Overcome Unhealthy Creative Expectations

Creative Expectations. The Accidental Creative. Todd Henry.

For some artists, our expectations of ourselves and our work form a subconscious barrier to full, free creativity. In my work with creative pros, I’ve uncovered three main sources of potentially unhealthy expectations.

Unhealthy Expectation No. 1: Our Heroes
Many of us began making art because we were inspired by others to do so. If we’re not careful, however, our “hero worship” can become a creative noose. We can easily begin to think that our work is sub-par because it doesn’t seem to measure up to the invisible standard we’ve unknowingly set.

In his incredible book Free Play, Stephen Nachmanovich writes, “It’s great to sit on the shoulders of giants, but don’t let the giants sit on YOUR shoulders! There’s no room for their legs to dangle.”

In other words, we can carry the weight of our heroes on our shoulders and feel the burden to carry their work forward. When we do this, we’re denying our own creative skills and passions and trying to live up to someone else’s standard. We’re also discounting the failures, doubts and missteps that our heroes made on the way to creative success. It’s great to strive for brilliance, but it’s also important to be patient with our own growth process.

Unhealthy Expectation No. 2: Our own work
There’s a phenomenon that I call “expectation escalation.” It occurs when we start to compare our current work against the best work we’ve ever done. This is not only a sinister emotional trap, but it can also cause a complete creative shutdown when we’re in a dry period. Creativity is rhythmic and requires peaks and troughs of productivity. We can’t constantly live at the peak.

The key to overcoming expectation escalation is to learn to immerse ourselves in the act of creating and to suspend judgment. The job of the artist is to create, not to assign value to our creations. The moment we begin assessing the work in the middle of the process and assigning arbitrary value, we lose our impartiality—a critical component of moment-by-moment creating. Yes, it’s important that we’re hitting our marks with regard to the client’s requests, but that’s different from assigning creative value to our work. Just make.

Unhealthy Expectation No. 3: Others’ opinions
Perhaps worst of all is when we subconsciously allow other peoples’ expectations to define our creative worth. These expectations can be like tapes looping in our head, constantly replaying old conversations. Maybe we hear the voice of a well-intentioned parent warning us that “art doesn’t pay the bills” or an over-eager teacher who instilled doubts about our abilities. It can even be the well-meaning mentor who tells us how brilliant we are, which then becomes a silent expectation to excel at everything. These expectations establish rails around our imaginations that artificially limit our creative output.

Evaluating and overcoming expectations
As create-on-demand pros, we can’t always control the expectations that clients or managers have of us, but we can definitely learn to understand how our own hidden expectations affect our creativity. Here are a few questions to help you excavate them:

  1. Is your admiration of the work of others affecting you creatively or establishing unrealistic standards?
  2. Is there a pinnacle work you’ve created that’s the standard for all other work you do? Is this affecting your creative energy?
  3. Are you allowing the expectations of others to affect your work? Is your role becoming your identity, or are you able to separate what you do from who you are as an artist?

Every accomplished artist at some point doubts their abilities and wonders if they should have become an accountant. (OK, maybe I’m overstating it a bit.) The great ones, however, don’t allow these thoughts to prevent the creative process from taking form. They continue to create in the midst of their doubts. Discipline is often the difference between brilliance and mediocrity.

Understanding what’s happening under the hood of your creative process is the first step toward a brilliant, prolific and healthy career and life. Get a handle on your expectations, and allow brilliance to emerge.

This article originally appeared in HOW’s magazine February 2008 issue.

More Resources to Spur Creativity
Check out this 2-part series DesignCast presented by Todd Henry,
where he provides insight into being creative under pressure. This series includes the OnDemand DesignCasts: