What we can learn from…conkers
Have you read Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert? If not, get yourself to your nearest Internet page, bookstore, or, the best option – your local library – and get a copy. I read it over the weekend and found it one of the most joyful books I’ve ever encountered. Her thoughts on how ideas travel between human collaborators are whimsical and thrilling, and ways to overcome fear to do the creative things you want to do are so beautifully crafted – a brilliant passage describes how you and your creativity and going on a road trip, and fear wants to come along. She says fear can have a seat, but it can’t set the route, touch the radio, and certainly never drive. You may be thinking it sounds like a book about creativity, and you may be thinking, “Oh, that’s not for me, I’m not creative”, but I promise you, it is for you. In this sense, “creative” really applies to anything, from the more traditional activities that come to mind like writing, painting, making music, dancing, and so on, to simply creating the life you want to live.
On the walk to school this morning, I caught a little idea on the autumn breeze. No doubt someone else has had it before, which we often cite as a reason not to do something (“I can’t do that; it’s not original” or (even worse!) “it’s not original enough.”). The point is that nobody would express that idea – that moment, those tunes, that depiction of that scene – exactly like you would, so you should do it anyway. And with that in mind, I’ll tell you what I learned on my walk this morning.
As it’s mid-September, that means it’s conker season here in the UK. Readers in the US might know conkers as “horse chestnuts” – or you might not, as I seem to never recall having seen these before living here in London. The pavements are filled with fallen green conker pods, their shiny brown and white nuts – a bright gleam indicating perhaps a fresh fall – and smashed pulp of conkers whose fates were not spared by passing shoes. There is a game called conkers, which I’m sure again that I’ve actually never witnessed, it being part of some old-fashioned Britain that existed before I arrived here. I do know that kids like to collect them, and in fact I imagine if I went to look in the boys’ bedside tables, there would probably be a few dull desiccated ones from last year that were saved as seasonal treasure.
This morning what caught my attention was what we can learn from conkers when we consider where we are in our lives and work, especially when things are not quite where we want them to be. I imagined that high in the chestnut tree, as the summer heat fades and the hint of a chillier autumn wind rustles the leaves, a dialogue starts to circulate about what’s coming next for the budding chestnuts, currently in their protective spiky pods. Maybe they whisper to each other, “It’s going to be great, being out in the world, arriving to cheers and delight.” “Yes,” says another, “We’ll see the world from a different perspective, and maybe go places, beyond what we know in our tree.” Excitement builds, and finally they’re released from the tree and start to fall.
For some of the conkers, it’s what they expect. Being free from the shell is great, and they’re living the life they really looked forward to. They have a nice shiny coat, people admire them, and occasionally they even go places (like kids’ bedside drawers, and to the bottom of bookbags).
But what about the ones where the shell doesn’t crack upon impact, and the chestnut is still inside that place he’s always known, wondering what the big deal was and why nothing looks different? The real-life parallel I’d make is not knowing what you were actually meant to be discovering and enjoying, but knowing that you’re missing out on your true calling and purpose in life. You feel disappointed, but you’re not really even sure why because what you have is the only thing you’ve ever known. Perhaps you’ve spent years working your way up the organizational ladder, and you make good money. You’ve – like the conker – “landed”. But something tells you that you’re not doing that thing that you were meant to do. Maybe you always thought you’d work more with people, and you find yourself sitting all day with voices on conference calls as your companions. Perhaps you’d always wanted to work with your hands, and the only way you use them now is to tap out email replies to the person you sit next to asking if you can arrange a meeting to talk about the reason to take or not take on a big project.
There’s another type of situation happening out there with the conkers, and that’s the one where the conker shell splits, but the conker doesn’t fully break free and is left half in and half out of the shell. This one is confusing, because on the one hand the conker can see a lot of good things about being out of the shell – a bit of space, a bit more freedom and the chance to see new things, but it’s still kind of nice to have the protective comfort of the safe environment that she was used to. The downsides are that she can’t roll around easily, and this makes her feel a bit stuck. In life this happens where we cling to safe situations, where we look for the positives in order to not feel disappointed by what we think we could have. We settle on safety as opposed to pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones, to fully embrace the life and work we really want.
(There are also the conkers getting squashed by the trample of unaware pedestrians, but I’m not going to go there right now…too sad).
So what can you do if you relate to one of these conkers, either the one still trapped in a cocoon of uncertainty, or the one clinging to the safety of the shell for fear of being amazing as the conker it was born to be? A great starting point is to look at your values. Your values are the things that are most important to you that you need and want in your life/work. They might include independence, fun, making a difference, accomplishment, variety, kindness, accuracy, loyalty, or a hundred others that essentially are like the roots of a tree, qualities that anchor you to being you. Identifying your values is a great way to pinpoint what you’ll need to make your life or work more rewarding.
The other thing I would definitely recommend is play. “Life is too busy,” I hear you say – “I can’t be wasting time playing!” There are many proven benefits of play to our well-being and emotional and physical health, at any age. Playing gets us out of our serious, real-world challenges, and allows us to connect to joy, to feel flow, and to be creative, courageous, and experimental. All of this translates into a more positive you. If you’ve lost your sense of play, start by thinking of what you enjoyed doing as a kid for fun. It might highlight a value you hold dearly, or it could be just an activity that you absolutely loved doing, where you felt fun, ease, and happiness. Then, find a way to connect back into that activity. And yes, that might mean that you are the 35-year-old entering that ballet class, or a 42-year-old in the local comic book club. Or simply, you could go out for a walk, and look around you at the world and see it for its beauty, and wonder, and adventure, as we did when we were children. (If you do this one, please look out for the conkers).
Ultimately, get curious about how you could be more connected to that true you, the greatest version of yourself that you know you can be. It’s a different type of tree, of course, but a proverb comes to mind: “From little acorns mighty oaks grow”. What would be your version of becoming an oak tree? What’s one thing you could do today to get closer to that aspiration?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on these – admittedly random! – musings. Most importantly, as I learned from Big Magic, I wrote this because I wanted to, so if it’s awful, that’s ok. I had fun doing it. x