Finding Your Querencia: The Key to Empowering Your Character
Severed tissues and dimmed nerves in your wrist and fingers—a diagnosis that would ruin the career of a concert guitarist. I was forlorn and crestfallen. My deepest passion had been swept away. My wings had been clipped, my fingers were numb and weak, and I could just barely play.
A few years after the injury, a mentor advised me to accept my limitations. But I couldn’t. Improvising with creative musicians had always been the place where I felt most alive. It was my querencia, as they say in Spanish. Your querencia is, “a place from which one’s strength of character is drawn, a place where one feels at home.” It’s actually a term used in bullfighting.
To quote Hemingway:
So, roughly, the querencia is equivalent to “being in your element.” It’s the volcano of the firebird. It’s the creative haven of your soul—the setting where you become your ultimate self. Improv guitar was my querencia—my element. It was also my way of connecting with people. Listeners would approach me, smiling, transcended, and we’d have a deep affinity before “hello.” But at age 17, all of that vanished, and with it, the strength of my character. I became lost, insecure, and disconnected.
I spent the next eight years searching for a new querencia. But in every other arena, I was boldly unremarkable. After college, life became a corporate daze from 9–5, and the rest was stuck in traffic, or listening to the confederacy of dunces talking about last night’s beer specials. It’s hard to be an intellect in a dumb-it-down culture. And yet, in all of this drudgery, I learned something pivotal about myself. Less than 1% of topics, settings, and people in this world fascinate me. But in that rich sliver of life, I did find what I was searching for.
I rediscovered my querencia in philosophical wonder and running at night; in walking through Chicago Novembers wearing my writer’s peacoat; in writing fiction and theories about creativity; in conversing with lost members of my tribe; and of course, in playing music with kindred spirits. When I do any of these things, my previously dormant soul is electrified. I exude confidence, brilliance, and charisma because I am in my element, and it is in this setting that I think, “If only I could be like this all the time.”
At the end of this eight-year period, I had an epiphany, which I will try to articulate here. Frequently, the circumstances of life are ordinary, at least for most of us. We wake up, go to work, come home, wind down, go to bed, and repeat. In response to this lifestyle, our characters are shaped. I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, “You are what you eat.” I’m not too sure about the literal sense, but what if we broaden the metaphor beyond the realm of food? Then, it becomes, you are what you consume, you are what you are exposed to, and you are the culture within which you are immersed. So let me ask, what do you do on a daily basis, and who do you believe you are? Do you surround yourself by like-minded individuals that inspire you to be your best self? Or do you spend time with people who disparage or don’t understand you? Are you in a place that you love? Or are you wasting away in suburbia?
Who you are largely depends on your environment. I spend less than 1% of my life in my querencia, “the place where the strength of one’s character is drawn.” And for a long time, my character was being defined by tedious places, tiresome topics, and mismatched people with whom I shared no chemistry. I would waste so much energy feigning enthusiasm on things that didn’t naturally excite me. But it’s like dancing to a song that doesn’t compel your body to move. In the same respect, the querencia is not forced.
Not all places are created equally, nor are the people in your life. The right settings will elicit strengths in you that were previously unimaginable. I’ve commandeered a yacht in Prague, I’ve climbed mountains in Montana, I’ve sung in front of thousands, and each new experience brings out an emboldened version of me that I never knew existed. A leopard can’t change his spots, but he can change his location. And so this is my epiphany and my gem of advice to you: Don’t blame yourself for being unremarkable when the conditions are wrong; instead, seek to conjure the conditions that make you extraordinary.
In many ways, the querencia is a mentality that is triggered by external factors such as your setting, your peers, the topic of conversation, and the activity at hand. The key to manifesting it lies in causing these conditions to arise. I do this by gathering creative, philosophical, and musical, intellectuals in my own mini-societies. I do this by marrying what I love with my career. My hope is to tip the scale, so that I can be the character I want to be more like 100% of the time. Your querencia awaits.
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