Flourish: The Pursuit of a Life Well-Lived

Flourish by Lohb, on Flickr Not too long ago I had the honor of kicking off the School House Craft conference in Seattle with a keynote talk about what it means to flourish as a creative entrepreneur. The conference focused largely on developing business skills and teaching the attendees how to be more successful as independent small business owners, and I was eager to take a step back and set the money-making aside to examine the foundations for a life well-lived. Allow me to offer up some of the key points I covered along with some examples, quotes, works cited, and links to further reading.

The Sum of Your Influences

I am who I am because of everyone by tantek, on Flickr

Austin Kleon writes that everything we've experienced along our journey contributes to who we are as an individual amidst others. He says:

Just as you have a familial genealogy, you also have a genealogy of ideas. You don't get to pick your family, but you can pick your teachers and you can pick your friends and you can pick the music you listen to and you can pick the books you read and you can pick the movies you see. You are, in fact, a mashup of what you choose to let into your life. You are the sum of your influences.

—Austin Kleon, Steal Like an Artist

Along the journey of collected influences, we also tend to experience epiphanies of some kind. They could be affirmation that what we're doing is right, they could be an overwhelming sense of community and belonging, they could deliver new knowledge and understanding about something that we've been chewing on for some time. Whatever the epiphany, we must pay attention! Think of them as signposts along an uncharted life path.

Eudaimonia: It's All Greek to Me

frills by MarkyBon, on Flickr

A few weeks ago I discovered a new word—eudaimonia—which is often used to describe something better and more noble than happiness. In fact, I would say that our translation of it into modern English is somewhat lacking. The term came about in Ancient Greece and was the subject of great debate among philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates.

The word itself is translated as the highest and most desirable pursuit for human beings—a life well-lived, doing well and living well, and more than just happiness. The argument among the great philosophers arose when defining the components of a well-lived life. Was it pure hedonism? Pure virtue? Or was a magical combination of the two?

Regardless of what the ancients thought, the term has resurfaced today, often in reference to psychological well-being though more notably related to the antithesis of our current economic state. Bill McKibben writes about the concept without naming it in Deep Economy as he examines the need for our hyper-individualistic society to return to a sense of community and life balance. Economist Umair Haque writes about the need for a "Eudaimonic Revolution," offering it as a solution to the extravagant consumerism of our time:

I believe the quantum leap from opulence to eudaimonia is going to be the biggest, most significant economic shift of the next decade, and perhaps beyond: of our lifetimes. We're not just on the cusp of, but smack in the middle of nothing less than a series of revolutions, aimed squarely at the trembling status quo (financial, political, social): new values, mindsets, and behaviors, fundamentally redesigned political, social, economic, and financial institutions; nothing less than reweaving the warp and weft of not just the way we live—but why we live, work, and play…. We are the creators of the future.

—Umair Haque, "How Will You Measure Your Life?," Harvard Business Review

I believe that creatives like us have a huge advantage to participating in this revolution. When we work for ourselves, impacts on the economy and on our culture reverberate more quickly and dramatically (ask any jewelry artist about the effect of the spike in silver value after the Tōhoku earthquake in 2011). Art is environment—changes to the landscape around us reflect more quickly because as artists we interpret what we see around us in what we make.

Eudaimonia in Modern Psychology

Untitled by Navy Blue Stripes, on Flickr

In the mid 1990s, Dr. Carol Ryff at the University of Wisconsin brought the concept of eudaimonia—the life well-lived—back into the framework of psychology by analyzing the measures of a eudaimonic state and putting together a self-guided test that evaluates one's psychological well-being. She broke the concept into six relevant components:

  1. Autonomy: Have confidence in your opinions.
  2. Personal Growth: Believe in the importance of new experiences that challenge how you think about yourself and the world.
  3. Self-Acceptance: Like most aspects of your personality.
  4. Purpose in Life: Some people wander aimlessly through life—don't be one of them.
  5. Environmental Mastery: Take charge of the situation in which you live.
  6. Positive Relations with Others: Believe in being a giving person, and be willing to share your time with others.

I believe that these components create the perfect foundation not just for psychological well-being, but for a creative life well-lived. Let's look at some key statements along with an illustrative example or quote for each of the six facets of eudaimonia.

