My high school art teacher once told us about her own teacher at university. Apparently, he was a bit of a douche. Sometimes she and her friends would walk into the studio after lunch or in the morning, to find he had taken out their work and scribbled over parts of it in permanent marker. Or he would erase parts.
Understandably, this was infuriating. I would have been furious too, although I am so disgustingly bad at drawing that a bit of Sharpie wouldn’t make much difference. But we all know the feeling of seeing a piece of work ruined or at least changed without permission. Your laptop crashes and you lose half an essay. You spill coffee over a notebook, destroying pages of undoubtedly amazing business ideas. You drop your phone and lose some voice notes with melody ideas. We’ve all been there and it’s a horrible slap in the face.
But her teacher wasn’t outright trying to be annoying. His intention was to teach them to loosen up and stop feeling precious about their work. Otherwise, they wouldn’t learn how to objectively assess it and discard the parts that needed to go. They wouldn’t know how to kill their darlings.
I talk a lot about killing your darlings — ironically, it is one of the few consistent themes in my writing. It’s a phrase stolen from William Faulkner, who urged writers to have the guts to edit their work as necessary, even if that meant cutting out a part they were proud of or had worked hard at. Even if that meant wielding a scalpel and slicing out entire pages, chapters, whole characters or reworking the plot. Stephen King later elaborated on that when he told writers to kill their darlings, even if it broke their hearts. Ansel Adams reflected a similar idea when he apparently listed a trash can as the most useful tool for a photographer.
In writing and art as a whole, kill your darlings is excellent advice. But it’s also a useful piece of general life advice. The best advice is always the simplest which is why we tend to ignore it.
Kill your darlings is one such aphorism. It makes sense. We’re all quick to dole it out to others and slower to follow it ourselves. It has become a mantra for me.
For our purposes here, I’ll define it as this:
Kill your darlings (Verb)
To quit, leave behind, say no to, discard or in some way separate yourself from something you are fond of, attached to, or spent a lot of time getting, but which either never benefited you, no longer benefits you, or is harming you.
Let’s flesh that out a little. Our individual darlings can be almost anything. A location, a habit, a city, a job, a relationship, a social role, a hobby, a skill, a thing we’ve created, a goal, a desire, an opinion. We are proud of them, they are a part of our identities. That’s the integral part — they often become part of how we see ourselves.
And yet…they aren’t quite right. Maybe we desperately wanted them and worked hard for them, only to find they aren’t what we expected. Or they used to be an enriching, important part of our lives and diminishing returns set in long ago. Or they are actively causing problems.
So, much of the time we continue holding onto them because the alternative seems too unpleasant. It’s not nice to give up on something you worked hard for.
The Stoics talked about the power of non-attachment. Or rather, they taught that it’s fine to be attached to something, as long as you recognise that it’s not yours and you could lose it at any point.
A Stoic painter would, for instance, be quite possibly proud of their work. But they wouldn’t feel as if they owned it and if someone scribbled over it, they would consider that to be Fortune’s bidding and try to let it go.
It’s sort of in vogue at the moment to quit things. Everyone is talking about quitting jobs, ending relationships, saying goodbye to alcohol (or gluten or meat or sugar or whatever), leaving social media or stopping watching the news, and so on.
And it’s easy to quit something you hate. So, so, so easy. Painless. Liberating. Delightful. But that’s not what we’re talking about here.
Quitting something you love — killing your darlings — is another matter. It seems counterintuitive. You’re bound to face some sort of judgement. When people have watched you pour everything into your particular darling, they’ll usually see you as fickle or flaky if you change your mind. Persistence is prized as a virtue.
But persistence can become self-destructive; the person who clings to an outdated opinion despite all evidence to the contrary, the couple who stay together until they resent each other, the person sick from stress who stays in a dead-end job.
Aimlessly persisting, bashing our heads against the same brick wall, is delusional.
Knowing when it’s right to kill your darlings takes work. Modern life has little room for intuition. We’re expected to keep pushing through, even as something inside of us screams. We grab ourselves by the figurative scruff of the neck and drag ourselves onwards. Betraying our instincts and urges.
We’re so used to forcing ourselves, fighting with ourselves: Get out of bed, keep running, stay awake, make that cold call now, write even if you don’t feel like it, discipline over motivation, keep hustling.
Most of us are so disconnected from our gut feelings that we find it hard to know when we should kill our darlings. We struggle to find anything that feels right, and when we do, we don’t want to say goodbye to it. We are scared to quit because we’re so used to involuntary loss.
If you don’t feel worthy of love, you’ll find it hard to ever leave a bad relationship — because what if no one else ever wants to be with you? If you don’t feel worthy of friendship, you’ll find it hard to let go of a toxic friend — because they’re someone to call. If you don’t feel intelligent or qualified, you’ll find it hard to leave an unsatisfying, dead-end job — because what if no one else ever wants to employ you and you can’t manage on your own? And so on.
The alternative is recognising that everything you need is internal (this is the basic idea behind the concept of the inner citadel) and the rest you can lose or quit without being destroyed.
When we get into that mindset of non-attachment, we intuitively know when to kill our darlings, despite the fear and discomfort and the void it creates.