Why I Hope to Die Empty

This is a guest post by Todd Henry, founder of Accidental Creative. His company helps creative people and teams generate brilliant ideas. He is also the author of the book The Accidental Creative: How To Be Brilliant at a Moment’s Notice. If you want to guest post on this blog, check out the guidelines here.

Several years ago I went through a fairly significant examination of life, work, family, art and where it all was headed. I had just ended a pretty intense season in which I found myself spread thin and a little over-extended, and I knew that I couldn’t sustain the pace indefinitely. Still, it was a critical juncture in my life and career. I was looking for some insight on how to stay engaged and keep moving forward.

During that season, I was in a meeting in which a South African friend asked, “Do you know what the most valuable land in the world is?” The rest of us were thinking, “Well, probably the diamond mines of Africa, or maybe the oil fields of the middle east?”

“No,” our friend replied, “it’s the graveyard, because with all of those people are buried unfulfilled dreams, unwritten novels, masterpieces not created, businesses not started, relationships not reconciled. THAT is the most valuable land in the world.”

Then a little phrase popped into my head in such a way that it felt almost like a mandate. The phrase was “die empty.” While it may sound intimidating, it was actually very freeing because I was suddenly aware that it’s not my job to control the path of my career or what impact I may or may not have on the world. My only job—each and every day—is to empty myself, to do my daily work, and to try as much as possible to leave nothing unspoken, uncreated, unwritten.

I made a commitment that if any given day were my last I wanted to die empty, having completely divested myself of whatever insight or work was in me to share on that day. As I began to apply this principle to relationships, art and work, I felt a measure of peace even in the midst of busy times. Once I realized that I only have influence over the work that’s in front of me, I stopped trying to control things that were beyond my grasp.

I still have long-term goals, and I think they’re essential. (I just checked one off my list by publishing my first book!) But long-term goals can become paralyzing if we fail to realize that we accomplish them one day at a time, or more precisely one decision at a time, as we choose to engage in the work in front of us. Novels, businesses, and masterpieces are nothing more than a collection of choices someone made to empty themselves each and every day. The creative process is a daily assault on the beachhead of apathy.

I’ve noticed a pattern with creative and productive people that if we neglect our ideas for too long, a divide can emerge between what we think we should be doing and what we’re actually doing. This creates an angst, or a perpetual state of discontent that prevents us from being able to fully engage with our priorities. We may get bored, frustrated, or assume a victim mindset as we look for excuses for why we’re not doing our best work. It’s much easier to fantasize about what we might do someday rather than to get it out today, be it good, bad or ugly.

To that end, one method for emptying yourself, especially if your day job can’t contain all of your ideas, is to set regular time to create things for the sheer joy of it. I call this “unnecessary creating” because it gives you permission to express ideas that don’t neatly fit into your daily create-on-demand work. If you leave this unrealized work inside it can eventually cause you to resent your day-to-day work, and over time it can eat away at your soul.

What do you need to empty yourself of today? Is there a project that you’ve been waiting to begin that seems too daunting? Take a small step today to get the ball rolling. Is there a conversation that you need to have, but have been waiting for the perfect time? Pick up the phone. Is there an idea that you want to execute but there’s no room for it in your create-on-demand role? When you get home tonight, get moving on it.

Life is very short. The question is, will you die full of unexecuted ideas or will you die empty? It’s your choice.

I gave away 50 copies of The Accidental Creative. To qualify, my readers had to comment below. You can find the list of winners here.
Question: What are you going to do today to make a difference? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • Lorraineziemke

    I will move forward with a plan for “Heritage Day”.  This is a day I will share with my eight grandchildren through pictures, video, story, and  short trips, the Christian heritage that was theirs before they were born.  This will include how God spoke to their ancestors to make a life change, to know of several who were ministers, and to show them churches that were built by a grandfather. I hope to challenge them to recognize the impact of that on their lives.

  • http://twitter.com/_jeff_p Jeff Patterson

    Die Empty. Such a good reminder.

    Today I hope to continue training our son, as during our interactions this morning and later tonight, helping to shape him into the boy and one day the man God designed him to become. Parenting is filled with relentless opportunities and hope.

    There are a handful of leaders in our church I’ve neglected and need to call today. Most will be encouraging calls, though a couple must be in part confrontational. I’ll make those calls.

    I will devote time and energy this afternoon to planning our Fall discipleship intensives, and revisit the list of names we plan to invite to intentional discipleship.

    Though it won’t count for “today,” tomorrow our kids and I will write letters to our three sponsor kids in Africa. We pray for them each day together, but I’ve neglected our writing to them.

  • Anonymous

    I had recently considered this as I was doing a GTD mind dump.  I was trying to get to mind like water and I asked myself how I could transfer this into my regular life and into the projects I work on.  How could I in essence become mind like water in meetings, with my kids and wife, and at church and so forth.  Part of whay I am doing to help with this is to try and be better at engagement.  I have noticed that all to often I try and multi-task with dealing with people.  I realized that I was not giving my best to them and that by simply try to be more thoughtful and engaged with them that I made the situation that much better.  Meetings were not as long.  My dsicussions with family were much more richer than before and I was able to walk away in mind like water feeling good about the conversation.

  • Fpapprentice

    Todd, great post. Very inspiring. Reminds me to not short change the people around me. I need to empty myself to them. Thanks for the challenge.

  • http://twitter.com/FPApprentice Robinson Mertilus

    Inspiring post, Todd!!!

  • Jim

    Great post that has forced me to think introspectively. I’m encouraged to reevaluate and refocus on what really matters…what I end up giving, not what I’ve acquired. Thanks, Mr. Hyatt!

  • Jules

    I have learned that “making a difference” doesn’t have to be a monumental, earth-shattering event. It doesn’t have to change thousands of lives or minds. I’ve learned that making a difference can and most often does happen one small interaction at a time. Today, I am making a difference by being aware and present in each moment…by listening to the others, one story at a time, and by believing one person at a time – I can make a difference. Over the course of the last year, I began writing music (never before had i even thought this possible). In one year’s time, my best friend and I have shared our music in many different venues. Have we played to sold out stadiums of tens of thousands of people – NO….but we have shared our songs and our faith with one or two – ten or one hundred. We have heard back from people – that one line in a song, or one word spoken made a difference. I never would have dreamed that I would have started down this type of path in my life after 40 years. So glad I didn’t wait around for the earth-shattering opportunity to make a difference…cause one person at a time feels pretty good. 

  • Fotsy217

    I am going to…be myself. There is no one else who can do that. Being kind, considerate and working hard in my job at the Y makes a difference daily in the lives of each member I have contact with.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/ericswyatt Eric Wyatt

    Today, I will finish rewriting Chapters Four and Five of the novel that won’t be buried with me, unwritten, in my grave…

  • Susan

    I am going to make cookies for the autistic child that my husband is teaching swim lessons. Afterwards I am going to seriously research and begin taking steps toward homeschooling my children. I want them in the best environment to learn and grow.

  • Heath

    I am working towards dying empty. I’m living a life full of risks and scary bits in an effort to have stories worth telling. There are inevitable lulls, from one of which I’m currently emerging, but I constantly remind myself of the limited nature of this little lifetime – and how much stuff I plan to cram into it. I’m not living a “normal”  life – and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  • Aisha

    Todd, great post! Being a creative person myself I’ve got a TON of ideas stored up inside of me just waiting to get out. Like working on my book, writing new articles for my blog, learning how to recreate that delicious gumbo I ate at Cheeseburger in Paradise the other night… you name it! One of the things I’ve been focusing on this past year is doing exactly what you talk about in your article—dying “empty”. I’m making good progress so far. However, your post really reminds me to keep at it. Thanks again!

  • http://www.ipbrian.com/ IPBrian

    Yes, yes and yes again.  I think you have summed up my feelings as of late. 

  • Heather

    I’m going to call the VA hospital to check on my volunteer application.  I think when I give of my extra time, it makes me feel good about myself and feeling good about yourself gives you the confidence to have pride in yourself and you have to have pride in yourself to try new things.

  • http://alainarkraus.wordpress.com/ Alaina

    How do I plan to make a difference today? By working on a communications & social media plan for our Mainstreet (downtown) group and, hopefully, connect with a friend on how I can help her Habitat for Humanity group raise the project money that they need. They’re more behind the scene things towards making a difference, but they need to be done none the less.

  • Chuck Ragland

    I am having lunch with a friend who just graduated from law school. Now he wants to start a NPO that provides a voice to the under-served in our city. Helping him to make a difference in our city and then maybe other cities after that.

  • Fotsy217

    I will be myself reaching out and serving our members and their families as well as my own staff today at the Y where I work.

  • Gregory Merena

    Yes. Open your heart, die empty.

  • http://www.mosaicmiamichurch.org Kev sutherland

    Great post, reminds me of the theme of Jon Acuff book. We dont spend enough time with random creativity or unnecessary creating, as was said above. Certainly going to be placed on my new found goal list! 

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  • chol caldito

    Die empty but fill the world. :) make your life count. Thanks Todd! I needed this inspiration today. :) God bless you!

  • me

    It is what it is no free luches. I find this view exhausting to even think about. Who cares about emptying yourself. Just go with the flow.