Archive for the ‘Arts’ Category

On Tuesday night Jonathan Carroll had a quotation on his Facebook that resonated with me:

“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”

Anaïs Nin

There are different kinds of events that call for courage. There is the desire to make change, of course, which I’ve talked about a fair amount in the past. There is the question of how we face and handle adversity. There is the desire to try something new. And there is the willingness to go back and do the same scary thing again and again, even if it doesn’t get all that much easier.

I think when we choose to be artists–whatever that means to you–we are, in a sense, choosing to face fear again and again. There might be times when we aren’t seeking change, when we’ve got the adversity of life under control, when we’re living in a comfortable groove of existence. But if we’re actively working as artists, we’re constantly pushing, striving, experimenting, and revealing ourselves to others.

I can see it getting easier with time and practice, but I can’t imagine it ever being easy.

I have three main projects I’m working on right now: I’m querying my completed novel to agents, I’m in the middle of writing a novel rough draft, and I’m planning a future project that involves experimental elements. Each of these projects involve artistic courage.

-Querying puts me straight in the path of the rejection of my work, and while most of the time I shrug it off fairly easily, occasionally a rejection will sting.

-The rough draft is not coming together like I’d hoped it would, so writing it has become quite the struggle. I also deliberately chose to work on a concept that I knew depended on a writing ability in which I lack confidence and feel fairly weak.

-The new project is something new and experimental, and I’m not sure if I’m going to do it yet. But if I do, I’ll be trying all kinds of new things, and because of this, the entire project has a higher likelihood than many of tanking. It takes courage even to consider doing it.

reaching for origami cranes

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And then there’s the drive as an artist to go deeper, to explore dark corners, to shine a light on truths that are hard and uncomfortable and scary. There is the call to show vulnerability in our work. All of this requires so much courage.

So I would say not only do our own lives expand or contract in relation to the courage we can bring to bear, but our artistic work does the same.

What do you have the courage to see? What do you have the courage to feel? What do you have the courage to communicate?

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8 Reasons I Love the Theatre

I’ve loved theatre for most of my life. I took my first theatre class when I was eleven, and I was hooked. Ever since, whether I’ve been up on stage or sitting in the audience, I’ve felt like going to the theatre is a magical experience.

I try to get to the theatre many times a year, but it can actually be difficult for me to find companions willing to come along. And even as I keep aging, the average theatre audience (discounting school performances and the huge touring sensations like The Book of Mormon or Wicked) is still older than me. A lot older. And while some of that is undoubtedly because of the sometimes steep price tag on theatre tickets, I don’t think that’s the entire story behind the disinterest.

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So without further ado, here is my list of why going to the theatre is AMAZING:

1. Live performance. There’s a certain special energy surrounding a performance that is in the midst of being created. The role of audience member becomes more prominent as your energy can affect the energy of the performers, and vice versa. Strange things, sometimes amazing and sometimes disastrous, can happen in the middle of a live show.

2. Stagecraft. The technical aspects of theatre are flat-out cool. I love looking at the sets, the costume design, and the props. Some of the things that can be done with lighting are fascinating. It’s possible I fell in love with theatre the first day I got to “fly.” (Although actually, I think it was probably a year earlier when I got to do my own lion makeup.)

3. Less predictable. In some ways, plays are similar to movies: they’re both visual mediums of about the same length that tell a story and can use enhancements like special effects and music to enrich the narrative. But plays, by and large, aren’t as formulaic as most Hollywood blockbusters. They experiment with structure. They experiment with plot. And they sometimes use interesting framing devices.

4. More Bechdel test passes. Women talk to other women in plays about something besides a man all the time. It’s almost like there have been plays written in the twenty-first century or something.

5. Meaty themes. Many plays deal with deep and interesting subject matter. Various plays I’ve seen this year have dealt with: the ethics behind cloning; the process of grieving a dead spouse and moving on; dysfunctional families, mental illness, and secrets; feminism; and the sacrifices made in the name of doing what you believe in. To list just a few.

6. Great dialogue. Most plays rely heavily on dialogue to tell their story. And the best writers have it down: Snappy exchanges reminiscent of the screwball comedies of the ‘40s, passionate and hilarious monologues, quirky character tics, the works.

7. Fabulous humor. I laugh more and louder while watching certain plays than doing pretty much anything else. There is a lot of dark humor and dry humor done in the theatre today, as well as more old-school slapstick if that’s your thing.

8. Transformative experiences. When I’ve seen a good play, I walk out of the theatre a different person than when I walked in. I’ve been challenged, I’ve thought about things in a new way, and I’ve often had a very emotional experience.

What has your experience been with theatre? What makes you love it? What has turned you off about it?

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Last week my friend asked me why I didn’t write more about singing on this blog. I told her I didn’t think anyone would be interested, and I wasn’t sure what I’d even say. She suggested I write about what singing means to me. She is one of my blog muses and I tend to listen to them, so I agreed, and I’ve spent the last week thinking about it.

But as it turns out, music and singing and musical theater all mean so much to me, it’s hard to write a short essay on the topic. I devoted over fifteen years of my life to focusing primarily on music. It wouldn’t be accurate to say it was everything to me during that period, but it was a huge part of what I cared about, how I spent my time, and ultimately, who I was. I will always be a musician.

Summing that up in a snappy list doesn’t feel right. So instead I’ll tell you a story.

It was the autumn of my freshman year of high school. I was fourteen. I didn’t like high school so much. Most of my classes were boring. The social scene was boring. I was still very shy and kept myself somewhat isolated.

My mom saw an ad in the paper for a local production of the musical Peter Pan, and she encouraged me to join. It was a new company in town, and they didn’t require auditions. At first I dismissed the idea, but at the last minute I changed my mind, and my mom and I hopped into the car to attend the informational meeting.

That night changed my life.

Fast forward several months to March of the next year, when the show was opening. We were performing in the big Civic Center auditorium. Through hard work and persistence, I had won two performances, including the gala opening, as Wendy, in spite of originally being completely overlooked for the part. I got to FLY. I got to arrive at the gala opening performance in a LIMOUSINE. I was a part of something bigger than myself.

A local news station came down during a dress rehearsal to do a segment on the show, and they asked to interview me. They chose my clip to end their segment, when I said, “It’s like a dream come true.” It was cheesy but also the truth. Musical theater gave me a dream.

That's a teenaged me on the left.

That’s a teenaged me on the left.

To this day, I have this photo on the top of my piano: me at age 14, wearing a blue nightdress and a blue hair ribbon, holding hands with a little boy in footie pajamas (Michael) and an older boy in a nightshirt (John). All three of us are flying. I kept this photo displayed throughout my years of teaching because I never wanted to lose sight of how I’d gotten started and how much of a difference singing and musical theater had made, and continued to make, in my life.

I have learned so much about myself through singing. And I have gained an incalculable amount of joy, both from singing myself and from sharing that gift with others.

When I sing, the good parts of the world draw closer, even as the bad parts of the world fall away.

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“…Pursuing an artistic career gives you permission to divorce your sense of self-worth from the economic marketplace.” – Rahul Kanakia

I was raised in a household that tied together self-worth, the value of any given activity, and finances. Being able to be financially independent was seen as the pinnacle of achievement. Education was important, but primarily as a means to an end, the end being making money. (Why my maintaining a 4.0 grade point average was so important therefore becomes a bit of a mystery, since my family couldn’t afford to send me to a prestigious university, student loans were frowned upon, and being able to get all A’s has very little to do with earning money outside of school. But I digress.)

I remember the revelation my senior year of high school when I met a musician who made ends meet with a variety of accompaniment gigs and modeling for art students. I had no idea that was a choice people could make: that money, instead of being the entire goal, could merely be the means to an end, the end in this case of being an artist. My whole conception of what my life could be changed.

But even so, the insidious feeling that the financial returns of an activity and its worth were linked persisted. In my father’s eyes, I didn’t feel like my music was terribly important until it became my means of supporting myself. I was forbidden from even considering pursuing a BM (Bachelor of Music) in college instead of a BA in case it affected my future job prospects.  (As it turns out, it wouldn’t have made any difference.) I always had doubts as to whether I was a real musician until I opened up my music studio and it became successful.

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Of course, that was all very silly. Being a musician is much more about attitude than it is about money. Many musicians never make any money at all through their music. Similarly, being a writer is more a state of mind than anything else. It has to do with discipline and dedication, time spent and patience to practice, and the personal importance of it. The identity of being a writer has very little to do with money.

At this point, I have, as Rahul puts it, divorced my sense of self-worth from the economic marketplace. I am grateful that I was taught the skills to be financially responsible, but I don’t believe who I am and how I feel about myself should have anything to do with where my money comes from or how much money I have.

Ultimately, attaching our self worth to anything outside of ourselves is a risky business. The kind of self esteem that endures through the ups and downs of life comes from inside. The outside will disrupt it, of course, but so often that interference turns out to be only noise.

Being an artist is useful not so much for finding a substitute to tie to self worth (a recipe for unhappiness in the tumultuous world of rejections, revisions, and critics). Instead, being an artist can inspire us to ask questions that allow us to make different choices about our relationships with ourselves.

What is your relationship with money? How much does it affect how you feel about yourself?

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I was hanging out in the hallway at the Nebula Awards weekend last Friday when I ran into my friend Rahul. He proceeded to completely floor me by mentioning that he throws books away when he finishes them.

“But you don’t literally throw them away, right?” I couldn’t help asking. “I mean, you don’t put them in the garbage, do you?”

“Actually,” he said, “I put them in the dumpster.”

After a few minutes of spluttering, I said, “I’m totally going to blog about this!” So here I am.

As appalled as I am by the idea of actually throwing books away (as opposed to giving them to Goodwill or selling them to the used bookstore), my constant struggle to stay within my allotted shelf space gives the idea a certain shine. Plus, there is no denying it’s easier to walk down to my garage and chuck some books in the dumpster than it is to make a trip to Goodwill. But really Rahul’s strategy highlights a key question:

Are books disposable objects? What value do they retain once we’ve read them? What value do they have if they sit on our shelves for years without ever being read? (My to-read shelves have expanded to encompass an entire tall bookshelf so I’m sure some of them will never be exposed to my eyeballs.)

I approach the ownership of books from a position of scarcity. I remember when I could only afford to buy a couple of (mass market paperback) books per year. This meant that my small personal library acquired an almost sacred feel to it, and I never got rid of any books, even ones that I really didn’t like. Even now, when I do sell books back to my local used bookstore, it’s not an activity without a certain element of pain (which also means I procrastinate about doing it). And I hardly ever remove an e-book from my Kindle and dread the day when I fill it up so I’ll be forced to curate my collection.

The bulk of my library. Once I take care of those boxes, this will be my dream room realized.

The bulk of my library. Once I take care of those boxes, this will be my dream room realized.

On the other hand, even while I adored my small personal library, I turned to the public library for the bulk of my reading. And heavy library usage does support the idea of books as disposable objects for the individual, if not for society. I kept my library books for two weeks or a month, and then the vast majority of them I never checked out again. Is Rahul’s practice of chucking his read books into the dumpster so much different, given that many libraries use donated books to raise funds through book sales instead of actually cataloguing and storing them? Sure, the library will receive fifty cents or a couple of dollars for that book donation, but not enough money to get anyone really excited.

So maybe books really are disposable objects. But I still can’t imagine throwing mine in the trash can; they have too much of an aura of magic and possibility for that. I’ve imbued these objects with so much meaning that I can’t bear to part with them, just as another person saves ticket stubs or theater programs. Except they’re not quite the same; books represent not only an experience I had in a past, but an experience I can choose to have again, albeit perhaps in an altered form since each reading of a book can expose new layers.

What do you think? Are books disposable? Do you throw books in the trash when you’re through with them? Should you start?

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A sex columnist and a children’s book writer went out on a first date. The conversation flowed, the chemistry was palpable…but ultimately the children’s book writer decided there couldn’t be a second date. He was afraid his dating a sex columnist wouldn’t work for his career. True story.

