Last fall, my dog Murphy and I took a road trip along the Oregon coast into California. After miles of driving through dense forest on either side of us, I finally caught a glimpse of the wet, shiny, rocky horizon. The forest seemed to grow straight into the ocean—all I could see was mountain, trees, and water. We pulled over, and while Murphy furiously sniffed the saltwater air, I couldn’t bring myself to do anything but stare at the vastness in front of me. I felt insignificant in a weirdly satisfying way. It’s a memory I return to often, especially during stressful times. Which, in 2020, has been frequently.
The satisfying, insignificant feeling I felt was awe—what research psychologists refer to as the “small self” effect. A 2007 study explained awe as a “feeling of smallness, being in the presence of something greater than the self, inattention to one’s personal day-to-day concerns, connection with the surrounding world, and wanting to prolong or memorize the experience.”
You’ve probably experienced this, too. Maybe you felt it during a trip to the Grand Canyon. Or looking at a piece of art. Or reading a mind-blowing book. Maybe you saw the cracks and craters of the moon’s surface through a telescope and felt awe then. Awe is a powerful feeling that extends far beyond the amazement we experience in the moment. For example, awe offers a sense of perspective that can help us see things more objectively.
In one study, when subjects experienced awe, they were less likely to be persuaded by weak arguments. Another study found that awe makes people less prone to materialism. In yet another study—there’s a lot of research on awe—subjects were either asked to spend time in a regular hallway or in front of an awe-inducing T-rex skeleton. Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine explains what happened next:
When asked to describe themselves, the dinosaur viewers were more likely to use universal descriptors (such as “a person” or “an inhabitant of the Earth”) rather than more specific descriptors (such as “tall,” “friendly,” or “a student”) than the other people, suggesting that awe increases our sense that we are part of a greater whole.
You get it—awe is, well, awesome. It makes us more connected, happier, sharper—it also allows us to experience time in a more present way. And imagine what all of that can do for your creative pursuits!
During my road trip with Murphy, I attended Everything Conference, where I met so many creative and interesting people, including Charlie Gilkey, author of Start Finishing. I asked Charlie if I could interview him for an article I wanted to write about unfinished projects, and while that was true, selfishly, I also wanted to get his insight on my own unfinished project.
I’d been stuck on an essay I wanted to write. It was a heavy, personal topic and when I would start to write about it, self-doubt and vulnerability would become overwhelming and I couldn’t manage to put a single word on the page. What if my approach was wrong? What if my writing was bad? What if someone rolled their eyes at it? These are all distinct possibilities in writing anything, but this essay was personal. I couldn’t bear to have something so intimate be scrutinized. “Maybe don’t worry about the ending,” Charlie said. “Don’t think about where it’s going to be published or who’s going to read it. Just write it for yourself and worry about the rest later.”
I kept this advice in my back pocket, then I packed my bags and left Portland to drive home to California. I rolled down the back window and Murphy stuck her nose in the air. I blared music and sang along to it, loudly. I drove down the Oregon coast, listening to books and podcasts along the way and stopping frequently to take in the incredible scenery. It’s a road trip I’ll never forget—it was ten days of allowing myself to experience awe. I honestly still dream about it, months later.
During the last night of our trip, Murphy and I settled into our hotel room in Bodega and I took out my notebook. Words poured out, like a water hose when you take your foot off of it. I wasn’t bogged down with self-doubt. I wasn’t preoccupied with the consequences of vulnerability. After having spent so many days with that “feeling of smallness,” as researchers put it, being in the presence of something greater than the self, it was a lot easier to take Charlie Gilkey’s advice.
The words I wrote that evening weren’t profound, but they made it onto the page. When you feel like a small part of a larger whole, you’re less worried about self-doubt, because you’re not focused on the self at all. It’s the pale blue dot effect, the dissonance that happens when your posturings and self-importance are held up against the backdrop of something so much larger.
Our own self-importance gets in the way of doing the stuff that’s actually important to us.
Of course, months later, the awe wore off, because awe doesn’t last forever—you have to make time for it. And that’s hard to do when you have a job and chores and groceries and maybe you’re working toward your next big milestone, like writing a book or planning an event or whatever it is you’re trying to achieve this year. Sure, paying the bills, moving forward in your career, and achieving milestones are, for better or worse, a necessary part of existing in this world. You have to navigate the system as it exists, and that means working, making money, setting goals, and, if you can manage it, finding time for hobbies.
This system certainly isn’t set up to be awe-inducing, however. If anything, it’s ego-inducing: It focuses on the importance of the individual in relation to the rest of the world, rather than the other way around. Which is probably why we doubt ourselves and fear vulnerability. Our own self-importance gets in the way of doing the stuff that’s actually important to us, ironically enough.
In contrast, there is something about feeling interconnected that makes it easier to live your best, most creative life. With awe, there is no worldly pressure to navigate your ego. You don’t have to worry about self-doubt taking over because, in the grand scheme of things, you’re just a small part of a larger thing. Awe is liberating in that way. Whether it’s travel or a telescope in your backyard or a really good movie that blows your mind—or a road trip with a dog—perhaps we need more moments that remind us we are simultaneously everything and nothing.
Readers, I want to hear about your favorite moments of awe. And what’s your advice for making more time for them in your day-to-day life?
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