Category Archives: Books

The courage to create, from Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland

What keeps artists from creating? What makes people quit? In Art & Fear: Observations on the perils (and rewards) of artmaking (public library), David Bayles and Ted Orland, offer explanations, solutions, and encouragement for anyone with an urge to make.

The hurdles to creation aren’t merely about talent or technical skill, but about showing up everyday and doing the work. Why is this so hard?  Lack of external deadlines, lack of external validation, self-doubt, lack of confidence. Your early efforts aren’t very good. Your work falls short of your heroes. You fear that “you won’t finish what you started and you fear how people will react even if you do”.

Making art now means working in the face of uncertainty ; it means living with doubt and contradiction, doing something no one much cares whether you do, and for which there may be neither audience nor reward. Making the work you want to make means setting aside these doubts so that you may see clearly what you have done, and thereby see where to go next. Making the work you want to make means finding nourishment within the work itself.

To be an artist is to set aside these doubts and get to work: to focus on the present moment; to remember why you wanted to make something in the first place; to focus on how it feels to be engrossed in your work.

But this process is hard. Art is subjective; it can be personal. You might feel like your creations directly reflect you and thus, when your work sucks, you suck. Unhelpful critics (either indifferent or hostile) will happily reinforce this view, but at the end of the day, this perspective does not help you and must be discarded.

Making art can feel dangerous and revealing. Making art is dangerous and revealing. Making art precipitates self-doubt, stirring deep waters that lay between what you know you should be, and what you fear you might be.

In a general way, fears about yourself prevent you from doing your best work, while fears about your reception by others prevent you from doing your own work.

So how do we fight self-doubt and keep going? By doing work. Doing lots of work. Doing lots of potentially bad work. Learning from your work.

You make good work by (among other things) making lots of work that isn’t very good, and gradually weeding out the parts that aren’t good, the parts that aren’t yours. It’s called feedback, and it’s the most direct route to learning about your own vision. It’s also called doing your work.

Artists get better by sharpening their skills or by acquiring new ones; they get better by learning to work, and by learning from their work.

The most important aspect of art-making is making art. In other words, showing up everyday to practice.  David Bayles and Ted Orland have the following parable to illustrate the power of quantity.

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work-and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

So, yes, even if your vision of every project falls short of your dreams for it — each piece is a “test of correspondence between imagination and execution” — the act of creating it moves you forward. Through this process, you will develop new questions and develop new ideas.  Each piece is a reflection of who you were and what you were thinking when you created it.

The work we make, even if unnoticed and undesired by the world, vibrates in perfect harmony to everything we put into it — or withhold from it. In the outside world there maybe no reaction to what we do; in our artwork there is nothing but reaction. The breathtakingly wonderful thing about this reaction is its truthfulness. Look at your work and it tells you how it is when you hold back or when you embrace. When you are lazy, your art is lazy; when you hold back, it holds back; when you hesitate, it stands there staring, hands in its pockets. But when you commit, it comes on like blazes.

Everything we make is a snapshot of a ourselves as a constantly evolving human being — not a symbol of our worth but a reflection of our thought process at a specific place and specific time.

This book focuses on artists — painters, musicians, sculptors, writers — but advice and encouragement within it is apt for any creative practice — or any practice-makes-perfect activity. It rings true to me for research and for engineering. I can only imagine its true for business or activism. Much of what humans do can only be perfected by doing.

This is a great book to motivate you to get started on a project you’ve wanted to do for a long time but for whatever reasons couldn’t.  This is also a great book for when you feel discouraged: when a risk you took didn’t pay off.  Time to get up. Get going. Difficulties are normal. Difficulties are part of the process. Better to be the man in the arena than to be paralyzed by self-doubt, sitting on the sidelines, and guaranteed to accomplish nothing.

PS – Thanks, Andy, for recommending this excellent book! You know who you are!

The Rise of the Extrovert Ideal, from Quiet by Susan Cain

In Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking (public library),  Susan Cain uses the term Extrovert Ideal to describe the social pressure to be extroverted. Qualities associated with extroversion — enthusiastic, talkative, assertive, and gregarious — are rated positively whereas traits associated with introversion — quiet, thoughtful, analytic — are typically viewed if not negatively, then with less excitement.  Not to mention that introversion has traditionally been  confounded with shyness (which both extroverts and introverts can feel, and which relates to social anxiety) and anti-social behavior. Quiet enumerates the advantages of a reflective approach to life and it also gives a compelling cultural history of how and why extroversion is so valued in the first place.

Cain describes the rise of the Extrovert Ideal as a byproduct of America’s transition from a primarily rural to an urban society.  As people started to live increasingly in cities, among strangers, as opposed to in small towns, among a small, stable group of people, the ability to make quick, favorable impressions on others became increasingly important. Additionally, as America became more industrialized and entrepreneurial, the need to ‘sell’ ideas and products to other people became a fundamental skill for people who wanted to gain the most from the new economy. This view was described by Warren Susman, in his book Culture as History, as transition from a Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality. Character consists of internal traits that anyone can develop and learn, but personality refers to external qualities that are partly determined by the traits you’re born with.

