Ask JKE is our monthly advice column written by Jackie Kai Ellis. Submit your questions anonymously here.
You obviously have an incredible drive to learn and pursue new passions and interests. As a creative person myself, I sometimes find it challenging to hone in on my objectives because I’m so easily distracted by the next thing stimulating my interest. I never feel like I’m getting anywhere because I spread myself out too much! How do you recommend honing in on this issue? Or should I continue to sow my wild oats and see what grows?
I’m reading a book now called Why I Write by Karl Ove Knausgaard. In it, he dissects why people feel the inexplicable need to do what they do, regardless of success or sacrifice: why artists need to paint, and essentially, why he, as a writer, needs to write.
He says that he realized writing, for him, was about discovering a sense of freedom—one that allowed him to express things that seemed forbidden in other forms.
In addition to artists and writers, there are readers who need to read, parents who need to parent, psychologists, meteorologists, serial entrepreneurs, and even cereal entrepreneurs: all who have a unique need to do what they do, and a unique way that they need to do it. Some spend their entire lives digging ever deeper into a species of extinct insect. Others express their needs through simplicity, taking their dogs on long walks, retracing the same steps each time. And there are also ones like you and me, who wander, testing ideas here and there, lightly tugging on ropes to see which will hold our weight when we decide to swing from them.
You, LMJ, have chosen words like “challenging,” “easily distracted,” and “never feel like I’m getting anywhere” to describe yourself. It makes me wonder where these thoughts originate. Does the desire to be elsewhere come from a true longing inside you? Or are elsewhere voices echoing around you, saying you should be somewhere else that you don’t even care to be? Sometimes it’s very hard to know the difference.
It must be said, though, that I don’t know you, nor your responsibilities. Perhaps you have children who depend on your decisions. Perhaps you have rent you need to make. Or perhaps you have privilege to explore without the worry of basic survival.
I choose to spend my privilege carefully, “sowing oats” with intention. My parents sacrificed much, working hard to fill my belly, so that I could contemplate this luxury. I reach hard for happiness in order to honor what my parents gave up for me. So I ask myself, over and over again, with each day, week, month, year, and decade: what do I truly long for?
This doesn’t mean that I live in some feckless or reckless way. In fact, it’s the opposite. With defining true happiness comes the need to also define the sacrifices that we are willing to make in order to choose that true happiness.
I’ve wandered and chosen to wander, and am lucky to have found some “success” along the way. I studied fine arts rather than picking a safe career path; I started a new design firm over keeping a high salary. I left all that security I had built to study pastry in Paris at the age of 32, because experiencing something passion-filled and new made me happier than buying a home. I opened a bakery, wrote a memoir, and sold my bakery when there were so many obvious reasons not to.
Why? Maybe I am too curious for my own good. Maybe I need to learn what’s behind all those doors, or to know I was brave enough to put my hand on the handles and turn them. Maybe it’s that I need to find answers to questions hidden deep inside me, or there’s a pain or joy I need to express. Maybe I need to push myself into scary places to be sure of who I am when things get tough, or to train myself to be the kind of person I hope to be. Maybe it’s all of it. It’s inexplicable, it’s desperate, but regardless: if I don’t, it feels as unnatural as ending a song on a minor chord.
So I don’t have an answer, but simply questions for you. What do you need to do? How do you need to do it? And are you at peace with what it takes?