This article was a challenging one to write. Beyond suggesting some form of balm or resolution, I wanted to reassure you that you are seen. Artists are not the only people who suffer from fears of success and failure, but our journeys can be so daunting in so many unique ways. I’m hoping to relieve you of some of the pressure you may feel to be somebody and make something of yourself. Because I get it. I’m really intimate with that feeling too.
I started showing a precocious aptitude for drawing and writing in grade school. I was singled out, given awards, and expected, in a nebulous way, to go on to do great things with my talents. My family was working class: my father, an Italian immigrant, worked in construction and didn’t finish high school. My mother was a stay-at-home from a working class Canadian-Italian family of 10. They didn’t lack a sense of culture. Both had some appreciation for some forms of fine art. What they didn’t have, that I can’t blame them for not having, was scope. They didn’t know what to do with me and my art skills. My mother, especially, was pretty certain I’d follow in her footsteps. My father, being most familiar with a patriarchal model, only knew how to encourage my brothers to succeed.
It may have been this lack of concrete expectations that lead me to forge my own path. I developed a burning need to succeed in spite of those key figures being only vaguely encouraging. As a fledgling artist, I was groping in the dark until I arrived in California and things started to take off. Once here, I sacrificed a lot to stay—family, financial security, a sense of familiarity and rootedness. Things have not always gone smoothly, and at times I felt overwhelmed by the feeling that if I couldn't make a go of it, I'd be betraying everything and everyone I'd left behind, proving that I'd taken a selfish and foolhardy risk. When faced with tremendous pressure to do something easier and more practical, it would feel like the paralyzing stare of a serpent.
The reality is widely known: There’s only a tiny handful of wildly famous and wealthy artists compared to the vast number who are simply not. Based on this, it’s easier for people (including ourselves) to expect failure than it is to imagine success in the arts. The difficulties of making a living as an artist are legendary, and it’s hard to imagine persisting in the face of that. Many give up on their creative ambitions because of it. I often get the feeling that onlookers feel a morbid satisfaction when artists fail, because it validates a dreadful but common world view—that art is frivolous, that conventional choices are the smarter ones, and that those who choose to be artists, are fools.
There's another side to this, where being an artist elevates you to hero status, and you end up on a pedestal. People in our lives who harbor frustrated creative urges might seek vicarious success and will push us well beyond reasonable expectations. Think of the so-called "dance mom" who turns a child's innocent artistic curiosity into their own narcissistic source of pleasure. Drunk on the applause for their child's hard won victories, they might not even notice the child's misery at having to perform under the stress of their parent's demands. Limits are tested and goals are continually moved outward in the attempt to claim a victory for something they themselves gave up on or are too afraid to do. And, yes, our spouses and teachers can be guilty of this as well.
For an artist in that situation, succeeding might end up being equated with suffering, or with feeling like a puppet. There's a feeling that the harder you work and the more skilled you become, the more your autonomy is threatened. Dropping out of the game would bring relief, so sometimes an artistic practice will come to an end just as it's on the verge of blossoming into something beautiful. The age-old story of Self-Sabotage comes to mind.
These examples help illustrate the classic dynamics of "Fear of Failure" and "Fear of Success". But I don’t want you, dear reader, to get comfortable in the victim role. Maybe these fears that drive us came from somewhere in our histories and were planted by others, but they belong to us now. And who knows, maybe they’re of our own making entirely.
No matter who the instigator is, it seems to come down to how success is measured. Maybe it's based on the number of Instagram or Twitter followers, the number of awards, or the number of mentions in the press. Inevitably, because money is how we measure the value of most things, it will come to that. It’s easy to measure success in dollars if you want to. Getting gigs, contracts, grants, paychecks and stipends, they’re tangible reinforcement and undeniably important since they translate into freedom and agency. And a little bit of fame goes a long way when it comes to getting that bread. But keep in mind that money and art are most often paired through sheer force of luck. There are artists with little skill or talent who are obscenely wealthy, and artistic geniuses who never escape poverty. Should you be looking to them as role models?
What's important to notice about those common measures of success is that they're quantifiers. People will often set a number value to reach for with the dream of feeling some sort of magical orgasm when they reach that number. How does that usually work out, do you think? If you're miserable and fearful the whole time you're slogging away, do you think reaching a magical number of success widgets will transform those feelings?
