You know how sometimes there’s a bunch of things going on in your life that don’t seem to be connected in any meaningful way — until in a startling moment of clear seeing, you realize that they really are, and quite profoundly so? Well, here’s a little story about that . . .
In the months leading up to the 2018 mid-term elections, I found myself feeling really disgusted and dismayed about the ways that the time-killing shrillness of modern sociopolitical discourse via social media had just gutted my personal productivity, mood and motivation over the prior couple of years. Yes, the political matters at stake were (and remain) truly, deeply important, and I knew (and know) that I needed to stay alert, informed, woke, and engaged, but the unrelenting barrage of noise that surrounded and muffled the signal of interest to me eventually got to be really soul-crushing. The harder and more often I tried to be happier, smarter, quicker and calmer about things by turning to my smart phone or my computer, the angrier, stupider, slower, and more anxious about things I ended up feeling.
After the mid-term elections, when I was working on my annual year in review for my website, two things leapt out at me. First, the number of books that I had read during the prior year was ridiculously, embarrassingly small. Second, I did a little calculation based on the number of tweets I’d posted on Twitter (my main social media outlet; I’d thankfully bailed on Facebook in 2012), and I figured that I had poured four or five novels worth of words into the ether along the way — and had absolutely nothing of value to show for any of them. For a writer, that was a real wake-up call.
I set myself three goals for 2019 in response to that sense of disgust that I was feeling. Two were pretty straightforward: read more books and less social media, and read better political coverage and less often. It took a little active effort to break some of the muscle memory habits that drove me to my phone and computer throughout the day, but bailing on Twitter and a couple of other social media communities certainly helped to hone my focus in more positive, productive ways. It was actually kind of amazing how much open time I found myself with, truth be told, not to mention how many books I devoured over the course of the year. (Here were my favorites, if you need some recommended reads of your own).
On the second political news goal, I limited myself to a few trusted, proven, stable outlets, checking them only once or twice a day. America’s educated working classes functioned for decades, if not centuries, with once-a-day newspapers or news shows on radio or televisions, and we did just fine all that time. Better than we’re doing today, actually, by most metrics. If a website or phone app had a “refresh” button (literal or virtual) on it, then I really didn’t want to read it anymore, lest I get stuck, pressing “reload” over and over again, waiting for the next hit of inane and sulfurous nothing to flash up on the glowing screen before me, to nobody’s betterment, ever. Enough.
My third goal for 2019 took a little more thought and effort. In short, it read: “Write better stuff, about something different.” I knocked around a bunch of simmering ideas over a couple of months, and eventually framed a year-long project I dubbed “Credidero.” I won’t explain the logic behind the whole thing again today, since a lot of you reading this might have read that too, but here’s the full-length precis, if you’re interested. The gist was that I would research, consider, and write about one core concept each month from a list of twelve topics that I established at the start of the year, to try to develop some sense of belief and focus about each of them, and then, hopefully, to develop something of an actionable mental manifesto when all twelve pieces were done and aggregated.
The first couple of months felt a little tentative and forced to me, but eventually I found myself falling into a good groove and stride, and really flexing some mental muscles that I hadn’t used in a while, in positive, life-affirming ways. On June 19, 2019, I reached the half-way point of the project, when I posted Credidero #6: Creativity. Having re-read and edited all of the Credidero articles after I finished the project, I must say this was certainly one of my favorites in the sequence, as it actually had little textual tentacles that touched on almost every other one of the pieces, and also on the very core matters that I was seeking to address in my own creative life. It was impossible for me to achieve my “write better stuff” goal if I wasn’t being actively creative, at bottom line, and this piece served as a mid-year tent-pole for the project as a whole, even if I didn’t really realize it at the time.
There were two key beliefs and take-outs that emerged for me from that piece, especially in how I viewed creativity in my professional work, and not just in my personal projects. Here’s how I described those two ideas:
Creatio ex nihilo [creation from nothing] was long the sole province of God, or the Gods, or Muses, or Daemons, or other inhuman forces swirling in the vapors around us. I believe that by claiming creativity as our own human right, in all the things we do, and celebrating its fruits, we don’t denigrate the God(s) that inspire us, but instead become ever more like them.
