I once attended a meditation retreat led by a Buddhist nun. One evening she told us the story of the day she ran away from the monastery.
She’d been working and meditating and keeping the discipline for years, but was discouraged and frustrated by her lack of progress. She felt as though she wasn’t getting anywhere with her meditation and questioned the point of her practice.
One day she was carrying a bucket from one part of the monastic farm to another. There was no one around. On an impulse, she put the bucket down, climbed over the hedge, and ran to the top of the hill and hid among the trees. Freedom at last!
She lay down on the ground and looked between the branches of the trees, at the clouds crossing far above in the serene blue sky.
She lay on the hilltop for a long time, maybe an hour or two. But eventually she stopped looking at the clouds and sat up. She dusted herself off and walked back down to the lane. The bucket was still there. No one had noticed she had gone. So she picked it up and went back to work as if nothing had happened.
But from that day on, she told us, her practice changed. She had let go of the desire to feel she was making progress or achieving something in her meditation. She was much more present, with much less effort. Which paradoxically meant she was much more aligned with the real purpose of her practice.
Looking back on my career, I’ve reached the point of giving up several times. There have been several times when I though ‘That’s it, I can’t do this any longer’ in my business. It’s too difficult and too stressful and too precarious.
And then the next day, or a few days later I would wake up and realise I could do it and I did still want to do it. So I’d dust myself off and start again.
It’s the same with my poetry. I’ve given up on plenty of poems, but never entirely on poetry. Some of the poems I’m most pleased with are the ones I gave up on more than once, and eventually came back to.
Like my ongoing translation of Chaucer’s poem Troilus and Criseyde. There were plenty of times I put it away – it was too long, too difficult, too obscure for anyone to be interested in these days. So what was the point? And yet that’s the one that won the biggest prize I’ve been awarded to date. This may not be a coincidence.
Between you and me, I was even tempted to give up on my 21st Century Creative podcast.
When I recorded Season 1 of the show, I realised it was far more work than I’d bargained for. It took a lot longer than I had anticipated. And the process of putting myself out there with my spoken voice, instead of staying safely behind the keyboard as a writer, was scarier than I’d expected.
It felt like I’d bitten off more than I could chew, and it was several months before I had the energy and enthusiasm to record Season 2.
But you know what? Season 2 was much easier, because I’d done a lot of the groundwork. I had all the equipment and I knew how to use it. I’d made all the big decisions about what the show was about and what format it would take. And I had a great team in place with Javier and Alejandro to help me produce it.
So now, when I record a podcast season, all of that is taken care of and I can focus on what I want to say, who I want to interview, and the questions I want to ask them. All the hard work and difficulty up front looks like an investment it was well worth making.
These days, when I experience the feeling of wanting to give up on a creative project, I see it as less of an obstacle and more of a positive sign that I’m giving everything to a project, that it’s stretching me to the limit. If I don’t get that feeling at some point, it almost feels a bit boring.
So next time you’re working on a project and you feel like giving up – congratulate yourself!
Embrace the feeling as a sign that you are playing full out and giving it your all.
Give yourself permission to stop. And step away from the project. Do something else, or just have a break. Take as long as it takes to get some perspective on the situation.
If you have a trusted friend or advisor who knows you and your work really well, ask them for their opinion – is it worth sticking with? Or is it time to walk away?
After enough time has elapsed, weigh the decision in your heart and see if you still have a flicker of enthusiasm for the task. If so, get back to work!
If not – and if you can clearly and honestly see that it’s not going anywhere worthwhile, then walk away with your head held high. There’s no shame in giving up. Plus you now know that when you set your mind to something, you give it your all.
And if you haven’t experienced the feeling of wanting to give up recently… then why not?
Have you really been giving 100% to your work, and stretching yourself with a bold ambition or vision?
And if not, what are you going to do about it?
You can hear an audio version of the article in this episode of The 21st Century Creative podcast, starting at 2’46”.