You wouldn’t expect a commercial about an American truck to capture the simplicity of a Zen master or teach us about living a life of creativity, but it does. (No, Middle Aged Crazy is not sponsored by Chevrolet now, I did embed the commercial, in case you haven’t seen it:)
“What do you do?” the new neighbor asks and our hero, a Chevy owner, can’t come up with a simple answer. How wonderful! (By the way Chevy, send the checks here, to the office).
Language, after all, is a shortcut. “I’m thinking about a tall living being that is made of wood, covered in bark, that has an amazing biological system which produces a means for regeneration and provides the earth with oxygen” is better said as, “I’m thinking about a tree.” The word tree is a label, a linguistic shortcut that makes communication possible, everyone knows what you mean when you say tree. Or do they? Some might think dogwood, others redwoods, others citrus. “A tree” is a generalization, not a perfect description. Does the tree have leaves? Is it a fir tree? Is it artificial? Language is a shortcut. after all.
While labels are convenient, they can inhibit creativity because once we have a label, we go with the picture we have in our mind. If I am telling you about climbing a tree, you visualize your own picture of a tree, perhaps much different than the Sequoia I climbed. In the commercial, our hero will not give his new neighbor a convenient label and good for him! Rather than define himself by his profession, as the neighbor expects, he sees his whole life, his passions, his family, his fun and his work. (It must be the truck!)
In Zen, this is called the Beginner’s Mind, it is a mind that sees the world without labels. For creatives, beginner’s mind is the reason young artists often produce more exciting work than experienced artists, they haven’t reduced their creative process to labels based on past experience. Artists stay fresh by asking “Why? and “What if?” they see the world through different filters than the rest of us. It’s easier to solve problems and create solutions if you see the them with fresh eyes.
When I suggest that artists need to “Stay defiant” I am not talking about being cranky or intolerant, I am suggesting that artists should stay in Beginners Mind, that they should question everything. As you read the following labels, see if someone you know or if some celebrity comes to mind when I mention them:
Liberal, conservative, Catholic, Mormon, beautiful, handicapped, old, alcoholic, adulterer, successful, loving…
Isn’t it unfair to the people you thought of to sum up their existence in one word? Even the person who is the most extreme example of each of these traits has a certain amount of complexity and humanity. Everyone is doing the best they know how. How many different labels should there be? One for every person on the planet, that’s how many! Labels are the beginning of prejudice.
Not long ago, I happened to see a local news report about traffic in Orlando. They interviewed a random person on the street and, this person, who got the BIG moment, to be on TV, was identified by the following caption: “Pedestrian.” Wow, talk about a limiting label! Everything in this person’s existence and life was summed up in the most pedestrian of labels: Pedestrian!
I’ve long said, if you don’t define yourself, someone else will. And, I suggest, now is the time to identify yourself by your passions, not by what you do to get a check.
I’d also suggest that keeping a Beginner’s Mind is one of the best ways to keep the label “Creative”. Now I’m going to go drive my Hyundai to the levee: