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Cultivating Purpose: Let Go of “Should” and Do What You Love

Stop Dreaming

“Your daily life is your temple and your religion. When you enter into it take with you your all.” ~Khalil Gibran

In my mid twenties I found out I had a mass on my pituitary. I was told it could be cancer, it could be benign, it could be a cyst—we wouldn’t know until my doctor performed a surgery to remove it. This surgery meant I could go blind, be on lifelong hormone replacement therapy, or even die.

I don’t want you to wait until something bad happens to dedicate time to things you love.

Countless people I meet share the same story over and over again when I tell them I’m an artist:

“I was told I was good at drawing, but Dad wanted me to be a doctor,” “It reminds me of my love of the theatre. I keep thinking about joining our local community theatre, but I never seem to get round to doing it.”

It seems calling oneself an artist triggers a longing for creative expression in many.

How can we find and follow our inner guide?

While waiting for the big day of surgery, I hid away in the basement of my sister’s home. I painted for perhaps my last time. I painted for the pure joy of painting. For perhaps the first time in my life I didn’t hear a bunch of “shoulds” running around my mind. I painted as a channel, connected to whatever source gave me the inspiration for that work.

The world around us communicates a whole lot of expectation on our lives. We have pressures to stay connected, to succeed, to travel, to be the perfect parent, to somehow “balance” our life, all while eating green smoothies, cooking homemade fresh organic meals, and exercising regularly.

That’s a whole lot of “shoulds.” Unfortunately, and often, people wait until something bad happens in their life that helps them see the big picture and realign with their own personal hopes, dreams, or even calling.

Cultivating Purpose Step One: Reflect on What You Want

Rather than wait for bad things to happen, why not start reflecting on this today? Sit in a quiet, meditative space or partner with a good friend. Ask yourself: What is important to me? What makes me feel like I’m successful or living a “balanced” life?

Is the slow food movement important to you and your lifestyle? Maybe it’s about teaching your children to be mindful. These are all modes of creative expression; creativity isn’t just about art.

Somewhere, at some point, our culture has become hell-bent on achievement. It’s about outcomes that include white picket fences, degrees from prestigious institutions, and a bottom dollar.

This is why countless high school students have told me they can’t take an art class, or their favorite creative writing class, or insert your creative interest here. The achievement, the honors, and keeping up with outside notions of success are more important than what our heart calls us to do.

Once the day of my surgery came I felt free; there was no more waiting and wondering. Thankfully, my surgery went well—no cancer, no blindness, no hormone therapy. I returned to work as an art teacher and kept thinking about those paintings. Something had shifted in me.

An opportunity to enter my work for a young artist award fell into my lap shortly thereafter. I jumped at the chance to have my art be part of it.

I entered those paintings into a competition with VSA arts and won a money award for being a finalist. My work toured the USA for two years and included exhibition at the Smithsonian and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

I knew all along I wanted to be an artist, that making art and teaching art would fill me up. But I battled with accepting that part of myself for years. It took adversity for me to advance to the next level of my work and life. It took adversity for me to take action.

Cultivating Purpose Step Two: Make Different Choices

Don’t wait for bad things to happen to do the things you love. Write down one thing you’d love to experience or explore. What are three tasks you can take this week to help you realize it?

Make a public announcement about your goal to someone or a group of people who can hold you accountable. Creating external urgency can be a great motivator to start working toward the things you love.

I spoke with a cancer survivor about my painting experience and he articulated something I had felt but didn’t know how to put into words: When you know you have a strong chance of dying and the last thing you might ever do fits into the two days before you, you make different choices.

Too many voices about how I should make art and if I should make art at all had clouded my mind. But in the days before my surgery those voices were silent. Who cared if it didn’t hold to anyone’s standards? There was no one to impress anymore. I was painting for me.

My friend said he created his best art while he fought cancer. It opened this door that freed him of expectation, external pressures—those “shoulds.” He’s found the trick since that time to be: How do we cultivate and keep that perspective now that we’ve survived?

My life ebbs and flows with my ability to treat life preciously. I know I’m lucky to be here but it’s easy in the ruckus of everyday life to lose sight of our limited time. Familial pressure, work, myriad circumstances can make us lose sight of what we feel called to do with our time.

Cultivating Purpose Step Three: Stay Connected to Your Inner Guide

I’ve found a way to help me check back in and harness that powerful inner guide. Every night I journal and I write down six things to focus on in my next day. (It’s called the Ivy Lee Method). I always include a task directly related to my personal interests and I place this as my first priority.

Secondly, I do that work in the first part of my day. For me this can mean dedicating twenty minutes to a morning yoga practice or even just fifteen minutes to my art. My mind is open and receptive in the morning. The day’s obligations have yet to cloud my mind or heart. I’m open to possibility and to learning. And my spirit feels honored.

Making room for our sometimes secret, creative interests can change our lives.

We don’t need permission from anyone to dive into those hopes and dreams we’ve had since children. To be human is to be creative. Creativity isn’t just about art. Creativity includes the contributions we give the world when we set out to do what our hearts call out for us to explore.

