If I know one thing that plagues all creatives it’s self-doubt.
We all know self-doubt sabotages our efforts: it makes us reluctant to press Publish, or fire off a submission, or introduce a new riff to the band, or really go for it in a live performance.
It makes us stand quietly at the edge of the room trying our darndest to blend in with the wallpaper, when we should be in the middle of the room shaking hands with that talent agent or publisher or record producer.
But self-doubt operates in another, more insidious, way: it affects the quality of the work itself.
When we live in doubt we play it safe. We let controversial things lie, divert our energy into projects which won’t rock the boat too much, or upset the status quo, or upset anyone (which, let’s face it, in the Internet Age is just flat impossible).
We start using qualifiers like “sort of” and “maybe” and “it seems to me”. (And what would Strunk and White have to say about that, hmm?)
We even bend and fit and force our stuff into pre-defined boxes or genres, blandizing it so, we hope, it will be favorably compared to others who have plowed those fields before us. Or so we can make life easier on the marketing department. Ugh.
All of which makes us fit into the herd instead of standing apart from it.
And we wonder why our stuff isn’t getting noticed.
So how do we get out of self-doubt and get a little confidence?
Well, the standard line on confidence goes something like this: “Confidence is earned. You have to build it over time, by going through a lot of failure and anxiety and rejection until you one day you have a thick skin. Then, beaten and hardened and molded by experience, you will eventually do something really worthwhile and then and only then you can be confident! Because you’ve earned it!”
Well, that sounds an awful lot like agreeing to be kicked in balls so one day the kicking will stop.
Is it true we have to wait to be confident artists?
To answer, why don’t we turn the question around: is it true that all SELF-DOUBT is earned?
You see, the standard belief just assumes that confidence has to be earned but self-doubt doesn’t. We just inherit it from the get-go, no further justification required. After all, whether we’re doing art or writing novels or playing bocce ball or street sweeping, we start off by sucking, then we get better over time. Right?
Of course, we don’t always suck as much as we think we do. In fact, if my experience as a teacher has taught me one thing about humans (especially humans in our weird, success-oriented culture), it’s that we’re inherently negative and hard on ourselves, and we’ll go out of our way to prove how “right” we are about this. More often than not it’s up to the teacher or mentor to point out what the student actually did well, which is usually met by an astonished, sheepish grin and a: “Oh yeah, I guess so.”
We default to self-doubt. We look for reasons to justify our low estimations of our abilities, and wouldn’t you know, we constantly find them. So, day-by-day, we build the brick wall of belief around this supposed “fact”.
But what if we doubted our doubts? What if we challenged them to justify themselves? Might it be that we’re clinging to a baseless belief about our inadequacies just so we feel “right”? If we took away a few bricks from that wall might we see the light of confidence on the other side?
Let’s consider a few limiting beliefs that might be preventing you from being a more confident artist. And some better beliefs you might… sort of, maybe, it seems to me… think of adopting instead.
It’s not done yet! I can make it better! I can make it perfect!
Nothing is ever done, of course you can, and no… you can’t.
All those books and films and TV shows you love? Incomplete. That’s right—ripped from the artist’s clutching, clinging hands. And likely the artists still look at them and go: “Ah, If only I’d fixed that one thing…” But we all know the truth, don’t we? There’s no such thing as the “one thing”—and if they’d been given that choice, they’d still be working on it or dead.
Imagine some story you love. Now imagine it only exists in a pile of pages in a trunk in an attic somewhere. Because that’s exactly where it would still be if the artist’s desire to “complete it” had any say in the matter.
Duke Ellington said: “I don’t need more time. I need a deadline.”
You can still be confident in your work, even though it’s never “perfect” or “done”. This has been the case for every piece of art you’ve ever known.
I’m not prepared! I need more research, training, practice, mentoring, etc. I’m not an Expert yet!
Preparation is swell. But again, just like “completion”, it’s a game with no end. The most prepared person there ever was could have been more prepared. We can always be more prepared. To be absolutely prepared would be to be omniscient, which no one has ever been.
And yet, somehow, people still manage to do things. They write novels. They compose symphonies. They make films. They even make, you know, real things–like buildings and roads and aqueducts. (Mainly Romans, but you get the idea.) All despite not being absolutely prepared. How is this possible?
Could it be that preparation helps confidence, but is not necessary for it?
Preparation helps, sure. But ultimately your confidence is a resource you switch on, despite not being “absolutely” prepared.
And expertise? You know expertise is in the eye of the beholder, right? In our society, when someone repeats something enough in interviews, articles, YouTubes, and TED Talks they are regarded as experts on the matter. Your message, the thing you want to say with your art, is unique to you. If you get it out there and start saying it over and over, guess what? All those beholders out there will hail you as the expert.
What if I don’t tell them what they want to hear? What if it upsets someone? What if they don’t like it?
If you try to craft your pitch or your performance or your writing to what you think people want to hear, you’ll end up sounding phony, your audience will sense it, and you’ll lose any possibility of connecting with them. Even worse you might end up paralyzed (aka. “choking”) because your mind is trying to do the impossible: be inside their heads and your own at the same time.
But when your artistic performance comes from a place of genuineness and excitement that you actually feel, it connects with people.
Not everyone… and you’re just going to have to accept that.
What about adopting this belief instead? Connecting with one person from a place of genuineness is infinitely greater than alienating a roomful (or a society-ful) of people by telling them what you think they want to hear.
And so what if it does upset someone? Maybe that someone needed upsetting. Like we’ve talked about before, until everything is rainbows and unicorns, the current order should be challenged, which means it should be upset by what you have to say. Pissing people off is the first step in creating a better world. It’s a blaring alarm signal that says you’re doing something right.