I realized some time ago that I was starting to finally appreciate how far I've come, and that whatever image I once had in my head of what it would look like to succeed had completely shifted. When I'm at my best, my own vision of success is aligned with my core values, some of which are Excellence, Intelligence, and Enjoyment. I tend to reassess the definitions of them regularly, but I strive towards a reflection from the world that my life and my art are embodiments of those values. It’s likely I’ll never reach any sort of summit with such un-quantifiable goals, but the striving is its own reward. Holding my values dear is a noble enough purpose on its own, and I'm able to do it with passion. Fame and fortune are encompassed, but not inherent—Possible side-benefits that I wouldn’t snub! But they’re not what get me out of bed in the morning.
I challenge you to define success for yourself as mindfully as possible without regard for the standards of others, and without quantifiers or success widgets. Defining your core values is a great first step, which I help people do in my practice. It will sharpen your focus and help you make key decisions. Try and get as clear an image as you can of a successful artist, then practice placing yourself in those shoes. How would you be feeling? Where would you be living, and with whom? Would you still be making art? What kind? It's not a unique exercise, but a powerful one.
Above all I’m advocating for the supreme measure of success to be achieving a state of abiding peace and contentment. I’ve found that any other definition can always be distilled down to that. It certainly pays to notice moments during our day-to-days when peace is out of reach. That’s a big clue to try something different, or at least reassess your motivations. It also pays to notice contentment’s subtle presence and take a moment to feel grateful for it. Notice your surroundings, your activities, your company. And do more of that.
So saying, you have permission to let it go. If being an artist is the thing that stands in the way of your ultimate peace and contentment, then stop. All the fear and pressure would fall away. There’s no shame in it if it will bring you closer to peace.
By the same token, if quitting your art practice would leave you forever tortured with regret, then what choice do you have?
Criticism takes us out of our comfortable little studio cocoon and reminds us that a work of art is complete when it has an audience, and facing the reaction of the world is part of the work. Since so much of art-making happens in solitude, it can be painful to deal with the inevitable second pair of eyes. Fear of criticism is never welcome or helpful. Stage fright is an extremely difficult challenge. Let’s see if we can very gently pick apart this particularly sticky web.
When the pure act of creating is happening, when the artist enters the flow state, there is no audience, or “otherness”. The ego of the artist isn’t even there. It’s a participation in being and becoming, an unfolding of newness and a channeling from a soul’s longing. It’s an intrinsically motivated act—the reward is in the doing itself.
It’s no wonder, then, that coming out of that bubble of solitary soul-channeling can make us feel vulnerable. A creator feels protective of the creation, and the bond with the work is often described as feeling maternal. But let’s try not to slip too easily into that analogy. What’s needed here is an understanding of personal motivation and purpose.
All too often artists fall into the trap of being pleasers. The thrill of creating something that is praised by others is a powerful experience that we may end up seeking out over and over again, and unconsciously (or sometimes consciously) picking up on the aspects of our work that others are most titillated by and using them to get more of that praise. Over time we may lose touch with the intrinsic motivation, having replaced it with positive feedback from others. It might also come in the form of money, social status, or prestigious awards.
If we look with compassion on this dynamic, we see a need for love and a story that love must be earned. Simply put, we have learned the idea that creating makes us worthy of love. Any core wounds around self-worth can be ignored or dismissed because the antidote is to keep creating and feeding off of praise. The motivation becomes extrinsic.
Can you sense the sticky web that’s being spun? When an artist’s self-worth hinges on praise, a badly timed word of criticism can send them reeling.
Not only that, but being alone in the studio with the voices of praise and criticism nattering away in the background can make connecting with the flow state stressful at best, or torture at worst. The core drive for achieving mastery of the craft can get sidelined for years by defaulting to creating what’s most pleasing to others, and is criticized the least.
This situation is made even worse by the pressure of wanting to make a living as a professional artist. When praise translates to food on the table, how can anyone be faulted for being a bit of a whore?
When you get right down to it though, whether it’s running from criticism or chasing an Oscar, extrinsic motivation has an expiration date. Eventually the feeling that it leaves us with is that we’re being used and controlled. At that point art is no longer the antidote to a lack of self-worth, it’s the source.
