I have had the privilege of being able to occasionally see an acupuncturist. She is a lovely human and frequently talks to me about my angry, stagnant liver. I imagine this cess-pool of unmoving Qi as a fine delicacy for my Productivity Demon. You know, the one that hangs on to my butt telling me awful things about myself so I can’t get anything done. The more murky, mucky, and unmoving are my energetic waters, the more satiated and powerful is my Productivity Demon. As such, one of the most successful ways I’ve ever found to distract this lifelong, largely unwanted companion of mine is to stay in a kind of perpetual creative motion. There are a bunch of ways I’ve found to do this. The one I would like to talk about right now is perhaps the most over-arching and thus I am writing about it first: JOY.
My Definition of Joy
According to my internal poetry, and in straight defiance of conventional approaches to physics (not unlike my relationship to creativity), I believe “joy” should be considered a fundamental force in the universe, just like gravity and time. The trouble is, North American cultural tendencies seem wired not to trust joy. “Happy,” we trust.
Buy this, feel happy.
Eat this, feel happy.
Find a loving partner, feel happy.
Many people will tell you they just want to be happy, but few people will say their goal is to experience and follow “joy.” Joy is always a little suspect. It’s cast as the too-perky personality selling ice cream from a truck festooned with clown decals who you’re not quite sure isn’t a serial killer.
Joy is emergent, spontaneous, immediate. It’s not something easily tied to causality. It’s hard, in other words, to create a narrative where one has to earn or pay for joy. It’s personal and situational, much harder to pin down or regulate than “happy.” It’s also not the same as pleasure. I suspect, in fact, that a lot of people confuse pleasure for happiness, which is why they are so rarely happy and almost never attuned to joy. Joy is more resilient than both pleasure or happiness in part because it’s more indelibly woven with gratitude and presence, with creativity and ecstatic surrender. It can resist more immediate binaries like “happy/sad” or “pleasure/pain” because it does not care about your emotional state or propriety. To be honest, joy doesn’t care about you full-stop.
Joy finds you when you’re sad, when you’re grieving, when you’re relaxed and peaceful, when you’re stressed and vibrating sick with anxiety. It’s the little grin you get when you see a cute dog with a sassy walk and a stick in its mouth or the tearful burst of genuine and painful laughter you get when you realize just how intensely a powerful love has imploded. Every experience of peace, beauty, and mirth you’ve ever had, even when it’s inconvenient, sad, or feels inappropriate: that’s Joy. New ideas? Emotional or intellectual epiphanies? Even when they hurt and send your life spiralling into chaotic change: Joy and more joy.
Joy is a form of pure, undiluted energy that is always in motion. Joy is also the substance of our connection to that energy. It exists without fixed values so what one person finds joyful might well offend someone else. Joy has no master, no price, no limits, and it is in part this very freedom that makes it absolute gold for the distraction of productivity demons.
What Does Joy Have to Do With Productivity?
TO BEGIN: The way I engage the concept of “joy” is how other people might play with notions of “inspiration.” The trouble is, North America’s fairly narrow, utilitarian underbelly tends to associate “inspiration” with its equally narrow definition of “artists.” And, frankly, North American culture doesn’t have a lot of respect for “artists.” It has so narrowed its definition of “art,” in fact, that it leaves out some of the most creative, artistic people I know: my dentist, my friend who’s a paediatrician, my friend who works in fitness, so many of the mainstream teachers I know etc..
“Art” and “artists” – and thereby many aspects of creativity itself – get siloed into worlds defined by “fine” art. Fine artists are kind of the adorable, mercurial pets societies think they keep and coddle through the gritted teeth of tolerance while we sit around “not working like real people” and “waiting for inspiration.” Thus, the cultural tendency is to avoid the identifiers of “creative” or “artist” in professions we value far more, like doctors or dentists. That the fruits of artistic, creative labour are in every logo, tasty restaurant menu, elegantly built building; that creativity is what designs new forms of drills and pumps, creates new medicines, and even informs the instincts of investment bankers; that us so-called “artistic types” are involved in the creation of every TV show and movie and book in society while being thus “tolerated” is often seen as beside the point… “Inspiration” (and thereby creativity, and thereby art) is often storied as something fickle, lesser-than, and based on an elusive meritocracy only accessed through suffering and excess.
This is why I talk about “JOY” instead.
We may not always trust it as a culture, but most people – if pressed – wouldn’t say that joy only belongs to one group of people under one set of circumstances.
If it will help you, though, please feel free to think of joy as a type of inspiration.
TO CONTINUE: Joy (or inspiration) is, as defined in the section above, an ever-abundant, ever-present, kind of loopy, energetic force. It responds as it leads and tagging along with joy usually takes us very special places even when the journey may sometimes be harrowing and no damn fun at all. It never, ever stops moving. It is not something you “wait for” but something you must attune yourself to notice. It is always nearby, waiting to burst open and be seen, be followed. The key is not to spurn it when it shows up. It’s also important not to grip it too tightly. Like most living things, Joy dies when strangled. You have to trust that as one aspect of Joy flits off, or flickers out, another is always on the way and ready to catch you up in its perpetual motion.
