How to keep creating when doubts, fears, and wobbles take hold
When you are in the thick of things, it can often feel as though you are not getting anywhere. It can seem as though you are working mightily, showing up the best you can each day, and still not moving any closer to your goals. It can be a struggle to stay motivated, remember why exactly you are trying so hard, and keep your vision for yourself and your work fresh. Take heart, you are not alone.
We are in the process of moving from city to country with a whole slew of new experiences and challenges. Making big life changes can be very overwhelming – it can be hard to keep track of who you are and all too easy to be afraid of all that you cannot see or do not yet know. It becomes critical to have faith that the things that have been set in motion are the right things. That you have made these initial choices and decisions carefully, and it’s become a matter of seeing them through.
In addition to this, I have been experiencing some wobbles in my creative work as I step outside my creative comfort zone and learn something new (more on this soon). So, I thought I’d write a reminder for myself – and anyone else who needs it – about why it’s important to keep going and to share some tools that have helped me along the way.
Showing up for yourself and for your work
When just starting out, and even for a long time, it can feel like an endless struggle just to feel seen and valued. It can feel as though you are continually putting yourself out there to very little feedback. Sometimes, it can seem like your feet are on loose gravel and as you take a few steps forward, you find yourself scrambling and sliding backwards instead of moving forward.
More than anything, I think it’s important that you keep making work and showing up for yourself. Because making creative work and getting better at your creative work is important to you, first and foremost. I think this needs to be your primary driving motivation – not gaining ‘likes’ or audience approval, awards, accolades, or even money. Instead of focussing on these things, keep reminding yourself of your why. Keep returning to your vision again and again when you feel yourself flagging. If it is helpful, you can create a vision story to guide you as you go.
There is a wonderful quote by Ira Glass that I came across a number of years ago and that I think all makers, especially at the beginning of their careers, need to hear (my bolded text):
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.” – Ira Glass
Remembering that you are on a spiral path
I can’t remember where I first came across this idea, but it is one that I come back to time and time again and that I have found to be very true. The idea is that you are on a spiral path, encountering many of the same difficulties over and over, but each time, you are a little higher up along the path. It is comforting to remind yourself that you are not in the same place as you were last time – each time around, you have more skill and more experience.
The fact is that the only way to get to the good paintings is to make the bad ones first. The only way to learn a new skill is to stumble and make many mistakes first. It can be very difficult to see when you’re in it or when it feels like a slog that you are, in fact, making wonderful and necessary progress. Sometimes, I encounter this with a whoosh of relief when I come across an old painting and I realize how much my skills have improved.
I have described this growing process as feeling like you are wading waste-deep through a thick swamp – never seeming to get any closer to the dry, stable land on the other side. It can be comforting to remember that I have been here before. I have made it through to the other side and felt triumphant and empowered by having overcome something. It is simply that I have now embarked on the next set of challenges, but they will be in the past themselves, too, soon enough.
Comparing yourself to yourself instead of to others
Comparing you to you is the only real measure of progress and growth. Each of us is individual with our own experiences, ways of learning, and ways of seeing. Comparing your work or what you are doing in your creative work to that of someone else doesn’t really tell you how you are doing.
The best way to see how far you’ve come is to look at old work and to take a little time to think back to what you used to struggle with. Sometimes friends or loved ones can be good at helping you to remember and see how far you have come. They have been there with you through it. The more you are able to focus on your own progress, growth, and goals – and not on what others are doing – the more joyous and encouraging the process will be for you.
The only way to get to the good paintings is to make the bad ones first. The only way to learn a new skill is to stumble and make many mistakes first. It can be very difficult to see when you’re in it, when it feels like a slog, or like you are not getting anywhere that you are, in fact, making wonderful progress.
Knowing you are not alone
The ups and downs of making never cease to amaze me and give me new challenges to work through. It’s often frustrating and I feel very aware of my limitations and of all there is to learn. Sometimes it’s good to remember that all makers experience this – even established ones – often privately, in their studios. Know that you are not alone and take courage.
