Doing the Thing When You Think You Suck At the Thing

Sometimes you just have to paint cats on it and live to fight another day. A galaxy night sky I was disappointed in, November 2021.

Being a beginner is hard work. Old hands take a lot of things for granted: They know their equipment. They have the basic equipment. They’ve built up muscle memory. They know what style they do. They have a style. They can reliably produce at least a few types of images. They don’t have to look absolutely everything up. 

Why can’t I skip to the step where I’m good at things? 

Here’s what I’m beginning to wonder, though. Is there a point where you feel you are good at things? 

Even people whose art I adore – people who, I look at their stuff and I’m like “holy cow, that’s amazing” – will often sort of pre-apologize and point out the flaws, just like I do when I show my stuff. They downplay the stuff they can do (which I think is godlike because I can’t do it), and spend a lot more time thinking about the stuff they can’t do. 

Good artists don’t think they’re good. 

The key to keeping on with art, then, isn’t to just hang on until you think you’re good (a day which will probably never come), but to keep doing it even when you think you suck at it. 

It’s hard. It’s uncomfortable. 

Here the main strategies I’ve figured out so far for doing the thing when you think you suck at the thing:

  1. Tolerance & Self Compassion: Do the thing anyway. Build your skill in sitting with discomfort.
  2. Delusion: Convince yourself that you’re amazing.
  3. Forgetting: Do the thing because you forgot you can’t.
  4. Retreat: Don’t do the thing after all. 

I think they are all valid strategies. 

Tolerance is the healthiest, probably, but also the hardest. That said, like all skills in art, I believe that “sitting in discomfort” is a skill that can be learned. 

Self-delusion is definitely a strategy I have employed in the past and it can get you over some real hurdles, especially if you manage to deploy it at just the right time to convince yourself to do something that would otherwise be hard, like showing your work to somebody or submitting to a publisher. The problem is that it’s fickle; you can’t always start when you want to, or stop when you want to, and when the bubble bursts, the crash is pretty crushing.

Forgetting is a strategy I highly recommend. The key is to become so wrapped up in your project that everything, even your ego, falls by the wayside. Hmm.. on second thought, this sounds like ADHD hyperfocus. Still, I maintain that the part of it where you become so motivated that you forget your self-consciousness is pretty amazing. 

Retreat is, admittedly, not a strategy for doing the thing – right now. But that doesn’t mean you will never do the thing. Maybe you just aren’t ready, or you’ve realized the benefit is not worth the cost. Maybe there are other ways you want to spend your Willpower Points today. 

Besides, retreat doesn’t need to be total. Retreat can mean “finding a workaround to your obstacles,” or “not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good,” or “understanding tradeoffs.” Here are some recent examples of my strategic retreats that in retrospect, were more conducive to my creativity:

  1. Deciding that my version of a tutorial won’t have trees because I had, on a previous step, made the sky so dark that they wouldn’t show up. Instead of forcing myself to do the tutorial exactly as written, I trusted my artistic sense of what would work or not in the scene I had done.
  2. Skipping the “sketch” portion of a tutorial because I was nervous about my landscape drawing skills. Instead of just not doing the tutorial at all, I skipped to the part that interested and excited me. 
  3. Buying pre-mixed orange paint in flagrant violation of all the color mixing blog posts that say “mixing up a great orange is easy.” Well I don’t think so okay? I want to paint with orange more than I want to perfect my color mixing right now. 
  4. Choosing a nature scene instead of a city scene because I do not know how to paint straight lines… and I don’t really care. But I do care about painting more mountains.
  5. Deciding not to paint because I had a headache.

Retreat can be a powerful act of self compassion. And tomorrow is another day.

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