The Pain of Killer Taste

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“Nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me — is that, all of us who do creative work, like, you know we get into it, and we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap that, for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good, okay?  It’s not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, your taste is still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you.  You know what I mean?  A lot of people never get past that phase, a lot of people at that point, they quit.  And the thing I would just like to say to you, with all my heart, is that most everybody I know who does interesting, creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste and they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as what they wanted it to be; they knew it fell short.  It didn’t have this special thing that we want it to have.  And the thing to know is everybody goes through that. And if you go through it, you’re going through it right now, you’re just getting out of that phase, you gotta know, it’s totally normal and the most important possible thing you could do is:  do a lot of work.  Do a huge volume of work.  Put yourself on a deadline so that every week or every month, you know you’re gonna finish one story.  It’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you’re actually gonna catch up and close that gap, and the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions. It takes a while, it’s gonna take you a while, it’s normal to take a while, and you’ve just have to fight your way through that, okay?”

Ira Glass*, writer and creator of This American Life

I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with creatives who find themselves paralyzed by this dynamic, caught between their vision and their efforts; Ira Glass, in the above quote, articulates this phenomenon brilliantly.  It’s a brutal experience to look at something you’ve just created and hear that voice say, “what a piece of crap.”  You are both the hangman and the hanged, the righteousness of your condemnation as painful as being condemned.  

Most psychotherapies include work that focuses on or at least addresses the disempowering things we say to ourselves, calling ourselves stupid, ugly, worthless, etc., — technically, negative self-talk — and it is an important task in psychotherapy to explore how to deconstruct, respond to, or let go of that internal dialog.  Most negative self-talk develops from disempowering things others have said to or about us, or negative self-talk we’ve heard significant others direct toward themselves, especially when we were very small and learning about ourselves and our world.  Those messages get inculcated into our psyche and, eventually, we lose our conscious awareness that they originally came from outside of us:  they become “just the way I am.”  

But the kind of negative self-talk that Glass is talking about is subtly and importantly different from this:  while it feels — and can be — self-directed, a critical component of it is the voice of your artistic sense, your creative intuition.  Have you ever seen or heard the early works of your artistic heroes?  How many of them actually appeal to your creative sense?  Even our best untrained works are not going to be hung in MoMA or recorded on Nonesuch; they are the product of a developing talent, not a mature one.  The discomfort, even shock, of seeing how far short one’s work falls from one’s vision can manifest as a peculiar kind of harsh self-talk that, far from being a dysfunction, is evidence of a strength, even if it’s painful.  

That said, this strength, this voice of your creative intuition can be hard to distinguish from the more dysfunctional variety of negative self-talk and can even be co-opted by it.  In my work with creative folks, we often spend time exploring this difference and developing ways of supporting your artistic sense and expanding the conduit to it, while dismantling negative self-talk.  As you learn to identify your old, negative narratives and develop skills to cope with them, you are freed up to listen to the creative guide that defines your vision as an artist.  Further, as the clarity of this vision resolves and you feel more acutely the distance between it and its manifestation, we can work together to help you push through that discomfort to produce efforts that ever more closely resemble your ideal.  

 

 

*I found several indirect citations for this quote, but the original YouTube video from which it was apparently transcribed appears no longer to be available.  My sources:

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Failure Is the Best Option

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“If you look at the past, at the greatest composers of all time, what we know of Beethoven, what we know of Mozart, what we know of those people is an edited version of their catalogs. A lot of really bad music was written by a lot of great people and time has taken care of those things and they become sort of oddities that kind of fall off the general likes. So, what we get when we think of those big names are the things that did work. So, it’s kind of funny that contemporary composers [tend not] to think of failing, to think of creating something that doesn’t quite work, as something positive, because history has transformed the past view of what being a composer is into something that doesn’t exist at all, into these super machines that just create beauty that just works from the get go. And it’s so not true. I allow myself a lot of room for failure. I think that failure is a great thing. Failure sometimes teaches you much, much more than something that just works from the beginning.”

— Marcos Balter, composer, as interviewed by Nadia Sirota in Meet the Composer 10/30/2014 episode, “Failure Is an Option

Many of us spend a lot of time and energy worrying about and trying to prevent failure. Relationships, creative projects, parenting, academics, careers — we tend to believe that failure at something means we have lost something. It’s like when something doesn’t turn out the way we intended or hoped, it means we can’t ever have that thing, that outcome is forever closed to us. Further, we tend to make it mean something bad about who we are as a human being: failure is a dark mark on us that we must avoid at all costs or hide shamefully away.

