What’s Your Favourite Flavour of Shit Sandwich?
I laughed out loud and was nodding in agreement when I read the shit sandwich chapter in Big Magic — a book about creative pragmatism, curiosity and persistent art making in the face of fear, failure and ennui.
So what is this steaming turd sandwich? It is the inevitable sacrifice, disappointment, inconvenience, irritation and stress that come with every single pursuit. Even the most wonderful, meaningful, exciting and glamorous activities come with their own special flavour of shit sandwich.
Mark Manson wrote a helpful blog post on the subject, “everything sucks, some of the time. You just have to decide what sort of suckage you’re willing to deal with. The question is not so much “what are you passionate about?” The real question is “what are you passionate enough about that you can endure the most disagreeable aspects of the work?”
“If you want to be a tech entrepreneur, but you can’t handle failure, then you’re not going to make it far. If you want to be a professional artist, but you aren’t willing to see your work rejected hundreds, if not thousands, of times, then you’re done before you start. If you want to be a hotshot court lawyer, but can’t stand the eighty-hour workweeks, then I’ve got bad news for you.” Because if you love and want something enough — whatever it is — then you will inevitably need to eat the shit sandwich that comes with it.
In Big Magic Liz tells the story of her friend — an aspiring writer — who would often descend into dark funks of depression, regularly sulking and raging about his lack of success and his inability to get published. “I don’t want to be sitting around,” he would moan. “I want this to all add up to something. I want this to become my job!” After a few years he threw in the paper and pen. He couldn’t stomach the shit sandwich of not getting the results he wanted, of having to work another job to pay the bills because his writing didn’t, of working so hard at something that had no guarantee of success.
Liz reflects that “at the time I wasn’t getting published either. I was hungry too. I would’ve loved to have all the same stuff he wanted — success, reward, affirmation. I was no stranger to frustration and disappointment. But I remember thinking that learning how to endure your disappointment and frustration is part of the job of a creative person. If you want to be an artist of any sort, it seemed to me, then handling your frustration is a fundamental aspect of the work — perhaps the single most fundamental aspect of the work. Frustration is not an interruption of your process. Frustration is the process.”
The fun part (the part where it doesn’t feel like work at all) is when you’re actually creating something wonderful, and everything’s going great, and everyone loves it, and you’re flying high. But such instances are rare. You don’t just get to leap from bright moment to bright moment. How you manage yourself between those bright moments, when things aren’t going so great, is a measure of how devoted you are to your vocation, and how equipped you are for the weird demands of creative living. Holding yourself together through all the phases of creation is where the real work lies.
My friend has this Bukowski quote tattooed on his arm, what matters most is how well you walk through the fire. Now — I know Bukowski is a highly questionable character — but this quote is spot on. With passion comes pain. Mark Manson unpacks this in another blog post — doing what you love is not always loving what you do. The best things in life can sometimes be ugly, tedious and painful. Life is messy. You don’t get meaning and profundity without commitment and sacrifice. Just like choosing a partner, it’s not choosing someone who makes you happy all the time, it’s choosing somebody who you want to be with even when they’re pissing you off.
I don’t know about you — but I find this whole shit sandwich concept liberating. It reminds me that doing stuff and making stuff and discovering what matters to me — and which shit sandwiches I am, and am not willing to eat — is a sweaty, achy full-contact sport. An ongoing process of trial-and-error. We have to try things, pay attention to how they feel, adjust and then try again. Nobody gets it right on the first try, or the tenth or sometimes even the two-hundredth. None of us know exactly how we feel about an activity and what it really requires, until we actually do the activity.