“Will I face the fear of today or the regret of forever?”
Jon Acuff, the first keynote speaker at the World Domination Summit, was sharing his story of how he overcame his fear of becoming a writer and eventually became a bestselling author of five books. One of them was fittingly titled Start: Punch Fear in the Face, Escape Average. The audience, who were gathered in Portland’s beautiful Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, murmured and nodded their heads in agreement. I was soaking it all in, scribbling notes in my workbook. As a writer, everything Acuff said resonated with me. It’s like he was speaking directly to me and not to the thousands of other aspiring writers, bloggers, authors, and creatives in the room.
“Your voice is never lost; it’s always waiting to be found.”
The theater erupted in applause. Acuff grinned as our host Chris Guillebeau came out to shake his hand. It was clear that this was not the first time he had delivered this talk. He had a boyish humor and sincere way of telling stories, whether joking about his children or throwing in some self-deprecating anecdotes about his struggle to find peace with his writing and insecurities. As inspiring as a TED talk, he had done his job with opening up the World Domination Summit that July 2015. He encouraged us all to dream bigger and believe that our creative selves just needed to surpass our fears before it could really soar. In that moment, surrounded by the positive energy of the cheering crowd, it all felt true.
It was my husband who encouraged me to finally attend that summer’s World Domination Summit. Ever since I began blogging and writing years ago, I had heard of this annual gathering of creatives, writers, and lifestyle entrepreneurs. I aspired to be like them, but I never saw myself at the level where I could join their community. Late December of 2014, we both decided to go for it.
Another important thing happened to me before we flew to Portland and began our nearly one-month excursion to the Pacific Northwest. While working on a creative video project for work, I serendipitously discovered a graduate program – the online Masters in Instructional Science & Technology program at CSU Monterey Bay. I had been searching for the next step in my career, especially one that let me combine my creativity and educational skills. It seemed perfect. My full-time job would cover the tuition, my boss was supportive of the program, and it was fully online. That spring, I applied, and I was accepted into the program.
With both WDS and MIST on the horizon for me that summer, I felt like I was on the cusp of a creative and professional breakthrough. I was bursting with optimism for what would come next in my career and life.
While I was in Portland, Oregon for WDS, a tiny seed was planted. It was so small that I didn’t notice it at first. I couldn’t yet know that it would blossom and spread like dandelions in the next several weeks and months to come. But it happened sometime during Day 3 of WDS with another full day of listening to a line up of talented, inspiring speakers. Everyone who spoke had an amazing story to tell of how they lived an unconventional life and career – able to turn the loss of loved ones and moments of trauma into a calling to create and to serve others. We laughed, cried, and cheered alongside the speakers. Their stories resonated with vulnerability. They were daring greatly in the arena of the stage and of their lives. These people were our role models, our champions who proved it could be true. A true passion, a calling, a vocation existed for us if we were willing to take risks to discover it. We could do anything we wanted. We could leave the safety net of our 9 – 5 jobs and travel the world and find ourselves again. We could put everything on the line for the sake of pursuing our art. Our art could change the world. The energy in the room pulsated with this hope.
And then I noticed something odd. Beyond the hungry eyes of the attendees, the ones who could cite passages from Tim Ferriss’s The Four Hour Work Week, the couple who was traveling the world for one year, the ones who were writing a memoir, the gentleman who proclaimed that he had attended WDS every year in search of his passion. Beyond the impassioned calls from the speakers – whether on stage, or in their books, their programs, or in their podcasts – for us to pursue our calling, whether it be in art, writing, or business. Beyond all of that passion lurked a layer of discontentment. One that could never be satiated, no matter how many countries they visited, how many books they wrote, how many businesses they ran, how many fans they impacted. This approach seemed like the unconventional version of climbing the success ladder. Instead of money as the fuel, it was the need for constant fulfillment and achievements. The tiny seed came with a cautious message. Is that life really what I wanted?
I tried to shake it away. I took more notes and let the words of the speakers seep in. I tried to be in the moment of WDS – this long awaited event I’d envisioned years ago. I was crazy to stop this momentum now. Not when I was in a conference surrounded by my tribe of creatives. Not when I was about to hit a breakthrough in my work and professional life. And yet, it stayed. My intuition knew – the ball of truth that rested in my gut knew – this path would not make me happy.
For the next several weeks after my trip, I felt like I was waking up from a foggy, hypnotic dream. Except I was now part of a world I no longer recognized. A mirror was held up to me, and I felt betrayed by its reflection.
I had always been driven by the pursuit of a meaningful career. A calling. It was that drive that led me to write, go through graduate school, take up freelance writing, start a blog, dabble in a side business, teach a course at a community college, and be involved in conferences and volunteer organizations. I was always adding another layer to the never-ending resume of my life’s work. I read business and productivity books and blogs, I listened to creative and professional podcasts, and I was always brainstorming ideas for new businesses and projects to start. But that summer, when I came home, I stopped completely. I stopped reading, I stopped writing, I stopped creating, and I stopped pursuing. And while it was a long, complicated decision involving other personal factors, I also dropped out of my MIST graduate program. I no longer had the heart to pursue any of it.
That summer, I had indeed reached a breakthrough in my career and creative work, and it was one that changed the trajectory of my life that year.
Now a gaping hole lingered where these projects and pursuits once lived comfortably in my daily existence. I actually had free time to reclaim! And instead of seeking productive ways to use this time, I could now refocus on what was fun. Freeing. Fulfilling.
For the next several months, I used this energy to restore my body and my spirit. I went for hikes and joined a running group, attended group fitness classes on a regular basis, and attempted intimidating new activities like bouldering and pole-dancing. It felt good to be out of my head. To stop building my resume for some unknown future career. To stop hustling.
I spent quality time with loved ones, who for too long, were seen as “affectionate distractions” to my writing and career endeavors. I spent more time with my husband and hanging out with our friends, whether it was spontaneous day trips to Santa Cruz beach grilling mussels or a weekend exploring San Francisco. I spent time with my younger sister as she prepared for her October wedding, visiting her in LA for a sisters’ weekend, getting our nails done together, and helping her prepare for an intense night of cake pop making. I helped my best friend shop for her daughter’s first-year birthday party and got to be the photographer on that special day. For my friend’s baby shower, I coordinated baby shower games and helped set-up the party with her sister. Clearly, a lot of life milestones happened that fall and winter for many of the people I loved. Milestones that, in the past, I would have been too busy to fully participate in. This break allowed me to be present for all of it. It gave me the space to appreciate my life just as it was.
The break lasted for nearly half a year. I like to think of that period as a forced creative sabbatical. Sometime in April, I felt the urge to write again. The once-familiar sense to write and create slowly returned, like tired joints coming back to life after they had fallen asleep. It can be a little painful in the beginning. Time had granted me a safe distance from the emotional turbulence of last summer. When I was caught up in the the thick of my day-to-day life, it was hard to see the bigger picture. To find the lesson in the experience. But time and a bit of insight had given me something to say. It feels full-circle that my first piece is sharing this story of how I left and found writing again.
I’m welcoming my creativity back like an old friend. Happy to catch up and see how much has changed since the last time we were in each other’s lives.