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Self Reflection for Art Businesses

We’ve been talking a lot about the skills and traits we all need to run a creative business.  We’ve talked about planning, setting goals, and courting our ideal collectors.  We’ve talked about the entrepreneurial spirit, what it takes to be a freelancer, and how to keep ourselves motivated and productive while often working alone.  But what we haven’t addressed, is the elephant in the room.  At the base of many of our artistic careers is a whole lot of fear, and self-doubt.  And often, we don’t even know why….

Today I’d like to talk a bit about self knowledge.  I’m not talking about some sort of spiritual quest, though you’re certainly free to take it there if you like.  For millennia, religious traditions have used meditation and prayer to look inward, so we know that works well.  But what I’m proposing today is that we find some strategies to self-reflect on our businesses, and on ourselves as business owners.

Maybe it’s just me, but there are times when I suspect that my lack of drive, my inability to finish what I start, or perhaps a difficulty of starting at all is not based on my organizational skills or lack of planning.  I sometimes get this little whisper that I am not starting a new project, or reaching out to a new prospect, because I’m actually sabotaging my own success.  Why in the world would I do that?  Well, the answer is fear.  

I’ve mentioned before that we run a photography and video production company as well as our fine art careers.  The approach to the two branches of our business are quite different.  While they’re both creative, the photography and video side is based on supplying a service, while creating fine art gives us a whole lot more control over our creations.  We inevitably get a bit confused at times, because you cannot run a service based company with complete artistic control.  We can’t anyway.  The customer has to be satisfied, and they’re often very specific about the product they’re willing to pay for.  While that can be true for art commissions, generally people decide to purchase my art after it’s already painted, and were in no way part of the process.

And therein lies the rub.  We as human beings tend to be really bad at self reflection.  I’ve seen some studies that show that even the people who consider themselves to be good at self reflection and self knowledge often actually aren’t.  It’s the way our brains are wired.  Our minds interpret the world around us in such a way as to create any number of stories.  But those stories are based in our subconscious mind, not our rational, conscious mind.  If you don’t believe that, write down one of your dreams…  Try and figure out why your mom turns into a giant snail in a dream.  It’s pointless to try.  The only way I know to decipher dreams is to try to unlock your own brain’s symbolic language.  

But that’s the same brain that is controlling whether you start a new painting, call a new client, or apply for an open art call.  So reflecting on something that is basically illogical may or may not give you the results that you want or need.  But the thing is, we have to try,  We need to get as close to the truth as our brains will allow.  We’ve all watched people make the same mistakes over, and over.  They choose terrible partners, lose all their money, or fall for scams again and again.  I’m not talking about people who try new things and fail, as we’ve discussed before, failure is a very important tool for success.  I’m talking here about those who cannot progress, cannot change, and blame any and everything on someone.

The tricky bit is that there are indeed external forces that affect us and our productivity.  Sometimes the noisy neighbor really is a distraction.  So how are we supposed to know the difference?  If you’re like me, because I work alone a lot, I often will go online to do research, to get advice, or diagnose my medical ailments.  I will also ask friends for advice and counsel.  I might even take an online course, or pay someone to do a portfolio review of my work.  Is it just me, or do these things often turn out to be terrible ideas?  If I look online to find out why my toe hurts, I end up getting loads of catastrophic information about exotic cancers.  There’s so much crap out there that it’s hard to filter out what’s true.  Friends often give spectacularly bad advice, though they love us dearly.  Even professors and experts can give some very confusing and contradictory counsel.  Then you take all that data, and process it through your own mind, which itself is less than trustworthy.  No wonder we feel anxious, afraid and indecisive.

In the reading I’ve done, a lot of the answer appears to be in where you place the center of control.  In your heart of hearts, do you consider life to be within your control, or is your life controlled by external forces?  That may take some time to consider, again, because our brains are answering that question for us.  What some research suggests is that those people who view life as within their control, do much, much better than those who place control outside themselves.  Think about it.  If my life is within my control, I can fix things that go wrong.   If I can’t control an outcome, then I’m just a victim, and powerless to effect permanent change.  

So that’s the first step.  Tell yourself constantly that you are in control of every problem you have.  Even if it appears you are not, and your brain is screaming for you to blame someone else.  When I approach a problem that I can control, it changes completely the questions I ask myself.  If I can sit in self reflection and push past feeling hurt, rejected, afraid, and powerless, I can begin to ignore those other voices, and only consider what I can do to fix the problem.  If I am self reflective, and I just sit around contemplating how someone else failed me, or how my finances are holding me back, or how poorly I was reviewed by a teacher or colleague, all I will end up doing is digging deeper and deeper into that narrative, where I am a victim.  In that scenario, self reflection would actually be a bad idea.  I think we call that wallowing.

So whenever you’re starting a new project, have a review of your work, seek advice, or just hear a whisper of doubt in your mind.  Find a way to sit quietly alone, or in meditation, or on the train ride home, and ask yourself openly, and honestly, what am I afraid of?  What do I actually want? And what are some concrete steps that I can take, that I have control over, that can move me toward my goal.

I have a little project checklist sheet that I create for each project we undertake.  I include those two questions for each project, as well as which of our annual goals that project addresses.  What do I really want?  What am I afraid of?  For me, it’s not so important that I have a well thought out answer to each question, but that I have some sort of recognition that those questions are vital to the success of the project.  They slow me down a bit.  These questions reinforce the message to my crazy subconscious that I am in control of my life, and they remind me that, even if it’s not perfect, I am trying to be as self aware, and self reflective as I can be.

I wanted to let everyone know that Bogdan and I are launching a new weekly live Zoom session where we will be sharing some of our artwork, and chatting about art.  It’s a half-hour show every Thursday morning at 11AM Central Time.  We’d love to have you join us.  Just drop me your email, and I’ll add you to the invitation reminder.  We will record the sessions as well, in case you can’t make it at that time.  It would be great to meet you in person.  Or as close to “in person” as Zoom can get.  

Join me next week when we’re going to be talking about being honest with ourselves, how to be realistic in our entrepreneurial freelance art careers.  

John Bishop Fine Art's "Conversations for Freelance Creatives" is a weekly blog/vlog/podcast that creates a community, a conversation, between creatives in all sorts of fields at all sorts of levels.  We want to discuss what we’re learning, what we’ve experienced, and whom we’ve met in our journey of running a freelance creative business. John Bishop is a visual artist living in Houston, Texas. His work is largely abstract, and explores how to turn mythic, archetypal symbols into individual experiences allowing us to see them in a new way, with fresh eyes. His work can be seen online, or at his studio at Silver Street Studios, 2000 Edwards Street, Studio 108, in Houston.

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