I have always felt like an outsider. Not a social pariah, just not fully a part of what I see around me. Research is discovering that this may be common to creatives. It may even be necessary to them.
In an article by Olga Khazan, she quotes ‘Sharon Kim, who teaches at Johns Hopkins University’s business school, told me she’d always noticed that some people credit their creative successes to being loners or rebels… So rejection and creativity were related, Kim determined. But with a caveat. The advantage was seen only among participants who had an “independent self-concept”—meaning they already felt they didn’t belong. There appeared to be something about being a weirdo that could uncork your mind and allow new ideas to flow.’ This is adapted from Olga’s forthcoming book, Weird: The Power of Being an Outsider in an Insider World
Ah, so there may be some advantage to being a weirdo. That is great to hear after all this time.
A social outsider
It is never comfortable being an outsider, even for those of us destined to be one. You always wish you could “fit in”, to be a valued part of the group, whatever that group is for you. To have your opinion solicited, to be valued. Outsiders are the ones who get the funny looks when we give our opinion. Most of us learn to stop sharing our opinions.
Most people say they want to be unique, but there is tremendous social pressure to conform to the norm. Take any teenager “rebelling against society and conformity” and try to get them to wear something other than the standard uniform all their peers wear. People want to be different, just like everyone else.
I was always taught by my parents to be an independent thinker. Well, I learned it well. I was taught by my faith that I am an outsider here, a pilgrim. Yes, I accept and understand this. But it is not always easy. Such independence makes you different.
I take comfort in Mark Twain’s quote “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” I find that joining the majority is often a warning sign of me losing my way, or at least my independence of thought. But sometimes it would be comforting to feel like I belonged.
A creative outsider
Since I started calling myself an artist, I also came to accept even more my position as an outsider. I feel that viewpoint gives me a fresh insight on the world around me. And it helps me to be truly independent in my creativity and protects me from copying other people’s work.
In Guy Tal’s book More Than a Rock, he says “although the artist participates in the world as any conscious being, in making art he is also afforded, temporarily, the privileged perspective of an outsider. To one who cares and feels and acknowledges his own flaws and fallibility, having such a place within him also is a powerful form of self-therapy.”
And the great Steve Jobs said “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”
So I value and nourish my independence. It helps that I am an introvert. That keeps me from feeling as much pressure to conform to the majority. Not too surprisingly, research shows that a large percentage of creatives are introverts.
No one, no matter how independent they are, likes to be criticized or demeaned by others. But there is no shortage of people who see themselves in the role of taste maker and art critic.
I will say that being independent and seeing yourself as an outsider helps a lot. I want people to like the work I present to them. But if they don’t, it is more important that I like it. And when criticism comes it is important to honestly evaluate what is said and who said it. Maybe I can learn something. But I will not, I refuse, to alter my fundamental beliefs and vision to conform to someone else’s opinion. If I believe they have a good point of view I might grow in a new direction.
I also reserve the freedom to pursue any subject matter I wish. If a gallery or buyer says “you do abstracts, what’s with these landscapes?” I will have to let them know I do images that call to me. The subject matter and genre means little to me. I know this is not a smart financial position. Conventional wisdom says I should stick to one genre and become known for that.
That’s the problem with conventional wisdom for me. It is usually not conventional and it is seldom actually wise. When the majority goes a direction that seems wrong to me, I follow my own instincts.
A characteristic of photography that I like is that it relies on exclusion rather than inclusion. It is a busy, complicated world out there. Unlike a painter’s canvas, the camera will record everything you show to it. Our job as a photographers is to intelligently select only the small set of things that should be included in the frame and light and compose these important things in a way that makes for a good image. This means excluding most of what is out there.
I guess I like that because it seems to be complementary to my outsider point of view. It is an exercise in throwing away most of what you see and homing in on that small piece that is significant. Declaring what is significant and what isn’t requires strength of character and independence. I believe it is easier for me to make those decisions if I can keep an outsider’s perspective.
There is a saying known as Sturgeon’s Law that says “90% of everything is crap”. I believe this is quite true in most things. My own corollary to this law is that Sturgeon was an optimist. In my photography I get to look at a scene and decide what to throw away and what to keep. It’s very empowering and makes my independent self-concept feel great. ☺
I would love to hear your thoughts on this. And I get no financial incentives from the books I mention.