A reporter once asked musician Jack White about his creative process with Meg White and their two-piece band, the White Stripes. Specifically, the question was about whether or not Jack was limiting himself too much with just a guitar and a drum kit – couldn’t he make even more, better music with additional players and instruments in the mix?
Jack’s answer was that it was the limitations themselves that forced his creativity and really pushed the band to the edge. When you have unlimited options to do anything you want, there’s no tension and often times nothing exciting happens. I think we’d all agree that, by defining the outer boundaries of what their band wasn’t, Jack and Meg White made some fairly explosive albums throughout the aught’s decade.
Matthew McConaughey delivered the commencement speech to the University of Houston’s graduating class of 2015 this week. He posted his speech, a list of 13 life lessons, online at Medium.com. I really liked his take on the idea of figuring out what you are not, in order to answer the question of what you are. Here’s McConaughey’s 5th lesson (all-caps and bolds are his, not mine. Alright?):
Process of elimination is the first step to our identity
( a.k.a where you are NOT is as important as where you are)
In 1992, I got my first job as an actor. Three lines, three days work, in a film called Dazed and Confused. Alright.
Alright, Alright, Alright.
The director, Richard Linklater, kept inviting me back to set each night, putting me in more scenes which led to more lines all of which I happily said YES to. I was having a blast. People said I was good at it, they were writing me a check for $325 a day. I mean hell yeah, give me more scenes, I love this!! And by the end of the shoot those 3 lines had turned into over 3 weeks work and “it was Wooderson’s ’70 Chevelle we went to get Aerosmith tickets in.” Bad ass.
Well, a few years ago I was watching the film again and I noticed two scenes that I really shouldn’t have been in. In one of the scenes, I exited screen left to head somewhere, then re-entered the screen to “double check” if any of the other characters wanted to go with me. Now, in rewatching the film, (and you’ll agree if you know Wooderson), he was not a guy who would ever say, “later,” and then COME BACK to “see if you were sure you didn’t wanna come with him..” No, when Wooderson leaves, Wooderson’s gone, he doesn’t stutter step, flinch, rewind, ask twice, or solicit, right? He just “likes those high school girls cus he gets older and they stay the same age.”
My point is, I should NOT have been in THAT scene, I should have exited screen left and never come back.
But back then, making my first film, getting invited back to set, cashing that check and having a ball, I WANTED more screen time, I WANTED to be in the scene longer and more, and come back into the scene right?
I shouldn’t have been there. Wooderson shouldn’t have been there.
It’s just as important where we are not as it is where we are.
The first step that leads to our identity in life is usually NOT “I know who I am,” but rather “I know who I AM NOT.” Process of elimination.
Defining ourselves by what we are NOT is the first step that leads us to really KNOWING WHO WE ARE.
You know that group of friends you hang out with that really don’t bring out your best? They gossip too much, or they’re kind of shady, and they really aren’t gonna be there for you in a pinch? Or how about that bar we keep going to that we always seem to have the worst hangover from? Or that computer screen that keeps giving us an excuse not to get out of the house and engage with the world and get some HUMAN interaction? Or how about that food we keep eating? Tastes so good going down but makes us feel like crap the next week when we feel lethargic and keep putting on weight?
Those people, those places, those things — STOP giving them your TIME and ENERGY. Don’t GO there, put them DOWN — and when you DO quit giving them your time, you inadvertently find yourself spending MORE time and in more PLACES that are more healthy for YOU, that bring YOU more joy — WHY?
Because you just eliminated the who’s, the where’s, the what’s and the when’s that were keeping you from your identity. Trust me, too many options makes a tyrants of us all. So get rid of the excess, the wasted time, decrease your options… and you will have accidentally, almost innocently, put in front of you, what is important to you by process of elimination.
Knowing who we ARE is hard. Give yourself a break. Eliminate who you are NOT first, and you’ll find yourself where you need to be.
Head over at the link below to read the whole thing.