Don't let self-doubt kibosh your ideas. Creative advertising lecturer Andrew Boulton argues that in the creative life, failure and embarrassment are entirely unrelated.
If we, as creatives, have learned anything during this irritable bowel of a year, it’s that some things are not meant to be learned from, merely withstood.
Creativity – like any soft-handed, lemon-scented profession that eats you from the inside out – depends on a certain degree of adversary. But during this strange and straining year, the obstacles have outweighed the opportunities.
We may not have actually lost anything meaningful, in that everything we’re currently denied is still there even if we, at present, are not. But we have been denied a way of working, of interacting and of sustaining our fragile creative spirit. And I’ve never met a creative yet who does well with denial.
And while the hardships, like the circumstances themselves, have left nobody out (the only true equality in the business, you might say), I’ve seen first-hand the way young creatives have been changed by so long under a quarantine of imagination.
The primary symptom is doubt. And while doubt is to creativity what splinters are to carpentry, it quickly becomes malignant if we can’t see it for the psychological hoax it really is.
Our doubts, said Shakespeare, are traitors. They ‘make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt’. The problem, from a creative point of view, is that all we have are our attempts. Without our attempts, our blind leaps, we have very little to give.
I often find that the biggest hurdle young creatives face is a willingness to appear ridiculous. They (just as the rest of us did) check their ideas before speaking, scanning for anything that might expose them or diminish them in front of fellow creatives.
And, in a year where our creative environments have been shuttered and the free-flowing dialogue of imagination and examination has been abridged, this inner uncertainty has been allowed to fester.
We all have what James Baldwin called ‘the merciless tribunal I carry around in my own head’. The inner voices that judge us and undermine us and force us to imagine the worst. The best and most confident creatives you know have these voices too, they’re just better at ignoring them.
It comes down to an unteachable quality. To recognise that, in the creative life, failure and embarrassment are entirely unrelated.
I never liked that line supposedly said by Alain de Botton about us being embarrassed of who we were a year ago, otherwise we’re not learning enough. I agree that we should change rapidly and substantially as creative thinkers, but there is nothing embarrassing about voicing an idea without the full assurance that other people will admire it. I’d say that’s actually something to be incredibly proud of – and also the surest sign you have nothing to fear from the creative life.
My favourite conversations with old and gnarly creatives are the fuck-up stories – the tragic and hapless mistakes and misjudgements and ferocious bollockings that will find us all easily and often throughout our careers. These stories are told with glee and pride, because these creatives have realised, through repeated exposure, that doubt and embarrassment cannot lay a glove on you once you peg them for the phantoms they are.
There’s an old Leonard Cohen line about how much easier it is to display a wound or a scar than a pimple – and that’s precisely the journey young creatives are making right now. Trembling over the smallest hiccups when a career of clattering disaster awaits them, as it awaits anybody who trades ideas for coin.
So, if I have learned anything from this unwiped bum of a year, it’s surely this: certainty is a dangerous illusion, in life and in creativity. You don’t know what will happen when you tell people what’s inside your mind, but you know precisely what will happen if you don’t. And there’s only one of those scenarios guaranteed to make you worse at what you do.
Andrew Boulton teaches Creative Advertising at the University of Lincoln. Follow him on Twitter