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The Big Secret to Discovering Your Life’s Purpose

How creative self-expression can help you figure out what's really important


Part of the Artful Aging Special Report

“What’s the best way to find my life’s purpose?” As a career coach, it’s a question I hear a lot. After all, many of us struggle to connect with our authentic inner voice. And while tools like assessment tests can sometimes help, they are often not enough.

If you give people luscious materials and beautiful colors, they can’t help but create wonderful things.

— Lauren Rader, author of 'Studio Stories'

That’s why I was eager to review a recent book: Studio Stories: Illuminating Our Lives Through Art by artist and educator Lauren Rader. The book puts forth a compelling case that making art can be a powerful way to connect with purpose.

RADER_STUDIO_COVER_FRONTWhile that premise might strike you as wishful thinking, history teaches otherwise. From making pre-historic cave paintings to posting photos on Instagram, people have long used art as a means of expression. As children, creativity comes to us instinctively. We tell stories through pictures, stretch our imagination with Popsicle-stick sculptures and show our love with gifts of clay pots. Through art, we discover parts of ourselves that words alone cannot capture.

Yet as we age, we tend to swap these creative activities for more “adult” responsibilities. Worse, we buy into the myth that only professional artists have the right — and the talent — to make art. Over time, we lose touch with the transformational and revelatory power of our own creativity.

Never Too Late to Connect With Purpose Through Art

Fortunately, it’s never too late to reclaim your artistic birthright. Studio Stories shares the deeply personal experiences of the women in Rader’s Releasing the Creative Powers Within workshops. Unlike conventional art classes that focus on technique and craft, Rader’s classes are all about self-expression through art.

The students are primarily older women who work as doctors, homemakers, bankers and often caregivers as well. Most haven’t created art in years. But the classes provide a much-needed respite from their busy lives — a sanctuary of calm where they quiet judging minds, gain fresh perspectives and release their innermost selves.

Rader builds each session around themes, such as personal power, turning points or balance. At the beginning of each class, she asks the students to spend a few minutes writing about the theme before starting their art projects. She also encourages participants to write at least once a day, even when they’re not in class. Rader suggests using inexpensive unlined sketchbooks, rather than fancy journals, so “the book won’t feel too precious for even the most vile thoughts and feelings.”

She provides a variety of materials for the projects: paint, clay and fabric, as well as natural items like feathers, rocks and branches. The quality and variety of the materials is key. “If you give people luscious materials and beautiful colors, they can’t help but create wonderful things,” she writes.

At the end of each class, participants are asked to reflect on their experiences. Typically, students start by discussing their art pieces. But often, they go on to share more personal, intimate and sometimes painful insights.

Changing Course

Their stories of transformation are profoundly moving and Rader says that more than once, the class has led students to major career or location shifts.

For example, after returning to school for her master’s degree in decorative arts, Sally wrote, “Believe it or not, I never would have done it without art class.” Another woman, a banker, credits her time in the class with her decision to move from the city to her dream home in the country. “Art class helped me realize what’s really important,” she writes. A third woman, a recent widow in her 70s, said the class allowed her to begin to feel joyful and alive after a period of mourning.

Studio Stories is a lovely reminder that by exercising creativity, we help shed light on our potential and more clearly see what we might become. By the end of the book, I found myself looking up art classes in my area, though it’s been years since I last picked up a paintbrush.

And that brings me to the final takeaway: You’re never too old — or too artistically challenged — to embrace your inner artist. No matter how artistically-challenged we might feel, we all can benefit from the power of art.

Here, four suggestions from Rader’s blog to get you started:

  1. Crank up the music. “Art and music go together like ice cream and hot fudge,” writes Rader. And just as there’s no one right type of dessert, there’s no one right music for creating art. Just select something that matches the energy you seek and puts you in the right mood.
  2. Use “throwaways.” Sure it’s great fun to purchase a batch of fresh art supplies. But you can start with whatever you have lying around the house: used paper, old pencils or your kid’s markers. That way, you’re free to create (or tear up) your art without worrying about “wasting” supplies. Later, you can always refine your work using more expensive materials.
  3. Leave art supplies lying around. You’re more likely to create art when you have easy access to the tools of creativity. So leave a small sketch pad, a mound of clay or a few gel pens next to your desk. That way, you can easily get creative when the spirit moves you.
  4. Take a walk. Feeling uninspired? Put on your sneakers and start moving. Walking gets your blood pumping, arms swinging and endorphins circulating. While it’s especially beneficial to walk in nature, even a city stroll can stir up your imagination and get your creative juices flowing.

Remember, as wonderful as this book is, you don’t need a class, a book or permission to begin. You already have everything you need to start tapping into your creativity today.

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