It can often feel like a lonely path and like you are all alone going against the prevailing traffic. I have found support in podcasts or books, and sometimes the words of others who are further along the way. This is why I began a series of Maker Interviews – in the hopes that we can each feel a little less alone by sharing our stories, challenges, and dreams as fellow makers.
Identifying and removing blocks and limitations
There are many things that can get in your way as you show up to your creative work. As I work with new people and in new partnerships, I have been reminded that each of us has our own strengths and limitations. If you are able to learn to accommodate these, you will be able to achieve more, with less resistance (and more joy!). It does no good to beat yourself up or try to force a different way of working upon yourself. In fact, it can often backfire and you can come to a full-stop as you recover and slowly regain your momentum.
At times of great change, I find that my inner critics tend to be the loudest. Lately, I have had to revisit my own past words about overcoming your inner critics in order to remember that they are not me, they are not all-seeing voices of truth. They are fears or voices from past experiences and they can be brought back in check.
It can be draining to battle with your inner critics or to be beating yourself up constantly due to an over-enthusiastic perfectionist streak. Remember that both of these things are curable. I wrote a post about how I overcame a serious case of perfectionism.
There are sometimes larger issues at play, too. I recently gave up alcohol for a year and learned so much about energy, focus, well-being, and creative productivity in the process. I hope my experience will encourage you to question and brave overcoming any habits that may be holding you back from making your best work.
Criticism is never well-timed, but sometimes it can really knock you for a loop or even cause your creative work to block. If you have been bitten by it, I have a post all about how to stand strong and rise above criticism.
Keep returning to your vision again and again when you feel yourself flagging. If it is helpful, you can create a vision story to help guide you as you go.
Setting smaller goals that give you momentum
I come back to recommending small steps a lot, but I do this because they really work! You don’t have to have everything figured out or know yet how exactly you will do something start to finish. You just need to be able to see and take the next very small step that is ahead of you. Then you will be able to take the next one, and the next one. Small steps are manageable and truly do add up to great progress over time.
Setting smaller goals, more often, creates forward momentum that carries you through. I set my goals on a quarterly basis in what I call Quarterly Summits – this makes it feel like I have a new year every three months! I find this gives me a new burst of energy each time. It allows me to set a smaller number of goals that are more focussed, more manageable, and more likely to be accomplished.
Even if it feels like you are running to stand still, you are not. You are growing and changing into your best self. Don’t forget that each time you circle back to a problem, you are a little higher up on the spiral path. You are not the same person you were last time you encountered the challenge. You are wiser, more experienced, more skilled, and certainly more sure-footed with each new spiral.
Keep going, the world needs you and your work
Each year, I try to set some big picture goals for myself and also pick a word or phrase for the year ahead. Having a word or theme can be a good reminder of your highest values for the year. This year, the words that I kept returning to were,“Keep Going”. How often I have found myself telling myself these very words! I have found myself in so many aspects of my life, coming back to this theme again and again – not deliberately, but out of necessity. It seems that it is, indeed, a year for keeping going.
Even if it feels like you are running to stand still, you are not. You are growing and changing into your best self. Don’t forget that each time you circle back to a problem, you are a little higher up on the spiral path. You are not the same person you were last time you encountered the challenge. You are wiser, more experienced, more skilled, and certainly more sure-footed with each spiral.
Also remember that there are many of us out there encountering the same challenges. If we band together, share our experiences and wisdoms, encouragement and support, we will get there. Keep going. The world needs you and your creative voice.
Feel accompanied: I share learnings about living a meaningful creative life, as well as beautiful artwork and stories each month. Sign up for my monthly email letter at the bottom of this page. I also post regularly on Instagram.
Resources for makers: I have written about quite a few challenges we makers face in our creative work including: The Art of Showing Up and Doing the Work. A post all about how to get out of your own way and start creating the work that lights you up. See all posts tagged Creative Flow.