Creativity and Fear

by     /    April 21, 2006   

A quote from Seth Godin:

The enemy of creativity is fear… In the long run, the enemy of fear is creativity. I’m sure of it.

I disagree. The relationship between the two is much more symbiotic. Fear is a natural part of creativity because the act of creating is a scary, scary thing. If I’m not a little afraid when I’m making art — afraid I’ll fail, afraid I’ll succeed, afraid that things are out of my control — then I know I’m not being really creative. When I feel calm and in control, my art reflects that calm, and is dull and lifeless. But when I reach that point where the art begins to leap out of my control. Where I keep working, but the art feels like something far beyond what I am capable of, as if someone else was making it. That’s when my guts begin to twist, and the doubts crop up, and I wonder what the heck I am doing. And if I manage to push through that fear and just… keep… going… that’s when the real art is made. Fear is the signal that you are being creative. The trick is never letting the fear stop you.

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Comments on 'Creativity and Fear'

Bruce DeBoer  (April 22nd, 2006):

Daniel,
My take is that you and Godin are talking about the same thing. If the fear you felt kept you from performing, acheiving or mearly “doing”, then it would be enemy #1. Many underacheive because they are afraid to be vulnerable; afraid to Suck.

You are dead on though. If you aren’t feeling the fear, you aren’t taking chances. The part of Godin’s statement that I’m not sure I get is “the enemy of fear is creativity”. That seems overly simplistic and trite to me.

Daniel Sroka  (April 23rd, 2006):

Perhaps the true enemy of creativity is not fear, but paralyzation. Fear is the tipping point of creativity, that moment where you can choose to create or retreat. If you let the fear strengthen you, your creativity flourishes. If you let the fear paralyze you, your creativity stagnates.

dino  (July 30th, 2007):

No, you are not quite right. For it is impossible to be truely creative from a state of fear. What you are talking about is letting go. Letting go can be scary, but it is the letting go that is the seed of creativity, not the fear of letting go. If you can let go and not be afraid of it, then you will be even more creative. The fear you are refering to comes from the ego. The ego is afraid of mistakes. If the ego is left in control, it will try and make sure that there are no mistakes and the result is a secure known path. If the path is known there is no creativity… how can there be? Nothing is being created. The fear is signalling you that you are not relying on your ego anymore… that you are willing to accept the uknown that is always a part of creativity. You can learn to supress the fear or deal with it, but it will take your energy away from creatiing. When you are no longer afraid of what you might create then there will be no limits to your creativity.

The enemy of creativity *is* fear. You are just keeping the enemy at bay, and noticing it.

Daniel Sroka  (July 31st, 2007):

Yes, fear can be a state of being, and if you live within a fearful space, you will become frozen. But I am talking about fear as a signal — a tool that you can use, instead of something to be (ironically) afraid of. That momentary feeling of fear is the signal that you are moving beyond your comfort zone. I believe that if you do not feel some moments of fear while you are making art, that you are not pushing yourself hard enough. However, if you allow yourself to momentarily feel that fear, recognize it, but then push on in spite of it, you will creatively flourish.

dino  (July 31st, 2007):

Yes I agree with you up to a point. You can use the fear generated by your ego as you push beyond it’s comfort zone as a signal. However it is not nescessary to have it to be creative in my opinion. In fact if you go too far, the ego can regain the upper hand by saying “Hey look how scary this is people! Aren’t I cool!”. If this happens then art is replaced by pretence. I believe you can make art without fear, and it is better to do so. If you have not put your ego in check, if your ego keeps wanting to spoil your creativity… then it is probably fair to say that unless your ego is in discomfort you will not me making good art. However if you do have your ego in check, then you can make perfectly good art without being scared at all. I argue better art because you will be more relaxed and in the moment, which is where all great art comes from.

Alex  (September 14th, 2008):

i am interested in general in the relationship between creativity and fear, though i am not an artist.

Might the difference between Dino & Daniels views simply be the usual size of the ego, ie our personality? If we have a small ego, then the fear of letting it go may be so small we may not notice it.

I wonder though, does better art tend to come from personalities with large egos or small? (though i am sure that the art itself only arises during periods where the ego is absent). I would guess that great art comes from great (big) egos, as the letting go is so much more powerful.

Does anyone have any pointers on this from history of art? eg from the personalities of great or famous artists.

