It seems counterintuitive to decide on a career when you leave school given your work/life experience is so minimal. Many factors come into deciding on what pathway to pursuit, a big one being fear. The fear of not succeeding or it being too difficult to get ahead or too intangible to measure future success (the arts being a classic example) drives many to choose a ‘safer’ plan B career. If the thing you really want to do doesn’t work out, you’ve something safe to fall back on is something Jim Carrey’s 2014 MUM graduation speech addresses:
“Fear is going to be a player in your life, but you get to decide how much. You can spend your whole life imagining ghosts, worrying about your pathway to the future, but all there will ever be is what’s happening here, and the decisions we make in this moment, which are based in either love or fear. So many of us choose our path out of fear disguised as practicality. What we really want seems impossibly out of reach and ridiculous to expect, so we never dare to ask the universe for it.”
Plan A gets sidelined but plan B isn’t necessarily a ‘safer option,’ as Carrey suggests:
“My father could have been a great comedian, but he didn’t believe that was possible for him, and so he made a conservative choice. Instead, he got a safe job as an accountant, and when I was 12 years old, he was let go from that safe job and our family had to do whatever we could to survive. I learned many great lessons from my father, not the least of which was that you can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love.”
Fear of failure and the unknown stops so many of us from even trying. If you believed the plan B pathway wasn’t actually safe, would you still pursue it?
Deciding to try to make art for fun as an adult is a big step and overcoming the multiple hurdles you face before picking up a pencil is a huge victory. The lack of time, material or space can be hard enough, but overcoming the fear of not being ‘good’ at art and the guilt of not spending time productively can halt all creative endeavours.
Continuing to make art regardless of the above is an act of bravery. It takes determination to face the white page and put pen to paper and create from the unknown. But once you decide to do it and you get into the flow of making, the rest will take care of itself. All you have to do is turn up at the paper and be willing to make some marks. That’s it. Don’t over complicate it by having to make something worthy of being in a gallery, that’s not what making art is about. Art making is about having fun and enjoying the process.
Just make something. ANYTHING. Nobody is watching and nobody cares if it’s ‘bad’. How will you know how creative you really are if you never give yourself permission to make any art?
“Don’t give into your fears… If you do, you won’t be able to talk to your heart.” – Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
Uncertainty is something you have to face regularly when making art, continually asking yourself “What should I make?” and questioning if what you’re doing is any good. But with uncertainty comes creativity and growth because working it out as you go is fertile ground for inner development. The not-knowing actually helps us be happier because if everything was laid out for us we’d be bored and unchallenged. There’d be no spontaneity or a-ha moments of exciting discoveries because only following a limited set of instructions wouldn’t require us to think creatively.
It seems counterintuitive that we crave certainty, even if it ultimately means sacrificing our growth and creativity. Daniel Gilbert in Stumbling on Happiness explains “Uncertainty can preserve and prolong our happiness, thus we might expect people to cherish it. In fact, the opposite is generally the case.” Making art forces you to sit inside the uncertainty and feel around in the dark so it’s a worthwhile practice to get you used to those uncomfortable feelings of not-knowing what you’re doing.
Gilbert continues “The poet John Keats noted that whereas great authors are ‘capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’, the rest of us are ‘incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. Our relentless desire to explain everything that happens may well distinguish us from fruit flies, but it can also kill our buzz.”
Instead of trying to work everything out in advance, take a seat in uncertainty and get on with making your art. Make anything, it doesn’t matter! Because through your action comes clarity about your next step, but you won’t know what that second step is until you’ve taken your first.
If you ever feel like you’re making art in the metaphorical dark with no idea what comes next, know that this is a completely normal experience. In fact, in order to be creative we have to be comfortable with venturing into the unknown on a regular basis. Ted Solotaroff explains that “Writing a first draft is like groping one’s way into a dark room, or overhearing a faint conversation, or telling a joke whose punchline you’ve forgotten.” From the unknown, unplanned darkness can grow interesting ideas.
David Bayles and Ted Orland in Art and Fear suggest “Art is like beginning a sentence before you know its ending. The risks are obvious: you may never get to the end of the sentence at all – or having gotten there, you may not have said anything. This is probably not a good idea in public speaking, but it’s an excellent idea in making art.” The unexpected, unplanned and unanticipated is not something to be fearful of, it’s the perfect environment for making art. Carolyn Schlam in The Creative Path talks of darkness: “That’s what I’m offering you, a flashlight in the dark and mysterious world of creativity. And it’s a thrilling world, a labyrinth, if you will…. When I describe it this way, the path to art seems rather like the path of our lives, fascinating, mysterious, and yet wonderful.”
By standing in the darkness and facing it head on, you’re open to more creative possibilities compared to all the lights being on. You don’t need to know what the whole room looks like to make art, just gently feel around until you bump into something interesting.
“Sometimes you have to let yourself go into unchartered territory.” – Barbara Abercrombie, A Year of Writing Dangerously
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.
If you feel lost as to what you ‘should’ be making/drawing/writing when getting creative, don’t worry. It’s a common hurdle for all creatives. When the hurdle feels too large and therefore overwhelming to overcome, it can lead to creative burnout. But the fact is there’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to art making and everyone – including professional artists – is making it up as they go. Michaela Chung in The Year of the Introvert says “The truth is that no one knows what the hell they are doing. The problem is not the fact that you haven’t got it all figured out. It’s the fact that you feel like you should.”
You shouldn’t have worked it all out because nothing is ever finished – the journey of art making continues and you’re never ever done. Progress and growth is the ultimate goal and so when you’re feeling lost, make anything. Anything at all, there’s no need for it to to even be any good. Chung touches on progress: ” One of my personal mottos is “progress over perfection.” You’re not perfect, but you’re better that your were before, and that’s what really matters.”
Being creative is a series of steps where you only need to choose one tiny step at a time.
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!