Kleon recommends by the way https://medium.com/@
He stumbled upon #Inktober, an online challenge to artists of any level to do a pen and ink drawing every day for the month of October. Gotta post it, or it doesn’t count. He went for it. “At the beginning of the month my drawings were pretty awful,” he posted. “But by the end of the month they were looking pretty decent.”
I personally love Geoff’s art. Just last week, I visited the newly reopened Picasso museum in Paris. And, my favorite pieces were the studies, the places where you could see the hesitation, the early try, the working-thru-the-kinks so the work could become better. You could see someone learning to become what they would become. Like all of us do.
So (and I say this with great love and honor towards him) Geoff is making a classic mistake so many people make. He was tying his search for onlyness to his ability to ALSO earn money with it, immediately. It’s like knowing how a book will end and how you will feel at the end of it, without ever opening the jacket and turning the pages. Which, it seems to me, requires you to know just about everything about how the story turns out, even before you start.
Is that ever possible? No.
And so if you make naming your onlyness TIED to your ability to make money (right away), it means you stay where you are. All this reminds me of another exchange with a friend, who started a Masters program at a later age. For some reason, she keeps assuming she’s not as qualified or “as something” as others there. She wrote this week saying, “I was starting to panic during the first day of class on the rather intimidating final project due for class at the end.” She’s not sure if she’s ready for what comes. And yet that discounts the process of learning that happens in the course.
We all want to know that the story ends well, before we start it.
The truth is always this: you learn what you need to learn to be good at something by doing it.
Onlyness for some is incredibly focused, meaning a musician might have that calling at such a high level that is both vocation AND avocation. But it doesn’t have to be. And, this is the important part, especially at the beginning, it’s not clear what happens next. When Geoff shared his drawings, it was clear there was a nugget of himself he’d been denying for a long-time. And, then, as he gave himself permission to own his interests, he discovered new people, new opportunities. Onlyness can be the unfinished part of life. And, yet, it’s the beautiful part. And in these stories lie the key to how people discover their onlyness, not because it shows up in its complete picture on Day 1, but because you listen to it when it shows up. You pull on the thread of interest, you meet new people, you ask new questions, you take off old “suits” and the path to money becomes more clear, later. We’ve already covered how onlyness is not a lonely exercise, by a way in which you deeply connect to that which you want and then let those around you help you get there. In that way, onlyness is not lonely, it is not isolationist. It is deeply connected. Onlyness is the way in which you say, I count, and this counts. And that’s enough. In fact, it’s everything.
Join this conversation and share your take.
What “suits” do you recognize in life? Kathleen Warner recently wrote about her experience in “being the good one” and the binding suit that was for her life. What are others you see?