The Declaration of Independence declares, among other declarative things, that we all have a right to “the pursuit of happiness.” For some of us, chasing after our bliss is harder than it is for others, but we all enter the race. Some of us rush headlong toward happiness; others hang back, helping those who aren’t as fast. And some of us trip and fall right out of the starting gate, sprain our ankles, and have to craw the rest of the way.
Being the first to cross the finish line doesn’t matter in this race. It’s a long run, so what matters is finding out what kind of runner you are so you can enjoy the trip. Are you a speed racer who won’t be happy unless you’re whipping past the competition? Or are you a helper, who finds their victory in making sure everyone has a fair chance? Or are you like me, standing in the middle of the track, watching the runners flow around you while you figure out how to immortalize the moment in a painting or story?
Chances are, you won’t win that way. But it’s the way you’re made, and you can’t do a thing about it. No matter how hard you try to be a rabbit, you’re a dreamy, slowpoke turtle.
But if you stop trying to win the race on the rabbit’s terms, chances are you’ll be a happy turtle. And happiness is, after all, what we’re chasing.
For creative people, finding deep happiness means finding an outlet for the creative impulse that pokes at our subconscious all day long and keeps us up at night. I ignored that urge for years, doing my best to bolt for everyone else’s concept of the finish line. Sure, I drew a little, painted a little, wrote a little, but mostly my dabblings didn’t seem practical, so I set my foot against the starting block and shoved off for a career in management. I was successful enough, and I earned all the rewards I thought I wanted, but I couldn’t help feeling like I was missing something. I interpreted that dissatisfaction as ambition, and pursued promotion and success with more fervor. I didn’t realize I was getting further and further away from what I was supposed to do.
But I had to make a living. We all do. And making a living from your creative passion isn’t easy to do. I know so many people – artists, musicians, writers – who are trapped in everyday life when all they want to do is spend time in that magical place between reality and imagination where they can lose themselves in the lilt of a song or the sweep of a paintbrush or the magic of a fictional world.
When you’re working for a living, taking time to nurture your creativity sometimes feels like self-indulgence. After all, your family needs you. Your work isn’t finished. And you’ve got to get up in the morning and go to your day job. You don’t have time to play around with paint or strum your guitar or write stories.
And it’s not like those things are your only source of happiness, right? There are magical moments in every life: pushing a child on a swing, wading through a field of wildflowers, laughing with someone you love, or even just curling up on the sofa with a good book. Scattering these moments of simple happiness through your life will keep the crazies at bay. But unless you find that deep, core happiness that satisfies your heart and soul, you’ll feel an elusive sense of dissatisfaction that keeps your joy from being quite complete.
Listen to your heart and do what you were meant to do. Talent is a gift, and squandering it has consequences. If you can create things that make others happy – a song that makes them tap their feet, a book that makes them laugh, a painting that lights up a room – it’s something you have to do. If your gift is great enough to help people see what matters in the world, it’s your duty to do it.
So whether you’re just starting the race or standing three feet from the finish line, take some time to express yourself. Write. Quilt Plant gardens. Paint. Your family needs you, but they need you happy. And your day-to-day work, whatever it is, will be better and infinitely more satisfying if you use it to earn time to enjoy the race in the way that’s best for you.
(This post was originally written for the Sourcebooks Casablanca blog July 8th, 2010)