Updated: Nov 14, 2019
Last year, when I was going through a rough time, I found solace in listening to a lot of '90s bashment; rewatching old episodes of The Sopranos; and the writings of the Bohemian-Austrian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke. An incongruous combination for sure, but one that seemed to soothe my various woes at the time.
I’d picked up Rilke’s Letters to A Young Poet (pub. 1929) without thinking much of it, and had it languishing on my bedside table for a while. When I finally started reading it on a particularly not great day, I quickly realised I’d be thinking about it for a long time – maybe forever: Ten letters, barely 100 pages, and some of the most searing and poignant reflections on love, solitude, and creativity I’d ever read.
After finishing the Letters, I went into a bit of a Rilke deep-dive. He lived an interesting life, Rilke did: Travelling extensively, writing prolifically, and keeping up a correspondence practice that would put your group chat to shame. Letters is a collection of dispatches he wrote to a aspiring young poet named Franz Kappus over the course of six years, but letter-writing had been an important outlet for Rilke's ideas from the start. In a separate missive to the sculptor Auguste Rodin in 1902, he'd written:
"It was not only to do a study that I came to be with you, it was to ask you: how must one live? And you replied: by working. And I well understand. I feel that to work is to live without dying."
This idea - that we might figure out to live 'by working' - has been turning around in my head over the past few weeks. It came to mind when I read this piece on Millennials' 'performative workaholism', and this viral article on the inevitable Millennial burnout that ensues from it. Rilke's creative philosophy feels like a poetic foreshadow of our contemporary work obsession, with Letters To A Young Poet reading like a self-help guide for those of us seeking to reframe our especially problematic beliefs about creativity, efficiency, and success.
Rilke's conviction that work can also be a way ’to live without dying’ might hold a vital clue on how to go about this. If so much of our generational fatigue is the byproduct of a feverish, often mindless productivity - the pressure to constantly launch, post, share - then the only possible antidote is a return to thoughts of legacy over Likes. To committing to a slower, steadier output rate, and to patiently building one's skillset over the years.
In short: to cultivating a creative philosophy that might sustain a truly remarkable life's work – and provide solace in the rough patches along the way.
Why Are Young People Pretending To Love Work? Erin Griffith for The New York Times
How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation Anne Helen Petersen for Buzzfeed
Letters To A Young Poet Rainer Maria Rilke