January 8, 2012

The Fear of Being Ordinary

In last week's interview, Amy McKay discussed one of the biggest challenges that artists face—resistance based on a lack of self confidence.

"...when it was time to go to school I want to say I chickened out. I was too scared—you know, lack of confidence. There would be a lot of people better than me. What if I couldn't get a job. Or I just wasn't good enough."

In Amy's case, the fear that she might be ordinary was so great that she "chickened out" on what she knew was the right path for her life. Happily, she is taking effective steps to correct this problem, and is now on the path to a very promising fulfillment of her true calling. But Amy is not alone in her early insecurity. Countless would-be artists chicken out and base their life decisions on what is considered practical and responsible. Some make the adjustment later, as Amy has, and some never return to their best true calling.

This is all about resistance. And one of the best discussions of resistance we know of is The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield. Pressfield asks the question:

"Are you a writer who doesn't write, a painter who doesn't paint, an entrepreneur who never starts a venture? Then you know what Resistance is."

All creative people experience resistance in some form. Resistance is your own mind giving you an excuse for giving in to the fear that you might fail. Resistance is the entire range of rationalizations and excuses and obstacles that you throw up in your own path to keep you from having to risk embarrassment if your best effort ends up being ordinary or ignored.

Ego is that part of you that hates surprises—the part of you that projects out into the future to try to predict and control what happens. It is the part of you that lays awake at night worrying about things that could happen in the future. Ego is hellbent on preventing all possible negative futures by a sheer act of monumental worry. It knows every scenario by which you could be embarrassed or found inadequate, and it believes that you are better off to hide in the shadows of inaction than to risk catastrophe. Until you understand this, ego whispers constantly in your ear. Ego provides you with all the reasons, all the problems, all the obstacles, all the wise cautions that you need in order to stand perpetually on the edge but never take the leap. Ego is the engine that drives resistance.

Steven Pressfield puts it this way:

"Resistance is the most toxic force on the planet. It is the root of more unhappiness than poverty, disease, and erectile dysfunction. To yield to Resistance deforms our spirit. It stunts us and makes us less than we are and were born to be...Does Resistance have to cripple and disfigure our lives before we wake up to its existence? How many of us have become drunks and drug addicts, developed tumors and neuroses, succumbed to painkillers, gossip, and compulsive cell-phone use, simply because we don't do that thing that our hearts, our inner genius, is calling us to do?"

So what to do with this little monster running amok in the back of your head? How can you stop the worry engine? How do you step up and stick your thumb in the eye of fear? It's really quite simple. Look directly at it. When you catch yourself in a whirlpool of worry and self doubt, with its cycles of defeatist self-talk, just quietly watch yourself doing it. This sounds strange, but it really works. Ego cannot tolerate being watched by someone who sees it for what it is. When you watch it in action, it simply shuts up. The worry and negative self-talk simply stop. The reason for this is something Amy said in talking about how Georgia O'Keeffe viewed her own stature as a painter.

"In one part of the interview with Georgia O'Keeffe—I can't remember what the question was, but she just said that she didn't think she was the best painter out there. She said, "I'm not the best there is, there are plenty more people who paint better than I do." She said, "I just got lucky with my timing that people liked what I was doing at the time I was doing it." And for me this was an epiphany—oh yeah I don't have to be the best painter ever. You know I think I felt like that, that I had to be so much better than other people in order to be a valid painter. And then I started thinking about all the arts, music specifically—how many people are successful musicians and don't really have great voices but they just had the balls to go for it and love what they're doing and make it work. And half of it is because they know that's what their role is on the planet while they're here. So I felt like, wow, if she feels like that, then certainly I can do that too, doing my best at what I can do in this moment."

Amy stopped to look at her own self-talk. "I had to be so much better than other people in order to be a valid painter." And she compared that to the reality she saw around her in the real world. She saw through the smokescreen her ego had blown up around her, and then, most importantly, she turned her focus to the present moment. In the present moment, there is no unknown future. There is just you and your ability. You have all the time you need in the present moment. You have the resources to do the one thing that presents itself to you right now. There is nothing else. As we wrapped up the interview Amy closed with a reference to Eckhart Tolle.

Michael: Your story really illustrates the impact of the economy. We're seeing that a lot of people are making creative choices because the practical choices aren't working. That's an interesting dynamic unfolding these days in our world.

Amy:  I think also for me it kind of gave me a new perspective on life in general, the bigger picture. I wasn't working and I didn't know when I was going to work again. Financially things weren't going like we had planned and three years ago we didn't think we'd be here right now. So what do we do? But in those moments when you're lying in bed at night wondering how it's all going to work out—you know, Eckhart in the back of my head: I'm ok right now, I have a roof over my head, my family is healthy and we're happy together and I live in this beautiful place, and we have food every day. It's these simple things and this reality check—I've got to do this now. Why wait? Seizing the day!

The worries of an uncertain future, and the insecurity that had always held Amy back in the past could certainly have kept her paralyzed creatively, but she chose instead to look clearly at the present moment and live intentionally and clearly in it. And as she said earlier in the interview, she now has too much art to make to take time out to be stuck.

There is nothing ordinary about the path that Amy has chosen, and she has provided us with a wealth of insight into the way that she has overcome monumental resistance that blocked her way for twenty years. She has chosen to live a life of moments experienced fully and just as they come rather than a life motivated by compromises contrived to protect her ego from ordinariness. This is the only way a creative person can truly live.

And now in closing, we give you a TED talk that addresses this very issue—living a life of present moments without reservation, by the remarkable time lapse cinematographer, Louie Schwartzberg. The whole video is excellent, but we especially want to bring your attention to the film Louie shares with the TED audience beginning at the 3:45 mark.

TEDxSF - Louie Schwartzberg - Gratitude

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