In the Culture of Character, the ideal self was serious, disciplined, and honorable. What counted was not so much the impression one made in public as how one behaved in private.

But when they embraced the Culture of Personality, Americans started to focus on how others perceived them. They became captivated by people who were bold and entertaining.

Susman counted the words that appeared most frequently in the personality-driven advice manuals of the early twentieth century and compared them to the character guides of the nineteenth century. The earlier guides emphasized attributes that anyone could work on improving, described by words like

  • Citizenship
  • Duty
  • Work
  • Golden deeds
  • Honor
  • Reputation
  • Morals
  • Manners
  • Integrity

But the new guides celebrated qualities that were— no matter how easy Dale Carnegie made it sound— trickier to acquire. Either you embodied these qualities or you didn’t:

  • Magnetic
  • Fascinating
  • Stunning
  • Attractive
  • Glowing
  • Dominant
  • Forceful
  • Energetic

The resulting anxiety from a need to constantly market and brand oneself was reflected in self-help books, such as Dale Carnegie’s How to win friends and influence people, and of course, advertising, which offered their products as easy solutions to assuage this anxiety.

…the new personality-driven ads cast consumers as performers with stage fright from which only the advertiser’s product might rescue them. These ads focused obsessively on the hostile glare of the public spotlight. “ALL AROUND YOU PEOPLE ARE JUDGING YOU SILENTLY,” warned a 1922 ad for Woodbury’s soap. “CRITICAL EYES ARE SIZING YOU UP RIGHT NOW,” advised the Williams Shaving Cream company.

Madison Avenue spoke directly to the anxieties of male salesmen and middle managers. In one ad for Dr. West’s toothbrushes, a prosperous-looking fellow sat behind a desk, his arm cocked confidently behind his hip, asking whether you’ve “EVER TRIED SELLING YOURSELF TO YOU? A FAVORABLE FIRST IMPRESSION IS THE GREATEST SINGLE FACTOR IN BUSINESS OR SOCIAL SUCCESS.” The Williams Shaving Cream ad featured a slick-haired, mustachioed man urging readers to “LET YOUR FACE REFLECT CONFIDENCE, NOT WORRY! IT’S THE ‘LOOK’ OF YOU BY WHICH YOU ARE JUDGED MOST OFTEN.”

And so, we see the birth of familiar commercial institutions such as the cosmetics, self-help, fashion, diet, plastic surgery and health industries, all built on a solid foundation of people’s insecurities. Parents worried that their quiet children were ‘anti-social’ and in the 1920s, the term Inferiority Complex became a catch all psychological disorder for people who had trouble adjusting to the cultural ideals. People who already fit the mold well could always do better and people who do not fit the mold at all might be left out altogether. In the 50s, such cultural norms were explicitly stated in educational propaganda files, such as ‘Neat and Clean’ (below) and ‘Social Responsibility’.

Furthermore, when enough people buy into a viewpoint, belief becomes a self-fulfilling reality: in the 1950s, businesses and schools actively sought out extroverted personalities. Cain gives quotes from deans at Harvard and Yale during this time.

University admissions officers looked not for the most exceptional candidates, but for the most extroverted. Harvard’s provost Paul Buck declared in the late 1940s that Harvard should reject the “sensitive, neurotic” type and the “intellectually over-stimulated” in favor of boys of the “healthy extrovert kind.” In 1950, Yale’s president, Alfred Whitney Griswold, declared that the ideal Yalie was not a “beetle-browed, highly specialized intellectual, but a well-rounded man.” Another dean told Whyte that “in screening applications from secondary schools he felt it was only common sense to take into account not only what the college wanted, but what, four years later, corporations’ recruiters would want. ‘They like a pretty gregarious, active type,’ he said. ‘So we find that the best man is the one who’s had an 80 or 85 average in school and plenty of extracurricular activity. We see little use for the “brilliant” introvert.’ ”

And so extroverted traits became prerequisites for success because institutions decided it should be so. Extroversion became part of a ‘winning personality’. Even in fields where introversion is a clear asset, such as engineering, extroverts were preferred, as at IBM.

The scientist’s job was not only to do the research but also to help sell it, and that required a hail-fellow-well-met demeanor. At IBM, a corporation that embodied the ideal of the company man, the sales force gathered each morning to belt out the company anthem, “Ever Onward,” and to harmonize on the “Selling IBM” song, set to the tune of “Singin’ in the Rain.” “Selling IBM,” it began, “we’re selling IBM. What a glorious feeling, the world is our friend.” The ditty built to a stirring close: “We’re always in trim, we work with a vim. We’re selling, just selling, IBM.”

In her book, Cain reminds us that introverted people have contributed a lot to society, especially in the arts, sciences, and activism. But she never says that introversion is better. She argues that society handicaps itself by advocating a single ‘right’ style for interacting with the world.