Learning To Shun The Shoulds

image: dan james
image: dan james

Most of the time I create exactly what and how I want to, revelling in the freedom and opportunities for experimentation that creative approach brings.

Occasionally though, I find my thoughts around creating stumble up against what I think I “should” be creating.

When I say “stumble”, I actually mean “smash headlong into a seventeen foot thick concrete wall with the force of a rocket fuelled juggernaut”.

Maybe you can relate.

So let’s talk about three of the most common ways we get sidetracked from what we really want and need to be creating and instead seem to only be able to focus on the “shoulds”.

The Age Related Should

Most common incarnation: “I should’ve have achieved this by this point in my life/career as an artist…”

This is a classic should, beating yourself up because you haven’t done more than you feel you should have done, and that you think everyone else in the whole world your age has already done. At least twice.

This should is actually quite easy to disable, as it’s nearly always based on a paper thin version of the truth, with very little evidence behind it.

When we try to look back over our entire lives in one swoop, there’s no way we can fairly assess what and how and how much we’ve created. Or how much we’ve progressed.

It’s like watching a film on 100x fast forward. You might get a very general gist of what’s gone on, but you don’t see any of the beautiful detail.

What if instead, you watched that movie at normal speed, or better still in slow motion?

What if you took a set period of your life, say the last six months for starters, and began to list all the creative stuff you’ve done in that time.

And not just the obvious art stuff like painting pictures or writing poems or taking photographs. Include all the other ways your unique and precious creative talents have been called upon to come up with something new that didn’t exist before.

I think you’ll very quickly find an abundance of evidence of your creativity.

Multiple this six months’ worth of creativity by two, then by your age, and you get an approximation of how much you’ve created in your life.

A pretty epic amount, don’t you agree?

The Family And Friends Should

Most common incarnation: “My parents/kids/siblings/best friends think I should be creating…”

Most of us seek come kind of approval and acceptance from others. And usually those others are the ones closest to us – our family and friends.

The problems come when we try to create stuff based on their likes and tastes and expectations, not our own.

This would be a shortcut to misery even if it were just one person we were trying to please.

But most of us have at least a handful of close friends and family, all unique people with their own tastes and views of what we create and what they feel we should create.

To add a third layer of complexity, we don’t actually know exactly what they want anyway – we’re only guessing based on our past experiences with them, and how honest (or otherwise) those interactions have been.

So we end up creating as if we’re trying to make a commissioned piece for six different people at once who at best have only told us a fraction of what they really want and like.

A recipe for huge misinterpretation, which makes our task of creating something for everyone an impossible task.

(Personal aside – something I really detest is those safe middle of the road records people release where they describe the different kinds of musical style and tempo are on the record, and end with saying: “So there’s really something on this album for everyone”.

I don’t want to buy a record that has only one or two tracks “for me”. I want an album where every track together contributes to an overall experience that is original, immersive and unforgettable.

An artist cannot possibly ever create that kind of album if they create with a nice, friendly, something-for-everyone approach… Rant over…)

So once you realise that you can never please everyone, it’s incredibly liberating.

It means you can focus all your energy on pleasing just one person. Yourself.

And when you do that, your work takes on a greater authenticity, a deeper resonance, and for you is infinitely more enjoyable to make.

Also, when you create with this kind of passion and enjoyment and focus, then the others that do come across your work connect with emphatically and clutch it dearly to their heart.

The Overnight Expert Should

Most common incarnation: “I’ve been trying this new artform for two days, I should be an expert by now…”

As artists, a fundamental driving force in our lives and personality is curiosity, seeking out new things.

So it’s likely that we want to try out a number of different artforms, and experimenting in one form usually leads to offshoot experimentation in another, and so on.

This is all great, except when our expectations at how quickly we can master new artforms is completely unrealistic.

Then there’s a danger of getting sucked into a slowly building storm of negativity around our perceived lack of ability in those new chosen artforms.

In short, we want to be an overnight expert in something that takes years to master.

I think two things are happening here, that make this a painful should to be in the midst of.

First, we’re completely underestimating how long it takes and how much practice we need to get good at something. Even if you have a bundle of natural talent, you don’t suddenly become an expert at every aspect and nuance of a particular media.

There are different versions of the 10,000 rule – Malcolm Gladwell’s theory that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to approach mastery, and Henri Cartier-Bresson’s – “Your first 10000 photographs are your worst.”

Note this is ten thousand hours, ten thousand openings and closings of the shutter. Not ten hours, or ten times.

The second problem is our focus is all on being that expert. Which as we’ve just said, is potentially 10,000 hours/attempts away…

And when your focus is that far ahead, you can’t possibly enjoy what you’re experiencing right here and right now.

Plus, you’re not enjoying the freedom that having a naive, beginner’s mind approach, can give us. We can try anything, our only barometer and compass is how much we’re enjoying it, how much it’s inspiring us to do more.

These are three of the most common ways we can be enslaved by the shoulds.

There are no doubt other damaging shoulds you’re aware of in your own creative life. But you can learn to stop being such a slave to them.

The key is first to identify them – to become aware of the times when you’re not creating what and how you want to be creating, but instead doing it for someone else.

Then you can begun to shun those shoulds, and create in the way you really want to.

Which, ironically, is exactly the way we need you to create, as it’s how you’re going to produce your most authentic, most impassioned and most engaging work…


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