I spent much of my life secretly feeling I wasn’t meant to be here, in this world. Like I’d been landed here by mistake when the spaceship was refuelling.
Childhood summers meant days of escaping out of my head up, up, up into the world of imagination: twirling round the tree behind the kitchen, a fantasy world unfolding like a movie with stories and adventures and characters… until one day, the thought struck: I want to be the person who creates better worlds for others to live in.
Because that’s the thing I couldn’t help but do:
Create fresh worlds, up there where anything was possible.
But then I grew up.
And by the age of 15 realized that in the ‘real world’ you didn’t twirl around the garden with another land in your head, writing treehouses in the clouds.
Dreaming up there wasn’t what we did down here.
So I stopped…
Except when it bubbled out. Which it did.
I’d still drift off and daydream—only now I’d learned to hide it.
So for a long time I felt like there were two ‘me’s’ – one up there and one down here and it felt like I was living a lie in both.
After all – how could I disappear up, up away there, up into the imagination realm when I had a body and a mind and a place you can touch where I lived right here?
And how could I stay only in the grounded world when there was a whole other world of imagination to whiz around in above?
A bit of me was here and a bit of me was there – but where did I really belong?
I asked myself that for years – and for years I thought it was just me… until one day I read these words by Steven Pressfield (from his book Turning Pro – read the underlined bits!)
What does this have to do with creating work that matters, or being who you are, or doing something you care about?
If you’ve ever, even once, day dreamed the perfect thing then fallen down to earth with a thump? Well then you’ll have an inkling what all this means.
See as Pressfield suggests, that tension between the two words – the realm ‘down here’ vs the realm ‘up there’ (which you simply could think as the land of “imagination” or “flow” or something else) – is what it means to be human.
And resisting that is so often the reason we get “stuck”, trapped like a fly in the web of one of those two things:
— Sometimes we are weighed down in the here and now realm – with so many distractions, reasons why not, and thoughts of ‘what we are meant to be’ and comfort in the familiar and quick-fix hits of dopamine to keep us in place.
In other words we want to ascend to the upper realm as Pressfield says (or in less glamorous terms: we want to do the thing that we’d totally do in theory, but that doesn’t always happen)… but the kicker is, we don’t want to go through the forest in between the two to get here.
— And sometimes problem comes from the opposite direction – we are bound to the upper realm, so lost in our heads, our tantalising dreams and imaginings that we can’t put our feet back on the ground and do the work here.
It feels so far from the ideal, landing back on earth with a thump.
That’s what being ‘stuck’ really means most of the time (see also: being in resistance or feeling general ‘blah-ness’): being mired in just one of those worlds.
Too much inspiration and – like a balloon with too much air, we rise too high above the ground to do the real work.
Too little inspiration and we stay too low – we plod and plod.
(And neither of these places are where things happen).
So what’s the easy answer?
Well, there is not an easy answer.
There is a reason Pressfield calls this the pain of the human condition…. not because there is a neato-o 10-step formula to ascend that pain!
But there is something we can do (phew):
The first part is to accept.
To accept that this is what it means to be human.
That having a foot in both these worlds is our gift – and our curse.
You see, the one thing that is unique to humans?
Is that we are the ONLY creatures who can imagine something that does not yet exist – create it with our minds – then make it real.
When you think about it, that’s magic – everyday magic that is so much a part of us we barely notice it when it happens. But it’s a large part of the reason you and I made it here today:
The best explanation I’ve seen for this is in Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind (one of my favourite books). Here the author, Yuval Noah Harari, explains why we Homo Sapiens survived: why we ‘won out’ over the other types of Sapiens that co-existed with us back in the day.
So what was that reason we made it as a species?
It wasn’t size. It wasn’t anatomy. It wasn’t a nifty opposable thumb.
Other ‘sapiens’ had those things, but the special thing we had but they didn’t?
Was the ability to imagine something that doesn’t yet exist… and communicate it to others.
Imagining an idea up there, then bringing it to life on the ground in the here and now – it’s why we survived as a species.
That is what it means to be human.
And that, when I thought about it again, was what I had done as a kid in the garden. See:
At the start of this story I told you I had dreamed… but what I forgot to mention is that I also directed. Most of my childhood photos before the age of 10 are filled with my friends and I dressed up and putting on plays – creating a world and playing out fantasy adventures among the trees.
