Why Do You Do What You Do?

Why Do You Do What You Do?

“PenguinGirl & Cheshire Cat-Penguin in Tulgey Wood” (2020)
Watercolor, ink and color pencil on watercolor paper, 11.7 x 8.3 in.

We live in a time now where it’s common to have a hyphenated title, e.g. singer-songwriter-activist, artist-chef, engineer-writer… and the lines between profession and hobby are more blurred than ever.

With technology and the Internet, we have greater access to knowledge and information, and we have more conveniences which means more freed-up time, thus we have more freedom than ever to explore other interests and the various possible paths we can take.

While having more freedom and more options are great, this has also created a new (first-world) problem:

How do we know what is “right” for us?

It also doesn’t help that when we look at (curated) social media posts of others “living it up”, it’s easy to wonder if we’re missing out on something, or to feel like we’ve “fallen behind” because we haven’t quite gotten our lives figured out yet.

And if we look to others as a gauge of how we’re supposed to live our lives and compare ourselves with them, we may sometimes take up or try too many different things, most of which we won’t fully see through.

There are a few reasons why this happens:

1. We got bored. Especially when we see something else new and exciting, the current activity at hand begins to pale in comparison.

2. We’ve tried it, and decided for whatever reason that we’re not suited for it.

3. We didn’t have clarity about WHY we took it up in the first place. And when you don’t know why you’ve decided to take up something, when the going gets tough or mundane, it becomes easy to say, “Oh well, I’ve given it a shot, and it’s just not for me.”

But then, how do we know it’s really “not for me”? As opposed to “it’s something that matters to me, but it got too difficult or boring, so I’m going to justify that it’s not for me and move on.”

I’ve been in this position so many times that I’ve lost count over the years. Too many various projects started, and mostly abandoned halfway — songs, stories, poems, drawings, paintings, career paths…

Obviously at the beginning I had believed these ideas to be inspiring, amazing, “make so much sense to me”, “this is what I’m meant to do”… but after some time, when it got to the point where the real investment of effort, time, and work began, I would start to question if I was really doing what’s “right for me”.

Even as a visual artist, I’ve gone through this process several times, sometimes even picking up and quitting the exact same thing more than once.

For instance, in 2016-2017, I wanted to exhibit my work at local galleries, so I began showing up at these venues during their exhibition openings to network. But the more people I met and the more other artists’ works I looked at, the more out of place I felt in these settings and that my work wasn’t quite “right” for them. And instead of approaching galleries for where my work could fit, I kinda concluded that I didn’t fit in anywhere, and then a new idea, project or opportunity would come along, and I’d abandoned the initial one.

Then a few months ago this year (2021), I decided again that I wanted to exhibit at local galleries, and I started to repeat the same process of showing up at exhibition openings to network (though it’s not quite the same as before with Covid-19 restrictions in place). And once again, the more I spoke to people and looked at other artists’ works, the more I felt out of place and that my works won’t fit there, and then I decided I should focus on something else instead.

Now, there’s no “right” or “wrong” way here, because sometimes we have to go through a detour (or several), in order to get back to where we had left off before.

In a sense, I’ve learnt not to worry too much about what it is I choose to do, because I’ve started to see that many of these things I’ve taken up and tried (mostly on a whim), have somehow contributed to the way my journey has unfolded.

Using the above example: If I hadn’t gone networking at exhibition openings in 2016-2017, I wouldn’t have met an established local artist who shared with me about his artist residency experience, which led to me applying for artist residencies in 2018, and after getting accepted into my first artist residency that same year, I painted a mural in Spain, which eventually led to the creation of my international mural series “Project: 100 Dream Trees”.

The more important question I believe we need to ask ourselves then, isn’t so much “WHAT am I supposed to do”, but rather:

“WHY do I want to do this?”

Without being clear of our WHY, the WHAT — the tasks we do — are meaningless.

And the answer to this question that we’re seeking isn’t an intellectual one. It’s not something we can easily put into words, because it’s more like a feeling, a sense of certainty deep within us, a sense of peace, a sense of excitement and “a little bit scary”… a sense of resonance on a deep level within.

It’s kinda like: If someone held a gun to my head and I only had seconds left to live, what will I regret not having fulfilled?

This desire for fulfilment, meaning and purpose is what defines why we take on this new role, this new project, this new idea… not because someone else made it look cool on social media, and definitely not because everyone else is doing it too and you don’t want to miss out.

Recently, I was working on a personal project in a group coaching session, and my coach shared this:

Whatever it is that we do, every single task in the world — the task itself has no inherent worth.

Examples of tasks: Make a painting, compose a song, write a book, cook a dish, reply your emails, shave your legs, brush your teeth, take a shower…

All of these are nothing more than items we put on our to-do list, to be checked off when completed. (A bucket-list is also basically a list of tasks, by the way.)

What makes all the difference is the VALUE we decide to attach to these various tasks — the WHY we want to do them.

This is something only you can create for yourself, and nobody else can tell you or decide for you what your reason should be.

Take for example: brushing your teeth — why do you do it?

If you had responsible parents, they would have constantly reminded you from a young age to brush your teeth before bed until it became a habit. When you’re a grown-up and free to do whatever you want, why do you still brush your teeth? Is it only because it’s become a habit? Is it because your parents said so? Or is it because you’ve decided that your oral hygiene is important to you, thus you continue to create that value for yourself in doing this task?

In the same way, when it comes to the tasks related to fulfilling our dreams and living our best lives, what’s the value you would like to create for yourself?

This value is what helps see you through to the end, what keeps you going on your journey, what you’re ultimately intending to gain from the process, which is far more than just checking off a to-do list.

There are countless ways we can craft our journeys and our paths, and with the Internet around we will probably always have many options presented to us.

But remember: Without the WHY, the WHAT — the tasks we do — becomes meaningless.

So when you consider wanting to take on something new, ask yourself and be really honest about it: does it resonate with you? Is this something you really want, something that matters to you? And why is it so?

Then from there we can begin to understand what we’re really doing it for, what’s the value we desire to create for ourselves in doing this, so we can move forward powerfully and complete those tasks, and bring ourselves one step closer to living the best life that only each of us can live.