Elizabeth Gilbert is one of the most well-known authors on the planet thanks to her bestselling memoir, Eat Pray Love. But long before she was even thinking about writing a bestselling book, Gilbert was focused on collecting experiences that would become the fodder for her body of work.
Gilbert spent years traveling the country, working in diners and ranches and bars, with the express purpose of listening to stories of people from vastly different backgrounds than her own. In the process, she began to develop the skills that would fuel her early career as a journalist writing for outlets like GQ and The New York Times.
Yes, long before Gilbert was one of the most well-known authors in the world, she was a ranch hand and a journalist. In other words, she was pushing the boundaries of her body of work, making herself uncomfortable on the path to finding the work that mattered to her. In the process, she unknowingly prepared herself to write Eat Pray Love.
Looking back on her experiences building her career in an interview on the Longform podcast, Gilbert shared what it’s like to receive criticism and to keep creating anyways because it’s what she calls “soul work.” Here’s how Gilbert described her experience working through the criticism and focusing on the work:
You know, like, sometimes criticism hurts because of how close it comes to the bone. Sometimes criticism hurts because of how far off the mark they are, but sometimes they’re very on the mark, you know. The part of you that thinks that you’re a fraud and horrible reads it and is like, “Oh, I’ve been exposed as my true self: a terrible, talentless broad.”
So all of that happens, but that’s not soul, that’s ego. My soul is this other part of myself entirely that doesn’t have anything to do with that and that looks at that whole scenario and says, “Wow, cool, can we do it again? Wow, we just made a thing and it didn’t work and what are we going to do now? What are we doing to do today? What are we going to make now? What are we going to reveal, what are we going to attempt? All I wanna do is make things and attempt things and collaborate with people and try stuff… and that’s soul work.
Your ego is a wonderful servant of a terrible master. Your ego has a tremendous amount of energy. Wrapped up in your ego is your drive, your passion, your taste, your aspirations, your desire to leave a hand print on the world, your mojo. You need that stuff, because without it there’s no energy. There’s no motive, no muscle. But if you let that thing drive the whole story, then you’re setting yourself up for a life of terrible suffering.
Gilbert’s point is so poignant, but it’s easy to lose it in the context of the conversation. Her point is this: if you let your ego be the main driver in the work you do, you’re bound to be disappointed. But if you let your soul drive the work you do, you will do the work because the work itself brings you joy. Soul work is the teacher that helps you learn about who you are as a human being.
We need more people doing soul work. Sure, set goals and be driven and develop a great sense of taste. But at the end of the day, if all you’re hoping for is praise and awards to stroke your ego, then You’re bound for disappointment.
Soul work is the work we do once we realize that no one piece of work will ever complete us as humans. No one piece of work can ever validate our worth. Your value as a human and the quality of your work are unrelated. If you want more soul work in your life, start there: you are a valuable human being.
Your work matters because it is the vessel through which you learn and grow. You deserve to do soul work, but you have to believe that yourself first.