Work, Art & Purpose

—- Conference talk given September 2012 at Circles Conference —-

So many times I have dreams and ideas at night. It’s my most creative time, right before I go to sleep- and it seems safe there, it’s dark, it’s just me and my imagination and I’m not hindered by any resistance. And sometimes I will think of a big, wild idea. One that if I actually did it, it would probably be pretty great.

But then dawn comes, I wake up, and suddenly the dream I had in the dark of night is exposed to light – to revealing, fault-finding, dream evaporating light. And I think of all the reasons I can’t do it. My idea seems silly. Why? Because I’m scared. Because I don’t feel that bold or brave. I meet that ugly Resistance once again. I have created this safe place for myself where I don’t fail, don’t have to take risks or get out of my comfort zone.

We all have the tendency to self-sabotage in one way or another. So today I want to look holistically at our work, art, and purpose and explore 5 things that suck the life out of us, 5 things that fill us, and the driving force behind it all – passion and love.


That’s what we are all here for. To make a careful exploration of who we are and the work we’ve been given and really own it.

Two common attributes: We are all homo sapiens. We are all also homo faber – Latin for “Man the Creator.” We are created beings made in the image of a creative God and have that characteristic of him.

This gift of Creativity allows us to take Work, Art, & Purpose (meaning) and to mesh them together in a cohesive way that there is no distinction where one begins and another ends. Creativity infuses your work, and your work colors everything about your creativity.

Remember, creativity is a holistic approach to life. It is about coming up with solutions to problems that do not seem solvable. It is about seeing beauty and meaning in the mundane.

But even despite the rewarding attributes of living a creative life, the creative life can be hard. It can feel lonely, confusing, murky and vague. We can spend a lot of time just trying to navigate the waters. Who am I? What do I have to contribute?
But on the other side, it can also make us come alive, be fulfilled, be joyous, and make us feel that we are living completely.

Work – Essential to every human is the need for work. It’s what gives us meaning. God created us to work. Every human needs dignity, value and worth – most of don’t really want hand outs. So I think work is a very holy thing. I think that what you do at your work is just as spiritual as that twenty minutes that you have set aside for reading theology or whatever.
Art – we are creatives by definition and we have a different set of eyes in which we see the world and process it – so in that way it is a huge part of who we are. You create because you have a need to make order, to organize things. We arrange pixels, colors, shapes to bring meaning to our message. But we also create because we are lovers of beauty – and want to invite others into that beauty.
Purpose – Then there is purpose. It’s what brings excellence to our work, and intentionality. doing what we do and doing it really well. It’s what gives you the Sistene chapel, a Beethoven symphony. Purpose is taking time, doing a job with love, not churning things out in a rush.
Sweet Spot – So there is a sweet spot where all these circles overlap – work, art, purpose. It’s where we feel the most fulfilled. And the goal in that sweet spot is to pursue a life of passion and calling. Passion is the energy in this equation. It’s the force in our equation that helps us cross the line from living a boring, mundane life like everyone else, into an extraordinary one.

But I’ve discovered that it takes work to get balance in these three circles. It’s weeding out the bad and embracing the good. There are obviously things that feed into us as artists, and things that suck life from us. If we can learn as creatives to take this holistic approach and find that sweet spot, we will do even the small things with greatness and love attached to them – things that will last. Because I’ve come to believe that the only things worth doing are the things that will last.

Things That Suck Life

1. Prestige (fame, reputation, success, or wealth)

Prestige is an enemy of passion – it causes us to work not on what we like, but what we’d like to like.

If you received no money or fame for what you did, would you still do it? This hypothetical question reveals alot about our motives and why we do what we do.

Find the gain in the work itself, not outside it.

You have to occasionally do self-check ups – What are my intentions? What is driving this choice? These will keep you on the right track.

I don’t think you are given money or fame for your own ego, ever. We are stewards of our affluence and of our influence.

In 100 years, noone will care about the clothes I wore, or car I drove or house I lived in. All that matters is who I am before God.