I want to both acknowledge how complicated this is and how seemingly simplistic the solution can be—namely the application of a thick coating of protective self-adoration. I know this can be a life-long challenge for many people, as the roots of self-worth injuries can be very deep, so let’s start with a reframing.
I came up with the concept of "being your own biggest fan". In this fan club with a membership of one, everything you do is praised and your endeavors are never doubted. You don’t have to show your work to anyone else and you don’t have to accept criticism when it’s offered. The only person you need to please is you. Though this isn't a suitable end-goal for a professional, this is the first step towards bringing your motivation back into balance.
Allow yourself ample time to enjoy your own work before putting it out to other people. Stare at your drawing for hours. Listen to your completed music piece over and over, thoroughly soaking up the satisfaction until you’re absolutely detached from the piece. The craving for outside praise can be hard to resist at first. But see how long you can really indulge in admiring the work as if it were created just for you.
Spend some time thinking and writing about why you started creating art in the first place. Do some time travel and go back as far as you can remember. You may have started creating in early childhood. What motivated you back then? See if you can recall the feeling of creating when you first discovered your voice. Your work has probably changed a lot over time. See if you can find the common thread throughout all of your work.
That common thread, the vision that has motivated you all along, is the essential, unique element about your work that you bring to the world. Regardless of others’ praise or criticism, that essence has value simply because it comes from you and you alone. Striving to perfect the expression of that vision is to be in service of it. That’s the intrinsic contract. Getting to that realization will reconnect you to the source of the flow and free you from the extrinsic hamster wheel.
So now that you’re armed with your core motivation and your "fan club-of-one" has your back unconditionally, you can approach the task of presenting your work. Let’s just say for the moment that you already know who your best audience is (that’s a topic for another day!). There are some key things to keep in mind.
1) Not everyone knows how to give constructive feedback.
2) Everyone has their own thing going on.
3) it’s not always about the work itself.
4) Valuable feedback resonates with your core purpose.
Being able to discern between useful feedback and nonconstructive noise is a skill worth cultivating. It's a good practice to weigh your incoming commentary for its actual value. Your sources of criticism and praise can be held up to the light of judgement, and measured against your personal values and motivations.
Not everyone knows how to give constructive feedback
Only a small percentage of the feedback you get on your work comes from people who are literally qualified to give it. Those people usually include: Professional critics, art historians and professors, senior artists in your chosen medium, seasoned collectors and curators, successful producers and publishers, etc. You get the idea...I'm sure you can think of a few more. They might have useful things to say that you could learn from and use to fuel your motivation and improve your skills. It's good to be able to appreciate and integrate the gift of their knowledge. But beware, they're not infallible! Which brings me to my next point.
Everyone has their own thing going on
Even a professional is not always going to give you their undivided attention when you present your work. They could very well be in the middle of a personal crisis, be distracted by current events or, heck, indigestion. You never know. Although you might be really caught up in what they have to say, they may not be nearly as invested when they say it. If feedback seems careless or ill considered, maybe that's because it is. Even positive feedback from a trusted source might be the product of someone's good mood at the time, in fact it might be completely arbitrary. So a grain of salt is a worthwhile addition.
It’s not always about the work itself
This point is especially important when you're getting feedback from friends and family, a spouse, even other artists--there's always a chance they're not so much giving you feedback on the work as trying to be nice to get on your good side, or conversely, take you down a peg. There's nothing wrong with trying to be nice, in fact it shows that someone likes you and potentially wants to cultivate a friendship, or just make you feel good. But does it help strengthen your purpose? That should always be carefully weighed. If not, thank them, put it on the pile of nonconstructive criticism, and go have dinner with them. When someone says, "I love your work", and you suspect it's just a nicety, test it by asking, "what do you love about it?".
Hopefully you don't often encounter the sort of feedback that's meant to make you feel inadequate or like a failure, but it does happen. In that case make a note to not show your work to them again and try not to take it to heart. Art often provokes. That's a feature, not a bug.
Valuable feedback resonates with your core purpose
When you're secure in your artistic purpose and your fan club is cheering you on, even good criticism won't matter a whole lot. You'll pick and choose what to take to heart. When someone deeply connects with your work and tells you as much, it can be elating. You'll feel seen in a way that only artists experience, and it's a special gift. That moment of genuine reward completes the intrinsic contract with your vision and reinforces your successful service.
