In the 1930′s writer Will Durant wrote a book called “On The Meaning Of Life”. Letters Of Note, one of my favorite new blog discoveries, shared the letter that journalist and critic H. L. Mencken wrote in response to Durant’s inquiry. It’s well worth reading the full letter, but I thought I’d highlight a specific section that speaks to the issue of motivation and the “why” of it all. Mencken’s take is that he does what he does because he has to. That is a state of mind that allows an artist to make choices with the long term in mind, rather than self-imploding under self-imposed pressured to do with the short term. This is a very challenging thing to do, if it doesn’t come natural. A failure to handle this well is the single most common reason for artist’s failing to break big. Do it for the wrong reasons, and expect to either give up and mess up once you hit inevitable rough patches.
In H.L. Mencken’s words:
I go on working for the same reason that a hen goes on laying eggs. [...] The precise form of an individual’s activity is determined, of course, by the equipment with which he came into the world. In other words, it is determined by his heredity. I do not lay eggs, as a hen does, because I was born without any equipment for it. For the same reason I do not get myself elected to Congress, or play the violoncello, or teach metaphysics in a college, or work in a steel mill. What I do is simply what lies easiest to my hand. It happens that I was born with an intense and insatiable interest in ideas, and thus like to play with them. It happens also that I was born with rather more than the average facility for putting them into words.
There is very little conscious volition in all this. What I do was ordained by the inscrutable fates, not chosen by me. [...] I became a writer [...], and shall remain one until the end of the chapter, just as a cow goes on giving milk all her life, even though what appears to be her self-interest urges her to give gin.
I am far luckier than most men, for I have been able since boyhood to make a good living doing precisely what I have wanted to do—what I would have done for nothing, and very gladly, if there had been no reward for it. Its possible effects on other people have interested me very little. I have not written and published to please other people, but to satisfy myself, just as a cow gives milk, not to profit the dairyman, but to satisfy herself. I like to think that most of my ideas have been sound ones, but I really don’t care. The world may take them or leave them. I have had my fun hatching them.
Emphasis is mine. Read the full letter here.
- Why We Do What We Do (Or Why Music) (read)
- Stay In Your Basement (Or How To Deal With Success) (read)
- The Reward Is In The Work (Or What You Can Learn From George Clooney) (read)
- Lessons Learned (The Science Of Motivation) (read)