You Can Be Creative Or You Can Be Satisfied, But You Can’t Be Both
Contentment is not a quality we normally associate with those that have committed a large portion of their life to the creative process. Restless, unpredictable, or even unreliable often seem more apt descriptions.
Satisfaction is a fleeting experience under the best of circumstances. For those driven to explore the world’s hidden possibilities and share what they find through art or science, it is in the quest rather than the discovery where fulfillment is ultimately found.
Though they are treated as synonyms, fulfillment goes much deeper than mere satisfaction. A meal is satisfying, but it is life that we hope will be fulfilling. Satisfaction is achieved briefly upon finishing a task, while lasting fulfillment lies in the process between conception and completion. People speak of the execution with far greater fondness than they do a completed project. An artist will quickly turn any conversation about their work toward the inspirations and experiences associated with its creation, while every scientist or explorer is full of stories about the process of discovery.
At the end of his biography of Leonardo Da Vinci, Walter Isaacson lists 20 lessons that can be drawn from the master’s life. They are:
- Be curious, relentlessly curious
- Seek knowledge for its own sake
- Retain a childlike sense of wonder
- Start with the details
- See things unseen
- Go down rabbit holes
- Get distracted
- Respect facts
- Let the perfect be the enemy of the good
- Think visually
- Avoid silos
- Let your reach exceed your grasp
- Indulge fantasy
- Create for yourself, not just for patrons
- Make lists. And be sure to put odd things on them.
- Take notes on paper
- Be open to mystery
Behind this list hides a dissatisfaction with the world as it is. It lurks there like a teenager hiding in the bushes waiting impatiently for his would be lover’s parents to leave for the weekend as promised, vainly hoping that his lust will soon be satisfied.
But lust is never satisfied. Consummation only serves to pour gasoline on the fire. Lust only truly ceases to be a problem when one loses interest. As the lessons Isaacson draws from Leonardo’s life show, maintaining interest is everything. To the extent a fulfilling life is also a creative one, the muse will be found in the space between desire and satisfaction.
In the last episode of Westworld, season 1, Dr. Ford (played by Anthony Hopkins) reveals that the key insight that led to the emergence of consciousness in the robots of that futuristic theme park was “suffering: the pain that the world was not as you want it to be.” There’s been a lot of ink spilled , to say nothing of paint, trying to bridge the canyon between is and ought. Every writer seeks the perfect story that will complete that crossing. Every painter hopes their picture will be the map that gets us to the other side. Every scientist dreams her research will finally bring an end to the amoral randomness of disease or fill once and for all some hole in our understanding.
Picasso’s frantic surreal depiction of the suffering at Guernica after the Nazi bombing is a potent reminder of what can happen when we retreat from rather than proceed toward our aspirations, while idealized landscapes like Jose Maria Velasco’s beautiful The Valley of Mexico offer us one of many possible versions of the more tranquil ought of our dreams. Each has one eye on the past while the other is fixed steadily upon the future. Both are stunning depictions in their own way of the view from the bridge of opposite sides of the chasm: artistic sticks and carrots offered to remind us that our quest for satisfaction must remain humanistic as well as creative.
George Bernard Shaw perhaps put it best. “As long as I have a want, I have a reason for living. Satisfaction,” he concluded emphatically, “is death.” Speaking for myself, my writing isn’t good enough yet, and the list of places I want to visit so I can try to put them into words is longer than a lifetime. In addition, I still haven’t learned Spanish, most of physics remains both fascinating and largely incomprehensible to me, and I’m still not the best person I can be. Thankfully there’s no shortage of wants to get me out of bed in the morning.
Other stories by Craig Axford that you might enjoy: