Too many creative projects never see the light of day because their creators fear that their idea is stupid. This is a tragedy. If you struggle with this problem as well, in this post I share my tips on overcoming this mental block so you can finish and publish your thing.
You’ve seen those funny memes that describe the phases in the creative cycle:
- This is awesome.
- This is tricky.
- This is shit.
- I am shit.
- This might be ok.
- This is awesome.
Creating anything is an emotionally vulnerable experience that makes us question everything. I’m not immune to this, and neither are artists whose work I follow. I don’t think there’s a person in the world who never deals with this.
My best method for putting my work out there despite this feeling was this:
Jump in headfirst and ship it before I can change my mind.
It’s betting on the possibility that it’s going to work out great, working on the thing for days with barely any rest and singing “Tra-la-la, I can’t hear any inner critic voices, everything is great...” Because if I stop or even slow down, it’s over. I’ll fall into my own mind traps and give up.
Yep, not allowing myself to rest or pace myself so I don’t get a chance to chicken out is my productivity strategy. And yes, it’s as bad as it sounds because it always leads to burnout, and burnout is no fun.
The obvious problem with this strategy is that it can only work for small projects—those that can be completed in a matter of days. Anything requiring more time collapses before I do.
I needed a better one.
I’m writing a book and I’m afraid people will think it’s stupid.
I have years of experience. I’m well read and educated. I’m confident that I know what I’m talking about. And yet, the fear that someone, somewhere will say my ideas are stupid freaks me out.
First, I’ve been putting off writing. If don’t write the book and don’t publish it, it won’t be judged as stupid.
Then I got myself into a writing groove, and now I can’t stop writing—there’s more and more I want to add, to make it a bit better, to explain myself more clearly, to find references that prove it’s not just my stupid idea, but someone else had it first.
Sounds great on the surface, but at this pace the book will never get finished. If I keep polishing my shoes because there’s just one more speck of dust left to to clean, and another one, and another one, then I don’t have to go out, and no one will see how badly I dance and laugh behind my back.
I know that laughter well. I’m not afraid of some hypothetical scenario that never happened, I’ve lived it before. So many times that I started asking myself: “Am I really that delusional to think that my ideas are interesting, funny, or smart?”
In a small town like the one I grew up in, you don’t have much choice, so if the girl next door doesn’t want to be your friend because you’re too weird, you won’t have any friends. So you try not to be too weird, and stop sharing your stupid ideas and dreams and what-ifs, and say things that people expect little girls to say.
And then you’re a 30-something business owner and you want to write a freaking book, and that tiny skinny girl in brightly colored trousers is still worried she won’t have any friends and that people will make fun of her.
So let’s see how we can troubleshoot that, shall we?
Here are some thoughts and methods that have worked well for me on this particular project, and I want to document them here for future reference.
1. There are some things you need to do for yourself
Occasionally, people I don’t know email me and ask if I think doing something (like starting a business, taking up painting, or blogging) would be a good idea for them. I’m either the best or the worst person to ask this question because my answer is always the same:
If your inspiration calls to you and you’re super passionate about it, do it—because it doesn’t matter whether you “succeed” or not.
The project or business is going to teach you about yourself even if it fails, and you’ll get to profit from those lessons forever. If you don’t try it, you’ll never know if it was possible.
People thinking that your idea is the stupidest thing since Diet Water is a realistic possibility. And if the idea doesn’t matter to you as much, it’s just as well if you never do it. But there are some things that we need to do. It’s not about other people, it’s about you and your Muse, or Genius, or Spirit.
You’re not creating it for them, you’re creating it for you—because the act of creation will change you from a person who is only dreaming about doing a thing, into a person who did the thing. That is the best gift you can give yourself in your lifetime: changing how you think about yourself.
Changing how you see yourself.
