In the creative process, one of the silent killers is expectation escalation.
It’s very important that we have a healthy understanding of our abilities and developmental opportunities, but for some of us, myself included, our expectations of ourselves and our work is our greatest competitor to full, free creativity.
In his work On Intelligence, Jeff Hawkins writes of a phenomenon in the mind called the “invariant representation”. This is a mental construct that represents the ultimate form of whatever subject we are considering. In other words, and this is greatly simplified, the ultimate chair, table, lamp, etc., all exist in our mind in some form and are used to compare all of our experiences to determine what we are seeing and experiencing. The same thing happens with our art. We create mental constructs, or invariant representations, of what great work would look like, and often these are so high and perfect that it would be nearly impossible to achieve them.
When we do this, we not only limit ourselves creatively, we also lose all sense of awe and wonder in the creative process. Creativity is about constant discovery. It’s the process of continually opening wrapped packages to discover what’s inside. Yes, it is work, but the work is often lost in obsessive and focused discovery. When we fall prey to the silent killer of expectations, we are much like a kid opening a present on their birthday, certain that there’s a cool video game inside the box, only to find socks or a lame rugby shirt. In that moment, all momentum is lost, and for us, all creative momentum goes away in favor of the practical effort required to get our project to match our invariant representation.
We can pick up unhealthy expectations from three unique sources, and each requires its own remedy:
1. Our heroes.
Many of us began making art in whatever form because we were inspired by others to do so. In other words, we experienced the art of someone great – someone who had been pursuing the path to uniqueness and found their voice – and we were inspired to begin along the same path. When we did, we started off by imitating, (passive imitation phase of the uniqueness curve), and began to diverge and experiment with our own style. When we do this, however, the pressure we feel is often to force our experiment to fit the mold of something our heroes would do. To say it differently, our experimentation with new forms and styles begins to feel forced because it’s something new, and we are tempted or possibly feel pressure to bend our work to fit the mold of someone else. Or, worse than that, we think our work is no good because it doesn’t seem to measure up to some invisible standard we’ve set based upon our experience of other peoples’ work.
In his incredible book, Free Play, Stephen Nachmanovich writes, “It’s great to sit on the shoulders of giants, but don’t let the giants sit on YOUR shoulders! There’s no room for their legs to dangle.”
In other words, we can carry the weight of our heroes on our shoulders and feel the burden to carry their work forward in some way. When we do this, we are denying our own creative skills and passions and trying to live up to someone else’s standard.
Be encouraged, though. Every accomplished artist at some point doubts their abilities. Every great artists wonders if they should be doing something else. The brilliant and prolific ones, however, don’t allow those thoughts to prevent the creative process from taking form. They continue to make in the midst of their doubts.
Make in the midst of your doubts. Don’t allow others’ work to cause you to doubt your own. Know yourself and your abilities. Continue to push on and make with a confidence that what is there is valid simply because it’s there.
2. Our own work.
When we’ve seen a degree of success in our work, it’s easy to allow our greatest achievements to pressure all of our future creative endeavors. Again, we come back to the principle of the invariant representation. Our pinnacle of achievement becomes the standard by which we measure all of our future creative work. This is not only a sinister trap emotionally, it can actually cause a complete creative shutdown when we are in a dry period. And then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because we can’t seem to re-gain the energy we so desperately seek or need, which leads to less work and less energy for our work, which leads to more of a sense of inadequacy, etc.
The key to overcoming this is to realize that our work is just that – work. It is not our place to assign value to it. Our job is to continue working.
The job of the artist is to make things. Period. Not to assess it or assign value to it. The job of the artist is to make. The moment we begin assessing the work and assigning value, we lose our impartiality – a critical component of moment by moment creating.
This can be difficult when we are “creating on demand” for clients or bosses whose job it is to assess our work. Discernment is not the same as judgment in the creative process. We always need to discern whether or not something is headed in the right direction as we’re making it, but we cannot hold ourselves responsible for the value of the product. It is our job to pour ourselves into the work and do our best to fully express what we are charged with bringing to life.
Do not fall into the trap of valuation. Again, just make. Know that the ultimate value of art is unknown except to the experiencer of the art, and sometimes unknown for centuries!
3. Others’ opinions.
Perhaps worst of all is when we allow other people to define our creative existence. Others set expectations of us and we feel obligated to live up to them for various reasons. Perhaps it’s our parents who paid our way through school, or an early mentor who is overly aggressive in his or her support of our career. Maybe it’s a boss who has set our new performance standard at the level of our greatest success and now expects “peak performance” at all times with no sense of rhythm.
We can’t always control what is expected of us in our work, but we CAN control how we allow it to affect our creative process and creative rhythm. We can be conscious of how others’ opinions are affecting us and actively work to ensure that they are not detrimental to our creative work.
So this week, I’d like for us to do the difficult work of identifying how expectations might be affecting us creatively.
Sit down with your notebook and spend about twenty minutes answering the following questions. If the answers aren’t coming, take a walk and do some thinking.
1. Is my “worship” of the work of others affecting me creatively? Is my desire for the “benefits” of their success clouding my creative vision? (In other words, do I want what they have more than to be fully unleashed creatively?)
2. Is there a pinnacle work I’ve created that is the standard for all other work I do? Is that affecting me creatively?
3. Am I allowing the expectations of others to affect my creative rhythm and ultimate creative ambition? Is my role becoming my identity, or am I able to separate “what I do” for a living from “who I am” as an artist?
Again, expectations can be silent assassins. We must constantly weed them out and learn to operate fully in the uncomfortable nebulousness of constant surprise.
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