Creative Rebellion Essays: Staying inspired in spite of it all

Inspiration is ever-present. Photo by John S. Couch

I am often asked about what inspires me and how do I stay inspired, in spite of the daily grind that permeates everyone’s lives: work demands, family demands, traffic, the weather, corporate politics, the national political environment, and the coronavirus (now officially given a somewhat dystopian moniker, COVID-19).

There’s no easy way to stay in high spirits in spite of it all but I’ve found that focusing on solutions, rather than ranting at the problem helps: condemning the problem does nothing to actually address the core issues.

When things seem dire, take action.

This is what all heroes do. Joseph Campbell famously diagramed the hero’s journey but I think, for me, the simplest definition of a hero is someone who takes action. Any action. Imagine every popular archetype from Princess Leia to Mulan to James Bond: in their darkest moments, when all is lost, they still find a way forward. They move from a state of despair (low energy) to one of action (high energy). What’s interesting to note is that when one is in a state of despair, there may be an accompanying feeling of anger, but it’s the kind that goes around and around, cutting grooves into the ground: a madness like insanity, that feeds on itself, doing nothing to actually address the core issues, waiting for something to happen, often by someone else. While a state of action can also have the attendance of anger, it’s a directed energy; whether it’s a I’ll-show-you feeling or, hell no, I’m not putting up with that injustice, what anger does in this case is serve as a catalyst for action. But, in my experience, the best action comes not from anger but from cool-headed analysis of the situation and calmly implementing a strategy.

I almost always feel better when I actually do something about a situation I’m in, even when it doesn’t actually have the desired effect. At least not immediately.

In the corporate environment, the majority of issues seem to arise from lack of communication or miscommunication. And the easiest and yet most difficult thing to do is to proactively take action by, well, actually reaching out to someone with whom you may have a disagreement. Even if they are not a willing listener (or emailer), you have done your job — you have taken action. This behavior alone will nudge you towards a higher energetic state because you’ve empowered yourself through acting.

I think the natural state of a creative human being is to be in a flow state; that is, inspired. It’s actually unnatural to be in a state of despair. Note the enthusiasm of a child just running around in the yard for the sheer joy of it. As we get older, we don’t allow ourselves these natural expressions of joy and it’s no wonder we feel oppressed as we are stuck in a car battling aggressive drivers on a jammed highway on the way to a job where we sit in cubicles like cattle, tapping away at emails and spreadsheets before heading back to the highway for the drive home.

We do what we have to do to live. We have bills to pay, unexpected mental and physical health issues. I get it. Life is hard. It truly is. But it’s also extraordinary. Through a subtle but powerful change of the state of your mind, through changing the narrative you’ve put yourself into, you can move from a state of feeling put-upon into a state of imperviousness that comes from having a plan and then acting on it. When our sense of self is dependent on the whims and moment-to-moment state of either another human being or a large corporation, we will be in a constant state of cortisol-fueled anxiety and we can lose who we are. This is a sure-fire way to feel despair and depression. And the wrong kind of anger.

So, what do I do in order to stay inspired? I acknowledge that I’m feeling whatever I’m feeling: sadness, despair, anxiety or anger. I don’t deny that these feelings are happening. I let them be and observe them. Over the course of a few minutes they start to lose their power, unless I fuel them with more negative stories. Then I expand, letting the state of despair be what it is — a low-energy state and ultimately boredom. Next, I focus on what is going right: my family’s well-being, the fact that I have a good job, the incredible SoCal weather, a new family member who was born this month, and that my health is good.

For a moment, actively not wanting something different than what actually is.

We are often in a constant state of want — a nicer job, a bigger title, a fancier home, fill-in-the-blank. That’s natural. And it’s not bad to aspire to better things. But when it becomes the dominant force, then you are never really present. You are either regretting what you did or didn’t have in the past and wanting what you supposedly lack in the present. Again, this is human nature. But unmitigated desire, exasperated by social media and news feeds pound us with how much better or worse things could be, can fragment our focus, cause anxiety and reduce our appreciation for the insanely ridiculously lucky state we find ourselves in: being alive. And when my mental monkey mind gets the best of me, I think of what I have and am thankful.

In other words, gratitude.

And once I’m properly centered, I make a plan, and take action. And inspiration naturally follows. Because most anything is possible once we are unburdened from the internal, limiting stories we’ve told ourselves our entire lives.

One caveat. I believe it’s important, for one’s own sanity, to create without expectation of return. In other words, put your greatest love and energy into the action, the creative work, whether it’s a painting or a business plan, but then let it go once you deploy it. Immediately move on to the next plan of action or else too much attention will be placed upon something happening from the thing you put out into the world. That often leads to despair as you may not get the response you want or any response at all for that matter. Doesn’t matter. Keep moving forward. Just get out of the grooves of despair.

Take action. Inspiration will follow.

John

What I’m watching:

A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood — Very interesting take on the story of Mr. Rogers through the experience of a journalist assigned to write an article on the beloved children’s TV show creator and host.

Little Women — A meta storytelling approach to the classic Louisa May Alcott novel about the lives of four sisters after the Civil War. The main character, Jo March, is a stand-in for the author who struggles to keep her independence in a time when women had very limited career options.

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