You’re Not Supposed To Be Good

ImageWhen I was in high school, I wrote a play. It was the first big piece of writing I had ever attempted outside of a term paper. I had been thinking about the story line for months, I saw the characters clearly in my head and I just knew it was going to be both witty and profound. I even knew what actors would play the title roles when I became the youngest playwright to have a show produced on Broadway. Then I started to write it. Suddenly, everything that was clear in my mind became muddled. I couldn’t hear my characters anymore. Everything I wrote on the page was just a shell of what I had imagined it to be. Devastated that it wasn’t coming out anything like I wanted it to, I eventually gave up at the beginning of Act III, convinced I didn’t have the skills to be a professional writer.

A couple of years ago, I came across this quote by Ira Glass, Creative Extraordinaire, and was blown away:

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.” 

I think this quote should be handed to anyone, anytime they try something new. Seriously. Children should have to memorize it in elementary school, college-bound teens should have to expound on it in a college entrance essay and posters and billboards should be plastered with this across the world.

The people who are creatively successful out there, and by successful, I mean, enjoy their work and consistently find time to actively engage in it, get this. They’ve allowed themselves to be disappointed at times with what they’ve created and they understand that every time they try something new- whether it’s learning a new language, writing in a new genre or studying medicine after a successful law career, their ambitions will be significantly stronger than their initial output.

We’re beginners over and over and over again through life. We need to cut ourselves a little slack when the first time we do something it doesn’t come out the way we’ve constructed it in on minds. It will, eventually. But only if we have the courage to keep showing up and trying again.

So if there’s something out there you want to do, go for it. And when it doesn’t come out at all like you planned, when it’s awkward or you’re fumbling, remember that’s how it’s supposed to be. Your job isn’t to be good right out of the gate. There will be dissonance between what’s in your head and what you can actually create. That’s ok- it doesn’t mean you’re never going to be good at it. It just means you aren’t as good at it as you want to be right now. Your job is to simply keep moving forward until what’s in your head and what you create actually converge into the same thing.

Earlier this week, I wrote an article about how mothers should consider themselves “awesome moms” instead of “good moms.” It was an article essentially about changing the focus from striving to be perfect (and looking for all the places where we fall short) to remembering how awesome we might really be. If you are interested in reading the article, you can find it here. The article seemed to strike a chord with a number of my readers including quite a few people who weren’t mothers themselves.

Perfectionism in all it’s horrible, insidious forms is deadly to a creative spirit. Perfectionism isn’t a quest for better output, it’s a death sentence to creation. It’s the hiss in the back of your head that tells you you aren’t good enough, your creation isn’t good enough and will only be enough if you reach some mythical, unattainable and unspecified level. Perfectionism is fear in sheep’s clothing.

Here’s an old joke… A tourist walks up to a New Yorker and says “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” and the New Yorker responds “Practice, practice, practice.” Essentially that’s what all creativity is- repetition towards mastery. Practice is everything you do in every creative endeavor- and in any new endeavor period. Perhaps your practice level finally rises to such a high level that many people confuse it with perfection but you will always find ways to improve. And if you don’t? Then you are either in utter denial or you’ve lost the passion for what you are doing and it’s time to move on to something new.

Creative people judge themselves as harshly as mothers do. I see it all the time.  In my coaching practice, I spend hours listening and de-programming unbelievably creative people who try to tell me that they are different than everybody else and that what they do isn’t enough. I don’t know about you, but I would rather spend my time feeling like I am awesome instead of falling short all the time. Thankfully there is only one thing it takes to consider yourself creatively awesome:

  • You spend time doing creative things

Yup, that’s it. Really.

Now here is the tricky part. You are going to deny your awesomeness with statements like:

  • I don’t practice enough
  • I’m not disciplined enough
  • I’m too old to be good
  • I’m too young to be good
  • I don’t make any money at what I do
  • I have a “real” job to pay the bills
  • I’m not published
  • I don’t have a manager
  • I don’t play out enough
  • When I {write, paint, compose} it doesn’t {read, look, sound} like I want it to
  • People think I’m good at this but if they really knew who I was they would see I’m a fake
  • I must not be meant to do this because it’s so hard
  •  I spend all my free time watching tv/playing on the computer so clearly I don’t want it enough
  • I’m not nearly as good as {J.K Rowlings, Steven Spielberg, Martha Stewart, Justice Ginsburg, etc.)
  • I’m not as good as the people who are creating around me
  • No one does anything like the way I do it
  • Etc., etc., etc.

