Am I A Failure?

Dead tree in snow. Bent, broken, but still trying to stand.

It’s the end of a calendar year. For most of us, it is a time of reflection. Are you having doubts and insecurity about your art and your capability? Do you, sometimes, deep down inside, fear you are a failure? I know I do. At this time of the year especially, I wonder if I am a failure.

An ongoing problem for most creatives

I have written before about failing. We all feel it. I think creatives feel it more than most.

The fact that we are creatives means we have to create. But when we show our creations to the world, we are very likely to get rejection and criticism. That hurts. It bruises our ego and makes us insecure. As creatives we have to be out doing new, fresh, interesting work that sets us apart from our peers. But we can’t always feel the inspiration or be on top of our game. When we look at other artists work or awards, it is natural to feel inadequate. A failure.

My reading tells me most artists feel this way at times. Sometimes a lot. Even the famous or well known are troubled with this doubt.

What are your metrics?

We have to be careful to select what we are measuring and how we are doing it. When we feel a failure it is usually compared to what we see other people doing, or our goals, or based on some negative feedback we get.

So one problem is who do we compare our self to? Remember, what you see on social media or magazines or gallery shows is the very best work they can do. But we compare our everyday work, or even our throw-aways, to them and feel a failure. What if you took your carefully selected portfolio of a few great images and compared those to these other people? Would you compare better? Even if you say they are better, can you justifiably say, “but mine is very good”? Don’t assume you are not up to the measure.

External metrics

And we tend to tie our sense of worth to external measures. Like money or recognition or winning contests. One problem with this is that these are things out of our control. We might work hard and market our self extensively, but still we cannot control our sales success. We may enter a lot of contests and open exhibits, but the fact that we are not picked very often is mostly dependent on circumstances we cannot know or understand. And no, saying we just need to get better doesn’t ensure success there.

Recognition is more subtle and in some ways more dangerous. What artist doesn’t want recognition? It makes us feel significant. It validates us and our work. We may seek it, even need it, but we have little control over it happening. The “best” artists are often passed over for seemingly inconsequential reasons. Personal preferences of judges or curators, biases, maybe entering subject matter that is not popular with them. Any number of reasons.

Who said you failed?

But when we are not selected for the show or contest or gallery, what do we internalize? When no one is rushing to buy our prints, what do we assume? We tell our self we are a failure. We are not good enough. No one said that. It is what we tell our self. We are our own worst critic. We rush to think the worst.

Of course, we could try to game the system. We could study the styles and opinions of the judges or gallerists and design work to match their preferences. This might get some show entries and even sales. But whose work are you doing at that point? Are you still an artist if you subvert your vision to the opinions of others?

The moment I decide to create my work first for your approval, and not because it scratches some creative itch within me, I have lost.

David duChemin, “The Soul of the Camera”

All critics have their own opinions. Many are locked in to certain positions because they have developed a reputation in that movement. Some cannot rise above their training. A few are just narrow minded. A lot just may not like our style of art. I’m not saying it is useless to listen to them, just that their opinion is just that, an opinion. It is not law or given from God.

Take the failure or criticism as just an input. Think about the merits, if any, but feel free to discard the advice. Your own opinion must direct your art.

Understand your goals

Be careful of needing to seek the approval of others. They can reject your work, but they cannot judge your art. David duChemin also said, in the book cited above: “Craft can be measured; art cannot”.

The reality is, no one but you can judge your art. Our creativity is a gift from God. When we create art, we are giving back a praise and thanks to him. It is from within. The judgment of our art is our own.

Sure, we can, if we are lucky, find one or more trusted mentors who can give us good feedback. But even then, it is up to us to accept or reject their input.

Out art must scratch the particular itch within us. That is the goal that matters. We must create what we have within. This is internally driven, not dependent on the whims or opinions of other people.

Never give up

I have heard it said that if you can be talked out of your goal, you should give it up. Some disagree, but I think there is a good core of truth to it. Being an artist is particularly difficult. You must be driven and willing to follow your heart despite rejection. It was much easier to become an engineer than to become an artist. The goals were clearer and more easily attained.

I like the phrase what is the thing you can’t not do? This is your art. I think it is a good description. If we have art in us, we are almost compelled to produce it. It doesn’t matter if it is rejected. It doesn’t matter if we don’t get rich with it. This is our art. We have to do it. Other people’s opinions may hurt, but they should not knock up off course.

If I do the art that is within me crying to get out, and I’m happy with it, I am not a failure.

Despite what I may feel today.

