“Golf is magic and so is the process of writing a book. Keats spoke of “negative capability.” He meant the ability to keep functioning with confidence even when you don’t know where you are or where you’re going. That’s writing, or any creative enterprise.”
- Steven Pressfield, The Authentic Swing
We all possess negative capability. You might say it’s in our genes.
The problem is that our capitalist-ridden society doesn’t support the idea of doing something without a fixed outcome, and normally one associated with a financial return. (Some of you might prefer to think of it as the acronym WIIFM – What’s in it for me?) We’re conditioned to believe in cause and effect: you pull this lever and…,hey presto, out pops this neat little outcome.
But if we stand back for a while, and think less about the outcome and ask ourselves why we do what we do, there will, undoubtedly, be a more nuanced reflection than the money answer. Something is pulling us towards what we do, even if we only see it as a means to an end. Think of this as negative capability ‘lite’, in the sense that even if you’re doing what you’re doing by dint of planning for retirement or a better future, you can’t possibly predict what’s round the corner. In part at least, you’re operating on instinct.
A brief seque from my childhood…
When I was growing up my parents were apt to ask me (constantly), “What do you want to do [with the rest of your life]?” I didn’t use profanity but my answer was nearly always the same: “How the hell do I know.” And I was deadly serious. I didn’t have a bloody clue.
I don’t blame them but they were of the industrial mindset where, ipso facto, we were supposed to place our trust in the system, and the rest, as they say, would look after itself – a career, stability, money and, eventually retirement. In the end I did a series of jobs – engineering, sales and law – in the naive hope that I would find my mojo and be happy in my work. As you know from my previous writing, despite my best efforts, I left all of them feeling empty.
Back to negative capability.
Like many people of my generation, they’ve discovered that living the (faux) dream comes at a price; namely, they go to work for no reason other than the money. Yes, there might be a smidgen of job satisfaction but nowhere near where it should be i.e. work and life coalesce. You might think me cynical, and I suppose to an extent I am, only because I find it so monumentally frustrating that employers never get close to understanding their people, and certainly way off the position that might enable them to realise their dreams (for a wonderful illustration of how this might work you could do worse than read the Dream Manager by Matthew Kelly).
I left law in 2010 – it was the high point of my so-called career. For a while, I took the easy option and decided to work in business development. Running alongside of this was my passion for social media. In the early days, I was lucky and spent my time speaking to people about the huge benefits that would befall them if only they embraced the paradigm. After about a year, I cut the Gordian knot and went out on my own. In that period I continued to speak on social media, did some training and a bit of consultancy. All the time though I was blogging and writing poetry. When I look back now, I was operating with great gobs of negative capability. If anyone asked me what I did for a living I couldn’t explain things. I usually waffled my way through the conversation but in truth I felt like I was back to the same position I was all those years ago with my parents. However, this time, there was one huge difference – I was following my creative bent.
I’d like to say that my muse was whispering sweet nothings in my ear and supporting me every step of the way. But that wasn’t the case. Every blog I wrote, every poem I posted and every talk I gave felt new but it didn’t have any clear objective. Looking around me, I could see that there were more and more people moving into the space but I didn’t have any ambition to build some uber consulting business. In fact, I’ve never been comfortable with the idea of entrepreneurship. At the risk of blowing smoke up my rear, I would much rather be thought of as a writer or better still an artist.
But how does this soliloquy help you?
Simply this. Inside of you, buried deep, is another you. That other ‘person’ is gifted – a genius in fact. You possess a talent that remains untapped by dint of the fact that see it only through economic lenses. You don’t see it for what it is; namely an extension of the real you. But what if I told you that negative capability is your touchstone to realising your genius potential. What would you do? Would you continue to ignore that voice or sensation that rises up more often than you care to acknowledge? Or would you dive in and have a go?
This isn’t about fear of failure or doing your best work. This is simply about doing something. Of course it means finding the time, but you’d have no excuse for putting it off any longer.
In my case, the most important revelation is that in doing something that was buried within me (my passion as a child was to draw and write), I’ve begun to see a new person emerge. One much more content with who they are as a human being. It’s not like my internal mind has gone to sleep, but it’s quietened to the point where I now feel I need only rely on it for the practical, doing things that I have to deal with on a day to day basis.
What I’m saying is that if you’re willing to let go and follow your instinct, sooner or later, like a butterfly emerging forth, your life will take on new meaning. Possibly, you don’t have to play the memory tapes to reignite the unlived life, but it’s amazing the number of people I meet who wax lyrical about something they did in the past; it’s not always creative but there is a definite bias in that area.
This isn’t easy. But when you’re not compelled to follow your inner spirit for economic gain, and you envelop your doing in negative capability, it makes things so much easier. Even if you only have five minutes, as long as you do something that taps the genius part of your soul, it’s highly likely that things will blossom to the point that you end up having a serious question with yourself why you left it so long.
I know we all procrastinate, and doing something on instinct may not be enough to break the cycle of ‘there’s always tomorrow’, but if, like me, you have this overwhelming need to create, then tomorrow will always be too late. I have to do something now, even if that means getting up early or going to bed late. I have no choice.
There are days when I’m not on the money, but these are few and far between. I know the more I apply myself the more likely it is that I will discover who I am.
It doesn’t matter if that brings forth a label that others can affix – writer etc. – as long as I can look myself in the mirror and know that I tried that’s good enough for me.