Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Fear of Taking Creative Risks

Over on the site “You Only Do This Once” I found an article written by a fella named Tony that talked about having the willingness to make mistakes while learning. Some of the readers joined in by commenting on their willingness to look stupid when learning. But I think for a number of us, being willing to make mistakes when others can see and respond is difficult at best.

It's an interesting scenario, the looking stupid part that is. When you think about it, failure, while potentially boring due to its repetitive nature, is a useful aspect of the learning process. It provides a chance to explore how subtle variations impact the outcome of an action even though some of our efforts will lead to dead ends. But instead of being viewed as a useful experience, mistakes become painful emotionally at times.

The big question is why should failure be painful? Is it because of selfishness or vanity? Sometimes people seek to personal gain through our abilities and efforts. For them, when we make mistakes, it provides no immediately evident tangible value. Our success is more crucial for the results rather than the process of improving. They sometimes provide pressure through statements like "Don't let me down" and will shake their heads when we fail. Their selfish actions cause them to apply pressure tactics against us in order to make us perform to their expectations. This might not be in our own best interest in regards to growth and learning. As for vanity, we become our own worst enemy. We shouldn't think ill of ourselves for experiencing failure, yet we belittle ourselves through negative internal criticism loops where we call ourselves stupid or incompetent. We erode our own confidence away.

But selfishness and vanity arent' the only culprits. There are people who don't always play nicely either as they poke fun at a person, sometimes ruthlessly. There are people who believe ridicule serves a purpose in controlling people when they misbehave socially. Hugo Schywzer (over at Jezebel) wrote an article about how some people need to be put in their place through mockery. I disagree completely with him. Mocking people, regardless of the reason, costs everyone through the loss of potential. It is mockery that leads to the fear of making mistakes and in turn, an unwillingness to take creative chances. Let me give an example of the negative impact of fear from ridicule.

When I was in my 30's, I played B league softball. By the time I reached my second year on the team, I was a decent singles hitter. I discovered that if I only swung the bat with about two-thirds of my potential, I had the most control. Trying to hit with full power was problematic and resulted in a lot of strikes. Not so good. To make matters worse, most teams had an “unwritten” rule that if you struck out, the entire team razzed you. Not just a little, a lot. The potential for ridicule stopped me dead in my tracks. As a result of my fear, I remained a singles hitter even though inside of me, I wanted to hit a home run. Over the two years of my involvement with softball, my dad and I would talk about playing ball. He always coaxed me along by saying I should give it my all. He'd tell me about he used to watch this fella in minor league give one hundred percent. The minor league player, a small man in stature, would step up to the plate and swing the bat with everything he had. Sometimes he'd swing so hard he'd lose his balance and fall down. He struck out a lot too. But when he connected, he'd send that ball out of the park. Okay, so he hit a homer once in a while. Big deal you say. And most people would argue that a singles hitter is a better asset to the team more so than an on-again, off-again home run hitter. True, but the real issue is that in my mind, I knew I wasn't trying my best at hitting because of my fear of ridicule. I felt bad inside. I wanted to try and slam that ball as a hard as I could just to see if I could hit one out of the park. Now that I've stopped playing softball, I will never know whether I could have done it or not. It's sad knowing I didn't try because of fear. Instead of taking a chance, I let other people rule me. And that's not only bad for me, it's bad for them. Those internal negative feelings spill out in unexpected ways, sometimes through hostility or other unpleasant emotions. No one wins. So in regards to Hugo Schwyzer's argument about mockery having value, he's wrong - ridicule or mockery are never valuable regardless of the context.

Back to the issue of failures, I think it's important to be supportive of others when they experience failure. It's a self-serving and selfish relationship if we expect support from others but offer none in return. I'm not saying we shouldn't be critical. Constructive criticism has immense value. But the usage of tact is important. What we shouldn't do is use negative criticisms that attack the person. And equally so, flowery words are just as useless as negative criticism. Empty praise offers nothing to the person who is trying to grow artistically. In fact, empty praise can sometimes be detrimental in that it can make a person stop listening because of the lack of useful information. Well thought out words that express a clear and concise meaning of what we think about a work or a piece serve best.

Speaking about selfishness, I think the selfish attitude is part of what dooms so many relationships. Thinking about it from a heterosexual perspective (I have no experience or any desires to learn about the other perspective), the man typically wants the scenario to stay the same. He is essentially trying to force the woman into a static mold of what she was when they first met. The woman typically (yes, these are generalizations) seeks to change the man into her image of what is acceptable. Both people lose because they are not allowing the other person to be who they need to be. And this leads to failure. But is it a good kind of failure? Not if the lesson is ignored. So there's more to failure than just experiencing it: we need to pay attention and examine the small details of the process. Learning from failure is no easy task, otherwise things like relationships would be a lot easier.

With failure, more often than not, our low self-esteem and willingness to turn control of our self-value over to others allows us to become prisoners to our fears. We fear others might ridicule or criticize us in public and and prove we are useless, a sham or not dependable. And that's a bad situation to be in. Add in excessive vanity, or a desire to look superior to others, and things get ugly quick. Essentially, comparison is a dangerous tool. It has value when trying to learn from failure. But when it becomes a primary focus where we compare our worth to others in a vanity-related sense, failure loses its luster as a tool.

