Attention is a gift you give to your work
I realize that I tend to write a lot about and pay attention to a lot of negative emotions and experiences, like criticism. Fear. Failure.
Horribly un-uplifting (down-lifting isn't a word for a reason). My words are typically framed in the guise of overcoming and championing, which is my pessimistic way of getting to write what I want with only a glimmer of hope at the end.
So what happens in the absence of negative emotions? I'm not talking about finally overcoming all of those self-confidence trials and tribulations to become an egomaniac (that’s another article altogether). But what happens when you find your "groove?" When you're sitting at your desk working and the muse actually shows up to whisper in your ear?
Inspiration. Genius. Revelation. Whatever you call it, the world (for all its faults), sometimes reveals works of beautiful art and moments of brilliance. Even thinking about the times when you’ve experienced that magic, in whatever large or small way, can give you goose bumps.
There’s a constant struggle inside all of us to create something inspired and awesome.
The negative moments can make it feel impossible to achieve the open space and attention required for brilliant creation. We tell ourselves we can't or we're not good enough and then let all those criticisms, fears and failures stream in. They can consume us. But then sometimes they don't. Their defences are not without cracks, and sometimes we see a light shining through and run screaming toward it with all our might, like a streaker across a football field.
How do we find our own genius? Why does it happen sometimes and not in other moments? Can the secret be bottled and sold as a travelling sideshow tonic? If so, sign me up for ALL THE BOTTLES.
I may not know how to create amazing work with every try (no one does), but I sure as hell know what it feels like, if briefly. There are pieces of writing, music and design I've done that I don't hate. Fleeting, proud moments. Those moments of inspiration make me feel like I'm myself (which shouldn't seem as foreign as it does). It feels like I've grasped my true voice and held onto it with all my strength, if only for a second. It feels a little frantic, too, as if the muse is always trying to get away.
But in those inspiring moments, I feel utterly present – so present that if I took even a microsecond to think about the feeling, I'd lose it. It's the sort of presence that holds no room for subconscious worries or multi-tasking thoughts.
In genius there is only space to do whatever the genius is channeling. A phone call, calendar notification or a stray thought about your Twitter feed grinds everything to a halt. Since the revelation is fleeting, like it has other places to be, the second you weaken your grip or lose the strength to hold on, it moves on – until someone else grabs hold tightly.
Here’s the most interesting part: the second before it hits, right as the muse draws in her breath to whisper in your ear, is when all those negative thoughts and ideas reach their pinnacle. It’s the absolute worst second of your life and you’re at your most fearful. You might feel okay about writing until you sit at a keyboard and stare at a blank screen. You might feel like you can write a great song until you pick up that guitar and think about the first chord. Then you panic. Breathe more rapidly. You probably grab your phone and refresh Facebook instead of leaning towards the fear.
This is the make or break moment – and the rub is, even if you start and become a conduit for inspiration in that second, nothing is guaranteed. You can start working and the genius might not arrive. But it's a numbers game, and your odds of doing great work increase only when you do more work. Keep at it and you may do great, inspired work. But if, in that moment, you go the easy path, the path of least resistance, the path that leads back to the same, tired place, then you missed your chance. You’re back to staring at online cat or celebrity photos, and the possibility of doing great work returns to zero. It goes back to being a pipe dream, something for future attempts... for tomorrow.
Repeatedly summoning the courage or resolution to work can wear down your resistance. If you do something every day, routinely, your fears can diminish – not totally, not even majorly, but enough to notice. Those fears get tired of being ignored. They grow weary and maybe even bored. That's why it's typically easier to write the middle of the book than the first page, or to finish that last part of a painting than the initial brush stroke.
Attention is a gift you give to your work. The more attention you devote to something, the less space fear can occupy.
Attention isn’t just about avoiding your neuroses (always a good thing); it means you're absolutely present and ready for your genius. It means you can get down to work and if the muse is feeling talkative, the work might turn out brilliantly.
Genius might be trying to reach you right now. Are you listening, or are you busy refreshing Twitter?
Hi, I'm Paul Jarvis. I write a weekly newsletter called the Sunday Dispatches where I share articles about working and living online with 35k subscribers: