The Emotional Trauma of Trying Hard

A friend of mine said something profoundly interesting recently.  He said, “Seems to be a certain truth in the suggestion that the lessons you find it hard to learn keep on coming back… until you learn them.”  There are things that are recurrent, in your life, that if you fail to learn from them, you’re doomed to repeat, until you do.  For me, it’s the hard life lesson that the things that make my heart sing the most are virtually worthless to everybody else.  They have no value and command no respect or reward, but to me, they mean everything.  These are the very things that make my eyes sparkle.  They are the things that light up my curiosity and enthusiasm.  As a consequence, the yawning, cavernous, abysmal gulf between what I love and what people value about me is thrown up into my face, time and time again.  They don’t care for my creativity, artistry or inventiveness.  What they are willing to pay for is my efficiency and ability to get things done, as a directed functionary – an effective cog in the machine, if you will.  It’s a painful reminder that everything about me that I regard as worthwhile is of no discernible consequence to the world of commerce at all.

Another friend of mine remarked on the recurrent nightmares that the more free-spirited, diligent, independent and creative engineers among us seem to share in common.  He noted that he and his colleagues all spoke about, “having nightmares about not being able to graduate because you somehow forget to attend some course.”  He reflected on this further:  “And what I found strange and memorable about it was I probably had only stopped having them in the not so recent past.  Probably 25+ years of decreasing severity”.  His explanation for why this might be such a commonly shared nightmare was that, “we cared a lot about what we did, and that could give you nightmares.”

I’ve had this same nightmare myself and it was recurrent.  I think it tells us something important about highly motivated, creative people.  I have my own ideas about why it might be such a common experience.  The way I see it, all creative people are shoe-horned into an institutional education system that makes constant judgements about their worthiness.  We are taught to seek approval at every step, for fear of being screened out and discarded.  Those of us that care passionately about what we do (making things well, for example) are subjected to a seemingly endless series of tests, tasks, challenges and burning hoops to leap through, or over, or to go around, or else we will be deemed unfit for the higher purpose to which we aspire.  It gets to the point where the thresholds seem artificial and arbitrary and the judges unqualified to tell whether you are good enough or not.

I think that, as a consequence of the continual pressure to prove one’s worthiness, seeking the approval of those outside of ourselves, all the time, we suffer from all manner of recurrent “failure” nightmares, “imposter syndrome” nightmares, “missing the boat” nightmares and “failure to qualify due to some stupid missed course or requirement” nightmares.  It’s a sign of psychological violence and damage.  People who care passionately about what they do, but who are told they require the approval and sponsorship of others, in order to be able to do it, feel the hurt and harm acutely.  The damage is caused by the fear induced in them that, for reasons out of their immediate control, they might be shut out of doing what they want to do most.  Judgement is harsh because it is frequently unjust.

The reality of the situation is stark.  Yes, you are good enough, because you are passionate about what you do and because you unfailingly try hard to do it well and to get better at it.  You want to please and you want people to be pleased with what you do for them.  Your passion is being offered in their service.  If you think about this rationally, for one moment, that’s the only grade you really need to pass.  You need to be content, within yourself, that you are doing the very best you can at the thing you love to do most.

Unfortunately, the ugly reality is that you are not permitted to do the thing you do best, no matter how passionate you are about it and how much you care about it, or even how good you happen to be at it, unless you can get past the arbitrary, senseless, frequently ignorant and indifferent gate keepers.  That’s why you’re being judged.  Those are the people with the power to crush your dreams and damage your soul.  How did they get to be the gate keepers anyway?

The truth is that the power of the gate keeper is arbitrary power.  It was given to them by a million different circumstances, but they all amount to placing them in charge of controlling others.  Whether that is through money, connections or lucky happenstance, all of a sudden a hierarchy is formed and this previously ordinary person is given the power of a God over who gets to play and who doesn’t.  Unfortunately, they’re still a fallible, ordinary human being, so in many cases they abuse their power or use it clumsily and capriciously.  They’re not equipped, in fact, to have power over whether or not another soul gets to express themselves in their purest, best way.  And that’s where it all goes wrong.

In lieu of wisdom, the gate keepers invent seemingly fair (but often specious) tests, gating conditions, standards, examinations, evaluations, certifications and the like, in an attempt to provide a means to tell who should go forward and who should not.  Sadly, they don’t know what they’re testing, they have little grasp of what a good one looks like, their tests and examinations are easily gamed and scammed and as a consequence, some of the bad ones get through and many of the good ones get shut out.

That’s why the money doesn’t always follow your commitment, passion and talent.  There are arbitrary, nonsense barriers in the way.  There are thousands of people you meet that can say “no”, but very few that can say “yes”.  None of that means you’re no good at what you are most passionate about, though.  It just means that access is denied for ridiculous reasons and you must spend a lot of your time and energy navigating the faulty gate keepers.

