I remember a friend at a family function telling me how the Internet was the biggest revolution of our time. It must have been 1999 or 2000.
I was in high school, relying on “Les Inrocks” (French version of Rolling Stone Magazine) and the good old radio to keep me up to date with musical news and upcoming concerts. I thought he was some overly nerdy college student in serious need of a social life. But the truth is, I had no idea what he was talking about.
Fast forward a decade and a half or so later. Google is a verb, Instagramable and Pinterest-worthy are phrases even my parents understand and my three-year-old son talks to Siri. I think it’s safe to say we don’t quite remember a world sans internet.
And while it is humbling to see how fast technology has revolutionized our access to knowledge, having access to too much information and too many opinions does have its downside. In Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon argues that choosing what to leave out is a muscle we need to train if we want to keep our head in the game:
“In this age of information abundance and overload, those who get ahead will be the folks who figure out what to leave out, so they can concentrate on what’s important to them. Nothing is more paralyzing than the idea of limitless possibilities.”
Being intentional about who we choose to be influenced by will not only prevent us from drowning in value, it will provide a deeper, longer lasting impact on our personal development. That’s why when it comes to choosing my influences, I go back to minimalist principles.
The Rabbit Hole of Learning
As a newbie entrepreneur, it didn’t take long to discover the magical world of online courses, freebies, and podcasts. I felt like a kid in a candy store. It doesn’t matter where you come from or what you’ve learned in the past. You can now design your education, learn new skills, start a business and connect with people from all over the world without having to get up from your chair.
And while there is huge value in online education, it’s easy to find ourselves stuck in a cycle of learning instead of doing. Good copywriting will use the right words to address a particular pain point, convincing us that we need to take “one more course” or read “one more book” before feeling qualified enough to move forward.
Why do we seek reassurance from external influences? Based on my personal experience, it comes down to the fundamental need to belong to a tribe and the fear of not being worthy (cue imposter syndrome and self-doubt).
As creative entrepreneurs, we learn as we go along and in a public manner, waiting to be met by praise, critics or worse, total indifference. This is a vulnerable place we find ourselves in, which is why it is only natural to look for mentors to guide us.
But if we try to imitate those who we perceive to be successful without having clarity on who we are and our purpose, it is likely to leave us feeling confused and out of alignment.
I fell into that trap. I got lost in a sea of advice and content noise and hadn’t the faintest idea what my voice was or who my people were. I was not true to myself. It’s easy to get distracted and overwhelmed by all the advice and content out there. Too much online noise can leave us stuck and full of doubt.
Greg McKeown explains this in Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less:
“Today, technology has lowered the barrier for others to share their opinion about what we should be focusing on. It is not just information overload; it is opinion overload.”
If we read the same books, listen to the same podcasts, take the same courses, the risk is that we all start to think and sound the same. But if we let in too many different influences, the risk is that we become scattered and lost.
So how do we navigate this treacherous online territory and harvest just enough knowledge and inspiration without drowning in value?
The short answer is: Less is more.
Downsizing Our Influences
I am not a hardcore minimalist by any means, which is why I practice what I like to call messy minimalism. In a nutshell, it means applying minimalist principles to whichever area of my life in which I feel a lack of intentionality to find clarity, without falling into the trap of dogmatism.
So what does it look like to being minimalist with our influences? I’m sure it could look different for many people, but for me, it goes something like this:
Principle #1: Quality, over quantity.
Choose mentors wisely. Over the years I’ve learned to be extremely picky about who I let contribute to the stream of voices in my head, and this comes with asking questions. A lot of questions.
Who shares similar values? The key is to focus on values, so we’re not tempted to copy and paste somebody else’s truth as our own, but get inspired by how and why they share their message.
Who says things that feel like they were taken straight out of our head?
Who do we secretly admire and why?
Who deeply inspires us? These can be people from very different fields, that make you think differently, rekindle the love for your craft or remind you of your purpose.
Alternatively, we can ask, in Marie Kondo style: who brings us joy? Some people are just a joy to hear from, like a ray of sunshine, and may have a very positive impact on our day.
And the trickiest one: who secretly makes us jealous? This last one is not a comfortable question to ask ourselves as it may point to something we ache for but have not yet admitted to yourself. Allowing to sit with the discomfort, however, may have a powerful influence on our current journey.
This reflection process is crucial to the quality of information we let in, as it allows us to distill it to make something authentic out of it.
In the words of Jim Jarmush:
“Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this you work (and theft) will be authentic.”
Principle #2: Look up (and within) for answers.
Spoiler alert: other people don’t have all the answers. There isn’t a clearly lit path that will lead us to fulfillment. And that’s excellent news because the otherwise said path would be somewhat crowded, and our chances of creating anything original is compromised.
It took me a long time to realize that answers don’t always come from other people. They can come from within, by slowing down and listening to your inner compass.
Be your own influence. Let all the different facets of your beautifully diverse personality have a go at influencing your work or the way you tackle a specific question. Allow the doer, the thinker, the inner child and the wilder side of you to take over. Let your guard down for a moment and play with the different parts of you. The results may surprise you.
Looking inward is great, but looking up is essential for balance. Intentionally looking up from our screens, phones, or books will help us reconnect with our surroundings, our body, and nature.
Having a daily spiritual practice or just allowing ourselves to get lost in the real world will have a refreshing influence on your thoughts. So mom was right: Go play outside!
Principle #3: Grow your garden wisely.
Any gardener will tell you that planting in the wrong season, overwatering or crowding seeds isn’t good for their growth—which is why you should have a plan when it comes to your influences.
How will this little seed contribute to our ultimate goal or need? How can we implement what we are learning?
We should decide which seed needs to be planted when. We should take the time to nurture it, watch it grow, let it rest and come back to it to make something of our own with it.
Learning different things at different stages is critical. We should pick one, and immerse ourselves in the topic until we not only understand it, but form an opinion of our own. That’s how we can start shining our original light into the world.
And as a rule of thumb, we should also beware of the amount of time we spend consuming content as opposed to creating. We may even want to consider a week-long reading deprivation to jump-start new, healthier habits.
As creatives, one of the biggest fear we deal with is the fear of rejection. And it makes total sense. Our ego doesn’t like getting bruised. Our inner artist feels hurt. And the CEO part of us thinks of the bottom line. Rejection sucks.
But take it from a serial online course taker. Looking for constant validation that you are qualified can be a sign that you need to check in with yourself.
Trust that you have all the resources within yourself to work towards a happier, fulfilling, meaningful life and work. You need to gently remove the layers of negative thoughts and self-limiting beliefs that, like dust, have accumulated over the years.
External influences are a wonderful way to learn, to enrich our lives through connection, and help us get to the core of who we are.
But they are not a copy and paste exercise. We need to be our own Yoda in the quest for finding our truth. And we need to remember to leave time for boredom too, because creativity requires tons of white space.
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