It would be wonderful to wave a magic wand and instantly reach the goal you’ve set or secretly dream about. That would make your ego very happy (well, for a little while, until the next goal). But skipping ahead to the success, when you think it will feel good means you’d miss out on mining gold. The gold is in the journey of learning, making, failing, gaining insight and not in arriving at an imaginary future arbitrary goal. You didn’t know what you need to learn until you’ve learn it. You don’t know how a failure or making something bad will provide insight, knowledge or a valuable lesson. Having it all handed to you on a plate means you won’t have built up the resilience to keep you motivated and committed when things do go ‘wrong.’
The danger of wanting to fast forward and avoid failure and uncertainty is to avoid future potential growth. You learn much more from a failure than you do if everything is smooth sailing. These growth spurts lead to bigger insights, more knowledge and ultimately make you a stronger person.
What does a tennis pro with 23 Grand Slam single titles have in common with an art-making beginner?
Fear of failure.
In Being Serena, Serena Williams talks about fear on the court: “People ask me have I ever been afraid on a tennis court? I laugh. Of course I’ve been afraid on the tennis court! When I was younger, going against big stars. When I was older and all the expectations that came with that. The fear of failing, it’s always there in one form or another.” The idea that success shields you from future fear of failure is an illusion because the fear remains within us at every single stage, from beginner to master.
At this years pre-Wimbledon news conference, Serena was asked if she’s used to her opponents upping their game because she’s the ‘one to beat’? She responded. “It’s what makes me great. I always play everyone at their greatest so I have to be greater… everyone comes out and they play me so hard and now my level’s so much higher because because of it, from years and years of being played like that… My level, if it wasn’t high, I wouldn’t be who I am so I had to raise my level to unknown because they’re playing me at a level that’s unknown. So now I’m used to it.” Serena embraced the unknown and used it as a strategy to improve her game.
Whether you’re making art or playing professional tennis at the highest level, the fear of failure never disappears. Walking alongside the unknown is an intrinsic part of life and is an important tool for growth. Try to embrace the unknown and see if you can implement it as a strategy and allow yourself space to get even a tiny bit more comfortable in the uncomfortableness of uncertainty!
In an interview with the contemporary visual artist George Condo, he remarked “I don’t see why it takes so long to make drawings.” He draws a large-scale drawing with oil stick on camera and the whole process take 16 minutes. It appears to be a very quick, dynamic and instinctive method of drawing. He explains “I kind of draw like you’re walking through the forest, y’know. You don’t really know where you’re going and you just start from some point and randomly travel through the paper until you get to a place where you finally reach your destination.”
The idea of making art quickly is echoed in an question on Seth Godin’s ‘Origin Stories’ podcast episode.: “What should teachers be focusing on to help young people write their best? Godin answered “… the problem is the word ‘better’, because when they seek to do ‘better’ writing, they’re focusing on… complying, on pleasing an anonymous reader or a teacher.” Instead, “… get kids to write. Get kids to do lousy writing, Get kids to do frequent writing, emotional writing, superfluous writing, useless writing, writing, writing, writing. That if they write often, then the fear of writing has to do away.”
Do more writing, do more drawings, make art quickly and often and don’t pay attention to the quality of what you make. Down the road, a bi-product of this practice will be ‘better’ technical skills. To focus on getting ‘better’ when you’re a beginner, is a way to stall yourself before you’ve had a change to get any momentum going.
Progress doesn’t happen overnight and there is no hack to becoming an overnight success at making art. Practice, consistency and commitment are the slow and steady route to growth. But that’s if you can stand it taking time to bridge the gap of where you are and where you want to be.
Practice making something every single day and you will improve over time. Seth Godin says “incremental daily progress (negative or positive) is what actually causes transformation. A figurative drip, drip, drip. Showing up, every single day, gaining in strength, organizing for the long haul, building connection, laying track—this subtle but difficult work is how culture changes.” The idea that any progress, even if you hate what you’ve made, will create future improvement is something to remind yourself of when you feel like giving up.
“Keep showing up. If it matters, keep showing up.” – Seth Godin
30 day or 100 day projects allow you a consistency framework to keep you accountable: Make something every day for X days and you can only stop once you’ve reached the final day. The great thing about this approach is a pile of work is created by taking a small creative action daily.
By focusing on the small, we let ourselves off the hook of only looking for big leaps in our progress. We don’t expect plants to instantly sprout from a planted seed, it takes time just to grow the roots. See your own daily project as an way to grow your invisible creative roots and focus solely instead on the enjoyment you get from making something.
The fragile process of beginning to make art again is hard for the ego, who wants to get everything perfect first time. Currently our culture encourages us to share our art with the world via social media. Why not share when you can get instant likes and feedback to encourage you to keep at it? But what if your audience isn’t enthusiastic? You feel proud you even finished making the thing but that feeling can feel squashed when someone says something even slightly critical.
You are your own worst critic and Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way discourages critiquing yourself too harshly because “Judging your early artistic efforts is artist abuse.” But it’s not just yourself you have to worry about when “beginning work is exposed to premature criticism, shown to overly critical friends.” A well-meant comment can feel like a pin to your enthusiasm balloon and questions about why you’re not spending your time on more ‘important’ things can feel confronting.
