Do know who you are? Are you consistent and steady in your daily creative endeavours, confident in the face of the sometimes harsh responses to your work? Or maybe there is silence, nobody pays attention. How does that affect you, the you that you think you are? Your driver’s licence has a name and a photograph. Your online social profiles, your employee and tax records, your birth certificate and so on, all represent a fixed and unchanging you. But are you fixed and unchanging? What influences your idea of yourself and what are the consequences for you creatively? In this chapter, we will explore the nature of the self from the perspective of creativity. We will look at influences to our self-identity and self-concept and explore why these can sometimes have a negative impact on success in our chosen domain. We will also examine the relationship between that which we conceive ourselves to be and the source of creative inspiration.
The Artist’s Manifesto
- Short Form Version
- Chapter 1: What Is An Artist?
- Chapter 2: The Creative Work
- Chapter 3: Purposeful Accident
- Chapter 4: Embracing Solitude
- Chapter 5: Why Create
- Chapter 6: Creative Integrity
- Chapter 7: Time
- Chapter 8: The Creative Self
- Chapter 9: Mastery
- Chapter 10: Happiness
- Chapter 11: The Exchange
- Reader Bonuses
- Go to the Home Page
The Creative Self
“Be yourself”, they say. “Don’t try to be someone you are not”. From our earliest days, we are told to follow this staple advice for life and work. As children, we are discouraged from playing particular roles and encouraged to adopt more desirable traits that fit in with the design of our social group. We are sculpted and moulded by adults who appear, from our young, naive position, to know better than us. Influence towards the adoption of an ideological self is everywhere. The Internet, for example, is full to the brim with well-intended motivational gurus peddling this same idea, enthusiastic in their desire to help you and me achieve success. Peer group pressures also exist, especially prominent on social media platforms where a sugar-coated reality encourages us to present superficial versions of ourselves. All of this serves to promote and further the idea that there exists an ideological self towards which we must strive. It is a flawed concept, one that is ultimately damaging to individual creative expression.
Everybody is pretending to be somebody. We all wear a mask to some degree. We are all hiding something, sacrificing an aspect of ourselves for the sake of social inclusion and acceptance. The underlying narrative of the social group is that it’s dangerous on the outside; it’s safe and secure on the inside. And there is something within us that wants to realise the feeling of belonging to the group. In this need, there is the self-conflict that every human being seems to experience to varying degrees, and the creative person, the artist, is particularly disturbed by the draw towards acceptance.
Simplistically speaking, we can say, there is an individual self and a collective self. Our society, everything we love and everything we despise is a perfect reflection of the collective self or collective unconscious as termed by psychoanalyst Carl Jung. We might deride and disparage political leaders for their inability to govern, for example, but in this, we fail to see that they are a perfect reflection of the mass psyche of the population. On the other hand, Sigmund Freud believed the individual self to be at the centre of all human experience and was the highest point of individuality. When I say, I am… I am declaring what stands me apart from everyone else. But much of what I proclaim about myself is claimed by others also. We share aspects of our self-identity with others in society and as such when I declare; I am an artist, I am ascribing a schema or an idea to myself which others also apply to themselves. So do I create myself or does everyone else create me?
Although we can speak of the self in individual, and in collective terms, it may be more accurate to say that the
A Composite Self
The greatest challenge I believe to the integrity of the creative self is the duality of being, consisting of that which we are when we are alone or in the creative flow, and that which we are when influenced by others. Others may not be present, but still, they affect our thoughts, ideas and behaviour. In our society, there is a relentless draw towards the centre, towards sameness, mediocrity and adherence to group norms. These things can be ultimately destructive to the creative spirit. Being drawn towards the centre, we risk losing our natural ability for creative and innovative thinking. We can, of course, find gratification and artistic expression through collaboration, but often we see those opportunities are remote from the mainstream. The mainstream demands our conformity; it requires it to exist. Dissenting voices are castigated, reviled and dehumanised by the ruling classes, and at the extremes, they are often imprisoned or even executed. The momentum of the world leans heavily towards a state of mind dependant on instant gratification and conformity, often sweeping us along with it. Our role as artists is to break the momentum.
