The Fear of Mediocrity

I like creating because it fills an emptiness that used to be there. It’s so simple, and so lovely, that humans are like this. That we want to build with our hands. That we want to assemble and construct. That we derive joy from stacking pieces together, and stringing words together, and assembling colors on a page, and moving, and singing, and baking and knitting. Humans love to build little worlds around them.

Unknown

This quote is just a segment of a long post I read on Tumblr this morning about the fear of mediocrity. It was so cathartic to realize that other people struggle with their creativity in the same ways that I do. I identified so much with what this person wrote. I can remember criticizing my own art for as long as I’ve been creating it, even back when I was a child. Nothing I drew or made was ever “good enough” despite the fact that I had always been praised by the adults around me. My sister and I both always performed above the developmental level of other children at our age, especially when it came to drawing and art. But given that my sister is three years older than me, I still compared myself to her and felt that I wasn’t good by comparison.

I allowed this self-criticism to stifle my creative energy for many years of my life. That fear of failure can become crippling. It keeps you from trying new things. It holds you back from the hobbies you love, but aren’t “exceptional” at. I still remember reading something before that was talking about the way other cultures find it odd when people from America for instance say they “can’t sing.” What we mean to say is we don’t sing well enough to be comfortable doing so. But this idea is simply bizarre in other places in the world. Singing is just a natural part of being human. Just as all birds sing, all humans are capable of song as well. So why not allow ourselves to? The same can be said for dancing, writing, drawing, building, etc. All of these creative endeavors are a natural part of human existence. It is terribly sad that the vast majority of us seem to cut ourselves off from our own creative drives out of shame or fear.

If I only had a nickel for every time someone told me that they can’t do yoga because they aren’t flexible. It truly breaks my heart to hear that. Yoga isn’t about doing fancy, impressive poses or having a perfect, flawless body. Yoga is a spiritual act of self-love. Yoga is about presence and healing and showing up for yourself as you are. Yoga is a beautiful journey inward, a dance with your own soul. I’m tearing up right now just imagining how many people have denied themselves the right to practice yoga because of how they look or the real/perceived limitations of their bodies. I was nearly one of those people myself.

I can only imagine that this strange and sad phenomenon has gotten worse with the advent of the internet. It has certainly made me feel worse about my own creations. Before the internet, I may have seen incredible anime or animal drawings in books or something, but even though these images were far out of my league, it never bothered me on a personal level. The people who contributed to these books were much older than me, I could tell myself. They are professionals. It is their job to draw. There is no need to compare myself to them. However, now with Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, DeviantArt, Pinterest, etc. we are able to see the best of the best from people around the globe that aren’t necessarily older than us, or professional artists. For some reason this is much harder to cope with.

DeviantArt particularly was a place I used to love to visit. At first I was inspired. How incredible it was to see the vast amount of amazing artwork regular people like me were creating and sharing with the world! But soon it became more about how far away my skills were from theirs. I started to feel that I would never be able to create anything as good, so I should just stop all together. It made it hard to find the fun in drawing anymore.

Even though for the past year I’ve been working to incorporate creativity into my everyday life again, I still struggle with this fear of mediocrity. I constantly have to remind myself that it doesn’t matter at all how good my art is compared to other people. It doesn’t even matter if what I drew yesterday is better than what I’ll draw today or tomorrow. It is the act of creation itself that matters. It is the beauty of making something where there was once nothing at all. That alone is something to marvel at, something to be so grateful for being able to do. Everything else is just a distraction, a misdirection, insignificant chatter of the mind.

I don’t write these posts to be the best writer in the world, or even a good writer, to be honest. I do it because I am a writer. I like to write. It brings me joy. And that’s enough. I don’t draw to compete with anyone else, even the person I was the day before. I don’t do it to make money or to prove something to anyone else or myself. I do it because I am human. I do it to manifest my unique, miraculous consciousness into the world. Because we are all here to create, no matter our skill level or medium. Don’t allow anyone to tell you that you are not good enough, especially yourself.

The Importance of Play

One of the things working with children has taught me, is just how important it is to make time for play. It doesn’t matter how old you are. Play is an essential part of leading a happy and fulfilling life. It seems like once we reach a certain age we think we are “too old” to be “wasting time” on such frivolous affairs. We can often even be mocked or looked down upon by those in our peer group or older generations for not “growing up” or “learning to act our age.” For some reason, as a society, it seems like we find unpleasant, but necessary tasks to be more worthy of our time than tasks that actually bring us enjoyment or pleasure. The irony is, when we are doing mundane “adult” things, it is ultimately to preserve and ensure our future happiness. So if happiness is the goal no matter what we’re doing, why always put it off in some distant future if we are capable of having simple pleasures right now as well?

