Sunday, July 18, 2021

The Perfectionist Paradox


Let me get this out of the way, but really, you probably already know this, right? I’m a dyed-in-the-wool perfectionist. “Hi, my name is Sarah…” <raises hand> From the moment I started customizing back in 1987, I was holy hannah bent on creating the very best work I could to the exclusion of any sort of rational justification. It simply had to be perfect. Go perfect or go home. And I’m still that way, in fact, even more maniacal about it than before because I have 30+ years of distilled, refined insanity behind me. Perfectionism is simply a part of my process now, simply a way that I think when it comes to my artwork.

Yet because of this fixation, I can drive myself to near breakdown trying to get something to “click” — to feel perfect. It doesn’t just have to look perfect, see…it has to feel perfect. Deep in my gut, it has to feel as though this is the way the piece was meant to be, this was how the Universe intended this piece to pan out, down to the square 1/8” landscape. So if a wrinkle isn’t just so — if it doesn’t click — it has to be redone…over and over and over until it does. This is what I mean when I say I “sculpt by feel.” It’s not that I’m sculpting on a whim or loosey-goosey — I try to follow those biological rules to the letter — it’s that each little fiddly bit has to feel as right as possible in my own little perfectionist heart. And that’s a tall order — a piece has to please the Universe, as I like to think of it, and it also has to please me. Phew!


My work isn’t perfect. No one’s is. It never could be. Not ever. Not even 3D printing from a live scan. The only thing that can ever create a perfect equine is Nature. Only the living creature is perfect because DNA always bats last. Everything we sculpt, print, or paint realistically then will be flawed no matter how hard we try.

And that’s the Perfectionist Paradox.

This is something we have to reconcile otherwise we’re going to go mad and even just stop, right? We have to find a way to keep going despite this Sisyphean predicament. How do we do that?

“The most dangerous way we sabotage ourselves is by waiting for the perfect moment to begin. Nothing works perfectly the first time, or the first fifty times. Everything has a learning curve. The beginning is just that — a beginning. Surrender your desire to do it flawlessly on the first try. It's not possible. Learn to learn. Learn to fail. Learn to learn from failing. And begin today. Begin now. Stop waiting.”

- Vironika Tugaleva

Well, for one, we can recognize that the benefits lie in the struggle itself. The pro-active learning, the innovation, the experimentation, the learning of discipline, patience, diligence, and persistence, of discovering how to be kinder to ourselves and others, and of course the grand things that can come with dreaming big. We also place more worth on quality workmanship and intent, on originality and our Voice because perfectionism asks for a new level of devotion that cannot deny these things, indeed, that must embrace these things. Perfectionism also adds nitro to our developmental fuel, injecting a kind of urgency and expectation that drives us to improve faster and in more significant ways than a more casual effort would require. And if we weight the effort more than the product, each piece simply becomes a learning experience, practice for the next. In other words, rather than a period at the end of the sentence, each piece becomes a continuum, propelling us along at ever-increasing speeds. Perfectionism is simply the conduit by which we improve our work to the highest potential we can at that moment. 

“The seed of your next artwork lies embedded in the imperfections of your current piece.” 

- David Bayles 

And that’s an important concept to always remember — “at that moment.” We can only ever create as perfectly as we can in our current learning curve, right? This is why our past work shows our newbness and why our future work will be better. Perfectionism only works in the present with the piece we’re creating right now, and that’s actually a lot of freedom in there, to create in the present. Let go of the past, don’t dwell on the future, just put a full effort into the present and we’ll glean the most out of what that piece has to teach us. And we’ll also learn how to be gentler with ourselves I think — I hope — because if we accept that the moment is all we can do, we can accept a lot more of our foibles with generosity and humor.

And to brass tacks it, too, having some degree of perfectionism is inherent in every creative process. Even the most casual creators have a smidgeon; otherwise they’d never declare “done” with anything. Even if we just slap paint on a piece haphazardly in random colors and call it a day, we’ve still exercised a measure of perfectionism. If we hadn’t, that piece would never be finished, right? By the mere act of establishing some baseline of “this is good enough, I’m done," that must beg for a degree of perfectionism in there somewhere. We have a concept, we try to accurately express it, and we declare it done. That’s an exercise of perfectionism. The trick then is to manage it better so we don’t become a slave to it.

“There is a difference between obsessive perfectionism and taking time to create something that is the best you can offer. Knowing what needs to be better and stretching to improve yourself is what separates the mediocre from the marvelous.”

- Suzanna Reeves

So it’s not perfectionism itself that’s a potential problem, it’s how we relate to it that can spin it out of control. But that’s good, yes? This dynamic puts the power back into our hands because if the issue really is us, we can change our relationship to realign back to its benefits. How do we do that?

Well, fully accept that none of our work will be perfect, for one. We have to fully realize that and, in fact, revel in it. Instead, meditate on this: That anyone takes up tool or brush to create anything wholly new from their heart is a miracle in itself. The artistic act is one of such beauty and power and mystery, it’s a marvel every time it happens. Think about it — it’s the Universe recreating its own dreams for reals. Pretty amazing stuff! So to see the profound magic in creating is to recognize where its true worth is to be found. Hold onto that. 

Also fully realize that we’re going to be terrible at what we’re doing when we learn something new. Sure different people can have a higher baseline — what we’d refer to as “natural talent” — but in the beginning, we’re all struggling. And some may struggle more and longer than others because not everyone learns in the same way or speed. But that’s not the point, right? The point is to get a little bit better with each piece, to learn from our mistakes, to vet new methods and concepts, to stretch our expectations and ideas, to rethink and reevaluate, to do all those things involved in what we’d think of as “improvement.” When we do this, we’re going to learn more than just about arting, even better, we’re going to learn a lot about ourselves. To art then is to also and inevitably engage in a journey of self-discovery as we explore what we’re made of and what moves us. We are the process and our piece is simply the pathway. So one of the ways we get into trouble then is forgetting these things and framing our piece as something so unreachable at that moment, we’re just setting ourselves up for failure. Baby steps! Maybe have one or two big — but simple — goals for each new piece and leave the rest for later. We usually aren’t ready for all the information at once — things take time to process and grow into each other. Improvement is better achieved with building blocks and happy surprises than with unrealistic goals out of sync with our current skills. Small bites, well chewed. Yes — we all want to be creating at the level of that amazing artist we admire, but just remember their abilities took years of very hard work, sacrifice, and emotional investment to develop — they had to go through the hard won process of improvement and so do we. We’ll be far more invested in our efforts and successes through this as well.

Also understand that our work is the sum of its good points and the sum of its quirks — just like us. In many ways, those quirks contribute to our artistic style which, of course, plays so well into the distinctiveness of our art. Now we may work to mediate these quirks to achieve more technical realism in this clinical art form — as is the prime directive — and this is exactly how we gauge improvement. How close to the real deal can we get? Well, we pluck out ever more quirks, leaving the technicalities behind. But even if we get super, nutty close, quirks will still be present to make our work as unique as a fingerprint. And that’s actually a pretty cool thing! Hey — if all our work looked the same, wouldn’t our genre lose some of its flavor? And if the equine means so many different things to each of us, wouldn’t having different ways of expressing this splendid creature also appeal to those different aesthetics and prerogatives? There’s strength and vibrance in diversity! Quirks aren’t such a bad thing, are they? Well, given they don’t compromise things too much, of course.

Reset our motivations. Arting must first be joyful — it must fulfill us in a positive, inspiring way, or we’ll stop. Always — always — focus on the fun! And this joy is rooted in love — we must love what we’re doing or we’ll stop. All inspiration, all process, all effort, all sacrifice is rooted in this and what actually gets a piece finished. Stay centered on this, no matter what. Even when we want to throw the piece into a dumpster and set it on fire, stay centered on this. And well, on the flip side that level of extreme emotion speaks to our dedication and passion, right? And it’s already showing us “the way home” to quote Elizabeth Gilbert. So always follow those breadcrumbs back. Try to stoke our fires with that clean-burning love rather than impossible perfection and we’ll stay on track. And this is so important to lean on because…

Perfection is immensely intimidating, so much so it can even shut us down before we start! In this way, perfectionism can be a self-fulling trap and the only way out is to accept that perfection isn’t the endgame, it’s a means to an end. It’s a light to follow but one we’ll never catch…and that’s okay. Everyone makes mistakes! Everyone is creating imperfect work! If they’re okay with that, maybe we can be too, yes? And always — always — remember that imperfection in our work isn’t a personal reflection on us. It’s not a failure of our character but merely an inevitability of being human. And that’s not such a bad thing is it? It’s actually rather beautiful when you think about it — our frail but hopeful humanity has such passion for its Vision that we work to bring it into existence with all the effort, emotion, and sacrifice that requires. It’s an act of love and devotion and joy! Embrace that and worry about perfection later and in proper context…and just start. Let the joy of creating a new piece sweep you away and fall in love with it. People ask often ask me what’s my favorite piece, and well…it’s the piece I’m working on right now!

“Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Do not bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.” 

- William Faulkner

Recognize that perfectionism has a tricky way of exhausting our Eye and so can ramp up a false sense of frustration quickly. That’s to say, by fixating on things too long, because we want things to be perfect, we exhaust our Eye and so areas of our piece that are actually fine will start to look weird, unfamiliar, and incorrect. Sometimes the effect is so strong, the entire piece can be distorted in this way. What’s the inevitable outcome? We’ll just end up spinning our wheels with never-ending “corrections,” getting ever more exhausted and upset since we’ve simply fixated on things too long. This is to expected though when chasing perfection which is why there are many workarounds such as putting the piece aside for a time to “fresh Eye” it later or a more diligent use of calipers to do more “Seeing” for us. Diving into more references and research is another. Artistic exercises such as sketching, practicing and exploring alignments, planes, and anatomical structure can be helpful here as well. Looking at our piece backwards in a mirror is a very handy trick, too. Playing our with photos of our piece in a photo editing program like Photoshop is yet another, and a particularly useful one. If we can get our Eyes to look at the issues in another way, that often helps break the cycle. But ultimately, we also have to know when to say “enough.” When we let the Universe decide for us and let things just be. Because here’s the thing: This is a cycle, almost a syndrome, a fixation. Sure, there can be areas that bug us — that’s part of the process of finishing our piece — but this can spin out of control into a cycle that will trap us with false errors, so be vigilant. There’s a big difference between getting stuck on a piece because of a knowledge or skill gap and getting stuck because we’ve gotten lost in our process.

“Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it's often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.” 

- Brené Brown 

Understand that perfectionism can become a form of procrastination, can’t it? It’s an impossible goal, so what better excuse to not even start in the first place. Really, if we aren’t creating, we aren’t making mistakes, right? But if we accept that everything we do will be imperfect, we’ve opened ourselves to the possibility of creating beyond our expectations with a happy surprise, a moment of serendipitous learning that often just appears like a gift from the Universe. And that’s what a lot of folks don’t know — some of our progress comes unexpectedly, out of the blue often through a mistake or a sudden new way of thinking or Seeing. If we aren’t working though, we’re actually denying ourselves of this very real potential — because it will happen, but only if we give it a chance to happen. So get out there and take epic imperfect actions with every piece!

“Too many people spend too much time trying to perfect something before they actually do it. Instead of waiting for perfection, run with what you got, and fix it along the way…”

- Paul Arden

Likewise, beware that perfectionism can turn into a form of avoidance, a manifestation of fear. Setting this lofty goal for ourselves is great and all, but it can be very intimidating if it’s blown out of proportion. We avoid this mistake by learning to set challenging goals that are still within our grasp, and we only learn what’s chewable with experience— so keep doing! Creative honesty with ourselves is so important because it actually helps plot out a path for progress that doesn’t only make sense to us, but gives us reachable baby steps that result in tangible success that builds our confidence. And with confidence we build competence and with competence we go where we want to go. Likewise, if we hit a wall, please don't assume then that it was because we're inherently incapable! That this is a clear example of how our fears were right the whole time! No. It simply means we bit off more than we can chew for right now so simply set it aside to allow our knowledge base to catch up later. That's all. No biggie. It happens. I've done it several times! So work on other pieces, do some artistic exercises and research, play around with other things...let those subroutines do their job. 

“At its root, perfectionism isn’t really about a deep love of being meticulous. It’s about fear. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of disappointing others. Fear of failure. Fear of success.” 

- Michael Law

Yet how do we gauge “perfect”? When do we know when something actually is our idea of “perfect”? Every artist has a different way to go about this so there isn’t one way. As for myself, I know when to call “done” when every bit of a piece cannot be finagled any further. When every tool stroke that could ever be applied has been applied, when no part asks for just a little bit more tweaking. When things are “just right” and it all fits together and falls in place. In short, when it feels done. It’s a mysterious state for sure — ambiguous and hard to pin down — but an artist just knows when a piece is done perfectly. It’s a magical moment, really. However, it’s a dangerous moment too because this is exactly where perfectionism can careen way out of control to keep us fiddling to overwork the piece. Yes — overworking is a thing. A very real thing. If ever I learned something after 30 years of sculpting, it’s knowing when to stop to better avoid overworking an area. Really, more times than not, our initial impulses — our first few tool strokes — are the better choices and so “improving” them with fiddling can refine them into a diluted or muddled version of themselves and they lose their organic quality, clarity, energy, and power. I can’t tell you how many times I ruined an area, even an entire piece, by overworking it! Go with your gut, flow with the energy, and learn to keep that energy contained in each tool stroke even if that means backing away and leaving it be. Trust the process! It’ll all come together later, and if that area still bugs you, address it then. See, if we get stuck in one place trying to perfect it — and probably overworking it — we’re going to hit a wall of exasperation. We become too focused on one aspect and we lose sight of the big picture. Keep things in perspective! If some area is bugging you — that’s okay, it happens all the time! Just keep going, move onto other areas, let the piece come together more as a whole then re-evaluate. Because I also cannot tell you how many times I’ve had to redo an area I loved because it was part of a larger correction that had to erase it! Everything we do now can be redone later if we so choose, that’s the beauty of artistic creation. Whatever we do, we can undo and redo at any time so don’t let unchecked perfectionism distract you.

“Perfect” also means different things to different people. Indeed, what is “perfect”? Sometimes not even the artist knows! And sometimes the artist doesn’t even see the exceptional work they created but fixate on those parts they believe are flawed. “Perfect” can be so subjective! And it can be so invisible. And here’s a crazy thing about perfection — the more “perfect” an area is, the more invisible it becomes! That’s to say, it lacks the big errors that would make it jump out at us. Oh, the irony! Now that does beg this: If that’s the case, then by definition “perfect” must mean that a piece matches the real thing so closely in structural features and coloration and effect, side-by-side photos would create complete confusion. And let's be real here — pun intended — that’s true. That’s the goal right? Photo-realistic equines in 3D? However, we’re also talking about art, and art is a big messy amalgam of style, technique, innovation, motivations, imagination, and possibility. Will we produce photo-realistic pieces? We’ll get darn close! Will everyone value them the same as “perfect”? No. See, what may be perfect to one person may be flawed to another, and all dependent on where we are in a learning curve. There’s also the component of personal taste and aesthetic, and of different goals and motivations. And we all know the adage, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” right? So no matter how perfect we think we’ve made something — and even if it is objectively darn near perfect — someone out there won’t hold to that…and so be it. They’re simply at a different point in a learning curve or have different aesthetics or goals. Conversely, we may believe something we’ve done is pretty well perfect, but an unknown blindspot has actually shot us off our mark right under our radar, and someone else without that blindspot will spot it quickly. Or perhaps they have a blindspot that interprets what we have right as wrong! What does this mean? That “perfection” is a concept that’s inherently flawed because humans are flawed and so evaluating perfection is flawed. So learn to stop chasing it when it ceases to serve us. Perfectionism can so quickly turn into tilting at windmills if we let it take over, so keep it centered as the process, not the purpose.

Likewise, “perfectionism” can mean different things to different people, too. What is it exactly? Think about it — how does one define the state of “perfection” when everything we create is inherently imperfect? And is perfectionism inherently good or bad? Because there are plenty of people out there who think perfectionism is awesome and plenty who think perfectionism is evil incarnate, and so there’s plenty of conflicting ideas about where it belongs in our arting. So while many may think it’s creating a piece without flaws, that’s really just one facet of what it can mean to us. It’s also one focused entirely on the end product rather than the process. So can perfectionism be about different things? Is it reaching our goal? Is it learning something new? Is it conquering a challenge? Is it achieving a state of clear in a joyful process? And what about the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi? Or on the other hand, the Japanese concepts of Dō or kaizen? Many times it’s the act of striving that’s all the perfection needed!

There’s this to think about, too: Is the state of being “perfect” actually a real thing then, or is it a subjective ideal we simply construct to have a goal? In a sense, yes to both, at the same time. That’s the funny thing about perfection, it’s both a real thing and an arbitrary concept, and oddly enough, especially when it comes to realism. If we “know our stuff” we can clearly see when a piece has more technically correct areas and when it doesn’t. The technicalities of realism simply give us more objective baselines for comparison. Simply put, the living animal is our objective goal of perfection. He’s real, he’s factual, he’s tangible. Likewise for artistic technique in our art form because sloppy methods or newb mistakes aren’t always so easy to overlook. Yet on the other hand, even a hypothetically truly perfect piece won’t be to quite a few people who’ll find flaw with it somehow for their own reasons influenced by differences in their knowledge bases, aesthetics, and prerogatives. For example, many of those fabulous hair-by-hair flatwork paintings of fuzzy animals could easily fool us at first glance. But to me, some can look forced because of the introduced error of regimentation and artifice in areas when instead, nature is defined by “organic chaos,” a quality excruciatingly difficult for the human brain to mimic, especially when it comes to repetitive actions like painting hair-by-hair. Even a snowflake is “messy” under magnification compared to how perfect they’re so often rendered in art. Then consider the issue of scale and proportion, which can throw things off, even subtly. A pencil can only get so sharp or a paintbrush so fine. And I remember being rather creeped out at Madame Tussauds because while those wax figures sure looked real (and were technically stunning), they weren’t quite in that unique way close calls can miss. So to me, some of these things careen into the Uncanny Valley rather than serve as examples of abject perfection. Again — everyone is different! And conversely, we’ve all seen the flawed piece showered with kudos as “perfect,” too. For instance, someone’s sculpture of a lion may look so real to my eye because I’m no expert in lion-ness, but when that same artist sculpts a horse, I See errors so I know that lion also has flaws only I’m blind to them. Wrap it all up then and curiously perfection is a real thing as embodied in the living animal but also a fantasy since everyone Sees that animal differently. Now one could argue then that a machine could create perfection because it lacks human foibles, right? Wrong. Sure, a machine can be far more clinical, but it’s only as accurate as its programming or technology or construction — all of it human-made — and none of which can match Nature in complexity, nuance, and detail. Yes, it can look darned close but when you really know what you’re looking at, you see what’s not there due to the limitations of technology. This is why perfection will always (so far) be the goal and never the endgame in realism and why, quite literally, the only “creators” who make perfect horses are breeders! But all this is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? In all this magical messiness is the potential for diversity, discovery, curiosity, innovation, and surprising ourselves as we strive in the try. So like the speed of light, even getting close is pretty amazing!

In the end then, think of perfectionism as a tool, a means to an end rather than the end unto itself. It’s just like a screwdriver, a hammer, a computer, a paintbrush — it’s just a tool. We can therefore do what we want with it, right? We can pick it up to move forwards or we can put it down just to play or we can throw it clean out the window when we experiment with new things. Perfectionism should also be thought of as a process of renewal — renewal of our love and joy, of our Vision, of our goals, of our inspiration. It’s best when it’s rejuvenating rather than debilitating, so stay focused on the positives it provides and manage it away from its negatives. Also try to detach ourselves from our work a little bit. Yes, our art is a form of expression, but it’s also something we just do and not necessarily always a personal reflection on us. Indeed, if we can’t stand back from it a little bit, we’re going to literally paint ourselves into a corner and close ourselves off to progress. How? Well, we’ll just lose that necessary flexibility for rethinking things by making things too personal. And there’s this, too — our work should take on a life of its own. In many ways, we can think of a piece as an energy — an “inspiration” — that’s trying to make itself real through us, and sometimes we just have to step back and let it unfold and exist on its own terms. Sometimes we’re just vessels. So while we may have this “perfect” vision in our heads, it’s often better to remain open to new possibilities of perfect as the piece evolves in creation. Along those lines, think about reframing our efforts — even our successes and failures — away from ourselves and instead more about whether our Muse showed up or not. Because sometimes it goes into overdrive or it just doesn’t show up at all! That’s normal. Every artist has unexpected triumphs and bad art days. Our Muse truly has a hand in taking us closer or farther away from our goal, so don’t be too hard on yourself if you come up short. Life is a mystery and art is even more mysterious.

“Healthy striving is self-focused: "How can I improve?"

Perfectionism is other-focused: "What will they think?” 

- Brené Brown 

Above all though, be kind to yourself. It may be very tempting — and it’s very human — to denigrate yourself in the face of failure. Resist it. Give yourself space to make mistakes or fall short or just fall flat on your face. That’s part of the process, too! The important part is getting back up and back at it to give it one more try. Each piece will test your resolve and in new ways, so the point is to keep going, not necessarily always being “perfect.” In this, we can think of perfectionism as a Path, a Way towards the improvement we crave and if we keep it in this framework, it’ll remain our reliable workhorse rather than an angry, stampeding T. Rex. Also actively praise yourself and your efforts. Seriously. Take moments where you recognize and acknowledge what you’re doing well with a piece and take stock in how far you’ve come — because you have come very far, and with such moxie and panache! Pat yourself on the back every so often — it’s good for you and you art. 

On the other hand, there’s this, too — every artist, every single one, will work on a piece that ends up simply being a lost cause. For some reason, it just fails despite our best attempts. Our Muse just doesn’t show up. And that’s okay! So it’s important to recognize when this point has been reached so we don’t end up in a perfection trap trying to save it and drive ourselves bananas. Learn to be okay with starting over from scratch or putting a concept on the back burner until something about our knowledge base can play catch up. Sometimes it’s not the right time for an inspiration to be born.

“Embrace being perfectly imperfect. Learn from your mistakes and forgive yourself,

you’ll be happier.”

- Roy Bennett

And lastly, I don’t know if anyone has told you, but I’m very proud of you. You’re full of beautiful potential and there are people who love you and your art. Even those folks out there you don’t know, even those potential peeps who’ll go bonko when they do discover you and your art. Some things in our psyche can be geared to grind us down and stop us, but please know that your potential is wholly unique, so special, and has no limits. Just believe in yourself a little bit. Just a little bit. Because a little bit is all it takes. You’re so much more than you suspect and your art is so much more worthwhile than you believe. You’re doing better than you realize. It makes perfect sense!

“Isn’t it a relief to hear that what might not be perfect for you might

be perfect for someone else?” 

- Neeraj Agnihotri


Friday, July 2, 2021

Demonslaying 101 Part VI

We’re back with Part VI of Demon Slaying 101, the wrap up. Since Part I we’ve explored different psychological quagmires that can get dredged up every time we create, focusing on the three seemingly most common ones of imposter syndrome, negative bias, and self-doubt. The thing is, these three can manifest in different ways with different artists which can make it seem like we’re each an isolated psychological island. We’re not. The challenges with creating art are similar and so the emotional load we each carry — our fears, doubts, anxieties, and regrets — is similar. So while our course is ours alone to sail, we sail a crowded sea! So many little boats. We’re kin. We're the same tribe. And therein we have a support system, but only if we’re willing to reach out and share of ourselves, yes? We can share our coping strategies, hard-won insights, and nuggets of wisdom to patch each others’ boats and come to see that even the very seasoned of us still struggle. Our battles are shared battles and there are ways to do battle better.