Real Reality

Girl sitting on rock over cliff

As I write this in November 2022, Meta (Facebook) has just laid off about 11,000 employees. I feel sorry for the people, but it got me thinking about virtual reality vs “real reality” I don’t know about you, but I greatly prefer real reality.

Virtual reality

Have you noticed that many of the largest tech companies (Meta, Microsoft, Google, etc) want to move us to a world where we experience life through virtual reality goggles. We would sit in our chair and “experience” any place or time, we can do things that would be illegal or impossible in the real world. And generally is seems to be perfectly safe.

In the virtual world we don’t have to worry much about the consequences of our actions. Game over. Restart. We don’t die or go to jail. What’s not to like?

Real life

Contrast that with the real world. Things take time and money and most of us have to work to earn a living. We are “stuck” in the era we are born in. Our society has lots of laws and restrictions we have to live with. We get hot and cold and wet. We get sick and break bones. People can be cruel. Marriages break up. We die.

Wow, the virtual world sounds pretty good, doesn’t it. πŸ™‚

It’s about the experience

To me, one of the differences is a safe, manufactured, managed experience vs what life brings us and what we can find in the world. The real world is real. The virtual world is fake. Even when the technology gets to the point where the virtual world looks real (it’s a long way from it now), it is still fake.

Deep down inside, you know fake experiences are fake. Unless you live your life with only fake experiences.

Let me chance making you upset with me. I don’t have much use for Disney World or other similar entertainment vendors. It may be fun to take the kids or grand kids there, if they’re under about 8, just to watch their excitement as they are entertained. But otherwise, I can’t escape the knowledge that it is all fake. It is all a manufactured experience made by a large corporation. That leaves me completely unsatisfied. Except for a good roller coaster. πŸ™‚

When you know the pirates on the river cruise aren’t able to attack you, it looses any terror. When you figure out the rocket ship you’re flying isn’t going to crash no matter how badly you “fly” it, there is little incentive. Even that good roller coaster that thrills for a couple of minutes, in reality, has no lasting hold for us. It will not fly off the track or crash into something or drown you when it seems to plunge into the lake. Shallow experiences. It is just shaking us around in a safe and controlled way.

Being there

This quote captures an essence of the notion of “being there” in real life:

When I am out, I am there to be in the countryside, to have an experience; to notice, to engage, and perhaps record some good data with my camera. I am not thinking about making images, otherwise, I risk missing the experience altogether, and that seems counter intuitive. The experience comes first.

Alister Benn, “Luminosity & Contrast”

It’s not a game. No one is directing it or controlling it. No ads are being served up to us. It is the wild, unpredictable, real world. I agree with Alister’s description of the experience being key. The experience triggers our interests and creativity. We may not even know why we are drawn to an image at the time. We will figure it out later. Right then it is our subconscious speaking to us. But the experience has to be real to be meaningful.

Safe?

If there is no risk, there is no reward.

When we are experiencing the actual world, we are not necessarily safe. If I am in the mountains taking pictures, I could get lost; I could make a misstep and break my leg; i could slip and fall off a cliff; a bear could attack me. Or if I am in the city shooting images, I am even more at risk.

The fact that there is danger involved heightens the experience. People these days seem to believe that anything unsafe is bad and should be avoided. The reality is that life is unsafe. We don’t know what is going to happen 5 minutes from now.

Putting our self in situations that can be uncomfortable or even a little dangerous can be good for us. We become more self reliant and able to think and handle situations. It gets the blood pumping and sharpens our senses. A little real danger is far more exciting than a lot of fake danger.

To me, the dangers of being a couch potato and spending our lives anesthetized in entertainment outweigh the dangers of exposing ourselves to the real world. Entertainment is a dangerous drug.

Don’t be stupid

Oh, I can’t say that can I? It would imply that some people do not use good judgment. But as I talk about risk and experience, let me balance that with the counsel to do it realistically. You have to appraise the level of the risk and your capability. I’m not saying you should put yourself in danger.

For instance, when I talk about going out in very cold conditions and snow, I dress appropriately. I have the equipment. And a good 4-wheel drive to get around. And a lot of experience. Getting a good picture is not worth killing myself.

Don’t put yourself in any situation that you can’t handle or that is not worth the potential cost. Get training on identifying and countering the types of threats you could face. Most of all, be aware of yourself and what’s going on around you. Situational awareness applies even out in the woods. Be realistic and make sure you are physically and mentally capable of what you are doing.

Live a real life

My art involves outdoor photography. I do all of my shooting outside. As such, I have to get out in it. Weather almost doesn’t matter. Today, as I write this, it was 22F and snowing and with enough wind to make it pretty chilly. I was out walking nearly 5 miles in it. It was a nice day. The experience was more memorable than the images I got.

