08 February 2015

"Tell Me A Story" - On Happiness and Fulfillment in a Plugged-In Culture

I've been reading on the 'how' of being an accessible artist, about being seen, doing the 'right' kind of work, knowing where to talk, and to whom, how the tech tools on hand can be used to drive all of that in the face of the goals we have, et cetera. The key words here are exhilaration, immediacy, accumulation, 'making it'.

I'm an artist, I have high - if not unconventional - goals, and I have to say, I don't warm to the race of jumping through hoops going on. I know, for me, it won't bring home HOW I want to live my life.

I was reading a discussion from TED Global in October 2014 between molecular geneticist turned Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard and journalist/writer Pico Iyer, exploring how meaning comes out of taking a step away from society, from unplugging.

My creativity as an artist has a characteristic intimacy with my personal life, so I come out of the gate already primed with the urge to minimize any "screen-crowding" in my professional work.
Yes, I'm in the younger crowd of the industry, which means I poke and prod at promotional methods as they are being praised and torn down, but my willingness to participate with various social media and software vogue stems from my quest to learn what's right for me, not what's the best way to mimic the trend of "making it".
Things have seemed to get heavier with pressure to be in the online crowd, to do as they do, in order to be able to do, at all. But something's not right with this mantra.

When I read Pico Iyer's articulate thoughts on this very issue, this quest to learn gained further clarity for me:

"It’s only by keeping a distance from the world that I can begin to see its proportions and begin to try to sift the essential from the fleeting. I feel that so many of us now have the sensation of standing about two inches away from this very crowded, noisy, constantly shifting big screen, and that screen is our lives. It’s only by stepping back that we can see what the screen is communicating."

Iyer points to a thing I have personally felt lacking in the pursuit of living life happily.
He calls it "the virtue of sitting where you are"...

Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard quotes the Dalai Llama to have said, "the problem in the West is people want enlightenment to be fast, to be easy, and if possible, cheap"...

(Let's keep geography out of it. I think the point is bigger than that)

...Cheap here refers to casual, to not a lot 'put in', not a lot of effort or expenditure of energy involved...Short cuts...

I think what we create in response to this cultural conundrum, and how we create, is spinning perpetually round the same problem; we create so to make the creation fast, easy, and therefore, cheap. Cheap monetarily, at times, but certainly in the value of expended energy as well.

I read Austin Kleon's book "Show Your Work" recently, which was a delight of carefully arranged tidbits for creatives, and he clarifies the amateur as "the enthusiast who pursues her work in the spirit of love", referencing the literal French translation of  'amateur' as 'lover'.

Now, it makes me happy, deep-down happy, to know myself as a lover of my pursued passions. I can honestly get behind that.

I can't get behind the race of hoop vaulting, as an artist, or anything else. I can't get behind making my milestones in art about mileage on the internet, or on social media, marking with competitive fever the relative frequency and genius of my posts. I can't get behind feeling I'm a valid artist only if I do what everyone else in the scene of art are doing. It's standing those two inches away from the Big Screen and it's killing my original drive.

There is a dangerous, false correlation between this casual desire - the cheapness - and lasting happiness.

Consider our work, our purpose. We're taught to chase achievements to the grave, starting with impressive resumes and then progressing through the hunt of status advancement, ever craving more consumption, as a means to satisfy fulfillment. How fast can you get that promotion, finish this job, impress that client, beat that record, play the system, show to the world? Can you compare to your colleagues and mentors while doing so? Now do it all on a universal screen, for everyone to compare and contrast to.

When I was at Illuxcon IV, at the time still in Altoona, PA, I was having a discussion with a fellow artist and our cab driver. The driver felt, not unlike so many others I've talked with, that we artists have a "given talent", a "gift", an ability that could not be recreated or attempted by anyone without the same bestowed blessing. As if by magic. Unexplainable prestige!

Besides this perspective being incredibly insulting to the already misunderstood, ceaseless hard work artists commit to, what does it say about appreciating true, earned happiness?

Let me put it this way; what do we know about love and relationships? A tried and true simplification might be:
                                       quality equals work over time plus love

Achieving this quality creates happiness as a direct result of fulfillment, because the deepest self is being given purpose and longevity. And that process is uncomfortable, inherently.

Like that cab driver, many people want their 'enlightenment' to be casual, to be fast and easy. Comfortable! Try each new trendy, shiny gadget, relationship, job, or promise that looks like another easy gift. Seek short cuts. Accumulate 'plugged in' experience. That screen opens in on it's own world, and it will feed you reasons to stay in it, if you let it. Maybe there is the thrill of the chase, the high of workaholic lust, but it's superficial happiness.

If we're looking for gifts, for fast, for casual, then we're bypassing what is fulfilling, and therefore how we live to create that fulfillment. We're weeding out a deeper way of life, in favor of the accelerating trends.

Perhaps this will come off as audacious, in a naive way, or archaic, and maybe my fellow artists won't agree, but I'm not ok with measuring my skill, commitment, or success by what is so fleeting. I'm not interested in standing up close to the frenzy, loosing my vision for all the things I could fixate on. I want to unplug.

