I started my application for the Bush Fellowship with a quote from my dad and used it in my first learning log too. So, it seems fitting to start this final learning log with it as well.
“If you don’t know where you’re headed, any direction will do.”
When I wrote this phrase in my application, I used it to demonstrate that in spite of years of trying out different things and wandering about a bit in my life, now - finally - I knew where I was heading. I was going to delve deep into the intersection of issues related to aging, food and workforce development and come back up with a stronger network, better leadership skills, and deeper knowledge that I would use to affect change. I understood that this was a bold, difficult, complex endeavor I was starting, but with the support of the Bush Foundation and the other fellows around me, I was prepared to embark on this adventure.
And this was true...for a while.
The reality is that pretty quickly, I realized I wasn’t sure if I was headed in the right direction and needed to change course. (In fact this realization first occurred at the opening retreat - so technically even before I officially started the fellowship I realized I was already off course.) This process of stopping, taking stock of where I was going, and then coming to the conclusion that I was going down a dead-end repeated itself a few times over the past two years and, honestly, there were many points that I felt I would never figure out where I was supposed to be headed. The path forward wasn’t clear, and I doubted myself. Of course, there were also times that I felt like I was succeeding and things were falling into the vision I had set out, but like a lot of life, those moments of struggle and challenge stand out a lot more vividly in my memory now as I write this last learning log than those moments when things flowed.
So if there is one thing that I wish I would have known when I started, it would be that the honor of being awarded a Bush Fellowship would be one of the most humbling, challenging experiences of my life thus far because I would spend the majority of it wondering where in the hell I was going.
I can hear a chorus of the world’s tiniest violins playing a sad song for me as I write these words. The sarcastic voices in my head ring out, “Oh, poor Martin!”
To be clear, I know that it was an honor to receive a Bush Fellowship. I’m not trying to pawn this off as a “poor me” kind of story. The fellowship opened many doors for me, introduced me to some fantastic people, and gave me a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn and grow. All these things are true AND it also forced me to wrangle with complex issues that refuse simple solutions, deal with some demons in my life, and saw me fail multiple times.
It took me a long time to begin to realize that these most challenging moments resulted in the greatest growth and learning for me. After enduring those moments of failure or disappointment, the fellowship allowed me some space to reflect and pull apart what had happened. This luxury of time was probably the most important aspect of the fellowship for me, because it allowed me to sit with the emotions and memories and truly learn what I could do differently in the future and internalize this lesson.
I recently listened to a podcast on creativity and how it manifests itself. In this person’s view, there are two kinds of creative people: conceptual innovators and experimental innovators. Conceptual innovators have clear goals in mind, craft a definitive plan, and drive to the plan’s end without stop. There’s little second-guessing or iteration - just focused action. Picasso and Bob Dylan are often cited as examples of this type. Both seemed to just explode with creative output and quickly moved from one thing to the next, never looking back or second-guessing what they had already finished.
In contrast, experimental innovators are always tinkering, searching for the best way to express what is in their minds. Their creative process is iterative, messy, and (oftentimes) tortured. These people can seem like they’re hunting for a vague sense of their goal and rarely feel like they’ve accomplished it. Cezanne and Leonard Cohen are a couple examples of this type of innovator. (Cezanne oftentimes never signed his paintings because he didn’t see them as completed. Cohen, it’s claimed, worked for 5 years on the song “Hallelujah” and really never stopped rewriting it even after recording it and playing it in concerts for years.) Unlike conceptual innovators, which are easier to see and recognize, especially in our culture that rewards immediacy, experimental innovators typically don’t “figure out” what they’re searching for, and oftentimes aren’t recognized for their accomplishments, until much later in life (if ever).
If it isn’t clear yet, I identify a lot more with the experimental innovators. (For better or worse, Leonard Cohen and I would have been buds.)
As I reflect back on the past two years, I realize that my coming to terms with this fact has been one of the few constants and the thing that “stands out” most in my mind. When I started the fellowship, I really thought I had a clear goal in mind and that soon, almost magically, I would create this fully-formed, ready-to-go solution to the problem I saw in the community. And the longer I went without this concrete “solution” as I explored different avenues and ideas, the more I struggled with the fact that I didn’t have a clear goal in mind; no definitive plan. I was disappointed with myself and began to wonder if I was just a fraud who got lucky in being selected as a Bush Fellow.
Now that I’m at the conclusion of the fellowship, and am better understanding how I approach creativity - for better or worse - and can see the value of my wandering, I have shifted this perspective. Yes, the fellowship is ending, but that certainly doesn’t mean that I’m finished with this work. To the contrary, it’s merely a point along the journey - a way station, as it were. And I might not be able to keep up the pace of learning I was doing during these past two years, but I’m committed to keeping on this road for as long as it takes, which probably means the rest of my life.
As I approach the end of the fellowship, I’m reminded of someone I met many years ago who had a profound impact on my life. His name was Brian Anders and he was truly one-of-a-kind. People say that phrase a lot, but I really doubt there is another person like Brian. He was a veteran, formerly homeless, recovering crack-addict, Buddhist, community organizing, family man, who happened to work at this small nonprofit that I also worked at. One of Brian’s job duties was street outreach, and somehow I got into the habit of joining him on his walks through the neighborhood, as he tried to build trust with the folks who were homeless and help connect them to supports.
On one of these walks, Brian shared that he had just turned 50. I congratulated him and then asked the question that my dad always asked me on my birthday, “So do you feel wiser than you did before?” He laughed, throwing his head back and then shaking it, and said, “Yes, because I just think the first 50 years were just me warming up.”
At the end of this fellowship, I feel good saying that I’m not done yet - I’m just getting warmed up.