Sunday, June 21, 2009

Know Thyself

I have learned silence from the talkative, toleration from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind; yet, strange, I am ungrateful to those teachers.
~ Kahlil Gibran

This seems to be the appropriate post to make a disclaimer. I don't presume to have any answers. What I write in this blog represents only what I have learned in my life. In the words of Socrates, the only thing I know is that I don't know much. I truly believe that. I have done my best to learn from the great teachers throughout history and apply their lessons to my life. In some cases it took a very long time before I was able to grasp the truth in their ideas. In my last post, I wrote briefly about the ancient Greek aphorism, "Right thinking leads to right emotion and right emotion leads to right action." I pondered those words for nearly a decade before the truth of that statement dawned on me.

Emotions guide our every action, even the most trivial. If you don't believe me allow me to pose a question. Why do you brush your teeth? I'm sure most of you automatically responded in your minds with something along the lines of "its a habit" or "so my teeth stay healthy". I'll argue that its one of two emotions, or possibly a combination of the two, that compels you to routinely stick a brush in your mouth. If you are honest with yourself, the answer is likely that you either fear what will happen if you don't brush your teeth (the pain of a cavity, poor appearance, or fear of rejection because of bad breath), or you love your own appearance enough to maintain it (vanity). Chances are its a bit of both. I'm not making value judgments about what the proper motivation for oral hygiene should be. I'm simply making the statement that there is a motivation behind every choice we make and that motivation is one or more emotions and behind those emotions are one or more beliefs that make us feel that way.

The reason I make that point is this. We are all more alike than we are different. Its easy to look around us and point out the differences between ourselves and the people we encounter in our daily lives. Often those perceived differences can be a source of great frustration. How frequently do you think to yourself, "why did he do that?" or "what is wrong with her?". Thoughts such as those are an expression of how we feel about those differences. However if you reflect on the motivations that guide your own actions, you will realize that people are all the same. We all want to be accepted as part of the "tribe", respected as an individual, receive love, and live without fear (the list is much longer, but I will let you fill in the rest). The problem is this. We all express our emotions differently.

As an example, it is complicated enough when we all fear different things, but even when we fear the same things, we express that fear differently. One person's fear of rejection may manifest itself as someone who appears brash and rude and for another it may expose itself as overly friendly or even promiscuous behavior. For those that fear failure, it may be expressed by being a workaholic or conversely by simply not trying at all. In my experience, that difference in the expression of our emotions is the source of more conflict and confusion than any other in human relationships.

Once I realized this it changed the way I viewed people and more importantly, it changed the way I reacted to the things they did. It does not mean that I stopped getting frustrated, disappointed, or disgusted with people. I still do. However, its easier for me to identify the emotions that are motivating their actions and it helped me to control my reactions because I could relate to it.

Fear is our most basic emotion. It is the reason why we lie, make excuses, avoid doing certain activities, get caught up in activities that are self-destructive, avoid pursuing our dreams, and it is the reason why we resist change. Its why its such an effective tool in advertising campaigns and as a means for control by our parents and other authority figures. But fear is also useful. It can help us to understand our "authentic selves" and help us to identify the things we truly want in life. Once we are able to look upon ourselves without illusion and see the emotions that guide our choices, we can begin to find the courage to master those fears. Notice I said, "master", not "eliminate".

People often comment on how courageous I am to have quit my job to follow a dream. The truth is that if I were courageous, I would have done it much sooner. Don't get me wrong, it still scared the hell out of me. Fine art painting is a profession where few succeed and all you hear about anymore is how bad the economy is. My last post should have explained what finally gave me the courage to do it. However, I have to find that courage anew every day. Fear will give me all the excuses I need if I choose to go out and find a regular job tomorrow. The act of taking the leap did not eliminate the fear. I work at mastering my fear every day.

One of my greatest fears is facing a blank canvas. That fear kept me from painting for many years. I feel the empty face of the canvas staring back at me and daring me to fail. Each day it feels as though the canvas and I are engaged in mortal combat. I either walk away having bloodied the canvas with paint and hung it on my wall like a trophy head, or I wipe it clean as if I were its slave and return it back to that state which intimidates me so much. These days the canvas wins more often than I do, but I go back every day to face it again. Each day I pick up a brush and set it to the canvas is a day that I have mastered my fear.

