A process for discovering your ‘elixir’ — your signature best self — that special value that only you can add to the world
Business as usual can make us cynical about doing business at all. Think Enron and nefarious mortgage loans. Think of cut-throat competition the way that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is attributed as saying: “…Amazon should approach these small publishers the way a cheetah would pursue a sickly gazelle.” Think “management by stress” and “bottom line efficiency” in which human beings are over-worked and under-valued. Think marketing as manipulation.
In the early-21st century, there remain countless signs of business as usual, but a growing band of us across the globe are determined to do business as unusual for the greater good.
It’s a world where we each — especially us misfits with quirks, hidden talents, and mosaic backgrounds — can come home by doing business as art.
My Homeward Bound Journey
Business as usual was my frame of business for a long time. A poet in a Texan’s body, I resisted business as a young man and went to Austin to cultivate a pseudo-Marxist anti-capitalist stance. In my framing during the ’80s and ’90s, business equaled greed, and marketing equaled manipulation. A self-imposed ascetic, I devoted my twenties to writing, teaching, and voluntary simplicity.
Then yoga screwed up my life in beautiful ways. Restless, open-hearted, and newly married by my early 30s, I had traveled one summer from Texas to the Zen Mountain Monastery outside of Woodstock, New York, for a residency. The previous month I had spent at Woodstock’s Byrdcliffe Artist-in-Residency to finish a book proposal for my agent about yoga & the writing life. Within a few days of arriving at the monastery, I found a few allies and my place there in hauling blue stones, mowing the vast meadow, starving my hungry ego. Among the mountains and in the occasional forays into Woodstock, I also sensed a comfort and camaraderie I rarely felt in the “Big D [Dallas].”
One afternoon, I stood among the monastery’s cemetery housed in evergreens. Suddenly and without why, I heard and felt “home” whisper inside me. Having grown up in a family of islands, I did not know then that home was even something I ached for.
Within two months, this fifth-generation Texan moved his and his wife’s things to a tiny cottage in Woodstock to write, teach yoga, and venture onward. I sent notes to my writer friends: “Some places have a village idiot. Woodstock is a village of idiots. For the first time, I feel right at home.”
At the time, what I felt to be home was a place where my peculiar sensitivities and my desire for a meaningful life could be accepted.
It turns out, that was only part of the story and only the beginning of what I would discover about journeying home.
Fast-forward 30 years later from that anti-capitalist stance, and this poet with grad school training in philosophical hermeneutics (don’t ask) heads up a thriving business with a robust team that builds business artists and helps businesses grow with integrity.
My experience has borne out fundamental truths: We each have a signature elixir — something of distinct value that perhaps only we each can deliver to our respective people. Why only you? Why signature? Why distinct? Because only you have the core inner personality that lets you elevate people a certain way. Because only you have the lived heritage that has allowed you to build specific skills and talents through trial and fire.
Only you and what you create and deliver resonates with a certain core group of people.
Whether you are an artist or CEO, a thought leader or conversation starter, when you own your medicine and own the story you must tell, you inevitably feel as if you’re homeward bound, returning to your people with a message and medicine they ache for.
My saying this now with sure-footed confidence would sound unrecognizable to that earnest 20-something poet or to the 30-something shaggy barefoot writer-yogi. But being unrecognizable to your former self and even to the people who once knew you, it turns out, is part of the journey home in this new world.
The Terror, the Wonder
The path to discovering and delivering your elixir with integrity can be terrifying.
In the twelve years since I moved to Woodstock, my first marriage dissolved, a lightning bolt sent a fire roaring through my study and decimated the farmhouse my second wife and I had bought, debilitating Lyme Disease has visited me four times, two little girls have arrived, and my father has died.
I was cracked open and my heart expanded in concentric rings. It’s not the collections of suffering and hardship alone, though, that make us formidable and distinct.
It’s how we habitually contend with those hardships, solve difficult problems certain ways, and build up a specific skill set that we bring forward to our endeavors over the years that distinguishes us.
It’s in part, learning how to draw from that heritage that helps you create, own, and deliver your elixir.
But the very act of owning your medicine in public — of standing up and out and saying that you have something of value to contribute — feels like risky business. You might rather just do your work, write your book, create your encaustic canvases, make your films, serve your clients and students, and “be done” with the rest of the world.
I understand that stance. But I also often imagine Jonas Salk toiling in his laboratory after World War II when polio was wiping out tens of thousands of Americans. By chance and wit and compassion, he became determined to discover a vaccine. Tens of thousands of tests and heaps of criticism later, he succeeded. An introvert, the last thing Salk wanted was for his image to land on the cover of Time Magazine. But it did. And Salk went on to found the revolutionary inter-disciplinary Salk Institute.
Now imagine if he did all of that work but didn’t tell the right people who could help him spread that vaccine. Imagine if he discovered that vaccine but out of fear of drawing a lot of attention to himself or out of fear of being viewed as vain he closed his lab door, kept his mouth shut, and went back to work on his next experiment. And then imagine him ten years later growing resentful because no one knew of the great work he’s doing.
Because here’s the deal: When you live the quest, you come home not only to your best self but more to a village of sorts, to other people who ache for the elixir your core self has discovered or created or is co-creating with them.
When you witness your impact, you’re buoyed to engage and serve more.
If you feel the least bit trepidatious about venturing forward with an idea that you know will bring you home to your true self and will bring relief or elevation to other people, know that for many of us wanting to do business as unusual that this challenge is in part what we’ve signed on for.
The remarkable thing is you do not have to meet these challenges alone.
