Are you good at too many things?

Sage CohenUncategorized17 Comments

When I was in graduate school studying poetry with the world-renowned poet Galway Kinnell, he said something to me that I’d like to say changed my life. But it didn’t.

“You know what the problem is with your poetry?” Galway asked, then answered before I could, “You’re good at too many things.”

It didn’t seem fair to blame my competence in life for whatever inadequacies he saw in my poems. And because I had no idea how to apply this insight, it has hung in the air for me like a Zen Buddhist koan ever since.

Admittedly, at the time I had five part-time jobs that amounted to more than two full-time jobs, on top of graduate school. I was teaching poetry to undergrads, running the NYU Creative Writing Department’s reading series, running the volunteer teaching program at Goldwater Hospital (and also teaching there), and in parallel working as Kinnell’s personal assistant.

At this time in my life, I saw taking care of everything and everyone else as a kind of penance I paid for my right to exist. And I was doing a mighty fine job of it, I might add. I was also quite proud that I had a range of marketable life skills beyond writing poems that allowed me to provide well for myself.

20 years later, my life looked about the same, with the volume of responsibility and pressure about 2.5 times greater than what could safely make its way through the hose. There was too much of everything: work, pets, stuff, mothering alone, handling a household alone, volunteer commitments, friends in need, colleagues in need, deadlines, pressure.

I wasn’t sleeping. I wasn’t leaving the house. There was little pleasure in my life.

One of my most incomprehensible excesses was my yard. Having lived my entire adult life in urban apartments, I did not know how to cultivate the earth. So, I took a food gardening class. There I learned that all of the baby carrot starts weren’t going to make it—but that’s ok, no one expects them to.

A time comes when a certain number of carrots must be pulled from the earth so there is enough room for the rest to thrive. Too many carrots crowding each other as they grow amounts to no edible carrots.

My lifelong stampede of more and better was stopped in its tracks with this concept of pruning.

I finally understood what Galway was once trying to tell me. A life of too many things (even wonderful things) starves the poem, the carrot, the tree branch. Cutting back is the path to thriving.

My life, my poetry, and my heart all needed more of me than I had ever been willing to give. I set out to learn how to give it.

As I made room in my garden beds for the vegetables to realize their full potential, I looked for ways to prune my life practices, as well. I budgeted, tracked, and conserved money. I whittled my clothing to a capsule wardrobe. I set a limit to the number of hours I could volunteer weekly. I honored my office hours and left the phone home during my forest walks. I cleared all work devices and temptations from the spaces where I played with my son.

Slowly, eventually, poems rose up out of the clearing ground. And even those needed to be pruned. Six possible writing projects were distilled to a single, definite writing project.

As I became more intentional, aligned, simple, and singular, I started to sleep again. I started to smile again. I started to sleep with my laptop again (I know—terrible sleep hygiene, but I needed my poems that close).

What I learned along the way is that being good at many things is fine. (Sorry, Galway: that’s not the problem.) But giving my attention to so many things that I move none of them forward is no longer an option.

I want a life of passion and purpose. I want to do the writing and parenting and living I am here to do. The path to more of what matters is less of everything else.

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Are you good at too many things? What could you do less of – so you have more space for you most essential work? I’d love to hear! And I’d love to help! Join me in Salem, OR on February 19 to clarify a single purpose for your writing and publishing life—and chart your course for getting there!

More at sagecohen.com

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17 Comments on “Are you good at too many things?”

  1. I’m another multi-passionate. Since last year, though, I’ve also been cutting away things that don’t matter to my vision in life, which is excellence in the industry of my day job plus literary pursuits. My other talents didn’t go to waste, though, as I’ve found outlets for them that take up little time.

  2. I love your clarity, Cass! When the vision is clear, it’s so much easier to prune, isn’t it! I’m curious how you express your other talents in ways that satisfy you but don’t take much time?

  3. Oh yes, that resonates. I have “if I’d just focused on one thing!” moments… but less often now, because I’ve decided that one-thing-after-anothering actually really is what I want to do — learning new things and trying new things. And now that I can let go of one thing when I turn to another, that’s fine. You’re so right, that there needs to be space!

    1. One-thing-after-anothering! I love that, Dale! It’s the perfect description of how I’m attending to my many interests, too! What’s your secret for letting go of one thing when you turn to another?