This, too, is critical to understand only because those demons never truly vaporize and never fully shut up. We can muffle them, we can sit with them, and we can even use their words to fuel different outcomes, but they’ll be periodically noisy in our heads. Part of our progress then is learning how to continue despite them and all established artists have mastered that hard-won, unspoken skillset. In this though, each and every one, whether they know it or not, has made a choice: To accept the noise rather than quit to avoid it. And they face that choice again and again. Yet consider this — which is actually more powerful? The love of creating our art or the discomfort that’ll inevitably come with it? As Elizabeth Gilbert remarks in her TED talk, the love of her art was stronger than the pain of her failure and so always “called her home.” May you always find your way home. For this then, I highly recommend these TED talks — seriously, listen to them closely and take them to heart:

Elizabeth Gilbert

Success, Failure, and the Drive To Keep Creating

Your Elusive Creative Genius 

Brené Brown

The Power of Vulnerability

Why Your Critics Aren’t The Ones Who Count

Now in that spirit, let’s reconsider these demons because if we just spin things a little bit, they become a backwards reflection of some pretty fantastic things! For starters, they prove that we’re intent and conscientious artists who are passionate about what we do. Hey, if we weren’t, we wouldn’t beat ourselves up so badly, would we? Nope! We’d be indifferent and bang out shoddy workmanship and hit artistic plateaus without a care. That says a lot of great stuff about us and our art, doesn’t it? Similarly, these demons steer us away from becoming arrogant, dismissive, or from taking things for granted. Really, it’s not such a bad thing to stay a little shook, to second-guess ourselves every so often, to have some uncertainty and doubt filter into our process. It keeps us honest, hungry, resilient, and quick to reconsider things, and that means we remain pliable, adaptive, evolving, and authentic. Confidence is a fine thing to be sure, but unchecked confidence risks a kind of hubris that invites chronic blindspots.

Even so, these demons can be brutes, can’t they? But in giving us a beating, they also show us how to be gentler with others, to become more generous, empathetic, supportive, and understanding. Imagine how much nicer a community we’d have with more of that? This isn’t to say that beating ourselves up now has an excuse, but if we pay attention to the bigger lesson as we ease up on ourselves, it wouldn’t have been in vain. Because, let’s face it, while we’re punishing ourselves, we’re also given the power to stop, right? To learn to be kinder to ourselves as well in turn? To cut ourselves some slack, too? It starts with a choice — as these things always do — and that choice can be shaped into a habit which can then grow into a frame of mind. Just keep at it.

Furthermore, if we learn to harness these demons to check and balance our progress, we gain an inner dialogue that can more strategically guide us. Really, our inner voices are our first chorus of critique, aren’t they? So why not put them to work! Because if we can more objectively evaluate our work and establish goalposts with their input, don’t we have the unprecedented opportunity to make huge leaps forwards? What does that mean practically speaking? Well, turn that inner critic into pro-active study, into research, exploration and artistic exercises. Don't just take it sitting down — convert it into action! For example, workshops, classes, seminars, and even visiting sculpture gardens and museums are a terrific way to gather buildable ideas for our inner critic to chew on. So yeah — okay — we don’t like what these demons are saying? Prove ‘em wrong! Or even better, prove ‘em right! Better? Yes! It means we made a precious mistake and — bam! — we’ve just learned something. So think of our inner demons as a gaggle of opportunities we can tap into for growth, artistically or personally.

These demons can also help us find new ways to gauge self-worth by teaching us the perils of seeking validation from others, shaping us into more confident, composed, centered artists. Because the thing to remember is this: The problem isn’t that these inner voices speak, it's how they speak, how strongly, cruelly, and persistently they speak that’s the real issue here. Everyone has inner doubts, but those with particularly harsh, loud, and insistent inner voices can become paralyzed, for good reason. So learn to manipulate them and we do that by dissecting what’s fueling them deep down. Did someone plant a bad seed in our childhood? Did we have a surprising failure rock us to our core? Did we lose our joy along the way — how? Have we gotten swept up in trends that don’t mesh with our sensibilities? If we’re feeling behind the times or overlooked, is that our insecurity talking instead of our reality? The thing is, these inner voices can also be thought of as a warning bell, an alarm that’s telling us something is very wrong in how we’re doing things. In this way then, these demons can actually lead to a reconciliation with those distracting things that impede our happiness to strengthen our dedication to our art in the long run.

It’s also crucial to remind ourselves that it’s going to take a lot of tries to take even one step forwards. None of it — the learning curve, success, fame, innovation — will come easily. In fact, some of it will come quite by accident or as a surprise, and a lot of it will come with curiosity, sacrifice, persistence, discipline, moxie, and hard work. There’s a lot of chaos involved in all this — nothing is predictable and so nothing should be expected. Always go into anything in this activity with intention without expectation. Stay as open as we can. Create work that we love to create and have fun making folks happy, but always remember to enjoy the experience and to learn whatever tidbits it offers along the way. That’s it. Yes, it’s fun to daydream about all those ribbons and even hope that one of our pieces will finally put us on the map, but it’s a crazy world out there with a lot of great work and a lot of different opinions. There’s also a lot of opportunities to explore all these things in different ways so stay open to happy opportunities that can help us share and grow. And talk to other artists about these issues. Get these concerns out into the open to raise awareness and find connection because we can find a lot of strength and wisdom in each other.

