How often are you working enough so inspiration can find you?


Today is August 4 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often are you working enough so inspiration can find you?” If there is one common trait people who navigate the chaos and translate their dreams into reality share it is the daily grind. There is simply on substitute for the daily grind. This Navigate the Chaos series poses a different question each day of the year because on any given day around the world people are navigating the chaos and practicing the art of living well. As painter Chuck Close memorably scoffed “Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of (1954–55). Even though a catastrophic spinal artery collapse in 1988 left him severely paralyzed, he has continued to paint. Despite his injury he shows up and gets to work so inspiration can find him.


In her advice to aspiring writers, novelist Isabelle Allende echoed “Show up, show up, show up and after a while the muse shows up, too.” Allende should know all about showing up as she writes on a computer, working Monday through Saturday, 9:00 A.M. to 7:00 P.M. in the hopes that inspiration finds her. Legendary composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky put it similarly in an 1878 letter to his benefactress: “A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.” Despite his many popular successes, Tchaikovsky's life was punctuated by personal crises and depression. Contributory factors included his early separation from his mother for boarding school followed by his mother's early death; the death of his close friend and colleague Nikolai Rubinstein; and the collapse of the one enduring relationship of his adult life, his 13-year association with the wealthy widow Nadezhda von Meck, who was his patron even though they never actually met each other. Amidst one personal crisis after another he continued working so inspiration would find him.


Pablo Picasso, one of the greatest and most influential artists of the 20th century, noted “inspiration exists but it has to find you working.” Hungarian photographer Brassaï engaged in a 30-year-long interview series with Picasso and published his collection in Conversations with Picasso. In one of those conversations Brassaï asked whether the painter’s ideas come to him “by chance or by design.” Picasso’s response illustrated his wisdom on cracking creative block: “I don’t have a clue. Ideas are simply starting points. I can rarely set them down as they come to my mind. As soon as I start to work, others well up in my pen. To know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing… When I find myself facing a blank page, that’s always going through my head. What I capture in spite of myself interests me more than my own ideas.”


There are several critical issues here for those traveling their path and navigating the chaos. First, one of the greatest artists in the last century had no specific process for creating art. Second, once Picasso began to work ideas then started to come to him. And third, what he discovered as he began drawing was of greater interest than his own ideas. The key is to start so inspiration knows to find you working. Amidst personal crisis, health concerns, and external events out of your control, how often do you find your working so inspiration can find you? Have a bias towards action. And remain open to the process of discovery along the way. It is also important to note that his lack of a specific approach allowed him to change his style throughout his life and experiment with different theories, techniques, and ideas. Translating your dreams into reality relies more upon your ability to adapt, change, and evolve more than it does following a script, blueprint, or recipe for success. Give yourself permission to experiment and change as you travel your path of navigating the chaos.


Another way of considering today’s reflection is to recall the words of 20th century American artist Jasper Johns who explained his process of creating art by stating: “It's simple, you just take something and do something to it, and then do something else to it. Keep doing this, and pretty soon you've got something.” Those who navigate the chaos and practice the art of living well follow the process of ‘doing something and then doing something to that’ and set themselves up for inspiration to find them.


Born in 1930 in Augusta, Georgia, Jasper Johns grew up in rural South Carolina and lived with his paternal grandparents after his parents divorced when he was only a toddler. The paintings of his deceased grandmother, hung in his grandfather's house where he lived until the age of nine, provided his only exposure to art in his childhood. Johns began drawing at a very young age, with a vague intention of wanting to become an artist. After high school, Johns spent three semesters at the University of South Carolina. Urged by his teachers to study in New York, he moved north and spent one semester at the Parsons School of Design in 1948. However, Parsons was not the ideal fit for Johns, and he left the school, rendering him eligible for the draft. In 1951, he was drafted into the army and spent two years in service during the Korean War at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and in Sendai, Japan.


After his discharge from the U.S. Army in May 1953, Johns headed to New York. As curator Carolyn Lanchner relays in her 2009 book Jasper Johns, it was time, according to the painter, “to stop becoming and to be an artist.” He destroyed all his previous pieces and held down jobs in the city to fund his progress, shifting as a night clerk at Marboro, a bookstore near Carnegie Hall. Teaming up with fellow artist Robert Rauschenberg, he also designed department store window displays for Tiffany & Co. In 1954, he was hit by one of the most famous inspiration dreams in art history, Flag (1954–55). Over the next six decades he would make extraordinary contributions as an American painter, sculptor and printmaker associated with Abstract expressionism, Neo-Dada, and Pop art. For his achievements, President Obama awarded Johns the Presidential Medal of Freedom in February 2011.

  • Are you waiting around doing nothing and hoping inspiration strikes you like a bolt of lighting?

  • How often do you just show up and get to work?

  • Can you start working and then capture the new ideas as they flow out of you?

  • How often do you find yourself waiting to start until you have all of the answers?

  • Can you do something, then do something to that, and then do something to that?