The fly of the hummingbird
Transcript of Elizabeth Gilbert's speaking to Oprah's SuperSoul Conversation
Elizabeth Gilbert is an American journalist and author. She is best known for her 2006 memoir, Eat Pray Love which has sold over 12 million copies and was made into a film of the same name in 2010.
Listen to this Oprah's podcast here.
The Curiosity-Drive Life, by Elizabeth Gilbert
I am here today to do something that I’ve never in a million of years thought I would ever have to do.
I am here today to speak out against passion.
You heard me right.
I know it sounds very strange but I want you to stay with me on this because I really believe what I have to say here today may bring a measure of comfort.
I am hoping it really will.
I have led my entire life guided by passion.
My work as writer, a vocation that I have been chasing my entire life with the love that you could call obsessive. I can barely even remember a time before I knew that I was going to be a writer. I had to be a write, I needed to be a writer. I was going to be a writer no matter what it took.
I was probably like 5 or 6. I was a book-loving child and I remember that I pieced together that the books do not appear magically out of the ether, but that people create them from their imaginations. Once I had that piece of information…
That was it! My destiny was sealed and I have never veered from that passion since.
Passion has worked for me.
Passion was the thing that kept me writing in the lean, early years before anybody else - except me - care about what I was doing.
For a long time I made a living as a diner waitress and a bartender. Passion was the thing that made me come home from those long shifts, with really sore feet, a really long day of work. I'd take off my shoes and sit down and do my real work. The real work for me was writing.
I did that day after day, year after year. Even when I was getting nothing out of it except for rejection letter after rejection letter. Nobody loves being rejected. I didn't care.
My passion for writing was so big that it made me stay in the game even through all the obstacles.
Then I finally got lucky enough to become a published writer.
As soon as I became successful, people started to send me up on the stage and ask me to speak about how I had gotten here and what I had learned.
What did I talk about? Passion, of course.
Passion to me was the one truth path and the only way forward.
I would stand on the stage and I talk about it, night after night:
"You know what you all have to do? Every single one of you. You have to identify your passion. You have to identify that tower of flame within you that will be your guiding, purposeful light.
You have to find that thing that makes you feel that your head is on fire, that makes you feel like there is a soul revolution going on deep inside your rib cage.
That thing that makes you feel like you would sacrifice and risk everything for that, and that nothing else matters but that thing that you know you were born to do.
Then you have to get every molecule of your being and funnel it directly and powerfully into that thing.
And that way – and only in that way – will you succeed”.
Then one day not long ago something happened.
I was in Australia on a speaking tour, doing my passion. I went back to my hotel room that night and I thought "Good job, Liz! You helped those people" when I started scrolling through my Facebook page.
Then I saw this.
Someone had written me a letter, a really long, exceptionally long letter on my Facebook page. That was from an Australian woman who had been in the audience that night and what she wrote was basically this:
"Hey Liz, just came from your speech. I don't even know why am I doing this but I am sitting all alone in my bedroom right now, in the dark, with the door locked behind me. Because of what you said up there tonight on that stage I have never felt worse about myself that I feel at this moment".
That caught my attention and I kept reading:
"Because you, Liz Gilbert, just spent the last two hours up there on that stage saying exactly the same thing to me that people like you have been saying to people like me forever:
You gotta follow your passion, follow your passion, follow your passion…
It all sounds well and good but I just have to tell you because I don't know who else to tell and I have got to take this out that...
I don't have one.
I don't have one.
For the last time... I don't have one.
And I think if I had one I would know because it sounds from the way you describe it's pretty friggin' obvious!
In fact, I would probably be the first one to know if I had one.
And I don't have one.
This is not for lack of searching.
I have not been lazy in my life. I have been tearing myself apart for years trying to find that thing that you people keep talking about. That one tower of flame that is going to be the guiding principle that I can organize my entire life around. And I'm telling you...
It's not there!
I don't have anything in my life that makes me feel like my head is on fire, like there is a soul revolution going on inside my rib cage. I don't have one thing that I feel like it would be safe to risk everything on and jump off the cliff for.
I don’t have and the thing is that I am kind of interested in a lot of stuff at the same time.
I get into something and then I realize that I am not really interested in... Then I get interested in something else and my interests change by the season that almost feel like I can't keep up with all the interest that I have!
I never really know what to commit to.
By this point of my life, the age I am at, I am starting to feel so deeply embarrassed about this because I feel like I should have this sorted out by now.
I should know by now what my purpose is, what my passion is. I don't know what it is, and I feel like a failure.
I am starting to feel like a freak, like there is something essential missing from my DNA. You just made me feel like the biggest loser in the world".
So I went back and I read it again and again... I sat there for the longest time just staring at the wall and then I thought:
"Oh, my God! I am a jerk!"
How many people have I done this to? How many times have I gone in public rallying follow your passion, follow your passion, follow your passion... not recognizing that perhaps I was leaving some people behind. I was making them feel like excluded, making them feel like - God forbid! - like failures, like losers because they don't have that certainty, that thing that I have always had.
This is one of these really epiphanic moments for me... All of the sudden I had to look at the thing that I believed more than anything and asked myself: "When was the last time I actually took a step back from this to see if what my essential truth is even true? If it's even true".
I started thinking about the lives of the people who I love and admire the most in the world. The people who I revere with all my heart. The people who I know most intimately: my family, my friends, my loved ones, the colleagues who I look up to.
Knowing them as well as I do, knowing their biographies as intimately as I do... How many of those people could honestly say that they knew when they were in kindergarten exactly what they were going to be doing in their live?
That they chose a path and they stuck to it.
That they built their entire life around that one single passion and they never veered from it. Never looked to the left, never looked to the right.
They just barrel right through it and today they are still doing that thing.
How many of those people?
And the answer - and I was very honest with myself about it - basically none of them. Statistically, zero percent of them.
Which have not stopped people from living gorgeous, rich, complicated lives...
Like our friend Brené Brown calls... "wholeheartedness".
These are the people I admire the most in the world. Their lives are not this single direct, clear, purposeful, wake-up-in-the-morning-from-the-time-you-were-a-child and you know-exactly-what-you-were-going-to-be straight line.
In fact, when I really thought about it, their lives looked more like a journey through a carnival fun house.
There are a lot of trapped doors and hidden staircases. Things that you thought were walls and you slid open and there is a maze behind it.
Just trying this, failing at that, getting fired from here, quitting this, trying this, realizing it was the wrong thing, you know... This kind of bouncing through until they eventually worked their way through to the - often-spectacular - places where they are now standing.
I thought, for instance, about my very best friend in the world. The person I trust with all my heart, my friend Rayya Elias. The wisest and kindest person I have ever met close up.
I thought about her life’s journey.
Here it goes:
Born in Syria, family moves to Michigan when she is a child. Difficult time adjusting to America, by the time she is in her late 18’ or 20's she is a punk rock musician in Detroit's underground music scene.
And then she becomes a hairdresser.
And then she becomes a fashion-stylist and photoshoots around the world.
And then she stops doing that and she becomes a filmmaker.
And then she stops doing that and she writes a book and becomes a published author.
And now she is in NYC with great success and satisfaction selling high-end real estate.
A logical progression, right?
All of this through the course of a very convoluted and often devastatingly painful journey that included - among other stops: a long period of heroin addiction, a period of homelessness, and more visits that she can physically name or count on her fingers to prisons, rehab centers, and mental hospitals.
What has my best friend Rayya's journey made her into?
Let me put it this way. I am someone who people come to for advice and sometimes people even pay for me standing to distribute inspiration.
But when I am lost and broken, and I have taken a face plan in the middle of my life, blown it, failed and I don't know what to do. When I am stuck, lost, and scared...
The very first phone call I make is to my friend Rayya.
Because I know that first of all, she will listen to me with completely non-judgmental compassion.
If there is one thing that Rayya's journey has taught her is that you do not judge anybody from where they are standing at that moment, on that path. No matter what. We all say that but she lives that, because of all those places that she had stood in her on path.
I also know that what she would gather up all the accumulated wisdom, grace, and experience that she has from every one of those lives that she has lived in all of those places she has been and everything she has seen and learned.
