A very Joyful year

By Ingrid Fetell Lee

A year ago today, Joyful landed on shelves. And the 365 days that have passed since then have been full of joys, some I anticipated (signing my first book! doing my first event!) and many I had never imagined.

At the same time, this year was also full of growth. As I was thinking back over the last year, it felt notable not just because of how much I learned this year, but also because of how much fun I had doing it. We don’t often think about growth being something that’s pleasurable. Our culture has a tendency to venerate struggle, and a lot of us have internalized the belief that true growth and meaning in life can only come from suffering. For example, see this tweet from a business thought leader with hundreds of thousands of followers:

I once believed this. But if the last year has taught me anything, it’s that this is a myth, and a truly destructive one.

It’s not to say that suffering doesn’t hold the potential for learning. We’d be foolish if we didn’t use our struggles as fodder for growth. But we’re even more foolish if we believe that we must put ourselves under duress or push ourselves past our limits, deny ourselves the joys of time with family and friends to “hustle harder” in order to grow. What I learned this year is that joy can be as expansive than hardship, if not even more so.

So, to mark the passing of this year, I thought I’d share a few of the things I learned about joy, writing, and living a creative life.

No one expects you to have all the answers

Before Joyful came out, I was a little afraid of Q&As. What if someone asked a question I didn’t know how to answer? But after countless Q&A sessions at events, and questions arriving by email, DM, and (some days it felt like) carrier pigeon, I realized that questions are the biggest gift to a writer. Questions mean someone has engaged with your work, and is trying to figure out how to make it work in their own life. Questions expand the landscape around your work, helping you see your ideas in context, opening up new spaces of inquiry. Some questions come from confusion – these can show you where you could be more clear in how you talk about something, or where you need a more relatable example. Challenging questions, ones volleyed at you with an arched eyebrow by a skeptic, help you clarify your own beliefs. They push you to be more grounded in your rationales and more inclusive of other perspectives.

But the very best questions are the ones I was most afraid of, the ones you don’t know the answer to. I think these questions were intimidating to me because I believed that people would expect me to be an authority, to have all the answers. But the only person who expects you to have all the answers is you. (And maybe your professor, if you’re about to take a final exam. Literally, no one else.) In reality, we usually don’t even like people who seem to have all the answers (which is why the term know-it-all is not a compliment). What the asker of a hard question wants, really, is someone to listen, acknowledge their struggle or curiosity, and try to figure it out together.

In the last year, I’ve gotten really comfortable standing on stages and saying, “I don’t know.” I don’t say it quite this way. Usually, it sounds more like, “I’m not an expert on this, but here’s what I do know.” And then I share a story, a resource, a few words of encouragement. Maybe a question for reflection. Maybe a line of poetry if one comes to mind. Sometimes I say, “let me research that and I’ll answer it in an upcoming blog post.” And then I do. So far, no one has booed or thrown rotten tomatoes at me for this approach, so I think I’m safe to conclude that it’s ok not to have all the answers, as long as you truly care about the question.

People will do things you never imagined

OMG, people! If only you knew the number of times I sat in front of my computer writing this book trying to think of the right way to apply one of the aesthetics of joy, only to find right after the book came out that a reader took that idea and effortlessly made something truly brilliant that I never could’ve imagined. I’ve had people send me images of hats they designed based on the different aesthetics of joy. Joyful cakes and lampshades and home office makeovers. A spring product collection by a company I love and admire. A club for children and families. Hospital rooms and classrooms. A science museum exhibit. A Joyful-inspired sweater. Things I didn’t even know could be made joyful have been transformed in this past year. Many of these things have made me smile. Some have brought me to tears.

I also never imagined that the book would be given to hundreds of nurses to help them bring joy to people recovering from addiction. Or that Teen Vogue would use the book to explain why Kendall Jenner wears so many polka dots. Sometimes I worried that the book’s seriousness would keep people who wanted a light read from bothering with it. Sometimes I worried the book’s levity would turn off people who wanted something intelligent. But I soon learned that the most serious people liked the silliest bits. People take what they need, and if you’re creating something for creative people, they then make it into something else entirely. And that’s the best part.

I wanted to write a book that inspired people not just to talk about things, but to do things. And I thought I needed to be prescriptive about what those things should be. But as it turns out, I’ve learned the most about how to apply the aesthetics of joy from the people who are doing it in wildly different fields of life. It’s a joy and an inspiration to see what you create.

If someone doesn’t like it, it’s just not for them

The week before the book came out, I had the good luck to meet Seth Godin at an event where we were both speaking. As I nervously pressed a copy of Joyful into his hands, he gave me what would prove to be the most well-timed advice I’ve ever received: “When someone criticizes the book, what they’re really saying is ‘It’s just not for me.’”

Everything worth doing is going to rub someone somewhere the wrong way. Joyful got a one-star review on Amazon from someone who hated the book so much they gave up after the first chapter. Normally this kind of thing would suck up my energy, making me anxious and upset. But instead, I just said to myself, “Well, it just obviously wasn’t for them,” and moved on.

Does this mean you shouldn’t listen to well-reasoned critiques of your ideas? No, of course not. But most of the time when strangers on the internet are ranting about your work, it’s not about your work. This piece of advice has changed the way I evaluate pretty much anything creative in my life. If I didn’t like a movie or a show, I try not to say, “I hated it.” I say, “That really just wasn’t for me.” There’s room for all different voices, all different kinds of creative work, and we’re better for that diversity. But the scales we’re given for evaluating that work are often linear (star ratings, Rotten tomatoes percentages). So where possible, I’ve learned to change the dialogue to focus on what is or isn’t for me, instead of what is or isn’t good.

Show up for the people who show up for you

Here’s the corollary to that. It’s natural to get preoccupied by those with negative things to say. We humans have a negativity bias, after all, an evolved tendency to fixate on what seems threatening to us. And that being the case, some days I would find that the lone one-star review was taking up more mental space than a dozen five-star raves.

But you know what? Those one-star reviewers, they tossed the book out and never looked back. And those five-star reviewers, they took the time to lovingly write how the book affected them. They’re the ones with it tucked on their nightstands, favorite passages highlighted, eagerly waiting for a friend’s birthday so they can give the book as a gift. And whether you make books or cupcakes or buildings or spreadsheets, these are the people who deserve your attention.

The comedian Paula Poundstone flew somewhere in the midwest in the middle of winter to do a gig. The night of the show, there was a big snowstorm. And when she got to the venue, there were only two people there.

She could’ve seen this as a sign that people didn’t care enough about her, and let her confidence take a hit. She could’ve been resentful that she came all this way and no one bothered to show. But instead she gave those two people the best show she ever gave.

I can’t remember where I heard this story, but I love it. I’ve had nights where it’s taken me an hour to sign books for all the people who want them. And I’ve had nights like Paula’s, surrounded by authors with dozens of people lined up at their tables while I had just one or two people the whole evening. After hearing this story, I promised myself that I would give every talk, event, and workshop my all, no matter who or how many it was for.

You can spend your whole life thinking about the people who didn’t come to your birthday party, or you can spend right now loving the people who did. At some point this year I made a commitment to stop getting distracted by negative comments or people who had overlooked the book and to focus wholeheartedly on the people who were showing up with enthusiasm and joy. This is who I made this thing for in the first place! It’s why I rarely respond to criticism. I read every email that reaches my inbox, but I have a limited number of hours in the day, and I’d rather devote that time to responding to someone who took the time to share their excitement or ideas.

Your community is built on your connection to these people, the ones who are showing up for you. Show up for them, and the energy you get will fuel your passion and your creativity, rather than your self-doubt.

A book is a beginning

The day you see the book on the shelf feels like a culmination. The end of something. In my case, it was a period (or an exclamation point!) on ten years of hard work.