It may remind you of a past time when you received harsh criticism about your art and this might be enough to completely derail you from being creative. Your art is going to be unrefined in the beginning and you have to face that while you’re making it but do you really need less than supportive feedback from others? What if you chose to keep your art-making secret and made it just for you?
The idea of your art making being similar to a private diary or journal process is echoed in Felix Scheinberger’s book Dare to Sketch sketch-booking process: “My sketchbook is something very personal. I draw in it for me and not for others; I use it to describe my world and my life.” How making art for yourself is the goal and nobody else need be involved. “It’s your sketchbook and yours alone, and should matter to no one else. once you are aware of this, it becomes a lot easier to work on a sketchbook. You are not drawing for any presumed critics or admirers, but for yourself. You aren’t producing a presentation booklet, but a creative space that consciously allows for mistakes and experiments. Your sketchbook is not a public space. Protect it.”
Protecting it and keeping your art secret is a way to help your fledgling artist grow stronger and limiting anything that endangers that. Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic talks of having an affair with your art: “Let yourself fall in love with your creativity… and see what happens.” The idea of an affair being something that you undertake in secret, something you’d make sure was hidden from the world: “Sneak off and have an affair with your most creative self… Conceal it from your family and friends, whatever it is you’re up to.”
The idea of making art in the dark, away from any other eyes could be the freedom you need to unleash your creative spirit. By treating your sketchbooks and notebooks as a private journal, you allow your confidence and skills to grow stronger undisturbed.
“[Creative recovery] It is an awkward, tentative, even embarrassing process. There will be many times when we won’t look good – to ourselves or anyone else. We need to stop demanding that we do. It is impossible to get better and look good at the same time.” – Julia Cameron
Lego is not just a toy as it can also be used as a design thinking tool. Lego Serious Play – born from the Lego company’s search for ways to get businesses using Lego – helps organisations to get creative and innovate.
In the article Using Lego Serious Play as a Design Thinking Tool by Designorate.com, it describes how “Design thinking is a complex process which combines both logical thinking and creative imagination in order to build innovative products and services.” A range of tools can be used to help the design thinking process such as “issue cards, group sketching, role play, design games and Lego Serious Play.” By playing with colourful bricks, teams can share ideas and problem solve together. “Visualizing the ideas into a model eliminates the fear of failure as it is treated with a prototype that can be modified during the design thinking process.” With fear of failure being a huge roadblock for many people – not just in the creative world – tools that can help move things forward are invaluable.
This open style collaborative approach to design thinking allows everyone to contribute and share ideas. The idea of using play as an approach creatively learning is something that Mitch Reznik, a professor of learning research at MIT Media Lab addresses in the documentary Lego House: Home of the Brick. “When I think about play, I don’t see it as just fun and games, but rather I see play as a type of, a way of engaging with the world.” He suggests that by giving children the opportunity to explore through playing and creating, “they’ll be prepared for a world which is going to require creative thinking more than ever before.”
“Where you’re willing to take risks, to try new things and the greatest learning, the greatest innovations come when people are doing things in a playful spirit. It might be building a sandcastle or a Lego castle or building a poem – whatever they’re creating is a way for them to create new ideas. So there’s this constant cycle between children building things in the world to build new ideas, to let them build things in the world. That cycle provides the basis for the best learning experiences.” – Mitch Reznik
Additional content: For a deeper dive into in the Lego brand, The Toys That Made Us (2018) S2 E3: Lego revisits the journey from wooden toys to the present day brick system. For more on the architect who designed the Lego House, Abstract: The Art of Design (2017) S1 E4 – Bjarke Ingels: Architecture shows more of his innovative architecture and design process: “In the big picture, architecture is the art and science of creating the framework of our lives.” And “He never follows the rules.”
Becoming an expert can lead to playing it safe by repeating the same patterns of what’s previously worked. What if you fail once you’ve had a taste of success? Better stick to what you know because that’s what worked in the past…
But in Bowie: The Man Who Changed the World, David Bowie’s chameleon approached to making music was highlighted. “As far as style is concerned, I don’t really think that I want to have a style. Sort of ‘Oh yeah, that’s a David Bowie sound’ y’know? I’d much prefer to be sort of a free agent as my enthusiasms take me.” Bowie followed his curiosities, even if they were different to what what he’d been inspired by before. His enthusiasms were his pathway to the next project.
Cai Guo-Qiang in Skyladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang is asked is there is something he particularly likes about collaborating with untrained artists? He replied “Yes, a lot of artists do things that are too commercial. It lacks some compulsion and sincere emotions that should exist in all art.” Becoming commercial may mean following the same formula of creation which becomes more important than pursuing new avenues of creation.
‘Shoshin,’ a word from Zen Buddhism meaning ‘beginner’s mind,’ refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner would. In Shunryu Suzuki’ book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind “In beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”
Beginners mind allows you to experiment with more freedom and discover unexpected and divergent results. Ultimately this creates richer, more diverse work because you’ve cast your research net wider. We can become rigid when making art by sticking to ‘rules’ adopted in the past. We initially created those rules from the unknown through experiments, but they become fixed quickly. We can tightly cling to them as we try to create order out of chaos because perhaps then we feel (perceived) control in an uncontrollable world? Take inspiration from Bowie and Guo-Qiang and follow your curiosities, be open to new possibilities and don’t be so concerned with everything being in the same style. Adopting a beginner’s mindset allows us to be open to new, divergent and unexpected ideas, where magic could be revealed and explored further.