Try and Try Again: The Worst It Can Do Is Suck

Dave Moyer–Daily Self-Portrait Practice

October 2016

An old friend of Rebecca’s, David Moyer, who has been an artist for over 50 years, has just now decided he’s going to teach himself how to draw.  Even though he went to Pratt Institute (one of the premier art schools in the US) back in the 80’s, he spent most of his time there developing a style of painting–farbelism–that involved a complex pattern of design and color (click to here learn more about farbelism).

As a result, although he picked up enough from his classes to be proficient, he felt like he never honed his drawing skills. So now, in his 50’s, Dave decided it’s time! In order to do so, he committed to doing a self-portrait everyday for the next 356 days. He chose that subject matter because he really wanted to learn how to draw faces and self-portraits ensured that he always had a willing subject.  Sometimes he might spend a good half hour on a sketch but other times just a minute or two. 

In order to stick with this commitment, he created a facebook page, 365 Days 365 Self-portraits, to document his process.  Although more often then not he doesn’t particularly like his drawings, there are a few he is really pleased with.  And even in the short time since he began this endeavor, he’s feeling more confident about his drawing.   His facebook page is headed with the three laws of art by Coldstone Press:

  1.  Create: The worst it can do is suck.
  2.  Create again: Bad art happens to good artists.
  3. Just create: Art is cheaper than therapy. 

The first two resonated especially strongly for us as positive art therapists. We were reminded of Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck’s concept of fixed/growth mindset (click here to see a previous post we devoted to this concept).  Dweck suggests that when we get stuck in a fixed mindset, we become so averse to “failure” that we don’t even try.  Adopting a growth mindset allows us to welcome mistakes as part of the learning process. 

This particularly resonated for Rebecca, who, like Dave, went to art school and also didn’t get some essential skills because, by the time she got there, she was expected to know how to draw and paint.  As a result, she was embarrassed to tell anyone that she needed help in that area.  Although a few of her classes taught some technique, most of the courses were focused on developing your own style and message. It felt very intimidating.  That, coupled with some inherent perfectionism, really put a damper on her creativity. 

It wasn’t until years later, when she did something similar to Dave–she started making daily “art thoughts” on small 4″ x 4″ mandalas (circles)–that she broke through some of her performance anxiety and fear of failure. Gioia, another “recovering” art major, is also teaching herself how to draw faces. Even though she didn’t struggle with the same inhibitions about her art as Rebecca, she felt like she never really learned how to draw.  She’s using exercises from Pam Carriker’s book, Mixed Media Portraits to teach herself how.

Although we’ve been talking about art skills here, adopting a growth mindset, not surprisingly, has much broader applications.  When there is something that we want to know how to do, or, even more importantly, that we feel we should know how to do but that we are inhibited about because we are afraid of making mistakes or failing, it keeps us from learning!  In order to break through this, doing simple daily exercises like Dave’s self-portraits, Gioia’s faces, and Rebecca’s art thoughts, can help us adopt a more playful approach to “failure”.  They don’t require too much investment but give us a chance to practice the given skill without too much cost to our self-esteem!

So, if you want to teach yourself or hone a skill, pick a simple activity that will contribute to building that skill and engage in it daily for the next month, 3 months, or, if you’re really committed like Dave, for the next year.  See if it doesn’t help not only overcome some of your fear of failure but also give you more confidence to take on other related learning.  If nothing else, as Dave’s facebook page says, the worst it can do is suck.  On the other hand you might be surprised and even pleased, not only with some of your efforts but also with how you feel about experimenting with that skill. 

Positively yours, Rebecca and Gioia 

Art Activity

Pick something that you’ve wanted to learn or that you want to improve upon.  Commit to doing a simple exercise once a day for a minimum of a month that would help you build that skill, even if you only do it only for a minute or 2.  If you can commit to 6 months or a year, even better.  Document the process occasionally so that you can see where you started and how you are progressing.  See how you feel as you go along, both in confidence and about the skill you are playfully developing.  Feel free to share your efforts with us our facebook page.