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Does what goes on inside show on the outside?,” young Vincent van Gogh despaired in a moving letter to his brotherwhile floundering to find his purpose.
“Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney.” A century later, Joseph Campbell stoked that hearth of the soul with his foundational treatise on finding your bliss.
Should is how other people want us to live our lives. It’s all of the expectations that others layer upon us.
Sometimes, Shoulds are small, seemingly innocuous, and easily accommodated. “You should listen to that song,” for example. At other times, Shoulds are highly influential systems of thought that pressure and, at their most destructive, coerce us to live our lives differently.
Echoing Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous admonition – “When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else … you surrender your own integrity.”
When we choose Should, we’re choosing to live our life for someone or something other than ourselves. The journey to Should can be smooth, the rewards can seem clear, and the options are often plentiful.
Must is different. Must is who we are, what we believe, and what we do when we are alone with our truest, most authentic self. It’s that which calls to us most deeply. It’s our convictions, our passions, our deepest held urges and desires – unavoidable, undeniable, and inexplicable. Unlike Should, Must doesn’t accept compromises.
Must is when we stop conforming to other people’s ideals and start connecting to our own – and this allows us to cultivate our full potential as individuals.
To choose Must is to say yes to hard work and constant effort, to say yes to a journey without a road map or guarantees, and in so doing, to say yes to what Joseph Campbell called “the experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonance within our innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive“.
Cut short of the floundering and you’ve cut short the possible creative outcomes. Cheat on the chaotic stumbling-about, and you’ve robbed yourself of the raw stuff that feeds the imagination.
For many of us, staying loose is an uncomfortable, unsettling feeling if sustained for too long. Ambiguity is confusing, even alarming. We like to frame our inquiries in sharply delineated terms and prefer clean, tidy resolutions to yes or no dictions. Fuzzy circumstances, the ragtag and bobtail of daily uncertainty, exhaust us. It’s much nicer, we think, to have our options cast as either black or white, entirely excluding the hazy middle zones of gray.
Creative people, by contrast, seem to have a great tolerance for the ambiguous circumstances that begin most projects and are more accepting, even welcoming, of this unstructured time. They aren’t lusting after quick outcomes or definitive bottom lines. They are more willing to entertain a prolonged period of leisurely drifting about, curious to see where the unpredictable currents will take them. From this lightness of spirit come the fruits of imagination; there will be plenty of time for the sweat of exertion later on.
The point, in essence, is that the “temperament of receptivity” Oscar Wilde believed was required to appreciate art is also required to create it — a permeable membrane between mind and world is what allows the creative force to flow through, to transmute one into the other and back again, until the final work of genius is birthed. Much of creative genius, however, lies in the editing process that chooses what flows in and what flows out — that to invent is to choose.
The editing process — creating form from chaos — is at the heart of his art.
“Staying loose” is essentially a matter of open-mindedness, or what modern psychologists like to call “divergent thinking.”
Staying loose, allowing yourself the freedom to ramble, opening yourself up to outside influences, keeping a flexible mind willing to entertain all sorts of notions and avenues — this is the attitude that is most appropriate for the start of any project where the aim is to generate something new.