Moving beyond the Foothills

November 6th, 2011

As a creator, especially one with a day job, it’s only too easy to get stuck in the foothills. You do solid work, you earn a measure of respect from people whose respect you crave, and you carve out a safe place for yourself.

But in that safety lies danger — the danger that you’ll never move up into the mountains, that you’ll never explore your limits or the limits of the creative terrain in which you live and work.

Years ago I read something (I forget where) that used this metaphor in talking about a professor who spent his whole career surveying the foothills of the great magnum opus he always planned to write. From many other possible examples, here are just two:

  • Arthur Schlesinger, despite his achievements, came to regret that he spent so much time and energy on book reviews and essays during his career; he thought he would have been better served writing more books that tackled big ideas.
  • George Plimpton, whom anyone might regard as a success in both writing and life, told a friend, “I could have been a contender. If I hadn’t done The Paris Review, I could have been a major writer.”

Living in the foothills isn’t a bad thing in itself. Plimpton did great work with The Paris Review, his books are enjoyable, and he was a great bon vivant. Schlesinger enjoyed being a public intellectual with broad connections in politics and high society. And I’ve known versions of that nameless academic — fine professors who taught well and influenced generations of students without ever attaining the renown they might have.

But living in the foothills is a terrible thing if your ambitions clearly lie above the treeline. When you want to do Big Work, living in the foothills means dying a little death each day.

(Do I need to tell you that I’m also speaking from personal experience? No? Good.)

What peaks await you?

If you’ve been stuck in the foothills, it’s time to move into the high country. Whether you’re a writer, painter, filmmaker, musician, entrepreneur, artisan . . . it’s time to push yourself.

You don’t know what awaits — and that’s fine. You won’t have the safety of the pastures and meadows you’re used to, or all the psychological comforts of home. But it must be thus. Writing “Babette’s Feast” or painting “Stag at Sharkey’s” doesn’t happen if you remain in the low country.

Life is short. Don’t die wondering what you could have done if you had ever left your home turf and begun climbing.

Lace up your boots and go.

Image by Trey Ratcliff.

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