Q&A: How do I believe in my practice enough to devote the necessary time to it?
Today I’m back with another reader-submitted question, one of my favorites so far. Before I get into it, I want to thank everyone for being here and believing in my projects. I am really excited to announce that my third solo show of original drawings opens on May 20th at this gallery in Cambria, California. There will be a sourdough grilled cheese cart and chocolate chip cookies. Did I mention that T. built custom frames for every drawing using scrap wood? Redwood, Doug Fir, Walnut, Poplar, Oak, and Mahogany. They’re beautiful. Pinch me.
Please come if you don’t live too far away. If you can’t make it but want to see the work (and possibly purchase one), contact Charlie at the gallery. He is pure joy. A list of available works will be available May 17th. And of course, this won’t be your last reminder. I’m an artist, and I must promote my creations!!!
Q: How do I believe in my practice enough to devote the necessary time to it?
This is an important question because it's a “two things are true at the same time, and they kind of contradict each other” philosophy of mine.
I’ve learned that I have to believe in myself because if I don’t believe in me, it’s likely that no one else is going to believe in me either. It’s not impossible that I might find a fan before I’ve appraised myself, but I find that people tend to believe in me more readily when I’ve already done a bit of the grunt work for them. When I’ve mustered enough personal cheerleading to show up, make something, and share it, I notice that other people aren’t that hard to convince.
My online print shop has made almost 5,000 sales. Of those, I’ve only had two or three customer relationships feel truly sour. They were great learning opportunities. I’m a better artist, business-haver, and communicator because of them. Dear reader, first things first. I’d like you to imagine your audience as a supportive, ready and willing bunch of people waiting to get aboard your train. I’d like you to do this not as a fluffy mind-game, but because that is literally what you will discover when you show up to your practice and put it in front of other people’s eyes repeatedly and consistently. I’d also like you to imagine your worst possible review or judgment from another person, and to know that it is an inevitable part of making and sharing anything widely. Trust that it will teach you so much that the wound will be worth it in the end.
You have to believe in yourself, and you have to do it regardless of what other people might think, but herein lies the contradiction in my response: I also don’t think believing in oneself is that important. It’s certainly not something to get hung up on. In fact, I think it can be a detriment, and based on your question, perhaps it makes it difficult for us to get out of our own way when we really, truly, must get out of our own way.
If showing up to our practice is contingent on believing in ourselves, we give away our power. Our practice survives only if the conditions are right. And it’s risky if confidence is the condition. Confidence, like any emotional state, is fleeting and will never be consistent. That’s okay — our practice doesn't always have to be consistent — but we shouldn’t keep ourselves from it just because the belief party has yet to arrive.
The only thing thing that prevents me from my practice are life’s practical matters or when I decide it’s time to take in the world. I find a lot of inspiration in the ebb and flow of breaks to do things like make pasta from scratch, talk to my friends, pickle onions, have sex, play guitar, or just simply make my ends meet and finish the evening with my legs up against the wall. I can’t always be in output mode, and it doesn’t serve me to try.
If you love what you’re trying to do, it seems like believing in yourself wouldn't be too much of an issue beyond the standard self-doubt and skeptical inquiry involved in all creative pursuits. There would be no choice other than I really gotta make this. I gotta make this thing, even if it sucks. That's how I feel about drawing and writing. I gotta make it. I just gotta make it. I can't concern myself with whether I believe in it or not.
Dear reader, if you're waiting to face a practice until you really believe in yourself, I want you to consider if what you are seeking is something you actually want. You might be chasing a career, a passion, or a hobby that you have romanticized, something you think you want to or should do.
What reason are you in it for? Perhaps the reason your belief in it hasn't arrived yet is because your pursuit isn’t meant for you. How much would you devote yourself to it if you found out nobody would ever see it? Do you enjoy what you're up to, or are you following it out of pressure or for the perceived benefits you’ve determined it will bring you?
Does your practice feel connected to a flow state or a sense of alignment? I admit that “flow state” and “alignment” are ambiguous, but this is the best I can do to describe how I know in my body when something I’m working on hits the mark. If you know what I mean, then you might be on the right track after all. In that case, I would suggest trying to leave your concerns over whether or not you believe in yourself at the door for a little while. You can at least ask what’s been haunting you to leave its shoes outside.
I’ve been thinking about the root of this question: What exactly are we trying to believe in when it comes to ourselves or our projects? It seems like we just want to believe, once and for all, that we’re good at what we’re doing, or at least worthy of doing it.
Dear reader, I would never ask you to trick yourself: You don’t have to believe that you are good at something in order to do it. We just don't know how our creative work is going to turn out — that is the delicious and terrible unknown of making. We can't control or moderate how our work is going to be received once it’s done, either. And so there's no use in putting the cart before the horse and holding off until we’ve determined we’re good enough. What does good even mean?
I want to drop the good. I want to let go of the need to be good at whatever it is I feel like doing. I know that all I really need in this case is to enjoy doing it, to serve that just gotta do it energy.
Whenever I'm working on a drawing, it’s tempting to start picking it apart before it's done. Often I am the most judgmental in the early phases of making. There’s a difference between proceeding thoughtfully with a work in progress and completely scrutinizing and sucking all of the air out of it. People who make things regularly know what I’m talking about, though I’d argue that all of us can intuit when we’re not having fun anymore.
I try to remember that my drawings, when I'm making a lot of them at once, are a family. They speak to one another and their context is revealed and more easily understood later, as a whole. If you're working on songs or writing or drawings or paintings, I suggest giving yourself similar grace. There is always a context of what we’re doing, and we often don't know what it is, or if it’s “good”, until it's over. What if we rested on the assumption that we cannot determine if something is good while it's still unfolding? How would our approach to our practice change?
If we reframe this question to How do I believe in myself and that I'm good enough?, I would say: You don't. You don't think about good enough. Good is not part of your practice. Good is irrelevant because it’s relative. Free yourself. Your practice is to make the art — to show up and be devoted, and to be protective of whatever allows you to make space for it. Leave a tiny bit of judgment for later. In time, you will have enough creations to survey so that you will be able to make informed, sensitive decisions about which direction to take. This will improve, but not hinder, your practice.
Before I close, I want to speak to the self-promotion required of all makers today. There should be no shame in promoting what we like to do. We should all aspire to more shameless self-promotion. Shame around our creative pursuits ties into fear of not being good enough, and as I’ve illustrated, good enough is a carrot that will always dangle just in front of us.
If we have a When will I be good enough? mentality around our work, making it is likely going to be a miserable process. Perhaps that's precisely where the tortured artist trope comes from — the result of our good-obsessed culture teaching people that they have to be the best or at the top of their game in order to bother trying.
Being overly concerned with being good enough is part of a larger problem, as it feeds into our culture’s addiction to perfectionism and aversion to beginner-hood. We connect being good at something with how much time we give to it, and while this is sometimes true, there are plenty of occasions where time has nothing to do with satisfaction or success. I think at best, time with our projects offers more perspective — not necessarily goodness. If we fixate on time endured as a promise for how good we will become at something, we risk falling into workaholism and the productivity trap.
Do we want to bank our beliefs around what we want to create on whether or not we earn money or win accolades for it? Do we want to measure the worthiness of our creations against a following of people we will never meet? What proof do we need in order to believe that it’s worth showing up to our practice?
Am I good enough for me?
Am I doing the best I can?
Am I doing what brings me joy?
Am I sharing in my joy?
Am I harming anyone in the process?
Further reading or listening:
I chose to listen to the authors of these books read them aloud, and I feel like they resonated more deeply because of it.