I spoke at a big design conference called How Design Live earlier this month for creative professionals (marketers, designers, writers) hungry for fresh ideas—and got to watch one of my heroes take the stage.

Liz Gilbert. As in, Eat Pray Love Liz Gilbert.

She has a stunningly simple stage presence. She stood there and barely moved, and neither did we. The entire time.

One of the stories she told was about when she was in her 20s and obsessed with an artist who lived in her neighborhood, a woman about twice her age who lived off and for her art alone. What a life! Liz thought. How do I get that life?

Liz was hitting a wall with her own writing, working three jobs, making zero money, not getting published, and wondered, as all of us have, how she would ever do anything that mattered or, at the very least, paid enough to live on.

One day Liz cornered this artist at a block party. She knew Liz was a writer, asked her how the work was going. She complained that it was hard, that she had no time to create, and thought if only she could have more time, she could actually do what she wants most to do.

Then the artist asked her a simple question that she never, ever forgot:

“Liz, what are you willing to give up to have the life you keep pretending you want?”

Ouch.

She never forgot that. The word “pretending,” Gilbert recalls, was particularly wounding. Do we really want what we say we do? Or do we prefer to complain about all the things that keep us from having it?

The artist asked her what writers she liked, what she was reading, what TV shows she watched, what she did on the weekends. She told her. “How nice that you have time to do all that,” she said.

Point taken.

Liz wasn’t actually putting the kind of focus into her work that she needed to, and she also had more time than she realized. We all do. (Just ask Laura Vanderkam, who’s basically an expert on time and how we have more than we think.)

Liz jokes that she asked people on Facebook what kept them from creating the work they want to, and the answer people gave? Not enough time.

I’ll repeat, she asked this ON FACEBOOK.

Social media is one force that’s siphoning off our energy and focus. But it’s not the only one. The critical mind is another (I can’t do it, I’m not as good, I shouldn’t bother). In the end, we are accountable for how we spend our time.

I’m not saying you’re not busy, or that you don’t have obligations.

I am saying that we all love to yearn.

…For better conditions. For more resources. For another parallel universe in which we know for SURE that our work, our careers, our lives, would flourish.  

In her book The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp says, “Whom the gods wish to destroy, they give unlimited resources.”

Should you say no to things you’re lukewarm on? Yes. Must you also say no to things you actually like and enjoy? Yes.

BUT you’ve also gotta ask: Do I really actually want that? Or am I pretending I do? If you’ve been saying it for years and yet haven’t made a single move in that direction, let it go! Who cares! Don’t overidentify with things you think you should do. It’s not who you really are.

Your life will take shape around what you prioritize. What is the absolute most important, valuable thing for you to do today? This week? OK, and when will you do it?

That’s the question.

Don’t do it all. Do what matters.

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