This is an unusual struggle, as artistic struggles go. I’ve heard it said (and they’re probably right) that everybody who succeeds at what they choose to do has a very clear sense of their victory, long before it happens. They are able to clearly visualise the moment of achievement and all the steps that lead up to it. In effect, their actual quest is just a matter of stepping through a sequence of moments they have already imagined, in their mind’s eye. Their success, through the power of their imagination, is already somewhat pre-rehearsed. You need to be able to see vignettes from your future, better life, to be able to reach it, so the theory goes.
The commonly accepted wisdom, then, is that if you wish to succeed, as an artist (or anything else), you need to be able to clearly visualise that moment of success and the steps that lead toward it. You need to feel yourself in that future moment, experiencing the joy of having accomplished what you set out to do. In short, you need to be able to viscerally feel, in your guts, being that success, long before you are actually successful. The sensation needs to feel very real. In so doing, it is thought that you clear a path to that success, because you pre-determine how you will achieve that success and you will be motivated by the feelings you actually experience, when you imagine that future success in your mind. They’re good feelings that you wish to cement, by actually achieving what you are imagining you have already achieved.
Here’s the problem I have with all of that. I find it incredibly difficult to bring to mind a clear vision of what success feels like. When success has been frustratingly illusive, for a long period of time, it goes against all experience and learning to imagine some other outcome – namely a future in which you really have overcome all odds and made it to the goal you wanted to reach. I’ll be honest. I find it hard to imagine myself as that person for whom it all suddenly went right. I can’t feel myself enjoying the fruits of that imagined success without feeling slightly dishonest with myself, a little unrealistic and a little foolish for entertaining such a notion. The notion seems, at face value, to be somewhat fraudulent. I realise that this failure to clearly imagine a state of future achievement is an obstacle to attaining that position, in real life, but what to do about it?
To some extent, you have to turn your previous failures and humiliations into valuable, success-causing lessons. That can be hard to do. It can be very difficult to see the worth in having endured years of frustration for little apparent gain. Yes, you can say it was character building and you learnt a lot, but there is also a sense in which you ask yourself how many times you needed to learn that same lesson, over and over again. Even having realised that there was more to life than you were experiencing, at the time, you still had to endure many more years of being thwarted in your goals, than you would have cared to. That was just the way it panned out.
I think you just have to keep at the visualisation thing, until it begins to feel real and to crystallise into a vision of the future that you can believe in and buy into, whole heartedly, instead of with doubt and suspicion. If you are going to have paying customers, as an artist, you need to be able to imagine who they are, under what circumstances they find you and ask to buy your work and how it is that they will transact with you. That can’t remain an obscure detail that you avoid thinking about entirely. Part of the dream is how the reality might actually be. Whatever story you wind up telling yourself about your future self and your goals, it has to be plausible, especially to yourself, when you have a tendency to think most scenarios of future success feel hokey, concocted and unlikely.
You need some optimism, some self-confidence and self-belief and some vision of a future in which artists are able to succeed. Even that last point can be hard, when there have been centuries in which artists were incredibly unlikely to succeed, by any objective measure or assessment of things. You have to identify and believe in your own unique, special way of being an artist and further, that this difference will be noticed, appreciated and decisive, in your quest for success. You have to know, in a very deep, inner sense, that you have exactly what it takes.
I don’t know if there are specific techniques or exercises for imagining these vignettes from the future, in which you are a big hit, or in which you are enjoying ultimate success, for all the years of toil. Perhaps it’s no different to purposeful daydreaming. Writing stuff down and creating visualisation boards can probably help. Like a mood board, creating a single place where images and associations with that desired future success are placed, in a highly visible way, can help, I suppose. Acting as if you have already succeeded probably plays an important role as well. If you can walk the walk, then perhaps you can be who you imagine yourself to be, but in actual reality, rather than virtual reality. You need to be able to see and feel that success through your own eyes, but also be able to see how your success will look from other people’s perspectives.
It’s possible that doing all of these things will help your visualised future gel into a cohesive and believable story that motivates you to work, realistically, toward that imagined future. The danger, though, is that you simply set yourself up for more years of frustration, through seeing a goal clearly that you are never capable of actually reaching. Choose your success goal wisely.
I find this interesting. All the best things in my life more or less just occurred, with no previous expectation of success or of those things happening to me. Yes, they were vague, ideal ambitions, but I could never actually imagine myself as a husband and father. I just sort of became one. Hopefully I became a reasonable example of both. I had no burning ambition to travel, yet I have travelled quite a lot, through work and on family holidays. I had no imaginings of ever doing so. I wanted to have my own high tech company and by some miracle, I had one, for a while. What I couldn’t see, though, was how to make it survive unexpected adversity, beyond one’s individual control and that is what unexpectedly took that dream back away from me, the first time around. The idea of imagining a future I want and then bringing it to fruition doesn’t come easily to me. Not at all. In fact, most of the best things in my life came upon me, by delightful surprise, not through visualising them first.
For the moment, the future remains an obscure and seemingly contradictory story, in my mind, that doesn’t appear to make any real sense. This is my struggle. It may be a struggle common to many people, in a similar situation. All I can do, day by day, is grope my way toward a better future, inch by inch, with no absolutely lucid view of where I am going, how I will get there and what it will be like when I reach that destination. This might be the more realistic truth for most people. Their imagined future is only fragmentary, obscured, seemingly nonsensical and not at all clearly defined. Perhaps remaining open to the surprises in life is equally valuable and valid.
For all the literature on neuro-linguistic programming and visualisation, I’m both convinced that there is something to it and that other people have success with it, but I find it incredibly difficult to apply to my own life and situation. Maybe it is just that hard to do. Nobody ever suggested that success was going to be easy. That probably applies for imagined success as much as it does to actual success.
I wonder if other people struggle as much with imagining their ideal future and then attaining it. Perhaps those that don’t already reached their success goal long ago, because of their superior ability to clearly visualise it. In the mean time, all I can do is keep reaching for something I can’t quite make tangible. It’s a tantalising prospect – quite literally.