I thought of this story again when I read Penelope Trunk’s recent post about being honest about who you are at work, in the context of Jason Collins’ coming out story in Sports Illustrated: “The more you hide, the harder it is to find a job that’s right for you.”

I think a lot about the post I wrote about the distinctions of public, personal, and private, especially when I’m talking to people about social media strategy. Because in order to be genuine, in order to connect with people in a deeper way, it’s often necessary to share some of the personal. But figuring out what’s personal and what’s private isn’t easy. And when the career you love and your private life (or alternate for-money career, as is the case for many artists) don’t quite mesh together, it’s hard to reconcile. Hence the children’s book writer making the tough decision not to date a woman in whom he was interested in order to avoid a later dilemma.

Our society is in the middle of a shift involving the availability of information and the level of connectedness between us. I met a book editor last month who complained about how often his writer Facebook friends posted about their politics and how much this bothered him. A decade ago, this wasn’t an issue. It’s so much easier to avoid talking much politics when you’re going out for drinks with your editor than it is to avoid posting about anything remotely politically every day. And even if you talked about politics over those drinks, that conversation has a different contextual place for both you and the editor than it does in a social media feed.

So we find ourselves wrestling with two related problems: having less control overall over the information the world can access about us, and having more of a platform from which to release our own information about ourselves, which means we have to decide what to say (and what not to say). In addition, we have to deal with the implications of all this information floating around (or the potential of it to be released) to our careers, to our loved ones, to our complicated social landscapes, and in terms of ethics.

Our lives as open books. Photo Credit: Honou via Compfight cc

These issues are exacerbated for artists because of our society’s collective difficulty in considering works of art as something apart from their creators. This is when we begin to see parents objecting to a children’s book because its author is not seen to be of sufficient moral character. I also know people who don’t want to go see the Ender’s Game movie this fall not because they object to any of the material they think they’ll see but because they don’t want to give money to Orson Scott Card. Certainly as content consumers we have every right to decide what art we will and won’t consume, but it is interesting watching the trends towards making that decision based on the creator instead of the work. Why is this change taking place? Because more information about these artists is generally available (both from themselves and from outside sources).

As privacy becomes less possible and we have less control over accessible personal information, it will become increasingly important to use our platforms to tell our own stories about ourselves. As Justine Musk says, “If you don’t tell your story, someone else tells it for you.”

It is going to become harder and harder to hide. Sometimes we might be able to make decisions like that children’s book writer and keep things simpler for ourselves. But other times, what’s at stake will be too important. And perhaps it’s at that point when having the platform and ability to communicate in your own way becomes the most important.

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Many years ago, when I was just starting up my music teaching studio, a friend and I would get together every Thursday morning to talk about writing. Sometimes we wrote to prompts when we were together, sometimes we shared what we’d been working on, sometimes we just talked. I was writing in a somewhat desultory way, since my main focus at the time was still music. But even so, I loved writing and I had the vision of seven-year-old me in the back of my mind.

My friend and I both read Carolyn See’s Making a Literary Life and then discussed it. And we decided to implement its advice on charming notes.

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What is a charming note? Exactly what it sounds like. Every week, each of us would choose one writer to whom we’d write a letter telling them how much their work had meant to us. We bought pretty paper on which to write these letters when we couldn’t get our hands on the relevant email addresses, and we began sending them out.

There is something very uplifting about writing to someone unknown to you and telling them something both true and kind for no other reward than the joy of doing it.

I was reminded of the charming note ritual a few weeks ago when Jonathan Carroll talked about a charming note he once sent, and the response he received. It made me glad all over again that I had written those letters, and I wondered if maybe I could start writing them again, especially now that more writers have email addresses and websites so I can avoid the hassle of buying new stationary and remembering to purchase stamps more regularly.

Because charming notes matter. I know how much they matter. Jonathan Carroll said, “It’s a very important thing to tell someone what they do genuinely matters to you. Especially artists, who work so much of the time in solitude and receive little feedback other than reviews.” It means so much to know your efforts have been genuinely appreciated. It means so much to hear how you’ve helped someone or inspired someone or given that person something to love.

