Dangerous lies creators tell themselves
Using Sahil Bloom's framework as a jumping-off point for talking about common creative struggles
I recently received an edition of Sahil Bloom's newsletter called "Dangerous lies we tell ourselves". As I read the piece and reflected on the lies, I recognized that my struggle living with each of them wasn't unique; I'm sure many of you have experienced similar feelings.
So today I want to examine the lies Sahil calls out and talk through how I've reframed them for myself. I hope that by sharing my experience with these lies I can unblock a few of you who might be bumping up against them too. Walking the line between art and commerce is a tricky balancing act but you don't have to go it alone!
If you can relate, share your experience! I'd love to hear your story. Let's lift each other up in our collective quest to make great things.
"When I get X, then I'll be happy"
As a kid who grew up in a very achievement-oriented household and in scholastic environments that emphasized traditional benchmarks of "success", I always put a lot of pressure on myself to prove my worth via external validation.
I have classic striver syndrome.
Get into an elite college. Major in a "respectable" discipline. Find a corporate job with brand recognition. Get promoted. Make 100k+. Live in a fancy home in a flashy city. On and on it goes.
That striving is detrimental enough as it is, but as a creative person, there's an extra layer. This mentality can easily spill over into how you think about your art: "If only X people like my work, then I'll be happy with it."
But hinging your creative satisfaction on the response of others is a surefire way to:
ensure you're perpetually dissatisfied with your work
limit your desire to start new work
make your output worse because you're trying to guess what others will like instead of making something you feel inherently good about.
Reframing this lie required that I shift my focus from outputs to inputs.
I realized that I'm simply most happy when I'm making things.
It's not the response to any piece that makes it worth making. It's the satisfaction that comes from seeing my ideas become reality in the world.
Realizing my ideas; that's happiness.
"This is just who I am"
Since good creative career paths are rarely linear, it's likely you'll have to reinvent yourself a few times over the course of your working life. This isn't easy, but to avoid doing so will mean allowing yourself to stay stuck doing something you no longer feel good about or inspired by.
To reframe this fixed mindset, I practice conscious detachment and remind myself to focus on growth. I try to:
Detach from ideals that are no longer serving me.
Detach from basing my identity too heavily on things outside my control.
Detach even from my past successes that no longer reflect what I want to be doing going forward.
If I figured out how to shape myself to get here, I can figure out how to reshape myself to get to where I want to go now.
"I don't have time for X"
Time is such an easy excuse, isn't it?
I've told myself this lie so many times it's impossible to count. Occasionally it's true, but mostly it's an excuse and I know it.
Recently, I would tell myself I didn't have time to write this newsletter. How am I supposed to fit in all the additional work outside my responsibilities as a principal designer at a lean and fast-paced startup? How am I supposed to squeeze it in alongside my fitness routine? And what about having a social life for goodness' sake?!
All of that was enough to block me from starting for a long time.
The reframe here came one day when I recognized that the pain of not starting to realize my ideas was greater than the pain required to start.
Although it was my last resort, the only way I could find to ensure I consistently put my best thoughts into my own creative projects was to work on them first thing in the morning. Since I also expend a lot of creative energy during the workday, I simply felt too drained by the time the evening rolled around to make steady progress or have many good ideas left for myself.
If you feel better working another time, you do you! But using the morning is the only approach that has consistently worked for me.
"Someone will be there to save me"
To me, this boils down to passing the buck.
"It's not a designer's job to do X".
"Someone else should do this".
It's one part "this is just who I am" mixed with one part "I'm not capable of X"
Again, there are times this feeling is legit but more often than not it's an easy excuse to avoid doing something that you know will be hard or that's out of your wheelhouse.
A simple reframe here comes from Dan Mall who summarizes his mindset by saying "whoever wants it more does the work".
Whenever I've wanted something the most, I've had to take the lead. Expecting anyone else to carry my torch has been a highway to disappointment.
If I want it more, I'm gonna do the work.
"I'm not capable of X"
There are some things I'm not capable of.
Like, sadly, I think my childhood dream of playing in the NBA has long since passed (I'm 5'10" with a meager vertical on a good day).
But, most of the times I've told myself "I'm not capable" it's been a lie.
A limiting belief, not the reality.
As a liberal arts major, I once thought I couldn't "be technical".
Then one day I decided to start a daily practice of learning to code and eventually ended up working as an engineer on a great team at American Express.
That reframe didn't happen overnight, and making that transition wasn't easy, but it taught me that if I want something badly enough and I give myself a long enough timeline, I'm always more capable than I initially imagined.
The same is likely true for you.
"I know exactly what I'm doing"
Thankfully, I'm not too guilty of this one.
Instead, I feel like I tell myself the opposite lie: "I have no idea what I'm doing."
I know all of the principles, and I know the ins and outs of my craft, and yet I still end up blocking myself out of fear.
