I recently wrote a post called Is Creativity the Healthy and Useful Way of Finding Yourself? that talks about artists and their primary need to discover who they are. Today, I will be talking about the dangers that may befall the artist who finally discovers who she is, but clings to that one identity too fervently.
A lot of creative people have a need to stand out from the crowd. They have a passionate need to discover their unique place in life
Because they never fit in. They were misunderstood. They never had the same social ease that most people seem to have been born with. Somehow, someway, they’ve felt different from the crowd—and this leads them to search for their true self.
(Not all creatives were once wandering soul-searchers, but a lot were. Some of the best were.)
If this search for self is not reconciled with creativity (which is what I believe is the useful method of finding yourself), then the artist will look in other areas. She will waste plenty of days scouring through books for answers, and constantly introspecting her experiences. More and more, the lost artist disengages with reality and spirals downhill.
That’s okay. If you read biographies of great creative people, you’ll recognize a pattern—most were adrift and nearly broken before they found their place in life, so keep your faith.
When the lost artist finally discovers who she is, she’s so thrilled that she gloms on to that conception of ‘self’ at all times.
Here’s what I mean: She takes on one identity, then discards anything that contradicts that idea of who she is.
For example, she realizes that she’s a natural poet—she’s always appreciated words and yearned to express herself. But because she has spent her whole life feeling confused, she attaches to this new identity like it’s her saviour. She rearranges her entire life to reflect this new self-image. She dresses like a poet, talks like a poet, hangs out at coffee shops with poets.
She continues to write poetry even though she suddenly desires to play the piano. Poets are writers, she barks. She turns down fun opportunities in life because poets don’t do that. She turns down lucrative jobs because poets don’t work in offices.
Avoid the Trap
Do you see the trap that she (and all of us) can fall into?
Discovering who you are and creating a new life that brings out the best in you is great. But beware: if we start to over-identify with our work, our art, our identity, then we start painting ourselves into a corner. We start constricting our experience and ourselves—which, eventually, strangles our art.
It’s like we build up invisible walls, duping ourselves into believing that everything inside those walls is ‘the authentic us’ and everything on the outside is ‘not us’. We’re afraid to step outside those walls to reinvent ourselves, to try new things, to prove that we can do more things well than just one. We’d rather cling to the one identity that saved us from obscurity.
It’s tempting to stay with what works and stay in our comfort zone because many of us were once that lost, struggling artist searching for our own truth. Then we discover who we are and create things that people respond to, which in turn makes it difficult to veer of this proven path of happiness and recognition.
If you do one thing well, you feel obliged to keep making that same thing over and over, e.g. writing novels or making music in the same genre. But what if you don’t want to keep making the same stuff again and again?
Embrace the Change
Here’s my view: Forget what has worked in the past and embrace the change.
On Oprah’s Master Class, Jay-Z talks about overcoming this fear of sticking to one thing:
There’s fear in being successful too. You’re successful doing one thing and you tend to say, ‘I want to stay here. I don’t want to move, I don’t want to take a chance and do anything else because this works.’
Of course, nobody wants to be a dilettante. But if you feel your heart leading you down new paths, let it. Rest assured, when you walk this ‘new path’, it’s usually not a drastic change, but rather just a sub-genre within your main field.
For example, if you’re a writer whose had some success writing non-fiction, but ideas for epic novels unfold in your head, you should go full steam ahead with that vision.
If you’re in a rock band but you’re also a big fan of hip hop, spit rap lyrics on a song. A great example that comes to mind is when Jay-Z and Linken Park collaborated and released Collision Course. (What an awesome album.)
Pushing boundaries with your art and exploring new directions will teach you a lot about yourself and your work. It will help you mature and grow as an artist.
If you’re not growing and transitioning, your art may be growing stale and repetitive—sure-fire signs that your career could be bouldering toward oblivion.
To rejuvenate yourself and your work, consider a change. Keep your mind and spirit fresh. Slip into a new style or medium. Reinvent yourself and take on a new identity—do what others say you can’t.
Experiment a little. Let your creative energy fill new ravines. Break free from that corner you’ve painted yourself in and breathe in the fresh, juicy opportunities that are out there.
Image by David-Mitchell