on Magic Lessons


Something that I’ve absolutely loved discovering this year is the incredible wisdom of Elizabeth Gilbert. Most people might know her as the author of her bestselling Eat, Pray, Love novel and would probably have differing reactions upon hearing that. I too, did not read her novel for a loooong time because of well, our human tendency to form snap impressions of something from hearsay without taking the time to find out more about it ourselves. When I finally did though, I was floored. 🙂 It’s a beautiful book about discovery of the self and the world through travel, food, and love. Well, I can’t quite do it justice in one line but it’s wonderful. Time to read or listen to the audio version (which is how I came across it) if you haven’t already read it. If there’s any voice you would want to hear before going to bed at night, it’s probably hers (or Krista Tippett’s!). Hers is a voice of reassurance, and also of authenticity and vulnerability; that of what I would imagine the ideal soul sister/ confidante’s would be. Which is perfect for the confessional, personal nature of her memoir.

She came out with her latest book last year called Big Magic, Creative Living Beyond Fear and it is her manifesto of sorts, calling for us to lead more creative lives. And by creativity, she simply means choosing to follow our curiosity over our fear.

One day I will probably dedicate a post just to sharing the pearls of wisdom from Big Magic but today, I wanted to talk about one of the podcasts that she’s done as part of her Magic Lessons series, which is a spin-off from her Big Magic book, as she contacts various people who are all stuck in their own creative ruts, giving them advice and homework in the form of a Magic Lesson, after which she engages a friend (who usually happens to be a professional in that area) to reflect on the student’s situation and give further advice to him/her/all listeners. It’s a real gem of a podcast series.

In Season 2, one episode that stuck with me (among many, really!) was that of Episode 202, “Make the Brutal into the Beautiful”, featuring Brandon Stanton, the photographer from the amazing Humans of New York website. One thing they discussed was one of the most crucial questions that we often face when engaging or embarking in anything creative. Which is the simply question of WHY. Why do we do the things that we do? Loosely paraphrased from Liz Gilbert, she phrased it in this way – why do we take the single most precious currency that we have – the irreplaceable commodity of time, and make something that nobody wants/is waiting for/might not work/even the creator might not like? When you think about it that way, it definitely seems like a question that is out to stump you. Why on earth would we do that?

For Brandon, his answer was that he finds that there is no better way to spend that precious commodity of his, which is time, other than doing the thing that he can wake up every morning wanting to do. For anyone who wants to do something creative, the focus shouldn’t be on an outcome that requires “other people’s participation to achieve. […] (Because) if things are out of your control, the fear is going to be paralysing. If your goal is the time, only the time, then it becomes much simpler. Because you’re controlling how you can spend your time.”

When talking about the student for that episode, who was in the midst of a project of writing/compiling photos for a book about her brother, he said “if you want to get traction as an artist, you have to narrow it down to the one thing you can control which is writing a page every day…You must take huge dreams and you must narrow them down into units that you can control, which is an hour of writing every single day…That suddenly takes it and puts it in your hand.”

For him, it was as simple as that. Taking what is expansive and making it granular (as Elizabeth beautifully summed up). For anyone who is thinking about why they are engaging in any form of creativity, that’s definitely something to consider. Instead of focusing on something that is beyond your control e.g. number of followers/likes/retweets or whatever the tangible and easily available metric for ‘success’ is in endeavors nowadays, why not focus on what you can control, which is how you spend your time.

It seems to be a recurring theme nowadays. Process over outcome. Journey over destination. One allows us to focus on the tangible present. The other, tends to create in us a bubble of anxiety from the uncertainty. We need both of course, because hope arises from the ability to bridge our present selves with our goals of the future.

Anyhow, every episode was a really good exploration of a particular aspect of creativity that I’m pretty sure all of us will face or have faced at one point or another. So I highly recommend listening to them. I might just revisit them all one of these days starting from Season 1 and distilling out the points which touched me deeply. 😉

Until then.



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