Perfect, better, or worse?
Ever heard of "Imposter Syndrome?" Chances are, if you have ever tried to create anything, you've asked the question, "Is my work really worth anyone's attention?" The ultimate irony here is that the pursuit of your craft, no matter how long or successful, often does not provide reassurance. Self-doubt is one of the hardest obstacles for many artists to reconcile with but it is a crucial part of any creative process.
One of the least glamorous pieces of this process tends to walk hand-in-hand with self-doubt. The day-in-day-out task of practice can be as inspirational as it is frustrating because it demands continuous battle against doubt. Craft cannot hope to improve without it and art of any kind is a constant pursuit of different perspectives, stronger techniques, or consistency of product. The act of practicing requires an awareness of many things; personal aspirations, a continuously honest assessment of ability, and effective techniques for development. Fledgling students and veterans alike often struggle with the frustrating plateaus of development but true masters of their craft all share a common trait: a mastery of practice.
In the interest of exploring how some of the greatest creative minds have dealt with this very issue I recently turned to the musings and curation of Maria Popova, founder of the ever inspirational blog, Brain Pickings.
In "Virginia Woolf on Writing and Self-Doubt" Popova calls attention to this blurb from Woolf's novel Orlando: A Biography. Though specifically referencing writing, Woolf perfectly captures the trials of creation. No matter the medium, many artists will at some time find themselves caught between exultation and self-loathing.
Virginia Woolf led both a widely respected career and a deeply troubled life. If we presume that an account as clear and precise as this can only have come from sincere, personal experience, then perhaps we can take comfort in the idea that the struggle with self-doubt is universal even to the most prolific and revered creative minds. The differences between household names and those less known are many, but one crucial step towards success would seem to be finding a way to meet and confront self-doubt.
In "The Pleasure of Practicing: A Musician’s Assuring Account of Creative Homecoming and Overcoming Impostor Syndrome" Maria Popova brings to focus the writings of guitarist, Glenn Kurtz. After studying music and performance for fifteen years, Kurtz found himself completely disillusioned to the point of buckling down and getting a "real job." It would take another fifteen years filled with heartbreak before he would return to his true passion. Popova writes that this homecoming, "...was made possible by his deep commitment to practicing — 'a process of continual reevaluation, an attempt to bring growth to repetition,' a delicate act that 'teaches us the sweet, bittersweet joy of development, of growth, of change' — day in and day out."
Kurtz has this to say about the power of practice:
One of the most important feats that every artist must achieve repeatedly is conquering the weaknesses that sting the most. Kurtz writes about the necessity for perseverance and tenacity in the face of frustration and self-doubt.
Then, in those moments of clarity when the "chore" of practice disappears, you are left only with the joy that brought you to the craft in the first place. Kurtz captures this perfectly in his account of transcendent joy in making music with his guitar.
"Creative burnout" is an ever present danger to most artists so finding joy equal to Kurtz's in the development of a craft is of paramount importance. In "The Hum of the Universe: Shonda Rhimes on Creative Burnout, the Hamster Wheel of Success, and Reclaiming Who We Are from the Workaholic Grip of What We Do" Popova explores Shonda Rhimes's message about, "...the paradox of self-made success...and how we can save ourselves from the maze of productivity by getting lost in presence."
Shonda Rhimes is the writer and producer behind Grey's Anatomy and one of Hollywood's most powerful icons. In her TED talk, "My Year of Saying Yes to Everything," she explores a time when she "lost her hum." A workaholic who often preferred being at work than being at home, Rhimes was shocked to find that the work that she loved started to "taste like dust." Her solution is an old one, immortalized by "Jack" and his habits of work and play, and involves a practice of another kind; mindfulness.
Rhimes's description of her passion for work sounds rather familiar after reading Kurtz's account of creative joy above.
The difference here is that Rhimes soon found that this particular "hum" was not enough to sustain her happiness. She ran into a wall and had to reassess. Later, after some time and practice, Rhimes would find a greater "hum" to balance out her life sourced from more than her work life. She found that the love of her friends and family and the peace of mind afforded by "play" actually refueled her creative passion.
Kurtz rediscovered the same "hum" in his music after fifteen years of having lost it to his Imposter Syndrome and the impending practical needs of the "real world." Whatever the source of your creative energy may be, if you struggle with any amount self-doubt it seems important to not only identify where and how you find joy but also how you can approach your practice mindfully. Self-confidence would seem to be universally harder to come by than you might think and in many cases remains skin-deep. You won't find it at all through stubborn practice but only mindful practice. Find your joy in process and make peace with the fact that you are not a "master" and no one (but yourself) is expecting you to be.