And the three bad ideas that led to that mistake.
Back in 2009 I was handed an opportunity of a lifetime: to write the Hollywood-worthy, Eckhart Tolle meets Hunter S. Thompson tale of Denis Kelly, aka Junpo Roshi: Post-war domestic abuse, LSD manufacturing, the counterculture, a life on the run and in jail, world travels, magical gurus, monastic life, Enlightenment and the very mind of God, Stage 4 cancer, bankruptcy, infidelity, the founding of a new form of Zen, and redemption. Just a few highlights of the story handed to me.
The trouble was this: writing a book is a full-time gig, unless you want to be on the 4+ year plan of working nights and weekends and other odd corners of the day, and sacrificing things like sex and relationships.
I wanted to write the book. So I made a fateful decision: I sold my house in Philadelphia in the fall of 2009, got the money tax-free (it was my primary residence), stuck the cash — a big pile of it — in my checking account.
Friends and family applauded me for my courage, my faith in myself, and my willingness to take such a huge risk. Over the next two years, I took no vacations, bought nothing out of the ordinary, and lived modestly.
The ensuing book, A Heart Blown Open, went on to win a Nautilus Silver Medal for nonfiction, and was an IndieFab Award Finalist for Book of the Year.
And standing here today, in the sober light of 2015, I can tell you one simple truth: it was a seriously stupid thing for me to do.
There were three bad ideas that drove this mistake, and 3 things I’d do differently today.
Bad Idea 1: Follow Your Bliss
For Gen X and the Millennials, there is a pernicious lie floating about. Joseph Campbell once admonished the Baby Boomers to “follow your bliss”, and this idea permeated the culture, motivating our parents and teachers to instill this idea into us.* (That very same Joseph Campbell quipped, some 20 years later, “I should have said ‘follow your blisters…’”)
For those of us raised in the 80’s and 90’s, we were exposed to the kinds of ideas like the ones in the mega bestseller, “Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow”, which in hindsight seems based more on feel-good ideas than actual science or statistics. We also heard of lot of “you can be anything you want to be”, which turns out to be a prison of an idea (If you can be anything you want to be, then why isn't your life perfectly awesome?).
My belief was that because I cared about the book, and because it was important to me, it would therefore be important to others and sell like hotcakes. And that somehow, the universe would simply have to pay me back for following my bliss in such a devoted way.
Unfortunately the universe is not contractually obligated to do any such thing. (I checked the fine print.)
A better idea: Follow your blisters not your bliss, play the long game instead of the short one, and work to create something that allows you (and your passion) to be sustainable over the long haul -- rather than a flash in the pan.
Bad Idea 2: I'm Special (and this is how I'll show the world)
So here’s a cringe-worthy admission: I was convinced that I was special, unique, here to do something important, and deserved both fame and fortune. It therefore made perfect sense that if I wrote a great book on a great subject, it would confirm what I already knew — that I was destined for something bigger and better.
And sure, the book sold pretty well, all-and-all. And it got me noticed, which was kinda cool. But the New York Times and NPR passed on opportunities to review it, there were only tiny reviews from places like Tricycle Magazine, and Oprah never called.
But here’s the thing: even if I’d gotten those big reviews, my mindset was pointing at a lie, a hungry ghost that can never be satisfied. If I’m truly special, if I’m unique and here to do something important, and if I’m destined for fame and fortune, at what point can I say I got those things? When would I feel satisfied, content, and like I’d fulfilled my purpose in life?
The answer, of course, is never.
A better idea: specialness is a toxic belief in your own self-importance, causing you to lead with your narcissism instead of with your humility, curiosity, openness to critical feedback, and a willingness to bring something of value to others (instead of to just yourself).
Bad Idea 3: Gamble security for Ambition
Those two above bias conspired to make me believe that the world really worked in a way similar to a casino. Sure, the odds were long, but if you gamble really big AND the dice came up in your favor — well, big wins required big risks, right?
Through much of my 20’s and 30’s, I often quoted the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, who said, “You can’t cross a chasm in two short jumps.” Bravo, I said. Of course, I later would read that Mr. George also met Hitler in 1936, calling him “…the greatest living German; the George Washington of his country…” Oops.
Icarus was warned by his father, as we all know, not to fly too high because the sun would melt his wax wings -- but his father also warned him not to fly too low, where the moisture of the sea would make him crash. It's a warning about both complacency and hubris, and that the middle way between them is the only way off our island.
A better idea: Never being willing to take a risk is, obviously, it's own kind of failure. But the belief that the odds won’t effect you — that you’ll be the lucky one that hits the jackpot (or gets on Oprah) — will not only land you in the poor house 99 out of 100 times, it's also likely to crush your spirit and melt your wings. It's okay to have huge goals -- just take the middle way to meeting them.
What I Would Do Now
Don’t get me wrong. I’m very proud of A Heart Blown Open, and I’ve received almost universal praise for the book and its writing. Which is all well and good, but I could have done it in a way that was a bit smarter.
I would have taken some of the money from my house sale and lived on it, but would have also invested some of it, and laid out a plan where I could have continued to build wealth while also writing my book. Both/and, you see, instead of either/or.
I put all my eggs in one basket, and then had to eat them.
Art is art and money is money -- it's great when those two worlds can meet, but not so great when we think they should but don't -- as many actors, writers, musicians, and fine artists have come to understand .
By 2013, I was seeing the error of my ways. For my newest book Only Everything, I raised money on Kickstarter that allowed me to get a good head start. And then I’ve done the thing I never though I could do: I’ve written on nights and weekends, and in the odd corners of the day, when time and money have allowed.
Making art, you see, isn’t about following my bliss. Making art is a luxury that my life sometimes allows, and sometimes doesn’t. I’m grateful for the moments it works, but don’t feel entitled any longer when it doesn’t.
These days, my art is like a blue-collar job. I log the hours and punch my time card, and do what I need to do. Books get written because I love writing them, and a few people seem to enjoy my work and be entertained and served by it.
And that’s good enough.
* In Joseph Campbell's defense, he meant "follow your bliss" in a much larger, much more nuanced context that was largely lost on the mainstream public, which is why he complained about the reception of that phrase late in his life.
Keith Martin-Smith is an award-winning author, content strategist, and Zen priest. He is passionate about human connection, creativity, and evolution.