We all understand the importance of being able to get back up and try again in all aspects of our lives, but being creative sets up a whole new set of challenges with regard to resilience. How we maintain our resilience has to do with how we think about setbacks, challenges or rejections.
The things we tell ourselves when we don’t achieve a desired outcome affects whether we’ll get back on that horse and try riding again. Talking to ourselves in encouraging ways such as ‘you did a great job at the concert last week, so you know you can perform well;’ ‘many people compliment your work and you have won awards for it’ or ‘you are capable of writing well and have done so many times before’ are more helpful self-statements than denigrating your efforts.
Built into the overall creative process is the aspect of acceptance or rejection of our creative products. Due to the arts being a subjective field, there is a greater risk of our efforts not being appreciated or accepted, especially in a monetary fashion. Most jobs have set, well-defined, objective criteria related to a task being successfully completed. The arts are not like doing someone’s accounting, fixing a leaky pipe or filing all the latest invoices. In the creative fields success is dependent on your audience’s personal tastes and there’s no way to set a definitive guideline for what people will like. There are indeed varying standards of which one must meet at least a minimum level, but by and large, it’s what people like and there isn’t a way to determine that.
Recently I watched a video interview of one of my favourite artists, Benjamin Harjo, Jr. He has been a very successful working artist for nearly forty years. His work is unique in that it has aspects of traditional Native American art combined with an abstract style. One of the paintings he discussed in the interview was depicted a couple of artists portrayed as gamblers surrounded by various good luck symbols. Harjo wanted to express that he felt that doing art shows was a gamble; he and other artists go in with all their work and know that it is a crapshoot as to how much, if anything, will sell. He stated that he had come to look at making a living at selling art as being more about the luck of which buyers came into the show that day than about the quality of his work. I felt this was a very important distinction in maintaining a level of resilience. Of course, we can increase or decrease our chances of luck. While you may not be able to control whether people accept your work or not, but you can control how you will deal with the disappointment.
If when one’s work doesn’t sell well, or is not received well, it is time to make a careful examination of the level of work you’ve done. If after that, you still feel quite satisfied with the quality, then it’s maybe the throw of the dice that day. The people who were willing to part with their money that day just didn’t show up. If you never do well at a particular show, then maybe it doesn’t draw the sort of people who would ever buy your work. If the type of work that sells at a show regularly is modernistic or abstract, showing a sentimental still-life might not be the work that will ever sell well there. Looking at many aspects of what you are doing is essential in making a realistic assessment and not taking an automatic stance of ‘I’m just not good enough.’ The same line of thinking applies to all the arts; make sure you’re in the right place for what your strengths.
Also, finding out what people like about what you do or what they don’t like gives you areas to work with. It could be that you’ve got the start of something really great; it just may need some changes and tweaks to bring it to its fullest state. Remember there is always another way to do a painting, sing a song, or write that sentence. Sometimes starting from scratch is exactly what is needed to make your work the most satisfying to you as well as to others. Don’t be afraid of alterations or to take a new perspective on old work.
Here are some more suggestions:
· One of the things that will help with resilience is to keep within easy access accolades or symbols of success. Certificates, photos, awards, trophies, announcements, etc., any of those things however small that remind you of what you are capable of and have achieved will help you to refocus your thinking about your abilities in a positive way. If you’ve not won awards yet, keep around things that give you inspiration and encouragement.
· Be sure to maintain a good system of support. These are friends and colleagues who offer encouragement and will give you that gentle kick in the behind from time to time to get you moving when you feel like lying down. They support you and won’t let you talk bad about yourself and your work.
· Recheck motivation. If you’re doing things solely for money, then maybe that is showing and the heart of what you wanted to say isn’t shining through. Being sure that what is motivating you is authentic and what is your true feeling.
· Go back to your goals. This is why it’s important to have a clear idea of what your goals are. Sometimes in simply looking back over what hopes and aspirations you’ve had you can chose to interpret them with the same enthusiasm with which you originally conceived them. This can be an opportunity to recharge your batteries and remind you what you hoped to achieve in the first place. At this point you can look at what one small thing can be done to move you toward your goal.
· Nurture a strong sense of belief in what you do, who you are and what it is you want to say. This clarity will boost your resilience and give you that extra push to get back out there and try again. Have confidence in your vision. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of how you perceive yourself. If you frequently call yourself a no-talent loser, well, you’ll more than likely behave as such. But by reminding yourself that you can be competent, capable and creative, you’re more likely to act in such a fashion. Build on this perspective of yourself; I’m not telling you to be delusional and arrogant, but instead to tender a quiet confidence in self-belief. We often have to practice reminding ourselves of our own capabilities. And remember that your work is not your self (although it may feel that way, it is just that, a feeling, not a fact), and they both have value.
· Don’t always assume that your work is not any good. This is why it is so important to work at your art, to learn as many skills to improve it as you can; if you know you are doing your best and making a good effort at learning all you can, then you have the courage to persevere. It is scary to put your work on the line, have it judged or criticized, but it is the only way to grow and learn more about whether you’re hitting the mark with what you’re trying to say creatively. Take action. Don’t just sit and think about what could be done--get up and do it, whatever that may be.
· Keep things in perspective; not selling any paintings or not having your book proposal accepted doesn’t mean that you won’t ever do these things. You are not the worst painter in the world; you are not the worst writer or dancer or whatever in the world. Success is built on practice and each piece of creative work, each submission, each tryout is a practice; it’s all practice!
· Work toward a hopeful attitude. Look for new places to show, find where the next writer’s convention takes place, and look at online ways to get your work seen. Each day brings new possibilities if you are looking for them with an open mind. Tomorrow really is another opportunity. Focusing on ‘I’ll never have success,’ ‘no one wants my work,’ ‘there aren’t any opportunities out there’ narrows your focus and turns your thoughts to a defeated attitude. It’s hard to stand up with that attitude. Be careful about using these negative superlatives in thinking about what is happening.
· Take care of yourself. If you’re not getting enough sleep, not being active, eating junk food and drinking too much caffeine or alcohol, you’re not at an optimum functioning capacity. Taking care of yourself is a way to best enhance your creative reserve to see you through difficult times. Doubt knocking on your door when you’ve had too much sugar, caffeine and not enough sleep will have a fertile place to come in and take over.
After a disappointment, it may be tempting to just give up your creative pursuits. Don’t do it. Stopping may not make you any happier; in fact, it will more than likely make you more unhappy or frustrated. If you have that creative desire, it is in you and will ask to be acted upon. To ignore this could interfere with having any sense of fulfilment.
But when those low times hit and your manuscript has been rejected again, or you’ve had yet another art show without any sales, or whatever has knocked the wind out of your creative sails, don’t pretend it doesn’t hurt. Allow yourself to admit that it does matter whether others like your work or not. To use an old phrase from the prairies, be like a dog that lost the fight and crawl under the porch to lick your wounds. Give yourself permission to feel that disappointment but only for a short while. Then get back in there and start again. The resiliency to get back up and try again is inherent in our survival instincts. Staying under the porch too long is wallowing in self pity. Coming back out after a respite is bravery and creativity is an act of bravery. We’ve all heard the adage it’s not how many times you’ve been knocked down, but how many times you get back up. Life and creativity is about getting back up. So, saddle up and ride on!