If there is one thing that is certain in this constant exchange, it is that the self is in perpetual flux. In a single moment, there is infinite change. Just as everything within the seasons, the days and the hours change, the
The changes might be subtle, but they are apparent. It is an indisputable fact that the self is ever changing and the idea that you must “be yourself” is completely untenable. To “be yourself” implies that you should be a constant, unchanging thing, remaining mostly the same, impervious to the influences of your environment and other people. Like a character in a book or a movie, you are expected to be the same for everyone with whom you interact. But this expectation merely demonstrates the underlying flawed premise ingrained in the human psyche. The self is a multi-faceted, moving, fluctuating thing, constructed from a myriad of touch points and exchanges through the conscious focal point that is you. Sure, when you are alone, you may settle at a position closer to equilibrium, assuming that is you allow yourself to switch off. But even in that, you must accept that the creative self is an ever-changing composite entity.
“No one ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and they are not the same person.”Heraclitus
The Circularity of The Creative Self
As you read in the previous chapter on the subject of Time, the nature of human existence is not a linear one, but a multidimensional one entirely happening in the cyclical moment of now. The self is created in the same way. From thought comes language and from language comes activity. For the artist or craftsperson, there is at first inspiration which may arise from a single or a series of real-world experiences. Although, sometimes it may appear in mind as a sudden flash of an idea that we cannot attribute to anything specific. Either way, with attention, thoughts (language) around the original idea begin to build. However, we can’t know how long it will take for something substantial to materialise. Materialisation varies from artist to artist and may take years. However, once we maintain a focus of attention on the development of our idea, then something positive or negative will materialise.
So in our making of the thing, who are we bringing along for the ride? What version of ourselves is it that is creating? Are you a starving artist, broke as a pie crust? Do you create for the sake of peer recognition or are you perhaps attempting to fulfil someone else’s idea of success? Who we bring to the studio or workshop is crucial because whoever we think we are will influence, and be reflected in our work, replicating its self over and over in the results we see. The surface level personality whom I refer to as I (the
In the daily execution of our work, it is essential for us to eventually separate from the thing we’ve made. In doing so, we allow it the freedom it needs to make an impact on others. When we hold on too tight, when we love the work too much, we kill it. Without accepting that the music, design, art or business we’ve made is a dual entity unto itself communicating a message on the one hand, and reflecting the inner state of the observer on the other, we separate and sacrifice ourselves. Yes, we invest ourselves in the making of the thing, but once the process is complete, we’ve got to let it go and let it be whatever it will be. The danger of investing too much of ourselves in the thing means that if it fails, then we fail, if it succeeds then we succeed. In this, we become dependant on results and the response of other people. We find ourselves in a constant state of anticipation with happiness and success dependant on the reaction from family, friends, critics and the public. Life is the continuous creation of the self, and the things we make are expressions of that self.
For the self to know itself, it must create. That creation is never complete, and we can never know ourselves entirely. Perfection is ultimately a futile pursuit, but in the development of the self, we are somehow compelled to embark on it. As soon as the word is said, the idea expressed and the thing made, it belongs in the past. Focus on past creative endeavours is a regression, only focus on the Now can be progressive. The future never arrives. Investing ourselves in previous works, moves in opposition to the creative self, therefore, creativity must always take place right now. Now is where we realise, for a fleeting moment, who we are.
Creating Order From Chaos
Many of us in western industrialised society do not believe ourselves to be creative. We assign creativity to those we see as having natural talent, assuming that the expression of creative or artistic ability is inherent in some but not in all. We believe that we were not bestowed the gift and therefore shouldn’t waste our time. Besides, in the practical world of things to pursue the creative life is risky and can never pay the bills. That’s the thin script some of us have running in our minds. So hemmed in by this belief, we often lack the broadness and depth of thought we need in chaotic times. When professional challenges arise such as job loss or financial difficulty, we feel unable to cope. Our environment has so successfully conditioned us to its norms that we fail to see the multitude of options and creative possibilities available to us.