Bottom line, if you don’t think you can be confident in your work until it pleases everyone, you’re going to be waiting a long time.
Every great work of art, the ones that stuck with us long after the artists’ bones turned to dust, pissed some people off. Those artists knew that, banished the doubt, and said what they had to say anyway.
I can’t do it. I’ve never done anything like this before.
Come on. Is that really true?
So, maybe you’ve never written a book before. But you’ve finished a story, right? Or a paper for school? A long email to a friend? If you repeated that over and over isn’t that kind of like writing a book? Isn’t that, in fact, exactly what writing a book is?
Sometimes we get overwhelmed by the immensity of the thing and we just need to put it out of our heads. Forget “write a novel”. How about just “finish chapter Three”? Or if even that seems too immense, how about “get to the end of the goddamn chase scene”?
Stephen King, someone who has written an unholy shit-ton of books, said:
“When asked, “How do you write?” I invariably answer, “One word at a time,” and the answer is invariably dismissed. But that is all it is. It sounds too simple to be true, but consider the Great Wall of China, if you will: one stone at a time, man. That’s all. One stone at a time. But I’ve read you can see that motherfucker from space without a telescope.”
You might even say he’s never written a book. He’s just written words. The books just show up on their own.
Plus, you know what? Something led you to where you’re at now. You didn’t just live in a vacuum for twenty or thirty years and then wake up today and decide “I’m going to write a novel!” You’ve read novels, maybe even a lot of them. You’ve done a little story writing, and even got an encouraging remark or two, maybe from a teacher or friend. You’ve seen films and developed a keen eye for storytelling, including when a story goes wrong. You feel, on some level, that you can do it too, and better.
In short, your whole life up to this point has been preparing you for this.
Maybe confidence lies in acknowledging that.
No one else has ever done it before!
Great. You’re on to something. This is what will separate you from the herd and make your work stand out and get noticed. Some will scoff and criticize and ridicule, of course. This is the (initial) fate of all ideas that dare to be different. And then something magical will happen: it will connect with people who needed to hear exactly what your art had to say.
And one more batch of critics will amble off, scratching their heads, grumbling about how “society” always gets it wrong, and how everything would be better if the world just listened to them.
Sad story, critics. (Hugs.)
You can’t be confident for no reason! It has to be backed up by experience, hard work, etc. Confidence has to be “earned”.
Yep, a limiting belief about confidence itself.
And it sounds logical, but sorry, history says no.
Alexander the Great didn’t conquer Persia and then feel the confidence to say he would reach the “ends of the earth”. He declared to the Macedonians that he would reach the ends of the earth, the Macedonians believed him, and the conquest of the Persians became inevitable–they were in the way.
John F. Kennedy didn’t see the US space program getting pretty close to the Moon and then feel the confidence to declare that they would. They were nowhere close. He declared it, and then all of the funding and resources and brainpower were poured into space program to make sure that he wasn’t talking out of his ass. (And to beat the damn Russkies, naturally).
Elon Musk didn’t get pretty close to space and then feel confident that SpaceX would launch its own rockets. Without knowing squat even about basic rocketry, he declared his belief in the eventual human colonization of Mars and poured every ounce of his money and resources into making that happen. And now SpaceX is taking routine payloads into space and embarrassing world governments by making it look cheap and easy, and Mars isn’t looking so farfetched. (As of this writing they are launching the top secret Zuma payload, helping the government do… something. Cue the X-Files theme…)
The point is, all kinds of people decided to be confident first, and that confidence generated all the necessary actions, resources, and drive to make the success happen.
If they had adopted the contrary belief that “confidence is based on lots of experience and hard work”, well, they’d still be acquiring a lot of experience and hard work, or dead, and we’d have never heard of them. If you think about it, we can always get more experience and do more hard work—so “confidence” becomes an ever-receding finish line.
Never mind history. Just think of your own life. To the degree you’ve ever done anything of significance at all, I’m betting you threw caution to the wind and just went for it. Maybe you took a class. Maybe you signed up for a sport. Maybe you made the first romantic move that led to a relationship. Maybe you started a business, or an investment, or a conversation, or a story…
People do unfamiliar, risky things in spite of self-doubt. All the time. They decide to be confident, in the moment, regardless of whether they’ve earned it or not. And that unearned confidence spurs them to take action and do all the things necessary to succeed.
Confidence first. Earning it, second.
It’s bass-ackwards, I know.
But no one ever won anything without winning it in their head first.
* * *
My theory on confidence is that at some point human ballsy-ness became a survival mechanism.
We must decide that we are capable, in the moment, of fending off the predator, or of casting the hunting spear, or of finding forageables, or finding a new home when the old one has become threatening or barren, even though we may not have the experience to back it up. Because the alternative is death.
Without the confidence, we never try, and we die off quickly and no future generations are born. Early humans figured out that huddling in self-doubt meant non-existence. “Sacking up”, so to speak, was born of sheer necessity.
Now, we’re not talking life and death here, but for artists, we are talking about a kind of emotional/spiritual life or death. An artist who yearns to say something but who lets their doubts prevent them from doing so dies a little.
So can you doubt your artistic doubts and live another day?
Challenge them. See if they hold any water. My guess is that most of them don’t. If you’re like most of us, you’ve spent a lifetime walling up your limiting beliefs with shoddy bricks on faulty foundations.
Next time, we’ll talk about some specific techniques to switch on confidence in the moment, regardless of whether you’ve “earned” it or not.