Why Bother?

Lessons from Liz Gilbert on the power of sharing your creativity, and the fruits of learning in public.

May 17, 2020

I was up late writing one night, when my wife walked over to my desk and asked: Why are you building a ‘digital garden’?

These days, I spend the majority of my time writing. I’m publishing a weekly newsletter, writing essays, and tweeting daily. Last Sunday, I took it a step further and launched a digital garden to share even more of my writing publicly.

I confidently articulated all the benefits of learning in public to my wife: sharing my process, getting early feedback, and teaching others along the way. She seemed convinced, and went to bed.

But her question still lingered on my mind. Before I knew it, I was in a quicksand of questioning myself:

Why was I spending all this energy on a digital garden?

What am I even trying to achieve with my newsletter?

Is sharing what I learn really worth the effort?

I tried to remind myself of everything I just told my wife, but it didn’t work. Those reasons made sense when I was trying to convince her. Convincing myself was a different matter.

Then, it hit me: I was trying to emulate others.

People I respect were sharing everything they did, so I figured I should do the same. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that line of reasoning just wasn’t good enough. If I was going to keep juggling all these writing projects, I needed a stronger reason why it made sense for me.

In search of answers, I went back to a video I shared in my last newsletter, summarizing Elizabeth Gilbert’s thoughts on learning in public:

It felt like I was seeing it for the first time. I went on to listen to the full interview — I was totally captivated by her words. The timing was just right for me to resonate with them.

Most of all, she gave me a framework for why I need to keep going.

The Pain of Silence

The first idea from Gilbert that really struck me was the cost of not sharing:

Any talent, wisdom or insight you have that you don’t share becomes pain.

When I first heard this, I thought of projects that never saw the light of day. I’d been thinking about some of these ideas for years.

I never considered the cost of carrying them around all this time.

It’s not just about lettings things go — we’re also freeing space for what comes next.

Aligning With Reality

The best part of creativity, Gilbert says, is the “dreaming process” in our imagination. She likens it to building a tourmaline butterfly (a butterfly made of gems) in our imagination. It’s beautiful, adorned with gems, and shimmering in the light.

In our imagination, our ideas are perfect. But when you try to bring them into reality, they can turn into a nightmare. This is true of all creative endeavors.

The first time you try to make it, it will probably look nothing like a butterfly. So, you tell yourself it’s not the right time. You keep it to yourself. Some day, you decide, you’ll let it free. But not today.

We’ve all been caught in this cycle. No matter how far along we are, we still convince ourselves we’re not ready. Hugh Laurie put it best:

It’s a terrible thing, I think, in life to wait until you’re ready. I have this feeling now that actually no one is ever ready to do anything. There is almost no such thing as ready. There is only now. And you may as well do it now. Generally speaking, now is as good a time as any.

The longer we wait to share our work, the more disconnected we become from reality. We hide in our creative cave, sheltering our work from the very feedback it needs to improve.

We need to share in order to connect with others and realign with reality. Otherwise, we risk getting lost in our own web of delusion.

Pursuing Curiosity

I have a lot of different interests, and have been exploring a wide range of topics in my writing. This gives me a lot of different ideas of what to write about, but it also keeps it fun.

My approach runs counter to popular advice for growth. It’s often suggested to pick a single niche, so that it’s clear to your audience the one thing you’re all about. I don’t think this approach is right for me, but a part of me is still worried I’m “doing it wrong”.

The best way to overcome our fear, Gilbert argues, is to embrace our curiosity. It can take years for your true creative path to emerge, but it is the most sustainable and meaningful work you will ever do.

As it turns out, the best way to assuage my fears about being curious, is to keep being curious!

Sometimes I feel like I’m walking in a desert clouded with dust. I want to know what’s on the horizon, but I can’t see how I’ll get there. This is my challenge, and in it lies my opportunity.

For now, all I can do is keep walking.

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Translation of this essay is available in Arabic. Other translations are welcome!