There is a shift happening in society. We are beginning to recognize and celebrate the importance of mindfulness, of listening to our heart, our body, our mind. People are slowly feeling license to express their true selves. But we are only at the beginning.

I had to wait until a life threatening health problem before I could fully own my artistic voice. But once I did own my voice, I had work recognized by VSA Arts and exhibited at the Smithsonian. What could I have accomplished if I started painting “for me” sooner?

What could you accomplish today if you practice being present and truly listen to that inner voice of guidance and support?

We treat life like a race, but I wonder, what exactly are we racing toward? What could you accomplish if you didn’t wait for your dreams, but you decided to start right now, today?

Start doing image via Shutterstock

Profile photo of Carrie Brummer

About Carrie Brummer

Carrie Brummer is an artist and educator who believes engaging with our creative interests makes us happier, healthier, more fulfilled human beings. She created her community www.ArtistStrong.com to help everyone honor their desire to be creative. Our world is better for your creativity. Cultivate your creativity today by joining her free art exploration series www.SoulBrushSessions.com.

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  • Thanks for the article. I think it’s sad that creative classes aren’t made a priority in schools but more of something extra.

    One of my problems is I have so many things that I want to do that I have trouble deciding which is the most important. I used to journal in the morning but gave that habit up at some point. I’ll look into the Ivy Lee Method and see if it is something that can help me to stay focused.
    I guess I’m not really adding anything to the article with my comment. I apologize for that. I just wanted to say that I think it is an important article and I appreciate you sharing it. I believe there has to be some sort of correlation between the rise in depression in this country and the decline in the time people spend exploring their creativity. If people would try some of the suggestions described and find that creative outlet they would see positive results in their overall well being.

  • Carrie Brummer

    Jeremy, Thank you so much for sharing. I know what you mean about deciding what to focus on… I can get so excited by the next new shiny new idea sometimes I lose track of current projects. This Ivy Lee method has been so helpful to me for that reason. I know what are my 6 or 7 most important focuses of my day and taking it one day at a time makes it easier for me to feel success and a sense of accomplishment. I hope you find a strategy that works best for you to channel yourself. I’m grateful you took the time to comment. Best wishes!

  • Meghan

    Thank you so much for sharing your story! I’ve found it at a very appropriate time.

    I studied theatre in college and always loved acting, but in my last year of school, I began to learn more about the harshness of the business and was met with individuals focusing on what I needed to change in order to be successful. I internalized these messages until my inner voice began to tell me that I can’t do it. I moved home immediately, constantly battling with myself, taking a few acting jobs here and there. They were enjoyable and fun, and I felt such a sense of accomplishment to have earned those roles, even if they didn’t lead to anything bigger or advance my career. But to support these few jobs, I had to work a flexible job that I hated and that made me unhappy, and ultimately decided that I needed to take a break from grueling shift work–and acting–and get a “normal” job.

    Now I’m nearly 24, still relatively young, and I’m still at home, working this job I don’t really like, and have been focusing mainly on saving money and building up my resume. In just over two years, I’m planning to move to the UK to be with my boyfriend, and though I love that country and can see myself living there, I’m afraid of not being employable and how my boyfriend’s and my financial situation will be. So I feel like I need to be practical and spend these next couple years preparing, but know that this is also a great opportunity to spend more time focusing on doing things I enjoy. And I’m also struck by how willing I am to follow my heart where he is concerned, yet balking at the chance to chase my own dreams.

    So I’ve been considering moving to New York to give acting another shot, yet I know how impractical that is and how little I can prepare for a life there. I’m worried about having less time to talk to my boyfriend and that putting a strain on our relationship. I’m worried about having to live with people I don’t know well, in a bad part of town, and not feeling safe. I’m worried about having to work several jobs like the one I quit, which made me so miserable. I’m afraid of not getting any acting work, or encountering a lack of the kind of work I want to do. Though these fears are practical and have practical solutions, they feel so big and real and unconquerable. I know I have the support of my family, my boyfriend, my friends (especially those living in the city themselves), but I know I don’t have the full support of myself, because I’m just so afraid.

    Your story struck me because it cautions us not to wait to do what we want until something bad happens. I don’t want to wait until time runs out, but at the same time I’m afraid of putting myself in a place where something bad may be more likely to happen. I’ve been agonizing over this for so long and I need to find the motivation within myself to make the best decision. I greatly admire your courage and your dedication to what makes you feel alive. I will definitely implement the changes you’ve suggested in the hope of achieving some more clarity. It is so inspiring to see someone come through a trial with a renewed sense of purpose, and thank you for making it your mission to help people like me, who are afraid of their own potential and have yet to find the courage to chase their dreams while they still can.

  • Carrie Brummer

    Meghan, wow, thank you for sharing your story. I’m so grateful this article has offered you some insight and direction. Something to understand – the fear never goes away. It’s only how you choose to navigate it that changes… <3 Best wishes to you.