1. Autonomy

Saint Patrick's Day Matches by Bob.Fornal, on Flickr

Question the status quo. Never stop asking why. Own your authority. Don't let common belief or societal pressure lead you to doing something that goes against your own beliefs.

Mexican painter Frida Kahlo made her own decisions despite the world around her telling her no. When her husband, muralist Diego Rivera, continued to make his own decisions, they built a divided house—two towers, one red for Diego, one blue for Frida, connected by a bridge between the two. The bridge symbolized her independence and her use of it was of her own choosing, not his.

When life cheats on you, stand up for yourself and make your own decisions.

2. Personal Growth

Enlightenment Room, British Museum by mendhak, on Flickr

Assimilate, devour, steal like an artist. Grow your business (and your life) with intent. Make calculated decisions. Admitting that you don't know the answer is okay. Doing so opens your mind to the possibilities.

Web designer Simon Collison writes about the importance of continuous learning and experimentation:

Craftsmen and craftswomen discover through doing: honing their skills over a significant period of time with substantial commitment.They understand the importance of mistakes, and while they are prepared to throw away perhaps 70 percent of what they do in pursuit of the magical 30 percent, they still see that the entire 100 percent is important. Our hope, as we work, is that peers, clients, and audiences will appreciate good craftsmanship amidst the vastness of indifference and thoughtless production by numbers. Craftsmanship makes our work more meaningful to us. It also spreads the perception that our profession is valuable and even irreplaceable.

Truly creative people have an unswerving need to inquire into their craft more deeply. Simply performing the core tasks admirably day by day is rarely satisfaction enough. They desire to broaden their influences, draw upon wider fields of knowledge, make connections and discoveries, and find new outcomes.

—Simon Collison, "Maturity and the Weight of Learning," The Manual, Volume One

3. Self-Acceptance

quand je serai grande, je serai... by Frabuleuse, on Flickr

I think Dr. Ryff's definition of self-acceptance is weak, so I offer this in its place: Know your strengths, know your weaknesses. Learn from your mistakes instead of blaming yourself. Feel whole as a person and be honest with yourself.

My good friend Betsy Cross has always amazed me with her humble and self-accepting personality. In five years as a jewelry designer, she's skyrocketed from being one woman in her 10' x 10' studio to owning a retail shop with her husband and employing five people on staff. With more than 100 wholesale accounts across the country, her expansion and success is inspiring. But despite it all, she is down-to-earth, shy, and genuine.

The universe aligned just the day before I gave this keynote address, because she published a guest post on The Maven Circle blog about her weaknesses. An excerpt:

One of my biggest flaws is worrying: about being wrong, about producing something wretched, about not being a good enough leader (boss, wife, friend, influence, listener, etc.) about… errrr… not being perfect? I have spent many an hour worrying that I’m worrying too much. GAH! And finally, I worry that the worst of the worst is true: I’m a fraud…

I’ll browse the Internet looking at my peers’ work, comparing myself and end up thinking something futile, like–I’m not really a designer at all. I think so often we get caught up in labels. Like, in my case, whether or not I’m a true "designer".

I remember in the very beginning I realized how “real” designers typically designed by seasons and they have such a cool way of presenting that to the world, e.g. f/w 2012, s/s 2012. I remember the panic setting in when I first understood what “F/W” meant. I felt constrained by that. I didn’t see myself in that world. So I decided to create my own.

I think sometimes it's understanding one's flaws, failures, and pains that leads to one's greatest discoveries.

You see, that’s IT! The answer lies in the question. The reason why I’m –gasp– an innovator is because (when I’m at my best) I’ve canned any expectations that there is a right way to do any of this. Well, because there’s not a right way. When I’m at my best, I listen and do.

Therein lies the crux—one must jump HARD and fly to even begin to see if there is something there. One must believe there is something there. Then take every moment to see it, experience it, live it, be it—TUNING IN.

—Betsy Cross, "Creating, Innovating, and Rule Breaking," The Maven Circle blog

4. Purpose in Life

Luminous Forest Ground by Miguel Virkkunen Carvalho, on Flickr

Epiphanies are those key moments when we're realizing that something is true. These epiphanies help guide us, and as we identify what they are and how they've come to us, we can start to thread together a path and a trajectory. Epiphanies can help you determine your WHY.

