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3 Lessons From Jim Henson on Doing Work That Matters

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In college, Jim Henson was making the equivalent of $750,000 a year. How, exactly? Commercials. He and his business partner, Jane, would do short promotional spots with homemade puppets, and big brands were paying top dollar for the exposure.

The future was bright for these two. But there was just one problem: Jim didn’t think puppeteering was “real art.” In fact, neither he nor Jane took their current career trajectory seriously. It was just something fun to do on the side that happened to pay well, very well.

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What was money, though, to a hippie like Jim Henson? Not enough to keep him motivated for the rest of his life. He always assumed he’d eventually use his skills for something more serious, something more artistic. Puppeteering had always been a means to an end -- a way to get on television.

Ever since Jim had seen a TV, he had wanted one. In fact, he’d hounded his parents for months until they caved in and bought one for the family when the costs were still prohibitive for many households, including the Henson household. But Jim had a way of getting what he wanted.

So what did he want now that he was about to graduate college, with more money than he knew what to do with? He wasn’t sure.

In search of an answer, Jim went to Europe, leaving his new company in the hands of Jane for the summer. For six weeks, Jim traveled around France and Germany, taking in a puppet show wherever he could find one. Wherever he went, one thing struck him: In Europe, puppets weren't just for kids. They were for everyone. He was astounded at how broad the ages a puppet show audience were.

The lesson was profound: Maybe Jim Henson could be a puppeteer and a real artist. Maybe he didn’t have to choose between the two. When he returned from his trip, he married Jane, founded Muppets, Inc. and changed the world -- for both adults and children -- with his silly, and at the same time, serious puppets.

Avoid the comparison trap.

We all have our own way of downplaying our accomplishments and abilities, envying other people’s success. It’s easy to look at Facebook or Instagram and feel like the life we are living doesn’t measure up to the excitement that fills our friends’ schedules.

It seems to be quite common these days to read a book or watch of documentary of someone from another era whose life and career are impossible to match. Many of us, if we're not careful, can give in to this feeling and despair, believing we’ve either missed our calling or simply fallen short of it.

I do this every time I read a Hemingway biography or another author’s blog. I feel like I am a hack -- an impostor. And apparently, that feeling is not as uncommon as we might think.

When we look at the life of Jim Henson, particularly at this pivotal point in his career, we can observe a few lessons that help us escape the comparison trap and do our best work.

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Lesson 1: Lean into your fear.

We all, at times, feel a little insecure about the gifts and abilities we have to offer the world. We tend to downplay our greatest contributions, thinking they’re not that important. This kind of thinking is normal. The secret to success, though, is to not stay stuck in this place for too long.

Jim Henson used his insecurity to fuel his passion. He was either going to find a way to create meaningful art with the puppeteering business, or he was going to quit and try something else. His trip to Europe was a means of trying to figure that out, and what he found was permission to be himself.

We don’t have to journey overseas to find what we’re looking for, but we do have to confront our own demons that tell us we have no right to attempt this great thing. When we do this, we are often forced to make tough decisions about the work we do. You either have to find a way to do what you love or learn to love what you do. But wavering in between the two doesn’t do you or the work you were meant to do any justice.

Lesson 2: Let go of impractical ideals.

If we aren’t careful, we can miss our calling by comparing ourselves too much to an ideal. An old coworker once told me, “Don’t should on me.” And I think there’s a lot of truth to that.

So many of us stay stuck in the land of “should.” We believe in an ideal of the work that we ought to be doing, and this paralyzes us like nothing else. When we look at the work other people are doing, we feel like even more of a fraud. For Jim Henson, his perception of the lives of “real” artists prohibited him from accepting his own work could be art, too.

Incidentally, a recent study from the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology found that the more time a person spent on Facebook, the more depressed they became. The reason: People on Facebook were comparing themselves to their friends. Comparison, as Teddy Roosevelt once said, really is the thief of joy.

Don’t give in to this temptation if it keeps you from doing your best work. These days, that may mean the occasional social-media fast or intermittent unplugging from what your peers are doing. Of course, ideals are fine as a means of giving you an idea of where to start. But there comes a time when they become obstacles that must be ignored in order for you to make your own way.

Lesson 3: Don’t do what you love -- be who you are.

Finding your calling, I’ve discovered, is less about doing what you want and more about becoming who you are. It’s a process of understanding that activity tends to follow identity. You won’t do your best work if you don’t know who you are.

A few years ago, I read for the first time a book called Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer. Palmer, an academician turned activist and author, borrows a saying from the Quakers and makes it his own: “Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.” In other words, we do not find the work we were meant to do and realize who we’re meant to be. It’s the other way around.

In the case of Jim Henson, he learned he wasn’t just another puppeteer. He was an artist, one with a subversive worldview and counter-cultural message that the world needed to hear. After Europe, he took that approach and injected it into all his work, for decades to come. And the result was something the world had never seen before and won’t soon forget.

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