Nothing we make ever turns out exactly as we imagined; that this is a feature not a bug; and that this is why we do any of it. The trip down any path of creation is not A to B. That would be so boring. Or even A to Z. That’s too predictable. It’s A to way beyond zebra. That’s where the interesting stuff happens. The stuff that confounds our expectations. The stuff that changes us.
The fact that our work defies all our imagined expectations, and often becomes something dramatically different than what we previously anticipated is one of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn. In fact, that previous sentence gives me a slight cringe. Not only because it contains the sting of a harsh reality, but also because it seems to imply that I’ve “learned” the lesson. I haven’t. Confronting the unexpected outcomes of my work is a lesson I’m still in the process of “learn-ing”. It’s ongoing, and I’m far from done.
“Art” is about provocation and transformation. As creatives we are provoked to create and in the process of creating we are transformed by the work. When we’ve done our job honestly and authentically, our work will provoke a reaction that elicits a transformation within the recipients of our work. But, for this to happen we cannot allow ourselves to be bound by our expectations. We must release ourselves from the “result”. We must unshackle ourselves from the “outcome”. If the work has any chance of “changing” others, we must be changed by it. And, if we are to be “changed” by the work, we must allow the work to change.
As John Dewey illustrates, “A painter must consciously undergo the effect of his every brush stroke or he will not be aware of what he is doing and where his work is going.”
However, such a provocative transformation requires us to let go of both hope and fear.
Margaret Wheatley explains that “Hope and fear are inescapable partners”. She says that “Anytime we hope for a certain outcome, and work hard to make it happen, then we also introduce fear – fear of failing, fear of loss”.
Similarly, Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche writes that “We suffer because of hope and fear” because “Wherever there is hope and fear, suffering follows automatically”. If this is the case, then, to be caught in the cycle of “Suffering” is “to be controlled by hope and fear, over and over, again and again”.
Perhaps we must begin to ask ourselves: What if there is no “outcome”? What if the “outcome” is never-ending? What if the “outcome” is simply the on-going persistence of the process?
When I interviewed Jerome Shaw for an episode of my podcast he shared a quote with me that is still reverberating in my ears, especially now:
“The reward for your last challenge is your next challenge”
The process is a kind of actively unfolding cartography. It’s making a map to a place we’ve never been while in the thick of it’s unknown terrain. Everyday is a creative expedition of which we have limited control. All we can do is explore, observe, and keep meticulous field notes of our findings. And, that’s what makes it thrilling and terrifying. As my friend Charlie MacLean told me recently, its starting “with a process you don’t know, down a path you are unsure of”.
To be sure, our work is always catalytic. It always produces a consequential outcome. But the outcome is always uncertain.
We create the iterative conditions that cause an outcome, though it may not always be the outcome we seek. Thus, to work based on outcome alone is to live in the cavernous suffering that resides between hope and fear. So work for the love of the work…disregarding the results, unencumbered by outcome.
Thomas Merton reminds us that we cannot “depend on the hope of results” because:
You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.
Let “value” be our only metric and measurement. Let the truthfulness of our work be our only guide.
Our job is not to control our idea; our job is to figure out what our idea is (and wants to be)—and then bring it into being.
The sign that hangs above the inferno of the process reads “abandon all hope ye who enter here”. Those who dare to create enter boldly, undetered by the fear of failure…
Come with us…