I spent my childhood dreaming and bringing those dreams to life.
Doing exactly the thing that is most core to us as humans.
But even as we reminisce I have to be careful not to romanticise.
The truth is even as a child it felt frustrating – right? Imaginings were so much more beautiful and pure “up there”. Making them real down here felt like learning another language… a language with only half the vocabulary and a convoluted grammar system no guidebook could properly explain.
It has never been perfect, translating an idea into a thing. It isn’t perfectly smooth for any of us. At any time.
But we can get better at learning our language – whether it is writing or art or building bridges or supporting people or making ideas come to life – we can get better and better at our language.
However that only happens when we realise that all of this, our sense of being on the edge of things, is not a mistake:
That’s our deal: we get to touch both worlds…
But we live with just one foot in each.
It’s our greatest curse – but it’s also our greatest gift.
So how can we use this for ourselves?
Well one step is to get real with how this works. Because the truth is that resistance stops for periods as we get into flow, but it comes back. To everyone. I can’t think of a single creator of great things – of world class things – who never feels it.
But I can think of a lot of people who sit and play in the back seats, who believe they don’t experience it anymore… because whenever a hint of it comes they retreat back into their comfort zone.
They do this because they don’t realise that resistance is NOT a mistake. That it is is part of the process, the entry payment for getting to have a foot in two worlds….
Which is why we have to start being realistic and honest about this – because otherwise we think we have made a mistake when we feel it – that’s when we step back to avoid it, back the places we were trying to get away from:
Some avoid it by zipping up to dream (and getting lost up there where nothing comes to life).
Some avoid it by anchoring themselves down with rocks, living only with what is in front of them and so they plod and plod with what they know – without a way out.
Others avoid it by endlessly searching for ‘tactics’ and ‘tricks’ to avoid the feeling of being “in between”…
But keep this idea in your back pocket and you might just find that “am I stuck up there or stuck down here?” is a surprisingly useful question – all of us get stuck in the web on either side at different times and being able to ask this gives some big hints at what you need to do more of in that moment.
If we want to talk reality, this is it without the gloss:
This is what it means to navigate both parts of being human – up in the clouds and down on the ground.
The mistake comes when we try to deny the liminal space in between and dive only into one. Leave out one side and that’s where we have stuckness. That’s where we have freezing. That’s where we have hitting a wall or feeling like we’re wading through treacle.
Because then we’re only using half our power.
Because then we miss the gift of being human.
An unexpected ending (and a note from the other author)
I originally had another ending planned for this piece… but then this happened:
Remember how at the start of this I talked about being in the garden as a child? Well what I didn’t mention was that in that place my imaginings were inspired by one of the greatest dreamers and doers of our time: the late author Enid Blyton.
I wasn’t going to mention her, figuring that was an incidental part of the story – but, on the day I scribbled out the draft of this message, I looked up and realised that day would have been Enid Blyton’s birthday.
Her 120th birthday in fact.
And what a nice way to round this out – with a synchronicity from someone who understood this better than most:
So I imagine Enid taking over the pen from here (which I’m delighted to hand over as she is by far the better writer) – and telling us how the heroes of her books lived on the threshold of two lands: the land of imagination / creative adventures / sparks of magic. And the land of the everyday.
Reminding us that whenever one of them tried to stay in the magic lands up, up above their Faraway Tree for too long… then bad things would happen. Every time.
And how every time someone said they were too grown up, too sensible to dream bigger or step into their imagination, how didn’t have time for anything except the here and now… well, then you just knew someone was about to get stuck somewhere rather nasty (for as long as it took to turn things around).
“Just saying”. She’d say. “Not sure why I’m sharing that here. THOUGHT IT MIGHT BE RELEVANT FOR SOME REASON”, she’d say, peering at you meaningfully over her glasses.
Then she’d write the ending: the one where her characters – you and me and him and her – would climb down from the Faraway Tree and its lands of imagination and magic…
And as they trekked back through the woods to the sensible farmhouse land of the here and now, a little piece of their adventure would be tinkling along with them. Maybe a glimmering piece of rock in a pocket, reminding them that they are more than one thing:
That all parts of you are needed.
That all parts of you are required.
That all parts of you are enough.