Your Core Ally
My way of life in these middle years is to track wonder. That does not mean I’m naive or wish upon stars or float around Never-Never Land. An unflinching inner skeptic keeps my ear to the ground to follow wonder’s tracks as an unapologetic grown-up well acquainted with rings of fire.
Wonder, simply put, is not kid’s stuff. Tracking wonder is radically grown-up stuff for those who want to journey homeward. Why?
Because more than any other cognitive or emotional experience, wonder cracks you open to possibility.
When you stand a little astonished at the way sun slides on a sidewalk or at the way you’ve changed in twenty years, you receive that reality without asking anything in return. The openness of wonder helps you get clear about why you do what you do, face challenges with less angst, and not grasp at outcome. Wonder is a core ally.
Tracking Wonder also is the name of the consultancy I founded several years ago. My team and I have built business artists in a variety of fields, people who are ready to own their signature elixir and to challenge business as usual. People who are ready to do their best work in the world and to muster the skill set and hone the craft necessary to captivate and elevate other people in books, brands, and intentional lives.
Admittedly, each day I am a little astonished and a lot humbled.
Your Signature Best Self
To do our best work in the world we each can bring forward a signature part of our respective best self. What we call “best self” has become increasingly more clear to me since the long-ago days when I closed my Woodstock yoga classes with “The best in me reaching out to the best in you.”
When in my twenties, I was immersed in the ideas of Jung and of Jungian thinker James Hillman to try to understand and act on what I now call our signature best self. I suspect this signature best self is part of our biology, our environment, and something called mind and habit that has contributed to some nugget within each of us. Hillman calls it “the soul’s code,” an acorn of sorts he says we are each born with that supersedes nature and nurture.
Whatever you want to call it, something does distinguish how we each individually create and elevate other people — signature best self to signature best self.
The Greeks called it the “daimon,” a kind of guardian that does not protect our ego in a cozy comfort zone but instead a guardian that protects what is best within each of us that must be acknowledged, fortified, and brought out so that we each might flourish in the world.
The daimon is contradictory and paradoxical. It speaks in the language of metaphor and symbol. Try to live your life by ignoring the daimon’s yearning and signature way of being expressed, and it will act out.
You can call that acting out a mid-life crisis, but I think that phrase cheapens our experience. Instead, in those middle decades — sometimes starting in our twenties — these moments of deep fertile confusion are opportunities to keep living our quest that we might come a little closer to arriving home.
To glimpse your daimon, your core guide, consider how you uniquely think about situations or solve problems. List your intellectual and creative obsessions — and own them as potential elixir ingredients instead of as simple peculiarities. What do you know more about than many other people whom you know? What special combination of interests, experiences, and skills makes you “you” — and how can you bring those distinctions forward?
Salve Your Patch of the Planet
The beautiful thing: Your core guide has medicine — creative, intellectual, business, spiritual — to serve and salve a patch of the planet.
Your patch of the planet is your imaginable and deeply felt audience with whom you identify and empathize. They are in part the audience that your best self comes home to. They’re the patrons or students, the 40-60-year-old seekers, the mid-managers with an ache in their heart, or the 20-something leaders whom you genuinely want to captivate and elevate. Imagine their daily lives, listen to them, speak to them, engage them, and bring them up to a better place.
My heroes embrace and bring forward their signature best selves in ways that reach their patch of the planet.
There is the former college administrator who owned her heritage and signature self to leap and launch the Women of Wonder Circle for women who want to move out of their sexual abuse into a more empowered, beautiful life.
There is the former art curator and Natalie Goldberg protege who owned her heritage and signature elixir to lead the conversation of The Creative Mix for bold who are mixing things up in art and life.
There is the VP of Marketing for a corporation who owned his heritage and medicine to lead the conversation on inter-generational leadership to build up Millennials who can lead on purpose.
There are countless other people, too, who are my homeward bound heroes.
It’s not easy work. These heroes don’t want to take a tour but to live the quest.
And here’s another surprise for this once-reclusive writer:
DIT beats DIY. Do it together.
Suspicious of group-think and overly attached to our own “originality,” we creatives often wear the DIY badge with honor. Maybe to a fault. Soldiering on in a DIY culture — especially when the digital revolution seems to suggest that an artist or writer or entrepreneur can and should be able to do everything on his or her own — is, in a word, exhausting.
And not ultimately as impactful.
When your core guide and core self is fully recognized and engaged with other people also bringing out their core self in a mutually beneficial way, then you might taste what Aristotle calls eu-daimon-ia. Your daimon, your core guide, flourishes not in isolated flow but in optimal engagement. The pursuit of eudaimonia translates loosely in English to “the pursuit of happiness.” It is a collective happiness for the greater good.
The pursuit of eudaimonia may be the lifelong journey toward our home. Together.
Home might be the way mind feels wrapped in skin that fits just right. A place where best self and rebellious self are embraced and held. A place where your quirks are potential strengths; your peculiarities, potential badges of honor; your oddities, potential medicine.
After all, we long to belong. When we reach the middle of our lives, we want to feel at home in the world we inhabit, create in, and engage.
We want a way of life and of right livelihood, a way of making things and of making a difference that brings out the best in us and those around us.
The road to that kind of home is usually circuitous if not a little treacherous, but there’s really no better path I have found to feeling utterly, wildly alive.
P.S. Need a compass? I created this Compass of Wonder PDF expressly to help business artists like you navigate your way home to doing business as art.
Learn more about Jeffrey Davis’ work at trackingwonder.com.
You may also enjoy Poetry, Wonder and the Creative Mind. by Jeffrey Davis