As painful as this is… It’s time to talk about fear.
Nobody except for crazy people are immune to fear. Artists are especially vulnerable to fear, because by necessity we have to be sensitive to the world around us.
We get used to our fears. We’re so accustomed to having them around, we get used to avoiding them and so they stay. They are the proverbial “elephants in the room”. But when you ignore the fears, so much junk piles up from them that you eventually can’t ignore it any longer. (Like the elephant’s … ok, enough with that analogy, it’s getting gross.)
The worst thing about fear with regards to your creative business is that it has a paralyzing effect. This can have disastrous results on your ability to begin, complete, ship, and receive payment for your work as a creative person. So it’s definitely worth dealing with, even if it’s painful… because ignoring it and allowing it to guide your actions (or inactions) can mean the death of your inspiration.
Fear can stop the engine that allows you to produce your art, and halts the progression of your creative career.
I’ve compiled a list of the twelve most common fears that we face as artists. I have seen that these fears, while related, conspire to stop you dead in your tracks.
Are any of them standing behind you, at this very moment, guiding your thoughts and actions?
1. The Fear Of Criticism.
The number one fear artists have is the fear of criticism, that people will bash our work. We fear that people who don’t understand us, or have only a vague understanding of what we’re about, will cut us down at the knees by disparaging everything about the art we work so hard to make. In the worst case scenario, they may say things about our personal life or our family, when they don’t even know us! All this just because they passionately disagree with our art.
Unfortunately, this is the place we live in… we can share instantaneously to the entire world, and the entire world can see it and make comments…anonymously. There is an entitlement that some people feel to give their opinion on everything they see. There are a billion critics but very few people out there who dare to actually create something of cultural value.
The way to deal with criticism is to have a couple of filters in place that sort out the bad stuff from the good.
The first filter cuts out anything but constructive criticism…does the critic compliment in any way? Do they offer suggestions (even misguided ones?) If they offer nothing but venom, then disregard them… their issue is not about you. It’s more about them. Maybe your painting reminds them of somebody that hurt their feelings on the playground when they were a child, who knows? You don’t have to accept or internalize this kind of criticism.
The next filter asks, is this constructive criticism helpful? If not, disregard that too. What is left is probably worth listening to.
There are good kinds of criticism… thoughtful words that offer a genuine insight and a true outside perspective are very valuable to an artist. Listen to these and don’t take it personally… the critic is talking about your work, not you as a person. You can use this constructive criticism to make your work better, more targeted and focused.
…And the fear? Well, when you know how to sift through criticism and find those kernels of helpful stuff in what your critics say, then you can actually look forward to reviews instead of dread them. You can see them as valuable data from a focus group test that many people would pay good money to have!
2. The Fear of Apathy.
What’s even worse than mean criticism?
Many would say apathy.
Apathy is simply people not caring about your work. AT ALL.
Instead of open hatred (which is at least some reaction), apathy is no reaction whatsoever. And for someone who wants to make a difference in the hearts and minds of an audience, this result can be devastating.
So, what’s the first step you need to take when you put something out there but the only sound you hear is crickets?
You should know that it’s not you as a person that’s getting a non-reaction, just your work. They are separate, you know?
Then, you need to ask yourself:
- Did I do everything I knew to do in order to market my work properly?
- Did my launch reach enough people?
- Did my work stand out in any way from what others are putting out there?
- After taking a step back and looking objectively, do I see what’s bland about it?
- When creating it, did I feel from the heart, or just go through the motions?
One mistake artists make, especially new ones, is that because they haven’t yet nailed down a personal style they tend to copy others. This means your stuff just blends in, and doesn’t stand out. How can you tweak your work, or add a contrasting element to make it pop? You can still use the same influences, materials, and composition, but you just need to add something extra.
Art is all about washing, rinsing, and repeating. The more you try, the closer you will get to finding something that resonates with people.
3. The Fear Of Failure.
Another fear we struggle with as artists is the fear of failure. We fear that we will fall flat on our face, that what we intended to create doesn’t come out how we expected at all. We imagine it, in fact, to be unbelievably bad. (We do have powerful imaginations, don’t we? And when they turn against us… it’s pretty dramatic.)
We’re afraid of wasting our art supplies, our time, our resources, our connections, our favors, our money, and our creative energy to product something we know will fail.
We’re afraid of failing publicly, and that people will see us for who we are: Pretenders. Fakes. Wannabees. Noobs.
So we sit in safe anonymity, making our own little thing… and in doing so, we fail. We fail to launch, to try, to succeed, to share.
Fear of Failure is very generalized, but very crippling to an artist.
Don’t be so hard on yourself… you have to give yourself permission to fail. This is essential to an artist or creative career… a period where you explore and allow yourself to make junk. You have to create through that failure with persistence.
There are lots of stories floating around about people who failed a bunch of times, persisted, and then succeeded after the 100th or even thousandth time.
- Walt Disney was fired from his newspaper by his boss who said “he lacked imagination and had no good ideas.”
- Oprah Winfrey was fired from her job as a TV reporter because she was “unfit for tv.”
- The first time Jerry Seinfeld went on stage, he was jeered and booed right off of it.
- An MGM director wrote a note to Fred Astaire: “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Slightly bald. Can dance a little.”
- A casting director told Sidney Poitier to “stop wasting people’s time and go become a dishwasher”.
Did you fail after just the first few tries? Keep trying.
4. The Fear Of Success.
What? Yes, you read it right. We’re sometimes afraid of the alter ego to failure: success. (In fact, sometimes we’re afraid of both, which is quite a pickle, isn’t it?)
This may surprise you, but we are often afraid of succeeding, of getting recognition, and of winning. It means we will be looked at, tweeted about, pointed at, and observed. Sometimes we’re not comfortable with that.
- If you’ve ever said things to yourself that self-destruct your work when money or recognition peeks around the corner, you may have a fear of success.
- If you’ve bailed out on a project at the last minute, you may have fear of success.
- If you’ve ever left a work unfinished when all it needed was that last little push, you may also be afraid of success.
I’ve personally seen the result of this in action. I have known people who had a burning desire to do something significant, only to self-destruct at the last second.
There are people who I’ve been very close to, who have had economically disadvantaged backgrounds, who have a particularly difficult time imagining themselves succeeding. They had nobody around them who modeled success, and they’re afraid that success means they will cease to be accepted by those they grew up with. Family members, even. That they will be blamed for forgetting their roots, where they’re from. They may be asked, “so you think you’re better than us, now?”
This is difficult to deal with. We want success, but we also want to preserve those relationships. If you deal with this, my advice is to reinforce to those close to you that you’re still the same person and you still value your relationship. But know that some people won’t come around… their feelings of inadequacy and envy may be too great for them to overcome.
Our goal should be surrounding ourselves with healthy interactions and relationships. In a truly healthy relationship, success is viewed as inspirational, not something to be feared and envied. As the saying goes, “a rising tide lifts all ships.” Unless the ship’s a submarine… but there’s nothing you can do about the choices other people make for themselves.
5. The Fear Of Exposure.
When we experience success as an artist, what results is exposure. (Duh!)
There we are, in galleries, on advertisements, in articles, in photos, in the newspaper. We are visible for all to see. This is kind of freaky, especially if we are introverted in nature, and not used to being looked at.
Agoraphobia is the fear of wide open spaces. You could say that social agoraphobia is the fear of being exposed to people. It’s kind of like the fear of public speaking, which many say is the number one fear…even more compelling than the fear of death.
There is actually some truth to that… studies have shown that the brain chemicals producing the kind of terror that being in front of a crowd of people dredges up is very primal, similar to being targeted by an angry mob! So why do we have these primitive fears, when being literally in danger of your life is not the case? Are we really afraid that people are just sitting there, waiting for an excuse to physically tear us limb from limb?
Our instincts treat exposure to others as a real danger. So ask yourself, “am I really in serious physical danger of being harmed?” The answer is, of course, no. Continue to ask yourself, “What’s the worst that can possibly happen?”
Also, you need to know that your audience is not out to destroy you… their instinct is to want you to succeed. Think about it. Do we want people we’re watching to fail awkwardly? No, we tend to egg them on in our mind, hoping they will succeed. Your audience wants the same for you.
