You’re at a party, mingling and meeting new people. The question comes up, “So what is it that you do?”
You stutter and stammer. Part of you wants to call yourself an artist and say it out loud, but you can’t. The words will not come out of your mouth.
Defeated, you wonder what’s wrong with you. Everyone who knows you calls you an artist, you might even have the degree to show it, but still the question persists.
“Am I really an artist?”
“Don’t artists act a certain way and just know it in their bones? Aren’t they always making art and doing things that artists do?”
“Wouldn’t art making be easier if I was a real artist?”
The Struggle to Claim Our Calling
Let’s start by clarifying. Most artists, at some point, feel self-doubt and question their calling. It comes with the territory. We feel like a fraud, we question what we’re doing; we wobble and want to throw in the occasional towel. That’s normal.
When the question, “Am I really an artist?” is part of a genuine investigation into our work and what we’re up to, it can be a useful.
It’s a problem when, “Am I really an artist?” is actually a debilitating mantra, cleverly disguised as an honest question.
The former is constructive, the latter, destructive.
The problem is that until you claim your calling and own it fully you’ll be in a perpetual state of dis-ease. Your true self knows who you are while the rest of you is in denial and hiding. This always creates conflict and an internal shit-storm.
The question keeps popping up because it wants to be resolved.
How to Know if You’re Really an Artist
The bottom line is that the only person who can decide if you are or not, is you; though I can give you a hint – if you’re asking this question, there’s a damn good chance that you are.
While there are certainly times when we need to look to others to be mirrored, witnessed, validated and affirmed, this is not one of them. Until you know the answer in your bones, the suffering will continue.
Put on your sincerely curious cap; grab your journal, set an intention and dive in. These 3 questions will help you to answer the burning one.
QUESTION 1: Whose voice are you listening to?
Hovering right beneath your thoughts about being an artist are a slew of other people’s perceptions, judgments and declarations about what an artist is and isn’t. Can you feel them? My guess is that most of these ideas aren’t even your own.
In your journal make a table with three columns: What a Real Artist Is, What I Believe an Artist Is, What a Real Artist Isn’t.
In the left column, list all of the things that you’ve come to believe a real artist is. Make a note beside each about how you came to this conclusion. In other words, whose voice are you listening to? E.g. A real artist doesn’t think about time when they’re in the process. (Brian T. in college)
In the right hand column, list all of the ideas you’ve accumulated, and tell yourself, about what an artist isn’t. E.g. A real artist has no interest in making money. (Norm)
Stop and notice. Can you feel how these ideas are not necessarily your own?
In the third column, list all of the things that YOU think an artist is or does. Once you’ve cut through everyone else’s ideas you can start to identify your own. E.g. I believe that an artist is someone who is genuinely engaged with what goes on around them. I believe that an artist is a barometer for society.
When you’re done, do some journaling about what you discovered.
QUESTION 2: What happens when you don’t make art?
The next investigation has to do with what you know to be true through past experience. Make a list of all the things that art making brings to your life. What happens when you’re in the flow? What benefits does it bring? What is the feeling that comes right after you pick up the brush, start the drawing, or put your hands on the clay?
Then, make a list of what happens when you’re not making your art? What are the feelings that arise? What happens in your body? What happens in your relationships? How do you sleep at night? What habits and patterns emerge?
And again, spend some time noticing and journaling. What conclusions can you draw from this?
QUESTION 3: What else is there for you to do?
I admit; this question pissed me off when I first heard it. A beloved professor of mine asked me this in grad school. He looked at me so sincerely and said, “What else is there for you to do?”
It took years of personal growth, and doing job after job that didn’t fit, for me to appreciate the wisdom in this. When it all boils down, what else is there for you to do? Sure, there are things that you can do, and do quite well. There are things that you do better than most, but when it comes down to being the person you’re here to be, what else really is there for you to do?
Gay Hendricks calls this our Zone of Genius. Many of us spend most of our lives living in our Zone of Competence, Incompetence or even Excellence. It’s easy to get stuck in those places.
The real magic and service comes when you’re operating from your Zone of Genius. It isn’t always easy getting there, but when you’re there it’s the easiest place in the world to be. It’s usually so easy that you don’t even realize you’re doing anything special!
No one else can answer these 3 questions or the burning one for you. When you get your answer and know it, the rest starts to fall into place.
If you are an artist, I won’t make you say it out loud, yet – permission to go slowly, but I do recommend diving in boldly and participating in this free, 5 Day mini-course:
The Universe responds beautifully well when we act with clarity and conviction.