Living a great life is more important than producing a single great work

Last week I shared a study that said being permanently busy fractures our brains and may cause irreparable damage to our ability to be creative. []

This had me thinking about focus, and about quality time devoted to art. Ah, to just zero in on one creative endeavor only. Something to devote one’s life to. Sounds wonderful.

But can one be too focused?

In a July 2019 New York Times column, David Brooks wrote about what it takes to accomplish great things in a life. He referenced Auguste Rodin and his protégé Ranier Maria Rilke, who were both monomaniacal, obsessively focused thinkers and creators—to the detriment of both their personal lives (they were both, apparently, real jerks to their friends and families) and any other creative endeavors. Single-track geniuses.

One of my five great life’s passions: my partner for life.

One of my five great life’s passions: my partner for life.

There has to be a balance. Indeed, Brooks went on to make the argument that generalists—people who achieve excellence or proficiency in multiple creative endeavors—perform much better than specialists. [Reference: “Range,” by David Epstein]

“Compared to other scientists, Nobel laureates are at least 22 times more likely to partake as an amateur actor, dancer, magician or other type of performer,” Epstein writes.

Furthermore, Brooks wrote that “people who transition between multiple careers when they are young end up ahead over time because they can take knowledge in one domain and apply it to another.”

Interesting, because I’ve spent my life doing so many different things that 1) my Mom has said she has given up trying to explain to people what Jonathan and I do for a living and just says we’re “professional adventurers;” and 2) an acquaintance once quipped to me, possibly in jest but I’m afraid also serious: “Are you a polymath or do you just have a short attention span?” For the record, a polymath is “a person of wide-ranging knowledge or learning” so I prefer the former, of course. But then I start to fret again about “focus” and producing great work . . .

As creative people, we angst a lot about “focus” and application to our craft. We fret when we’re too busy or scattered, we worry what it does to us, and we feel guilty when we put too many oars in the water: I paddle around with nature journaling; writing books; teaching classes; leading trips as a naturalist; and getting interested in new art media (printmaking with plants, grinding my own pigments and making paint, lapidary and silversmithing, among many others). The sea of my life is almost always churned up by all these oar strokes.

Going back to Brooks, his final take-home message gives us permission to nurture all those passions. In fact, a better life may be had by embracing them: 

“A better definition of success is living within the tension of multiple commitments and trying to make them mutually enhancing. The shape of this success is a pentagram — the five-pointed star. You have your five big passions in life — say, family, vocation, friends, community, faith — and live flexibly within the gravitational pull of each.

You join communities that are different from one another. You gain wisdom by entering into different kinds of consciousness. You find freedom at the borderlands between your communities.”

I would say as of this point in my life my five big passions are:

art (writing and field sketching)

conservation work

being a naturalist

succeeding as a business owner

my marriage

I don’t need, or want, to focus on only one—I agree with Mr. Brooks. Although I am still committed to being less frenetically busy and to having more truly lazy down-time, I will stop beating myself up for having multiple passions and interests.

I would like to live a great life, at the intersections of my chosen passions.

What is your pentagram of a great life?