Recently, I’ve realized that one reason I struggle with getting self-initiated projects off the ground, is that I get performance anxiety. Let me explain.
Since I’m not a performer by trade, you might wonder what I mean by performance anxiety? Well, what I’m talking about is a feeling that I get when I’m working on something, and it’s coming along and I feel like, hey this is pretty fun. I’m in a state of flow. However, as I add more details and flesh out the image, I take a step back and I see nothing but the flaws. The whole thing feels awkward and ugly. The temptation at this point is to abandon the project and start fresh.
The problem, of course, is that nothing ever gets done this way. Nothing ever gets to a stage where I can feel proud of it.
Recently I’ve come up with a little trick for working through that. I call it choosing practice over performance.
Choosing practice means that I’m choosing to focus on learning, rather than on the outcome. I’m choosing to focus on a small set of particular elements within the painting. I'm choosing to let go of vague judgments, notions of good and bad. It means being deliberate and setting a clear goal for myself.
Sometimes that goal is more mindful, like recognizing the anxiety and continuing anyway. At other times it is more technical, something like looking at an artist that I admire and seeing how I might apply some of their techniques to my work. Sometimes it is nothing more than getting to the end. It can be anything I want to work on and learn, but the important thing is to have some specific activity of focus during the working session. The key is in defining specifically what success looks like for this painting and letting go of the rest.
The end result might not be the greatest painting the world has ever seen, but I will have learned something, and over time, all of those somethings add up to better and better paintings, regardless of how I might feel about them.