What should I do with my life?


Dear Artist,

After a day of one-on-one artist mentoring last Saturday, I realized that so many of us are asking the question, “What should I do with my life?” As I’ve spent a lifetime trying to figure this one out — I consider myself a bit of an expert. Like a lot of the cosmic questions — there can be a microcosmic answer. There are several valuable angles: One is our moment-to-moment doing. Another is our tolerance for failure. Yet another has to do with our long-term strategizing.

Moment-to-moment doing: The basic and almost spiritual question for every day or hour is, “What do I want to do?” This question has nothing to do with obligation, guilt, duty, or economics. It’s also a blessing, a luxury, and bloody good going if you can ask it. When you know the answer, you are truly on your way. The answer very often lies in a fair degree of specificity: “I want to paint these Shasta Daisies in an energetic counterpoint on a red-primed 10″ x 12″ mahogany panel.”

Tolerance for failure: This is a learned philosophical position. It’s something like spreading molasses on an anthill. Sometimes they run all over it — sometimes they don’t. Failure may be in the hands of the gods — but it’s the path to finding out what we can do and what we’re good for: “Those Shasta Daisies failed, so did the 12″ x 16″ Rhododendrons, (it was something about the scale) but this 36″ x 48″ stretched canvas of Auntie Helen that I started last year looks like it’s going to be right for me today.”

Strategy for the long term: Seeing the big picture and being able to project ahead is not always easy. It requires tuning into both our overt and our secret dreams. Try to view them from the perspective of your current ones. A great monument can be better visualized when you put two bricks against one another. Great oaks from little acorns, etc. Great journeys start with the space between our feet: “Auntie Helen loves flowers — what about a series juxtaposing her and all the flowers of her life? Now that’s a life. That’s what I should do with my life.”

Best regards,


PS: “There is not any present moment that is unconnected with some future one. The life of every man is a continued chain of incidents, each link of which hangs upon the former.” (Joseph Addison)

Esoterica: What Should I Do With My Life? is the title of a new and popular book by Po Bronson. “Success is more dangerous than failure,” he says. “If you’re successful at the wrong thing; praise, money and further opportunity can lock you in forever.” In his book he shows, through multiple stories and anecdotes, that failure is the way you eliminate the wrong turns on the way to the right ones.

The following are selected responses to the above and other letters. Thanks for writing.


Tolerance for failure
by Carolyn Smith, British Columbia, Canada

“Tolerance for failure” really blew me away. Of course that’s brilliant! It makes so much sense. I ‘practice’ painting with all sorts of mediums and I don’t have a time line to be great. I already have a huge tolerance for failure maybe because I am still a toddler of learning my art and not quite up and running to have a long-term strategy. The only thing I know is I always said I wish I could paint, and now I can, and the saying ‘careful what you wish for’ is a blessing, is a luxury of my mind and I know what I want to ‘do’ with the rest of my life.


Cycles of life
by Jane Shoenfeld, Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA


painting by Jane Shoenfeld

An understanding of connections to the natural environment can help in accepting and processing life cycles of birth, death, change and growth. The direct experience of nature can mirror us, contain us, complete us, expand us, connect us, shrink us — dissolve us — “if you can realize the life energy that makes everything change and move and grow and die, then you won’t have any resentment or resistance.” A connection to nature offers an understanding that one is part of and shaped by a larger world than the world of parents; that there is somewhere for the soul to turn when there are no parents, partners or therapists and that there we can expand and let go. Wild nature also suggests an experience of mystery that is at the heart of creativity.

Specific areas where acceptance of natural processes can facilitate creativity include: alternating cycles of fertility and lack of productivity; going into hiding; being frozen; being flooded; flowing; flowering; going to seed; taking a long time to make changes; proceeding through trial and error and experimentation; being as slow as mule; as quick as a rabbit; seeing progress erode; dancing on air.


Anger the beginning of change
by Sherry Preston


painting by Sherry Preston

Should a life have meaning? Should a life have insight to something greater? Should one follow their dreams even if they risk the chance of falling flat on their face? Well this to me is a very interesting insight; it all goes back to positive and negative. How one thinks of themselves, if they have the courage of a lion or fear. Interesting, well I would say having a dream is the first step in following a life’s path. One needs to have a focus to have a dream to feel the need to follow threw and take the first step towards their life. We are living our lives everyday. Shall a person just sit back and watch the world pass by or become something greater? It is fear for most I believe the fear of failing. If one never tries they will never know the glory of accomplishment. Hard work creates wonderful adventures in ones life. Sometimes when a person doesn’t have the drive to carry one even when things seem so impossible. That is what makes a person stronger to want to become more… the walls in our lives build us up and break us down, but they build us up again stronger then before. When a person hits a wall they feel so many emotions. To stare at the wall and know it will not defeat is the strong human will to continue with that first step, sometimes we have to start with baby steps but the stronger we become the strength in our steps will be felt. Fear can turn to anger and anger can become strength to want change.


