THE BLOG
11/14/2013 11:24 am ET

What Nobody Ever Told You About Following Your Passion

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

Alexa Meade followed her fascination with shadows into not just a new art form, but also a professional career as an artist. "Simply follow your passion," her story seems to say.

It sounds easy enough, but I can tell you from painful personal experience that the directive to "just follow your passion" doesn't come easily for everyone. For too many of us, a mysterious resistance too often gets in the way.

This resistance can be terribly confusing. If you really love something, why should you have a problem getting yourself to do it? If you experience resistance to pursuing your passion -- creative or otherwise -- does it mean you don't really want it as badly as you think?

If you struggle with resistance yourself, let me put your mind at rest right now.

The truth is, while some people seem to be lucky enough to be spared the pain of resistance, countless others -- perhaps most of us, in fact -- really suffer under its weight at one point or another. This has certainly been the case for me, and it's why I'm now so passionate about helping other creatives past the blocks that keep them stuck.

Just like Meade, I didn't grow up thinking of myself as an artist, nor did I ever plan to become one, but curiosity and fascination turned me into one anyway.

As a newlywed back in my late twenties, on a lark I decided to turn the leftover glass votives we'd given as wedding favors into holiday gifts for my friends. I bought some pretty papers and glue at the art store, and got to work. After making three or four of these decorated candle holders, I started wondering what would happen if I cut shapes out of the paper before gluing it to the glass.

Soon I found myself fascinated by the art of paper cutting, and when a friend commissioned me to create a paper cut to give as a baby-naming gift, I became fascinated with learning how to create my own letters in calligraphy, rather than having to trace them from a book.

I dove into the art forms of paper cutting and calligraphy like I'd been starved for them my entire life. Like Meade, I couldn't not create, and I even grew a business from my art.

When my artist friends complained of not being able to get themselves to do their art, I was stymied. If they loved it so much, why didn't they just do it, I wondered? It didn't make sense to me.

Less than two years later, however, I was distraught to find myself in the same position. Positive feedback to my early work, rather than motivating me to create more, paralyzed me in a resistance headlock. I wanted to be prolifically creating, but I felt so much pressure to perform up to my "potential" that I completely choked.

Did this mean that I didn't really want to create after all? My inability to make my art filled me with confusion, not to mention guilt and self-loathing.

It wasn't until many years later that I finally learned the truth: huge resistance is not a sign that you're not meant to do something; in fact, resistance is often a sign that what you're resisting is a calling. Think of Jonah and Moses from the Bible: when God came calling, their first reaction was to run in the opposite direction! The reluctant hero is such a recognized archetype precisely because it's such a human response.

The truth is, the more important something is to you, the more likely you are to feel resistance, and the more important it is to learn tools to manage that resistance.

In my own case, I knew I had to get back to the playful exploration that had gotten me started as an artist in the first place. I needed to feel not like a "prodigy," under pressure to live up to her potential, but like a little kid playing in a sandbox, making messes and asking "What would happen if..?"

This sandbox metaphor helped me let go of perfectionism and get back to the joy of creating, and led me to develop a set of rules for myself--my "10 Rules for the Creative Sandbox"--to keep resistance at bay.

The truth is, fear, self-doubt, and self-criticism never fully go away, and those who "can't not do" are no different from the rest of us; they've simply learned to manage the fear and resistance and to keep going despite them.

The truth is, trying something new always creates uncertainty, and sometimes excruciating discomfort, and those who keep going anyway have simply learned to become comfortable with the discomfort.

The good news is that simply knowing these truths can go a long way toward unsticking resistance of all kinds. Knowing that I'll experience fear anytime I step out of my comfort zone gives me the courage to do so. Shake hands with your resistance, cultivate tools to lean into fear and discomfort, and you'll soon be following your passion with the best of them.

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