What’s Important: Being an Independent Variable

by Jennifer Paros

February 2017

It is important to remember that we all have magic inside us.

~ JK Rowling


My youngest son finds math hard. When he sits down to do a problem, anxiety often sets in. He has told me that if he can’t do math, it means he’s stupid. He puts so much importance on being able to do math correctly that he now resists the process of learning it. In his mind, his self-esteem and the measure of his intelligence are on the line, so there is a sense of great risk. When he is not thinking this way, he is able to move forward. What was risky before is no longer seen as such, and the overly important is put into perspective.

Seeing things as too important makes them weighty and slows our progress. It can make it difficult to start or finish a project because importance and gravitas often go hand in hand, and within that seriousness lurks the idea of potentially significant risk. Yet the concept of risk is self-determined. We each decide how the factors of a situation are seen: how resilient and capable we believe we are, and what the thing before us means. We assign the meaning; therefore we determine the expected risk.

One of the things my son has studied in math is variables: dependent and independent. A dependent variable changes in relation to an independent variable; whereas an independent variable is determined by choice. In the equation y = x +2, y is the dependent variable; its state is tied to and determined by x. Recently, my son made the connection that his well-being must remain an independent variable; it cannot hinge on anything outside of himself. In overemphasizing the importance of a thing, we make ourselves dependent variables, reliant on outcomes we believe are needed for us to be okay.

When an idea first lights up it feels important – exciting and expansive. A new door opens and we perceive the view; we see something we haven’t seen before. If it’s a story idea, we might find the characters endearing and their situation compelling. An idea that sparks is important; it’s part of the creative process and starts us on a path we can follow.


The object isn’t to make art, it’s to be in that wonderful state which makes art inevitable.

~ Robert Henri


The creative process is something we can make important without compromising our independence. This receptive, inventive state of mind is the flow; it fosters no dependence because it naturally lines us up with our creative ability and autonomy. When end products are valued more than the innovative state from which they come, we create anxiety. Performance anxiety isn’t about being in the moment; it results from fearful thinking about how the performance will be received. Writing anxiety isn’t about connection to inspiring ideas and authentic expression; it is concern over how the final product will fare.

If we’re writing a story (or creating anything) we’re not proving we can, and we’re not proving we’re smart or talented. We’re writing a story, not saving the world. We’re writing a story, not guaranteeing a bestseller. We’re just writing a story; we’re talking about stuff. The reason young children can fluidly and without stress sit and make pictures and tell stories is because they are valuing the experience and have yet to place serious importance on the outcome. They are independent variables, freely engaged with the act of creating and not in assessing their future creations. Stress results from thoughts like, “I am making an important picture.” Ease comes from thinking, “I am making a picture and I am glad I am making a picture.”

When Picasso painted, regardless of the work’s eventual fame and market value or the artist’s deemed genius, he was just making a picture. He painted: a guy playing the guitar, a woman sleeping, some flowers. Edvard Munch made a picture; he didn’t set out to create an iconic image. He followed an idea and connection that was sparked on a walk at sunset in which the sky turned blood red and he experienced “an infinite scream passing through nature” – The Scream, to be specific.

Though all the accolades, awards, big sales, and fame go to the object (the final product), valuing the experience of joining with the creative field is the key. It helps us maintain balance and joy and sustains our work. Our relationship to our creativity – not to the creation – is the state from which inspired lives, books, and pictures of all kinds grow.

Jennifer Paros is a writer, illustrator, and author of Violet Bing and the Grand House (Viking, 2007). She lives in Seattle. Please visit her website at www.jenniferparos.com.

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