The main takeaway I want to give to you is that your self-worth is inherent, not contingent. Go ahead and put your gold trophies on the shelf, you deserve it. Feel free to turn your back on detractors. You have more important things to do, however, than to dwell on it.
Welcome to my brand new website, and to this, my introductory article. I have a huge list of things I want to write about but I had to pick something to start with. That was tough, but a client I met with recently had such a textbook example of this dynamic going on that it brought it to the forefront. I've been dealing with it for quite some time as well, and it even helped inspire the name of my coaching business. This is for artists who find they don't have the time to make art.
Cinderella. You know the story: She has an evil step mother who gives her all the chores to do and when the opportunity to go to a dance party comes up, step mom says, "Sure you can go! Just as soon as you finish all of your chores." She then proceeds to give poor Cinderella so many tasks that by the times she's finished them all, it's too late to go.
Artists love to play Cinderella as an unconscious excuse to avoid creative work. The long list of chores, tasks and appointments are all really important, and there's usually a promise mixed in of "I can paint/write/play music when all the important things are completed".
There are a few different fantasies or self-deceptions going on here. One is that the list of chores CAN be completed. Another is that there is some possible salvation in completing the chores—The idea that the step mother will be appeased and that this brings rewards in the form of art making. The latter needs to be unpacked.
Most of us who had a conventional education were taught from a very young age that art is a fun activity that is a special privilege to practice. Like Cinderella's dance party, it's a luxury. Recreation. Play time. First come STEM subjects, then somewhere way down the list after PhysEd, there's art class. When school budgets require cutbacks, art is often the first thing hit. For this reason, people who are drawn to the arts in later years are often seen as making a frivolous choice.
The partial truth of this is that art is indeed a luxury in the strict sense that you can't eat it, it won't keep you warm in winter, and you can't make babies with it. But is it really "fun"? For those that dive into the deep end of the artist's pool, the practice is loaded with a lot of tedium, risk, failure, financial burden, emotional stress, etc. When you look at it that way, making art starts to align less with fun and more with "work"—Work that sometimes happens to be fun.
It's no wonder that we're compelled to avoid it, especially when we believe it should be fun and it turns out not to be!
(If you keep reading my articles or work with me you'll quickly find out how I feel about the word "should".)
Playing Cinderella means we're failing to hold boundaries around our creative time and giving it a lower status in our lives. The advice I've heard often for blocked artists is to make a schedule for creative time and stick to it. This can be very effective! But as long as we hold on to the mythology of "art is fun", that schedule will quickly fall apart.
On a deeper level, the satisfaction of completing tasks can be addictive, and can manifest as busywork or people pleasing. Activities with a quick turnaround are given priority because they quickly lead to a pleasant charge—even more so when we're rewarded with another person's gratitude, or avoiding another's disappointment.
The need for a quick charge of satisfaction will always be there, as well as the tedium of the work of making art. The best place to start in learning to cope is to practice acceptance and self-awareness of these issues, then try shifting the focus of the quick-charge tasks into the studio or writing space. See if there are some short-term rewards to be gained in busywork that's geared towards art making. You could shop for and buy some new software for production, or a new lamp for the work table. You could find and hang one new image for your mood board. I will often sweep the studio floor when I need that quick fix. You will eventually find yourself drawn to creative tasks that have more long-term reward. Each brief encounter with the creative space is a little investment, each dose of proximity adds to familiarity, which leads to more and more commitment over time.
So what about the fairy godmother, the prince and all that? Is there an analogy there for blocked artists, too? As is often the case with fairy tales, the happy ending is the part that's most removed from reality. There's no outside force that you can count on to sweep aside all your other chores so you can make art. In the case of the evil stepmother, she's not an outside force either. The agency we have in our own lives, the existential fact of our freedom of choice needs to be looked at. In my coaching sessions I'll go through a client's life with a fine tooth comb to find the chunks of time that are hiding behind the myth of the evil stepmother, and find ways to free it up, shifting it into the studio.
Most importantly, the inherent dignity of making art and being an artist has to be acknowledged internally and then asserted, because very few people will hold your work and your time as sacred as you do.
So make that schedule. And stick to it.