She stands like on a mountain of that perspective and looks out over the landscape of my problem with eyes that nobody else would have. She hand-crafts for me and answers to my difficult problem that literally no one else in the world could have come up with.
Because literally nobody else in the world has been, done, felt, and seen all of what she has been, done, felt, and seen!
That's what Rayya's convoluted, weird, random journey made her into.
Then I thought about my husband. My wonderful, freakin', fantastic husband. The love of my life.
Born in Brazil to a very poor family, he felt early on he had no options there. Managed to scrape together enough money by selling scrap metals and bones to slaughter houses and glue manufacturing places.
Gets enough money to buy a one-way ticket to Europe (for reasons he could not had even been able to articulate at that time). Goes to Europe with no possible direction. Bounces around Europe for four years, drifts over to the Middle East (for reasons he still can't even really identify).
Goes from there to Australia where he lived for 17 years, and then after that he went to Southeast Asia for eight years. I met him there. Now he is married to me and we live in New Jersey, in the US.
His life has looked anything about this single direct, straight, driven-line of purpose that I have been preaching to people for all of what they gotta do. If anything, his life looks like a pinball through a pinball machine more it looks like anything else.
I sat there in that hotel room contemplating all of this, and I thought about this very painful story that he had told me about a really hard thing that had happened in his life once.
A friend of his had come at him and she said:
"You know, you will never going to leave a legacy when you die. because to have a legacy you have to focus on one thing. You don't have that kind of focus on your life. You have been moving around and doing all of those stuff, and the reason you don't have that focus is because you don't have a sense of passion. That's why you never going to leave a legacy".
It hurt him. It hurt him as it would have hurt anybody.
He thought about it for a few days and came back to her a few days later and said:
"I can't stop thinking about what you said.
Well, first of all I am not really worried about a legacy. That's not something I have ever really been concerned with in my life. I am not wired that way.
But you are wrong to say that I don't have a passion. I do have a passion. My passion is for life itself, in all of its magnificent directions".
And what a life he has lived! Which is exactly why I felt in love with him and why no one day in our marriage has been boring to me. Because of that.
I kept processing and I thought about all the people who I know and love. People who are still very much on the search. People who are still really unsure about what their purpose is, who aren't totally certain that they have one central burning passion.
Some of these people who I know and love are on their 40's, 50's, 60's, and beyond.
People that are still trying to figure out what they are going to be when they grow up.
Some of them are really at ease with the shape of their journey, but now I know that many of them are not. They carry that anxiety about the fact that in a culture that fetishes passion and certainty, they are uncertain.
They are not totally sure that they have this great burning purpose, and what their legacy is going to be.
It makes them feel stressed and like that woman in Australia: a loser, a failure. That by this age they should have this figured out.
I realize that every time somebody like me says to somebody like that:
"Hey, it's really easy to solve your life, man! All you gotta do is just follow your passion!".
It probably twists like a knife in their guts.
I don't do that anymore. I don't say that anymore. I don't preach "there is only one path".
I don't preach that anymore because I don't even know if I believe it anymore.
These days when I meet somebody who is on the search, who is feeling lost, confused, and purposeless. "I don't know what I am supposed to be doing here...".
I say to them the exactly opposite thing of what I would have said a few years ago:
"Listen, do yourself a great service. Just for now, just take the word passion off the table. Relieve yourself of that because there is so much pressure around that. Forget it, just for now. Let it go".
Instead of that anxiety and urgency and panic about chasing that passion that you are not even feeling, do something that is lot easier, a lot simpler.
Just follow your curiosity.
Curiosity is such a gentler, kinder, more welcoming, more humane instinct than passion. It is so much more accessible!
Passion is this really intimidating grand concept. It is the burning tower flame in the desert and it can be hard to see that in a random Tuesday when you are feeling blue. The other thing about passion is that it's demanding, greedy. It insists to take everything out of you.
These are the terms of passion: "Throw it all on the pad, risk it all! You want to make an impact, you gotta make a huge change. You gotta get divorced, shave your head, change your name, move to Nepal, open up an orphanage".
Well, maybe not everyone needs to do that this week.
And maybe it's ok.
Passion can also be a dangerous impulse. Look back at your own story and remember the most passionate love story of your life.