Simon Sinek offers up what he calls the Golden Circle as a means to call us back to the root of everything we do. Too often we are focused on WHAT we do or HOW we do it, but as he illustrates in his book Start With Why, honing in on our guiding philosophy and the big reason WHY we do what we do, we establish a belief system that can help others better understand and better believe in us as artists. This gives us purpose and allows us to lead the way.

5. Environmental Mastery

I See the Sea by M___a___r___k, on Flickr

Being able to adapt to the situation in which you find yourself allows for flexibility and agility in an ever-changing landscape. This comes down to one of my key manifestos: Pay attention and give a shit. Identifying opportunity and using observation, analysis, and wit to your advantage will allow you to see what others do not and do what others can only dream of.

We've all experienced the frustration of trying desperately to get a photocopy machine to work properly. This relatively simple mechanical intelligence is forever at odds with human interaction, and it surprises me that to this day they are overly complicated and unfriendly. (Can you imagine a copy machine designed by Jonathan Ive?)

Xerox PARC was one of the first corporations to bring in social sciences (anthropology, psychology, sociology, ethnography, et al) to observe, study, and analyze the way that people interact with their machines. What surprises me is that despite the findings of their group of experts, I still don't see the problems with human–copier interaction as being resolved.

…What [the study] did reveal is much more profound: [Lucy] 
Suchman’s analysis showed that the concept that drove the design of the copier’s user interface—namely, that the machine could "know" what its users were trying to do based on sensory input and a predefined user model—was fundamentally flawed.
 The video showed that rather than the machines understanding and responding to user behaviors, people (not the supposedly intelligent machine) were actually the ones trying to understand how the machine was going to respond to their actions. Drawing on ethnomethodology and conversation analysis, Suchman argued that underlying AI model of "plan" and then "act" is not really how people work.
 Ultimately, what the machine sees/knows/is aware of is not the same as what the user sees/knows/is aware of. The trouble arises when "design" is unaware of that divergence.

—PARC, "Busting the Myth of the Giant Green Button, A brief lesson of corporate ethnography," UX Magazine

6. Positive Relations with Others

Cobija: Corporativa al atardecer by ►Milo►, on Flickr

I must acknowledge before going any further into this section that there's a bandwagon out there telling us that all technology does is rot our brains and destroy our relationships. Honestly, though, the benefits of it are clear to me—technology is incredible and helps us in countless ways. But we must remember that the Internet can sometimes be nothing more than electronic high fructose corn syrup. So it's time for a little iBroccoli: Social interaction online is puppetry. Or, as Chris Guillebeau has said, "social media are mere reflections of real life."

Writer and designer Frank Chimero describes the importance of viewing the internet as interconnected people (not nodes of information):

When the network became social, it was dumb. It lacked nuance. The social network was based on our idea of ourselves and technology. When we think of ourselves, we picture our complex inner monologues: we believe that we are not simple but rather complex, romantic, self-contradicting—beautiful messes. We say this is what makes us human. But what if we're wrong? What if we pull back the veil to discover that perhaps we are not so complex, but instead we are the opposite?

Technology runs counter to our personhood; technology is complicated and shallow, but people are simple and deep. Our true needs are not complex… We want to be understood.

—Frank Chimero, "The Space Between You and Me," The Manual, Volume One

As artists we tend to isolate ourselves and the DIY mentality may encourage us to pile more and more tasks upon us to the point where we can become martyrs. We need to get out of the house into situations where we are interacting with people face to face. The internet cannot replicate facial gestures, subtle emotions, the human touch, or any of those things that allow us to empathize and connect on a truly emotional level. And when this is achieved in real life, we are more attuned to the needs of our community, to those around us, and we're more likely to reach out and give of our time to our peers.

The Eudaimonic Life

ExplosionGlow by TyMotion, on Flickr

We may be seeking in the immediate to amplify our creative businesses, but without a strong foundation, we won't be successful in our long-term, subconscious quest for the life well-lived. It's not just hedonism, and it's not pure virtue. Eudaimonia is about autonomy, personal growth, self-acceptance, purpose in life, environmental mastery, and positive relations with others.

Eudaimonia is a life well-lived. Eudaimonia is more than just happiness. Eudaimonia is more that just financial success. Eudaimonia is doing well and living well. Eudaimonia is flourishing.

So go forth. FLOURISH.