Success, Crippling Self-doubt, and the Trouble with Ego

Things are going pretty darn great! I’m far from ever being able to make the plunge to being a full time artist, but the past year has been pretty good to me. I’ve seen a brisk uptick in my art sales. I paid all my art expenses for the year and actually turned a tiny (seriously…tiny) profit! Last year I was one of two artists selected for the Bob Marshall Wilderness artist in residency and have been creating a lot of new work based on my experience there. The upcoming Minnesota Trout Unlimited newsletter has a really nice two page spread featuring my art. I’m applying for some grants. I have some work in a small gallery. Things are really looking up!

Too bad I deserve none of it, my work is trivial at best, I’m a complete fraud, and, most likely, completely unlikable.

At least that is what my brain tells me…

I can only hope that the quote by Robert Hughes has some merit:

“The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize.”

Of course, by putting that quote after admitting my great doubt, I come across as an arrogant prick. (see previous remark “completely unlikable”.)

So, why write any of this? I think because I am not alone. In talking to other artists, this is the ugly side of the creative process and is incredibly common. I think this might even be exasperated by an increasing public profile. The more people know my work, the more I worry I’ll be found out to not have any talent or original ideas. Imposter syndrome is real and crippling.

It is frustrating to realize, with some degree of finality, that absolutely nothing I do - no amount of “success” - will ever be enough. And that is ok. It is ok to be frustrated. It is ok because I realize that the joy of success, as well as the despair of feeling like a fraud, are both the product of ego. The ego is such a clumsy thing. When I can see it I can find it amusing and work around it. When I don’t see it, I either get too full of myself or spiral into despair. Or, more often than not, both at the same time. I’m not yet skilled enough to work without ego, so I just have to keep it in check.

Sometimes when I work, I feel like I’m able to set ego aside. It usually feels like a flow state of some sort. I don’t feel attached to the end result and it feels a lot like play. I guess it is more of a working from the gut, but that oversimplifies it. The skills I’ve developed certainly help attain the flow state. This is perhaps why some of my recent work is deliberately set up to be uncontrollable. I’ve been exploring letting ink bleed on paper. It is controlled only to a point. If I’m too attached to what I think it SHOULD be doing, I miss out on the interesting things that it actually IS doing.

And I guess that is as good a metaphor as any.

An untitled ink “bleed” artwork.

An untitled ink “bleed” artwork.