Were the world organised differently (and this is a real, workable possibility that we inexplicably leave sitting on the table), it would be possible to just do what you do best, without gate keepers.  What are they keeping you from?  Access to money?  Access to resources?  Why are those things scarce?  They aren’t scarce.  If distributed more equitably than they are today, you would have enough money and resources to do whatever you want.  The money and resources are there.  What is lacking is a will to distribute them.

The only reason that we don’t throw the gates open wide, so that whoever wants do to something they are passionate about can, whatever that happens to be, is because those sitting on the most money fear what will happen if they release their grip on it.  At the bottom of that fear is insecurity.  It speaks to their fear that, if left to their own devices to follow their own bliss, either they have no bliss (or don’t know what it is), or they fear they won’t be good enough to survive (which is a ridiculous fear, if the world’s wealth were distributed equitably), or else that their real talent is purposeless accumulation of money and the manipulation of others; a talent which won’t find a willing cohort of obedient participants, in a world where everybody else can follow their bliss.  The gate keepers fear judgement, too.  They can’t stand the shame.

It seems to me that if we decided, just decided, to remove judgementalism from the world and instead concentrate on doing what we all love to do most and do best, we could avoid the traumatisation of creative people and remove the fears of the gate keepers.  A product of the screening process, with all its approval stages and tests, is those recurrent nightmares and hard life lessons which, frankly, we could all live without.  They serve no purpose.  Psychological damage is not healthy.

I’ve seen it time and again.  I’ve seen very talented, motivated, selfless, passionate, excellent, creative people reduced to believing they are abject failures, because of corporate redundancies or institutional rejections, which often have their root in financial finagling, rather than due to any deficiency in the work effort of those people that cared about doing their work well and doing something worthwhile and important, in their work.  It’s wrong that these souls and spirits should be so wantonly crushed and oppressed.  It leads people to believe that they’re not good enough.

They are good enough.  They’re more than good enough.  These people are creative, artistic, hard working and effective at repeatedly producing imaginative results, in tangible form.  They’re much better than the shitty system of gates and gate keepers deserves; a system that we uphold only in order to maintain illegitimate, unearned and undeserved privilege.

Creative people can do better than this.

Update:  After posting this article, an advertisement for a paid workshop, where creatives could supposedly learn to make more money, appeared on my twitter timeline.  The thrust of the message behind the workshop turned out to be that creatives are marketing themselves ineffectively or wrongly.  To me, this is just another species of telling people that there was a vital course they missed, which will prevent them from succeeding and therefore failing, due to their own indolence.  It compounds the nightmares and inflicts more psychological violence on them.

I’m afraid the undoubtedly well-meaning person that offered the workshop didn’t receive my most charitable questions, I regret to say.  Needless to add, they completely failed to understand that their extraordinary claim (“make more money as a creative”) was not backed by extraordinary evidence.  They did not offer a money back guarantee for workshop attendees that failed to make more money as a creative, following the workshop and did not understand why failing to stand behind their product was problematic.  The course leader also could not or would not cite how many of their workshop’s previous participants had, indeed, gone on to make more money as a creative.

The world is full of people like this, who make money by telling creative people that their own starvation is due to some terrible lack in their approach, or due to some other profound personal flaw.  Please don’t give them your money or take their psychological abuse to heart.  If you are creating, you are already successfully doing it.  There are any number of external reasons, unrelated to your qualities as a person, an artist or creative being, which can prevent you from making money from your creative endeavours, irrespective of how diligently you market yourself.  I blog about some of them, often.

I think it is cruel, ghoulish and vampire-like to prey on the hopes and dreams of other creatives, in order to make your living, without putting your money where your advice is.  People that don’t at least attempt to succeed as artists have no business telling other artists why they aren’t succeeding financially, as artists, except that there are plenty of “training” businesses that do precisely that, aren’t there?  If somebody claims to tell you, a creative, how to make more money as a creative, ask to see their creations first.  Also ask if they have any hard evidence that their advice works and ask whether they are prepared to back the soundness of their advice with some sort of concrete guarantee of efficacy.  Telling you it’s all up to you how you apply their advice is weasel wording to get themselves off the hook from having to deliver what they promise.  You’re entitled to see the proof.

That isn’t to say you shouldn’t take care of the marketing and promotion side of your creative life, but it is totally obvious and pointing it out, for money, isn’t very helpful.  Don’t let anyone bully you into believing that your lack of financial rewards is all your own fault.  You don’t need one more psychological scar or nightmare.  The fact that you create and care about your creations is amazing in itself and is a success of a kind that the moneyed world cannot adequately grasp.

About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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1 Response to The Emotional Trauma of Trying Hard

  1. It’s so true money can’t buy genuine creative satisfaction and fulfilment.

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