I think one of the reasons a lot of adults tend to enjoy spending time with children even if they are not their own, is because they remind us how delightful it can be to play and pretend. Even just watching them do so can have a calming, pleasant effect on us. We are sometimes able to live vicariously through these children. As a child, I loved to play with little figurines and have pretend adventures and scenarios with them. Some days I would fill up the sink and they would have a “pool” day. Or we would go outside and they would go hiking or camping in the weeds. I’d collect small flowers and berries for them. These were some of the happiest times in my life. Back then, time didn’t matter. It hardly seemed to exist. I didn’t ask myself why I was doing the things I did. It didn’t matter. I was happy. Wasn’t that reason enough? Things seemed so much simpler back then.

I distinctly remember one day begging my mother to play with me. She did her best, but was mostly just watching me. I asked her why she wasn’t doing anything. She told me that she couldn’t remember what she was supposed to do. She had actually forgotten how to play. I vividly remember the confusion and disbelief I felt at the time. How can you not know how to play? It made no sense, but I felt sorry for her. It seemed impossible that I could ever forget something like that. Yet here I am over a decade later with no idea how I occupied so much time with my make believe. It breaks my heart each time I sit down with the kids I work with at a doll house and struggle to come up with anything to do. I want to weep for that inner child that has become all but lost to me.

I’ve learned that play is something that takes practice. Thankfully I am surrounded by children every day that can help me with that practice. Just the other day a little 5-year-old boy and I played robbers together. He had us talk in deep, gravely voices as we planned our heist. Then we ran around the waiting room, laughing maniacally as we clutched our fake money. It was a great time. Even though it’s hard to have such boundless, imaginary play as an adult, I have still been trying to implement more creativity and structured play into my days. Playing for me now mostly includes casual video gaming and art.

Even though I acknowledge that this play is worthwhile, it is still hard for me to justify the time I spend on it (even though it isn’t much.) I am constantly giving myself chores to do before I feel alright allowing myself time to just enjoy and have fun. Unfortunately, by the time I reach the evening hours I’ve set aside for it, I am too exhausted, stressed, and listless to really even enjoy my playtime. Another problem I run into is getting too serious about whatever it is I’m doing. When I began drawing (and even writing) everyday, my only goal was to schedule time for myself to explore my creativity and just have fun. But now that these things have become a habit, I have been feeling a lot of pressure surrounding these activities. It has started to feel more like work than play.

With so many gamers now available to watch online, even my casual video games have started to feel like a burden rather than a joy. I can’t help watching others play and then comparing my progress in the game to theirs. I feel rushed, inadequate, unhappy with where I am. Even though I know it’s utterly ridiculous, I can’t seem to help feeling this way. Often times this feeling is so strong that I give up on the game all together. I hope that by continuing to challenge these feelings I will be able to overcome them little by little. I hope I will be able to transform this playtime into something similar to meditation. Rather than focus on how my art compares to other’s or how far behind I may be in a virtual world, I will keep working to focus on my breath, on the pleasure I feel in the moment.

Living in a society so focused on production and outcomes, it can be hard to find the value in simple experiences. What once were things I looked forward to have started to become things I feel anxious about. I feel pressured to make each drawing better than the last. I criticize myself for not being creative enough or improving fast enough or consistently enough. I feel like what I write is just rambling nonsense no one cares about. That my art isn’t worth showing anyone. But even if those things were true, it wouldn’t matter! I must keep repeating to myself that the point isn’t the final product, it’s the pleasure of the process. What I create or work on doesn’t have to be perfect, it doesn’t even have to be good. As long as I’ve enjoyed the time I spent working on it, that is all that matters.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Money Maker

I’ve been drawing something every single day for around a year now. It has been a great habit to start. It helps me spend some time being playful and creative each day. The only issue I’ve encountered at this point is running out of ideas. Well, that and the ever-increasing stack of drawings I’ve started accumulating. In an attempt to think of some interesting drawing ideas, I came up with the idea to start doing drawings for the children I work with. A few people had suggested that I make a collection of my sketches into an adult coloring book. While this was a great idea, given that I don’t ever like to color my art, I didn’t feel much inspired to do so. After thinking on it for awhile, I decided I would feel more passionately about putting it together if it were a coloring book full of positive affirmations for children and teens.

One day early on in my career when I still felt very awkward about waiting with the children while my coworkers spoke with their parents, I decided to make a drawing for a little girl while she was busy playing. Even though I was too anxious to go join her or carry on a conversation, I didn’t want it to appear that I was cold or disinterested. So I did what I could, in my own socially awkward, anxious way. I drew a picture of a cute Japanese-style dragon with cherry blossoms around it. I added a banner that said: You deserve to be happy. Before she left I crouched down by her side and gave her the picture. I told her that I drew it especially for her while she was playing. I told her what it said and that I wanted her to always remember that and believe that it’s true. Even though it took a lot for me to build up the courage to do that, it was all worth it when I saw how happy it made her. She was so eager to show her mom. I can still hear her precious mousey voice saying, “Look mommy, she made this for me!”

