the most common afflictions for the creative type is the fear of failure. It can
be debilitating and destructive, and it manifests itself in many ways. But what
exactly is this fear? Why do we have it? Why is it so much more pronounced with
creative types? And most importantly, how does one overcome it? I have pondered
these questions, and believe I can illustrate the issue through a short story. I
call it The Traffic Cop and the
The Traffic Cop and the Archaeologist
composer sits expectantly in front of his blank staff paper, pencil in hand,
poised to write the first note. An idea flashes into his mind, almost too
quickly for him to transcribe it. Instinctively, the pencil moves toward the
page. The lead almost contacts the paper, but an invisible wall halts the
pencil a mere split-second before.
“Stop!”, a mental voice screams. “That’s garbage!”
composer is bewildered. He listens to the idea again. It is garbage. He crumples it up and disposes of it in the blast
furnace of his mind. He starts again, this time with a different idea.
“That’s garbage, too. Those chords are way too conservative. Make it more dissonant.” The composer does so.
“There you go. Sort of. It sounds more modern, at least.”
The composer has, for the time being, pleased his inner traffic cop. As he continues the project, however, he struggles at every stage. He fights the process, rather than participating in it, the ever-present traffic cop belittling him and critiquing his style, technique, and even the topic behind the music. After months of struggle, the composer gives up on the piece. He throws it away, never to return to it. He perhaps never even returns to writing music. What should have brought pleasure and enjoyment has brought only pain and disdain.
another scene, an archaeologist digs in the desert. The coarse sand has squirmed,
grain by grain, into his boots. The monotony of the desert deprives his senses
of anything entertaining or inspiring. The searing sun wears away at his spirit,
and the dehydration parches his skin. He has just arrived at the spot where he
wishes to dig. Taking his shovel, he sticks it into the ground, heaves a great
pile of sand, and casts it aside, leaving a gaping hole in the ground.
There is nothing in it. The archaeologist is frustrated. “Nothing here, I guess.” He digs some more, finding a small piece of…something? He holds it up to the sunlight.
just a piece of clay with random-looking scratches on it.”
this aside, just like the sand from before. He continues digging, this time
with greater frustration. His frustration is so great, in fact, that he swings
the shovel slightly too hard, hitting something else and shattering it. He
picks up several broken pieces.
look like a jumble. The markings on them look fragmented and make no sense.
They’re not even complete. They have no beauty in them.”
aside these pieces as well. Now boiling with frustration, he drops his shovel
and storms away, never to dig again.
What does this
If any of
us have experience digging for fossils or ancient artifacts (or if we watch the
Discovery channel), the second story will sound utterly ridiculous. What
archaeologist or paleontologist would give up like this? Which one of these
professionals, in their right mind, would find a small piece of something, and
casually dismiss it simply because it did not appear complete?
of them, of course. And yet, this is exactly what an artist’s “inner traffic
cop” does. This is what perfectionism does. This is its folly, and its danger. It
exists because an artist knows what great art looks like. He wants to create
something like it. He sees the result in his mind, and does not wish to waste
time not getting the result.
result will not show, however, is the process through which it was found. That
process is frequently met with much disorganization, confusion, and even pain.
As the archaeologist must dig through much sand to find the clay pieces, the
artist must often create much nonsense to find the beauty. As the archaeologist
must find many disconnected clay pieces before putting them together into a
beautiful ancient vase, the artist may need to find many disconnected ideas
before bringing them together, into a coherent whole. After all, every novel is
made up of sentences, every painting is made up of individual brushstrokes, every
melody is made up of small motives, and every symphony is made up of individual
melodies. The traffic cop sees what the disconnected fragment is. The
archaeologist sees what it could become.
disconnected clay pieces, the creative process and the initial ideas it
produces are often delicate. They are easily disturbed and even shattered by
more forceful aspects of our personalities, and perfectionism is often one of the
most forceful aspects of an artist’s personality. It is the proverbial “bull in
the china closet.”
the question: why can one not compose a memorable melody, write a great story,
or paint a beautiful picture, in a single try? Why must we “dig” for our ideas?
we have to dig for ideas because the imagination is inherently disorganized. Since
it is constantly influenced by data it receives from the outer world, and is
constantly shifting its inner world based on it, the ideas are “buried”
underneath much mental clutter. This aspect of the creative process may be
compared to finding a specific set of compatible sentences amid piles of
recently-returned library books.
