It is so easy to get discouraged when living a creative life. Your words are criticized; your paintings don’t sell. “They” don’t believe you have any promise. Sometimes the struggle to be commercially successful in a creative field can be so daunting that you abandon the art. But then you remember that art isn’t about “them” or “success” or “critical acclaim” at all. It’s about bringing your truths into the light, being creative, pushing yourself, being you.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the case of Henri Rousseau, a forty year old toll collector who wanted to paint. His work was derided, and yet he continued. He found joy in the painting. Not until the end of his life did anyone take his work seriously. As summarized by Maria Popova:
Long before history came to celebrate him as one of the greatest artists of his era, long before he was honored by major retrospectives by such iconic institutions as the MoMA and the Tate Museum, long before Sylvia Plath began weaving homages to him into her poetry, he spent a lifetime being not merely dismissed but ridiculed. And yet Rousseau — who was born into poverty, began working alongside his plumber father as a young boy, still worked as a toll collector by the age of forty, and was entirely self-taught in painting — withstood the unending barrage of harsh criticism with which his art was met during his entire life, and continued to paint from a deep place of creative conviction, with an irrepressible impulse to make art anyway…. [Rousseau’s life is] an emboldening real-life story, and a stunningly illustrated one, of remarkable resilience and optimism in the face of public criticism, of cultivating a center so solid and a creative vision so unflinching that no outside attack can demolish it and obstruct its transmutation into greatness.
The message from Rousseau’s life speaks to all of us: he was a success all along. He persevered with a remarkable resilience to produce work that spoke to him and pursued a passion that made him happy. That, the pursuit of great art, rather than the financial success was what gave his journey depth and meaning and lifted up his soul.
How lovely it is to stand still in the enormity of your questions. To realize that what you know is minuscule in relation to all there is to know. To let your curious mind take you on a journey of discovery. How liberating it is to lay down the facade of expertise and acknowledge that, in this world, we are all students.
It turns out artists make a lot of mistakes. We only think they are wonderfully talented, with perfect products immediately dripping off their paintbrushes or keyboards, because we see the finished product and not all of the drafts and abandoned projects along the way. So when we sit down to write or draw or craft or hum out a melody, we can set aside the worry that we aren’t up for the task if our first efforts are less than perfect. Mistakes are the training ground. The more the better because each teaches us what doesn’t work or how something could work better. It is all practice making us more perfect. What’s a failure is being scared to start.
Children are born discoverers, unafraid to make mistakes. Everything is new. Around every corner, a new adventure.
Somewhere along the way, though, we are taught it is wrong to make mistakes, and we avoid them at all costs, even, sometimes, by sticking to what we already know well rather than venturing out to try new things.
But what’s so bad about making a mistake? Is it even a mistake, really, if we learn from it?
Many medical breakthroughs and inventions came from mistakes. Post-it notes, microwaves, penicillin, artificial sweetener, chewing gum, x-rays. On and on. Things discovered by mistake.
When we get afraid to try new things or do things differently, we fall into a rut and diminish our ability to create and see new points of view. Our one way of doing and thinking wears a groove in our brains. In short, we turn into old, rigid people.
Getting out of those ruts, can re-engage our brains and creativity and cause us to make new connections, see new perspectives, discover new things. But first, we need to abandon our fear of mistakes and replace it with curiosity.
What is right there, just outside your normal way of doing and seeing, waiting to be discovered?
There’s always a critic. Someone to point out what you did wrong, how you should have done it, what you missed. That may be just a fact of life; they’re everywhere. Sadly.
But if those critics stop us from creating, from expressing our opinions, from being unique, that’s unacceptable. We each have our own song to sing, our own art to create, our own way to play. And we must be unwilling to have that creative spirit smothered.
How empty it must be to spend all your time on the side line criticizing someone else instead of creating yourself. Why listen to those sad unfortunate souls? We need to step into the arena and let our creative spirit take shape instead.
As Teddy Roosevelt said:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
Yes, you will err. Yes, you are subject to criticism if you try. But just stepping into the arena is a success. Let your gifts see the light of day.