It is not always pleasant. That is not my goal. Life isn’t always pleasant. Where I live we have temperatures from 110F to -20F. We can have winds over 60 mph. There is snow and blizzards and thunderstorms, even tornadoes and wildfires. Being out in those things makes you take a moment and say “Wow!”. It is real life.

I feel real and alive and in the moment when I am out experiencing the world live. I am a player, not a spectator. Despite the limitations of my opportunities and capabilities, I want to experience life for myself. I am not content to let a corporation or a game developer or a movie maker package an experience for me, to feed me the same program they give to 1,000,000 other people.

Look at the image with this article. Look closely in the top right. That woman is living a real life experience at the moment.

Live life to make art

Artists are often pictured as counter-culture, wild, living on the edge. To some extent, that is true. We don’t have to look different or dress different, but we should be different. Our art is about bringing experiences to people. As such, we have to experience things ourselves. That is a source of inspiration for us. Our passion from what we experience needs to be felt by our viewers.

Do we have to suffer to make art? Is danger required? Of course not. Monet painted many of his great works in his back yard. The issue to me is are we actually living a life that fuels our creativity and vision? We have to have real experiences, not fake, packaged, safe entertainment.

I don’t think I can generate passion for my viewers playing a flight simulation wearing a virtual reality helmet. It may be enjoyable, but it is a fake experience. I don’t want to show fake experience to my viewers. We don’t have to hang out over a cliff to live life. But get out. Be real. Live your own life, not something someone else packages and sells you. Take risks where necessary. Be yourself.

Competition

Starting fear in the eye

Why is it that we feel like we are in competition with other artists? Maybe, at its root, it is envy or insecurity. I don’t like to live in a competition. My desire is to make art and share my vision with other people. I believe that feeling we are in competition with other artists leads to problems for ourselves and can be a malignant stress eating away at us.

Not competing until…

Most people merrily go through their lives enjoying art without feeling any sense of competition. But for those of us who become artists, unfortunately, we tend to become critical and competitive.

Once we are in the game we tend to look at other artist’s work more critically. It is hard to not think we could do better. Or think that our image that was similar was better composed and executed. Maybe we are right. Often, though, it is our ego or fear talking.

Theodore Roosevelt (may have) once said “Comparison is the thief of joy”. Regardless of who said it, it is true that comparing ourselves to others is seldom beneficial and uplifting.

Fear

Why should we fear looking at someone else’s work? I think a lot of us are insecure. We aren’t secure in our conviction about the adequacy of our artistic skills. We have to boost our confidence by convincing our self that we are as good as them. Perhaps we fear failure and are unwilling to put our work out in the world publicly and face the potential criticism and rejection.

It is not really a zero sum game – one winner and everybody else looses. When we see someone’s work that is good and excites us, we should be happy. It was a great achievement by them and it can inspire us to rise to greater levels in our own work.

But doesn’t their achievement strike fear into us? Oh no, we aren’t any good, why am I calling myself an artist, how can I ever compete with them? This is our insecurity turned to fear. We try to compensate by criticizing the other artist’s work. Maybe it will make us feel better. If we believe our self.

Jealousy

Another negative feeling we may get is jealousy. We may not like to admit it, but think about it. Other people are getting praise and attention. They are selling well and making a lot of money. I should be in this gallery instead of them.

We wish we were them. So we resent them. We look for ways to tear them down and to prove, even just to ourselves, that they are not so great. To believe that we are just as good.

But don’t forget, you are jealous of them because you recognize their talent. That should be sobering.

Become a critic

Even if we don’t have full on, green-eyed jealousy, we may become a critic. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw’s famous quote: “Those who can, do. Those who can’t become critics.”

We can get to this point through festering fear or envy or jealousy. We try to put ourselves above the other artist. To give ourselves credentials to label them, to minimize their achievements, even to just nit-pick (the top left corner is not in perfect focus).

Let me be very controversial and say I don’t think there are many critics who are worth listening to. Unless a critic has demonstrated history of creativity and success in similar art forms, they should be just another voice of someone entitled to their personal opinion.

If George Lepp or John Paul Canponigro gave me a critique I would listen closely and thank them for their opinion. I would carefully consider it and may or may not act on it. If I decided to critique George Lepp, he probably wouldn’t listen to me at all. As he should. I have little experience in his genre and zero track record compared to him.

Competitive market

It is unavoidable a highly competitive market. We are always being compared to other artists. Fairly or unfairly, there will be winners and losers. The best don’t always win. “If you make it they will come” is ridiculous. There are biases and vested interests and politics at play everywhere.

