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  • Writer's pictureLiz Gardner

Letters from Vonnegut: Shortcuts to Making Your Soul Grow

Much has been written about the benefits of doing things simply because we enjoy doing them — not for the sake of being good at them, using them to make money, get the good grade, or any other external reward, but for the sake of enjoyment itself. We know that the learning process is enriched when we are authentically engaged in exploring things we are interested in — in ways that stimulate us, enhance our experience, and bring us contentment. It may seem like a no-brainer, but we often get lost in the maze of what “success” is supposed to look like, and let other people’s definitions direct our activities and experiences, rather than letting our own self-awareness, curiosity, sense of joy and play take the lead.

This has long been part of the Great Wisdom, that rollicking round-up of collective universal juice from artists and writers and thinkers and feelers from all the years. Albert Einstein once said, “That is the way to learn the most, that when you are doing something with such enjoyment that you don’t notice that the time passes.” Carl Yung tapped into this idea as well when he asked, "What did you do as a child that made the hours pass like minutes? Herein lies the key to your earthly pursuits.” Indeed. So, I'm heading out to get a banana seat bike so I can once again take my chances on flying over jumps down my driveway. Who's with me?



⇨ What have you done recently that has made you lose yourself in that other world — the world where corrugated time ceases to exist, and instead, is overtaken by a magical quality of your own making?

⇨ What did you used to do as a young child that represented this space for you?

⇨ What prevents you from entering this world?

⇨ What could you do to create more space for JOY in your day to day?


Kurt Vonnegut shared advice his father had given him: “never take liquor into the bedroom. Don’t stick anything in your ears. Be anything but an architect.” Ha.

To his own children, he wrote that he believed “most letters from a parent contain a parent’s own lost dreams disguised as good advice. My good advice to you is to pay somebody to teach you to speak some foreign language, to meet with you two or three times a week and talk. Also: get somebody to teach you to play a musical instrument. What makes this advice especially hollow and pious is that I am not dead yet. If it were any good, I could easily take it myself.”

And this is where he gets really super-powerish in that FlipSwitch sort of way:

“Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience BECOMING, to find out what’s inside you, to MAKE YOUR SOUL GROW.”

Wait. What? "Not to get money or fame, but to experience BECOMING?" To find out what’s inside you? To make your soul grow? Given our culture's often narrow definition of success as something we achieve only when we've reached the career pinnacles of the more presentational world — that big cheese job title and the salary to go along with it — is thinking about a different kind of success and rewards system, one that is more intrinsic and enduring, even allowed?

I’d argue that not only is it allowed, but it is imperative. That it is the work. The most important work we can do — especially now. A most essential ongoing course that takes center stage in our life curriculum. That’s what notebooking is all about — creating space and time to climb into your interior world, listen to yourself, take stock of your growth, process and manifest and send messages to the universe, and find out what makes you tick. More simply: to know yourself.

And notice, he’s talking soul — not ego. There’s a huge difference. Take note of the times when your ego gets in the way, and what’s fueling it.

When you go off map, take chances and try something new — "continually jumping off cliffs" — you’re finding out what you’re made of, discovering what makes you feel that primal joy of just being, and making your soul grow — and well, that’s everything, isn’t it? You're also trusting that you will "develop wings on the way down." And that's big. I got this.

And college? Well, all that learning that happens when you’re not having to be super self-conscious about the actual learning process outside of the usual presentational platforms is typically when the best, deepest, richest learning takes place — engendering a kind of education that the college boards just can’t measure. Your college essay? An amazing opportunity to lay down your tracks, unpack your stories, and share your unique understanding of your self. In particular, your stories should convey your own awareness of the growth you've experienced deep within, which is, of course, the essential education, the education that goes beyond the classroom, but takes root within because of what you've done to make it happen for yourself.

Vonnegut says, “I doubt that they can get you in shape to cool the college boards, so the hell with the college boards. Educate yourself instead. In the final analysis, that’s what I had to do, what Uncle Beaver had to do, and what we all have to do.

I think it’s important to live in a nice country rather than a powerful one. Power makes everybody crazy.

