It was during the flurry of searching and learning I was doing in the early 2010s that I first heard of a fascinatingly magical yet profoundly simple concept from a self-help guru, something that’s stuck with me since then.
The question of what to be and what to do weighed heavy; I was scared of making the wrong choice. I thought that no matter which way, things would turn out at least just okay, but I worried that the choice that would lead me to the version of hell, where, on the day you die, you meet the person you could’ve become. And instead of trying to create myself, I was still caught up in the idea that I was meant to find myself and that there was such a thing as the wrong choice, that somewhere out there, was my right one.
I worked a 4 day a week job so I was on the internet a lot. The web was a different place just a few years ago, and I in its throes. I got stuck into one particular arena that preyed on my both my optimism and insecurity: struggling to make money or even find a path, nervous that my time was ticking away, I leaned into the world of self-help and lifestyle entrepreneurship.
I saw a way out (or was it a way in?).
Now removed from this strange world of influencer-ship, I’ve had to unlearn a lot of what I learned from them and once tried to emulate, believing once upon a time that this lens and their success was the one single path. I figured that the way they all look the same, the way their copy all sounds the same, their sales funnels and calls for urgency, it all meant that these things were the hack.
I’m not sure now if it’s so much that things feel icky than it is that I got bored of the same model, the same cookie cutter everything, how everything feels over-performed and everyone is selling “authenticity”.
I’ve forgotten most of what I learned except that people and connection is the most valuable currency and via the network of the world wide web, that value has increased exponentially.
That, this, while the spirit of our era, probably isn’t going to last. Nothing ever does, right? But if I were to bet on just one thing that may stay for as long as we live, made democratic via the internet, it would be accessibility to people and the creation of the influencer at scale to augment the relevance and approachability of mass information.
I did learn some about marketing, funnels, human behavior and I think, following some of these online gurus, did make the web feel a bit less lonely, less like pixels and bytes and electricity and more like a portal to anyone and anywhere else.
But the most important, random thing I learned from a guru was this:
We are made of stars.
The late astrophysicist Carl Sagan wrote in The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective, in 1973:
Our Sun is a second- or third-generation star. All of the rocky and metallic material we stand on, the iron in our blood, the calcium in our teeth, the carbon in our genes were produced billions of years ago in the interior of a red giant star. We are made of star-stuff.
While he is widely attributed as the origin of this saying, it did in fact appear in print decades earlier, in 1921.
What I take it to mean is exactly what it says: that we are made of the same material and that one day, we will all end up the same too. It’s not a fancy quote nor a metaphorical one. It is what it is.
And that is: both stark, plain and simple and the most wonderful, beautiful thing. It’s the stuff magic is made of: science. (Or the other way around.) It’s philosophy wrapped up in science, and not just any kind of science: the science of the universe, origins, humanity and space. The major stuff.
I think of it as the post-industrial age’s version of Carpe Diem, the information age or the Aquarian age’s take, depending on where you fall on the scale of rational to woo-woo. Because maybe it’s no longer enough to posit a theory of how to be based on experience - we have enough of that, too much. I think that just like politics, it’s less like a line with two ends and more like a circle that meets at the top, where both the left and right meet as fascists. Just like that, science and magic end up being the same.
The concept has been re-spun and re-said by others: In tech, Steve Jobs said “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.” Photographer and costume designer Cecil Beaton’s version: “Be daring, be different, be impractical, be anything that will assert integrity of purpose and imaginative vision against the play-it-safers, the creatures of the commonplace, the slaves of the ordinary.” I mentioned the oft-spotted “Live Laugh Love” in Advice Column, and that’s like the big box store signage version of this exact concept, coming from much humbler, less boxy origins: a 1904 poem by Bessie Andersen Stanley, titled Success. Life is short, seize the day, so on and so forth; you’ve heard many versions of this concept.
But this I think is the clearest and most poetic. Transcendental. Factual as far as we can contend and yet magical. It’s my current favorite.
I can’t argue a greater case for both the ingenuity and creativity of humanity than to understand that where we all came from is stardust, every part of us.
It makes me feel both infinitely powerful and insignificantly powerless, I’m not sure which - maybe both, depending on where I’m at in my menstrual cycle. Because on the one hand, I have the universe in me and on the other hand, we are all just rearranged atoms and stardust. I am mostly agnostic, but it reminds me of another quote that I also remember from one of these online gurus: God is the water, you are the faucet. The first time I heard it, I literally felt shivers. And however you perceive the world, this quote is a case study in confirmation bias: you could take it to mean that there is a higher power, or that there is none.
So, I have a tendency to think of everything as both a theory and a product. If I were more inclined to put myself in a box, I might’ve become a brand strategist. I enjoy the process of matching human experience and psychology to consumerism and allegiance. (You know what? I take that back. Product manager is probably closer to boxed in me: I like too much to get things done and launched.)
But if I were to write an ad for life and bottle it up into a perfume, this is what I’d use: Starstuff, By the Universe. (cue sparkles)
The tagline: “We are made of stars”, of course.
It smells like power and imagination, love and neutrality, everything and nothing, both sweet and fleeting with a bottom note that lingers for what feels like forever, but you’ll know that it’s just one passing moment in eternity and that’s enough to make it count.
After the years I had followed these online lifestyle gurus, it didn’t matter that I was on the right path or not. It didn’t matter that I tried a while and failed, then moved on. It mattered that I heard this and took it to heart, before I decided that following the surface lessons of online gurus wasn’t enough for me. I took with me a slew of marketing lessons and motivation that would go on to inform the rest of my work, and did in fact go on to make work, which I am in the midst of, other than selling myself (though I recognize that part of it is to sell myself). I have decided for myself that if we have made so much from just stardust, and that is all we will end up as, then I need to try to not just make a living but to make a life.
I stopped freaking out as much about finding the right path, and instead just did things. I stopped trying to force the whole make money online shindig and really gave a good think on the question of what I wanted to do and be this one life I have. It’s a years-long process and in all honesty, I think I’m probably still figuring it out.
Have you ever gone outside the city and looked up at the stars, really seen them without the pollution of human-made light? Do it. It takes you, if even for a moment, out of your day to day and into a wordless, sensorial experience of what “We are made of star-stuff” feels like. Sometimes a moment is all you need to remember that life and everything is magical, just as it is.
Hubble Deep Field is a visual representation of this entire concept, an image representing one 24-millionth of the whole sky. It’s my phone background, a constant reminder for me of what we are, what life is. And as proof of what I mean by how everyone interprets based on their perception, I present to you the internet watercooler, Reddit. For some, it’s terrifying and for others, it’s enchanting.
Another guru once taught me that any action, any choice, is better than nothing at all. So that’s what I’ve been doing, until I become stardust once again. (Was this creative influence really about online gurus then, wrapped up in something more palatable?)
My name is Ana and I’m documenting my creative influences. In 2018, I designed a newspaper to use as marketing for my skincare line, where I wrote “We are made of stars” on the cover. It’s still sitting in my computer, in an InDesign file I can no longer open.