It also bears mentioning that creating great art rests on something unspoken: Sacrifice. A lot of it. We don’t talk about this often enough. Our development isn’t just what we put into it, but what we’re willing to carve out — time, money, resources, energy, or anything else we have give up to more fully invest ourselves in our task at hand. Indeed, we have to buy the materials and equipment — and good quality ones. We have to put in the time — tremendous amounts of time. We have to pour in the energy, discipline, and focus — inordinate amounts. We have to invest in our libraries, travel to classes, and pro-active research and innovation — oodles of it. And all that’s gotta come from somewhere, right? Even from our social life and family life and our ability to buy other things. Can we do this? There is no right or wrong answer here — we each have our thresholds — but how we answer can sometimes pre-determine the nature of our progress. Because if we cannot make those sacrifices, our development can be slowed and we need to make peace with that. Honestly, there’s just no way we’re going to progress at the same rate as someone who can more fully sacrifice what’s needed to make those leaps. For example, I’ve sacrificed an active social life to develop my art — that was deliberate. I’ve also invested in my reference library and in travel to workshops, classes, and retreats rather than buying other things. I’ve burned countless hours in research and study, and artistic exercises as well. And because teaching is a great way to learn, I’ve also sacrificed tremendous amounts of time, resources, and energy writing educational articles and blog posts and helping to run RESS. Every step forwards isn’t a manifestation of what I put into it then, but also what was sacrificed to allow that step to happen in the first place. Not enough folks understand this equation and so get frustrated when their development pulls up short compared to others. This isn’t a reflection of their skills per se, but an indicator of their investment level. Because — yes — traveling to that expensive class may be just the ticket to our improvement, but unless we can do that, we’re going to get stuck behind our own learning curve for a longer time. And that’s okay! Not everyone can just throw life into the wind, especially if we have families, work schedules, pets, financial limitations, and other obligations. The point then is this: Our assumed “ineptitude” isn’t necessarily our innate abilities but is probably more a function of those life constraints that keep us from making those sacrifices that would lead to developmental leaps. Quite literally, "that's life,” not us, and we need to keep from beating ourselves up for the wrong reasons.

Altogether then, our ultimate outcome all depends on how we want to react to these inner demons— and that first starts with a choice. We have to choose to keep going every single time we hit a bumpy road or even fall down. Get up. Dust off. Keep going. Again and again and again. Do that often enough and all that internal turmoil will begin to morph from an obstacle into fuel. All that unease and doubt can transform into conduits for confidence, better forms of validation, a healthier sense of self-worth, a way to foster gratitude, and a wiser approach to all this. They become a call to action rather than a robber of intent. Ultimately, those artists who prevail with any degree of sanity have found a way to coexist with their demons by developing counterbalances to stay centered. And those artists who excel even further have found a way to turn each of their fears into an asset that propels them forwards. For instance, fear of failure turns into research which morphs into creative exploration that ultimately accepts failure as part of this cyclical process. Or the poor feedback we get that makes us feel worthless, overlooked, or angry, we turn that energy into letting go of peoples’ opinions and the need for their validation to dive deeper into creating work that pleases us more freely and enthusiastically. Or instead of fretting over another artists’ success while we meet with crickets, work to develop our Voice more robustly to make our work more distinctive and exciting. Or if that monster self-doubt starts yakking again, we moxie up to meet the challenge, throwing down a gauntlet in front of ourselves. Heck — maybe even decide to do something completely out of left field to add more fun into the mix! Sometimes creative boredom can masquerade as a pesky action-stopper because it’s certainly amazing how heady inspiration can bulldozer right through any lingering sense of dread. So it’s all about conversion of the negative into a positive. Instead of denying that energy, transform it! Absolutely, if we can convert negative energy that impedes us into something positive we can use, we reestablish mastery of our experience and hopefully regain enthusiasm in our work. We’ll probably even end up happily surprising ourselves! 

Because here’s the thing — your art needs you. It simply wouldn’t exist without you creating it. No one in the full breadth of the Universe past, present, or future could ever be its pathway — you are its one and only conduit. That really important. That means something really special. So believe me when I tell you that your art matters. Even when things seem so pointless and devoid of joy, it still matters. In fact, it matters even more. Hold onto it closer and even if you don’t trust in yourself, trust in your art. Because as it needs you, you need it, right? For your own deep reasons, your art feeds something wonderful inside you, fills you up and makes your inner light shine just that much brighter. It really doesn’t matter then what others think of all this, does it? After all is said and done, other voices are really just incidental. This relationship has only always been — and will always only ever be — between you and your art. You represent a beautiful duality, a marvelous symbiosis of you and this astonishing, unique energy within you. You give each other strength, affirmation, meaning, and purpose. Meditate on that for a moment to remember just how amazing and precious that is.