TO TIE A BOW ON THIS PART: Perpetual motion is, by definition, something that never gets stuck. If we are not stuck, we can do things. Think things. Grow things. Make things.
And that’s how Joy relates to productivity.
(1) Attune yourself to notice Joy.
(2) Be curious, grab on.
(3) Hold on – swing from its many manifestations like monkey-bars – and allow it to help you keep moving even when it’s hard.
(4) Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
What Does this Look Like in the Real World? (a.k.a Stop Pontificating and Tell Me What to Do)
You’re a fiction writer. You’re folding laundry or cooking dinner. You hear some lines of dialogue in your head between two characters (maybe new ones, maybe ones with whom you’re already acquainted) that make you laugh out loud. THIS IS JOY SO PAY ATTENTION.
Whoever your demons are, they may jump in here. They might say things like: “you’re an idiot to laugh at that, it’s terrible” -or- “yeah, that’s not bad but you don’t have time to write because you have to be a grown-up right now.”
TO REJECT JOY: Keep making dinner and folding laundry because that’s “responsible,” your demons are right, and you just don’t have time. Do not write down or voice record those lines of dialogue that made you laugh out loud.
TO FOLLOW JOY: Drop that clean T-Shirt and/or turn the heat off under your frying pan, and make sure you write down, or voice record, those lines of dialogue. They made you laugh. That matters and it’s enough. If you really must continue the domestic tasks, make sure you come back to the lines of dialogue later. Set a timer and follow the thread of them for 5-10 minutes. The truth is, we can pretty much always press pause on our adulting for 5-10 minutes to catch a quick ride with Joy.
You’re a doctor. An Attending with Residents on rounds. Something happens in one patient rundown that fires up a set of pedagogical connections in your mind around patient care and offers a new idea for your recent research. THIS IS JOY SO PAY ATTENTION.
At this point your demons might start nattering about how you just need to get through rounds. The bed manager is pressing you to get patients discharged, because there are three more waiting in the ER. Your recent teaching evaluations suggest that the learners think you already take too long on rounds. The team seems tired and are starting to get antsy and disengaged, and they probably just won’t care about these connections right now. You already have enough unfinished projects. You don’t get to start anything new until you finish one of the old ones.1
TO REJECT JOY: Listen to your demons. They will keep you from further top-down censure, keep you on schedule, and not let you bite off more than you can chew research-wise.
TO FOLLOW JOY: Immediately take a moment to share the part of the idea with your residents that their very presence helped you imagine. Thank them for helping you make the connection and let the excitement you feel show. Most people wake up a bit when offered real gratitude and excitement is often a healthy sort of contagion. Make a few moments for any conversation that might arise. And, if this truly isn’t possible due to the pressing realities of the ER, at your first opportunity, immediately write down and/or voice record the network of connections you made. Like the writer above, strictly carve out 5-10 minutes to mind-map or write out the idea as it has come to you.
This Sounds Too Simple, What’s the Catch?
To follow creative joy means you must believe that what you think, what you create, what you imagine, matters every bit as much as dinner or laundry, as the opinions of your friends, family, boss, or of your students. It’s about self-trust and worthiness2 and that stuff is hard for a lot of us.
You have to believe that you and your ideas are worth the occasional 5-10 minutes and maybe even more than that. You have to keep on believing it every day, all the time. Regrettably, Joy doesn’t care that you have unfinished projects or other very real pressures. As I say, it’s an energetic force of the universe and it can sometimes be an asshole. The most we can do is train ourselves to watch for it, to be open to it. Ultimately, it’s just gonna’ show up whenever and wherever it feels like and invite you to move on something and you either say “yes” or you don’t.
The more we say “yes” to Joy, the more we choose to validate and accept ourselves and our creativity (our art, our inspiration) in all its forms, the less sway our Productivity Demons have, and the more “productive” we tend to be. And remember:
You can always find 5-10 minutes to follow JOY and only a Productivity Demon will tell you otherwise.
Once things are in motion they find it much easier to stay that way, especially if we can continually remove – or work around – resistance. In the next piece of this series, I’m going to tuck into a holistic, “Zoom In/Zoom Out” way of trying to stay in creative, productive motion.
1 I had help from a beloved doctor friend with some of the details of this section. She actually was kind enough to read the whole post and provide her always-thoughtful feedback. I am grateful. Also, without her, this example probably would have been a scene from a medical drama replete with unexploded bombs and supply closet fondling.
2 From what I understand, Brené Brown researches and writes a miraculous f—ktonne about worthiness. I have not read any of it at this point, though I have seen a couple of her Ted Talks, shared them in classes I have co-taught, and had her work recommended to me by many people I deeply respect. Apparently, she has also worked with the concept of “JOY”… She is thus on my list, so-to-speak, and should you wish to dive in yourself I heartily encourage you to do so! (Please feel free to report back to me about her. For I remain lazy in many key ways. And if you can make more time for me to read science-fiction and fantasy books by distilling Ms. Brown’s teachings for me so I do not have to read them myself, I would be eternally grateful, lol.).