When I was thirteen, I watched this old Kung Fu movie about an ancient master who had to defeat a sequence of progressively tougher enemies. The master would use the example of each battle to impart sage lessons to a young pupil. One of the enemies kept switching between fighting styles, which gave him an advantage at first; yet the master held strong, won the fight, and said to his pupil something along the lines of: “His was the error of being moderately skilled at several things while mastering none.”
I’ve often considered that.
Through the years, I’ve found it extremely difficult to narrow down my focus to a single passion or goal. I can’t tell you how many times I switched majors in college, or jettisoned partially trodden career paths entirely.
It’s been disheartening to see so many friends and loved ones moving forward in life with such a secure sense of themselves and their choices.
Yet I’ve gradually come to realize that moving sideways isn’t necessarily less fruitful than charging ahead.
Yesterday: Your art form is a bridge that’s built where what you care about meets what you’re good at—a bridge that takes you from where you’ve fallen short to where you hope to be.
I don’t think you should ever pressure yourself to reduce your art form to a single talent if you believe you see more than one viable option; rather, I’d recommend staying open to seeing unexpected connections between various pursuits.
It’s been said that the best art exists in the spaces between impossibly disparate worlds.
I’d like to share how two completely different passions—both of which I loved equally and couldn’t seem to choose between—came together in an odd way as I prepared to go public with my experience.
In 2010, I thought I wanted to be a Math teacher. That was the direction I was headed in college. Looking back, I think what drew me to Math was something about the beauty of finding systems to reduce complexities to their simplest forms.
I loved how the theories of Geometry and Physics seemed so unmistakably fixed to the fabric of our universe.
I also loved Philosophy for the same reasons I loved Math.
I’d imagine people love Philosophy for different reasons…
Anyway, I have fond memories of sitting for hours at little desks in random college study halls, listening to ambient music as I wrote philosophical poetry after [or instead of] doing Math homework.
I may have loved the idea of Math and Science a lot more than I had the capacity for the actual work.
As mentioned, I was quite depressed at the end of 2010; then I started getting high and quickly found myself addicted.
I was still studying Math and Philosophy while using weed most days in early 2011, but I felt like I’d reached some sort of mental limit. All I was learning were more and more ways in which the beauty and order I’d always loved to see could be shown to be ultimately meaningless if philosophical functions meant to represent ideas were reduced to only sets of binary comparisons.
The work felt unnecessary, pretentious, ironic, dishonest…
I realized I still had to fill a language requirement to graduate, so I reluctantly signed up to take a literature class in early 2012.
That class changed my life.
I was shocked by how the rich, transcendent expressions of some of history’s greatest writers and thinkers clicked so deeply with my own experience and motivations, perfectly filling the unnatural space forced open by advanced Philosophy.
That semester, I experienced some of my most profound illuminations about the direction my life was going.
Looking back, the timing seemed way too perfect to have been coincidental.
I’d reached a place in my studies where endless formulaic sets threatened to splay out forever in needlessly hifalutin terms. Other Philosophy students seemed to love the exclusivity of their purchased understanding about how to reposition aspects of a language apparently detached from all original intended meaning.
Again, I saw tremendous value in all that was left to matter within the great divides of meaninglessness cast open by advanced Philosophy. For me, that value was art that captured and celebrated real human experiences, since I was becoming convinced our experience is all we can ever really know for sure.
I took more literature and creative writing classes. Being so sad and unstable at the time, the stories I was writing felt incredibly therapeutic.
I started to remember all the ways writing had always seemed like such a natural fit for me.
During my years of weed addiction, I learned to recognize worthwhile intuitions as they flashed through my mind like daydreams, most often when I wasn’t paying attention.
Rather than taking any intuition and trying to make it into something important, I learned to reduce them all to their simplest forms like a Math equation. I started to see where ideas might fit together to connect and cancel out.
Preparing and sharing my Facing Addiction story has given me a distaste for self-indulgence, particularly because self-indulgent thinking is inefficient and self-deceiving.
It recently struck me that what I’m doing right now is actually a perfect balance of my two primary passions—call them Math and Literature; or, maybe the beauty of simplicity and the importance of expression.
I could never have chosen to harness both aspects of my personality in what’s turned out to be such a balanced way.
I don’t think balance can ever be forced, and I don’t think it ever has to be.
Here’s something I once wrote (while high):
“Both of my talents and values together became my art form: the mature mathematician who simplifies and connects (while listening to peaceful music); and the dreamer whose inner child at play functions when he’s not even paying attention.
“The way both come together is so fun and fulfilling for me…
“But that’s just two aspects.
“When I started to see the sequence of all my goals together, I realized how many other factors of my personality have always wanted to come into play.”
If your interests and abilities seem to pull you every which way, I’d say not to worry.
Even if you try to force one of your passions over all the rest, you’ll probably later discover that the others had really always been there for a reason. They’ll resurface when they need to in whatever ways best fit for whichever stage of your journey they’ll be needed for.
Find magic and art between the boundary lines of your own impossibly disconnected worlds.
Who’s just one thing, anyway?
Tomorrow: why art is so much fun.