In my opinion, the first step away from the fear of failure is to build an internal self-image that has more confidence. Not necessarily an easy task. I struggle with it constantly. Ironically, even attempting to accept failure involves the process of failure. There will be times when we step outside of the safety zone and try something. When we stumble, people scoff and we tend to fall back to using existing approaches rather than continue using something we are not confident with. I had this happen yesterday. I wanted to compliment a fellow student but used the wrong words. I wanted to clarify but my mind went blank and I simply repeated what I said with a change on the emphasis. Someone snorted in what I took as a sign of an indication of the stupidity of my statement. Maybe it was a poorly worded statement but the intent was honest and well meaning. Nonetheless, I felt repressed as a result. So where did I stumble? By focusing on the person snorting, it made me not want to speak up. It made me run scenarios of what it meant and how I should have reacted. None of these add value because it already happened. I was wasting time and energy on something that added no value.

We've been insulted, attacked verbally and ridiculed so many times we have a hard time letting things go. We've been trained to be competitive but sometimes we miss the point that competition doesn't haven't to be a zero sum game where there is only one winner. If we don't take first place, we think we're a loser. Rather than focus on learning what we can from the scenario and ignoring the useless aspects, we focus on the negative. We want to be Ken and Barbies with perfection being the norm. Sorry, wrong answer. First off, we aren't plastic. Second, those failures provide wonderful little quirks that add to our personality in unique ways. For that matter, how we fail can be quite comical at times. We make gestures, sounds or do whatever else it is we do to relieve the stress. But there's a sense of uniqueness to it that can make others smile if they don't slip in to a condescending mode. A group failure can be quite the interesting experience when everyone is doing a stream of consciousness dump of their first thoughts to a solution. Lots of humor emerges and people begin to laugh when their guard goes down. But again, it rarely happens unless the environment is safe.

That brings me to the core of the topic: it's not about failure, but about taking creative risks. If we don't take creative risks, we'll never traverse the strange corridors we perceive as dimly lit and full of potentially frightening beasts. Like the book, “Where the Wild Things Are,” in reality, those spaces are sometimes wide open, flooded with light and occupied by the colorful arrangement of creatures only our imagination can put into form. It's up to us to explore those new spaces. Don't be afraid to open Pandora's box because the creativity and imagination that is trapped inside is waiting to get out and kick our success into high gear. Be it anger, happiness, sadness or fear, let's express those thoughts and share them with the world rather than taking the easy road. Take creative risks, face the inevitable failures and don't take a route simply because it requires the least amount of effort. But to do so, first we need to create a safe and effective environment for working in.

So how do you go about setting up a safe and effective environment to do your work at? Or more aptly put, how do you create an environment that rewards taking creative chances? It's difficult, especially with how ambiguous communication is. Even the simplest statement can be loaded with unintended (or intended) barbs that stab and hack away at people. In my opinion, the best way to set up a healthy, productive environment is to start putting yourself out there and letting others see you fail, laugh about it and even accept negative criticism. Don't accept the negative, but rather acknowledge it and then let it roll off your back like a duck. The internalization is part of what get's us into trouble. We go rigid and allow insults to wound us rather than do the zen thing and let the negative energy pass through with less collateral damage.

I think the atmosphere we set up in our studio is the first step. Take into consideration what makes you feel at ease enough to step outside of your comfort zone. In my case, having an open and clean workspace at the start of project that I'm able to totally trash during the creative process is a must. After each project, taking a few hours brings me right back to a starting point again. That includes putting everything back into its place so I can find it when I need it. It also means changing my state of mind when I dive into the brainstorming phase of project making it a no rules game. Anything and everything goes. Things can heap up. I can even drag in the kitchen sink if it helps with the process. The most important aspect about this is dropping any fixed routines. The routines are what make bog me down in the mud when I need to be charging through the thickets to see what's on the other side. Maybe it's more thickets. Who cares. So I get a bunch of scratches charging through the bushes. They'll heal and I might find a delicious blackberry patch in the process. Mmm, blackberries.

Another important aspect is to ensure I have only the necessary sources of stimulation on hand. Too many distraction are a bad thing as it's too easy to get lost. A computer has been one of the holdouts for me so far. I have a laptop I use for music, but not for surfing. At least not when I'm creating. Surfing and collecting ideas is a beforehand step. Yes, I realize I said I should avoid applying boundaries and rules, but that's during the creative brainstorming process. During the implementation phase, its more important for me to limit distractions. Mind you, music is an essential for me so some low-key Goa or ambient background music works exceedingly well. The piece I'm listening to now from Mark Egorov is perfect with its minimal elements of a piano are relaxing. Not that I don't mind getting stoked though. A bit of The Union Underground or The Riddler can get me going when I'm in need of a hammering beat pumping out from the sub-woofer jammed under the desk.

Reminders of incentive are important too. But they're a bit harder to do. I'm not talking about posters with kittens hanging on a bar and captions saying “Hang in there!” I'm talking about things that fire me up when I look a them. A reminder of a seed idea. It can be a picture or an item. In my case, a vacuum tube does wonders for me even though it would be meaningless to someone else. The unique shape of the tube drives my mind and my motivations such that I want to see my imagined vision take shape. When I look at the tube's odd shape, it shifts my mind into a different place, a more creative area. One where the every day rules don't apply. It doesn't directly provide safety, but it does stir a nostalgic feeling which in turn, brings out the sense of safety and a willingness to take chances. Discovering what brings out those feelings of safety and the willingness to take risks is the challenge we face. The fact that our views have a fluid-like quality where they can change without notice means it's even harder to nail down what will do the job. Don't worry about it, just explore. Take a chance and explore a number of creative avenues. Expect failures, learn from them and don't beat yourself up. It won't be easy and it might not always be fun, but we'll be better artists for taking the hard road rather than sitting in an easy chair. Let's break the cycle of negative criticism by only offering constructive criticism to ourselves and others.