When I started my little one-woman design studio, I was flailing and things were really hard. I barely made ends meet for a while, I had a couple of less than ideal clients, and I was working way too much. It wasn’t a perfect 6 figure success story. But I’m past that point where an envelope or a phone call from a government institution scares me. I’ve been there, and it wasn’t pleasant, but I’m okay. Whatever happens, I’ll be okay.
My biggest success is not that I have a thriving business, or that I have the most wonderful clients (although that’s pretty great too). My biggest success is how I see myself today—as a person who can always find creative means of getting out of a pit, and who will be okay no matter what.
If I lost my business or my health tomorrow, or decided to give birth to octuplets, or to become a Buddhist nun, I’d still have that with me. Your perception of yourself is what stays with you as your circumstances change. If you did it once, you know you can do it again, there’s no question about it.
Do you want to see yourself as the person who can write a book? Then write the damn book because there’s no other way around it.
2. You’re not allowed to think about your project when you’re tired and grumpy
This is a new rule I made for myself last year, and it has changed my life.
I’m prone to rumination and persistent low grade depression. My mood fluctuates a lot during the day, and keeping myself positive and motivated takes energy that sometimes I just don’t have—like when I’m sleepy, hungry, or overwhelmed with too much work. It took me an incredible amount of time to make this connection, but according to my mom I’ve been super cranky when I’m tired since I was a toddler. Go figure.
Knowing this about myself explains why I fluctuate between thinking “this is great!” and “this is shit!” several times a day. Enter new rule: do not even think about my creative project when I notice I’m in a bad mood. The end.
I don’t think about my creative projects after a long, hard work day. I don’t think about them past my bedtime. I don’t think about them after I just had an argument. I just can’t let myself do that, because I might do something really stupid, like quitting.
I don’t know if you’re having the same challenges as me, but I think this falls under those evergreen life advice:
- Don’t drink and drive.
- Don’t go shopping on an empty stomach.
- Don’t wash whites and colors together.
- Don’t make any important decisions when you’re in a bad mood.
Here’s how I do it. I’m lying on the couch watching YouTube, and a thought shows up in my head, like “I’m bad at this, this is stupid. What’s the point?”
I recognize I’m depleted and can’t think straight, and state it explicitly:
“I’m tired and I feel crappy. This is not the truth, it’s the bad mood talking. I’m not thinking about this now.”
And then I go back to my videos. Simple, and it works. Try it.
3. Know who to ask for opinion, and when
I love my partner very much, but he’s not the person anyone should ask for advice if they’re doing something unusual. If it were up to him, I’d still have a day job. If it were up to him, I’d still be working with a client that was driving me mad. I can’t ask him for his opinion on my bold ideas because he’ll burst my bubble, and I’m going to complain that he doesn’t support me, and I’d rather not go through that again.
Luckily, I have great, supportive friends. One of them is the ultimate cheerleader that loves every single idea I have, no matter how out there it is. Everyone should have a friend like that. Others are just as supportive, but have a skeptical streak and will tell me if I’m biting off more than I can chew. Everyone should have a friend like that as well. It can save your butt.
My partner still hasn’t read a single page of my book because a) he’s not my target audience, and b) he has no tact when it comes to critique, and I don’t want to deal with that now. I’m in a tender place and still have a chance to chicken out, so I’m tuning out anything that can sap my enthusiasm because I need it to keep writing.
Other people aren’t responsible for protecting your feelings, you are. Sometimes this means you won’t ask your mother how that dress fits if you know she’ll say it looks like a shower curtain. Just save both of yourselves the trouble. You’ve learned by now what you can expect from people around you, and if you expect them to undermine you (even if they mean well and want the best for you), do not let that take place. Fingers in ears, “tra-la-la I can’t hear you because I’m too busy taking notes from my Muse, kthxbye”.
When I’m in the middle of writing, I don’t need anyone telling me how much I suck. Maybe I really do suck, maybe I don’t—doesn’t matter. I’ll decide when I’m ready to face other people’s opinions, and it will be way past the point of no return.
