There is an interesting tale about Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the legendary poet of the 18th-century who known for most famous works like ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and ‘Kubla Khan’. The legendary poet was living in a farmhouse in the English countryside in the 1790s when the entire course of the poem ‘Kubla Khan’ came to him in a dream.
Waking up, Coleridge realized that he distinctly recollected all the words, and eagerly set about putting pen to paper. The poet was not even midway through it when he was interrupted by an unexpected visitor, the ‘person from Porlock’, who detained him for an hour.
After that, when Samuel Taylor Coleridge tried to get back to the poem, he struggled to remember anything but scattered lines. ‘Kubla Khan’, considered among the most exquisite works of poetry, was finally published in 1816, in its unfinished form of 54 lines.
Every one of us have our creative moments when we get inspired and almost possessed by ideas that we feel could turn into the next literary masterpiece, the next blockbuster movie, a sublime sonata or the next billion-dollar entrepreneurial idea. Then reality disturbs like the ‘person from Porlock’, with its unceasing demands deadlines, targets, financial pressures or family commitments and we find the inspiration slowly slipping away from our grasp, almost like a twig carried away by a stream, never to come back to us again.
For those of us with corporate careers or family responsibilities, this frustration appears to be familiar, and no one is an exception and it happened to S Venkatesh who wrote a book KaalKoot – The Lost Himalayan Secret as he juggled demanding corporate jobs and business travel, along with the accompanying jet lag and the constant feeling of sleep deprivation.
Parts of his journey might resonate with those who are attempting to find a balance between things that scream for your attention and the things that inspire them. To borrow author Stephen King’s terminology, the former — the things that have to be done — are the ‘haftas’ (have to’s), while the latter — the things that you want to do — are the ‘wannas’.
The most important part is to figure out what is important to you and to make peace with the trade-offs. Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert comic strip, said, “If you want success, figure out the price, then pay it.”Quitting a full-time job to explore creative pursuits might work for some, but it involves taking a drastic hit on your financial security, not to mention the emotional toll of toiling away with minimal interim reward or validation towards an uncertain outcome. He chose to pursue his creative pursuits in parallel with my role as a business leader, as he felt that both roles gave expression to different aspects of my personality. But that also involved getting used to the constant tussle for time and the gnawing feeling that he might not be doing justice to either.
A corporate career comes with certain advantages too. It has enabled Venkatesh to travel and meet people and has provided a rich reservoir of life experiences that he can tap into for creative inspiration. As a private equity investor and a board member, he got to work closely with businesses and experience the peaks and troughs. His stint in investment banking gave me first-hand experience of what happens when the primeval human emotions, greed, and fear, are tightly packed together in the adrenaline-filled powder keg of the stock markets. Working with firms across the world has helped him appreciate cultural nuances, while also underlining the universality of human emotions.
The other big learning for him was to learn to keep the ‘haftas’ at bay, and make space and time for the ‘wannas’. For most people, this is easier said than done, with clients, bosses, friends, family, and social commitments all jostling for space.
Most of the writers use the early morning hours to write when the demands of the day have not yet started screaming for attention. Venkatesh used the time he spent on flights and in airport lounges to quieten my mind, keep the external noise at bay, and focus on tuning into his inner voice. A few years ago, he was traveling extensively on business and ended up taking over three hundred flights in a couple of years. That is when most of his book KaalKoot was written.
It is also important to be consistent, rather than waiting for a flash of inspiration. While creative inspiration is important and can strike at unexpected times, it is also true that inspiration comes easier to those who are prepared. To start with, Venkatesh found it useful to set aside a couple of hours every day to write and to not be disheartened even if a large part of that involved staring at a blank screen. In his book ‘Outliers’, Malcolm Gladwell says that it takes around ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in any area. To become good, you need to make a start at clocking those hours.