Yeah. Don’t do that. Seriously.

Do you know they did a study of student musicians at a university to see if they could determine what traits were most likely to predict which students would become top-level professional musicians versus students who didn’t?  They discovered success (as they defined it) occurred based simply on the amount the students practiced. At that point and moving forward innate ability had  nearly nothing to do with projected success.

You are creative simply because you engage in creative acts. That’s it — and I don’t care if your creative act is welding a thirty foot sculpture or writing a tiny little note from the Tooth Fairy to your daughter. You are creative and you get more creative the more you practice. AND where you are right now is not just okay, it’s awesome.

It’s hard, because we love to find those places where we imagine we fall short. We do it all the time. We hold ourselves accountable for a level of perfection we would never dream of asking of anyone else in our lives. So, if practicing something is the way to get better at it, here’s your assignment to practice. And it’s a hard one, so you are going to have to do it over and over and over again. It’s your personal Carnegie Hall.

I want you to try and acknowledge who you ARE instead of what you do.

And who you are is AWESOME.

Who Am I?

There are lots of ways I describe myself: creative, fun, intelligent, intense. I see myself as a musician, a writer, a mom, a gardner, a vegetarian…you get the idea. We all have ways we view ourselves, niches we put ourselves into as a way to define and understand who we are as human beings. Here in the United States we have a rather narrow-minded custom of asking people when we meet them, “what do you do?” as if their job necessarily defines who they are as a complete person or gives us any real insight into the person standing before us.

The obvious truth is we’re complex, right? A mechanic can also be a published poet. A cab driver can be a PhD student during the day.  A lawyer might teach belly dancing in her time off. The more we take the time to get to know someone, the more our understanding of them as a whole person expands and we get a more complete picture.

Except when it comes to ourselves.

How many times have you said no to something because, “that’s not who I am”?

Have you said no to a painting class because you’re not an artist?

Have you turned down a promotion because you felt you weren’t qualified for that position?

Have you received recognition in your chosen profession, or hobby or some other passionate pursuit and thought to yourself, “It’s just a matter of time before they find out I’m a fraud”?

The longer we live with ourselves, the more narrow view we have of who we are and what we are capable of accomplishing. Kids love trying new things- they don’t prejudge whether they can do it or not. They don’t expect failure. Look at a baby learning to walk. Every time he falls he’s not sitting there mired in self-doubt, wondering if he’s got what it takes to walk or considering stopping all together because clearly he wasn’t cut out for this sort of thing. As kids get older, you can watch self-doubt creep in as they learn to have limiting beliefs about themselves.

My two daughters decided they wanted to play soccer this fall for the first time. They’ve both been very active dancers for a while and although they aren’t giving that up, they wanted to try something new. My youngest, a whirlwind of activity, emotion and living in the moment is almost six – her philosophy is go out, kick the ball, see what happens.  My oldest, a precocious, graceful and athletic nine year old is much more hesitant. “What if I’m no good? What if all the other girls are better than me? What if I fail?” Of course I’m paraphrasing for both of them, but the difference is apparent. At nine, my oldest is starting to believe in definitions, in self-doubt, in fear. I work hard to fight against that in her life and in mine too, quite frankly.  So the message to both of them has been: It’s fun, it’s different. You don’t have to be the best, you just have to be open to a new possibility.

The challenge is, for my daughters to embrace this mindset, I have to put it into practice as well.  Up until recently, one word you wouldn’t have heard me use to describe myself is “runner.”  Out of shape, non-athletic, tired — all limiting words I have used in the past to describe myself. I am grateful for a relatively new friend who looked at me recently and saw the possibility in myself that I could not – “Do you run?” she asked. I almost snorted the soda I was drinking right onto the pile of cotton candy I was eating, but I composed myself enough to ask why. She then invited me to train with her for a 5k run in December, appropriately titled ‘The Hot Chocolate 5k.”  How could I say no to that?