6. The Fear Of Commitment.
For those of us who don’t like to make decisions, the fear of commitment is very real. In fact it could also be called the fear of making decisions. We tend to want to “keep our options open” in case something we really want to do comes along.
I can personally identify with this. I think it goes back to being a recovering perfectionist… committing to something meant selling out on a project for the long haul, and suffering through every dictum that my perfectionist nature demanded until the project was finished. So it was much easier to avoid committing to a project altogether, and the pain that went with it. That was kind of hard when an assignment was due, and my grade rode on it… or when a delivery for a client was expected at a specified time.
Those of us fearing commitment also are… let’s put it out there… lazy sometimes. It’s an excuse.
I think when people talk about writer’s block or the “blank canvas syndrome” what they’ re really dealing with is the fear of commitment. When it comes down to it, it’s really not about the lack of ideas… those come to us all the time, every day. The problem is committing to any one of those ideas by putting them in physical form to paper, or canvas, or a sketchbook. Because we know once we get started down that path, we will need to keep on course until it’s finished.
7. The Fear Of Copying. (Unoriginality)
We are often afraid of copying people’s work, that what we create will be too similar to someone else’s work and then we will be pointed at an called any number of names. We fear being branded a copyright infringer, a copycat, a hack, and a plagiarist.
This is beaten into us in school and in art school especially. Granted, it’s very prevalent and needs to be addressed seriously. But as artists, we’re not going online and copying a report for History class word for word. What we do is more complex than that.
Art by its nature is taking in the world around it and reflecting it in some way, preferably in its own style and form, with a healthy sprinkle of our own personality mixed in. That’s not copying at all… as artists, our job is to remix the input that we receive every day and express it in our own unique visual style.
8. The Fear of Being Copied.
One of the hallmarks of the beginner entrepreneur is the fear of having their ideas copied. So they arm themselves with nondisclosure
agreements in order to shield their precious ideas from being stolen. Many artists, whose reputation and career is solely their own, tend to fall into that mode of defensiveness also.
The truth is, so many ideas rain down on us every day that we’re pretty much immune to a good idea. In fact, a good idea in itself is rarely even recognized amidst all the noise.
The same thing exists with your art. The time and energy you may expend to try to protect your ideas will usually be wasted, and the thing you should do instead is create more ideas and implement them.
Would you like to know what’s even worse than someone stealing your creative idea and profiting from it? It’s an artist who lets the fear of being copied weigh them down to the point where they delay shipping something…or don’t ship at all.
It’s not that I don’t want you to protect yourself in basic ways, or what’s appropriate to the size of your business. By all means, do that. But don’t go to extremes so that it affects your ability to be as free as possible to create your art.
9. The Fear of Being Misunderstood.
This is the fear that what you’re doing is so out there, so inventive, so different, that people are going to be confused. That your carefully thought out work will go over people’s heads.
Being understood is indeed very important to an artist… art is, after all, at its core, a visual, musical, or literary message spoken by artists to someone else. Even a purely aesthetic message can be mistaken, and this can hurt an artist’s feelings.
The danger of this fear is that it causes us to downshift into “safe” mediocrity, and endeavor to look just to people who have trod well-worn paths. This causes us to remain anonymous and forgettable, and remain in a place where we will not enjoy much recognition or success.
My suggestion is, someone out there will understand as long as you’re communicating your message as clearly as possible. You’re not the only one who thinks like you do. There is an audience out there in the universe who “gets it”, who is on your exact wavelength. Persist in creating your art the way you are driven to make it, and continue searching for those who will understand it.
10. The Fear Of Disappointment.
Our nature is of course to avoid pain, so many times we try to avoid potential disappointment. That fear may be so powerful that we avoid any possibility of things not turning out the way we expect or want them to. We want to avoid nasty surprises and stay with a nice, predictable result.
While the fear of being disappointed may sound like the aforementioned fear of failure, it is different because it deals with the resulting emotion an artist feels, and that’s what stays with us and affects us.
But can we really avoid disappointment?
Disappointment will come anyway, in the form of regret. Regret that you didn’t do anything when inspiration struck, when it was time to act. And you won’t be able to do anything about it, because your chance will be gone.
