What does it mean to live authentically? To me it means finding comfort with the choices you make in your life. But that isn’t always an easy thing to do.
The artists I interviewed on my cross-country road trip ranged dramatically in their level of what we might call “professional” success. Most of them were not fully supporting themselves with their art. Even among those who did, the artist was on some level chasing the market, seeking a balance between what her muse wanted to do and what she knew could sell.
What these creatives did have in common was an understanding that it is important to live authentically. With their creativity, they did so by being willing to lend their artistic talents to projects that might not have been their first choice, but were ones they were comfortable with morally and philosophically.
How do we as creatives know when we should compromise and when we should stand firm? Unfortunately that is a question that only we can answer for ourselves. But after much reflection on this subject in my own life, I believe I have come up with three principles that can guide us more broadly.
- Know your limits. If you are a talented writer seeking freelance work and you are approached by the National Rifle Association, you would, presumably, decline the offer. That seems clear on its face, but as any freelancer knows, turning down a client means turning down money. That is not easy. But it is easier to live with our muse–and ourselves–if we don’t betray our core selves.
- Be flexible. The example above was black and white, but life’s choices are rarely so stark. A writer who says no to any offer that doesn’t truly speak to her passion, values, and desire for creative control likely won’t receive many solicitations. The Dutch Masters produced portraits because their paying customers were the bourgeoisie. Some of the finest Renaissance works depict Christ because the paying client was the Catholic Church. Rembrandt and Michelangelo took the gigs offered to them, and produced lasting art within the confines of those gigs.
- Go easy on yourself. It’s hard to compare ourselves to Michelangelo when we are writing a press release instead of the Great American Novel. But if we bring the same level of pride to each of those tasks, we are living authentically. That is something to celebrate.
- Embrace selfishness. I suspect I’m not the only creative who beats himself up for not always carving out time for my muse to explore without boundaries. I do find that when I allow her to do that–to lead me in directions that are all about growing as an artist but may or may not have any marketable return–I bring more to the table to those who are paying me for my creativity. So maybe we creatives can tell ourselves that we are not cheating our clients when we steal time for our own muse. Instead, this is the creative’s version of continuing professional development.
Set clear boundaries. Demonstrate flexibility once they’re set. Embrace your choices. Embrace yourself. Those all seem pretty straightforward, even if life rarely is.
This theme of “authenticity” surfaces so many places. It is central to my career choices, to my marriage, and to my role as a father. And it is emerging as a theme in my work-in-progress, a travel memoir. I’ve viewed the book as the story of a quest for creativity, but it increasingly seems that quest is entwined with a quest for authenticity.
I welcome your thoughts.