Artististic Self-Doubt

I had a thought about why artists tend to suffer crippling self-doubt — Every creative person’s training begins with the proclamation that there is someone, or multiple someones, whose skill they will never surpass. If asked, “Who is the greatest writer of all time?” we* are expected to say “William Shakespeare.” What about the greatest composer? Mozart. Greatest rock band? The Beatles.

It doesn’t stop at “greatest.” I’ve read interviews where skilled artists preface their influences with some variation of “I’m nowhere near as good as they are!”

I’ve mentioned that I’m working on my drawing skills. It’s not false humility when I say I have a long way to go, and that I am not currently in the same league as my heroes. And, since art isn’t my job, I’m okay if I don’t reach the level of, say, Emma RĂ­os — but it’s not arrogant to say that if I worked my ass off, then I could be that good. The idea of reaching that level is what motivates me to practice when I could be binge-watching teevee shows on Netflix.

We’ve internalized the myth that some people are born with innate abilities that set them on a higher level than the rest of us, that despite our best efforts we will never be able to advance past a certain tier. I hate that myth. It makes us roll our eyes at young people who say they want to write like Bob Dylan. It makes people who don’t sing feel self-conscious doing karaoke with their friends. I want to emphasize that last sentence: People feel bad when they can’t do things they’ve never worked at.

Creative skills are like any other skill — if you have the time, the opportunity, and the necessary functional body parts**, you can do any of them. You can improve.

I want to live in a world where kids can aspire to surpass their heroes without being shamed, and where adults who never practiced drawing don’t feel the need to apologize for sketching stick figures to communicate ideas.

* By “we” I really mean white people who speak English — we’re the kind of people who assume our opinions are and must be universal.

** Not everyone has all of these things, and it’s worth noting that many of the most famous and successful creators have tons of money that reduces the amount of time they have to spend doing things other than honing their craft. They aren’t superhuman, they just have more time to work.

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