During college a friend introduced me to TED Talks, free 20+ minute talks on a variety of topics but generally related to technology, entertainment, and design. By the end of listening to or watching nearly any TED talk, you’ll agree with the founders: you just heard “ideas worth spreading.”
After that initial introduction, the housing coop I lived in was propelled into TED Talk mania. At any given time at least one talk would be playing in the house. Dinner conversations became miniature TED Talk-Abridged Conferences, each of us name dropping, spouting summaries, visions, and incredulous “you haven’t seen it yet!?” comments.
Of all the talks I watched during those first few months of TED mania, my favorite became and remains Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Your Elusive Creative Genius.” In beautiful, poetic language she discusses the role of genius in an artist’s creative process. She muses that artists are unique in what is asked and expected of them. After the release of Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert explained that people treated her as if she were doomed. She was repeatedly asked, “aren’t you afraid you’re never going to be able to top that?”
She humorously counters: “Is it logical that anybody should be expected to be afraid of the work that they feel they were put on this Earth to do. And what is it specifically about creative ventures that seems to make us really nervous about each other’s mental health in a way that other careers kind of don’t do, you know? Like my dad, for example, was a chemical engineer and I don’t recall once in his 40 years of chemical engineering anybody asking him if he was afraid to be a chemical engineer, you know? No one asked — chemical-engineering block, John, how’s it going?”
Humor and truth aside, the phrase that got me was: “afraid of the work that they feel they were put on this Earth to do.”
I’ve always been secretly envious (not jealous; envious seems like a much more mild-mannered, cordial emotion) of the clarity and purpose that artists seem to have. I live under the half-illusion that although, as Gilbert says, artists have “really earned a reputation over the centuries of being alcoholic manic-depressives,” they at least seem to have a frustration with brush or pen to drink about. From what few artist profiles I’ve read and seen, perhaps what really defines an artist is their willingness to simply do what they love, or what at least pulls and haunts them. The kicker seems to be in deciding and not worrying a whole lot about the consequences. In this regard, perhaps there can be a developing artist in each of us.
January is the one month each year that we expect and encourage self-improvement in ourselves and those around us. Even those who refrain from proclaiming specific “New Year’s Resolutions” are probably doing something to better themselves.
I have three New Year’s resolutions. I will stop biting my nails. I will lose weight. I will close the back door. My co-worker Elena, introduced me to this last one. In life, most of us are committed to and relatively happy with what we are doing. Perhaps more than our happiness, we have no real desire or plan of leaving or changing any of the big things in our lives. Yet, we keep the back door open, thinking that if we need to we can make a quick escape. As Elena’s dad describes, it’s not the job or the work or our coworkers that are really making us miserable. It’s the fact that we’re choosing to sit in a cold draft from a world that we think might be.
Though I may not have a calling for why I am on this earth, during this month of self-improvement, I plan to set a tone for the year of choosing and doing not what’s easy, but what inspires and satisfies the soul I go home with every day. In this way, I hope to ignite the artist within.
Gena Akers can be contacted at