Sometimes we start down a path that feels, after a while, like a wrong turn. We think of turning back and taking a different path at the fork, but it’s a long way back, and we’ve made good time on the path we’re on. So we keep pushing forward. We still think we’re on the wrong path, but the fork in the road is even farther back and we’ve learned to get along on the path we’re on. Sometimes we make a mess of the path we’re on, or it becomes impenetrable. And yet we hesitate to start again. So we keep messing up or butting our heads against immovable objects. Because starting over sometimes feels like defeat rather than victory. But is it?
More from F. Scott Fitzgerald:
For what it’s worth…it’s never too late, or in my case too early, to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit. Start whenever you want. You can change or stay the same. There are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you’ve never felt before. I hope you meet people who have a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of, and if you’re not, I hope you have the courage to start over again.
Isn’t that a lovely benediction?
Making the best of our lives, seeing things that startle us, feeling things we’ve never felt, meeting people with a different point of view, and having the courage to start again if we find ourselves on the wrong path. Yes, please. That.
We all want to succeed, but what is the metric for measuring whether we’ve been successful? There are so many. Money, status, power, bucket lists, fame, travel… but what of the little things? Are you successful if you have enough money to buy a small country but no one to love or trust? Is it success if you are famous but lonely? If you have power but wield it to cause pain and misfortune to others, how can that be considered success? If you’ve traveled the world but not been truly present anywhere, does that count?
Perhaps true success at this thing called life is as simple as Emerson’s thoughts above. To leave the world a bit better, to ease the burdens of others, to look for and bring out the best in others, to do no harm. These all matter, maybe not in measurable concrete ways, but in ways we can all feel and appreciate if not count. More important, these are all things we each can do. We have the ability to be successful beyond our wildest imaginings.
And don’t forget to laugh often and much. Finding the joy and not letting it slip right past you undetected is important, too.
Is it in a purely monetary way or is it more nuanced and complex?
A creative life expands the heart and sharpens the senses. It opens the creator to insight and wisdom. It constantly pushes the creator to new levels. It is a fountain of youth and immortality all in one.
It is so easy to get discouraged when living a creative life. Your words are criticized; your paintings don’t sell. “They” don’t believe you have any promise. Sometimes the struggle to be commercially successful in a creative field can be so daunting that you abandon the art. But then you remember that art isn’t about “them” or “success” or “critical acclaim” at all. It’s about bringing your truths into the light, being creative, pushing yourself, being you.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the case of Henri Rousseau, a forty year old toll collector who wanted to paint. His work was derided, and yet he continued. He found joy in the painting. Not until the end of his life did anyone take his work seriously. As summarized by Maria Popova:
Long before history came to celebrate him as one of the greatest artists of his era, long before he was honored by major retrospectives by such iconic institutions as the MoMA and the Tate Museum, long before Sylvia Plath began weaving homages to him into her poetry, he spent a lifetime being not merely dismissed but ridiculed. And yet Rousseau — who was born into poverty, began working alongside his plumber father as a young boy, still worked as a toll collector by the age of forty, and was entirely self-taught in painting — withstood the unending barrage of harsh criticism with which his art was met during his entire life, and continued to paint from a deep place of creative conviction, with an irrepressible impulse to make art anyway…. [Rousseau’s life is] an emboldening real-life story, and a stunningly illustrated one, of remarkable resilience and optimism in the face of public criticism, of cultivating a center so solid and a creative vision so unflinching that no outside attack can demolish it and obstruct its transmutation into greatness.
The message from Rousseau’s life speaks to all of us: he was a success all along. He persevered with a remarkable resilience to produce work that spoke to him and pursued a passion that made him happy. That, the pursuit of great art, rather than the financial success was what gave his journey depth and meaning and lifted up his soul.
We all will fail at something. Lots of somethings. But it is in the resilience, in the getting up, that we succeed. Perhaps life would be easier if we went into each day expecting some set-backs, believing that not everything will always go according to our best case scenario. Then we could look at each day ready to appreciate the good and deal with the bad. Not in an Eeyore pessimistic way, but in a way that we will accept the day with its ups and its downs. Then when we encounter some of each, we won’t be surprised. In any event, don’t forget to bounce.
We can paralyze ourselves from finishing something if we aren’t careful. Even if it is something we really want to accomplish, our minds have a way of wandering into the parade of horribles that might go wrong. Or maybe we get stymied when we hit a closed door or an unexpected problem.
But our minds are also remarkably fluid and creative. If we keep our eyes on the goal and let go of our hyper focus on the things in our way, our minds have a remarkable way of showing us a new angle or insight that helps us approach the activity in a new way. We control our minds, not the other way around. So next time you keep going over and over all the obstacles, close your eyes and picture yourself surmounting them.