But releasing a book is a bit like starting a conversation with thousands of people at once. You have no idea where those conversations will lead, but if you follow them, they could take you to some of the most unexpected and exciting places. The last year has expanded my mind and heart in ways I could never have predicted. I’m so grateful to those of you who have decided to come on this journey with me, who have shared your ideas, your creations, your joys. And I really do feel that whatever we’re doing on this quest to bring more joy to the world around us, we’ve only just begun.

Images: cover image; sweater image; all others by the author.

September 4th, 2019

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    Discussion (11 Comments)

  1. Ruth on September 5, 2019

    This post actually made me tear up. I’m looking out at our back garden, at the garden fence panels that we painted all colours of the rainbow after reading Joyful, that make us happy whenever we look at them (to think we were planning on painting them boring brown!), and feeling very grateful for your wonderful work. Thanks for opening our eyes and souls to the daily potential for joy!

  2. Marion L Schleusener on September 5, 2019

    I borrowed your book from the library. Reading this post reminds me that I ought to own it.

  3. Keena on September 5, 2019

    I loved your book so much! It confirmed a lot of what I suspected, and opened the door to so much more delight. I am currently working on a new series of paintings… maybe even a new style… based on your book. They’re not up on my website yet, but I’ll keep you posted when I release them. And in the meantime, I’ll enjoy your blog.
    Thank you! 🙂

  4. Kim on September 6, 2019

    I love this blog and your book! Thank you for this awesome contribution to my world.

  5. Janet on September 6, 2019

    Because of your book, I see, hear and feel more joy each and every day of my life. I’ve always been a positive person but my awareness is heightened because of your book. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with all of us! You’re the reason I bought a yellow raincoat and went walking in the rain!!!


  6. April Schreier on September 6, 2019

    Loved reading this book so much! I am now a committed Joy Spotter!

    1. Ingrid Fetell Lee on September 16, 2019

      Wonderful! I’m so touched that you enjoyed it and that you’re spotting joy. It makes my day to read this!

  7. Donna Marchetti on September 7, 2019

    I absolutely loved this book. I didn’t want it to end! I especially loved going down rabbit holes of the examples you gave, looking up people and things you referenced. Because of the book, I have made many small changes in my home and studio. Together they add up to a whole lot of joy and lots of smiles. Thank you!

    1. Ingrid Fetell Lee on September 16, 2019

      Thanks so much for this, Donna! I’m so glad you enjoyed the book and followed all the rabbit holes! And I’m thrilled that it inspired some changes in your home and studio that have brought you joy. Wishing you a joyful week! – Ingridx

  8. Anne Ferguson on September 10, 2019

    I bought 4 red stools when I told two saleswomen about your book and why I loved the stools
    The red stools move around a lot and are always a delight.
    I bought a black & white polka dotted tea kettle which is a chicken,,,to replace an old ugly
    hard to keep clean one,,,She’s called MONA because she doesn’t whistle, she moans,,,,which
    tickles me. I treated myself to 2 cheap but colorful flowerd plates and a yellow and a chartreuse mug to go with them, Tea is not only a welcome break, but a joyful one.
    I have told numerous people about your book ,,including one man on an elevator who named
    6 things that made him happy before I got off on the third floor,,,He had an unforgettable smile which keeps me going as I tell more and more people about JOYFUL,,,and have such
    great responses: one sales clerk wears tiaras so I call her Princess and she couldn’t wait to
    get a copy of JOYFUL,,,But, surprisingly, my dear friend and neighbor has yet to read it, I
    got her a copy as a gift and she has yet to read it,,,but she isn’t a reader, and it may not be for
    her,,,,,YET. I am an artist and it has helped me move into abstract art,,to share emotions
    which have elusive forms and names,,,,best exprssed by colors,,,,,THANK YOU for writing it
    O Dearly Beloved, Joyful hugs, Anne Ferguson

    1. Ingrid Fetell Lee on September 16, 2019

      Anne, I love reading about your joyful finds, from the red stools to the polka dotted chicken kettle to your conversation with the man in the elevator. It’s a joy to hear that you are finding so much joy wherever you go, and creating it too.

      Thank you for reading JOYFUL and sharing it with others in your life. Joyful hugs back to you!
      – Ingrid


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