I’m confident that 100 years from now, the types of activities that are granted “creative” status by default will expand to include countless more fields and activities, many of which are unknowable or inconceivable today, even in the creative minds of the most brilliant futurists. But maybe we shouldn’t wait 100 years to afford “creative” status to certain endeavors that aren’t seen as “earning” it today. We’re all creative, each in our own ways, every time we produce something that wasn’t there before we cast our hands above the waters and said (to ourselves) “Let there be a thing,” whether anybody else knew we did it or not, whether it had any use or value at all to anybody, whether it could be experienced in the world of the senses, or only within the spheres of our minds.
Soon after I wrote those words, my family life took a sudden turn after my wife and I were presented with an unexpected (and wonderful) opportunity to embark upon a sabbatical year in 2020. After much reflection, I announced my resignation as President and CEO of TREE Fund, to be effective November 2019, and my wife and I made plans to consolidate our household in Des Moines (where our daughter lives) in early 2020, after having split time between Chicago and Iowa for the prior three years for professional reasons. We planned (and plan) to use the year to travel together, while my wife took on some exciting new opportunities (getting certified as a yoga instructor, landing a teaching engagement at a law school, and taking on some contract legal work that she could do from the comfort of our new home), and I decided to make a pivot back to an earlier phase in my career, anchored in freelance writing, with special effort devoted to bring some long-dormant projects, manuscripts and ideas to fruition, nourished with the gift of time that our sabbatical would afford me.
While this was all still settling into place in July 2019, I happened to click on Messy Nessy Chic, one of the small number of beloved online outlets that I’d kept in my personal, positive portfolio of valuable internet resources. It’s a gem of a site: beautiful, positive, though-provoking, and prolific, a real treasure trove of exciting finds and interesting analysis, beautifully curated and presented. One article in particular grabbed my attention that day: If He Likes The Way You Think, You Can Borrow His Private Island for Free. The “He” in that headline was Fredrik Härén — “The Creativity Explorer” — a widely-celebrated and highly-acclaimed author and global keynote speaker, primarily on the topics of creativity, change and global/human mindset. His World of Creativity blog is (like Messy Nessy Chic) a brilliant resource, challenging its readers to “become more creative by being inspired by creative people from around the world,” and then delivering on that promise.
And the “Private Island” in that Messy Nessy article? That would be Ideas Island Vifärnaholme, a small island with a small home on it, near Stockholm, Sweden, owned by Härén, and offered for a few months each summer as a safe haven for creatives to bring their work to fruition, one week at a time. Here’s how Härén and his team describe Ideas Island’s mission and goals:
Did you ever wish you could just get away and sit alone on a private island and just focus on your best ideas? Well, now you can.
Ideas Island has been been created as a safe haven for creatives. A place made to inspire and motivate people with great ideas to make those ideas happen . . .
We want to help create an environment that helps to bring some great ideas to life. And we know that truly great ideas come when we are in solitude, when we are relaxed, when we are close to nature and when we feel in tune with the universe.
As I read that article, I immediately flashed to a long-simmering project that actually has its genesis deep in my childhood. I’d gotten it into close-to-complete book proposal form around 2014, but then our move to Chicago and life in general just pushed it onto the back burner, where it has sat ever since, occasionally bubbling a bit to remind me of its existence. That proposal, and the idea embedded in it, actually had a direct resonance with and relevance to the Ideas Island concept, and how people in tiny places perceive the larger world around them. It also nestled nicely within the greater personal work I’d done in 2019 on creativity with my Credidero project, and how the act of creation can be deeply isolated and personal, locally relevant, and globally resonant, all at the same time, whether in the traditional creative arts (writing, music, painting, etc.), or in the emergent milieu of world-wide technological, charitable and corporate communities.
