What an Artist Hears – Dangerous Compliments and How it Inadvertantly Motivates Us


First, this is a generalization because as we all know: people don’t always fall neatly into one bucket or another.  With that said, and as any type of artist will tell you . .  . we are always our own worst critic.

Oh sure, there are people at the top of their game or those that have an overinflated view of themselves and their accomplishments that might not fit in the typical artist bucket. For the rest of us, we sometimes have an issue calling ourselves “professional” artists nevermind thinking we are actually good.

Many artists are not full-time.  Many of us work for a living and have successful careers. (Yes, this goes against the “lazy” stereotype) I believe that special creative drive we have as artists to think outside of the box, take learnings from other places and apply in new ways, continually improve our creative work, and seek encouragement through the “great job” compliments is what also drives us in the business world.  And the real entrepreneurial types display these qualities.  In the venture capital world alone I’ve worked with and met VC’s and tech founders who are also accomplished photographers, DJs, and musicians.

Musicians, Writers, Poets, Painters, Photographers . . . anyone who captures that creative juice and turns it into something that others can’t do is an artist. We all suffer at some point from the same affliction of questioning how good we really are. Some do this our entire lives, and others until we reach a level that we might start admitting to ourselves that we are actually pleased with our work.  Now don’t get confused here and think that “pleased” is equal to admitting “greatness”.

This is where the dangerous compliments set in and help motivate creative types to strive to be so much more.  We work at our chosen artistic endeavors – sometimes in a vacuum  – afraid to share what we’ve done because we fear it’s not good enough.  The inner drive of a creative mind makes an artist keep at it – and its that repeated failure and yes, practice, that makes us improve and move to a new level.  Failure and repetitiveness can be a good thing . . .

Michael Jordan once said, “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Through this failure and practice period, we produce more and more until we finally decide to share with others.  Family, close friends – the ones we know won’t laugh at us and are biased enough to give the encouragement we need.  From there we branch out and share with more people and when you’ve been at it long enough you inevitably hear the dreaded words . . . “This is the best you’ve ever done” or “each painting is getting better and better” or “you’ve reached a whole new level”.  This should make you smile, feel proud and happy that you’ve achieved something big . . . but an artist hears: “Wow – how is anything you create now ever going to compare?”

I heard these compliments this weekend after completing a painting. (The one posted above) It was a different type of painting for me and I was feeling happy with the outcome.  I posted on social media knowing my friends would like it (some for real and some just because they are my friends) and I would move on and pick my next scene to paint.  I started hearing different comments, though — things like “my favorite one so far” “Top 5” “You keep getting better” “best painting yet” and although I should have been thrilled, a part of me was intimidated and thought “Oh no, now what; whatever I paint next won’t be as good!”

We are at odds with our own internal enemy.  Compliments to an artist can either be intimidating or inspiring (click to tweet). Don’t let the compliment get you stuck, afraid to accept failure by moving out of our comfort zone and experimenting with our craft.  These are the artists that are afraid that maybe this is the best they can do and everyone will judge them on this one song, painting, or book for everything else they create.  Or, we can let it motivate and inspire us – believe that what we created is really as good as others think it is and keep trying to improve by pushing ourselves.

I spent some time last night selecting a new subject to challenge myself.  I like to think I am in the latter category that can get motivated to do even better.  Like Michael Jordan’s quote – we will have some misses and failures – but that is how we learn and improve!



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