At a conference I attended a few years ago, a speaker recounted a dark period in her professional life, one she attributed to a few habits of thought and patterns of behavior that felt uncomfortably familiar, including:
- A reluctance to attempt tasks she didn’t already know how to do.
- An inability to complete projects because it meant neglecting other, equally important ones.
- Compulsively “raising the bar,” such that no effort she made was ever satisfactory.
For more than twenty-five years I’ve had a thriving art practice, but prior to 2012, I rarely shared my work with editors, collectors, or even close friends. The speaker gathered her challenges under the rubric of “perfectionism.” While the self-congratulation implicit in that term trips me up, I began to pay a different, more generous kind of attention to my thoughts as I approached the business aspect of my work. Here’s a list of the most typical, and stymieing thoughts I discovered, along with alternatives I've been working with:
- I don’t know what I’m doing / Maybe I won't know what I’m doing until I do it
- I hate making mistakes / If I make the mistake once, maybe I won't make it again
- I’ll have to redo it / There is always a next draft
- Timing’s not right / Timing’s never perfect
- My ideas stink / My ideas are good enough for a first draft
- I’ll be embarrassed if I fail / I’ll hate my life if I don’t try
I remain unconvinced, honestly, by the alternatives to “I don’t know what I’m doing,” and “I hate making mistakes,” because often I don't, and I always do, respectively. But I push ahead as often as I can, in the hopes that iterating enough on them will create a shift in time.
Leveraging the idea of drafting, however, has been very useful. Drafting is essential to making art, obviously, but it can be a useful approach to support tasks as well. This week, I applied the idea of drafts to a newly shelved closet in my studio. As I returned items, I was aware that I also ought to purge, and I stalled out. We’ve just moved, and I don’t have the decision making resources to purge right now. I remembered that purging was not part of the original plan: draft one of a usable studio closet did not include purging. Reminded of this, I finished the task as initially defined, and moved on.
My alternatives help in other situations, too. If I have a list of phone calls to make, I choose the lowest stakes call first. By the time I’m working on those that matter most, I’ve warmed up. I question my inclination not to make mistakes by asking myself what the stakes are in any given situation. Occasionally, I may apply the whole list at once. For instance, if I have to interact with a professional I respect. My ego insists I present as infallible, my work as flawless. It serves me to run through the alternatives, then remember I’m human, as is the person I’m about to approach.
“Raising the bar” is the most insidious, I think because it calls itself ambition. There are days when I know, from morning coffee, that regardless how I spend my day, I'm going to feel I ought to have done something -- anything -- else. Days like that are compromised before they've begun. I’ve come to see this not as ambition, but abscessed self-protection. When I capitulate to this indecision, the result is chaos. Hence the title of this post. I created the silly, but effective tool pictured at the top of this post, my chaos box. It's remarkably useful -- when I remember to use it.
Last year I came upon this definition of professional in Alyson Stanfield's online course Art Biz Liftoff:
Professional artists are committed to a regular schedule of studio practice, which might include earning money from art sales, teaching and other such art-related income. They are interested in setting up their business so that it's legal and financially sustainable. They have a healthy respect for their artists' community and do not copy other artists' work. They don't complain about that hard work because they know it is part of owning any business and they are no exception.
I'll speak for myself, but not much about being an artist and writer has prepared me to think of myself as a professional given that I've mostly done it in the cracks of my other life, and I seem to be routinely ashamed by my inability to cure something or be otherwise truly useful, so this, too, is a practice. It helps to consider any aspect of my work that I find challenging part of the "hard work" associated with conducting myself as such.
A last, significant shift has been to gauge my success by my level of ease and satisfaction. If I’m anxious, I correct. While success on the world’s terms is, of course, desirable, I don’t believe there is any shame in not achieving any external recognition or audience. And it’s largely out of my control. If I truly want an audience, I owe it to my work to step aside and let it be seen.
Routinely I fall short of this aspiration, so it’s critical for me to think in terms of continual, deepening practice. An all or nothing approach results in a whole lot of nothing.