When I’m working, I’m alone (except for the little dog fast asleep beside me). When I’m writing a novel, it can be months and months before anyone gets to see any of the results of my time, and even then, they are often reading it as a favor to me so they can tell me how to make it better. So much of my work goes on in my own head, a huge contrast from the days when I spent hours of my time engaged in face-to-face teaching. I often can’t see the effect I’m having with my words. So when someone makes the effort to write me a note or leave a thoughtful comment, whether it’s about my blog or a short story, they allow me to see my work from a completely different perspective. They give a new meaning to the words I have shared with the world. And they inspire me to continue to write. Such is the power of the charming note.

I wonder who I’ll write to next.


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“I think it takes a great deal of courage to be one of the people who tries to change the world in some way — I’ve heard too many people say that they’re not trying to change the world, that they’re just trying to entertain (particularly in their writing). But that’s the point of that? If you’re not trying to change the world, what are you doing, and why? I mean, doesn’t the world need changing?”

-Theodora Goss, Magical Women

We are taught to believe that changing the world is difficult, if not impossible. Changing the world, we are led to understand, is something people wish to do in their youths, and at some magical point, we will grow up, realize it’s impossible to create change, and give up our childish idealism.

But we artists, we’re all about changing the world. (And all of us have the capability for being artists inside of us, whether or not we’re creating art professionally.) In fact, art is so much about creating change, about communication, about shedding a different light on a subject, that it seems disingenuous to insist that the only purpose of any given piece of art is entertainment. This is simply not the case the vast majority of the time.

Take the wildly popular Broadway musical The Book of Mormon, for example. It’s by and large a fluffy, crowd-pleasing musical with fairly unexceptional music and a big sense of humor. It pokes fun at the Mormon church with practically every lyric. At first glance it isn’t obviously world-changing. And yet. By the end, the audience is given the impression that while those Mormons are funny folks with lots of hilarious traditions and a bit of hypocrisy thrown in for good measure, they’re basically just like everyone else, good people trying to do good in the world. And I’m sure some audience members have left at the end of the night of theater with a different opinion of the Church of Latter Day Saints than when they walked in.

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Now, it might be true that we do not intend change or anything deeper in our work than a romping adventure yarn. We might be unaware of some of the messages we are sending with our stories, our characters, and our imagery. But so many of the choices involved in artistic work either support the status quo or disrupt it. We are changing the way people see the world, even if it’s unconscious on all sides. If we write a series of novels with all active men characters and all passive women characters, then we’re helping to shape our readers’ ideas about gender. If we write and perform songs that glorify hate crimes, then we’re helping our listeners form ideas about what constitutes acceptable behavior.

We are taught that we don’t have power, and sometimes it’s easier to believe that and thus avoid taking responsibility. But the truth is, so many of us have the power to change minds and hearts. And sometimes the most important minds and hearts to change are our own.

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Sometimes we fool ourselves into thinking we can have it all, but we can’t.

That’s really what priorities are all about. If we could have it all, we wouldn’t have to set priorities because we could do all the things. We’d have infinite resources: enough money to pay for life’s necessities and that trip to Bali and five new outfits and front row seats on Broadway. Enough time for a demanding career and friends and a relationship and a second job and kids and pets and vacations and hobbies and volunteering. Enough energy and brain space to keep track of it all.

The media tells us stories about how we can have it all. But the media lies. Penelope Trunk has written a few essays recently about high-powered career women–using Marissa Meyer and Sheryl Sandberg as her examples–and how they don’t ever see their kids. Because in order to be that high-powered, it’s necessary to work something like 100-hour weeks. That’s more than fourteen hours every day of the week. So really, there’s very little time for anything else. My first instinct is to think, wow, those two women are among the most important in the Silicon Valley, and they have kids too, so they really do have it all. But they don’t. They’ve set priorities that have led them to where they are, and priorities always involve a trade-off.