We think we know what success means. A lot of the time our ideas about what it would mean to live successfully are not our own. They’re sucked in from other people. And we also suck in messages from everything from the television to advertising to marketing, etcetera. What I want to argue for is not that we should give up on our ideas of success, but that we should make sure that they are our own.

2. Pride/Ego

In the art world, big egos, selfishness, and self-destructiveness abounds.

Pride refers to an inflated sense of one’s personal status or accomplishments

This is not always easy. By nature of art, we must have an audience, validation from others. We want our work to be recognized and appreciated.

The true antidote to pride is humility. Which is not a popular attribute in our culture. But what makes us humble? Serving. Elevating others before ourselves. Acknowledging our weaknesses/failures. Not gloating in our successes.

Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. ..That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not be served—and then to give away his life… Matthew 20:26-28

But remember giving of ourselves and serving is worth nothing if not motivated by love.

I believe that empathy – the imaginative act of stepping into another person’s shoes and viewing the world from their perspective – is an effective tool for overcoming individualistic narcissism.

As artists, we need to develop the gift of empathy. For some of us, it’s an innate characteristic, but I do believe it can be learned. It needs to be practiced.

The point of your life, if you are a Christian, is to point to Him. Get over yourself – life is not a story about you.

The key for me is acknowledging that “I” don’t own the talent. There is no “me” when I create. My ability to create is simply a gift that flows through me. I don’t own it, I can’t take credit for it. Again, I am a steward of what I’ve been given.

Generosity – don’t white-knuckle your ideas and resources. Don’t be a stingy artist. Be generous with your ideas and know that anything given away is multiplied – it’s a law of the universe. “You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.” (Maya Angelou)

3. Safety (Being Safe/Comfortable, mundane, and commonplace)

We are artists. We should be adventurers, outsiders and rebels who ask questions, who bend the rules and take risks.

But we deal with fear – alot.

Fear isn’t only a guide to keep us safe, it’s also a manipulative emotion that can trick us into living a boring life. (Donald Miller)

You see a numb complacency in our culture today – not many people are willing to stand out and be different.

People will tiptoe through life, just to arrive at death safely. Do not tiptoe. Run, hop, skip or dance, just don’t tiptoe. – Shane Claiborne

Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: Psychology Theory from his 1940 paper, Theory of Human Motivation
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is often portrayed in the shape of a pyramid, with the largest and most fundamental levels of needs at the bottom.

physiological (most basic needs – air, food, water, sleep)
safety – the number two psychological need of a human, yet, it can inhibit creativity

Safety and Security needs include:
Personal security, Financial security, well-being, Safety net against accidents/illness and their adverse impacts

I want to be brave, not safe.

Because even if it’s a flop, tomorrow morning the sun’s gonna come up just the same. Even if it’s a flop tomorrow evening it’s gonna get darker and darker, there will be stars. The world will go right on no matter whether I succeed or fail. So I am suddenly free in a world of amazing possibilities. I can try anything I want to try, because nothing is really at stake.

4. Conforming

Stop conforming. Don’t be centripetal. Centripetal force follows a circular path – much like planets orbiting around the sun. Break out. Don’t follow the crowd and do what everybody else is doing. Be different. You are a unique person. You have a unique voice. We need that unique voice and what you have to contribute to the world. God is a creator, not a duplicator. God never made an Evie before. He never made a you before either.

Anti-conformists have become a stereotype all their own. Even when we are trying to be anti-conformist we can fall into a rut and start to look/act and be like everyone else.

The point is that whether you’re trying mainly to be like other people or trying mainly to not be like other people, either way you’ll be too busy to learn how to try to be yourself.

Be who and what you are. There is no truer starting place for making good and true art.

5. Comparing

Comparing yourself to others in an unhealthy way
It’s easy to look at those around us and consider how far behind we are. -Mandy Steward

Comparison is the thief of joy. (Teddy Roosevelt)
When you start comparing, you become discontent. Discontent with yourself breeds complacency.

I used to spend too much time looking at what other artists are doing and comparing their brilliance to my efforts and ended up making me feel empty instead of full. So many people, incredibly gifted. Is there even room for one more?

