Creative Confidence: Intellectual and Emotional

‘Life is too short. I only want to do things that I enjoy, or that I think are good or worth doing’

J.K. Rowling

Fear of criticism is one of the biggest reasons people stop creating as they grow up.

We can free ourselves of this fear, by making peace with the reality that we can’t please everyone.

It’s okay for people who aren’t in our target audience to prefer someone else’s work.

Knowing this gives us the freedom to create work that matters.

Negative reviews

‘It’s impossible to create work that both matters and pleases everyone.’

Seth Godin, This is Marketing

If you’re going to use social media, Joanne Mallory recommends deciding from the outset what kind of online persona you want to have. Develop yours consciously. Is it friendly? Professional? Funny? Interesting?

If (when) you get a negative review, think about how your online persona would handle it. Get some distance. Let them deal with it, not you.

Remember: negative reviews give credibility to the positive ones. If all you have are 5-star reviews, chances are people will think they’re all from your friends, or that you paid for them. A mix makes you seem more legitimate. And if there is controversy, it might even lead to more people buying your work, wanting to make up their own mind.

All critics are right (and wrong)

The critic who doesn’t like your work is correct. He doesn’t like your work. This cannot be argued with.
The critic who says that no one else will like your work is wrong. After all, you like your work. Someone else might like it too.’

Seth Godin, Ibid

Letting go gives us freedom. As Seth Godin says, we need to find the empathy to say ‘this isn’t for you’. To even point people in the direction of a creative who may better suit their tastes. In doing so, ‘we find the freedom to do work that matters.’

The benefits of a fragmented market

Back in the day, Godin says, pretty much everyone watched the same TV shows. Wore the same jeans. Liked the same stuff. Now, even the big ‘hits’ are meaningful only to a few, but invisible to the rest. Consider runaway musicals like Hamilton… seen by less than 1% of the US population. Or the much-hyped series Mad Men… watched on a regular basis by, again, 1% of the US population.

Or the super popular Game of Thrones. Even at the height of its popularity in the final season, GoT was watched by less than 4% of the US population. Or Fifty Shades of Grey. Despite being one of the fastest-selling books on the planet, with so many copies being discarded second hand stores asked stopped accepting them, the book was purchased by less than 1% of the world’s English speakers.

For creatives, this can be a great thing. We can enjoy the long tail of culture. There’s plenty of viewers and readers left for the rest of us. We don’t need to copy the ‘big guys’ to find our audiences.

Finding your audience

In addition to knowing how much money is enough for us to live, we also need to know how much fame/how many fans are enough for our work.

Author Joanne Mallory reminds us that quality of fans is more important than the numbers. Some creatives try to be on every social media platform, collecting followers everywhere. This takes away time from creating. But it also detracts from the quality of interactions we have. Instead, she recommends sticking to two.

Having too many followers can lead to creatives wasting time and money. You can wind up chasing the opinions of those who will never like your work. Further, many online tools, such as MailChimp, are free for the first 2,000 subscribers. After that, you will have to pay to let fans know your news. So every subscriber who isn’t really interested is costing you money.

Collecting a huge numbers of followers, and then taking their opinions to heart, can be dangerous. If you run a survey on Twitter or Facebook about your new book cover or website design, you want to be sure those who respond are actually potential readers. Otherwise, you may take the advice of people who would never support your work anyway – and alienate those who might have.

‘That’s an artist’s mission: to go beyond one’s limits. An artist who desires very little and achieves it has failed in life’

Paulo Coelho

The courage to be disliked

‘Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinions of others’

Virginia Woolf

It’s okay to be disliked. In fact, it’s more than okay. It can be freeing. As Koga and Kishimi point out, our desire for recognition makes us unfree.

Real freedom, they say, is ‘being disliked by other people’.

That might sound crazy, so I want you to read it again:

‘freedom is being disliked by other people’

Koga and Kishimi, The Courage to be Disliked

Of course, we shouldn’t strive to be disliked. But according to Koga and Kishimi, when others dislike us, it’s proof we are exercising our freedom. A sign we’re living according to our own principles.

Carry your work carefully

Imagine you have a stone. You’re at the top of the mountain, and you need to transport the stone to the bottom.

You could throw the stone down the mountain, where it will hit any number of sharp objects along the way. By the time it reaches the bottom, it will likely be worn down.

Or, you could carry it down the mountain. By carrying your precious stone carefully, avoiding those sharp objects along the way, it will likely reach the bottom intact.

Koga and Kishimi recommend thinking of your work like this. If you cast your work down a mountain of other people’s opinions, you’re likely to wear away any uniqueness it once had. You’ll wind up with a broken, ugly mess the same as any other broken, ugly rock. Carry it carefully instead.

‘Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer’

Barbara Kingsolver

Know Your Audience

It’s important to remember that different audiences have different styles of showing appreciation. If you write political thrillers, you probably can’t expect readers to buy stuffed toys and badges of your characters, like young adult fantasy readers might. If you write classically styled music, you can’t expect your composition to be included on the next summer hits compilation.

As Godin writes, even the way people applaud is dependent on context. At a TED talk, three key people standing will result in a standing ovation. At Broadway shows, even if the audience feels lukewarm towards a performance, a few scattered people can get the whole theatre to stand. But in a jazz club, it’s simply not the done thing.

You need to know your audience. Not just so that you can market your work to the right people and get opinions from those who matter. But also so you can understand what counts for a ‘good’ response in your field. If you’re a writer, for example, what is the average review of a book in your genre? How does that compare to, say, the average romance, or horror, or scifi, or fantasy?

Support others in their freedom

People who have chosen unfree ways of living often criticize those they see living freely, Koga and Kishimi say. If someone feels burdened by their own financial or family or other constraints, they may call you selfish or hedonistic. You may have even done the same to others.

Koga and Kishimi call this a ‘life lie‘. Something you tell yourself so you can accept your own unfree life: ‘An adult who has chosen real freedom himself will not make such comments, and will instead cheer on the will to be free’.

‘Criticism is something we can avoid easily by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing’


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