The Purpose of Art

As we get rolling into the new year I’ve spent the last week or so thinking about why I photograph and what purpose it serves.

Agnes DeMille, the noted choreographer was quoted as saying:

‘We are a pioneer country. If you can’t mend a roof with it, if you can’t patch a boot with it, if you can’t manure a field with it or physic your child with it it’s no damn good.’

Presumably she said this out of frustration with a sociey that doesn’t respect the arts. I certainly grew up in that kind of environment and it leaves me feeling a little self indulgent when I jaunt off to make photographs since my photography does none of these things.

When I truthfully answer the question why do I photograph the answer is simply because it makes me feel good and fills a void that otherwise is difficult to fill. Perhaps this falls into the category of ‘physic’? I would argue that it does.

Even if art, photography in this case, doesn’t serve one of the purposes on Agnes DeMille’s list it does serve a number of important functions that include to surround us with beautiful things, to fill us with a sense of awe of the world around us, to shine a light into the dark places and bring those topics into the public eye. These functions need not exist in isolation, for example environmental groups have used beautiful landscape imagery to provoke discussion around conservation issues.

While I’m happy to make photographs that I like to look at and go well with the couch I have yet to make the connection between my photography and a bigger purpose. It’s something that I increasing want to do and will look for opportunites in 2015 that fit with my interests.

How about you? Why do you create? Is it aligned with a bigger purpose? I’d be delighted to hear your story.

Resources for Finding Your Purpose

I thought that I’d share some of the resources that I’ve been digging into over the last few weeks as I’ve thought about finding your purpose. So here goes:

Simon Sinek’s book Start With Why is a great place to start your journey (also check out the follow-up book Leaders Eat Last. Sinek’s TED talk above is an excellent introduction to the material presented in Start With Why. Additionally there is a good bit of material on his website including some free exercises such as this 5 minute exercise to help find your why.

An alternate to the TED talks are The Do Lectures. The founder of The Do Lectures David Hieatt wrote an excellent book ‘Do Purpose‘ that I found hard to put down. Lots of easily digestible nuggets of wisdom.

In case you haven’t heard of The Do Lectures before you’ll find that there’s a substantial overlap in the intent of TED and the Do Lectures, ‘Ideas worth spreading’ vs bringing together ‘do-ers’, ‘the movers and shakers, the disrupters and the change-makers’ to tell their stories and hopefully inspire others to action, the vibe is distinctly different. Well worth checking out.

In ‘The Way of The Seal‘ Mark Divine both describes an effective way of uncovering your purpose and highlights how being clear about your purpose and what you stand for helps when it comes to making tough decisions. More than a book on how to discover your purpose and deeper than ‘just a book for meatheads’ worth exploring and spending time working through the 8 core principles.

Finally on this very short list is Danielle LaPorte. Having found LaPorte’s work initially through her book The Fire Starter Sessions I’ve enjoyed reading both ‘Style Statement‘ and ‘Desire Map‘ as I’ve been thinking about mission, purpose and why.

Living on Purpose

“Alice came to a fork in the road. ‘Which road do I take?’ she asked.
‘Where do you want to go?’ responded the Cheshire Cat.
‘I don’t know,’ Alice answered.
‘Then,’ said the Cat, ‘it doesn’t matter.”

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

While making changes such as losing a substantial amount of weight, stopping smoking, or taking control of your life in someway can have a profound effect on your health and happiness this type of change is only a piece of a bigger pie.

The change can be achieved through a series of questions:

    • What do I want to do
    • When do I want to do it by
    • How will I measure success
    • What resources do I need
    • Who hold me accountable

If we are then to dig a little deeper we might ask:

    • Who will this impact and how will it impact them
    • How will things be different after I’ve made this change

finally:

    • Why do I want to make the change.

I have a number of these change activities underway now, some more advanced than others, and have a collection of ‘whys’ for each of them that I’ve been staring at for a couple of weeks in the hopes that they will integrate into a grand unified why, or a purpose, or at least a mission statement.

Important? I would argue that it is. If you aren’t living with intention then you’ll drift along being taken where ever the current leads and how can you live with intention if you don’t know what’s important to you. What you’re willing to dig in and take a stand for? What are the guiding principals that your actions align around? Perhaps you just intuitively know what’s the right thing to do? Why not write out the reasons for the choice that you made. Are they consistent with the next choice you made and the next? Or are you flip-flopping around more than a politician in election season?

Answering the ‘big why’ question and identifying a purpose that is bigger than you, one that puts you in the service of others, can be tough which is probably the reason that less than 5 % of people have a clear sense of purpose at this level. Fortunately there are lots of ways to get to an answer. Steve Pavlina recommends the following exercise:

1. Take out a blank sheet of paper or open up a word processor where you can type (I prefer the latter because it’s faster).
2. Write at the top, “What is my true purpose in life?”
3. Write an answer (any answer) that pops into your head. It doesn’t have to be a complete sentence. A short phrase is fine.
4. Repeat step 3 until you write the answer that makes you cry. This is your purpose.

from How to discover your life purpose in about 20 minutes

As an alternate, an approach described in the book Business Model You for uncovering your purpose is to rewrite the following sentence:

“I would like to HELP PEOPLE through these ACTIVITIES.”

replacing HELP with a verb, (e.g. support, encourage, nurture…), PEOPLE with a noun, (e.g. artists, artisans, craftsmen…) and ACTIVITIES with a verb (e.g. photographing, listening, promoting..) then finally rewrite the sentence to have it be a compelling statement of intent.

As an example, the evolved and rewritten sentence could be:

‘I will develop devices that are energy efficient that are able to produce and purify water at large scale to serve the populations in areas where clean, sanitary water is scarce.’

or

‘I will support emerging artists by creating an co-op that provides access to the tools and resources necessary to get a foothold in the business of art’

The Business Model You book is a great career development resource and I’m on the acknowledgments page in my Red Sox hat. See if you can find me! Also check out the business model you website here.

As always comments and thoughts appreciated.

A Compelling Reason for Change: The Harujuku Moment

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While we often know that we should do something we often don’t because there’s not enough pain involved. There’s no compelling reason for change. Tim Ferris relates a story in the Four Hour Body about the moment Chad Fowler realized a need for and committed to his transformation. That it happened on the street in the Harjuku district of Tokyo gave rise to the name. Here’s how Tim Ferris describes it:

So the harajuku moment refers to very specifically a story by Chad Fowler or related to Chad Fowler. So here’s a case study in the book, kicks ass in every possible way. Professionally, he’s a computer programmer, runs a number of very famous conferences in the tech world and he was in Japan shopping for clothing with a number of friends and he was very overweight and he and one other person ended up sitting on the sidewalk and he said, “Yeah. It doesn’t matter what I buy anyway so I’m not going to look good at it”. And there’s this awkward mood of silence like, “Wow, I really just say that?” And he realized that that at point in time, how painful it was to be overweight. And that was his harajuku moment.

I had my own moment similar to that described above in December of last year. For the first time in a long time I saw the person that I had physically become rather than the mental image of who I was. That was enough to kick start the process of change for me.

What if you had an equally compelling reason that guided all of your actions, that pulled you through life? What we’re talking about here is knowing what your purpose is, what you stand for. Have you ever stopped to think about that? Or is it already clear for you?

As always thoughts and comments appreciated.