A final note, Seth Godin’s quote “In the long run, the enemy of fear is creativity.”, might make sense seen from a biological view. Life changes or evolves in response to the environment. For humans for other organisms with a delay-response system (eg the brain), fear is a signal for this change. But as the necessary changes occur (through creativity), so the need to change further diminishes, and fear diminishes.

Dino  (September 14th, 2008):

I agree with your view generally although I am not sure that great egos are needed to make great art. Key is your statement “(though i am sure that the art itself only arises during periods where the ego is absent)”. This feels very correct to me. Perhaps great artists often have great egos because after they have created a great work of art, they allow their egos to take the credit.

Daniel Sroka  (September 14th, 2008):

Thanks for jumping in an rejuvinating this post, guys.

Dino, I didn’t mean to imply that creativity required fear. Just that fear should not be avoided, because it is often the signal that we are pushing beyond a comfort zone.

Alex, I believe that the size of the ego has no correlation to the quality of the art. It might seem that way at times, because we often only hear about the art made by big egos (Picasso, Warhol, etc.), making it seem like they are the only great creators. But that is just a side effect of their excellence at self-marketing.

Great art can be loud and bombastic, or it can be small and quiet.

Alex  (September 15th, 2008):

hmm, that the ego helps to drive the marketing and “success” seems to make sense, though ironic given its absence in the creation of the art.

I’m still curious. Perhaps another way of asking the same question: Is there a relation between great art and great pain felt during the lifetime of the artist? Perhaps for someone with little pain, there is little motivation to lose their small egos through creative work.

I wonder this because it seems that behind many famous artists (including those that never sold their art, eg Van Gogh), there lies stories of great human struggle. Although since i’ve not studied this i may just be noticing the trouble cases (they make more interesting documentaries!).

Dino  (September 15th, 2008):

Pain and suffering is one way to get an opening into your own soul. The ego can’t handle it any more and switches off, allow art to be created. However this is not the only way to get there. Fortunately.

Daniel Sroka  (September 15th, 2008):

I agree with Dino. Great art can come from great pain. But great art can come from anything. For example, some of the most beautiful haiku written are about simple experiences and pleasures.

We hear so much about artists who are born from suffering because, well, it makes a great story. We all hear about Kurt Cobain because of his tragedy. But the are countless musicians who have normal lives, and who make amazing music.

The trouble is, the stories about sufferings relationship to art get repeated so often, they many people have begun to assume it is a requirement. Many artists have bought into this myth, thinking it is a career path they need to emulate.

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cynthia  (September 15th, 2008):

Okay, I’ll jump in.

Fear is not only the enemy of creativity, but of progressive change and growth on both a personal and public level. Fear is paralyzing and mind numbing if it’s not challenged, but is also a necessary biological reaction to staying alive.

If we take away the built in biological function of fear, and interpret what its role is in creative fields or life itself, I think that it protects us from failure, the unknown, making an ass of ourselves, disapproval from parents, friends, peers, religious establishment, and even strangers, ad infinitum.

So, if we never take a risk, work through whatever that fear is and put ourselves out there, we maintain the status quo and yawn….stretch boring – nothing changes, life goes on.

I’ll go so far as to say that failure is an important part of creativity and growth whether one is an artist or not. It’s a learning moment. What’s that old cliche, “If you haven’t failed, you aren’t trying?”

I don’t buy into the suffering artist stereotype as a requirement to being an artist either – while some artists do suffer from a variety of physical and psychological ailments, most aren’t. And, there are probably a similar number of doctors, housewives, accountants, postal workers, etc. with the same issues.

So, narrowing down to the arts, whether visual, music, dance, literature, theater, etc:

Another symbiotic relationship with fear and creativity as it relates to being an artist is reception of the artist’s work. Reception is also a factor rooted in a viewer’s own fears. Someone mentioned Van Gogh and how he didn’t sell much in his lifetime. Part of the reason for that is that his style was so far out there and not the norm even at a time where his impressionist contemporaries, Monet, Pissaro, Renoir – were on the forefront of the avant garde movement – shaking up the art establishment. They exhibited at the Salon des Refusee – as a response to the Govt. sanctioned Ecole des Beaux Arts exhibitions where their work was criticized. A part of Van Gogh’s style might be attributed to his physiological chemistry too – he had epilepsy and I remember researching the possibility that he might have had chemical poisoning (lead, cadmium and he was also an avid absinthe drinker) due to the paints and solvents he used – he was known to have held his paint brushes in his mouth. I know I digress, but my point is that his style wasn’t broadly accepted by the public because they wanted something that was safer, or even fashionable. One of his buyers would have had to defend their choice in art to his/her acquaintances. So, if he hadn’t of just plodded through his life and produced what he wanted thanks to the support and brilliant marketing of his brother and his difficult friendship with Gaugin, we wouldn’t have gazillions of Van Gogh reproductions on everything from note cards to umbrellas, not to mention the influence on Van Gogh wannabes to this day!

Today, artists who are totally off the chart might be someone like Damien Hirst. For example, his “Piss Christ” really challenged a lot of people’s aesthetics, philosophy and quite possibly their well being. It’s dangerous, provocative and not meant to match your decor and hang behind your sofa. Whether or not anyone agrees with his art is beside the point – he’s pushing buttons and opening himself up to criticism which is something a lot of artists are unwilling to do out of fear. Whose name do we recognize and remember?

I would also add that a lot of artists don’t want to push any buttons and are merely content to paint “happy little trees” – which is totally okay too! I’m pretty sure that Bob Ross was happy with his subject matter and style, but he certainly did put himself out there on TV for all to emulate, make fun of and maybe even worked through fears of a different sort. For every detractor – he also had a follower.

Okay – sorry for the length and rant. I guess I’m arguing that fear hinders so many different aspects of our lives whether we’re artists or in any other profession. In the end, we answer to ourselves and if we don’t attempt to acknowledge and address our personal fears, I don’t really think we’re living fully.

Alex  (September 15th, 2008):

Lots of food for thought!

I think i agree that great art does not relate to ego size, but possibly famous art does (i perhaps equated ‘great’ with famous, which need not be the case).

Whilst i am sure that great art only arises when the ego is absent, ie the period following ‘letting go’ [of the ego], i think the difficulty is in the instant preceeding this, the moment we still have ego (ie feel fear), just before letting go. It is perhaps this instant we are trying to relate to the creativity that follows.

The following pair-wise word list i noted some months ago.. i am pretty sure on all but the last item, which was a bit of a shot in the dark. i think it relates to this debate, any thoughts? or feelings :-)

Love Fear
Feel Think
Present Future
Be Know
Art Science
Unity Separation
One None
Light Dark
(Acceptance Creativity)

I now think the last pair is wrong. Maybe creativity is neither on the ‘love’ side, nor the ‘fear’ side – if it occurs at the instant where fear turns to love (‘letting go’).

re the comment, “If we take away the built-in biological function of fear, and interpret what its role is in creative fields or life itself..” i think we need not separate the two. The function of fear is biological. The other ‘roles’ are just manifestations of this biological function.

Perhaps the creative process is life itself – it can only exist in the balance(?) between love and fear.

Sheila  (September 15th, 2008):

I sometimes experience fear that I later realize is based on a prior bad experience. Even when positive experiences have intervened, memory seems to want to hold on to the negative and let it rule.

Sometimes the fear isn’t even related to me but to an uncontrollable outside influence, a tool, a mechanical aide that continues to screw up, making expressing my creativity nigh unto impossible. I’m talking about in Daniel’s case, perhaps a recalcitrant camera, and in my case, a recalcitrant sewing machine the repairman insists has nothing wrong with it, or perhaps hand-dyed fabric that may or may not bleed. These things over which I have little control play on my subconscious long after the problem has been resolved, long after I’m back on track, and continue to raise fears of taking the next step and halting creativity in its tracks. I think Daniel’s use of “paralyzing” is very apt. It is what I experience and sometimes difficult to analyze the source of. The first thought is I’m lacking in skill, in over my head. who do I think I am? Sometimes I AM in over my head, and sometimes it’s just that programmed response from the old experience kicking in. I’m not seeing where ego enters in here.