In the aftermath of the 2008 economic collapse, I came to this understanding in no uncertain terms. My first business, which I had worked so hard to create, had failed. The climb down from the self assigned pedestal felt impossible. I had invested my sense of self entirely in my work and the business I had built, and I could not separate them. On reflection, the collapsing economy was perfect timing and presented me with an opportunity to realise the unsound nature of what I had made. Although at the time, given a choice I would have gladly been anywhere else. Acceptance of circumstances that oppose our preconceived ideas of how things ought to be is one of our most significant life challenges. How we deal with those challenges is in large part determined by the skills we acquire in our youth. It’s just unfortunate that currently, those creative life skills are not in the
The Emotional Brian
Human beings have an enormous ability to overcome chaotic life circumstances. Skills such as courage, grit, resilience and perseverance can provide the route to creative solutions to these problems. To access these skills the desires and demands of the surface level personality, of the ego, often need to take a back seat. But given that most of us operate within strict societal boundaries, it is usually impossible for the ego to relent. In stressful situations our emotional brain takes over, shutting down our ability to think rationally and objectively. The Hippocampus, that area of the brain responsible for memory and learning cannot be accessed either, and we act irrationally. In defence of our fragile selves, we blame things and other people. We refuse to take responsibility for the results of our own decisions and actions. Having externalised our goals and motivation for achieving them, we lack the unconscious self-assurance required to find a way through.
The Self-Assured State
In the self-assured state, instead of seeing ourselves in opposition to the environment, we see ourselves as part of it. We don’t see ourselves as something alien, cast down into the world against our will, left to survive alone in a hostile place. Although the adversarial aspects of the ego often convince us this is so. Instead, we see ourselves as a component of the process rather than separate from it. In this state of mind, we can accept conditions for what they are and exercise patience and reserve in the face of chaos while maintaining the assuredness of right action. There are no mistakes in this state of mind. There are no conditions we can’t overcome; in many respects, there is nothing to overcome. In the self-assured state, the ego led surface personality fades into the background, and the deeper, genuinely creative self comes forward. Now the self, the process, and the environment become and act as one system.
This oneness with the environment, acceptance of painful conditions, and the application of transformational skills do not mean you will smile all the way through hell. But it will allow you to come out the other side a stronger and more resilient person capable of dealing with whatever life throws at you. You will subsequently become someone possessing a stable, internalised sense of self, willing to work in harmony with the environment regardless of circumstances, becoming more complex and creatively astute than you were before.
“The good things that belong to prosperity are to be wished, but the good things that belong to adversity are to be admired”Seneca | Stoic Philosopher
The Creative Personality
It is perhaps impossible to define a single creative personality type that consistently reflects the self-assured state of mind of the successful artist. Because as we have seen earlier in this chapter, the self is a moving changing thing and traits of personality will always vary. However, there are certain aspects of personality that weigh heavily on how we manage challenges to our creativity in life and work. In that, unfortunately, some of us are unable to experience the joy of doing things for the sake of it. For we are either too self-conscious and afraid or too self-absorbed and narcissistic. When we worry about evoking the correct response from others, or we are so self-absorbed that we focus only on personal profit, happiness is fleeting. In an outwardly focused state, we rarely afford the creative personality an opportunity for expression.
The Autotelic Personality
Something that is autotelic has a purpose in and of itself. The word is derived from the Greek; autos meaning self, and telos meaning “goal” and is used to explain the nature of consciousness in individuals who engage in complex work for its inherent enjoyment even when the activity is potentially threatening. The autotelic personality is detailed in the book Flow, by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. The author stresses that individuals he has studied undertake their work not in a frivolous manner to provide short-term stimulation, but as a long-term, often lifetime expression of intrinsic goals. In other words, they engage in their work for the primary purpose of personal enjoyment and challenge. Subsequently, this engagement results in the growth of the self.