Isn’t it much better to act now, with the potential of being at the very least satisfied with a job well done? Then, if it’s appreciated and it’s a success, then it’s a bonus. But if not, then you know a little bit more in order to make the next outing a success.
11. The Fear Of Being Ridiculed
Ridicule is like criticism, but it can be much more contemptuous, dismissive, and scornful.
For many, this goes all the way back to childhood. We should have been given a free pass… hey, we’re just kids! We’re bound to make mistakes – lots of them. But something happened, the pants ripped, or we tripped and fell at a key moment, we got laughed at, and for years later we heard about it.
Ok, full disclosure time here: as a goofy, clumsy kid, I certainly had my share of ridicule growing up. I would be lying if I said it didn’t affect me today. At the very least, it has made me cautious.
But to live our creative lives to the fullest, we have to be able to switch off and be unique, original, and innovative. These qualities can’t happen unless we give ourselves permission to create in spite of the fear of ridicule. You can always leave it, come back, and self-criticize or edit it later… but make a decision to accept the work how you intended it to be, and whatever happens, happens.
You put your best work out there, and if people respond to it unfavorably or even make fun of you, then they are NOT your intended audience. They are heckling passers-by who don’t know you and don’t care about your message. Don’t create for them…create for your audience. Your true audience, after all, may criticize… but they will NEVER ridicule you. To do so would be to undermine their own decision to be a fan of yours.
12. The Fear of Deadlines
The very name strikes fear: DEADlines. Their very nature is binary: do or die. Finish or perish. Deliver or be destroyed.
So dramatic! It’s no wonder many artists’ knees turn to jelly at the sound of it.
Some of us defend against mighty deadlines by employing the foam sword of procrastination. Needless to say, this does nothing about the deadline, but it does increase our misery leading up to the deadline and guarantees a stressful last-minute rush.
Fortunately, there is a different way you can see deadlines: closure time. It may be a race to get there, but then you’re done. You can heave a sigh of relief, and realize that what you delivered, whether good or bad, is finished. (Until the client kicks it back, that is… but then you have a whole new deadline!)
The best way to deal with a deadline is to see it coming and prepare for it as much as possible. Then, you can still have a last minute rush but it’s a last minute rush to add that last special finishing touch….if it doesn’t make it, that’s okay… but if it does, you really add value and excellence to your work.
Another remedy for deadline-itis is just being really good at what you do and knowing your tools. After a point, you will have seen all the problems that tend to crop up during a project, and you will know how to deal with them. That mastery and experience is priceless, and helps you have confidence that the job will get done on time. (And, preferably, without losing too much sleep.)
Face the Fear… And Use It
There’s an interview I recently heard where a podcaster met with a member of an elite special forces team. This soldier expressed how great a part fear plays in their role as soldiers.
Intrigued, the interviewer asked how they could continue with their extremely dangerous (and deadly) mission with fear always present. The soldier replied that the fear was actually useful… once they were trained on how to identify and use that fear, they employed it to keep them alert and alive. He said that total lack of fear was something crazy people had, and you definitely did not want people like that on their team.
I found this a revelation, and had to pause the podcast to think.
I had always assumed that the lack of any fear was the ultimate goal… that fear’s total absence was necessary to carry out one’s goals. But as it turns out, fear can be used against itself when mastered. The lack of fear shouldn’t be the goal, but instead, mastery over the fear.
True bravery is not the lack of fear, but the mastery over it.
This changes everything. It means:
- We go forward knowing we may fail… but we go forward anyway.
- We create art knowing we might be misunderstood…but we create it anyway.
- We ship our work knowing it might be plagiarized… but we ship it anyway.
In moving forward in our productive art career, we have to ask ourselves:
Am I causing fear to control my every thought?
And if so,
How can I master it, so that I can control it and put it good use?
Please share your thoughts about fear and how it relates to your journey as an artist.
- What fears have affected you?
- Are they ones that I haven’t mentioned? Please share them.
- How have you overcome that fear?
- What has been the result in your creative career?
I look forward to your comments…
In the meantime, don’t let fear master you…uncover it, identify it… and then tame it.