Remember that? How that worked out for you? What kind of condition were you in when it was over? What kind of state were you in when passion was done having its way in you?
Passion had taken what it always demands which is everything out of you.
In contrast with the demands, urgency, and greedy that can be associated with passion. Curiosity doesn't do that to you. Curiosity will never strip your life bare. Curiosity will never make outrageous demands upon you. Curiosity will never take. Curiosity only does one thing, and that is to give.
What curiosity gives you are clues on the incredible scavenger hunt of your life.
Every. Single. Day.
Even in the worse days there is something you can find that you are a tiny little bit interested in. No matter how small it is, no matter how nothing it seems. No matter how "it's not gonna change the world". No matter how you are not gonna mortgage your house to go do it.
There is something in your life - always - on your every day that you are little bit curious about.
That is the trail of breadcrumbs. The scavenger hunt. The channel that God feeds the little clues for, on the incredible scavenger hunt of your specific and precious life.
The only thing that curiosity will ever ask of you is that you turn your head a quarter of an inch and just look a little closer at one of those clues.
It might be nothing.
You might follow that for a few inches and be like "Oh no, that wasn’t a thing". And that's fine. You didn't burn your whole life to go do it. You just looked... “It might...? No, I guess I am not really interested in that.”
You let it go.
Then the next time it might be another clue, and another one… And you just go for a really long time doing that and it might lead you to nowhere.
Or this might happen.
And I have seen this happen. Because this is the flight of the natural-born hummingbird.
See, the world is divided into two kinds of people: there are the jackhammers, and there are the hummingbirds.
Jackhammers are people like me: you put a passion on our hands and we would just go like bang, bang, bang... We don't look up, we don't veer. We just focus on that till the end of the time. It's efficient, you get a lot done but we tend to be obsessive and fundamentalist and sometimes a little difficult and loud.
Hummingbirds spend their lives doing it very differently. They move from tree to tree, flower to flower, field to field. And two things happen: they create incredible, rich, complex lives for themselves. And they also end up cross-pollinating the world.
That is the service that you do if you are a hummingbird person.
You are bringing idea from here to over there, where you learn something else. And you weave it and then you take it here to the next thing you do. Your perspective ends up keeping the entire culture aired and mixed up and open to the new and fresh.
If that's how you are constructed by your divine maker, then that's how we need you to be.
You just keep doing that. That is the path that you are supposed to live.
And here is the magic trick:
If you do that. If you are willing to release yourself from the pressure and anxiety surrounded by passion and you just humbly and faithfully continue to follow the trail of the hummingbird path.
One of these days you just may wake up and realize:
"Oh my world, I am exactly where I am meant to be! I am with the people that I am supposed to be with, I am doing the work I am supposed to be doing, I am in the city I am supposed to be living in, my family looks the way it is".
In other words, if you can let go of passion and follow your curiosity, your curiosity just might lead you...
TO YOUR PASSION.
That is the magic trick!
I have seen it happen and when it happens it does feel like there's a divine hand in there and that the whole thing wasn't random.
That somebody was guiding it, and it reminds me of that lovely quote by the beautiful 14th-century Persian poet Hafiz:
The place where you are right now, God circled on a map for you. Wherever your eyes and arms and heart can move, against the earth and the sky. The Beloved has bowed there. Our Beloved has bowed there knowing you were coming.
It is possible that all of us never were in the wrong place.
Every place has been bowed to. There’s wholeness and sacredness in all the places we are: the lost place, the dark place, the broken place, the betrayed place.
The beloved bowed, circled that, held that place for you, knowing you were coming.
There is no place you can be that is not sacred and holy.
Here is the deal, though. Just because God circled on a map, long ago, this place we are all standing right now in our lives. That does not mean that there is where the Beloved intends us to remain.
However we are constructed, we all have to have the humility, discipline and the faith to lift our eyes, turn our head a quarter of an inch and look for the next clue.
And the next clue, and the next clue...
Trust the breadcrumbs, your curiosity, your interests. Trust the map and the map-maker.
More than anything else I beg this of you. Whatever you do, my sweet, beautiful hummingbird friends. Never let a passion bully like me push you around again.
You are perfect. <3