There’s a popular story about artists, and athletes; we train, we practice, we perfect and then we compete. If we’re lucky we win a gold medal, an award, a scholarship, a publishing or record deal and we hit the top of the charts, whether that’s the book charts, music charts, being recognized as the top in our field, or just becoming the go to person in our firm. Which is a hell of a long way from that first day in the office when no one would give us their job because they’d rather wait until the guy they knew was back at their desk. It’s hard to be that new person who nobody trusts, unrecognized no matter how much talent we believe we have. Sometimes even when we think we’ve done a bang up job we get complaints. “It’s not the same as John would have done”. Maybe you’re too far ahead or you’re too retro? Perhaps you’re that annoying person who, when dealing with a presentation or advert, asks for the data, the proof of the claim, demands that the image we’re using is actually one we’ve paid for, that we’re not just copying and pasting from our competitors’ work, but being authentic.
That word comes up a lot in coaching, be it business or personal. To be honest it’s so overused that in my head at least it comes with quotation marks; “authentic”. We want to be authentic but there’s an important stage that comes before that. It’s called exploring. Or maybe research. Experimenting. Questioning. It’s the stage children understand well and parents find annoying. It’s the “Why?” stage. It also drives teachers and employers nuts. And their answer is often the same; “Because I said so.”
Why do creative people struggle? Because we question. In order to be authentic, to produce work that resonates, we have to first discover truth and the only way to do that is to question our existing assumptions and beliefs. We have to face the fear of getting it wrong, of blowing it and, perhaps more daringly, of blowing it by doing something new.
Every film on my shelf tells the same story; “Follow your heart no matter what anyone says”. It’s the story of “Jerry Maguire”, most Disney movies and, most importantly for me, “Strictly Ballroom” – the story of defying the strict ballroom rules and introducing “new steps” in the face of condemnation from family, friends and… The Federation. It’s the story of being a rebel. And yet, what the dancers discover when they experience the traditional Pasa Doble is that it has authenticity.
The new steps they were making up were an instinctive attempt to feel truth, because the ballroom dance had become a plastic version of the original. As they set out to compete the hero says; “We know we can’t win, we just want to dance our steps.” Of course, they win something much bigger than a trophy.
IGNORING THE LITTLE VOICE
Questioning doesn’t come cheap. Well, sometimes it’s free. But even if your friends, family, employers, peers and society itself doesn’t challenge you, the biggest challenge may come from inside, from the little voice (call it the ego, the chatterbox, the parasite) that whispers you don’t know what you’re doing, you’ll never get it, who are you to write, draw, sing or dance? The voice that gets louder the closer you get to the truth, to the top of the mountain. The voice that makes you want to lock the doors, climb under the bed, stick to the formula, play it safe, change nothing and believe everything you know is bullshit.
Ignore it. I know. To say “Ignore it.” is like saying to a person with insomnia “Just sleep.” It is the goal and ultimately it can become that simple, however you may need some stepping stones to cross the river. 3 Tips For Ignoring It;
- Music with no words I can understand. Opera when I write, Latin music when I dance. The goal is to distract the chatterbox, without engaging it. Also sounds from nature and Tibetan gong music (these also shut up the chatterbox so I can sleep).
- Mantras and meditation. These can be extremely helpful however, be careful, with these you are engaging the voice; fighting fire with fire, whereas other methods are more like fighting fire with a torrential rainstorm – no contest. “It’s all happening perfectly” is one of my favorites from Susan Jeffers.
- Getting into nature and hugging trees. For me this is the most effective. There is no separate mind, body or spirit, it’s all connected, but the mind is the easiest to fool, hug a tree and it is easier to let go of the virtual reality we have constructed in our minds, we can feel what’s real and let go of the bullshit fears our ego torments us with. If that sounds too “out there” just try looking at green plants for a while – many hospitals now cultivate roof gardens as being in greenery improves patient’s’ recovery exponentially.
As a Maths graduate I know the truth of the old adage that there are “lies, damn lies and statistics”. I wouldn’t hang my hat on them. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that in the last few years the number one cause of accidental death in the US has become overdose on prescription drugs, including painkillers and antidepressants. It’s also hard to ignore the deaths of such legends as Prince and, way back in 1970, artist Mark Rothko, who was taking antidepressants at the time. Should we be afraid to get creative? For the answers to my big questions I’ve learned to look at small children and dogs. Is creativity a problem for small children? No. They paint and sing songs in the way they blow bubbles. Enjoy it, admire it, then blow another bubble. In the same way we do not have to learn to love ourselves, we just have to unlearn how not to love ourselves, we do not have to learn to be creative, we have to unlearn how to criticize our work. We have to unlearn the “logic” of “I am my work”, “my work is worthless” therefore “I am worthless”. Your bubble got popped? Blow another bubble.
According to the Toltec way, as explained in “The Four Agreements” by don Miguel Ruiz, our real art is the life that we live. The real tragedy is not that we do not paint or write or create, but that we stop living creatively, we stop being an artist of life. As Emily Dickinson wrote “If I can stop one heart from breaking, I shall not live in vain…” If I can stop one heart from breaking, or keep one person off the antidepressants I shall not live in vain… and it’s okay if that one person is just me. I am enough. Instead listen to your heart, to your integrity. Experiment and have the courage to be honest about what is truth and what is lies. (Do not listen to critics.)
Most importantly, don’t believe that story about the struggling artist. It says the only reason for the struggle is to win the gold medal, become the champion, achieve some critical form of success. It overlooks and ignores the real riches; the unqualified joy of creating, exploring, of getting up in the morning and playing in the field we’ve chosen to inhabit, whether it’s running, dancing, writing, photography, singing or a little bit of everything.
The struggle challenges everyone who wishes to leave behind certainty, to traverse into the space of not knowing, not believing everything you have been fed so far. It is not the exclusive space of the artist, it is the battle of every single person who steps out of their comfort zone, who wants to be the best parent they can, who wants to be an honest salesperson, who wants to live outside a traditional home, or marriage, quit the job or study something new. It is the struggle of every human who wants to be free.
Editor: Florence Bailey