perfectionism have its place? I believe so. The creative process is like an
unmapped jungle. It has no roads, bridges, or other infrastructure. The only
way to traverse it is for curious explorers to travel it. This simple curiosity
is the “method” by which the grammar of each artistic language was developed. One
of the first artists asked, “What color will result if I mix this blue with
that green?” A composer, “What will it sound like if I combine the cellos with
a solo horn?” A novelist, “What if I write this surprise ending?” (Ironically,
without this risk-taking exploration, no art would exist for the traffic cop to
traffic cop direct a jungle? Of course not. This is the realm of the
archaeologist. It is the place where one asks questions, digs in the dirt, and
explores. In this way, the creative process is often chaotic and leaves quite a
mess. By itself, it cannot guarantee that a comprehensible order is built. It
cannot guarantee that an audience will understand what is being presented. It
cannot guarantee that the artist will connect with others through his work. The
initial results of its efforts are often jumbled, incoherent, or incomplete. The
process is characterized by much questioning. “I wonder what happens if I do this?
What happens if I go there? I think I’ll observe this – ooh, shiny!”
This process is the very lifeblood of creativity.
imagine attempting to direct traffic this way. The result would be total pandemonium.
Can an archaeologist dig in the middle of a busy city street? For the sake of
the traffic, I would hope not. So, who guides the creative process once its
initial stages are complete? Who takes over once all of the individual pieces
are found? Who ensures that the audience will understand what has been created?
The traffic cop. He guides the cars to their destinations. He ensures that
signs are clear. He guarantees that no one gets lost. He is the one who permits
understanding between the artist and his audience.
I have found it helpful to think of it in this way: as an archaeologist digs up more pieces, he begins to find patterns within them that suggest how they ought to connect to one another. As he connects them, a coherent vase, urn, or tablet begins to form. In a sense, the finished product almost builds itself.
It is at
this point, once all of the essential pieces have been placed, that the traffic
cop is most useful. He identifies the cracks in the finished product and tells
the archaeologist how to glue them together. He ensures that the vase does not
simply crumble as soon as it is removed from the dig site. He ensures that the
finished product is comprehensible to an audience. To a composer, he might say,
“This transition is clunky.” To an artist, “This color isn’t obvious enough;
it’s almost invisible in this bright light.” To a novelist, “This character’s
decision doesn’t seem realistic.” And then, it falls back to the archaeologist
to apply the remedies: smoothing out the musical transitions, darkening the
paint colors slightly, or revisiting a character’s odd decision.
And so, the
traffic cop can only direct existing traffic, but cannot create
it. The archaeologist maps the area, builds the cars, and paves the roads, and
the traffic cop directs them smoothly. In this way, the finished product and
the creative process itself are actually improved. The traffic cop has
his uses, but he is not meant to dig for fossils. The archaeologist has his
uses as well, as long as he does not attempt to direct traffic. As long as they
are carefully separated, perfectionism and creativity need not be enemies. In
fact, their relationship is downright symbiotic.
How should we,
and for my students, I have discovered that a shift in attitude is necessary to
put perfectionism in its proper place. Rather than thinking, “I must create
something,” (even though we must), I have found it helpful to think, “I will explore
something.” As mentioned in the previous article, the key to creativity appears
to be curiosity. Curiosity is incompatible with perfectionism. An artist
cannot cultivate both at the same time. One cannot simultaneously say, “I
wonder what this piece of pottery connects to?”, and, “This piece of pottery is
useless”. Rather than asking ourselves, “Is this good enough?”, let us ask
ourselves, “I wonder what I can do with this?”
is quite dangerous at this point in the process, when many ideas are too
fragile and unformed. We must allow ourselves to see what the next few notes
suggest, what the resulting hues from our paintbrushes will be, or what a given
character’s decision will lead to down the road. After all, is there any
penalty for playing a sour note? Is there any real consequence for painting an
unbeautiful color combination? Will anything terrible result if we write an
imperfect word? Not at all. In fact, one must be willing to dig through the
dirt to find the gold.
the process, when an idea is more fully formed and, therefore, less easily
disturbed, perfectionism is incredibly helpful. It allows an artist to assess a
project objectively, with regard to how it will be perceived by an audience.
(And I believe that our inner traffic cop is a manifestation of how we imagine
our audience will react.) It helps the artist to better communicate with, to connect with, the audience. Over time,
this perfectionism also allows the artist to improve his craft.
let us listen to the traffic cop, but only once the infrastructure is built. Let
us explore with the archaeologist, but without presenting unfinished or chaotic
work to our audiences. Let us keep each one in his proper place, so that we may
create art that both deeply expresses and immediately connects.
- Has perfectionism posed a problem for you? How?
- Has an audience ever reacted in a way that you
didn’t expect? Put another way: has your inner traffic cop ever turned out to
have been wrong?
- How would you characterize the relationship
between your inner traffic cop and your inner archaeologist?