Lessons in Inspiration from the Master Navigator

Sometimes people ask me, “Is it hard to come up with ideas for the articles you write every week?” The answer is no. If anything, it’s hard to find time to use all of the ideas I have every week. Sometimes I’ll get more than halfway through an article that’s The One for the week, and an entirely different idea will grab hold of me. Next thing I know, the first article is standing forlorn at edge of the room, watching me twirl and dance with my new date, wondering if I’ll even remember to give it a ride home at the end of the night. Such can be the cruel and thoughtless nature of inspiration.

This week, I had started to write an article about “communication overhead,” which was inspired by somebody’s video last week. But then this weekend, I was messaging back and forth with a new artist friend of mine, Ela Chmielowski on LinkedIn. She’s been posting images of her paintings to her feed, and challenged me to pick one of them and write something about it. Or maybe “challenge” is too strong a word. She suggested it. And then I ran with it. Much to the chagrin of the article I had begun to write.

All of Ela’s paintings are so bold and vibrant and thought-provoking. So as I scrolled down her feed, it was difficult to choose one. Because I was conscious of not just wanting to interpret something purely for the sake of it, but to find one that would help me tell my own story, in much the same way my video last week spun out of Steve Sullivan’s parable. (Which is what inspired Ela to suggest the challenge in the first place.)

Finally, I landed on a painting that caught my eye. Something she had created back in 2004 and posted six months ago. This one …

While this painting is less visually challenging than many of Ela’s others (some of which are more surreal and remind me, in the best way, of Dali), it drew me in for some reason. Something about the skewed angle of the horizon and the smile on the bird’s face. Why is it so happy to see that simple little island? Perhaps because its wings are tired from flying for so long, and it simply wants a place to land? That could be. Then I looked at the name of the piece: MASTER Navigator.

Which made me chuckle, of course. Because I had chosen the painting purely on the basis of the visual, but those who read my article from two weeks ago know it echoes my recent re-brand as a “MASTER Writer.” And what is a writer but a navigator of sorts?

Every week, during the process of deciding what to write about, I am faced with an endless ocean of possibilities. Should it be something instructional or biographical? Something serious or funny? Short or long? And what should the topic itself be? Invariably, some idea jumps out at me, and I imagine it’s a bit how that bird feels in the painting. The reason why it’s smiling, and has a glint in its eye. Because like the bird, I’ll see that “island” in my mind’s eye and think, “Yeah, that’s the one. That’ll do nicely.”

Still, though. What is there to write about an island? Even if, in this case, it’s only a metaphorical one? I mean look at the island in the painting. There’s not really much to it. Just that one little coconut tree. No people. No other animals. At best, it will serve as a convenient place for a nap before the bird has to move on to its final destination.

In fact, I realize after looking at it for a while, it’s literally the kind of cliché island that’s been the setting of countless comic strips since the beginning of comic strips. Most notably, The Far Side. When I did a search for “far side island” to find an example to include here, I instead ran across this Bizarro comic by Dan Piraro, which sums it up perfectly …

What if that’s what the bird finds so amusing? Maybe it’s remembering some funny comic it read in a newspaper once, involving somebody stranded on an island just like this one. Or maybe two somebodies, driving each other crazy. Or a bottle with a note in it. Or a shark. Or multiple sharks. All things considered, it’s actually a setting rife with quite a bit of narrative promise. Which is perhaps why it’s the subject of so many punchlines.

Still, that’s not enough, is it? Where’s the useful lesson to be learned about life or business in a scenario like that? That even the simplest circumstance can become complex and absurd? There has to be more to a topic than that if anybody is going to care about it.

So then what else is there to say about islands?

Well, the poet John Donne wrote, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” Now we’re getting somewhere! Not to be outdone, the comedian Robin Williams countered with, “No man is an island … but some are peninsulas.” He was being funny, of course, but it’s enough to make you realize that Donne’s metaphor is somewhat simplistic. As is songwriter Paul Simon’s when he sings about being a rock and an island, because “a rock feels no pain and an island never cries.”

Again, there has to be more. I’ve set the bar too high for myself at this point to approach a topic with no more depth than that. “You see, folks, workers are like bees. And writing is like working with clay. And ravens are like writing desks.”

So then how else can one look at an island? How would this starry-eyed grinning bird look at one? And then I stop to consider that the bird isn’t on the island yet, if it even plans to land on it at all. Ela has chosen to paint the bird (or its head anyway) still up in the sky. Looking down at the island. What might it see from its high vantage point that we can’t?

Maybe that islands aren’t what some people think they are?

Do a Google search for “do islands float?” and you’ll find a shocking number of entries. There are apparently quite a few people out there who conceive of islands as something like icebergs that are simply less cold and don’t move. And I am by no means making fun of anybody who thinks this. After all, as with icebergs, all we ever see is the part that sticks out of the water. But unlike the iceberg, islands actually go all the way down. To picture it better, take a look at this topographic map of the Galapagos Islands.

The disconnected green parts are all most of us ever see. But really, these islands are simply the tops of a lumpy mound of volcanic activity (the white parts) that happened over 20 million years ago. And some islands are literally the tops of mountain ranges that drew the short stick and were doomed to (or blessed with?) a life of being mostly covered by water.

That certainly puts things into a different perspective. Imagine all the hard work it takes to climb to the summit of Mount Everest, the highest mountain on Earth. But it’s only the tallest if you measure from sea level. By contrast, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands sit at the top of the Mariana Trench, which at 36,000+ feet is the deepest part of the ocean. The smallest of these islands, Farallon de Medinilla, is less than 2 miles long, half a mile wide, and 266 feet at the highest point. Yet measured from the bottom of the Trench, that makes it more than a mile taller than Everest.

I like to think this is what the “Master Navigator” sees and what makes it smile. Something we can’t. That the simple little island it’s either flying by or getting ready to land on is anything but little. And anything but simple. Maybe the bird is a bit like the “man with the foolish grin” in the Beatles song: “The fool on the hill / Sees the sun going down / And the eyes in his head / See the world spinning round.”

Yes. I think that’s it exactly. And now here’s the part where I turn things around and ask the question, “But why is this important to us, for life or business purposes?”

The answer: Because it’s important to remember that we are all of us islands at first. Think about that person who shows up for the first time as a “like” on your LinkedIn notification feed. And then maybe in a comment. All you know about them is the little bit that sticks out of the water. Then they say something supportive or funny and you realize, “Hey, there’s a tree on that island. With coconuts!” Before long, you’ve looked at their profile, they’ve looked at yours, you’ve connected, maybe messaged, and you both get a better sense of each other’s true nature. Of the mountains that lurk under the surface.

Of course, some people on LinkedIn outgrew being an island a long time ago and have reached the stature of outright land masses. Continents even. This includes your powerhouses like Oleg V and Brigette H and Gary V and the “influencer” whose welcoming orbit I entered a few months ago, Cory Warfield. They are the people who have put so much of themselves out there for the world to see that the water can’t possibly cover them anymore. As a result, people flock to them. Look up to them. Form ecosystems and tribes and cities on them. Aspire to be them.

And yet, each of those influencers started out as a simple little island. Remember that. Not only because maybe you’re trying to build your own “personal brand” right now and need a reminder to “dream big” and “visualize success,” but because there are a lot of other simple little islands out there waiting to be noticed. People who need jobs. People who need clients. People who need help figuring out exactly what it is they need.

So as you’re flying around the ocean that is LinkedIn, like the bird in the painting, try not to get so infatuated with the influencers, or so wrapped up in your own “tribe” or “fam,” that you forget to keep an eye out for the newest islands. Like and comment on their posts too. Engage with them. Get to know them. Connect with them. Support them. Inspire them. Help them grow. Because we can all remember what being new to LinkedIn felt like, and how much easier it became when people started to notice us.

And if you get a moment, I would encourage you to connect with the “new to me” person who inspired this article in the first place, artist Ela Chmielowski, and visit her Patreon page at patreon.com/TripleWin. Besides being a talented painter (and puppet maker!), she is also an amazing person with a heart much bigger than the number of connections she has right now, who is donating 30% of any pledges she receives to charity.