"The warrior and the artist live by the same code of necessity, which dictates that the battle must be fought anew every day." ~ Steven Pressfield, author of
The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles

Obviously, fear is not the only emotion we feel, and therefore not the only emotion that can influence our behaviors. I just think it is the most basic emotion and the one emotion over all others that prevents us from living the lives we want. I also believe that if fear is our most basic emotion, then love is our most evolved emotion. It seems to be one of the few emotions that is capable of overriding fear. It is why a mother will rush into a burning building to save her child. It is why a soldier jumps on a grenade to save his comrades. Their love for those people is greater than their fear of death. It applies to ideas as well as people. I value the truth. Which is to say that I love the truth. Fear still tempts me to lie but my love for the truth makes me tell it and then take my lumps. My love of art and the pursuit of mastery helps me find the courage to master my fear of the blank canvas and the fear of failure.

Please don't get the impression that I'm one of those people that walks around handing out flowers telling people love is the answer. I'm not. Its just an observation about how love of a thing can help you overcome your fear of another thing. Just as often, it is fear that dominates and keeps us from nurturing and protecting the things we love. Love has its own problems too. Just as we express our fears differently, we express our love differently as well. Take a moment to think about how that affects your relationships. We wrongly assume that because we have one idea of love, that the people in our lives will automatically know what our conception of it is. It then causes conflict because we get frustrated when they don't demonstrate their affection for us in the way that we want them to.

So what is the point of all this? Simply this. Know thyself. It is not an easy task to strip away the bullshit we hide beneath, remove the armor, and set aside the persona we project to the world, to see the naked self - but its worth it. You may not like what you find there, but there is strength in arming yourself with the truth. It is the place where "right thinking" begins. The right emotions and actions will follow. You can't change your reality by living in the world of illusion you create for yourself. Once you truly know yourself, you will understand everyone at the most basic level and many things that you find so difficult in life will become much easier. You'll be less concerned with what people think about you and stop living in fear of how they might react to the things you do or say. It will be easier to communicate what you want and have people listen. You will become a better listener, more tolerant, patient, and understanding to the people you care about and even the ones you don't. The things that prevented you from getting the things that you truly want out of life will no longer seem insurmountable. You'll stop being a walking ego, going around complaining about all the problems with people without realizing that you are the problem.

In knowing oneself you set yourself on a path to master your fear. Once you achieve mastery, fear loses its power over you.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009


"All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another. "
~ Anatole France

I spent most of my career in technology or management. It was good to me...I worked with some great people, did some interesting things, and made good money...but something was always missing. It took almost 10 years of feeling "stuck" before I figured out what to do and how to do it. I finally realized, it was not something that I could change simply by trying to solve it in my head like a logic problem.

Making a career change is difficult, more so if you've been working in your field for any significant duration. It takes a lot of time and money to become good at what you do. The longer you do it, the harder it seems to abandon it for something else because you see the return you have received on your investment (position, salary, benefits, contacts, etc.). One becomes accustomed to the lifestyle these things provide and once you have them its hard to conceive of your life without them. Therein lies the true problem - it is not in making change that is difficult, its in the way we feel about what we do and the way we feel about losing what it provides.

The old Greek philosophers said, "right thinking leads to right emotion and right emotion leads to right action." It took me a very long time to understand this. My first reaction was to say that I act based on my thoughts, sure sometimes my feelings, but mostly my thoughts. Now I realize that every action, even the most trivial, is based on our emotions. I'll write more on that in a later post, but the important thing I learned from this as it pertains to my work is that thinking about the "what" I wanted to do wasn't going to change how I felt about giving up what I had worked so hard for. The only way that was going to happen was by re-prioritizing what was important to get myself into "right thinking".

Life is short. Its a cliche, I know. Its something everyone says and knows on a rational level. However, until you feel your mortality on an emotional level, you probably wont make any significant change. I suppose its like the patient that is told they have a year left to live. In one single moment the things that used to be important to them become insignificant and those things that were low on the priority list rise to the top. Once I began thinking correctly about what I wanted out of life, I began to feel my mortality and then it was easy to determine what I wanted to do.

I've had an interest in the visual arts for as long as I can remember. I imagined my dream job in the visual arts field and the answer was clear - fine art painter. So that is what I committed myself to doing. It didn't happen over night, however once I made the decision it no longer became a struggle in deciding what to do. I just had to take steps to get there. Now, you are probably saying to yourself, "I have a dream job too and I cant just go do it." My reply is simple. You haven't committed yourself to doing it. If you did you would start taking actions that would get you where you want to be. At that point it becomes a matter of survival and we are all geared to survive.

For me, that meant moving out of the large house I was living in (and the large mortgage attached to it), giving up some luxuries like cable TV or eating out, and generally reducing my lifestyle to a point that I could sustain on a minimal income for a while. We really don't need much to live comfortably. Most of the modern conveniences we take for granted are luxuries. Could you live without the fancy cell phone with the expensive data plan? Could you live without the designer clothes? Could you live without the new car? Sure you could. You choose not to. Our culture seems to train us to think in terms of escalating economies. Work, make money, buy stuff, work more, make more money, buy better stuff, and the cycle perpetuates itself. Its hard to take a step back. We envision our future as an extension of who we are right now and what we have at the moment. So the internal dialog sounds something like, "If I work for x more years, I'll have my house paid off and then I can..." There are a million variations of that dialog as it relates to the size of your retirement account or the raise you are expecting, but it all pretty much assumes you will have the same income you have now or more. I started by putting a stop to that type of thinking.

Secondly, and more importantly, I set aside time every day to work on the things that would get me to my goal. Every journey begins with a single step and you follow it up with another step, and then another. Eventually all those steps get you to your destination. So I disciplined myself to work for an hour every day (or more if I had the time) to researching, studying, drawing, painting, etc. Those activities that would eventually get me where I want to go. Whether you take one step a day or a thousand is really up to you and what you are willing to sacrifice to do it. In the winter of 2008 those steps got me to a point where I could quit my job and paint full-time.

My new office:
"Work is love made visible. And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy. "

Kahlil Gibran

I'm not a commercially successful painter yet (which isn't all that important to me). However, I am painting every day with the intent of selling my work and I know I will get there. I once saw an interview with a woman who built a successful interior design company. She was asked what inspired her to start her company. She said she asked herself what would she do if she couldn't fail. Those words stuck with me.

When I announced my intentions to the people in my life, expectedly many responded with concern about what I was doing. The common thing I heard was in regards to the "big risk" I was taking. I don't see it as a risk. Quite the contrary. The conventional wisdom is you work hard, plan, save, invest, and then do what you want when you retire. I thought that way for a long time too. However, let's revisit the "life is short" thought for a moment. We will all die someday. The problem is that we don't know our expiration date. We can only estimate it based on family history and average lifespan figures. However, this estimation can be grossly wrong. We could live 20 years more than we expected or 20 years less. So we plan for the best case scenario - a long healthy life. So in the conventional way of thinking you tell yourself that you are doing what is unsatisfying now because it will get you the life you want later. In other words, you are gambling that you live long enough to reap the benefits of your sacrifice today. I'm living the life I dreamed of today. I sacrificed the things that weren't absolutely necessary to support it. So, I ask you, who is taking the risk?

Now, I don't have children and I probably never will, so I don't know how that would affect my thinking on the subject. However, I do know that if I had children, I would want them to become perfect versions of me - in attitude and in lifestyle. I suspect every parent feels the same way. I think we are all humble enough to know that we are not perfect and egotistical enough to think we are correct in our perspective of the world. So, I would want to teach them how to live the life they truly want and not simply how to make money, buy stuff, and lead safe, uninteresting lives. I don't know how I would teach them that (or have them believe me) without doing it myself. The absence of offspring is also the reason why such an intensely private person like myself is writing this blog. Without someone to teach my life lessons to, I decided to give the lessons I have learned in life to the world. Maybe it can help someone. If it does, it was worth it.

In the coming months I'll be posting a website dedicated to my paintings at This blog will mainly be used to share my thoughts on life and art. I welcome your thoughts in return.