Keep going
by Jeanne Chase


painting by Jeanne Chase

After suffering a devastating fire that destroyed my studio and all that I had done in the past 20 years including my artwork, I discovered after a painful searching of myself that the one thing that cannot be taken away is your indomitable spirit to “keep going.” It took about 6 months to get back into the spirit of things. For a while I thought that because all was gone that I was now a non-artist. But the will is stronger than the physical part of you. I put the past behind me and turned the page to the next chapter of my life. It has worked and I am now an artist again. Sometimes, I think that tragedy makes one either stronger or if the will is not there, then it will destroy you.


Just “be here now”
by Alar Jurma

From a very broad perspective, the thing that differentiates man from an ordinary piece of plywood is that man does show some interest in the question of what to do with one’s life. From my point of view, all answers can be divided into two main categories: a) we either opt to keep ourselves busy with ever-new fascinations and distractions or b) we stop searching for the answer altogether and just opt to “being.” My vote goes to “b” of course because I’m an intelligent person with two years of university education. In fact, it’s precisely when we stop searching for “what to do” that we discover the answer to this question. It’s actually just another example of the famous “carrot on a stick tied to the donkey’s head” trick and which keeps the donkey in constant motion without actually getting to the carrot. And it still works with most of us, myself included, and totally removes the need to probe deeper into this niggly issue of what to do with one’s life.


Dangers of early success
by Ron Sanders, Fort Wayne, IN, USA


painting by Ron Sanders

The recent line from your letter “What Should I Do With My Life?” reflects my thinking over the past year: If I had succeeded when I was 20, or even 30, I might not have had the opportunity to learn and grow in all the ways that I have up until now. And I think I have a better chance of becoming a great artist because of it. Success tends to block you into a niche and trap you. But failure pushes you to explore.



Artist frustrations
by Liz Reday, CA, USA


painting by Liz Reday

There are times that I seem to have a studio full of unfinished paintings; projects that were started as a plein air color study/sketch. Should I finish the original sketch in the studio, should I start a larger painting with the sketch as inspiration? Does the subject matter correlate with themed exhibition coming up, and if so, when is the deadline? Sometimes I have a wonderful small painting that says everything, and when I attempt to take it to a larger piece, it doesn’t work, or is boring, or feels like a day job in a tedious office. Then there are those moments that come out of nowhere when the larger studio painting takes a left turn and goes up and you’re flying, every plein air study you’ve done flashes in front of your eyes and the colours pour out of their tubes and the brushes work with an unseen hand, and everything’s moving, working — WHEW! Oddly enough those are the paintings that sell right away. As an artist we have to be big sponges for inspiration, and not get too hung up on obligatory picture making. Ambition and selling are nice, but they can get in the way of the joy of painting, and it shows in the work. Although there are those times when you are outside at the easel surrounded by nature and not only is the painting going badly, and then worse, and then a big trash truck pulls up or a school bus disgorges 50 hyperkinetic teenagers, pushing a shoving three inches from your easel, and you have to just grit your teeth and Keep Painting through your misery and irritation, the sun is too hot, the wind too cold, you need to use the bathroom. And when you finally get home with your horrid little painting, it turns out to be the best work you’ve done all year.


The power of words
by Stephen Vogler, Whistler, BC, Canada

I couldn’t agree more: words are indeed powerful. One of the reasons they’re so powerful is that we can use them to describe almost anything, to create entire worlds. But worlds aren’t only made up of sunshine; they have darkness too. And that is another reason words have such power. They can describe that darkness allows us to approach it, to experience it — to bring it, as it were, out into the light. But really it is language, and not merely words, which allows us to do this. Language flows, and the more words it has at its disposal, the better chance it has of creating something powerful and valuable — something that contains both positives and negatives. To strip our use of language to its positive vocabulary only, is to put on rose coloured glasses and deny ourselves the full range of colours, of life. I’m not a painter, but I don’t imagine many painters would want to rely solely on the positive colours to create art: light blues and yellows only; nothing too dark and disturbing that might engender negative feelings. Where would Rembrandt have been without his black?


Dangers in burning art
by Kathleen York

I am amazed that even after I pointed out to you the deadly dangers of solid fuel burning you feel that burning unwanted art is “so environmentally insignificant that the end justifies the means.” The sooty carbon released from your fireplace (with or without garbage) combines with the clouds. Thus darkened, the clouds absorb rather than reflect sunlight. Sooty carbon changes the molecular composition of the clouds so rain patterns are disrupted. Instead of raining on the plains, the clouds release rain in the mountains with devastating consequences. Solid fuel burning in China is causing the drought in Africa.

I do this work because three of my friend’s children have died from various cancers in their twenties. And another friend’s child is fighting leukemia. We live fifty miles from the nearest stoplight with little industry to speak of. I know in my heart that wood smoke killed my friend’s children. Long-term exposure to wood smoke and garbage burning compromises a person’s immune system.


The greatest gift
by Betty Newcomer

There is an old saying, “kill your enemy with kindness,” and I have so much compassion for those people, and children that are so very innocent. We have never experienced bombing, and gunfire in our streets and homes. Another saying, “Walk a mile in their shoes,” is appropriate. I wish Joe Blodgett would send his letter to the President and his followers, not that it would help, but he is right in his assessment of the situation.







Nene Thomas, City of Oklahoma


by Nene Thomas


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2003.


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