Just thinking about that day makes me tear up. That experience is what inspired me to make more drawings with positive affirmations for kids. The first few I drew made me so happy and excited. I couldn’t wait to show my coworkers and see what they thought about the idea. I already knew they liked my art, but I really underestimated how much they would love this new endeavor. They immediately started talking about copyrights and publishing, selling them to therapists and other child advocacy centers, all the potential money there was to be made. They urged me not to do anything with them until I put legal protections in place. I was excited and flattered and more than a little embarrassed. I never know how to respond to praise or compliments. Soon those feelings began to fade, though. They were replaced by hesitation, regret, anxiety, and fear.

I went from making a new coloring page every day to once a week, to not at all. It feels as if all the passion behind this idea has drained out of me. Now whenever I think about it I become lost in a fog of copyright law, fees, plagiarism, business plans, and marketing. I had only been waiting for my coworkers’ approval before happily handing them over to each kid that came in. Now it seemed like a much longer wait was ahead of me before I could start giving them away. All I had been thinking about was being useful to my advocacy center, to the children I see every day. I was excited about how this gift would impact them, if the words on the page would some day make a lasting impact on their hearts and minds. However, dollar signs were first and foremost for everyone else.

Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful that my friends at work thought so highly of my art that they want me to protect it and make a profit from it. I’m sure they have no idea how this business advice left me feeling deflated and frustrated instead of proud. I never wanted to make any money off of this idea. My only desire was to make children happy, to introduce them to the power of intention, self-talk, and positive thinking. Now I feel pressured to secure my claim to these images before sharing them with the world. I feel pressured to come up with a way to profit from this work. I feel as though it would be stupid of me not to do these things. That others would think me stupid for not doing these things.

It reminds me of a study I read about once. One group of children was told to do a fun activity, then rate their enjoyment afterwards. Another group was told to do the very same fun activity, but with the added bonus that they would be paid afterwards. This group surprisingly rated their enjoyment much lower than the first, non-paid group. You see once money becomes a motivator, it becomes work rather than play. When you shift your focus from intrinsic motivation to extrinsic, a task becomes much less fulfilling. Making art to positively impact the lives of children, means a lot to me. Making art to make money, leaves me feeling empty.

It all comes down to caring too much about what other people think of my actions and decisions in the end. No one is forcing me to guard these drawings and add price tags. I am free to give them away whenever I see fit. The only thing holding me back is the opinions other people may have about that. But I’ve got to trust myself and hold on to the passion that led me to start this project in the first place. This was never about money or even what other adults would think about it. This is about helping children. This is about making small, vulnerable humans feel happy and loved. That is what motivates me. That is what sparks joy in my heart.

Inspired and Discouraged

Every time I go online I am drowning in a sea of stimulation. I’ll never forget being young and passionate about drawing and discovering DeviantArt.com. There were so many incredible artists strutting their stuff throughout the never ending pages of each search I made. It made my heart beat fast. I couldn’t take my eyes off of the inventive images others had crafted so well. My cells swelled with inspiration, but when I finally pulled away and put my pen to paper, I found that every line I made was no longer good enough.

I have run into this phenomenon many times since. These wonderful mediums for expressing and sharing art and ideas online always had such a paralyzing affect on my perfectionist personality. Every creative idea or urge I experience is muffled by the voice in my subconscious that whispers, “Not good enough.” How can I compare to all that is already out there? All that has already been created? Every idea I have has already been crafted by more adept hands. My perpetual non-competitiveness leaves me forever idle.

Yet, part of me acknowledges that to improve I must be mediocre first. Surely, Salvador Dali’s first painting was not “The Persistence of Memory.” I wonder how many artists would have been silenced by the overwhelming influence of the superiority of others ahead of them. But perhaps their passion was simply to express, to create, no matter if it had been said before or better.

Something inside me sickens at the idea of creating something inevitably irrelevant. Why bother to add my voice to the void of so many other superior songs? Yet, I want to practice., I want to improve, to see what I could be capable of. How I wish I was able to overcome my fear of failure and futile effort. I could never understand why my passions are so easily dissuaded. I keep coming back to them though, the background buzz of florescent lights forever sizzling through my senses. I want to be a writer, so I will write. I want to keep fighting against this illogical loop I am trapped within. It is so hard to hear my own song in this grand cacophony.