Every moment and every event of a man’s life on earth plants something in his soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of men. Most of these unnumbered seeds perish and are lost, because men are not prepared to receive them: for such seeds as these cannot spring up anywhere but the good soil of freedom, spontaneity and love.Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

A successful artist or writer has a great body of work behind them and, if they’re lucky, money, too, but money and a lot of finished products aren’t the sign of a great artist. They’re only a fortunate side-effect. The world is full insipid artists whose work is plastered all over the world’s billboards and subway systems, and it’s full of Emily Dickinson’s, too, whose work is locked in a trunk invisible until, if they’re lucky, someone who loved them liberates it after their death.

So, when you’re in the thick of things, how do you know the work you’re doing is worthwhile?

I don’t mean work habits.

Yes, it’s important to show up.
Yes, it’s important to do the work, even when it’s hard.
Yes, it’s important to keep your promises, even if they’re only to yourself.

But how do you decide whether your project is worth showing up for? How do you decide if your project is worth working hard for? How do you know when it’s better to break a promise than to try to channel Victor Frankenstein and piece something together out of a corpse that died a very long time ago?

Honestly, I don’t know, but I sense that I’m getting a tiny inkling of the answer, and it throws everything that I’ve ever believed about productivity, responsibility, and being an adult out the window. Because I think the answer is that you can’t, at least, not at first.

Sometimes it’s obvious when a seed isn’t going to grow–It’s cracked or smashed or in the belly of a squirrel–but obvious destruction aside, seeds generally look exactly the same when they fall off the plant or out of the seed packet, but many of them will never sprout.

Lately, I’ve been trying to garden in my apartment. One of the plants I attempted to grow was chives. I thought it would be easy because chives grow like weeds in my parents’ front yard, but of twelve seeds that I started, only one of them sprouted and is barely hanging on to life while the lettuce that I had dim hopes for because all of my previous attempts to grow lettuce failed miserably has taken over the windowsill.

If I had been a better gardener, I might have read gardening books or blogs and asked people in the neighborhood what plants have done well for them. I would have researched what exactly “full-sun” means, but doing that would have only increased my odds. I wouldn’t have known until I planted the seeds and waited for them to grow.

So, you never know. You might be the kind of person who will never succeed in growing African violets. Or, you might pick up and move to a new region and find that an aloe plant that did miserably in New Hampshire is threatening to take over the house now that you’re in California.

I’m beginning to think that the creative life is about trying things, intelligently, sure–trying to tightrope walk over between skyscrapers if you’re afraid of heights for instance might be a bad idea–and honestly giving projects a chance to succeed, but with a light hand, being willing to let go and move on when it’s just not working.

“Fail Fast Forward,” Carol Bartz said when she was CEO of Autodesk.*

Try, risk, fail, move on.

Sure, dropping projects every five minutes makes you look like a bit of a flake, but I think it’s important. If most seeds never sprout, it’s possible to spend your whole life laboring over something that will never work, or that will always be sickly and unhappy like my one, lonely chive plant. For a long time, I’ve berated myself for picking up projects and putting them down. I berated myself so much I never finished anything because I was too busy punishing myself for my failures.

A teacher of mine used to tell me, “Follow the heat.” Yoga people say, “Follow the breath.” It means paying attention to what’s alive, what’s growing, where the passion is. It means letting go of what you think should work and paying attention to what’s actually working. It means giving the aloe space to spread out and letting the chive go.

*Say what you will about Carol Bartz’s time at Yahoo!, but those words transformed Autodesk.  

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