The Greeks believed that daemons were responsible for striking you with inspiration and whispering wisdom into your ears. The Romans believed that various geniuses guarded you until your death and were the disembodied spirits of many aspects of your life. When I heard this concept from Elizabeth Gilbert in her 2009 TED Talk “Your Elusive Creative Genius,” I was in the middle of a creative drought. Nothing I tried to motivate myself with was working and I was beating myself over for not living the life of someone that will become “successful.” Ah, the never-ending pressure to become successful.
Half a year ago, a close friend and coworker of mine was leaving Google. When I asked her what her plans were after quitting, she said that she simply didn’t know, and she wasn’t too worried about it. All she cared about was that she could learn more. “Learn what?” I asked for examples. She walked me through how much she wanted to improve at jazz piano, learn more about machine learning, and just feel like she’s growing again.
I read The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck by Mark Manson this past week, in which he makes a point that got stuck in my head like a ringing cicada: there is no “how”. Mark argues that too many people, himself included, wait for emotional inspiration, from which they derive motivation to perform desired actions. He advocates the idea that, in fact, this sequence of events is not linear, but circular. Action also births motivation. He re-oriented his mindset so that by just getting started doing something, anything, he could obtain the engagement and motivation necessary to complete a large task. Don’t worry about the how, just start doing. It’s much easier to figure out the rest along the way.
It does sound a lot like Elizabeth Gilbert’s what seemed to me at the time radical advice: you cannot control when the daemon of inspiration will strike you, but if you don’t even show up when it does, you will clearly be waiting in the wrong place. In the contemporary world, we like to believe that nobody but ourselvesis responsible for our own creativity, inspiration, and whatever other sources of motivation. But reality might just be a lot more boring than that. Maybe I just need to show up to do my part and stop worrying about how to motivate myself, because that’s the daemon’s job.