Many of us would like to live a more authentic life. But what are the elements that make up authentic happiness? I’ve been reflecting on this while preparing for my TEDx talk “Rebel Heart” which shares my personal journey to be true to myself as a starting point for exploring the theme of authenticity. Being true to ourselves can sometimes involve hard choices and taking action that feels uncomfortable. This real life story about an artist offers a look at one aspect of becoming more authentic: embracing our ambition.
Sharon* had been a professional watercolourist for a number of years. When she came to me for coaching, she was feeling uninspired and bored. Her life seemed to be taken up with domestic chores and she was tending to do things with her husband that he wanted to do rather than focusing on her painting.
As we talked, it struck me that she was comfortable calling herself a watercolourist. Or a painter. But not an artist. I was curious and asked her why.
“Oh no, I’m not an artist,” she said to me, a little flustered by the idea.
“What’s wrong with being an artist?” I asked, puzzled by her uncertainty.
“Oh, nothing at all. But I wouldn’t put myself in that league. Artists are – well, people like Jackson Pollock, they are up there, you know…” Her voice trailed off but there was a wistfulness about her tone.
“Would you like to be an artist?”
The Glimmer of Ambition
She didn’t answer immediately but I could see from the smile she was trying to hide and her widening eyes that the possibility excited her. Like the face of a little girl seeing a big beautiful gift just waiting for her to open – the thought going through her mind: could that really be for me?
I said, “What would it be like to think of yourself as an artist? Not be one and not say you are one. But just think about how you might approach your next painting as if you were an artist…”
She looked at me. “That’s an interesting thought…”
The Big Ambition – to be an artist – had been too big for her to acknowledge. But this was small enough – and also a little bit exciting enough – to contemplate.
I invited her to spend the next few weeks, not just in connection with her painting but also in all aspects of her life, approaching everything with the mind of an artist. How would an artist respond to the washing up? How would an artist look at this cafe scene?
When we caught up again a few weeks later, she reported back that she had enjoyed the new approach – thinking of herself as an artist had encouraged her to enlist the help of her husband with household chores like the washing up so she could have more time for her art. She was starting to come out of a fallow creative period and had done a number of paintings that she was pleased with. She was prioritising painting again and making more time for it than she had done previously. She wasn’t sure if that all this was directly due to thinking of herself as an artist but she was going continue to think of herself in that way.
The Limitations of Being Modest
In our culture, especially for women, we are encouraged to be modest and humble about our skills and talents. Nobody likes a show off. Don’t brag. Don’t get too big for your boots. Don’t be big headed. There’s a lot to be valued in those adages as a culture full of self-obsessed, me me me types would be hard to stomach! However, it can lead us to the other extreme and undervalue ourselves or limit ourselves because we are afraid of social disapproval.
So what might happen if we rebelled against the requirement to be modest?
Being true to ourselves can sometimes involve the uncomfortable fact of acknowledging (even if only to ourselves) that we are pretty darn good at what we do. Or that we have a huge ambition for something that is beyond our current comfort zone.
Real humility is knowing our own talents and skills as they truly are – pretending to be more than we are is of course inauthentic but pretending to be less than we are is equally fake. It’s not humility but false modesty and an inauthentic way of being.
And the dark side of false modesty is envy. When we feel that our true merits are unacknowledged, we often need to cut someone down to size whom we perceive as having the confidence that we ourselves lack to stand unapologetically in our own power.
The Journey is More Valuable than the Goal
Sharon had conflated the idea of being an artist with being a great artist. And underlying the conflation was her huge ambition. She would like to be a great artist. But the thought scared her.
It may be that, at the time when she and I spoke, she did not have the skill or talent to be a great artist – but in order to see if she could become one, she had to set out on the journey to find out. And she may not be even an artist, let alone a great artist, by some people’s standards – that is not the point. The point is for her to step into the mindset of an artist – and more specifically, her personal interpretation of what being an artist means – rather than to be always afraid to cross that threshold because of fear of other’s scorn.
It takes courage to travel on such a journey, not knowing what might come of it – not knowing if she will succeed or fail. And also because there may be others who might snort and say, “Who does she think she is? She’s not an artist. If every little housewife thinks she’s an artist, where would we be?” As if the world has only a finite number of job vacancies for the post of “artist”. As if being an artist is a title bestowed on you once you have achieved what is judged to be “Art”. And perhaps as if their hearts were full of envy. The thing is that you can only be an artist by having the courage to be an artist – right now, whether or not you’ve created anything yet – and being actively engaged in the process of creating art. The “Art” or artwork in some ways is just a byproduct.
So either way, whether she becomes a great artist or not, her journey and exploration as an artist, thinking of herself as an artist – will be what matters. Because each moment in the process will become the moments that make up her life – the life of an artist rather than the life of a woman who was afraid to try.
The step from watercolourist to great artist had been previously too huge – an impassable, yawning gulf. Often we make the jump in our minds from where we are to our distant huge ambition and the enormity of the gulf scares or overwhelms us. And so we retreat back into our comfort zone, where we stay safe but stagnating – sometimes for months, or years, or even a lifetime.
To reach our goals, we actually need first to take the tiniest step possible. For Sharon, she had to first separate out the concept of artist and great artist. And then just think about it in terms of hypotheticals: IF she were an artist (and she’s not saying she IS one), IF she were an artist, how would an artist approach X situation?
This story has focused on the ambition to be an artist. But you can apply the principles equally to any ambition or dream that you long for. If being true to yourself and living a more authentic life means running your own business, changing career or becoming a writer, an astronaut, a marathon runner… – then think of yourself as being or doing that thing right now. And then make your choices and take action from within that identity. eg. You may only have a business idea this instant but: what is the smallest step right now that you could take as a business owner to develop that idea? What would a business owner do tonight – blob in front of the telly or do some research into the market for their idea?
Embrace your ambition. Thumb your nose at those who might say you can’t do it. Be a rebel against your own modesty. And take the next smallest action you can in achieving that ambition.
*Name and personal details changed for privacy
This is part of a series of essays collated under Rebel Heart – TEDx which documents my preparation for the TEDx Covent Garden Women event on Sat 07 Dec 2013 where I will be giving a talk called “Rebel Heart”. I write about how I came to be invited to give a TEDx talk, my process in developing the talk and the challenges I am struggling with. Also, I explore the principles and ideas that are embedded in my talk and which I hope to bring to life when I get up to speak on the day.
TEDxCoventGardenWomen will be held on 7th December 2013 in Covent Garden, London, shedding light on the issues facing women and brainstorming creative solutions to address them.
This event is part of the TEDWomen global conference held on 5th December 2013 in San Francisco, including a great line up of speakers and live entertainment.
Photo: Woman Artist to illustrate Ambition and The Art of Living an Authentic Life thanks to cosmorochester2 from flickr.com (CCL)