When we compete – and we always compete – we need to avoid the attitude that we are competing against “all those other artists”. That is turning our view out to worry about forces we cannot control. Instead, do your best and make work you are proud of.

Sure, for a particular contest, we could research the judges and their styles and biases and research the audience and what usually sells and create work designed to score well here. It might work. But whose art are you creating? Is your work going to be dictated by other people’s attitudes?

Relax

Fear, jealousy, envy, and being critical are self-destructive attitudes. Look at other artist’s work and admire the ones you like. Go to them and sincerely congratulate them. It will have rewards for both of you. You will reclaim your self confidence and creativity. Getting over the competition and fear and jealousy will free up your emotional energy to create art.

The reality is that we have our own unique vision, our own style and viewpoint. We are best off when we try to be the best version of our self we can be and create our own art. Even is nobody appreciates it. (cue a vanGogh discussion here πŸ™‚ ) Unless you are starving and view your art as a job to earn money, it is better to follow your own vision. It would feel good to win that contest, but wouldn’t it be more rewarding to feel very proud of what we created?

Art is an intensely personal internal journey. Hence the tag line for my blog: An artist’s journey.

Excuses

Trying - and succeeding

Excuses, we have them for every occasion. There’s nothing interesting here. It’s too hot. It’s too cold. I’m too busy. The weather is not right. I don’t like this light. I’m not good enough. I’m shy. It could go on for a page or more. Excuses are our way of letting ourselves off the hook when we are scared or don’t want to do something.

As a heads up, this is about the dreaded topic of marketing. In case you want to stop reading now. πŸ™‚

Why make excuses

Excuses are a way of absolving ourselves of responsibility. We shift the blame to someone or something else. It lets us off the hook. We didn’t fail, it was “their” fault we couldn’t do it.

Have you done that? I sure have. We don’t want to feel bad about ourselves. After all, we have a self image to nurture. The problem is when we rely on excuses to not do anything.

Fear

A lot of times we make excuses because we are afraid of doing something. Contact that gallery? No, they wouldn’t want my work. Submit for that show? No, I’m not good enough.

Fear of failure keeps us trapped in our own prison. We build a cage of excuses around us to protect ourselves from failing. But we can become trapped in a cage of our own making.

But we’re thinking about it wrong. What we fear almost never happens and not achieving our objective is not the same as failing.

What we fear

I believe a lot of us artists are introverts. We shun confrontation and don’t like to be criticized. Even if we are not introverts most of us do not like these things. So we fear that if we put our self forward we might be rejected. People might even think bad of us.

Here’s what I am learning: we will be rejected, again and again, and no one really knows who you are or cares enough to think bad of you. That sounds harsh, but it should actually be somewhat comforting.

I apply for a show and my submissions are rejected. I don’t know why. They do not give a critique. Perhaps what I entered doesn’t appeal to the juror. Perhaps they had different styles in mind. Maybe the juror was in a bad mood at the time. I cannot know. But what they didn’t say was “you are a failure; I hate your work; you are not worthy of being an artist; don’t ever enter this event again”. No, it was just a rejection. Get over it and go on.

Trying

You know the old Yoda line “Do or do not. There is no try“. It is a great line, but kind of misleading. Like Luke in the scene with Yoda, if we do not believe we can do it, we are probably right. The reality is that for most things, trying is all we can do. We cannot always create the outcome we want as long as we are dependent on other people’s decisions.

Trying does not mean we doubt ourselves. It means we recognize that many of the attempts we make will not succeed. And we’re willing to live with that.

It’s the trying that we fall short on. We’re afraid so we never try. We get a rejection so we stop trying. Persistence is required in order to succeed.

As I have said before, “build it and they will come” doesn’t work. We have to let people know about ourselves and our work. This is called promotion. It is called marketing. That is not a bad word. It is what makes us recognized and successful.

Just do it

For years I had the attitude that I love doing art but I hate marketing. I am shy so I am not good at it. People will eventually recognize the worth of what I do.

Ain’t going to happen.

People are not out there waiting anxiously to “discover” me. They do not know I exist and don’t really care. I have to take definite and active steps to make them aware of me. It may take many attempts before they will take a serious look at my work and see something they like. This is called “marketing”. I now see it in a different light. Rather than being a distasteful thing I should do, but don’t, I see it as an exciting opportunity to promote myself and be recognized.

No more excuses.

The great Wayne Gretzky famously observed “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” You cannot succeed unless you try. I have finally internalized that. Just coming to believe that made it far less distasteful. Starting to do it and discovering that a rejection is not fatal and no one blacklists me for trying has made it far easier as I go along.

