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Obstacles to Artistry

The artist Edgar Degas once wrote: "I felt so insufficiently equipped, so unprepared, so weak, and at the same time it seemed to me that my reflections on art were correct. I quarreled with all the world and with myself."

In a single sentence he summed up the roadblocks on the path to self-discovery…the very path that leads to artistry at work.

We have much working against us as we chase that artistry. A myriad of internal and external influences on a variety of levels can distract and deter us, especially if the conviction isn't there. Yet it is the obstacles that may hold the key, for without the monumental challenge, there is no grand accomplishment.

The Voice of Judgment

Let us start with the simple notion that we live our lives in constant pursuit of answers to questions. And, while we are generally successful in answering the questions we ask, we often either don’t ask the right questions, or don’t give the right questions enough thought. When we examine the nature of the questions that may have led us to our current persuasion, what do we find? Do they run along the lines of pursuing easy wealth, status, fame, power, authority, prestige and approval – quickly and easily?

These represent the private mendacity that blocks creativity.

Or do they represent attempts to divine deeper questions revolving around our talents, passions, yearnings, purpose, accomplishments, engagement, self-expression, and meaning – however difficult it may be?

These are the authentic questions of the artist.

Blocking us from getting to those questions, though, are the barriers we place on ourselves. Self-doubt – the fear that we don’t or can’t somehow measure up – can stop us cold in our tracks and prevent us from realizing our true light, in turn deterring us from achieving much of anything. Self-criticism – prematurely judging our results to be in some way inferior – can silence our artistic voice, diminish whatever strength we have mustered up, and prevent our best work from ever surfacing from the depths of our imagination. Self-deprecation – comparing ourselves to others and in effect selling ourselves short – can cripple our attempts to discover who we really are.

And let's not forget the ever present judgment from others. The world has always had its trolls, but the internet and social media have enabled them to flourish and multiply. Anyone brave enough to display their artistry in public is susceptible. (The key of course, is to consider the source of judgment, and refuse to lend it any credibility. In other words, don't feed the trolls!)

Collectively, these large and looming obstacles are what Stanford's Michael Ray and Rochelle Myers--authors of Creativity in Business, based on their course at Stanford--termed the Voice of Judgment.

Is This All There Is?

Exacerbating all of this, of course, are the external and usually unsolicited advisors who seem to be always monitoring our every move, so that even if we are successful in posing the right questions, the danger of false answers looms as an ever- present hazard barring our attempts to discover ourselves. Many and powerful are the competing claims on our identity! Parents, partners and peers are all too eager to show us the error of our prodigal ways and tell us how to better live our lives, more often than not in ways that have nothing whatever to do with our true desires.

Our media-drenched, option-rich, information-overloaded culture doesn’t help matters any by stealing any spare time we might have to reflect on deeper questions. We are constantly bombarded with push notifications, text messages, phone calls, email, voicemail, snail mail, meetings, and office fly-bys. You can't even use an ATM or pump gas without some video or satellite feed blasting at you.

By nature, we are highly susceptible to the projections of others, influences that can send us on a high-speed chase after something without really knowing what it is we’re chasing, or, more importantly, why. We are nothing if not chameleons, and if we aren’t careful, our tremendous capacity to adapt to the pressures forced upon us (often by those closest to us) may in fact lock us away in towers from which escape is nearly impossible. Somewhere down the road, and regardless of our material wealth, we will wake up singing Peggy Lee’s “Is This All There Is?”

Unfortunately, we cannot simply disregard the enormous systems we’re up against. They’re a fact of working life, and we can’t ignore them, because in truth, we created them. In our corporations and our culture as a whole, for example, we have employed money as the primary motivational mechanism for rewarding both performance and creativity. In our western culture, for example, we reward the acceptance of new ideas. In eastern cultures, it is the submission of new ideas that is rewarded, mostly with simple recognition for good work. As a result, many Asian corporations see on average a hundred-fold more new ideas a year than the average US company.

Attaching material reward to desired results (read, pay for performance), despite the voluminous evidence that it does not work, is still commonly viewed as the most effective means of conditioning and controlling workers. It quite simply does not produce true meaning or provide intrinsic motivation to improve and create.

Our corporate and cultural systems are pervasive and powerful foes, and they can stifle our creative expression and shunt our natural artistic energy, but only if we insist on letting them always bat last. If we are not firm in our vigil – consciously and courageously so – we become easily manipulated like rats after cheese in a maze.

The good news, paradoxically, is that if we can effectively acknowledge and embrace all of these powerful obstacles and restraining forces and figure out how use them to our advantage while remaining true to ourselves, we may have found the very creative tension we need to fuel our artistry.

Banishing the VOJ

Here's a 1-week Voice of Judgment journaling exercise I gave my second-year MBAs when I taught an experimental course called Creativity & Innovation in Organizations at Pepperdine a few years ago:

  1. Every day this week, jot down every negative comment, emotion, behavior, criticism, or thought that you encounter during the day. This means your own comments, emotion, behaviors, or thoughts AS WELL AS those of others.
  2. Tally them at the end of every day. Put a star by those with most impact on you and your creativity.
  3. Jot down your reflections and reactions to those encounters each day, using the following questions as a guide:
  • When do I notice the voice of judgment most? Is it more active in my personal or professional (school) life?
  • About how many times a day do I judge myself for something? How many times do I find myself judging others? About how many times a day do I allow others to judge me?
  • What did the voice of judgment prevent me from doing today? In the past? How is it impacting my future?
  • When I’m in a group, how much time can elapse before the voice of judgment appears? When I hear it, how do I handle it?
  • When and where is the voice of judgment most absent?

The thought is simply this: learn to recognize the voice of judgment. Only then can you hope to destroy it.

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