Number 2: we choose crazy role models

For me, the craziest was Hemingway.

I spent my 20s at a bar called Jambalaya, owned by a retired Irish journalist. The bar was full of artists and musicians and thinkers (I never thought of them, or me, as alcoholic.) I drank whiskey and smoked cigarettes and sat at the long polished bar in the corner, writing and writing and writing.

By the end of the night, whatever glorious tome I had begun had degenerated into lizard brain laments. I could no longer read my handwriting, which was just as well. It never became literature, and I could never figure out why. Hemingway had done it this way. He had reached creative peaks by walking into the shattering of the human heart. He had been fueled, ignited, by the viscous ignition of alcohol, hadn’t he?

Others were almost as crazy. Crazier. Jim Morrison. Janis Joplin. Jerry Garcia. Jack Kerouac. Artists who were somehow PLUGGED in, if, perhaps, a wee bit addictive.

Honestly, I knew I was not looking to these artists for keys to living. It was their incandescence that drew me. I ached for their talent, their pure access. I wanted to mimic that portal, so that I, too, would burn with such luminosity that my words would imprint themselves of their own volition, fossil-like, onto the parchment at which I stared.

What happened instead is that I shamed my talent by comparing it to theirs. I romanticized their process, and robbed myself of finding my own.

I wasn’t really looking for a role model as much as a power source, and a guidebook.

There are two thresholds we face when we create. They are equally hard, and each is the stuff of nightmares.

This first…is the gateway to the underworld. In Greek mythology, the underworld is guarded by a river, then by the three-headed dog, Cerberus. Any writer who has stared at the blank page, any entrepreneur who has stared at the phone, any artist at the blank canvas, has met Cerberus.

Joseph Campbell talked about the hero’s (or shero’s) journey, and how this is the story we tell, as humans, over and over again. For a hero to discover who she really is, she must answer her call, and cross the threshold into the “Special World,” the world where everything changes. Aboard the Titanic. Into Oz. We cross that threshold, and nothing is ever the same again. We face mighty tests, certain death, the dark night of the soul. If we survive, we find an elixir, that thing we’ve been missing not just for ourselves but that everyone needs, and return to the world to share it with humanity. This is the path of every creator.

This threshold is so daunting that many of us cannot, will not, willingly cross it. This is why everyone’s life is interesting, but almost none are movies. In my emulation of Hemingway and friends, I was cheating the threshold, looking to be smuggled across the river and past the three-headed dog. Mind-altering substances could fool them for a minute, but the elixir I retrieved was always garbled.

I finally realized I had the whole process inside out. In the artists I admired, I was focused on achieving that rapturous connection, which I was sure would be my gateway to their massive talent, and my ability to translate it. But these people did NOT have trouble crossing the threshold. Their talent was turned on like a fire hose and, if anything, they had trouble coming back. Their ability to apply their talent came from a place that would never make sense to me.

I needed a whole other set of tools. I needed, first, a way to get across that threshold, then, to stay conscious. Then, I needed to know how to bring back what I was receiving and turn it into some kind of form.

This first tool is going to sound familiar, true, and irritatingly unhelpful, but there is another piece. Bear with me.

The way across the threshold, while conscious, if you are not born with eternal access, is through discipline, commitment, and consistency. You have to show up.

I mentored under a master and studied the processes of many successful writers and artists. Creators create, no matter what, whether they feel inspired, whether they like what they’re doing, whether or not they’re getting paid. We have all heard this: writers write, artists paint, etc. There is no way around it. You can, you must get yourself into a schedule. Even if one hour a day is all you have, one tiny pocket. You can, you must train yourself. Bring yourself to the threshold every single day, touch the keys, touch your work. You will get better. You will get fluid. You will reach for a word and it will be there.

Do you want to scream? I know. If we know this, and we KNOW this, why can’t we do it? What is stopping us? Why don’t we Write? Dance? Write the business proposal? Paint the masterpiece?

After decades of practicing, HARD, of great effort, I tumbled into the answer. What is stopping us is that we want to feel PULLED, not pushed. We want to uncover the essence of what is calling us to cross that threshold, so that it is an invitation, a beckoning, a dance, a surf session, not a wrestling match. We want it to feel GOOD. Not just because we don’t want to do something hard, but because we want to tell the truth, to reach people, to access the elixir, because we are wired to do just that. To find the truth and SHARE it. To feel connection and expression and bring it home.

This is very different than wanting your WORK to be good, which pushes you from a place of fear and competition and madness, makes you doubt your talent, and question your sanity.

So you really need a parallel practice. Preferably, something impossible.

I found mine accidentally through surfing. I learned to surf in a place where conditions varied wildly, and could be truly dangerous. It might be sunny and inviting one day; the next it would be stormy and GIGANTIC, with raging currents and angry, mixed up waves. I wanted it to be inviting, or at least bearable, until a friend of mine told me something profound. “You have to learn to go out in all conditions,” he said. In other words, if I waited to learn to surf on the good days, I was never going to learn anything.

The piece in there that really helped, the thing that made it possible, the thing that changed everything, is that I did not judge what was coming through me, because my task was impossible, though I didn’t really know that yet. Whatever crazy force was calling me out into icy black waters, I didn’t compare it to anyone else’s. I wasn’t even trying to be good, or as good, as ANYONE. Well, maybe sometimes, I was just trying to catch a wave.

