This Isn’t Me: Selflessness and Creativity

This blog isn’t me, it is only a small window into who I am and who I am becoming everyday. The real me is expanded far beyond just the content on this site. The real me isn’t just a blogger, but also a musician, screenwriter, philosopher, political activist, social critic, and much more.

The real me doesn’t take any one identity too seriously, because there is always another role waiting to be played. The minute I start thinking of my career or profession as a “blogger” I begin to panic. It sounds too permanent and too constraining. I’ve only been at this for about a year and a half, but it’s absorbing a lot of my time; is this something I’ll be doing for the rest of my life? Is this all I have going for me?

The answer, in short, is no. I can’t say how long I’ll be blogging for, or if it will remain an important part of my life or not, but I do know that eventually I want to dedicate more time to other creative activities.

For now, however, I am playing the role of blogger and absolutely loving it. The Emotion Machine has never gotten this much traffic or attention in all of it’s short life and I feel the energy building more and more everyday. Over the past few months people are finally sending me e-mails, asking me questions, chatting with me on Twitter and Facebook, or leaving me comments on the site. It’s always nice to not be performing in an empty theater (and I want to thank you all for any contribution you may have made within the past year). But while I love being a blogger, I also know this isn’t me. And I believe, in general, a sense of detachment to our creativity can be a very healthy thing.

Selflessness and creativity

Creativity is opposed to a rigid sense of self. If we think of ourselves within fixed boundaries then it is impossible to ever expand and explore new possibilities within life. The very best artists, musicians, actors, and businessmen are the one’s that can constantly recreate themselves.

For example, in the book Infinite Life by Columbia professor and Tibetan Buddhist Robert Thurman, he mentions how many actors are only a step away from what the Buddha would consider wisdom into the nature of selflessness. As actors, they consciously play many different roles over the course of a lifespan, always moving on from one character to the next, and this can be a crucial insight into the nature of an impermanent and always changing self. Effective actors have the ability to empathize and experience the triumphs and struggles of another being, while temporarily dissolving their limited ego. Once the movie is done filming, that character dies and the actor then moves on to another role, almost like a kind of rebirth.

This message in Thurman’s book recently popped in my mind while I was reading an article about Johnny Depp over at Lateral Action (an amazing site for advice on creativity). The article mentioned how Johnny Depp once claimed he never watches any of his movies. In it he quotes Depp as saying:

    “I’ve always kind of tried to avoid them as much as possible… I just prefer the experience. I like the experience, I like the process, I like doing the work. But then, you know if I’ve got to see myself – I don’t like to see the thing become the product, I suppose. Once they say “You’re wrapped” on the film, it really is none of your business.”

In essence, Depp is more interested in process over product. While in the moment, he is devoting his full attention to the film, but once his role is over he let’s it go and moves on to the next project. I find this example to perfectly illustrate the kind of “selflessness” that Thurman describes in his book. And this creative MO is probably why I find Depp to be such a versatile actor in everything from Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas to Edward Scissor Hands to Finding Neverland. Depp’s flexible sense of self probably contributes greatly to his success and his ability to be in so many great films across different genres.

Similarly, many of my favorite bands are the kind that constantly recreate themselves album after album. They are always evolving their sound in new ways, experimenting, and sometimes even willing to lose some of their fanbase to follow a different creative approach. Some of the greatest pop musicians of our time, like Michael Jackson and Madonna, have essentially made a living off of recreating themselves. I can always find respect for that, and I think we can each learn something from it.


Don’t be afraid to recreate yourself

I’m 22 years old and I have more dreams than I can keep track of. However, I believe I have both the time and will-power to meet many of these goals when the opportunities arrive. Sure, right now my dedication is blogging, but there will also be a time when I lock myself up in a music studio for 6 months and record. And there will also be a time when I focus all my efforts on writing a screenplay for a movie. And there will also be a time when I take a year off to travel around the globe.

These are all goals that I have in the back of my mind. Sometimes it is okay to wait for the right opportunities because we can’t focus all of our attention on everything at once. However, when big opportunities arise, we need to be willing to make drastic and unexpected changes in our life. We need to be able to think of ourselves in a new way, sometimes very different from our past self. If you’ve never had experience traveling around the world, you’re not going to be able to find security in past experiences. You need to embrace something that is ultimately unknown, and perhaps even a bit uncomfortable and scary.