Corey Rose  (September 15th, 2008):

Its the same sentiment between us all, lost in convention, available language and interpretation. Fear is limiting, and drives us on just the same with any piece of independant reality intact. An artist it seems can step back from the world, if even for a moment, and feels something from it, is driven to relay and interpret, rather than leave well enough alone. Who am I to say; I am here to say, so I do and might as well. Do you see the world as I do? No not exactly at all, but in the end for those who focus objectively, the greater the perspective, the further on toward understanding they can go. To say fear is paralyzing is only half of the same story, as dark cannot be so without light, you can know no joy without sorrow, so we look towards each-other for the missing half. The only thing we should truly fear is the day we decide to stop looking, when we assume there is nothing else to consider, and our own ideas are completely enough for us. This can only be ego, because all things will never be known. So, while we’re here, dare to imagine in abstract, its only percieved reality after all, we all want to see it come to life in the end.

Dino  (September 16th, 2008):

Shiela: The ego is a great tool for self preservation. However when it gets out of hand the preservation turns into preservation of the status quo, which by necessity stifles growth. Such fear is always a fear of change. Attachment to the way things are. This can get so strong that people even choose to maintain bad situations rather than solve them. Ultimately, all fear is ego driven, and that is why the ego is not all bad. The ego is a great tool for looking after our physical selves. Fear that protects us is protecting us from change that is bad. But when we start being afraid of the future, of any kind of change, even of new ideas… that is when we get paralyzed and suffer.

Alex  (September 16th, 2008):

Dino: going back to your early conversation with Daniel, i agree with your statement
“it is the letting go that is the seed of creativity, not the fear of letting go”. This seems to summarise my understanding.

however i doubt your statement “if you do have your ego in check, you can make perfectly good art without being scared at all”

What do you mean by having your ego in check? Sort of lock him up in a cage and ignore his ranting (the fear)? Are you able to let go without feeling fear? Can you experience change without any discomfort? That would seem extraordinary.

On this i would agree with Daniel:

“Fear is the tipping point of creativity, that moment where you can choose to create or retreat”

“That momentary feeling of fear is the signal that you are moving beyond your comfort zone”

Question: is the intensity of fear related to creativity that follows (assuming the fear is overcome and not succumbed to)? I assume yes, eg taking giant leaps of faith leads to greater creativity than smaller jumps, albeit with corresponding risk.

Dino  (September 17th, 2008):

I would say that enlightenment is pretty much the same as living without attachment, and thus living without irrational fear. A rational fear is something you might feel in the moment in order to, for example, save your life. But most of the time we live in irrational fear: this is what paralyzes. Sometimes when we create we feel fear because we are pushing some personal boundary and our ego pushes back. It is good to ignore that fear. But fear actually gets in the way, the aim should be to be free of it..

Alex  (September 17th, 2008):

I disagree. Rational or irrational fear, it is still fear and is indication that you are extending beyond your own boundaries. A fear is termed irrational simply because many people have already crossed a certain boundary and consider the new territory safe. But an individuals creativity is determined by extension of his/her own boundaries – not those of others.

Does anyone have any experiences to share here? In the opening paragraph Daniel provides a lucid description of how overcoming fear pushes the boundaries of his work. Do others feel this also, or do you feel you can be truely creative without any experience of fear?

cynthia  (September 17th, 2008):

I would second everything that has been written so far – it sounds like we are saying the same thing.

I saw a few Anais Nin quotes on the ‘net that relate to this discussion – substitute words where necessary. Forgive me if they appear to be sound bites:

“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”

“I postpone death by living, by suffering, by error, by risking, by giving, by losing. ”

“Life is a process of becoming, a combination of states we have to go through. Where people fail is that they wish to elect a state and remain in it. This is a kind of death. ”

As far as a relaying a personal experience in regards to art – I am most nervous or afraid, if you will, when my work is on display and I attend the opening – so basically putting it out there. To listen to someone talk about my work or to compliment it makes me very uncomfortable. I confess that I censor myself and am not making the work that’s in my head because if I really put it all out there I’m afraid I’d be soundly criticized, judged or dismissed. Validation and/or acceptance is an issue that I’ve been working hard to overcome ever since I was a little girl when I was taught and expected to be “good, respectful, polite” etc. because otherwise it would reflect on my parents. Wow – I sure sound like I have problems! I’m working on it – and feel like I started finding and using my voice in my mid 30’s – I’m now 42. But, for me, change happens by taking one step at a time, albeit baby ones occasionally. I quit my job in 2001, went back to school to study art, told people that I am an artist (that was a huge one btw – blank stares, responses like – “oh that’s nice, seriously what are you going to do?”, “sounds like fun”, “you’re going to be poor”, “good thing your husband has a job”, “what a great hobby”, etc.), started showing my work, applying to shows and writing a blog. While it sounds pretty pedestrian, the experience has been liberating. I haven’t made a whole lot of new work in 2 months now because I’m on the cusp of putting the work that’s inside my head into play.