I sent my wife and daughter a link to the Messy Nessy article about Ideas Island and said, “Hmmm . . . maybe I should apply for this in 2020.” And, because on some plane it is consistent with the sorts of things that I often do that my family members (lovingly) refer to as “Stupid Eric Tricks,” they both said “Oh, yes, of course, you should do that!”
So I did. And I’m pleased, honored and awed to report that earlier this week, I heard from Fredrik Härén and his colleague Anna Liza Decierto with a most-generous and most-thrilling invitation to be one of their selected guests for a week on Ideas Island this summer. Come September, I will take a plane, then a train, then a bus, then a taxi, then a rowboat, and I will set foot on Ideas Island with a backpack full of food, and a laptop computer, and a body, soul and mind receptive to the gift given to me, and the time to live, quietly and fully, with the idea I presented to them. I am hopeful that this opportunity will allow me to fully manifest this long-simmering idea, but I’d also be thrilled if this opportunity results in an “ah-ha” moment that takes it elsewhere, with clarity and purpose. I’m open to the experience, let it take me and my idea where it will.
Having a firm date for departure on this most excellent adventure will certainly serve on its own to help me structure and schedule the work I want and need to do this spring and summer to make the time on Ideas Island as valuable as it can possibly be. The timing is also really good in terms of the work I plan to do in Iceland and Iowa City this summer (I am attending the Iceland Writers Retreat in April-May, and the Iowa Summer Writing Festival in June), which could have some applicability to the project I presented to the Ideas Island folks. And who knows what might get thrown into the mental hopper here over the next six months. I’ll have an amazing week to process it all, at bottom line.
One other thing to note before I wrap this up. After I retired from full-time nonprofit work after a cool quarter century, I wrote a piece called Nonprofit Management: Tips of the Trade. One of the ten tips offered read thusly:
4. Develop a thick skin: I often use a sports analogy when I discuss the life of a nonprofit fundraiser, noting that a really good professional baseball player will hit at or above .300 over the course of a season, meaning that 70% of his at-bats result in failure. Well, guess what? A really good fund development or institutional advancement professional has about the same success rate in a given year, and if being told “no” hurts your feelings, then you’re in the wrong business. Some nonprofit executives think they can get around this by having their development directors and/or board members make all of the hard asks, but that’s a recipe for failure over the long haul. Peer-to-peer asks are crucial, and many times you are the right person to make such asks, and many times you will receive a negative reply after you make them. They key to enduring that is to recognize that most “no” answers are actually “not now” answers, and to practice your swings and hone your skills until the next at-bat comes around, with a smile on your face while you do it.
As I left the nonprofit sector and returned to freelance writing and consulting work, I knew I would have to be particularly mindful of this, since it can be hard, lonely, and frustrating to send out the project proposals and applications that fuel such work, knowing that many-to-most of them will be met with polite “no thank you” responses, or silence. But I also know from long experience that sometimes it only takes one “yes, please” response to a competitive proposal to really re-energize things and provide the motive force and energy needed to push forward, especially in the ever-more-challenging creative world nested within a 21st Century Gig Economy.
My successful proposal and invitation to Ideas Island came at a really good time for me on that front, for a variety of reasons. I share this personal fact with you in a spirit of creative camaraderie. If I had not applied, I would not have been accepted. Pretty reductive and obvious, but totally true nonetheless. I know that there have been many potentially exciting opportunities over the years where I just couldn’t muster the time and energy to try, since the outcome wasn’t as certain as other easier, but less rewarding paths, might have been. So I’m really glad that I did apply this time. It was the right proposal to the right time to the right person for the right thing, whether I knew that for sure at the time I pushed the “submit” button or not.
I close as I opened: You know how sometimes there’s a bunch of things going on in your life that don’t seem to be connected in any meaningful way — until in a startling moment of clear seeing, you realize that they really are, and quite profoundly so?
Well, tell me a little story like that . . . I can’t wait to read it!