Fear and insecurity are often precursors to growth and creativity. Instead of avoiding them, they should be something that is accepted and even searched for. When I find myself too comfortable, I don’t feel as though I am pushing my limits enough. I need to go deeper and push the envelope a little further. Only when I find myself challenged do I get the feeling that I am expanding outside of my limited self.

Selflessness and flow

Interestingly, positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi also identifies “loss of self” as an important aspect of the creative state known as flow. Through many different interviews and subjective analysis, Csíkszentmihályi has identified flow as a kind of merging between awareness and action. In this state, we begin to let go of our perceived sense of self and something more spontaneous seems to take over. Csíkszentmihályi has found this to be a universal component of creativity in professions of all types: musicians, artists, athletes, philosophers, businessmen, politicians, scientists and many more.

We already have many colloquial expressions that describe this state: on the ball, in the moment, present, in the zone, in the groove, going with the flow, etc. These are those moments when we become so immersed in what we are doing that time seems warped, and we feel completely aligned with our actions. It is not unlike the practice of mindfulness meditation, where an individual develops a supreme state of focus and one-pointed concentration – a mental state where the boundaries between subject and object are blurred and a new sense of self emerges.

In such a state however, we have to be willing to embrace chance and spontaneity. We have to have our eyes ready to see new possibilities and be willing to act on those possibilities. If we can’t let go of our ego, then we will always remain trapped in a fixed view of what we are capable of. We will create fictional rules and boundaries that inhibit us from reaching our creative potential.


Creativity isn’t always effortless or spontaneous (although some may only think of it that way). The key idea is that it requires that we test our perceived boundaries and expand our sense of self. Studies show that when we use a tool, like a rake or a shovel, our brain changes its representation of our body. Similarly, I think when we acquire and utilize new physical (and mental) resources, our sense of self changes.

When you discover a new talent or skill you have, such as when you learned to swim or ride your bike, did you begin to look at yourself in a slightly different way? I find that when I discover something positive about myself, not only does my self-esteem, increase but also my creative control over my life. A flexible sense of self leaves us open to discovering these new abilities.

Selflessness and criticism

I find the notion of selflessness to also aid in handling criticism. Although we still listen to what other say and try to make something constructive out of it, we don’t take any one criticism too personally. Why? Because we are more focused on process over output. In the same way Johnny Depp doesn’t watch his movies once they are finished, we no longer cling to a project once it is complete. We take any criticism we get, learn from them, and then continue testing new boundaries and improving.

If you are a musician, no one song can make you or break you. If you are an actor, no one movie can make you or break. If you are a writer, no one book can make you or break you…

…you get the point. A creative person is always recreating themselves. They don’t identify with projects of the past, they are focused on what is being achieved in the moment. Process, not product. And the process is always changing, because you are always changing.


Selflessness in the real world

So let’s relate some of this to you. Are there any activities you can think of where you seem to lose yourself in the moment? Do you find this to be a beneficial state, and why? How do you think you can apply this state to other aspects of your life? What do you think about “detaching” yourself from a creative work once it is completed?

For me personally, blogging and writing gets me in a state of flow. I just started this post this morning and now I am over 1700 words in. I simply love thinking about abstract concepts like this and how they relate to the world. Once I dive into an interesting subject, I can fully devote myself to it (see Blur the Line Between Work and Play), and I notice symptoms of flow like time warp and one-pointed concentration. I can definitely see how this state of mind would be just as beneficial while practicing an instrument, painting, writing a screenplay, or engaging in just about any other creative activity.

I also think there is a benefit to detaching yourself from a piece of work once it is finished. I’m about to publish this post, and I’m sure I’ll get both positive and negative criticism for it. I welcome this because I know this post isn’t me. It’s just a small window into me. Tomorrow I’ll write a new post, and I’ll dedicate myself to it, and then let it go. And the same goes for the following day. Because creativity is an ever-expansive and ever-changing process. As am I.

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