The Power of Pessimism

Start of a new piece - heaven knows what it will end up being. By Celandine.

Start of a new piece – heaven knows what it will end up being. By Celandine.

One of the most common bits of advice given to artists all over the place is the so called ‘Good Vibes’ advice – Be positive! Be optimistic! Have faith in yourself! Today may be your day! Success may be just around the corner! Here it comes! Any second now! Any second!!!!!

Of course, theoretically it’s true. You may get a phone call from Oprah tonight, asking you to design her curtains. Then again, I’d say chances are against it.

The truth is, the path to artistic success is built upon the backs of thousands of tiny failures. That drawing of a horse that ended up looking like a walrus. That pattern you saved at the wrong size and now it’s completely useless. The hundreds of competitions you didn’t even come close to winning, the dozens of agents and potential clients that never replied to your emails. That client that almost signed a great contract and then decided to go with another artist at the very last minute.

Among these many failures there will be some successes – some tiny, some big – and yes, at some point, if you stick with it, some gigantic ones too. But in the early days, the failures will outnumber them hundreds to one.

So the common wisdom says the best way to deal with this panoply of failure, this smorgasbord of rejection, is to keep your chin up and put on a happy face, preferably whistling ‘The sun will come out tomorrow….’ and pouring all your faith in the next opportunity that comes along.

Because that next one just may be… The One!!!

The problem with this approach is that with every new opportunity you’re building your hopes up, and with every new inevitable failure they are dashed and your heart broken once again. This effect is multiplied by the fact that artists don’t advertise their failures, but only the successes – so looking at other artist’s social media feeds you feel they’re all holding exhibitions, signing contracts and releasing new product lines left and right, and you’re the only one struggling and failing, over and over again.

Sounds familiar? I have the perfect cure for you.

HAVE LESS FAITH IN YOURSELF.

‘What a horrible message’, I hear you exclaim. ‘Surely this can’t be right?’ But I swear it is.

I don’t mean you shouldn’t have faith in the inevitable success of your long-term dreams – you’ll make those come true, that’s a given! I absolutely believe that every artist who gives their art all they’ve got and doesn’t give up – cannot fail. So, on the long-term stuff, you’re set. What I mean is, you should have much less faith in your immediate, short-term successes. Because most of those will turn out to be failures.

This is why I have embraced a type of healthy negativity as my talisman against disappointment. It works surprisingly well. It goes something like this:

I find a new opportunity – maybe a contest that sounds like a great fit for my art, or a company I can see myself doing a cool collaboration with. My first thought is, ‘There’s no way this is ever going to work.’ Is that going to stop me from trying? Never. I carefully choose and prep the artwork, I put together a cool submission email, follow their submission guidelines, inject a little humor into it, cross my fingers, send it off.

I shake my head once again. ‘Ehhh, it’s probably hopeless.’ Because it probably is. Then I never think of it again.

Because no matter how good you (think you) are, there will be a time when you’re just not knocking on the right doors. Or you don’t know the right passwords yet. This is a fact of life, and it’s not depressing – it’s liberating. It frees you from having to hope every time, and then having your hopes dashed, and then feeling like a failure for every single failed attempt. Because none of those failures mean you are a failure. They just mean you’re still learning how to knock. And when you learn, the doors will start to open.

Until then, just keep knocking. Don’t worry if nobody answers, don’t even wait for an answer. Make sure you’ve got all the boxes ticked. Make great work, the best you know how. That’s the key to everything. Don’t take shortcuts. Post it wherever you can, describe it, grow a story around it, show it to people, engage with anyone who shows an interest. Be friendly.

Be reachable. One time I wanted to reach out to an illustrator and I spent five minutes trying to find her email address or any other sensible way of contacting her, to no avail. After five minutes, I gave up. If I had been a client, she’d have been out of a job. So make sure your own doors are open, and keep making great work, and don’t worry about all your failures. Because believe me, at one point, people are going to start knocking on your door.

….and if a few months down the line an email pops into your inbox saying ‘Hey, thanks for reaching out to us, we’d love to feature your work!’, it will come as a brilliant surprise and it will put a giant smile on your face. Then you can wink at yourself in the mirror and say ‘Ha, the Power of Pessimism!’ …and go close that deal.

Is your glass half-empty or half-full? Ever consider switching to the other side? Let me know in the comments! 

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10 thoughts on “The Power of Pessimism

  1. Good advice. I am a glass is half full girl. I celebrate the little things big time – a £1.50 commission on a Society 6 mug sale is as much to celebrate as a $500 pattern sale, because it means someone likes me art. Every single Instagram like brings a smile to my face. I apply places and take a moment to dream of what a ‘yes’ would feel like but then move on to making more art or applying somewhere else. At first, those ‘yes’s were few and very far between, but the Facebook and Instagram likes grew bit by bit and suddenly I was getting ‘yes’s for most things I applied for/to.

    Every now and then I’ll have a day where I wonder why I haven’t had many sales recently or why the pattern I posted last night only has 5 likes instead of 50, but thankfully it doesn’t last long.

    So, I’m still positive, I think, in terms of finding the positive in everything (including that crappy pattern that I spent two hours on the other night and just really really is horrendous – making bad stuff is as important as making good stuff), but not positive in terms of expecting the miraculous.

    🙂

    • Tasha that is 100% true, making bad stuff is the foundation on which you later grow the good stuff. It’s not always the most comfortable process, but it does take you where you need to go. And yes, the key is that it gets better as you get better.

  2. I love your trains of thought, Lidija! I can relate well. No high hopes, no deep disappointment. And when unexpected success eventually strikes, then it feels even better! Have you thought of becoming an agent?

  3. I agree with you Lidija, no high hopes, and still trying to do my best, it keeps me focused and balanced, and happy in some way, because I enjoy the journey, and I am sure the harder the path, I will feel more fulfilled when I will get where I was aiming to. Thank you for your wonderful posts!

    • Balance is a great concept to keep in mind, Irina! We tend to focus on our misses and underestimate our hits – and a hit doesn’t have to be a huge deal you landed, it’s really everything you do that moves you towards your goals.

  4. No succes yet , but am still moving ahead . I am putting in efforts in creating and learning art . Each bit of learning is an achievement in itself ! Though I desperately desire to suceed, but I don’t concentrate on it . I believe in the mantara that , I have to keep flowing and moving ahead , if I stop I may change into a stagnant pond .

    • Moving forward is success, definitely. We just have to deal with the fact that it does take time – more than we’d imagine. But it will be all the sweeter once we get there 🙂

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