There is room for you. There is room for all of us.

I’ve had to for the health of my own creativity, cut out alot of the inspiration I seek on the internet. I’ve never felt more in tune with what my voice is, because I’m not listening to everyone else’s, I’m paying attention to my own.

I’m not saying you should never look at other artists’ work. We need to get to the point where we can admire other artists and be inspired by them, and not harbor feelings of jealousy and inadequacy.

These days I’d much rather go on a walk or visit a beautiful place or even explore an old run down building.


Things that Fill Us

1. Curiousity

I have no special talent, I am just passionately curious. -Albert Einstein

You need to experience a lot of things in order to build up a cache of knowledge in your life.
You need to explore the world around you and have real adventures. And if you don’t come across adventures in your daily life, create some.

You need to read something new, talk to someone new, go somewhere new. It is in the act of creating new experiences that we discover who we are and strengthens our art.

Obviously we are in a visual age; we are reading less. We are not only reading less, we are reading less well: we are not only reading less well, we are losing our capacity to focus and pay attention to the world around us with empathy.

Read more, and more deeply, than ever before. Be choosy about what you read. Find the “meat” in content, and learn to sift out the gold and throw away the dross. Read dead guys books.

Van Gogh was considered “uneducated” in his time (late 1800’s), yet he spoke 5 languages. He had a curious mind and that informed his art gave him a rich and sophisticated visual language.

Learn a new discipline. Something other than what you already do or what you’re already known for. Creativity thrives at the intersection of different disciplines and perspectives. Take ideas from a field totally alien to your own, and find ways to adapt and apply them. Combining and recombining old ideas until you come up with something – original.

2. Mindfulness (a posture of)

As a mother, I don’t always get those moments to sit down and create the art I want, but it’s this posture of mindfulness – enjoying bits of beauty in unexpected places – the way the light falls on my bedroom floor in the morning, my 2 year olds giggle and that sweet dimple that forms in his cheek when he smiles, my 3 year old’s developing curiosity and the way he sees the world, his sense of adventure, and constant cape-wearing.

Those are my life-giving moments when God’s beauty transcends the mundane and everything can be special and amazing – but if I’m not in that mindset I completely miss it.

There doesn’t have to be a separation between daily life and what art is. Everything becomes usable for opening your mind up to things.

3. Limitations (money, time, equipment)

Limitations not only cause us to appreciate what we have, but do more with what we have in new and creative ways by being disciplined, intentional and resourceful.

I don’t have the newest or fanciest gadgets – I embrace it and have learned to work within those limitations. I think my creativity thrives more, because I can push the limits on my equipment to get unique results.

Examples: Emily Dickinson wrote 1800 poems on her 18″ by 18″inch desk. She worked and labored all day at home, took care of her ailing mother and got up at 3 am to write everyday. Van Gogh rarely pain­ted with more than six colors on his palette and painted all the paintings in three years.

It’s not the time or resources you have, but being prepared so that when you are given time and even a small space, you can use that time and space effectively. There’s no corre­la­tion bet­ween crea­ti­vity and equip­ment ownership. None. Fancy tools just gives the second-rater one more pillar to hide behind.
Which is why there are so many second-rate designers with state-of-the-art Macs.
Which is why there are so many crappy pho­to­graphers with state-of-the-art digi­tal came­ras.
Which is why there are so many unre­mar­ka­ble pain­ters with expen­sive stu­dios in trendy neigh­borhoods.
Hiding behind pillars, all of them.
Pillars do not help; they hin­der. The more mighty the pillar, the more you end up rel­ying on it psycho­lo­gi­cally, the more it gets in your way. (Hugh McLeod)

It is impossible to be an artist and not care for laws and limits. Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame. The artist loves his limitations: they constitute the thing he is doing. -Orthodoxy (G.K. Chesterton)

4. Simplicity

There is a story of a young family that didn’t have much money but loved the water, so they bought a 15-ft wide piece of land that sloped down to the San Diego Bay. T kids asked their dad if they could have a boat. They couldn’t afford a boat and a house, so they bought the land, put a portapotty on it, and lived in tents for two years, so they could afford to have a boat. It was one of the happiest times of their lives.

