Lesson One – We learned to avoid failure.
We live in a culture where our work is judged by others and if it is not good enough we are told that it has failed in some way. From an early age, our mistakes are met with red crosses, comments on what we did wrong and report cards that say, ‘could do better’. Eventually we learned to judge ourselves in the same way that parents and teachers judged us. As a result we become paralysed by fear of judgement and humiliation.
But there is a part of the creative equation that we are not taught. No one explains that mistakes and faults are part of the process of finding our way to the creative truth we are trying to express. If we paint the hills in our painting sap green and its doesn’t look quite right, we judge the painting a failure. But all that has really happened is that we have discovered that sap green is not the right colour. We are now one step closer to finding the right colour. We can make a decision about what would work better armed with our new knowledge. This is learning by our mistakes.
Solution – We must learn not to compare our work with others and not to judge it by the standards of society. We must examine our creative work and look at what went right, what worked as well as what didn’t. That way, we learn something, and this brings us one step closer to truthfully expressing our creative spirit. Besides, if we are honest, not doing creative work makes us feel like a failure anyway, so what have we got to lose?
Lesson Two – We learned to be critical.
In addition to having our work judged, we were taught to be critical thinkers. Although critical thinking is a vital skill, it needs to be used at appropriate times rather than indiscriminately.
If we put our critical thinking to work on our embryonic new business, first draft or emerging theory we will find many faults, and this causes us to judge the work as a failure before it has even had a chance. But faults and mistakes are a natural part of the process at this stage. Applying critical thinking at this stage is like criticising a baby because he or she can’t walk and talk. It’s an inappropriate expectation.
Solution – We must learn not to listen to the critical part of our brain at the creative stage of our work. When critical thoughts come into our heads we can say:
“Thank you, brain for your input. I will bear it in mind when I reach the editing stage of this work”
At the creative stage, we need to tune in to the part of us that sees the spark within new ideas, looks for the potential and can visualise the possibilities. Meditation, walking in nature, reading books that fire our creativity and listening to classical music or inspirational tapes can help with this.
Remember, critical thinking has killed off many a great idea or creative work – we mustn’t let it kill off our babies before they have had a chance to walk and talk.
Lesson Three – We learned to be productive.
Creative endeavours take a lot of input. A novel, painting, series of photographs or a website may take months or years to produce. It’s a huge investment of time in something that has no guaranteed payoff. We have been taught not to take such huge risks with our lives. We have been taught to be safe, productive, realistic.
But as human beings we do not live on bread alone. A world without art, music, literature, scientific discovery, crafts, design, dance and a host of other creative pursuits, is not a world we would be happy to live in. Without creativity we would not have the technologies we have now. Someone imagined and created everything that exists in our man-made world, from bridges to satellites, beer to biscuits, TV shows to ballgowns.
Solution – Artists are magicians, creating something where there was nothing. Creative people, and that is all people, bring something in to being from paint, words, numbers, musical notes, their bodies, sand, bricks, clay, equations, theories, sugar, plastic, computer code, plants. What we do is alchemy and it is essential to the human race. It is worthwhile. We have something important to offer the world.
We may have to earn a living, but we must always give time and permission to the creative part of ourselves.
It may help to approach the work from a playful angle. Brainstorm ideas, play with colour, rearrange objects on a shelf, collect together materials, notes and other ephemera related to our craft and ideas and then just let it all simmer for a while. We shouldn’t force the issue, but play for as long as we want, rediscover the joy we had in the art form that we love. Play with a different art form. Have fun. If we get drawn into something then go with it. The idea is to reduce our resistance to the work and rediscover the joy of creativity
Lesson Four – We learned that only professionals create.
Years ago, people were more creative. Folk made clothes and cushions, bread and beer. People built houses and sheds, fences and ovens, dressers and gardens. But with industrialisation came the professionalisation of many creative pursuits. Hand-made and home-made became unfashionable. Only the professional artist, designer, architect or joiner made things worth having. Our own attempts at creating were considered second-rate. This is changing as people realise the value of creating as opposed to simply consuming in life, but we still fear that our own creations are not quite good enough. We are a little embarrassed by our attempts at creativity, believing that we have no right, without an art school education, to claim to be creative.
Solution – To reclaim our human right to be creative we must accept the imperfections of our work. Our Victoria Sandwich may not have perfect layers, but it is still a creation we can be proud of and will taste a million times better than the sugary, preservative laden shop-bought equivalent. Islamic artists put a deliberate flaw in their work because only God’s creations are perfect. We can accept flaws in our work and still honour the creative spark that made them. Embrace Wabi Sabi, the acceptance of transience and imperfection, and Shabby Chic rather than factory line perfection.
Lesson Five – We judge ourselves by what we do rather than who we are.
Our own and others criticism of our work harms our self esteem because we do not separate who we are from what we do. When someone criticises our work, we decide we are useless, stupid hopeless. We can slip into depression because our artistic nature is desperate for expression but we judge ourselves uncreative, not good enough. This is a painful situation.
Solution – We need to understand that we are not the last thing we did. We are an accumulation of all the things we ever did, every success and every failure is part of us, every good deed and every impatient word. We need to be stronger than to give up at the first hint of criticism. Sir Winston Churchill said, ‘Never give up on something that you can’t go a day without thinking about.’ We must never give up, creativity is part of our nature and we need a healthy attitude towards it. Giving up on creativity is like giving up on being human. It must not be contemplated – even a struggling creative life with its ups and down is better than a life devoid of creativity.
Problem Six – We learned to fear success.
The final fear that gets in our way is fear of success. It seems surprising that we might fear this, but what we really fear is the changes success might lead to. How would we cope with huge success? Would we manage being pulled out of our comfort zone and being expected to cope with the pressures of deadlines, interviews and public interest in our lives? With success comes even more criticism, largely from those who have yet to overcome their own creative blocks. We also fear what success will do to us, worrying that it might make us egotistical, arrogant, selfish or less likeable.
Solution – Few people have overnight success. Usually success comes incrementally and we build up our ability to cope gradually. With every creative achievement we make, we learn how to adapt to the changes it makes in our lives. And success doesn’t change our personalities when we create from a part of ourselves ourselves that has something to give and share with the world, something of value that will enhance others lives in some way, or simply as a way of expressing a truth that is bursting to get out – then we are creating for good reasons and we will not become egotistical or arrogant. And of course we might get more criticism, but we will also get support and understanding from a community of people who share our desire to be creative.