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Fail with pride.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Artistic Nooses

Posted by fxckfeelings on January 16, 2012

No one ever totally controls art or business, which doesn’t stop artists and professionals from being control freaks who rate themselves by their results. The difference between them is that a businessperson with poor results usually still gets paid, while an artist who produces bad art, or good art in a bad market, doesn’t. No matter what one’s field, all anyone can do is keep working, because the only way you can guarantee shitty results is by giving up work entirely.
-Dr. Lastname

Like a lot of artists, I don’t think I’m good at anything else. I’ve been “the arty one” since I can remember, I went to art school on a scholarship, and I’ve gotten illustration work pretty steadily since then. Ever since my last job, however, I’ve started to wonder if I’ve lost it somehow. I got a steady gig in a graphic design department, and at first, I totally got along with my co-workers and we seemed to share a sensibility. Then, for some reason—maybe it’s my age (I was the youngest one), the new department head, an off-the-mark project I completed, I don’t know—the group consensus turned on me and I was treated like an untalented hack for the first time in my life. I’ve never dealt with this before, and I still don’t get it, because the higher-ups were still pleased with my work even if my peers decided it sucked, and I was always nice to everyone. The only thing that did happen was that I started to doubt my ideas more, because every time I’d come up with something I’d immediately think of all the reasons my co-workers would hate it. After a few months of this, I couldn’t take it anymore, so when a college friend told me there was an opening at his work, I jumped on it. The problem is that I still can’t get that negativity and doubt out of my head—maybe I am a hack, after all—and I’m terrified of starting this new job and either not coming up with anything good or not coming up with anything period until eventually I can’t get a job at all. I’m not good at anything else, but what if I’m not good at design anymore, either? My goal is to get my mojo back (or at least get these assholes out of my brain).

One of the curses of being talented, in arts or sports, is that talent becomes the heart of your self-esteem. Talent and ego have a flawed-yet-symbiotic relationship.

It’s particularly true if, like many talented people, you’re actually not so hot at doing other things. It’s as if your talent takes up extra brain-space, crowding out room for the basics and leaving you both gifted and klutzy, brilliant and ADD, hyper-capable and totally incompetent.

Other people might tell you that you’re good at other things, but those other people are wrong; they don’t have or understand an artistic mind. They had to decide on a career, whereas you probably felt like you didn’t have a choice. They also probably have health insurance.

What you’re “good at” is what you and others respect until you come to believe that nothing but hard work stands between you, success, and being a somebody. That’s when ego starts to assume you’ve got control over your artistic career when, in truth, no one controls art.

Even with all the hard work in the world, art is outside of your control. Sooner or later, you’ll perform poorly, perform well but meet an unresponsive audience, and/or get ill, injured, or misunderstood. And that’s when, if you rate yourself by performance, you’ll start to fear failure, and then fear the fear of failure, which is the fear of losing your mojo.

The feelings are awful and there’s no avoiding them. You can sense the rejection and feel your creative juices drying up, like you’ve lost your gift and can’t get it back. Meanwhile, you feel like there’s nothing good you’re good at. Without talent, ego feels like a total failure.

So here’s the hard part for people who want to do well at what they’re good at (and everyone else): develop a deeper set of values. You’ve already got the hard-work ethic for managing the controllable part of your gift—no need for improvement there. Now, learn to respect yourself for dealing with shit, which is just a technical term for that part of life that you don’t control.

Counter those fucked-up feelings with your beliefs; that you’ve done your best, and if you can’t do what you’re good at, you’ll do your best with other things. You’ll try to make a living and be a good friend. You’ll do what matters with what you’ve got.

Remember, what you admire most in others is not their ability to do great things, but to eat shit and still be a good person (unless, of course, you’re one of those shallow people who admire nothing but good performance, and then you don’t really have any friends and you’re probably an entertainment executive). Suck up the pain and remember who you are.

That’s the antidote to losing your mojo: redefining what you value. When you decide that mojo doesn’t matter, it comes back. When you care more about trying and less about results, results improve.

No one can stop the agony of unfulfilled talents, but the real challenge is to bear that pain, remember what you’re here for, and do what you can with what you’ve got until your ego’s healthy enough for talent to return.

That’s not easy to do—it’s a lot harder than being lucky and performing well—but it’s an art in itself, and a much higher achievement.

STATEMENT:
“I’m stuck with excruciating feelings of failure and self-doubt, but I have no doubts about my hard work or my ability to do whatever is necessary when I think it’s worth doing. I have no doubts about my ability to be a good friend. I will not let my feelings touch my self-respect.”

I can’t deny that I’ve had success as a musician—I’m well known in the area—but fashions have changed over the last few years and now gigs are far from plentiful. Financially, though I have a day job, I’m just getting by. I do my best to schmooze and talk up producers, but I’m basically a shy person who’s happiest to be alone, practicing. I know the economy is bad and every performing artist is having a hard time, but I can name at least 3 other musicians of my generation who are doing much better than I am because they’re more energetic and sociable and maybe more talented. I feel like a failure who’s wasted his life and watched his professional reputation ebb away and now I’m facing a sad end in a lonely rooming house. My goal is to turn this situation around.

As noted above, it doesn’t matter whether you’ve proven yourself as an artist; sooner or later, the pursuit of an artistic career exposes you to an unusual amount of shit you don’t control and, when that happens, it feels personal.

Fortunately, you’re too old and well-established to worry about the negative impact of your feelings on your music, and thus on your career, and thus on your music, etc. It’s good not to worry about the losing-your-mojo whirlpool.

It’s not much better, however, to fear that no one cares about your mojo, you’re facing a sad and lonely decline, and you’re sure it’s your own fault, as proven by the fact that your peers are doing better.

That kind of proof, however, is one of the nastier tricks the human mind plays on itself in the name of so-called reason. You know you’ve managed a good career for many years, in spite of a shy temperament, and you’ve never neglected the business side of music-making. You also know that other people’s gifts, both musical and non-, are different than yours. So real logic tells you that the only thing that deserves criticism is your luck.

If you believe in making music, you also know it’s a meaningful thing to do with your life, whether or not it pays. Remind yourself that no artist in his or her right mind expects to get rich and that living with poverty is part of your job description (though one you hope to escape).

Be proud of your choices and the good music that resulted. Keep with your successful formula, playing when you can and paying your bills when you’re able. Don’t doubt that you chose a tough life…and did well with it.

STATEMENT:
“When I’m poor, old, and gig-less, it’s hard not to feel miserable; but music is important, I worked hard at it, and I will not regret past or future sacrifices. Life is hard, but good music is forever.”

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