One way my parents describe me as a child is by saying, “Emma made set-ups.” I’d grab a bunch of the toys accumulated from yard sales and thrift stores by my sisters and little brother. I’d find a space on the floor and start setting them up pretty meticulously – Barbie furniture must be here, Lion King toys over there – guided by narratives in my 3-year-old head. I forget what they were now, but it took hours to get them right. Once I finished these neighborhoods, I’d run to find my mom or dad. They never failed to express their supportive awe of the way I’d essentially emptied every toy box into 10 feet by 10, again.
I lose direction a lot. From the time I was small, I was drawn to tasks that let me be creative and tell stories. That’s a guiding light that’s really difficult to use when trying to answer questions like,
“Does what you do help anyone?”
“What impact are you making?”
“What problems are you solving?”
“Does what you do change or improve anything?”
“What are you trying to leave behind?”
For all intents and purposes, I’m a creative professional; sometimes I feel shame at the fact I didn’t try to become a firefighter or surgeon or social worker instead (my inner monologue is also VERY non-fatalistic). I know there is immense emotional and intellectual value in developing creative and design fields. But when you face the reality that we have urgent needs as a species to survive, this value can seem rather unimportant. Frivolous, even.
These questions keep me up at night. The answers I find are shaped slowly by moments of realization that arrive through unintended research and unplanned conversations. But that’s the thing: as the picture comes into focus, I start to realize it’s not a picture at all: It’s a quilt under a sewing machine. It’s unset glass. It’s a hundred different potential paths and answers loosely connected and always liable to be more tightly bonded or broken apart. The deciding factor is what you value – and a value is an opinion that can change in a single day.
In short: It’s hard to chart a route when information on the map is being dashed, added, revised, struck-through and annotated as you put your pen to paper.
First, a disclaimer: there’s nothing wrong with positive affirmations and firmness in your convictions.
But that’s not the point of this post. When I hear the term “personal manifesto,” I sort of want to punch concrete. I’m not talking about simple things you tell yourself to stay on the right track. I’m not talking about reminders you gift yourself so that you don’t lose sight of what’s important to you. I’m talking about grand declarations detailing how you plan to react emotionally to every aspect of your busy and overly complicated life.
I have my own silly feelings about the de-evolution of the word “manifesto,” but the idea of stating values, occupation, mission, and guiding principles in a once-and-for-all-time, largely assuming and self-congratulatory manner is even sillier to me.
People change. Work changes. The world changes – it’s all shifting and malleable. Anyone can pull buzzphrases from Pinterest and say they’ll apply their values to everything and work hard and promote positivity and strive for perfection… and that’s fine. That sort of optimism is at its core a good thing, and I can’t knock people who sincerely try to live day-by-day with good intentions.
But I guess that’s the thing – I’m not cool with good intentions. Good intentions are actually my pet peeve, because what tends to happen with good intentions is a lack of self-discipline and acquiescence to mediocrity. I don’t say that to point fingers – I’m completely guilty. I save tons of links about self-improvement. I ‘Like’ and ‘Favorite’ articles, tweets, quotes and (even) personal manifestos that correspond with ideas that appeal to me. I make mental bookmarks to read certain books and consume certain media because I think it’ll inform the type of person I think I want to be. I surround myself with words of intention, thinking, “Yeah, this is me making progress” when, in truth, it’s doing absolutely nothing for anyone. The moments that define our values are typically not found by sitting in front of screens, typing reference guides to our innermost selves in handy paragraph format — they’re found in application; in accepting challenging situations that force you to make a call on what’s really important.
I think a large part of my disdain for this “personal manifestos” idea is that it precludes the idea that self-awareness is something that needs to be constantly cultivated and maintained. When you make black and white statements about your character and behavior, you close yourself off to the possibility of change. We’re already oversharing ourselves to a fault, and my opinion is that the more comfortable we grow with the idea of “I said it, therefore it Is,” the less incentive we have to actually give a damn about following through… on both our actions and personal integrity.
Maybe the fact that I’m venting all this is self-contradicting – I mean, I’m saying bold things on the Internet dissing saying bold things on the Internet. I’m going to call cognitive dissonance on this one, just for today… but I’ll try to sum up with this:
To me, it feels far more brave to say,
“I’m human and it takes effort for me not to be fickle. This world is huge and complicated and I can’t promise that I’ll feel the same way about life in 50 years, 10 years, or 1. When all I want in my life is constancy and stability and security and purpose, this is a pretty scary thought. However, it’s also exhilarating to know that I and everyone around me has the power of volition – to shape our unique lives into ones of happiness, suited perfectly to our own hearts. I dedicate myself to accepting life’s situations with compassion, understanding, and a commitment to protect and celebrate the rights of myself and those I care about to live freely and fully. I take pride in the fact that during my brief existence, I define what’s important to me. Whether I stay constant or constantly change, I will remember the lessons that others have gifted me. This is what I’ll cherish and use to guide my route, and in this I find comfort and peace.”
The thumbnail of this blog post is a gif I made for a Career Day presentation at a local elementary school. I was presenting to kindergarteners about how cool it is to be an animator. I loved speaking to the kids and seeing their cute faces light up at the words “movies” and “drawing.” Their reactions were so pure. In those 5-year olds, I could see the tiny version of my past self that was so single-minded and concentrated on doing just what she liked. Looking on it now, I wish I hadn’t put so much accessory information on the gif – the graduation cap, my school name, Virginia. None of that truly added to what I wanted to communicate to them.
As we grow, we gain information; the tradeoff is simplicity. We fill ourselves with big ideas of what we’d like to accomplish and how. The solutions we seek are often long, winding attempts to achieve a life less complicated. In a way, I think that’s what we’re always trying to reach back to.