The Muck

Image: Russell Lee, courtesy of The Library of Congress
Image: Russell Lee, courtesy of The Library of Congress

Drawing comes naturally to you. Your friends and family have always told you how good you are at it. You’ll tweak a sketch for hours, and it hardly even feels like work. If only there were a career that would allow you to do this for a living.

You stumble upon some books about designers. This pursuit seems like the perfect fit: the projects seem diverse and the potential for exploration appears to be endless. The work you see showcased is remarkable, and something you know you could do. You imagine your name and work in those journals, as if it were there already.

You begin with research, learning about schools, and reading books on the topic. Eventually, you are admitted to a design program in which you excel—attending classes dutifully, pushing your boundaries, and learning all you can. Finally, you are ready to enter the workforce and join a studio.

This starts well, but the lustre soon fades. There are deadlines and demands, sandwiched between intense schedules and repetitive duties. The hours are long, and Monday morning approaches way too fast. Your ability to do the great design you once planned on seems stymied, and your dreams of having your work lauded by colleagues and peers becomes increasingly distant.

This is the muck. It first presents itself as niggling doubt, which is soon followed by greater hesitation. In time, you’ll ask why you chose this path in the first place.

The muck first appears when the rubber meets the road: when the hypothetical becomes tangible, and your fantasies are forced to contend with reality. It tells you that you’ll need to pay your dues before getting the “gravy,” and will open your eyes to the inordinate amount of sweat required to make things seem effortless.

It plays games and leaves you confused. How can the thing you were destined to do, turn out to be so difficult? Perhaps this wasn’t the right choice. You feel increasingly disillusioned, until you remind yourself: there are so many things you could do; why be limited to just this?

So, you go back to dreaming, soon finding another pursuit that seems much more suitable. It promises to be exciting, fun, and probably what you should have done in the first place. And, it’s free of any real downsides (for the record, muck is a bit like quicksand—you won’t know it’s there until you’re in up to your neck).

This leaves you in a desperate—almost endless—loop, in which you limp from one thing to the next, in hopes of finding the one pursuit that feels “right.” Sadly, none ever will, because (like it or not) everything comes with its own share of muck.

Muck is the buffer between your dreams and actuality. It’s there because time must be invested before one can do something well. It’s also a means of shaking out those who weren’t really worthy of the good stuff. Those with the conviction are unwilling to be stopped by muck. They push through, in turn earning the spoils.

In spite of popular belief, there is no one thing you’re destined to do. Purpose doesn’t happen to you any more than love does. These things evolve when you commit yourself fully to something, or someone, and make the decision to work through the muck.


  1. Great post. For the longest time I wanted to be a professional musician. I played in a successful band, recorded in the best studios, toured the country… and then the muck came – the business side of being creative. So, things went in a different direction, but as you so eloquently stated – sooner or later the muck returns. Guess I’ll just have to tread lightly to avoid getting completely stuck.

    1. The next time we get together in person, I want to hear some of those music stories. I always wished I could make sounds, but I didn’t even get to the muck stage with that one.

  2. you have presented such a complex feeling of desperation in a really lucid way. many of us could easily relate to muck.
    thanks for showing the way out :)

  3. It’s the fear of muck that has stifled me from pursuing my “dreams”. This post has now made that clear as day. Now my challenge is to get over that, put my rain boots on, and go after them anyway OR deliberately not go after them and stop whining.

    Thanks for the post.

  4. Angelina Fabbro brought me here (her great talk at JS Conf 2013)
    This short post is one of the best and simplest descriptions of what life is for me I’ve ever stumbled across. Thanks, Eric! If you’re ever in Budapest, feel free to contact me – I’d be happy to meet up.

  5. Wow. Our struggle in a nutshell. Even though we disagree on the idea of having a purpose, we really just need to pick one thing and stick it through to the end. Even when you’re doing what you’re created to do there is muck, and it can be very discouraging. Thank you for the encouragement to push in and through.

Add a Comment