SerenDestiny® #48: What can Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin Teach Us About Setting Ourselves Up For Success??

I hope you’ll take a couple minutes to watch and revel in the above video of Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin – as he talks about what he learned from Ezra Pound on the importance of “taking our work seriously.”

As 17-time Emcee of the Maui Writers Conference, I had the blessed opportunity to talk with W. S. Merwin under a gentle night sky at the Presenters Reception of our first MWC at the Ritz Carlton in Kapalua.

The private reception was held on a white sand beach. It was an exquisite evening as a full moon shone on our faces and the trade winds gently ruffled the palm fronds of the trees overhead.

I had recently written a book on Concentration and asked Merwin, (our opening keynoter), “How do you define concentration – and how has it played a role in your life?”

He told me that understanding the importance of concentration prompted his pivotal decision to move from New York City to Hawaii.

I’m paraphrasing here because I did not write down what he said (that’ll teach me …-)

.. but the gist of his decision was that he and his wife Paula knew that continuing to live in NYC meant they would constantly be surrounded by distractions and temptations.

As an in-demand winner of a National Book Award and two Pulitzer Prizes, every night and day brought with it invitations to soirees, readings, dinners, conferences and charity balls. Merwin realized it would be oh-so easy to become part of the “glitterati.”

Merwin concluded his work as a poet would suffer as a consequence, so he and his wife made a bold move to Maui to live a simpler life on a former pineapple plantation, raising palm trees and immersing themselves in their work.

I was reminded of our conversation recently when I opened the Jan. 13th Washington Post Sunday Magazine and read an article entitled “Is Poetry Dead?”

The author, Lauren Wilcox, referenced Merwin reading to a rapt, reverent audience at The Library of Congress, but referred to him as a “bit of a recluse.”


If you watch Merwin in this exquisite video, you will not see a “recluse;” you will see an intensely alive, almost luminescent man with the light on in his eyes, who talks eloquently of his epiphany that …

“I love both the city and country.
But when I was in the city, I thought about the country all the time.
And when I was in the country, I thought about the city some of the time.
So, now, I live in the country … and go to the city sometimes.”


There is a man who knows who he is.

There is a man who knows what is important to him. A man who intentionally created a life where he is freer to focus on his priorities. He moved out of an environment that would pull him off track – and into an environment that’s congruent with getting his legacy work out of his head and into the world.

I’ve come to believe this is one of the biggest challenges – and opportunities – we face as SerenDestineers.

Our environment helps us or hurts us when it comes to “taking our work seriously.”

If we are in an environment that surrounds us with temptations and distractions, it’s difficult to concentrate on our SerenDestiny® projects. As a result, they may get delayed and never get out the door.

What do I mean by SerenDestiny®?

SerenDestiny® is a life where the light is on in our eyes. It’s when we’re doing what we love most and do best and have turned our passion and purpose into a meaningful mission that serves all involved.

Are you taking your SerenDestiny® seriously?

Have you moved out of a tempting, distracting environment that compromises your concentration – and into an environment that facilitates focus and flow?

I’ve come to believe it is not selfish for us to sequester ourselves and become a less public person.

If we truly believe our work will add value to the world, then it is up to us to stay focused on it instead of frittering away our time and talent on “lesser” activities that, in the long run, won’t contribute to the greater good.

This means setting boundaries and saying “No.”

It means saying no to tempting requests for our time, attention and talent that won’t move our SerenDestiny® forward.

It means saying no to activities that fill our hours and days but that, in the long run, don’t add enduring value.

You may be thinking, “I agree with this in theory, but it’s tough to do in practice.”


Which is why I think each of us need to create clear, measurable policies about what we will and won’t commit to. We need to strategically schedule our accessibility instead of being available 24/7.

We need to block off legacy work days on our calendar and do a deep dive into our SerenDestiny® projects so we make tangible progress each month … instead of coming to the end of the year only to find we’re still talking about that book, invention or non-profit we’re going to get out in the world … someday.

I’ve asked SerenDestineers what steps they’ve taken to protect their productivity.

Here are a few of the best-practice policies they’ve put into place to “Create A Cocoon of Concentration” so they stay focused on what matters most:

1. No Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn 5 days a week. Check and update them only twice a week.

2. Devote the morning to your legacy projects. I call this WAKE AND WORK.

(Remind me to tell you my Frank McCourt – author of Angela’s Ashes – story about how he discovered the value of Wake and Work. Aww heck, I’ll tell that story in my next blog).

Wake and Work means exactly what you think it means. Do not pass GO. Do not collect $200. Don’t read the paper. Don’t watch the news. And, God forbid, don’t check email.

Get up, walk the dog, grab your cup of coffee or tea … and then GET TO WORK.

