Jessica Gross
March 15, 2016 8:36 am
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For most of my life, I’ve been dogged by two competing impulses. On the one hand, I tend to over-focus on the distant future—to create grand, faraway expectations for myself. On the other hand, I chafe against those plans. Their very bigness and far-away-ness quickly sours; rather than inspiring me, these goals start to feel impossible, and I throw my hands up in despair. Besides, the truth is I hate to be told what to do, even by myself.

But the greatest pleasures in my life have emerged not because I created a Big Plan, and then set out to achieve it. They aren’t things I would’ve even thought to plan. They emerged out of doing the next thing and then the next and then the next, and being open, even just a tiny bit, to surprise and deviation. Contrary to my fearful belief in the power of the plan, and of boot-camping myself into submission, it’s when I’ve allowed myself the indulgence of immersion in the task at hand that I’ve enjoyed it. That contentment has allowed me to do a “better”—more genuine, more me—job, which has led me in an unexpectedly excellent direction.

I listen to a lot of interviews with artists, and I’ve started looking out for those who eschew long-term plans in favor just doing the thing in front of them and practicing faith that good things will follow. Herewith, a selection of quotes I’ve collected.

Please note: I’m not saying this is at all easy, or even comfortable. After Tracy Clayton, host of Another Round, described how her own life path has repeatedly (and beautifully) surprised her, she admitted to the extreme discomfort of going with the flow: “I hate not knowing what’s going to happen to me.” But when I’ve fought that need to know and let myself give in, it’s been worth it.

“As far as I’m concerned, I want to just spend this last decade, decade and a half, twenty years, doing what I think is valuable. I don’t have any career path anymore. I’m totally off the career path. The beautiful thing is that I just don’t have any more fucks to give.”

– Brooke Gladstone on the Longform Podcast, 2016

“I didn’t set the bar very high for myself, I’ll be honest. I didn’t have a vision. I just wanted to be employed, and I was willing to do almost everything short of pornography to continue working as an actor. I know that’s a pretty horrible image.”

– Steve Carell, interviewed in The New York Times Magazine, 2015

“There’s almost a necessary amnesia that happens; otherwise, you’d never take on a novel. My friend just became a mom, and it’s a little like that: It couldn’t be a decision made in noon light—you have to sidle into it. Writing stories feels like that, like you need to make it into a game or a joke. You need to create a paradox where writing feels playful and aimless.”

– Karen Russell, interviewed in Pasatiempo, 2015

“There was a guy named Lucian Hold who was the booker at this club in New York called the Comic Strip. He’s passed away, but he was an interesting character, he was very honest—brutally so. And I remember early on, I’d been doing standup for a couple of years, and I hadn’t gotten onto a late night show yet. […] I called Lucian and I was like, ‘Hey, I want you to watch my set. I think I’ve gotten better and I want you to see it, and I want to make a tape and I want you to tell me what you think.’ This is after I’d been passed or whatever, where he’d seen me and said I could work at the club—maybe a year or so after that. So I do the set and I’m like, ‘So, what do you think?’ and he’s like, ‘Yeah, you’re definitely getting better, it’s coming along, good job.’ And I was like, ‘Okay, so, do you think I should send this to a manager, or, y’know, should I try to send this to the Late Night Show, or whatever?’ and he just said, ‘Don’t worry about any of that. Just keep doing your shows, keep getting better, everything else will take care of itself.’ And I was like, ‘Okay.’ And he was totally right. That’s the only advice you need to know.”

– Aziz Ansari on the Nerdist Podcast, 2013

“When I was taking the hike, I wasn’t thinking I’d write a book about this experience. I didn’t take the hike to write a book about it, though I was a writer at the time. In Wild, I write about this book that I was writing in my head. That was my first book, Torch. That was the book I had burning in my bones and I had to write it. So I did that—Torch was published in 2006—and after that I started to think, what’s the next story? The way I often find what I’m going to write next is by writing.”

– Cheryl Strayed, interviewed in Guernica, 2013

“As far as what I want for the podcast and where I see it going, I didn’t even see myself in this position at all, so I have no idea. It just seems like a really wild and unpredictable ride, still.[…]One of the things that I’ve learned in life is that plans don’t mean very much. I never saw myself doing anything related to speaking aloud—like a podcast. And there have been moments in my life where I just knew that this is what was going to happen and this is what I wanted and this is what I was going to make happen. And then, it’s like somebody picked up the snow globe of my life and just, like, shook it. And everything just went all over the room and it’s just like, well, I guess I’ll start over with another plan—or, do I just sit back and take it day by day and see if this particular tributary leads out to this lake or this ocean or this stream?”

– Tracy Clayton on the Longform Podcast, 2016

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