You’re learning now that you do not inhabit a solid, reliable, social structure — that the older you get people around you are worried, moody, goofy human beings who themselves were little kids only a few days ago. So home can fall apart and schools can fall apart, usually for childish reasons, and what have you got? A space wanderer named Nan.

And that’s O.K. I’m a space wanderer named Kurt, and Jane’s a space wanderer named Jane, and so on. When things go well for days on end, it is an hilarious accident.

Boy, that’s for sure. And then he talks about something that sounds like he could be talking about this pandemic year — no matter what your age:

“You’re dismayed at having lost a year, maybe, because the school fell apart. Well — I feel as though I’ve lost the years since Slaughterhouse-Five was published, but that’s malarky. Those years weren’t lost. They simply weren’t the way I’d planned them. Neither was the year in which Jim had to stay motionless in bed while he got over TB. Neither was the hear in which Mark went crazy, then put himself together again. Those years were adventures. Planned years are not.

I look back on my own life and I wouldn’t change anything. . . .”

Vonnegut taps into what the American Tibetan Buddhist Pema Chodron writes about in her book,When Things Fall Apart: When there’s big disappointment, we don’t know if that’s the end of the story. It may be just the beginning of a great adventure.”

And those great adventures make us much more interesting, to be certain.

Vonnegut shared this story about a time in his life when he learned the value of doing things not because they are a means to an end, or because you’re good at them, but because they bring us joy, teaches us invaluable skills, and makes us infinitely more interesting:

“When I was 15, I spent a month working on an archeological dig. I was talking to one of the archeologists one day during our lunch break and he asked those kinds of “getting to know you” questions you ask young people: Do you play sports? What’s your favorite subject? And I told him, no I don’t play any sports. I do theater, I’m in choir, I play the violin and piano, I used to take art classes.

And he went WOW. That’s amazing! And I said, “Oh no, but I’m not any good at ANY of them.”

And he said something then that I will never forget and which absolutely blew my mind because no one had ever said anything like it to me before: “I don’t think being good at things is the point of doing them. I think you’ve got all these wonderful experiences with different skills, and that all teaches you things and makes you an interesting person, no matter how well you do them.”

And that honestly changed my life. Because I went from a failure, someone who hadn’t been talented enough at anything to excel, to someone who did things because I enjoyed them. I had been raised in such an achievement-oriented environment, so inundated with the myth of Talent, that I thought it was only worth doing things if you could “Win” at them.”

Oh, how I love this! When we shift into choosing experiences based on what enriches our lives, nourishes and sustains us, and brings us joy, rather than those that are part of the external rewards-based culture of "winning," we start to build a life in rhythm and alignment with who we are, setting our own path to fulfillment and contentment, balance and well being. At some point, we find the intersection between what we love and what we're good at. If we keep giving ourselves the chance to learn who we are — yes, what we love but also what we're good at — by going off map and trying new things, and putting ourselves into situations where we don't know what will happen, we stay expansive, we keep becoming — and we get to remake our world, and ourselves, every day.



To start,

  1. Read through the questions below, one a time

  2. For each one, jot down a few notes — or a #1-10 list of memories or images that come up for you — in response to each question.

  3. Timeline the 10 memories to get a better sense of the greater context and meaning behind each one. Look for how they connect to each other, and what they convey about you.

  4. Do some exploratory writing in your notebook to unearth your stories, yourself, and discover more reason and meaning behind each memory.

⇨ What have you done that you did just to meet someone else’s expectations of you — to make them happy, or please them, or because you thought you were supposed to do it? When, conversely, have you not done things you wanted to or simply not been yourself out of fear of displeasing someone? Not fitting in? Making someone uncomfortable? This can take many forms — making yourself small or quiet, dimming your light, not shining, hiding a part of yourself…

⇨ What have you done that was just for you? When you let yourself shine? When you felt at your most authentic self? In alignment and rhythm with who you are?

⇨ What did each teach you about yourself? How did your soul grow? Or shrink?

⇨ Start a list of things you do just because they bring you joy. And then start creating patterns of possibility so you can prioritize them in your day to day. What needs to shift to make more time for the things that bring you joy?

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