Cal Newport recently wrote a post about how surprised he was at how mediocre Louis C.K. was early on in his career, especially considering how Louis C.K. is arguably the world’s top comedian at the moment.
He makes the argument that Americans love the idea of outside sources (or innate talents) being responsible for someone’s success, similar to the Greeks.
Whereas the Greeks attributed moments of great heroism or creativity to the presence of the relevant God, Americans love stories of prodigies imbued at birth with stunning talent, or people driven with clarity to their destiny by an unmistakable passion.
His point is that most people like to make excuses for their lack of success. People say they’re trying to find their passion and once they find their passion, they will be successful. They are waiting for inspiration to strike before working on that novel or waiting for conditions to be just right before pursuing something arduous and difficult.
Cal’s recommendation is to work hard at something so that passion follows your work, not wait for the perfect conditions or divine intervention in order to begin working.
I don’t disagree about the necessity of hard work and persistence to achieve a remarkable life. However, I do think the relationship between man and God (or gods) in the context of work is more complex than Cal indicates.
One of the central tenets of Christianity, and most religions for that matter, is the fallibility of man.
Man is imperfect. Man is flawed. We are quick to anger. We are prone to feelings of envy and jealousy. We often lack compassion. And sometimes, we even hurt each other.
In terms of work, I know I am often lazy. I don’t always put in my best work because doing my best work is difficult. I take the easier route. I procrastinate. I make excuses about why I can’t do something.
Our flaws and shortcomings become apparent when trying to do work of any significance. We are not Ayn Rand heroes. I’m more like Wally from the Dilbert cartoons.
It’s important to acknowledge that we are starting from a point of imperfection, and that we will never achieve perfection, and can only strive for it.
Once we accept this and begin the process of dedicating oneself to a craft, it’s perfectly natural to call on a higher power for guidance and strength.
Yesterday’s spiritual exercise asked the reader to read Ephesians 3:14-21 and reflect on how God wields his power through you and where you might need a more dynamic presence.
14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, 16 that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man, 17 and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fulness of God.
20 Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.
When you pray, you acknowledge your weakness. You start from a place of humility, and you temper your expectations for what you can achieve from your work. When you temper your expectations, you are less likely to abandon your work.
The last thing I do before I sit down to work is say my prayer to the Muse. I say it out loud, in absolute earnest. Only then do I get down to business.
Whether or not you believe in God or gods or muses or angels, there is something powerful about drawing on a source of strength that is not yourself, that is not from this world.
My secular side thinks maybe it’s just the ritual that is important, as it changes the psychological framework in which you’re conducting your work.
If you are a writer, maybe it’s the act of switching from the mindset of “Ugh I am out of ideas to write about” to the mindset of “Ok I am out of ideas but I’m going to sit down and ask God to give me the creativity and persistence I need to write something meaningful.”
The former attitude relies heavily on the self, which, as we know, is weak and imperfect. The latter acknowledges the weakness and calls on a higher power for assistance. The former is more likely to lead the quick abandonment of your work, while the latter encourages you to stick with it.
I don’t think it’s silly to pray for strength and inspiration. I think it’s silly to expect that you can rely solely on your own abilities and willpower to do great work, God or no God.
It’s important to note, however, that you have to take a positive action and pray. The ritual itself is important when beginning to do the work. It’s not like you can lounge on the couch with a bag of potato chips and watch Netflix and just think, “God is all powerful and when he is ready he will inspire me to write that novel I’ve been thinking about.”