"If I don't know exactly what I'm doing, then why even bother?" the nagging voice says, "everyone else seems to know so much more than me."
The reframe here is obvious but easy to forget: no one knows exactly what they're doing. We're all improvising, almost all of the time.
I've recognized my tendency to build a rosy narrative around everyone's work but my own and I've opened myself up to moving forward despite ambiguity.
The reality is that I'll never know exactly what I'm doing or what's next but if I trust myself and start building my way forward, I always end up figuring it out.
"They just got lucky"
Ah, envy. The powerful force and "deadly sin".
With social media, we're beaten over the head by others' success every day; We designed the ultimate envy stimulation machine.
Even when you're putting in the work and feeling good about your progress, it's so tempting to look at someone who's a few steps ahead of you and slip into envy and disappointment. But this isn't their fault. And despite how personal it feels, each of you is just living your own independent life.
In creative work, success does come down to the hits. And while hits seem 100% spontaneous and lucky, they rarely are.
There's usually a ton of work behind the scenes that you have no idea about. Stuff that was happening long before the idea ever came across your radar.
The reframe I've found to work here is two-fold:
I focus on being prolific in order to create my own luck
I practice gratitude to offset my tendency to envy
"I'm just waiting for the perfect moment to do X"
Hello, my fellow perfectionists.
We hook ourselves onto the idea that there will be a moment when all will be clear. That one miraculous day when we'll suddenly have all the information and the perfect moment will arise.
But that's a world of ideals and of narrative that only exists in our minds. The real world doesn't care about your concept of "perfect" and moves at its own speed. You just have to find where the energy is going and ride that wave.
By default, I skew toward analysis paralysis, so to reframe this one, my first big shift was to learn about the difference between acting as a 'Maximizer' versus acting as a 'Satisficer'.
I had to accept that I would never have perfect information and that sometimes I would have to make a judgment call and live with the results. I could always adjust after making a decision, but I couldn't get that chance by postponing indefinitely.
So make a decision, learn from it, and move forward.
"I'm too late to do X"
I'm lucky to not feel this way often, but I've seen a number of my friends fall deep down this rabbit hole.
Being 10+ years into a career seems like a lot. A decade! It sounds substantial and it gets the gears of the sunk cost fallacy moving in your head: "I've already put so much effort into this, I can't walk away now!"
But why allow the past version of yourself to dictate what the current version should do? They didn't know what you know now!
The reframe for learning creative skills is that it's never too late to build them provided you're willing to make the time to practice and you accept the idea that you’re going to suck for a while until your skills develop.
Unlike my earlier NBA example, with creative skills, you're less limited by your biology. So it really is never too late!
"I'll do X later"
As Taylor Swift would say: "It's me. Hi. I'm the problem, it's me."
I'm a guilty-as-charged procrastinator.
Have been since my school days and continue to be to this day.
The difference between then and now is that I acknowledge and accept this about myself now and plan accordingly.
The reframe here is to realize that your procrastinator self is a stubborn jerk and that you need to plan around them.
For instance, I know that I need to feel some heat from a deadline to be able to perform at my best. As much as I wish that weren't true, it is. That means that I have to create pressure on myself to get things done which most often results in setting arbitrary time constraints.
To use this newsletter as an example again:
If I just said "I'm going to write a book", I can guarantee you there's no way I'd make the consistent progress needed to make it a reality. Procrastination Pat would take over and I'd get stuck.
By writing a newsletter instead, I put myself on the hook to deliver every week. Even if I just scrape by one week, I still get words down on the page. This means that if and when I do decide to make something bigger, I will have already wrangled myself into creating most of the material required to make it a reality.
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Hey Pat, thank you for sharing. There are some really great insights here and I thought I'd share a couple that may have been overlooked. "This is who I am" is a lie we often include with "I'm a designer". But being a designer is not who you are. Being a designer is what you do. Being a human is what you are. That comes with things that compound every aspect of our life and often gets left out of columns such as this one. We need to reframe being a designer by assessing what it is we most want as humans. We must balance the important silos in our lives - work, relationships, health etc.. Only then can we ensure that the lies we're telling ourselves are more easily reframed.
Sadly, we also get caught up in comparison syndrome and the lie "they just got lucky" is again compounded occasionally by things left out of the story. It is not just the "greatest hits" imagery we encounter on socials. Chris Do likes to tell the story of landing his first job. With only 4 pieces in his portfolio he accepted a great, high-paying creative job right out of college. But he frequently fails to include that his college was Art Center (one of the top design schools in the world) and the employer offering him the job, already employed someone who knew Chris very well - a built-in reference. Sometimes in order to reframe the luck we see in others, we simply have to dismantle the fantasies we tend to build up in our own minds. After all, that's a key ingredient in being "creative", no?