What if we have this backwards? What if failure is actually our best opportunity to get closer to our goals? You’ve probably heard plenty of self-help gurus say this, or gotten a pep talk that sounds like it, but have you ever seriously considered what it means, specifically for yourself and your life?

We can talk a lot about what failure is, chase down and deconstruct its sources in expectation, identity, and locus of control — and these can be interesting and enlightening discussions — but here I want to cut through all that. The above quote offers a glimpse into a paradigm shift, an entirely different relationship to failure, one that is mutually exclusive to the held understanding of ourselves and the world.

Think of it this way: Imagine you’re in an unfamiliar room. It’s completely dark and you don’t know where the furniture is or where you are in the room. You know there’s a light in here somewhere, but you don’t know where or what it is; it could be a lamp, it would be a wall switch, you don’t know any of that, only that it’s here somewhere. How do you get the lights on?  There is only way to go about it: carefully start to feel about the room testing things. Nope, that’s a chair… that’s a couch… (bump) ouch! okay, that’s a coffee table… that’s a sideboard… oh, wait, here’s a lamp, but there’s no switch… that must mean there’s a wall switch somewhere… etc., etc., until you finally get the light turned on.

Fumbling about might require some patience and might entail a barked shin or two, but you wouldn’t think of the fumbling as a failure, would you? Instead, it’s more like simply what’s necessary to meet the goal (to get the lights on). Yet, technically, each thing you touch is a test to see if it will produce light and, again technically, each test that doesn’t get the lights on is a failure.

But this is different, you might say. “When we start with effectively limitless options and more or less complete ignorance about the situation, obviously, we have no choice but to make arbitrary tests of whatever is at hand; it only stands to reason that most of that won’t work, simply because we don’t know what does work. I’m worried about those times when I should know, but I fail anyway.” Ah, there’s the rub: what you “should” know.

This is the difference with the sense in which Maestro Balter and others like him hold failure: there is no expectation that one “should” be able to predict or produce a given outcome. In Balter’s example, he might guess at it, he might think, “Gee, this seems like this might work,” but he’s not assuming his guess is right — he takes as a starting point that his guesses are unlikely to be right even most of the time, let alone all the time.

So, every time our guesses or attempts don’t go the way we thought or hoped they would, rather than getting in the way of our goal, those experiences help us: at minimum, they eliminate dead-ends; at best they point directly the way, like the discovery that a table lamp has no switch tells you to look for a wall switch. Sometimes through what we think of as failure, we are led to discover something new, an entirely novel path that never occurred to us as a possibility. Far from being the obstacle to our goal, failure is a guide, a bridge, a muse even, that helps us to it.

In my work with patients, I approach experiences that don’t go quite as planned as opportunities for insight; we practice learning to see how all our experiences can get us closer to our goals, not just the ones that turn out the way we imagined.

Say the Hard Thing

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“Let us speak thereof, ye wisest ones, even though it be bad. To be silent is worse; all suppressed truths become poisonous.
And let everything break up which can break up by our truths! Many a house is still to be built.”
— Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, A Book for All and None

“Being honest may not get you a lot of friends but it’ll always get you the right ones.”
— John Lennon (attribution unconfirmed)

Let’s say I have something really important to tell a friend or my partner. The problem is, though, that it’s scary to say, scary because I’m afraid this significant other will be hurt, or worse, they might care about me less. They might even leave me.

But this thing I have to say is really important. It’s about something that’s true for me. Maybe it’s something my friend does that hurts me; maybe it’s something about me that’s true but I’m ashamed of, or that others have said is a bad thing. I really want to tell my significant other, but it’s a very scary thing to say.

Why would anyone say such a thing? Sure, it’s uncomfortable keeping it to myself, but people keep secrets all the time. What purpose could it serve to risk losing a friend by saying something he doesn’t like? The answer comes when we can look at all the costs and benefits, not just the potential loss of a relationship.

Whatever this thing is, this truth, it’s very present. It’s hard to keep to myself; whenever I’m with this person, it’s on my mind; it colors my experience of being with him; it feels wrong to keep it to myself, like I’m lying to him. No matter how I push that feeling away, it is always there, like a rumble in my belly, a mosquito whining in one ear, like an uncomfortable chair I’ve been sitting in too long. This is a cost, and not a small one; it takes effort to push the feeling away, to stay focused on my friend, to enjoy his company. And the more important the thing, the more effort it takes to keep it to myself. So, it actually takes me away from him: keeping a secret keeps me from really being with my friend.