So now, I am expanding my view of myself. I’m a runner. It seems a little strange to wear that name and I’m not entirely comfortable with that image yet, but I am thankful for the opportunity to learn something new about myself.

Think about the limits you place on yourself by how you define yourself? How can you expand your view of who you are today?

Who’s in your cheering section?

My own coach, Lisa, who is very wise and amazingly talented at keeping me moving forward, and I spoke recently about my inner critics and all the noise they were making around some new goals I had. She stopped the conversation a few minutes in and asked me to turn away from the negative aspects of what we were talking about (focusing on the critics) and instead, look at what I wanted to move toward. She then asked me this question:

Who is in your inner cheering section?

This questions stopped me entirely.  I can tell you exactly who my inner critics are, what they look and sound like and what sort of activities trigger them.  We’ve all known each other for a looong time –  but an inner cheering section?  That required some thought.

Here’s what I like about this idea: When you have to deal with the inner critics, it can often feel like you alone are fighting a battle against all these voices telling you exactly what you are doing wrong. Everywhere you turn there’s a critic explaining why you can’t do what you’re doing, masquerading as doubt, fear, prudence, caution, responsibility, whatever. It’s like being expected to fight off a pack of hungry sharks while you’re swimming in the water carrying a bucket of chum from one remote island to the next. However, if you develop an inner cheering section, then you’ve got reinforcements; you don’t have to go it alone.  And it’s always easier to accomplish something when you have the backing of people who know with absolute confidence that you can’t fail – and in the very unlikely event that you do, will still adore, respect and back you 100%.

Sounds pretty great, doesn’t it?

Let’s talk about how to build yourself a kick-ass cheering section.

1. Figure out who is in your cheering section: This gets to be ANYBODY you want, alive or dead, real or fictional, someone who knows you or has never heard of you. Definitely include anyone you know in the real world who is already a fervent supporter of you but don’t limit yourself to just these people. There should be more than one person and you should be able to visualize at least a couple of them individually.  In other words, if you want the entire population of Paris to be your cheering section because your goal is to get to France next fall,  you should still be able to single out a few – a ticket taker at the Eiffel Tower, a baker with a pan of piping hot croissants, Gerard Depardieu, whomever can bring a face to the mass of cheering people in your head. Don’t worry about the realism here – your critics aren’t bound by it,why should your cheering section have to be? For the record, Oprah LOVES being one of my cheerleaders.

2. Give them a space to exist.  You need a place you can go to in your mind where your cheering sections hangs out. Are they at your house, throwing a surprise party in honor of your awesomeness? Are they hanging out at the beach, surfing and partying in the sand waiting for you to join them? Are they standing at a finish line, cheering for you as you break through the tape, winning the marathon? Give yourself as much detail as possible and imagine this place vividly.

3. Once you have your cheering section in place, it’s time to visualize yourself among these people.  What do they say when you arrive?  Do they shout your name like Norm at Cheers?  Do they hug you, pick you up and carry your around on their shoulders or high-five you as soon as you show up.  These are your peeps, they are always out of their minds happy to see you. And when you see them, you should be flooded with a sense of well-being, a sense of belonging.  There is never any judgement in your cheering section, you’ve left that behind with the critics.

4. Practice makes perfect. For some people visualizations come easily. If you are one of those people, that’s great.  All you need to do now is walk yourself into your cheering section as often as possible, especially when you find yourself mired among the critics. If you find visualizations a little more difficult don’t try to force the imagery.  Focus instead on small details instead of the whole process. As you solidify one detail, bring your focus a little wider and focus on another and another until the picture comes into view and you can really immerse yourself in the experience.

Inner critics are resourceful, insistent naysayers who will stop at nothing to get what they want and what they want is for you to comply with their limiting beliefs about you. Don’t try and tackle them by yourself.  With the help of a good cheering section, you can fortify yourself, point yourself in the right direction and walk away from the critics on the path to achieving your goals and dreams. And if there’s space in your head, add me to your cheering section.  I’d love to be part of that party.

Who Are You Fighting Against?

I recently finished a book called The Art of Non-Conformity by Chris Guillebeau. Great book on living your own life on your own terms and changing the world all at the same time.  I highly recommend it. One of the standout ideas to me from the book was the quote, “You don’t have to live your life the way other people expect you to.”