Devote your early-morning-energy to SerenDestiny® projects to leverage that clarity that only comes when you’re not juggling multiple tasks.

Tackle client/work/home/family responsibilities only after you’ve made tangible progress and have something to show for your efforts. This sets up mental momentum and a feeling of accomplishment that makes you eager to come back and pick up where you left off.

3. Find Your Third Place.

The science of Ergonomics (the study of how our environment influences our effectiveness) states that your home is your First Place and your office is your Second Place. If you’re retired, unemployed or run a business out of your home, that’s your First and Second Place.

Ergonomic experts say it’s almost impossible to stay focused on “new” projects in your First and Second Place because your environment keeps reminding you of the tasks you customarily do in that space.

At home, it could be doing the laundry, fixing a meal or taking care of household chores. At the office, it could be answering emails, preparing for a meeting or handling work-related assignments.

Your Third Place (i.e., a nearby Panera Bread or Starbucks, or a table in the back of your local library or Barnes & Noble) is a public place where you can work anonymously.

For some people; the challenge is not that they get distracted in their First or Second Place; it’s that working in isolation makes them painfully self-aware. And, as any creative person or athlete will tell you, self-consciousness is the opposite of stream-of-consciousness.

The beauty of working on your SerenDestiny® priority in your Third Place is you get the best of all worlds.

You get to work in private … in public. Instead of looking at a blank page and stalling; you get to piggy-back off the energy in the room instead of having to supply all your own.

And, you’re more likely to achieve that sublime stream-of-conscious state where you’re blissfully immersed in your project because no one wants anything from you. You’re interruption and interference free.

Furthermore, does the name Pavlov ring a bell?

If you commit to only working on your SerenDestiny® project in your Third Place, (no texting or checking email); it sets up a ritualistic cocoon of concentration where you walk in, sit down and the faucet of flow opens up. The words will come out so fast, your fingers will hardly be able to keep up.

Many SerenDestineers have told me their Third Place was their saving grace.

It gave them the space to be a visionary on their own behalf. It was the only time they were able to temporarily get away from their other responsibilities and make their personal priority their top priority.

4. Announce an email sabbatical.

Create an “Out of Office” response so everyone emailing you receives a friendly yet clear, “Thank you for getting in touch. I am working on my ( … fill in the blank …) this (Day? Week? Month?) and will be answering emails once a week each Monday.

If this is an emergency or business communication, please contact my assistant who will happily help you. Thank you for understanding. I’m excited about finishing this (what project?) and look forward to launching it into the world and appreciate your support.”

4. Establish an across-the-board policy you won’t meet people for meals on weekdays – or you only meet with people on walk-talks (so you stay fit AND connected with friends).

You may worry you’re going to offend someone by taking yourself off the grid. Or that you’re going to hurt someone’s feelings by not being available whenever they ask.

You might want to ask yourself, “Am I supporting, facilitating and advancing everyone else’s interests, needs and projects … at the cost of my own?”

It is our responsibility as SerenDestineers to think big … and to think long.

What is the long-term cost of dropping everything and being available anytime, anywhere … in person, online or on the phone? What will we have to show for this, years from now?

I am not suggesting we become a round-the-clock hermit and ignore friends and family.

W.S. Merwin isn’t a hermit; he is simply selective about when, where and how often he takes himself away from his work to be available to the public.

He simply balances demands on his time, attention and talents with his dedication to his SerenDestiny® – which keeps the light on in his eyes and keeps him contributing at his highest level.

How about you?

Is 2012 the year you take responsibility for turning your passion and purpose into a SerenDestiny® mission that serves all involved?

The year you get your dream projects out of your head and into the world where they make a positive difference for others and a prosperous living for you?

The year you establish and hold yourself accountable for clear policies about your availability?

The year you remove yourself from tempting, distracting environments and create a space, a Third Place, where you steep yourself in your SerenDestiny® priority so you turn it into reality?

I’d love to hear your experiences and insights about this topic.

What challenges have you had in devoting yourself to your legacy work?

How do you carve out time for what matters most so you make tangible progress every month?

How have you taken responsibility for saying NO to what fritters away your time and talents … and YES to creating a cocoon of concentration that sets you up for success and helps you focus on and fulfill your SerenDestiny®?

2 responses to “SerenDestiny® #48: What can Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin Teach Us About Setting Ourselves Up For Success??

  1. Pingback: famous poems about life | famous poems about love | famous poems about death | famous poets | great poems | w.s. merwin | poet laureate | PRSecrets Blog

  2. Thank you Sam. I needed to read this today as I have been working on a book that I had wanted to finish 4 months ago. It will now be finished by the first of December 2012.

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