And what kind of relationship do I want with this person, anyway? How important is he to me? Most of us want to have friends and lovers who trust us and whom we trust. We want someone to confide in, to be ourselves with — some one to know and to be known by. How do we develop relationships like this? By letting others in. We take risks to be intimate; that’s what intimacy is, to open ourselves up emotionally and let others see those parts of us that we hide from the rest of the world. It’s risky because this opening up by definition makes us vulnerable — open to ridicule, to deceit, or disapproval — but we still do it because we want the intimacy. We are inherently creatures of relationships: intimacy is what humans do. So, in order to have the intimacy that we’re built for, we say what’s true for us. When others hear our truth, they get to decide if they’re okay with it; if they’re not, they tend to take themselves away.

That, of course, is the scary part: the risk of losing someone who has been okay with us so far. But if the goal is to be fully ourselves with another — intimacy — then being fully-ourselves-except-for-these-one-or-two-things isn’t quite so satisfying. Still, that fear of loss can be overwhelming and we often find ourselves in the bind of holding back that last piece of ourselves from an otherwise deeply trusted friend.

So, what’s the solution? Say the hard thing. Say it. Say it because the risk demonstrates how much your friend means to you: “This thing I have to share with you is important enough to me to risk losing you and you’re important enough to me that I want you to know it.” Say it because you want a partner who really is okay with all of you. Say it because it gives you the chance to discover that you really can survive even if the person is not okay with all of you. Say it because when they tell you they are okay with this important thing, you know you have a deep and rich relationship.

In my personal and clinical experience, artists have a leg up on this:  they’ve spent their lives exploring what’s true for them and learning to express it.  Writing music or poetry, building or carving a sculpture, choreographing a dance — whatever — doing it your individual way rather than the way others say it should be, artists, by definition, say the hard thing.  And, in doing so, they are known and others are drawn to them.

In my clinical experience, relationships in which both partners are willing to say the hard thing — and are willing to hear them — are the strongest and most loving and satisfying. The more practice we have in speaking our truth, the more practice our friends and partners have in hearing them, the more both of us feel trusting and trusted, mutually known.

And that’s really the whole point, isn’t it?

Living Art / Arting Life

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The most visible creators I know of are those artists whose medium is life itself. The ones who express the inexpressible — without brush, hammer, clay or guitar. They neither paint nor sculpt — their medium is being. Whatever their presence touches has increased life. They see and don’t have to draw. They are the artists of being alive.

Donna J. Stone

In my psychotherapy practice, I often draw from a body of work variously referred to as mindfulness-based, acceptance-based, or values-based therapy. These approaches emphasize developing nonjudgmental awareness of oneself and one’s environment; a part of having a more accepting awareness of oneself is discovering a clearer sense of what’s important, one’s values.

Ideally, values guide our actions and research suggests that when they do, our sense of satisfaction with ourselves and with life tends to increase. But things aren’t always that easy: as we manage our daily lives, we are faced constantly with decisions to make, from the mundane to the potentially life-changing. These choice points are often emotionally charged — whether or not it makes sense to us that they should be — and we can find ourselves caught up in knee-jerk, emotional reactions, resulting in outcomes that are decidedly not consistent with our values.

Further, sometimes our values are not that obvious. Ever had someone say, “Just be yourself” and then think “What does THAT mean?” Or, maybe you’ve had the experience of feeling that there was some “right” response to a situation you’re faced with, but you just can’t seem to think of it. We can see how being able to tap into our values would be helpful, but we’re not clear enough on what they are for them to be of use.

It’s been my experience that creative people have a ready-made, direct line to their values, but often aren’t aware of it. When you’re deciding whether something you’re creating is “right” — the right phrasing, the right look, the right sensibility — you’re tapping into the place your values live. Creatives know how to pause and feel what’s “right” — skills at the heart of mindful practices — but often feel those abilities are limited to their specialized creative niche. In fact, they are not. In my work with people, we practice following that creative conduit and learn how to open it up in other domains, like money, family, and work, to guide values-based decisions in those areas. As we bring this critical component of art to life, life starts to make more sense — and to feel more creative.

One of the things I find perhaps most exciting about this insight is how many people already have that kind of access to their values; it’s just a matter of learning to recognize it. Whether you’re making a full-time living off of your creative powers or you’re a very part-time hobbyist whose fan base is indistinguishable from family and friends, it’s likely we can mine your creative practices and identify the deep vein of your values to help enrich your life. To my way of thinking, this is part of what it means to be an “artist of being alive.”