  How many hours a day do you think she practices?                                                                                     Photo Credit: Melissa Maples via Compfight cc

It’s so much sexier to talk about priorities in terms of what you can accomplish with them, as opposed to what you have to give up. But the accomplishment and sacrifice come together. Do you remember that movie from the ‘80s, The Competition? It followed a group of professional pianists through a concerto competition, and it shows this idea so clearly. All of these pianists are so talented and accomplished, and in order to be excelling at such a high level, their lives consist almost entirely of practice and music and more practice and their coaches and travel and practice. One of the main plotlines is about how the two protagonists are reluctant to have a romantic affair together because it will take away from the necessary focus and drive to win the competition.

Priorities are set based on how much we want something, but they are also set based on what we’re willing to do without. You’re willing to not have much of a normal social life? Then you can be a concert pianist. You’re willing to not see your kids very often? Then you can be a high-powered CEO. Most of us don’t have choices that are quite as extreme, but the core principle remains the same.

We often forget the trade-offs other people are making. People used to think I was really lucky to be working only part-time at my music teaching business. And I felt very lucky. I was doing work I loved and felt made a difference, and I had time to spare for my personal creative projects. But I was also constantly worried about money and the sustainability of my business model as the price of living kept increasing. I didn’t have a company behind me that provided paid sick days and cheap health insurance and retirement matching. The worry and the skimping were worth it to me in order to have a life focused on artistic pursuits, but I was very aware of the choice I was making. And everyone has made similar compromises somewhere along the line.

We can’t have it all. Nobody can, and that’s okay, as long as we don’t buy into the myth. What’s fabulous is that we get to decide what is most important to us and make our life choices accordingly. We don’t need to have it all in order to lead happy and fulfilled lives. We just need to understand where our priorities lie.

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“The irony of commitment is that it’s deeply liberating – in work, in play, in love. The act frees you from the tyranny of your internal critic, from the fear that likes to dress itself up and parade around as rational hesitation. To commit is to remove your head as the barrier to your life.” – Anne Morriss

My friend posted this quotation on Facebook the other day, and I’ve been thinking ever since about the relationship between commitment, fear, and change.

Commitment is, in a way, about leaning into the fear. Because once we become wholly committed to something, then we have something to lose in a way we didn’t before, and that can be really freaking scary. And commitment is about change, because even if it doesn’t cause any outward differences, it transforms what’s going on inside our minds and hearts. It alters our personal stories.

To commit fully is to feel naked and exposed. It is to drop any facade of insouciance or nonchalance. It is almost a confession, that this, this is something I’ve chosen to pour my heart, my energy, my time, and my passion into.

Commitment doesn’t come with any guarantees of success. If it did, it wouldn’t be nearly so interesting, so raw, so immersive in that which is vulnerable. But it does, as Anne Morriss says, remove our heads as barriers. It allows us to throw ourselves completely into our lives. It allows us to choose the kind of lives about which we can later sit down and write memoirs.

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When I think about my life, I realize that I couldn’t have followed through on the really hard things I’ve done without deep commitment. I couldn’t have gotten my college degree or had a senior recital. I couldn’t have moved to London. I couldn’t have started my own business. I couldn’t have become a writer. I couldn’t have engaged on a personal and emotional level with the people who are important to me. And I couldn’t have changed who I am and how I relate to the world.

All of those things involved risk and the chance of failure. All of them allowed the possibility of someone saying no, of things going wrong, of heartache and disappointment and mistakes, of me wimping out. All of them scared me.

When I arrived in London with my two gigantic suitcases, just out of college and with a freshly broken heart, a friend met me at the airport and helped me get to the place I was staying. And then he left, and I sat there, and I thought, “Oh my god, what have I done?” And then I cried. But the next morning I got out of bed and I left my flat and I explored London. Because I was committed to being there and having the richest experience I could, even though I was lonely and scared and didn’t know what I was doing.

There are so many times when I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing. Commitment helps me lean into the fear and discomfort of that feeling, and do it anyway. If we want to put ourselves out there in the world, if we want to try to do amazing things, I think that kind of commitment is necessary. The commitment gives us the permission we need to really go for it.

Commit and be free. I like that. It’s the kind of complex idea that requires a lot of thought to see the layers of truth it contains.

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