Thursday, June 28, 2012

Rainy Days and Mondays

There is a persistent myth that highly creative people are mentally ill or emotionally disturbed. It doesn’t take much effort to remember individual examples across many disciplines: John Nash, Vincent Van Gogh, Edvard Munch, Syd Barrett, Brian Wilson, Kurt Vonnegut, Virginia Woolf, and Woody Allen come to mind. However, despite these high profile examples, most creative people are not mentally ill and most mentally ill people do not create great art.

Personally, I believe that there can be great inspiration during the times when we are in emotional pain. I am a fan of Bob Dylan’s music and my favorite album is Blood on the Tracks which was written after the breakup with his wife Sara. While Dylan claims the songs are not autobiographical but based upon the short stories of Anton Chekhov, I don’t believe he could have captured the pain of a breaking and broken relationship so accurately if he hadn’t been feeling that pain at the time.

There is a deep seated need in most of us to experience art that shows real emotion. While it can be invigorating to share the confusion of Lady Gaga when she loses her phone or the joy that Rebecca Black feels on Friday, we long to hear from those with deeper issues.

My life has been strongly influenced by decisions made during periods of depression. Most of the time I am an expert at execution.  Set a sales target - I will find a way to hit it.  Want a new product - I can write the specs and organize the team to get it done. Ready to launch the product with a multi-channel media campaign - no problem. These tasks require far too much concentration on the how and now to leave time for asking why.

Then the questions begin to creep in.  Why am I doing this? Who is this helping?  Who is this hurting? Is this really what I want to be doing? What if I have to do this for the rest of my life? Is this what I want on my tombstone?

Now that I am past 50 and some of my parts seem to be wearing out, there are new questions. How much longer will I be here? Will I ever be able to “x” again? How much longer do I have with the people I love? What’s next?

I used to hate the questions. They were a distraction from the tasks at hand and greatly resented. I blamed external factors, usually the company where I was employed. So I changed jobs and sometimes moved to new cities. Life’s been good to me so far, so most of those decisions turned out pretty well.

I have sometimes laughed to myself that my carefully crafted resume masks the real reason behind some of the changes. In reality, in those periods of depression and reflection, I was more aware of systemic problems and where they would lead in the future. I will never know whether the depression made me more aware or the awareness made me more depressed. But it was not coincidence that the decisions turned out well.

I no longer fight the feelings. I can recognize them now and welcome them like an old friend. I let them wash over me and wonder where they will lead me. Since I have a very supportive family and a wonderful employer, it is senseless to look for external triggers. So I try to identify habits and thought patterns of my own that need adjustment.

They are my feelings.  I will take responsibility for them.

I don’t know if my experience is universal, but I suspect it is. Everyone must experience periods when they ponder the existential questions. Those are the best times to reset your compass bearings and sail off into new adventures.

What brings you down?  How has it impacted your life and your creative decisions?

While you ponder the question, I am going to strum a few chords from Tangled Up in Blue.