In college I studied abroad in Spain. After classes I’d get lost wandering the streets of Valladolid with my journal in a state of wonder. I'd nearly collapse onto park benches with words to fill the pages. I'd found what I had been looking for my entire life - a vein of inspiration to tap into. I had discovered the geographical location where new ideas and answers came from.
Through the process of getting lost in that Spanish city, I'd found a way to be more creative and located words for my poems I'd never written, but always felt. I also found great clarity to some big life questions I was wrestling with at the time. This willingness to get lost yielded wisdom I couldn't have arrived at had I tried to cultivate it consciously.
Of course, I returned to the states and lamented the lack of inspiration I felt where I lived. Until a few months later on a trip to Alpine, Texas - way out west - when I took an afternoon to go on a walk and the rusty mountains spoke to me. After that trip I again bemoaned the lack of stirring moments punctuating my regular life; then one afternoon in desperation I went on a walk in the neighborhood behind the office building where I worked.
In that neighborhood were the answers, lodged between the suburban houses.
I wondered - was I developing knack for finding areas highly infused with good ideas or perhaps was this yet another example of behavior shaping experience?
Was this really about a willingness to depart from the strategy of grasping for inspiration, and instead losing myself in a new moment? A moment I might miss if I wasn't willing to lose focus on what I think the answer should be right now.
For those of us looking for ideas or answers and feel like we haven't found them in a while, perhaps the course of action is not to ransack the bookshelves of our minds. As my friend Chris says, maybe more intensity won’t yield more clarity. If you're wondering whether your voice or contributions are still relevant, if you're searching for the authentic way to connect with your people in a way you once did, if you need the clarity or focus you once had to make a decision - more work is not the answer. Water will not flow from those rocks no matter how hard we strike them.
In his poem Introduction to Poetry, Billy Collins solemnly reflects on the forceful way some of his students have with poems:
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
What Collins’ students do to poems, we do to our lives.
We believe our existence must meet us on our terms at all times. We think we should be able to find the answers we're looking for by employing the same predictable methods which may have once worked. Why do we do this?
A few reasons we find ourselves here:
Attention we've received has pulled our attention away from the real reason for the work - now it's about results.
We believe the stakes are higher than they were because we want to maintain approval or avoid criticism from others at all costs.
We worry the source where our ideas come from is both finite and temperamental, so we must extract all we can now.
We think by controlling our environment, or the energy we expend, we'll be able to recreate something special meant for a different time and place.
We feel inspiration should come to us regardless of whether or not we're living an inspired life.
And just like that, we've scared all the fish away.
I've gone through dry seasons lasting years like this - because I continued to try and control the way I received inspiration and clarity instead of remembering that, to find what I was looking for, all I needed to do was get lost and loosen the grip.
We must learn to give up what we think we need so we can be available to see what is already present just outside our window. We must give up our obsession with strategy so we can recover the truth we could once access when we weren't concerned about performing or doing things right.
I love what Don Draper says to aspiring copywriter Peggy Olsen in the show Mad Men as she's frustrated with the process of coming up with fresh ideas:
Peggy, just think about it. Deeply. Then forget it. And an idea will jump up in your face.
And the man who gave us words for the hero's journey, Joseph Campbell says:
I don't believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.
It is the process, the experience, the living of life which flushes free the answers and the inspiration we're convinced we must corner and interrogate.
What we’re in need of is more freedom, not more control.
When we're lost we're free to see things differently. We'll entertain new ideas. We're willing to consider new paths home. We'll do anything to survive.
So what do we do if we're too close to our work or our problems and unable to access the ideas or answers we so desperately need to move forward?
This isn't a metaphor or a suggestion - go on a walk without a phone or a plan.
Julia Cameron calls these intentional imaginative expeditions Artist Dates. I suggest one a week.
I like to get on the train from Austin, Texas to Taylor, Texas. It leaves in the morning and comes back in the afternoon. I’ll get lost walking the streets of small-town Taylor, peeking into windows, eating barbecue and imagining what it might be like to live somewhere else. I always return home with new thoughts and direction.
Whatever it looks like for you, the goal is to walk away from the thing you believe needs your attention most. Do it this week.
The beautiful thing about getting lost is the paradoxical truth that a willingness to be lost precedes finding anything of value.