Maybe that’s why this post hit a nerve with me – because it’s so spot on.

Making art (any kind) and releasing it into the wild is risky financially, psychologically, and is sometimes lonely – but it can also be incredibly rewarding in so many different ways as well. It would have been easier to stay in my job of 17 years, earn the gold watch and eventually die, than it is to forge a new but more fulfilling path. Though inside, I certainly would have been dead already – or incredibly bored waiting for the weekend by early Monday morning, scratching off the days of the week on my calendar anticipating Friday or my next scheduled vacation.

So, in response to what Daniel said about how overcoming his fears pushes the boundaries of his work – I say absolutely, I couldn’t agree more!

Now, will fears regenerate and morph into new ones once the original ones are conquered? Or will that new found courage propel one forward fearlessly or at least with less trepidation?

One of my favorite blogs is by musician Christine Kane. She recently was invited to speak to an incoming freshman class at a college orientation and her speech was “5 Things I Wish I Knew as an Undergrad” which translates nicely to this discussion. http://christinekane.com/blog/part-2-creating-college-5-things-i-wish-i-knew-as-an-undergrad/

Alex  (September 17th, 2008):

Hey thanks for the story and the link – i feel some big change coming on in my life and this stuff feels very right for me.

A quote that sticks.. “..not knowing means that you’re alive and growing and doing big new things. This is what creativity is all about. It is what faith is all about.”

Daniel Sroka  (September 17th, 2008):

Alex, I like your definition about the difference between rational and irrational fear. I am experiencing this daily with my four year old. He is a fearless kid usually, but every once and a while gets hit by a sudden fear. Of bees, of water, whatever. These things pass over him like shadows from a cloud. It’s usually something that sounds completely silly and “irrational” — but that’s because it’s something I overcame a long time ago. I find one of the biggest challenges as a parent is to remember how a fear felt the first time you experienced it, to empathize with his concerns, and to show him (by example) that you can overcome it.

As for a personal example of fear leading to creativity — heck, every single day of my career! Trying to be a professional artist is learning to look my fears and feelings of inadequacies in the face and just shrug them off.

Dino  (September 18th, 2008):

A quote that sticks.. “..not knowing means that you’re alive and growing and doing big new things. This is what creativity is all about. It is what faith is all about.”

I can’t disagree with that. But I would add, which is my point, that one should for this very reason not be afraid of not knowing.

Alex  (September 18th, 2008):

Daniel, thats good to hear. In a sense, that is what life is – continual growth by overcoming fear.

Dino, i guess i would argue that we cannot choose whether to be afraid or not under any given circumstance, but we do choose whether or not to overcome (let go) or succumb to the fear. But i could be wrong :-)

Does anyone else experience fear contributing or hindering their creativity?

Daniel Sroka  (September 18th, 2008):

I don’t believe that there is an ideal state where you never feel fear. Fear is just too primal of an emotion, too important to our survival. It would like not feeling pain. Fear and pain are important signals that we need to listen to. The goal, in our creative lives, is to not fear feeling fear, to not freeze up and panic, and to understand that fear often signals an opportunity, not a threat.

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Mark  (September 19th, 2008):

I feel the most creative when I am the most relaxed and connected with my environment. I guess you could say this is a state of complete absence of fear. I certainly think fear can hinder creativity, probably most when you are exploring outside of your comfort zone if you let it. I suppose I see it primarily as an obstacle if anything else. It can either block my path, or I can try to move around it while acknowledging it is there.

Walt Sorensen  (October 14th, 2008):

This topic reminds me of a book I read ten years ago “Art and Fear” after reading that book I think any artist who really wants to be an artist should read that book.

I agree creativity and fear are not in a war fighting against each other. There are times when fear has driven my creativity rather then squashed it.

Creativity, Fear and Comfort Zone | That's Too Thin  (December 10th, 2008):

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Javi  (July 23rd, 2010):

Fear is lack of knowledge, is the space in an empty cup, fill it and fear will be gone.
Creativity is the ability to believe you can fill that cup.