There are many interesting personal dynamics partial to creative-minded people, but among the most outstanding is this: some of the most objectively untalented are the most boastful and proud, and some of the most gifted are the most cripplingly self-conscious and uncertain. But what we once chalked up to delusion and madness we’re now finding is the result of a particular neurological hardwiring.
It’s interesting to consider the subjective way we perceive our lives, as that view is the fish David Foster Wallace says don’t realize they’re swimming in water: a reality we’re so immersed in, we can’t see let it, alone talk about it.
But we love to take part in the cultural phenomenon of gasping and gawking at the people with the broadest disconnect between our perception of their reality and their own. We’re endlessly fascinated by “crazy” people… celebrities gone mad, the scandals of supermodels and billionaires, friends from high school whose lives we’re still feeding on for gossip. It’s as though our compulsion is a subconscious indication that we do the very same thing… just maybe not publicly, or to such an extreme.
All of this to say: we all doubt ourselves now and again. But creative people are plagued by a self-consciousness that is totally unparalleled to what would be considered normal. The same goes for their level of stress and depression, and that’s neurological too: the part of the brain that’s activated when it’s doing something creative is also the part that’s responsible for ruminating to an unhealthy degree. In essence, while attempting to piece together themes and patterns and concepts and theories from past experiences, creative people relentlessly dig into their untapped well of past negativity.
But when it comes to why they are their own worst critics, or maybe more importantly, what sets successful creative people apart from the pack, is that they are self-critical in direct proportion to their personal taste.
The more one can perceive “good” work (or, in other words, be able to gauge that which is truly moving, unique, powerful, timeless, etc.) the more they are sensitive to the ways in which their work is not up to that standard.
Successful artists, then, are the ones who don’t take their doubt as a sign to stop, but as a sign to improve. It is not inherent talent that makes them successful – it is a careful combination of perception, taste, and perseverance.
Ira Glass summed this up beautifully:
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.
It’s counterintuitive, but a lot of the most important things are: the presence of severe self-doubt is simply the awareness that you’re not as good as you know you can be. The difference between the people who get there and the people who don’t are the ones who don’t see doubt as a road block, but a redirect; a call to grow and rise past the discomfort, not a signal that they’re on the wrong path entirely.