      1. Oh, I dunno…I’ve gotten a lot better at receiving that rushed-and-crowded feeling as a “time to let something go!” signal, rather than as a “time to work harder!” signal or a “God I’m so lame!” signal. And at recognizing thoughts of “if I were a better person I would be able to do BOTH x and y” as silly thoughts. Right or wrong, they’re just not relevant, or interesting, or useful.

  4. Your words: “At this time in my life, I saw taking care of everything and everyone else as a kind of penance I paid for my right to exist,” sums up a large portion of my life.

    I’ve assumed various roles in my life with many projects started and stopped. I’ve been a caregiver, insurance professional, mother, wife, student, etc. (the list goes on). I honestly believe I did a lot of things well. For myself, a lack of focus on what I was passionate about is what was lacking in past years. Writing has been a passion since my childhood but has always taken a back seat until recently. I’m now learning to be less reactive and more proactive with my life’s goals. I’ve actually learned to say “no” and set priorities for myself. I’m less willing to change my plans when I set writing goals (or any goals) I feel are important. I haven’t perfected the new ‘focused and proactive’ me yet, but I’m a work in progress.

    1. You sound very clear, R.H., about what you want and where you are headed. How beautiful. We’re all works in progress, and I’m celebrating your ongoing “revisions” with you!

  5. I always love reading your response to life… so raw, available and incredibly lovely…slowly poems rose out of the clearing ground… love that… I made room for the vegetables to realize their full potential… you are amazing .. From my perspective you always encouraged those around you to realize their full potential…. like little vegetables we basked in your shine… I am happy to hear you have slowed your life to a pace that makes you happier… wish I could come 🙂

    1. Thank you for being my “reader of one” for all these years, Sebastian! Writing with you as my listener has been one of my greatest pleasures! I wish you were here, too! Love you, my long-distance carrot-top!

  6. Hi Sage: I believe the solution lies in flow not how much or how little I do. I can best describe it by this poem I call Moonlight Yoga:
    Moonlight Yoga
    By Barry W. Kennedy (© November 2017)

    I have found my path
    Creating patterns of a polymath
    I stroke my brush into moonbeams
    As my feet flow like mountain streams
    My body undulates in waves of serenity
    The sound of Moonlight creates synchronicity
    Energy streams from my eyes and hands
    Melting away patterns that the world demands
    I transcend all my past and future time
    As I freeze and make the present mine
    Converting my potential energies
    Into creative expressions of synergies
    I master the power flow of my mind
    Being the person God designed

    1. Thanks so much for sharing your insight, your experience, and your lovely poem with us, Barry! (Good to hear from you!)

  7. Hi Sage: I seek flow whether at home when I’m In contro or on the go. I call Midnight Yoga
    Moonlight Yoga
    By Barry W. Kennedy (© November 2017)

    I have found my path
    Creating patterns of a polymath
    I stroke my brush into moonbeams
    As my feet flow like mountain streams
    My body undulates in waves of serenity
    The sound of Moonlight creates synchronicity
    Energy streams from my eyes and hands
    Melting away patterns that the world demands
    I transcend all my past and future time
    As I freeze and make the present mine
    Converting my potential energies
    Into creative expressions of synergies
    I master the power flow of my mind
    Being the person God designed

  8. This is a timely message! I recenlty returned to a full-time-plus-overtime job after 2 1/3 years home writing full time, and I’ve been trying to figure out how to squeeze all of the things I took on and expanded during that time (freelance gigs, nonprofit boards, other creative projects like art and knitting, not to mention a dozen different possible writing projects and, of course, parenting and partnering and maintaining a home). Into my one free, exhausted hour each evening. It only came clear to me this morning (a glorious snow day from work) that I have to start saying no to a LOT of other things, or I’ll never say yes to writing, which is the first thing to get pushed aside. This post is the perfect affirmation of that decision!

    1. Hi Andrea! Wow–that is a major lifestyle change! There’s so much to squeeze into a wonderful life, isn’t there? So glad to hear you affirming your decision to say no to all that’s in the way of saying yes to writing!

    1. Ah, Lisa: One of my great heroes of exceptional-at-all-the-things! So happy to hear from you — and so delighted to know this spoke to you! Wishing you well with your pruning!

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