From David Kadavy’s book, The Heart to Start, “If you start making your art, you’re going to expose your self to discomfort. You’ll have to resist distractions to do the work, you’ll have to struggle through doing work that doesn’t yet meet your standards, and you’ll have to face criticism to make your work better.”
And that’s just a few reasons why you’re not creating your art.
Still, if you’re going to break down the ego — and stand a chance at making something — you have to start somewhere.
Ego Discomfort #1: Resisting Distractions
Here’s a scenario. (Note: This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.)
You have a novel to write OR a business to build OR a piece of art to create.
You know you need to get to work, but if you’re honest, you’re not sure how.*
The phone rings.
It’s your friend who asks if you’d like to meet up for lunch. You haven’t seen him in a while, and although he knows you’re working (and you’ve said several times how much this project means to you), you’ve been pent up “working” for months now, and you don’t want your friendship to suffer. Plus, what’s a couple of hours away from it going to hurt? Your relationships are important, and anyway, the work’s not going anywhere.
You’re absolutely right (that’s your true self talking, the one actually trying to create something), except you prioritized this same friend two weeks ago and your sister yesterday and your brother’s “emergency” logo design project earlier this month. Where exactly does your work fit in? And anyway, don’t all these people have jobs? Don’t they go to work (without fail) and not make excuses to you about how they want to make time for you, but you just don’t understand (their bosses don’t like it when they don’t show up, even once, let alone all the time; they need their jobs).
(This is just one scenario I’m vaguely familiar with. The options are endless, trust me.)
Here’s what’s actually happening.
A) Your ego doesn’t want to get to work. Why? Because the work is hard. (*See Ego Meltdown Moment #1 above.)
B) Your ego wants you to feel important. The phone rings OR your friend calls OR your friend “needs” you OR your friend wants to see you — so many options — and your ego has to stop everything to demonstrate your importance in the precarious social structure that is your life and that relies solely on you for stability and reinforcement. Yeah, you’re that important (says your ego).
Want to keep going? (Consider it a psychological experiment.)
Ego Discomfort #2: Doing Work That Doesn’t Meet Your Standards
You’ve read good books, right? You’ve watched good movies. You’ve admired great art. You know a successful business when you see one.
What you’ve been creating is none of those things. It’s not. If you’re honest with yourself (because goodness knows you’d never even show your work to me or your prospective audience, let alone allow us to judge it — can you imagine?), anyway, I digress. The point I was trying to make is, the thing you’ve been creating is complete and total garbage. No one would ever look at it, let alone pay for it. That’s the truth.
(That’s just one story your ego tells you … about a million times a day … and you actually LISTEN!)
Here’s what’s actually happening.
A) Your ego knows good work when it sees it. It does. For all its apparent flaws, lack of taste is not one of them. You’re your own worst critic. You know good work, and you know that what you’re creating is not even close to good. Know why? Because it’s not (sorry, that’s reality talking, not your ego). But you know what else? The only way that thing you’re creating will ever get good is by working on it — revising it, editing it, crafting it, molding it, trying it, failing at it, and bedazzling it — until (eventually) you make something that looks remotely descent (if you squint your eyes) and then, with some more work, (eventually) you actually make something good.
B) Your ego doesn’t want you to look stupid. And you will look stupid. A lot. Do you know how ridiculous you look already, just allotting any amount of time to do something other than keep up with the Kardashians or binge-watch Netflix, much less work on “art” or your “startup”? Have you not heard people scoff at you? Have you not seen them roll their eyes at yet another one of your hare-brained ideas? You’re making a fool of yourself, and you know it (which is why you squirm when people ask what it is you do).
C) Your ego doesn’t want you to fail. Because you will fail. Definitely. And your ego knows that, for sure. Remember that time in first grade when you tried to raise your hand and answer the question and got it wrong and your teacher scolded you and everyone laughed? Yeah, you fail miserably all the time. This time will be no different (your ego can assure you).
D) Your ego wants you to fit in and not be ostracized. Like I just said, that time in first grade? You’re lucky they didn’t excommunicate you then. If you get too far out of line, what will happen? Do you even know what can happen? You will be eaten by tigers. Yeah, that’s what happens to humans who stray from the group.
(Sorry, this scenario breakdown was hijacked by your ego.)
Want to give up yet? No?
Ego Discomfort #3: Facing Criticism to Make Your Work Better
If your ego’s impeccably high standards weren’t enough, you’ll have to face its (and your sister’s and your brother’s and your friends’ and your pastor’s and your therapist’s) “constructive criticism” — actually, maybe those words shouldn’t be in quotes.
Criticism comes in a variety of shades.
Some of it’s junk and is provided by your ego (or that of others) to keep you beaten down and not making your art. That’s the stuff you have to ignore.
But then there’s the legit constructive criticism (both of yourself and others), and that you will have to learn to absorb, mull over, and include (or not include) within your work in order to improve it.
(And then you will see how stupid your work really is and why you should just quit.)
A) Your ego is trying to keep you safe. It means well (really, it does), but it’s useless most times, especially when it comes to making your art. This creation thing comes with a lot of criticism, and it hurts to see something we love so much get ripped to shreds by someone (or something) that hates it or is jealous of it or is afraid of it. The best you can do is find ways to ignore it, keep going, and work in spite of it. It’s the only chance you have to create something — anything, and it will hurt (but not like when a tiger eats you kind of hurt).
B) Your ego hates to be wrong. HATES IT. If you make a decision about your art and it’s a mistake, then you were wrong (which harms your ego). If you succeed at making your art and don’t fail miserably and get ostracized and eaten by a tiger, then your ego was wrong (and, in that case, it would rather you got eaten by a tiger).
Are you a malleable pile of self-loathing yet, slinking off to a corner to soothe yourself with copious amounts of Netflix and Nutella? Because we can keep going.
Your ego will never give up — ever.
It’s one of the biggest obstacles between you and your art. It is, and it doesn’t care, because your art is stupid (or at least that’s what it’s trying to convince you).
But, I don’t buy it.
I believe you have something amazing to make (and I’m not your mom — who has to tell you that — and I’m not having to squint my eyes). Your art lights you up from the inside, and you know it when you see it (or, at least, other people see it in you when you take a bold move against your ego and dare to share it with the world).
I’m not saying it will be easy (your ego is a determined little devil), but it is necessary, if you can accept that it is. It’s up to you.