This is an increibly powerful statement.  Because what he’s asking you to do is live and own your truth – however you see it.  That doesn’t mean that you are free to step all over pepole and do things regardless of how they affect others, but it does mean you have to find your own expectations for your life and take responsibility for them.  Whoa.

As I thought about that quote, I realized that most of the time, those people who expect me to live my life differently than I do aren’t real people- or  at least their disapproval is not outwardly real.  Mostly it exists as a chorus in my head every time I act a little bit unconventionally.  I’ve turned the collective disapproval into my own inner critics. These are the voices that pop up and tell me exactly why I can’t do something – I’m not smart enough, or  brave enough, I don’t have what it takes.

The voices inside our heads can be pretty mean- you’re stupid, you’ve wasted your life, you’ve ruined someone else’s life.  They can be contradictory:  You never move forward in anything and then when you do they’ll tell you you’ll never sustain what you’ve got going here.

I hear people say sometimes, “It’s me against the world,” when often I think the battle their fighting is mostly inside thier own head.  They’ve just gotten really good at painting a picture of who their inner critics are and it seems absolutely real to them.

The most insidious type of inner critics are the ones who’ve been shouting the same lies over and over again so you can’t even really consciously hear them most of the time. You’ve bought into the lie now as truth so when they say it  day after day, it doesn’t even strike you as odd or wrong. But they are wrong; very, very wrong.

So, with great respect for Chris Guillebeau, I would like to amend his statement and offer you this mantra:

You don’t have to live your life the way your inner critics expect you to.

We’ll talk in my next blog post about what you can do instead. Until then, try and listen for those critics and find out what messages they’ve said long enough and forcefully enough you now believe them. It’s time to send them packing.

Imperfect Fun

Artists can be pretty intense. We feel things deeply.  We are passionate about what we do, what we present to the world. We can get caught up in trying to achieve perfection: one more draft, a few more brush strokes or a dash more cumin. And often that ends up taking us too far. We don’t get a manuscript to our editor in time, we muddy the painting or the dish is ruined. There is a line between trying our best and grabbing at perfection.  And when we get really close to that line, it’s often hard to see it until we’ve crossed it.

That line though, isn’t as thin as we’d like to imagine. In fact, I’d say that line is more like a brick wall we barrel through instead of keeping the big picture in mind.  Perfection isn’t fun- it’s limiting and stressful.  It’s the insane idea that if everything isn’t just so, if everything isn’t exactly as it should be, then we will fail — we will be rejected and all our hard work will be for nothing. Perfection focuses solely on results. Who cares about the journey? I do and you should too because that’s where the creativity and the fun reside.

A few years ago I signed up to take pottery classes.  I am not a hands-on medium sort of artist so I took the class because I thought it would a great place to learn something different and get out of the house for a few hours a week.  I learned all the techniques and I spent hours at the pottery wheel working clay. I studied what my more accomplished classmates were doing.  I worked hard, practiced my art and ultimately, I made some spectacularly ugly pots.

They were too thick, to heavy, lopsided, uneven. The glaze was too thick or too thin or I matched up colors that should never be seen side by side.  And I loved every minute of it. It was such an amazing realization for me that when I didn’t care if the results were perfect I could concentrate on having fun.  Yes I wanted to get better, which I did over time, but I never worried about my pottery being perfect. That wasn’t the point. I was there to enjoy the ride.

The need to be perfect sucks all the fun out of creating. Creating is a process- whether it’s art or music or gardening or roller disco. Focus only on the result and you lose the essence of creating in the first place.  And you’re bound to be disappointed.  There is no perfect anything. Really.

So how do you know when you’ve crossed the border between giving it your all and perfectionism? It’s simple really—are you still having fun? Can you look at the project overall, proud of how far you’ve come and appreciate all your hard work? Or do you just see the flaws and the things you wish you’d done differently? Do you panic that it won’t be good enough, that you won’t be good enough? It’s one thing to want great results; it’s another thing entirely when that’s all you care about.

Work hard with your creativity. Create and take risks, push the boundaries of what you think you can accomplish and learn when it’s time to stop tweaking and adjusting. Worry less about the end result and more about the process.  Have fun. If you aren’t having fun, what’s the point of being creative?