4. Find your group of “the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels”
I can’t stress enough how important it is to be surrounded by people who are on a similar path to yours. If you’re running a business while all of your friends have a job, it gets isolating no matter how great your friends are. Ditto if you’re the only artist in the bunch. There are some things only a person who had been through them can understand and appreciate.
Way back when, for me this meant being active on DeviantART and design forums. Today, this means hanging out in a couple of Facebook groups, and intentionally reaching out to people in my city who seem nice and like we could have a lot to talk about. (It’s all about who you know.)
When you hang out with people who do similar things, you’ll find they’ll be coming up with similar projects independently of you. Once, two different people (who I don’t think even know each other) and I came up with a virtually same book idea around the same time. (I chickened out and didn’t publish mine.)
These people will push you to be even more original, and do things even more differently than if you were stuck alone in your own bubble. Once you do come up with something big (or small) that you want to create, they will cheer you on. Really. They will.
On the days when your own enthusiasm disappears and you feel like you don’t want to keep on, you can lean into their support and positivity. It’s there. You just need to ask.
I’ve surrounded myself with creative and entrepreneurial folks in life and on social media, and since I started sharing my book milestones and challenges more openly with them, I’ve been receiving so much support and I feel like I owe it to them to ship this thing. It would look really stupid (ha!) if I gave up now.
We’re doing this, come Hell or high water. I’m prepared that some people will think I’m a pretentious ass, but I’m going to be the person that does what she says she’s going to do to those who matter.
5. Even the best among us get criticized
Look up your favorite book on Amazon, and click on the ratings. Then filter to show only 1-star ratings. Then the 2-star ratings. Prepare for your mind to be blown.
No matter how awesome you think something is, someone out there thinks it’s not worth the paper it’s printed on. Maybe they were not the intended audience and didn’t get it. Maybe they had a bad day. Maybe they have legitimate concerns. Whatever it is, they were dissatisfied enough to write a review online.
Getting unfavorable critiques is a rite of passage, and if you don’t have any, your work probably didn’t reach a wide enough audience. Sean McCabe shares this nugget of wisdom on haters:
“If your work is strong enough for someone to hate you, it’s strong enough for someone to love you. The middle is what you should fear.”
I’ve read reviews that said “This book is too short and lacks practical examples.” I’ve read reviews that said “This book could be cut down to half because it’s too repetitive and goes on to explaining things that are obvious.”
No matter how I write my book, someone will think it’s too short, too long, doesn’t have enough references, has too many references, doesn’t have enough examples, has too many examples, doesn’t provide enough resources, promotes other people’s resources too much, is written too textbook-like, is written too informal, etc.
Your favorite artists and entrepreneurs have all received bad reviews, rejection letters, or critical social media posts, and they’re doing great despite that. You and I can do great too.
It’s fine to ask yourself: “Does the world need this?”
There’s a lot of things going on that the world could do without: Wars. Abuse. Pollution. Prejudice. Racism. Sexism. Media manipulation. Fearmongering. Pointless reality TV shows. White fragility. Consumerism. We should be double-checking ourselves to see if we’re inadvertently perpetuating things that we disagree with.
However, I don’t think you need to ask other people’s input on your creative ideas, if it’s your deep inner desire to make them happen. Other people may not realize how important this is, and may brush it off because they don’t understand it. This doesn’t mean the world isn’t ready, or that your project is not needed.
Attend to your emotional needs, and you’ll be strong enough to withstand anything.
If the question “What will people think?” sends you into a tailspin, take that as a sign to take a breather and deal with whatever emotional baggage this question has dug up. I wrote a whole article with 10 steps to overcoming your fear of visibility that offers very practical tips.
Also, practice regular emotional hygiene by carefully curating what kind of media you're consuming, people you're surrounded with, and catching any negative self-talk in early stages. These healthy habits will help you develop more emotional stability.
Life is too short to worry about what others think.
Some people may think your idea is stupid. This will happen no matter how great your work is. And yet, this should never be the reason to give up on your dreams.