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.

Be Present and Do Your Best Work

If you’ve been following along with the Wednesday series of posts you will have worked on identifying the big why in your life, the purpose that pulls you forward and with that as a guide you can easily decide between the options that life puts in your path. Is this aligned with my values and support my purpose. Yes or no.

If you’ve done that you’re already ahead of the game.

If you’re like me, even with clarity around purpose you will still have an enormous amount of stuff to deal with and it’s easy to become bogged down to the extent that you’re not fully present and in the moment and as a result not doing your best work. it’s a sort of grey state that lacks the pop and punch of what you could achieve if you weren’t thinking about what you needed to prepare for your next meeting or what you needed to get from the grocery store and the multitude of other things that have our attention for much of the day.

How to handle this? A trusted system where you can park all of the things that you don’t need to be thinking of so that you can free yourself up to focus on what is important. Many of us have such a system for part of our lives – our calendar – and yet have failed to integrate other tools to manage the rest of the balls that we need to keep in the air. For many years now I’ve used David Allen’s ‘Getting Things Done’ (GTD) system which is truly an effective method for not only capturing what is going on in your universe but clarifying meaning and deciding on next actions. Click here for more about GTD and if you have a lynda.com subscription check out David Allen’s course here.

At the simplest ‘stuff’ is processed by asking the question ‘what is it?’ and then the follow up ‘is it actionable?’ If it’s not actionable then the path is to dump it in the trash, file as reference material or hang on to it (incubate) for possible action in the future. If it is ‘actionable’ the next question is ‘what’s the next action’ with an eye towards ‘what’s the desired outcome?’ Choices here are to:

* do it – if you are the right person to do the work and if it takes less than 2 minutes to handle
* delegate it – if you’re not the right person for the job
* defer it – if it will take longer than 2 minutes and this is not the appropriate time or if you don’t have the energy for that task

For the things that are deferred they get parked in one of a couple of buckets or action reminder lists. How these lists are set up should align with how you think about the world and how you work. Good starting points are:

* Agendas – topics for meetings with staff, etc.
* Anywhere – actions that can be done anywhere
* Computer – that require a computer
* Office – that require you to be in the office
* Waiting for – actions that have been delegated and you’re waiting for a response
* Projects – an active project list with embedded multistep actions
* Someday/maybe – a list of things to explore when you have the time and energy

I find that one place where it’s easy to get lost when starting this process is not drilling down to the level of the next action, the absolute next thing that needs to happen to move the project forward. We often think of things that need to be done at a macro scale for instance ‘Fix broken light’ is actually a project in the GTD methodology which in our house starts with working out whether we need to have an electrician to do the work, in which case the next action would be ‘call electrician RE attic light’ but could easily be ‘buy light bulb’ for more capable people.

While I’m not perfect in my implementation of GTD and often fall off the wagon, I know that getting back on is as simple as taking 30 minutes to list all the things that have my attention and dropping them into the appropriate lists.

You can engage with GTD at a number of levels, the more you use it the more you get more out of it.  Using it at all will most certainly help you be present and do your best work.

Goal Setting, or Not – You choose

One of my friends recently recommended that I read ‘The Antidote: Happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking‘. It’s an interesting read and Burkeman certainly takes a contrarian stand that he also pursues in his weekly columns for the Guardian.

My reaction to the book as I was reading it was that I didn’t realize that I was supposed to be striving to be happy. I’ve been very focused on ensuring that I’m doing things that I want to do, that are engaging and ultimately fun, rather than trying to be happy.

One of the major threads in the book is that goal setting doesn’t work and in fact worse than that, goals can lead people, teams and companies over the cliff like the mariners of old chasing the sirens call. Since I’ve been steeped in a goal setting environment almost since birth the notion of throwing goals out of the window strikes me as a little odd. How does anything get done without someone with the drive towards achievement? Without a sense of what they want to change and going out and making that change happen? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

To me the issue with goals is not the process of setting goals, or even breaking big goals into smaller achievable actions but rather the goals aren’t revisited and revised. ‘No plan survives first contact with the enemy’ and this is the issue with much of corporate goal setting. A lack of flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances.

Most people by now I would expect to have some across the SMART acronym:

  • Specific
  • Measureable
  • Achievable
  • Realistic
  • Time bounded

The difficulty with this approach is that the bigger the goal, and the longer the event horizon the more uncertainly there is in our ability to decide whether the goal is achievable, realistic, and what the likely timing is. It is these factors that need to be revisited on a regular basis and reviewed and updated as more information comes in.

Overlaid on this is the need to make sure that goals as originally envisioned are aligned with your purpose and that this alignment is also reviewed regularly to ensure that this is a goal that you still wish to pursue.

Perhaps a good case in point would be my goal to have a book of my photography out by the end of the year. This aligns with my overall purpose that boils down to ‘make things and get them out into the world’. It’s SMART(ish) and yet with additional thought and reflection I realize that the timing is probably off – it will most likely take 12 months, that it’s not a project that I could complete on my own but will need to engage at least a book designer to help and so will need to be revised, most likely to ‘Release a book of my photographs before the end of 2015’ with many subgoals along the way. ‘Identify and engage a book designer by the end of Q3 2014’ for instance, ‘decide on preliminary cut of photographs for inclusion into book Q4 2014’ and on and on. Each of these of course will also have sub-goals and will be further scrutinized to ensure a high likelihood of success.

Are you a goal setter? What works for you? How do you keep projects on track and moving forward? Please share your best practices in the comments.

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.

Eliminating Distractions: Edit Ruthlessly

If you’ve gone through the exercise to unearth you why or crafted a mission statement you should have a better sense of what is important to you. So here’s a question, how much of the stuff in your life actually supports your mission, actively contributes to what you’re trying to achieve? How much is left over commitments to old hobbies that lost their luster a long time ago. This can be true on multiple levels, physical and emotion. Patterns of behavior that don’t fit with who you want to become, to what you want to achieve.

Fortunately with your newly crafted mission it’s easy to edit the things in your life so that everything that you do points you in a forward direction. Starting this editing process can be overwhelming but it needn’t be. You just have to start. Start by taking an inventory of your commitments. What still fits what doesn’t. Bow out gracefully from those things that are taking time away from what you’d rather be doing. Think about what you should be adding that will move you towards your goals. Finding a supportive community to share your work with and receive feedback from can be an important step forward for any artist.

Reducing the physical clutter in your life can be remarkably freeing and result in bursts of creativity. This can be a simple as taking 10 minutes to work on a specific area – your desk, the kitchen counter could be good places to start. Places where you have to move things around before you are able to start working are strong indicators of the need to optimize that work area.

Take stock of the things that come into your life – magazine subscriptions from discarded hobbies are a major source of clutter for me, not dealing with the mail as it came in also overwhelmed me when I first moved to the US. Books can also be another problem for some, clothes for others.

Removing these distractions to free up space and time to focus on the things that are important will have a meaningful impact on moving you towards your goals.

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.