I'd rather be a lover of what I do, and HOW I do it, in order to participate with the world. There needs to be a balance to achieve this in our new tech age. Iyer says:

"The machines aren't going to teach us how to keep our sense of balance. That part is up to us...The one thing technology can't teach us is how to make the best use of technology, how to keep our sanity in the face of technology. For that, we can't go online."

Read TED Global's 2014 discussion HERE

Buy Pico Iyer's "The Art of Stillness: Adventures In Going Nowhere" HERE

Buy Austin Kleon's "Show Your Work!" HERE

In the meantime, until next time, I'm unplugged.
Happy creating.



  1. I've gotten some feedback on this post from a contact elsewhere, Anton Sigfusson, and he brought up a personal distinction for the "ideal state" being "perpetual freedom", as defined by (to paraphrase) living without fear of inevitable judgements and the dependency on recognition.

    He's talking about an important point that I didn't address too closely for want of space - The concept of one's "ideal state", something in my post I quote as "enlightenment".

    But everyone is right to identify this their own way, as I think all creatives, certainly all humans, should be clear on what that means, for themselves. It's how we can be more in touch with our unique inner voice, professionally, or personally.

    Talking about creative professionals here, I think we could set the example for NOT running our lives by the net. We've always been the mavericks in culture, no? The ones thinking outside what's in style? This age of tech vogue should be no different. (And I say that understanding how current tools are important to use for interaction with said culture).

    Maybe the anonymity in being on social media hinders that perpetual freedom because we shouldn't separate inner identity from the sharing of our work with others. We all self-curate online, to a degree, but if we want our creative voice to connect with those others who can value it, then we can't mask that voice as something it is not. We have to use it, stand by it, and stand by ourselves. And I think, to truly know it, to practice it in our work, we can't be online as much as we are. We need to be in the real world for such discipline.

  2. in stepping away, maybe we could look at happiness as relative to ones understanding. The level of happiness or sense of fulfillment gained by walking in the woods, using a pencil, or "unplugging" may be equally felt by one looking for likes or shares online, buying a new phone, or joining yet another social media outlet. Neither form of attaining happiness is "wrong". I agree that unplugging, slowing down, being observant to my place in space- or my space in place- is key to my happiness. but others may not find this to be true, and stepping back to take in this dual understanding is a great feeling! Both you and I, as ones who make- having the ability to observe these galaxies is as you said, hard earned.

    I also enjoy your awareness and description of "the screen". A curious thing this screen...I can't help but see the humor that we are having this conversation through one.

    The screen, as I see it, is a tool. like a pocket knife -it has many functions considered essential. I keep in in my pocket, it has a function for providing me with information, one for entertainment, and another for communication. I do agree that it can be a slippery slope- and it can easily become ones "everything" if you let it. As an artist who would like to live off their art, its harder and harder to remove ourself from the screen. when so much of "success" is measured by our web presence...but thats not why we make is it? Id guess that you, like me- make for infinitely more developed reasons.

    I make from a place of "feltness". something at my core compels me to mine its resources and find the connecting threads that adhere me to the world at large. I then show this visually, sharing it , having conversations because of it - and yeah, sharing it online is a pleasure- as I would guess it is for you. but is it essential to the "why I make" ? nope.

    this is a great discussion you have started, and there are many other points to talk about, but lets start with this!

    Keep these thoughts coming, I find them inspiring!


    1. Indeed, it's rife with humor that we have this conversation through that very screen, but as you continue to express, and as I have expressed, treating it as but a tool allows it to be less of a problem. Because we're removed from a dependency on it, that way. We're slowed down and centered. That's the goal...

      Learning how to use the tools at hand, including these new and flashy gadgets connecting to the virtual world, is a way to implement ourselves and our work more fully, while distancing ourselves from the trapping idea that to be successful requires it.
      Perhaps it has been true, for some, that success would not have happened without a prominent, consistent web life, but I'm learning that it can be restricting to get stuck in the thought process that in order to be a success, we must not pull back from the web life. THAT is where the damage lies, to creativity, to the inner self, and to innovative human advancement in culture, (which are what being an artist thrives on).

      In my own understanding, and finding it in the voices of others, we can change a thought, we can improve upon it, we can better direct it, with volition - The thought that seems to spread through the younger generations of artists today, including myself, is that to have a chance at success, we must diligently maintain a 'sovereignty' to this web life. We must stand those two inches from the big screen, as Iyer mentions, distracted by the chaos of overwhelming pixels, if you will.

      I think this thought is wrong. And I think it can be nudged into a cleaner awareness of the TOOL that is the web world, with practice.
      For me, that practice begins with consciously limiting my use of time and energy online, as well as my interest in what perpetuates there. Without fail - personally - the inspirational stimulus from the sensory overload IN the real world far surpasses the stimulus found online.

      It's just challenging to keep the distance when everyone continues to cry, "Look at the screen! Look at the screen!"...Haha...But being online is the fashion of the age, now. When something is in vogue, culture points to it at once, like a mass infatuation. So content like Pico Iyer's work and Matthieu Ricard's work on TEDGlobal, and content like this post, speaks up, talking about it.

      You're absolutely right, though. Sharing is the point of the tool of being online, and connecting, communicating, developing new conversation, new ideas, are all the results of that sharing, ideally. And it is enjoyable, when it works.

      Thank you for joining the discussion! This is great!