I’ve been thinking more about the art classes, and particularly about whether I’m looking for validation or education – whether my interest is because “you can’t be a real artist without an art education” or whether it’s a genuine need for knowledge. Today’s blog post is about the first part – validation, or “giving myself permission”.
I often see people talk themselves out of doing something because they don’t see themselves as the kind of person who can do it. That is to say, “I can’t draw, because only artists can draw, and I’m not an artist.” “I can’t do math, because I’m a creative person, and creative people aren’t good at math.” That kind of thinking suggests that success depends on innate ability, and if you don’t have that ability, i.e. aren’t that kind of person, you won’t succeed. This way of thinking can be profoundly destructive, as many beginners mistake lack of skill (which can be improved with attentive practice) with lack of talent (which is intrinsic and can’t change). Because they’re thinking of talent as immutable, they take their initial fumbles as a prediction of future failure.
There is a variant of this that I call “The Certification Game”. The idea behind the Certification Game is that if you don’t have a certification in something, you aren’t allowed to do it. This is, of course, reinforced by society: without a medical degree, you can’t practice medicine; without a law degree, you can’t practice law; and without a college degree, many employers won’t hire you (even if the degree is irrelevant to their position). In virtually any job, there are certifications employers look for – including some that most practitioners will tell you are useless except on your resume. (I’m a project manager, and there are LOADS of such useless certifications in my field. Unfortunately, they matter to employers, so I get them anyway.)
One of my personal barriers as an artist was and is simply “allowing” or “certifying” myself to be an artist. I have zero background in art. The only two art classes my alma mater offered were beginning screen printing and beginning ceramics. Art history? Forget it, along with most other liberal arts subjects. I’m trained as a scientist and a mathematician – subjects which are often seen as left-brain and completely opposite to creative endeavors. So giving myself permission to be an artist is very difficult, both because I’m not certified in art and not “the kind of person” who is good at art. It’s particularly difficult for me to see myself as an artist who sells to galleries and other high-end arenas, because I perceive successful artists as a different sort of person – some exotic beast that I am definitely not. Therefore, I must need a certification that I’m an artist to pursue a gallery route.
This, of course, is bosh, but it’s very persistent bosh. The ironic thing is that I chose my undergraduate alma mater explicitly because its culture admitted no limits. While I was there, I wrote about the school:
Caltech is a magical place, where the normal laws of reality don’t apply. You might wake up one morning to discover that your fellow students have converted a fountain into a giant moving sculpture of a whale, or built a buckyball generator in an empty dorm room, or are firing oranges from a cannon powered by liquid nitrogen.
The wonderful thing about going to Caltech was that magic happened. The buckyball generator was a good example – it’s a complex machine designed to churn out carbon molecules that are shaped like little soccer balls, and act like ball bearings. Normally, buckyball generators are limited to scientific laboratories and maybe some industry think tanks. They are emphatically NOT built by a bunch of 19-year-olds in a college dorm room.
But Techers don’t know that some things aren’t possible. The 19-year-olds cobbled together stuff from various laboratories, and, when stymied by a lack of power (the machine drew enough current to blow circuit breakers), simply spliced into the main power line for the house, bypassing the electrical panel. They built it, and it worked.
Another fun story: one of my fellow Tech alums has a ten-dollar bill framed on his wall. He won it his sophomore year, following a spirited debate on a topic in physics with Murray Gell-Mann (a physics Nobelist and Caltech professor). Gell-Mann insisted he was right, my friend insisted he was wrong – so they each plunked down $10 that they were right. My fellow alum went home and did the research, presented Gell-Mann with proof that he was right, and Gell-Mann paid up with a smile. And congratulated my fellow alum on having had the cojones to argue with a Nobel prize winner.
The point of going to Caltech, at least for me, was that Caltech students gave themselves permission to do anything. Seemingly impossible tasks were regarded as interesting problems and challenges, and the answer was always the same: break the problem down into parts, analyze each part and come up with solutions, and then implement them. We didn’t worry about whether it was possible or not – we knew that we were clever monkeys, and we could do anything. I could have gotten a broader education at the school I started with – Stanford – but the Caltech culture was so empowering, and so intriguing, that I transferred and never regretted doing so.
So it is particularly puzzling to me that some people (including me!) simply don’t give themselves permission to do things. Is it really so hard to let go of the idea that we can’t do something, and simply focus on doing it? What makes us feel we need someone (or some institution) to certify that we can do something, before we begin?
I don’t know. But what I do know is that, in the end, success comes down to the same formula we used so successfully at Caltech: break the problem into parts, analyze each part of the problem and come up with a solution, and then implement the solutions, one by one. That’s the route to success, in gallery art or elsewhere, and that’s what I plan to think through this week. I’ve given myself permission to succeed; the rest is just working out the details.