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Why This Economist Thinks You Should Live Like An Artist

William Faulkner once described writing a book as getting “the character in your mind. Once he is in your mind, and he is right, and he’s true, then he does the work himself. All you need to do then is to trot along behind him and put down what he does and what he says.”

Unlike some novelists, Faulkner was claiming he didn’t know how his book was going to turn out when he started. The characters he created and the situations he put them in took on a life of their own. There was an organic aspect to the process that defied the usual way we think of a genius at work, executing a brilliant plan to realize the vision. The vision emerges alongside the work. It isn’t prefabricated.

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Some people have the good luck (or maybe it’s a curse) to have a prefab career or a prefab life. They know what they want or at least they think they do. They want to be a doctor, say. They’re premed in college; they work hard and get good grades, are accepted at a respected medical school, secure a decent residency, and spend their life as a doctor. There’s a lot to be said for that kind of focused plan. It can mean an incredibly rewarding career, both financially and psychologically.

But most of us don’t have a prefab career or life. We don’t know what we want. What we want, what we enjoy, what gives our lives meaning, emerges from the choices we make, and that emergence takes place alongside the choices and what we learn from living with those choices, adjusting what we do accordingly. We figure out what we want not from studying it from our armchair or by looking it up in a book or consulting experts but from actual day-to-day experience. And until we have that day-to-day experience, and until we feel what it’s like to put on a particular identity, we don’t have a goal in the usual sense of that word.

Can we think about the story of our life in this way? As something we craft with an understanding that the result is not completely and sometimes hardly at all under our control?

Recognizing that you are not in control doesn’t mean there’s no control at all or zero planning. It means trusting the opportunity to adjust the plan or journey to the new information that you learn as you go through the experience. It’s like when you go into a skid on an icy road. Your natural reaction is to reclaim control of the car and turn the wheel back toward where you want to go or hit the brakes hard. But those actions usually make the skid worse.

Sometimes it’s better to simply take your foot off the gas and let the car regain its footing on its own.

Living like an artist means being open to discovery about the world and about yourself. As educator Lorne Buchman explores in his book Make to Know, poets, sculptors, novelists, and composers learn about what they are crafting in the process of crafting it. They don’t start with an algorithm unless you consider “remove all the marble that isn’t David” an algorithm for Michelangelo. Or “pick the right note that belongs after the ones that came before” as Beethoven seems to have proceeded.

Artists often have no idea what they’re going to create. They make art in order to know what they are planning. Buchman quotes Picasso: “To know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing.” So it is with life.

One practical aspect of living like an artist ties in with optionality. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever heard is the importance of saying no. If you’re not careful, you’ll find yourself bogged down by too many commitments, wasting time on trivial tasks and failing to achieve what you care most about. You won’t be able to realize your plans—you’re always getting sidetracked.

It’s also one of the worst pieces of advice—if you always or too often say no, you’ll miss a chance to connect with someone you will be glad to know, to discover something special or, even better, something precious. You’ll reduce the amount of serendipity in your life. Taking advantage of optionality means saying yes to things that are not obviously worth doing but have the chance to expand your horizons, your experiences, your connections. And by doing so you will learn not just about opportunities but about yourself—what you like and what you find meaningful.

Most of my proudest accomplishments came from saying yes to things that at first glance didn’t seem to fit into who I was or my preexisting plan. Some of the most unforgettable conversations I’ve had in my life came when I was just there to listen, when I didn’t have a plan on what I was going to accomplish in the conversation.

Living like an artist doesn’t mean you never plan or that you sit around and wait for life to sweep you off your feet. It means appreciating that how you interact with your experiences has a life of its own.

We all know that we can’t really plan our life the way a tourist with the best guidebooks plans an itinerary. But the point isn’t “prepared to be surprised.” Of course loved ones die, we don’t get the job we thought was going to be ours for the taking, our proposal gets rejected. Strangers turn into good friends. Sometimes our ship comes in. Life is full of surprises—nothing new there. What I’m talking about is how we might confront those surprises, setbacks, unexpected gifts, the things that fall into our lap, the things that sweep us off our feet.

Adapted from Wild Problems: A Guide to the Decisions That Define Us by Russ Roberts with permission from Portfolio, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Russell Roberts