The autotelic self possesses the ability to transmute challenging, boring, or even life-threatening situations into activities that bring about transformative states of being. For the autotelic personality, there are no wasted experiences; they can utilise all life circumstances to their benefit. This does not mean that undesirable conditions are accepted in defeat and hopelessness. On the contrary, the experience is used to challenge the self to uncover unique and creative means to overcome the conditions. A
Autotelic people do not scramble to be noticed by their peers or the public, and they do not regard the primary reason for engagement in their work as competitive. They do not waste energy in defence of a fragile ego, because it does not exist. The creative work they engage in is something most other people would not have the patience or ability to focus on for the time required to deliver results. Time is irrelevant to the autotelic personality. Many subjects Csikszentmihalyi interviewed reported that in their work, time both speeds up and slows down depending on the task. In many respects, the autotelic personality may come about as a result of upbringing. A more stable childhood environment and the freedom to explore opportunities without obligation to parental expectation may provide a suitable ground for the development of autotelic personality in children.
Although some creative people develop an autotelic personality in childhood, this does not exclude those who have not from developing the traits of autotelic personality in later life. Csikszentmihalyi explains as follows, four rules for the development of the autotelic self.
1. Goal Setting
The ultimate aim of the self is happiness and fulfilment in the moment of Now. When we are engaged in an activity we enjoy, and we do so for the inherent challenge of becoming proficient, there comes about the natural pursuit of goals. We should not think of goals as a linear process whereby we consciously strive step by step to reach a future version of ourselves. Instead, we should regard goal setting as the natural draw towards an inner desire to understand everything about the work with which we engage. The development of a more proficient version of us may more accurately be said to be a multidimensional often unconscious process within which we execute daily and hourly tasks.
The autotelic person sets goals on an hourly, daily, weekly basis etc. from an intrinsic rather than extrinsic perspective. In doing so, they continually assess results, adjust their actions, and remain consistently aligned with their values. Modifications to their efforts can be made based on feedback from their observed results. Goals are therefore self-directed.
The development of an autotelic personality can be achieved in part by becoming totally immersed in our chosen work. The type of work we choose to execute is less important than the degree to which we engage with it. There is
Level of skill of course, and expectation has a bearing on results. If I started an apprenticeship in cabinetry in the morning it’s unlikely I’ll be capable of creating a masterpiece by next week. I must accept that my progress will be slow for quite a while. Unrealistic expectations will invariably lead to failure and disappointment. On the other end of the spectrum, the skilled craftsman must continually challenge himself to better standards in order to maintain and develop the complexity in himself. To languish in mediocrity breeds discontent.
I like to wash dishes by hand, and when I do, I am thoroughly engaged in the process. It’s like a meditation. If I am not, the wet plate may skite out of my hands and onto the floor. In which case, my wife will not be too pleased. Ok, a trivial example, but you get the picture. The same applies to creative people engaged in complex tasks. Take a surgeon carrying out a complicated operation for example, or a photorealistic artist working on a large format pencil drawing. For both these people, heightened attention to the task at hand is critical to their successful output.
The autotelic person is capable of holding their unwavering attention to the task at hand. There is no room for self-consciousness. The focus of attention on what others may be thinking or feeling about the work we do is a self-conscious action and will destroy our chances of making something great. Therefore we must control attention. With deliberate practice, this is entirely possible to achieve.
As you may agree, enjoyment in our work is a crucial factor in allowing ourselves full creative expression. If you don’t enjoy the work you do, you won’t stay the pace. Extrinsic motivation might keep you there for a while but it won’t last. Besides, if you don’t enjoy it what is the point? Work must incorporate an aspect of play in order to satisfy the creative personality. As Stuart Brown, founder of The National Institute for Play states in his book, Play; “Play seems to be so important for our development and survival that the impulse to play has become a biological drive”.
Play seems to prepare us for the difficult challenges of life, but when life becomes a constant difficulty devoid of enjoyment, it ceases to have meaning. It seems that most of us regard our work as toil, and as such, we can’t wait to escape it. And when we do we engage in activities of low complexity. We largely forgo enjoyment in work for the sake of a pay packet at the end of the month. Work is not supposed to be fun. However, for the autotelic person, fun and enjoyment is an essential aspect of the creative process.