Simplicity gives you more freedom. More freedom, more time, more margin.

Think about how you can edit your life. Simplify. Cut the extraneous. We live in a culture of excess. We have way too much of everything, and “stuff” can really weigh us down.

How much free­dom does your path afford you? Be utterly ruth­less about it this question.
It’s your free­dom that will get you to where you want to go.

Again, don’t let culture define what you need to have, how you need to look, and how you need to live. If you are really serious about doing what is most important to you, you need to figure out what you are willing to do without in order to get there.

5. Adversity

Just imagine your life as a story. Realize that great stories are told in conflict, (If you are in conflict right now) embrace the potential greatness of the story you are in. (Donald Miller, paraphrased) God is a master storyteller. He can make even the ugliest messes into something beautiful.

The whole point of the story is the character arc. Joy doesn’t change a person. Conflict does. Joy is what you feel when the conflict is over. Sometimes going through adversity is the only way we change. That’s the only way we are refined.

Janet Echelman, a painter, went to India to exhibit her works and discovered that her paints went missing in route from the U.S. to India. This experience forces her to learn a new art material. Now, she makes monumental, fluidly moving sculpture for urban airspace.

Dale Chihuly is a glass sculptor. In 1976 he was involved in a head-on car accident during which he flew through the windshield. He was blinded in his left eye. The loss of depth perception forced him to look at the art of glassblowing differently. He departed from the traditional symmetry standard, experimenting with these organic asymmetric sculptures he is now known for.

Accept the setback. It may be just what you need to take a step in a direction you would not otherwise have taken.

Let’s talk about Passion (doing what you are passionate about)
Passion is the energy, love is the driving force behind it all.
If you aren’t passionate about anything you are doing, then you need to find it.

Ian Ruhter fell in love with photography when he was younger. But as he grew older he began to tire of the same old cameras, the same old photography techniques, and the same old photos that everyone was taking. So he did something truly creative: he took his life savings and converted an old delivery truck into a giant, mobile camera.

It costs him an average of $500 to make a single print, and he had to give up everything else he had to make the truck a reality. But Ian says it’s all worth it.

Makes you wonder about what you would do for your own creative passion.

“If you had been searching your whole life for something you love, and you found it, what would you be willing to sacrifice?” -Ian Ruhter

“Find something more important than you are, and dedicate your life to it.” -philosopher Dan Dennett

What is that something? Well, hopefully you are already doing it. But if not, it’s probably going to be something you are a little bit afraid of. Yes, I love what I do. But there are things that have been lurking in my heart to do but I just haven’t done. They are things worth giving my life to.

We have to remind ourselves: What was that moment when time stood still? I lost myself and I found myself.

If you haven’t experienced that, then keep looking. And don’t give up until you’ve found it. What’s in your hand? What are you good at? Are you willing to lay it down so God can do what he wants with it?

But you need to find a place to do what you are most passionate about. Passion can be consuming if there is not an outlet. It can completely stall you out.


The difference between other animals around us and ourselves seems to be that dogs and cats and birds and other animals don’t have to struggle to be good at what they are. But we human beings somehow have to struggle to become what we are.
Our being is to become. We experience ourselves as unfinished, that’s our glory and our agony. We remain open-ended.

But I love that God doesn’t stop making us. We are that lump of clay on the wheel of the potter. We are constantly being created by our experiences, relationships, and circumstances (good and bad). So in essence, we, are God’s work of art if we submit ourselves to him.

It is difficult. And it can be scary, but remember these things as you seek to find purpose in your work and art.

Cut out the things that suck life.
Fill yourself with the things that give life.
Do what you are passionate about.
And do it for purpose not fame, ego, or what is in it for you.
Remember to love, or it is all worthless.
Be wild and imaginative. Take risks.
Release your ideas to the light of day.
Face resistance. Face your fears… and that ugly inner critic.
If necessary, re-invent yourself.
Each morning is a new chance to do what you’ve never done.
Each morning is a fresh opportunity for purpose.


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