Try something. Act quick. Learn from your mistakes. Keep trying. Believe in yourself and never give up.

You haven’t failed unless you don’t try. Stop making excuses. Just do it.

I Don’t Know

Man and airplane blanaced in windows

How did it get to where we think we are supposed to know everything? Why is it wrong to say “I don’t know“? I think it would be horrible to believe I knew everything. Where would be the opportunity for discovery? To be able to let my curiosity run free? I am quick to tell anyone I don’t know, if I don’t.

Fallacy of certainty

Believing we have to know everything is a trap. It will doom us to failure and disappointment. I would say there are 3 general classes of knowledge:

  1. Our values.
  2. The things we interact with on a regular basis.
  3. Everything else “out there”.

As a person you have to know your values. Those things you will not bend. At what point will you fight for what you believe? These are the bedrock principles we build our lives on.

In the next circle, we all do our jobs and use a lot of technology every the day. We probably drive a car or use a computer for various tasks or bank or shop online. It is important to being able to function in society that we understand enough about these things to be able to use them. That doesn’t mean we have to have a deep understanding. I was an engineer in the technology/computer industry for a career, and I absolutely know I do not fully understand all aspects of everything I use. In most cases it is OK to just understand enough to efficiently get the task done and minimize surprises. Maybe just to know enough to know how to not be stupid.

Then there is everything else. The world is so big and interconnected and complex that no one knows how or why most of it works. I don’t understand micro or macro economics, and I’m not sure anyone else does, either. NFTs still seems like a Ponzi scheme to me. I don’t understand why people become zombies when they enter politics. Why do bad things happen to good people? I don’t know and I will never figure it all out. Nor do I have to.

No one knows even most of everything

We listen to the talking heads on the news spouting meaningless information with full confidence. We know they are probably wrong, but they speak with authority. Therefore, we distrust ourselves. And after a while we realize they don’t know anything, either. When neither side of the debate or the “experts” can be trusted, we tend to check out, become cynical and angry. Don’t forget, though, that they have an off button.

There is a saying called Sturgeon’s Law that says “90% of everything is crap”. I have my own corollary to that: Sturgeon was an optimist.

If most of the information you get is bad, what do you do? Hopefully you start to trust yourself. Learn to research things that are important to you. Research means even listening to people whose opinions you don’t like. You can’t just listen to your favorite guru who says things you like to hear. Make your own decisions. Build enough knowledge to trust your instincts and decisions. Don’t believe anything you hear until you check it out.

Curiosity

Too much ranting about heavy stuff. Let’s talk about art!

After a long time of working up to being an artist, I have concluded that I have to follow my curiosity and trust my instincts. Sounds simple, but it is sometimes hard.

I have spent time at times doing things in a way that they would be accepted by other people. It wasn’t entirely wasted, but is seemed kind of phony, and it was. I realized I was making someone else’s art. I don’t do that now.

But do we follow the fashion of the day? Do whatever we have to do to be accepted by the ones who style themselves as the opinion leaders? Who anointed them with this divine authority? They are just people with opinions.

I find that most of my best work happens when my inspiration is to ask “what if?” or when I say “I have never seen this like this before”. And do something with it.

Adventure

Do you lead a boring, monotonous life? Or is every day a new adventure? Much of the choice is ours. It depends on our attitude.

I believe that artists have the opportunity to lead lives of adventure and excitement and personal growth all the time. Even if we never leave our town.

Adventure is exploring and finding new things that excite us. We don’t have to go to exotic locations to find that. Our point of view determines our adventure.

Nearly every day I go walking in the areas around my studio. I always take my camera. It is covering the same ground. Occasionally I create a new route, but there are only so many variations. Sometimes I get bored with it. But I am coming to realize that when I am bored I am not letting my curiosity roam free. If my attitude is better I am likely to discover new things or appreciate something for the first time. The same with driving through Kansas. It can be a nice adventure.

Artists are on a journey of discovery

As artists, we should be explorers. Not discovering unknown lands, but finding new things about ourselves and the world we live in. These discoveries could be as close as our back yard.

To do that, we need to be always asking questions: What is this? What else is it? Can I see it different? What if this was combined with that? What if …?

At the root, all of these questions are based on the assumption that I don’t know – but I will explore it to see where I can take it. Not knowing is fundamental to being creative. When we don’t know, it should excite and inspire us.

Forget about the rest of the world that is pressing in and telling us what we should see and believe. We are capable of deciding for our self. Being an artist means being comfortable with high levels of ambiguity. And the accompanying joy of finding new answers or showing the world something they have never seen.

Be yourself. Trust yourself.