Do you have the mind-set of a professional artist?
‘Most of us have two lives. The life we live and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands resistance’
Steven Pressfield – The War of Art
As creative people working in any discipline know (whether you’re a writer, a visual artist, a designer, a dancer or, like me, an actor) the road between doing what you love purely because you love it and doing it for money can be long and filled with dead-ends, u-turns and re-routes. We tend to narrowly define ‘being a professional’ as being able to make a living at our craft. But perhaps it’s more helpful to shift our perspective slightly.
In The War of Art, a book I’ve recently read and that left an indelible impression, Steven Pressfield suggests that the difference between being amateur and professional has nothing to do with money and everything to do with mind-set; it’s having the mental resilience to continue down that winding road no matter how many road blocks you hit. And it’s not easy. It takes determination, persistence and an unbending will.
Recently many hobbyists have been in touch with us here at TextileArtist.org. They are generally looking for ways to turn their passion for textiles into a fulltime job. Today I’ll share some musings based on ideas explored in The War of Art on the difference between amateurs and professionals in terms of mind-set.
Professionals combat resistance
The alarm bell rings. You sidle out of bed. Throw together some breakfast. Jump in the shower. Then what? If you’re like the majority of people, that’s when the resistance begins. The resistance to get to work – to start creating. Now I know there will be many of you screaming at your computer screens, ‘Then I have to go and earn a living!’ That just means that your resistance comes later in the day – when you get home from your job.
Resistance feels like unhappiness, boredom, restlessness, guilt and it comes in many forms; do you recognise any of these?
Having endless debates with yourself about the best course of action for a particular piece, or re-arranging your workspace; that’s resistance! And before long, procrastination of this kind becomes habit, until actually getting started on the meaningful bit of the creative process (the creation itself) has been pushed so far back that you think to yourself ‘Well it’s too late to make any real progress today – I may as well wait until tomorrow!’
Anything you can do for a quick fix of ‘fulfilment’ only acts to delay advancement towards a long-term goal, which ultimately will offer much deeper rewards. Checking Facebook 50 times a day, constantly making cups of coffee, even cleaning and rearranging your workspace obsessively are all tactics to avoid the real job; getting to work. And being honest, how much satisfaction do these things actually bring you?
OK, let’s go back to those of you who need to go out and earn a living; you have really valid excuses for not spending time on the thing you claim to be passionate about, right? I’m just too tired when I get in. The dog needs walking. My favourite soap opera is on TV! It may sound harsh, but what you’re really saying is that your craft isn’t a priority – it doesn’t matter that much to you. There’s nothing wrong with that if you want to keep your art as a hobby. But keep in mind, Tolstoy had 13 children and still managed to write War and Peace!
A victim mind-set can be extremely productive, but only at coming up with more and more elaborate excuses. Blaming the conditions of your life now or in the past for your lack of commitment is a form of resistance; it’s the antithesis of getting to work.
Waiting for perfection
I’ve suffered from all of the above forms of resistance at some point, but this is the one that resonates the most. In my early days as an actor, I did a few short films to get screen experience and my agent at the time was keen on putting a showreel of my work together to send to casting directors. The trouble was none of it was good enough in my eyes; the result – I’ve been an actor for 14 years and I still don’t have a showreel! Is it a coincidence that the majority of my professional work has been in theatre?
Waiting to absolutely master an ultra-specific skill before using it, postponing the release of a piece of work until it’s flawless, or not putting up a website of your art until you have a body of work you deem to be the best you will ever produce are all forms of perfectionism. And what’s perfectionism? You guessed it! Resistance!
Jealousy and criticism of others
Being overly-critical of highly successful people in your field legitimises your resistance to putting yourself out there. You are protecting yourself from the kind of criticism you are secretly levelling at others. Again, it may sound brutal, but could it be that you are jealous of those artists who are living fully as their authentic selves? These people probably have as much self-doubt as you, but instead of sitting around bitching about how unfair life is, they get on with the work.
Fear of not being good enough. Fear of failure. Fear of poverty. I could go on all day. The truth is fear can and should be our ally. As Susan Jeffers and many others have iterated, the thing we fear the most is usually the thing we need to do most urgently. When you start using a new technique in your work as an artist, you fear that you won’t be any good at it. That’s probably true. But if you start, you’ll learn and get better. If you never begin, you’ll never progress.
What is a professional?
In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield puts it very simply; professionals work on their skill every day. Amateurs dabble.
Professionals show up
Resistance will rear its head every hour of every day, but the professional battles on. She shows up no matter what. She shows up when she’s sick. She stays on the job all day and the stakes are high; the professional needs to work.
Professionals don’t over-identify with their work
You are not your art. This is something that I’ve always struggled with and feel presents a real challenge to artists of any kind; at drama school we were taught that we were our product, so criticism always felt personal.
It’s so tempting to cocoon ourselves away from negative feedback. That’s what amateurs do; they never expose themselves to judgement. Professionals know that sometimes they’ll fail, but when they do, they learn and carry on regardless.
Professionals self validate
Professionals don’t take successes or failures personally, but use them positively to assess and improve. Where a piece of work fell short, they work harder. Where it triumphed, they make it better still.
Professionals know that fear isn’t to be overcome
It never can be. Amateurs believe they must conquer fear before they take action. Professionals act in spite of their fear, which is constant and tireless.
- Patient: They are in it for the long haul and work little by little, day by day.
- Organised: They are meticulous in the way they work.
- Technical: Their aim is to master the ‘how’ of their craft. They let fate deal with the ‘what’ and ‘why’.
- Practical: They don’t wait around for inspiration; they either actively seek it or take action in anticipation of its appearance.
- Modest: They don’t show off for the sake of it.
- Curious: They seek to continue to learn and aren’t afraid to ask for help.
- Realistic: They play with the cards they’ve been dealt, not the cards they wish they were holding.
Latch on to allies
Just as resistance works to keep us from evolving into the artist we were born to be, equal and opposite forces are also at work; these are our allies.
There is a constant battle being fought between resistance (which lives in our ego) and our allies (which live in our self). The ego likes things just the way they are, whereas the self is desperate to create and progress.
Amateurs operate hierarchically from the ego
Putting yourself in competition with others and seeking to elevate your station by advancing against those above and defending against those below is the work of the ego. It is unhealthy and undesirable, and may well lead to madness!
If your success and happiness is constantly being re-evaluated in terms of your rank within an imaginary hierarchy of artists working in a similar medium to you, you’ll spend most of your time feeling miserable and inadequate. You’ll only ever be satisfied after a perceived ‘win’.
The ego encourages amateur artists to base every action they take on the effect they think it will have on others. They act, dress, speak and create not for the progression of their work, but for the impression it will have on their peers.
Professionals create for love and no other reason
Pressfield states ‘To labour in the arts for any other reason than love is prostitution’. I know as an actor, it can often feel this way! I’m sure being a visual artist isn’t that different.
We must learn to do work for its own sake, not for attention or applause.The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles
Do you have the mind set of a professional artist?
Selected review: “This book is superb. Everyone who has ever tried to improve their lives or start a new venture will know that the main problem is not the money or the time; it’s the motivation. Deep in our psychology we have a hidden enemy, a devious little voice that tells us not to start or attempt anything because we’ll automatically fail or we’ve got better things to do. This little creep is usually the reason diets fail or books don’t get written. Until I read War of Art I just thought I was a procastinator or at best just lazy. But Pressfield has given this enemy a name: Resistance.”
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