Yet despite being bonded with our art, the act of creating something can still exist on a precarious edge, a fine tightrope to walk every step. That urge, that joy for arting can be endangered so quickly and easily, can’t it? Even just one careless comment — even from within ourselves — can inflict a pile driver of damage. And when that happens, that’s a very real crisis that speaks directly to our humanity, to the very root of who we are. Sure, we can tell ourselves “I’m just being mean to myself again,” or “I shouldn’t take things so personally” and perhaps that works at times. But in those cases where these fail, we need a first aid that only comes with a fuller understanding of our internal landscape as it relates to our art. In a very real sense then, we’re tasked with strengthening our bond with our art, entwining that connection so strongly and densely that it’ll weather anything life could throw at it. We need deep roots. So in this way, our art asks us to get to know ourselves better, doesn’t it? Asks us to work on reconciliation, on acceptance, on exploration, of rethinking and revisiting, and a host of other personal discoveries that help us reveal more of what we’re made of and who we truly are. As such, our art invites us to become more authentic versions of ourselves so it can be a more authentic version of itself — and it will always welcome us with open arms no matter who that authentic you turns out to be! As we do this then, we may learn to identify those thoughts, habits, lifestyles, and arenas that harm us, helping us to stake out a new inner peace and balance. Sometimes those parts of ourselves and our lives we don’t need anymore can camouflage themselves as a distracting demon — dump those aspects and we dump those demons, too.

When we get to this point then, we’ll probably find a goodly wad of chutzpah — because we need it. Lots of it. Guts. Daring. Spunk. Moxie. Grit. Tenacity. Audacity. Cheek. Pluck. Call it what you will, but it’s the nitro needed for our fuel. Because joy isn’t enough. Joy won’t protect us from the negativity onslaught but crumble, even disintegrate. What we need is something much stronger, something deeper, something when fostered to full robustness, becomes indestructible. We need love. In the deepest sense, creating art is fundamentally an act of love which is why it feeds the soul so beautifully. It’s why arting can be such a sanctuary, a rehabilitation, a re-fueling. So feed that love and we feed our art, right? But what we may not know is that love itself needs huge chunks of daring to really make it go boom! Just like it takes a tremendous amount of courage — of a willingness to make ourselves vulnerable — to love someone, arting does, too. So to keep our courage up, let’s remember five things. First, our art needs us just as much as we need our art. It needs our energy, our tending, our love, and our dedication — it cannot exist on its own. And in return for life, it offers us so much more — and we’re worth that. So second, our art is worthwhile —  we’re worthwhile — even if our demons insist that isn’t so. They’re lying. Our art is truly worth fighting for so get back into the arena and start swinging! Third, more people than we know are rooting for us because they love our art. They may not always speak up or we may not always hear them, but trust that they’re there and they’re waiting in bated breath to see what we crank out next. Fourth, being able to practice our art is a blessing, a gift. Yes — it’s easy to short-change ourselves because self-love can be really difficult at times granted, but we must remember that it’s through our art that we can find healing in all this, too. So just keep creating. And fifth then, understand that the more we art, the easier arting becomes, and the less we art, the harder it remains. So the solution for a dry spell? For fear and doubt? Just do art. Take a big gulp and do more of it. Creativity feeds on itself, inspiration propagates itself, discipline refines itself, and moxie shores itself up. Feed all that with love and our creativity becomes unstoppable, even by those demons trying to tackle us.

“The most authentic thing about us is our capacity to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love and to be greater than our suffering.”

~ Ben Okri

So protect that creative conduit and nurture it into unbounded growth! It’ll take work, it’ll take dedication and self-gentleness, and it may even make us uncomfortable at times as only the journey of self-discovery can, but trust the process. That light at the end of the tunnel was never a train, it was our art leading us with a lantern urging us onward. Don’t stop! As Churchill advised, “When you’re going through Hell, keep going.” When we’ve got a strong bond with our art, a better understanding of our authentic selves, a hefty dose of gumption, and a bold trust that we can make it through, we become the train plowing right over our inner demons.

Becoming demonslayers instead of hapless victims of our own design is just as crucial as learning how to use clay or pigment. In some ways then, the more telling — but backwards — measure of personal success in our niche perhaps can be achieving a robust amalgam of coping mechanisms because it means we’ve done something of note and we did it boldly and courageously. We “showed up” as Brené Brown would put it. And in doing so, we’ll learn that our boat is ours to navigate in our own waters, and with some insights and learned choices, we can ride out any stormy sea with relative ease to preserve our creative joy. 

So ultimately, our inner demons only have as much power as we’re willing to give them. But the thing to remember is this: They’re never going away because they’re the other side of the coin of our creative joy. All life is balance, right? So here’s the thing: Our inner demons may be manifestations of our darker selves, but that doesn’t mean they’re our more truthful selves. Cynicism, doubt, and negativity isn’t a function of being more genuine or more grounded in reality. Indeed, if they’re the other side of the coin, then there’s optimism, hope, and positivity on the other side that’s just as valid, right? Don’t let those demons dictate your reality! Don’t let them convince you that they’re speaking the real deal because, by definition, they cannot. Always wearing blinders, they simply can never see the full breadth of who you are and what you’re made of and how amazing your talent truly is. So if they start welling up again — and at times they will — remember this absolute fact: For every awful burden they bring, there’s a counterpart that’s just as true and real only we’re forgetting about it. Remind ourselves more often of those wonderful things as a habit — seek them out, focus on them, internalize them — and it’s brilliant just how quickly our creative frame of mind can change. It’ll take effort and constant vigilance, of course, but we got this. Sail n' slay on!

“Your art doesn’t exist to support you. You exist to support your art.”

~ Kiki Smith

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