“Do not fear mistakes – there are none.” – Miles Davis
“You shall not pass!” – Gandalf the Grey (to the Balrog, a demon of the ancient world, a foe beyond any of you)
As a creative person, one of the books that most changed my perspective on what creativity means is The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron. I read it probably 20 years ago now, but a number of concepts have stuck with me all of these years.
I was having a conversation this morning with a friend of mine, and Julia’s inspiration revisited me again.
My friend (who is a private person, and shall remain nameless) is an intensely creative person, and is very accomplished academically – he holds a couple of impressive Master’s Degrees. He has an interesting bit of personal mythology: he tends to believe that his nature as an academic means that he’s naturally inclined (trained?) to be somewhat perfectionist about anything he writes. I can certainly understand that. Apart from his extensive work in his graduate programs, his research and his academic writing, he’s been published. So my friend isn’t somebody who is perennially hiding away and refusing to share his creative gifts with the world. But perfectionism, as Julia Cameron explains, “is a refusal to let yourself move ahead. It is a loop – an obsessive, debilitating closed system that causes you to get stuck in the details of what you are writing or painting or making and to lose sight of the whole.”
This morning my friend and I were discussing a political issue and I reminded him that he needed to write about his perspective in it. He and I discuss these issues regularly, but I told him “If it just stays between us, you’re robbing the rest of the world of your point of view.”
He told me something that so many of us creative people all too frequently say. He said “I’m far and away my own worst critic.”
Aren’t we all? My friend has a bad case of perfectionism. And he knows it.
So I wanted to write this post for my friend, but also for all of you. Because you all have creative projects inside of you that need to get out, I just know it. To paraphrase Julia Cameron from her book, “if you don’t share them with the world, you’re ripping the rest of us off.” I’ll tell you what I told my friend. Feel free to substitute your preferred pronouns. Here goes …
You think your work sucks? You think it’s not worth sharing?
You gotta silence The Censor inside your head. Think of it as The Balrog, and yourself as Gandalf. Tell that asshole, “You Shall Not Pass!”
Tell him to shut up. He’s relentless. He’s going to tell you that your work is shit. He’s very loyal that way, because he only really cares about censoring your work. He might even be the most loyal follower you ever have.
As loyal as he is, you just need to tell that asshole to shut the hell up. Seriously.
The Censor does indeed have a purpose, though. He’ll never go away completely, so don’t expect him to. But he needs to be relegated to a minor role. He needs to be dealt with. You have to face him and call him out.
The Censor is like a stalker, hiding in the shadows. He knows your every move. He may even know you better than you know yourself. He anticipates your best countermeasures and will try to head them off.
When you start telling The Censor to shut up, you learn to deal with his nonsense. You learn that all of his censoring bullshit can actually focus you.
The censor basically is telling you that your work sucks, and that you’re going to fail if you put it out there. Because he thinks that failure is your greatest fear.
And this is where you reframe your thinking.
I have learned that stepping into my own creative self means that I must have the courage to fail. I have also found that when I am willing to fail, I rarely do. Seems counterintuitive, but it’s true.
The times when I fear failure are when I am most likely to fall on my face. When I confidently move into a project knowing that it’s probably going to suck, thinking that failure is a very likely possibility, very often I do excellent work. Sometimes facing certain failure is when I do my best creative work.
They say you have to laugh at the devil to defeat it. The Censor is like that. You gotta laugh at him. You gotta stare him in the eyes and say to him, “alright asshole, let’s see what you got. Take your best shot. But you’re not getting by me. You shall not pass.”
You face him head on. You don’t ignore him. You make eye contact, keep your shoulders square, and your head up. It’s intense, but the moment you turn sideways, or look down, or break eye contact … that’s the moment he beats you. He’s an opportunist. He looks for the easy opening. You can’t give him the pleasure.
I said it before, he’s your Censor. He’s incredibly loyal. Like it or not, he’s yours. Every time you step into a creative project, you get a fresh opportunity to square off with him. It’s just the two of you, alone on the bridge, and one of you is going to stay standing.
When you face him, he loses power. But when you look away, he gains power.
So don’t look away from your Censor. Face him. It’s the only way you take away his power. And that’s how you share your creativity with the rest of us, because we’re really excited to see what you’re capable of.
Now get to work!
(The Change Agent is Brian Sibley. Follow him on Twitter @bsibley)