Small Voices in Vast Spaces
When I was in my early twenties I was working as a researcher in London. Each day, I was given various pieces of scant information and it was my job to use the systems at my disposal to build a more detailed brief.
The work was interesting. I liked being able to take the bare bones of data and create something more substantial from it.
However, as time went on, I began to notice that the research wasn't being used. Occasionally the analysts would skim it, sometimes it would be used in briefings or circulated as part of a bulletin. But, for the most part it didn't seem to be valuable.
This unwelcome realization changed everything for me. Suddenly, the work I had found satisfying and useful became pointless and a waste of time. My motivation was immediately affected. I needed to know that my efforts weren't in vain. That my energy wasn't being invested into something that didn't matter. I could have just kept doing the work. Day in, day out. But I wanted more than that.
Eventually I left the role. But the questions I asked then are still the same questions that I ask twenty years later.
Who am I reaching?
What difference am I making?
When will it be enough?
And honestly, these are questions that sometimes threaten to drive me entirely insane. Because the answers aren't always concrete. In fact, very often, they are flimsy and without much certainty at all.
A couple of weeks ago, I found myself thinking about the people we tend to attach value to. And why.
I immediately thought of a couple of well known writers and speakers. The two that came to mind were Brené Brown and Elizabeth Gilbert. These are both women whose voices I admire and appreciate. They have a sizable audience and I believe in the work that they do. (I also believe that they believe in the work that they do.)
And yet, it is also true that they are not the only voices of value.
But what if we believed that they were? What if we each decided that their words, their work, their creative passions and their artistic missions were the only ones worth paying attention to? Would the rest of us even try?
If we believe that our voices are too small, if we believe the space to be too vast, if we concern ourselves with how useful our work is, if we doubt our ability to craft something better than those who are already deemed to be doing it wonderfully and "successfully", then we will never, ever even begin.
We can literally immobilize ourselves with this line of thinking. And then the whole world suffers, because there is less creativity. Less vibrance. Less joy. Less beauty. Less life.
I had a day of uncertainty not too long ago. I was confiding in my husband that I felt unseen by some of the people in my world. I was fixating on why these people didn't value my work, and why they wouldn't acknowledge it (and therefore, me).
After letting me rant for a while (which is a therapy and sanctuary in itself), he shared with me some advice that Oprah had given to Ava DuVernay after Ava had reached out to her during a low point:
"Keep your eye on the prize that is your work. That is your art. That is your offering. Everything else will show up."
And right now, that's what I'm doing. I'm not focusing on the reach. I'm not focusing on the difference I'm making. I'm not focusing on how widely my work may or may not be circulated.
I'm just focusing on the work. The art. The offering.
And I've kept this little reminder tucked close to my heart, so that multiple times a day, when the self doubt threatens to take over, when I'm wading through a social media sea of Incredible People Doing Valuable Work and Making a Monumental Difference (and wondering what the point is of me creating a single thing), I can say those words like a mantra to bring myself back.
Focusing on the work also helps me shift from being overly attached to the outcome. It matters less whether I'm "liked" or acknowledged. It matters more that I've put out something good and true. And, if I feel unsupported in my work, then it's an opportunity for me to consider my relationships and where my energy is being raised or depleted. So essentially, it's all useful.
A big part of the reason that I do this work is because I don't know how to live without doing it. I don't even know who I am if I subtract the words and the art from the skin and cells of me.
I'm learning to understand it's enough.