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.