The practice of being wholly committed to my own joy, my own quest, without comparison, without constriction, even through moments of crushing disappointment, softened me. The moments I spent out of breath, scared, even bleeding, and I made it back in to the shore, had the strange effect of opening me, not closing me, because time after time I confronted my darkest self and found a nugget within it. In one session, I might get 3 seconds of success. Two hours, versus 3 seconds. It was enough, and not enough. It was enough to send me home smiling, and not enough to bring me back, eager for more.

This is the superpower you need for the SECOND threshold, which is harder in some ways than the first. Once you get past Cerberus, you enter the land of the dead. Here is where you meet the real monsters, the shades, the shadows of you. Your past, your fears, your demons, your saboteurs. This is when you will run for cover, hate your work, clean your house, apply to law school, just to avoid the misery of staying in that world, in that chair.

This is when you will need to know how to open, to be playful, to soften, to be called, rather than pushed.

I realize you may not want to surf, even if you live where you might. So what kind of practice can open this for you? My strong belief is that it needs to be hard, almost impossible, because you have to learn to find the connection in tiny moments. It needs to be physical, because it needs to get you out of your head. It needs to engage your senses, because you are tuning back into your instincts and learning to use your body as a guide. For me, it had to be outside, but I know that is not realistic for everyone. My sense is that you already feel a pull toward it. Rock climbing. Skateboarding. Trapeze. Aerial dance. Pole dancing. Hang gliding. I am not kidding! Imagine the impossible thing that calls you. A thing that will transport you to a “special world,” which will be full of impossible tasks, like retrieving the witches’ broom.

Over time, as you continue these parallel practices, to deepen your connection with that highest self, creative flow, your own talent, the work you create will change. It will become clearer, stronger, more authentic. It may also feel very very different from what are seeing in the world, and you will not be sure if people will like it. Many will not, especially people that know the “old you.” But it doesn’t matter. Not in a “I don’t care if I’m creating crap, I am putting it out there no matter what,” way, but in a “I am not sure why I have to put this out there or what people will think, but it really really feels like I need to keep doing this.” If you are being called, and you are answering that call, someone is calling, they are out there.

The parallel practice might develop into a lifelong passion, or it might be a scaffolding to develop the feedback loop. As you begin to practice opening, softening, answering and working from that deepest place, AND hold yourself to the practice of doing your work, you will see that you have integrated these abilities. You can work without the same kind of effort. It’s not EASY. It just feels a better. You wake up aching for it, needing it, excited for it, even if it is scary.

Then you will find that when you look for guidance, you will understand what will really help. Going on welfare and writing a book on napkins will probably not help (I considered it).

You will find the strength, and commitment, and joy, to discover your own process. You might need role models, or guides, at every step of the way. I needed to study with a real writer so I could see his work habits, read his bad first draft and watch it evolve to a brilliant fiftieth. And also someone to tell me, after my own fiftieth, that it “was a good first draft,” but that I was definitely a writer. I needed someone to teach me to paddle out in all conditions. I still do. I still need chiropractors and coaches and masterminds and therapists and two friends who will love me no matter what I do. I need a LOT of help to support the process of moving toward my ever unfolding desires.

As for real “role models,” the ones I admire now have a very different quality than those early icons. I am looking not just at their results, but at the qualities they embody. The people I am drawn to have a sense of integration. I don’t know the processes they used to access that deeper part of themselves, but I know from what they create and how they move in the world, that they are not just holding onto their talent like a fire hose. They are not headed for destruction. They are ever expanding.

I’ve also notice that they are all women.

My current big three are:

Oprah, who personifies joyfulness, curiosity, interest. Not only does she want to awaken, open, experience, the divine, she is committed to sharing it. She is the ultimate “shero” bringing back the elixir.

Bethany Hamilton, the woman behind Soul Surfer, who inspires me not for her courage of returning to the water after losing her arm in a shark attack, but for her reasons for doing it. What got her back in was not will or drive, but a calling. It was a softening she experienced, opening to her divine path by understanding that her tragedy was actually her delivery. She is not only a powerful champion, but an ambassador of joy and grace.

Taylor Swift, who is playful, smart as hell, courageous, and authentic. She spoke her truth from a young age, is celebrated and maligned and for it, but never stops being who she knows she is. I love how she speaks across generations and gender, and shares her vulnerability, her devastations, her victories, and her elixir, in a constant flow of song.

Of course, in an external way, I am looking to these women because of their “success,” but the joy they embody is in the process of their lives, of their creations, not in their accomplishments. They never arrive. No “high” is high enough because the high is not exactly the point, though undoubtedly they have goals (own a network, win a national title, win another Grammy). They seemed to figure out that the next highest high was not about desperation or hunger, like time would run out, like someone would surpass them. They move in an ever-expanding universe, as if they can tap in so fully that they just keep growing and becoming more luminous. How big can they get? Of course, I realize they are human and have their thresholds and struggles, but what they convey is a sense of eternal expression, a feminine, unfolding form of success.

This way feels so much better. It’s true that we have to develop the muscles, the training, the commitment. It’s true we have to hold ourselves to that. But we get some help. We get the luminosity of our divinity. We get our deepest, most loving, talented selves. We get to uncover and tap into the power that creates worlds, to help us when we need it most.

With practice, we get to bring home the elixir every day, even if it is just a few shimmering granules, a few golden drops. Until the constant contact starts to sink into our skin, and we glow from within.

This is Part 2 of the series.

Sheila Gallien is a mistress of Fierce Focus in tiny windows, of harnessing passion and purpose to get your work done even when you feel you are too busy. Say hi at

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