Living A Creative Life for an Audience of One: You
“Would you still do what you do if no one paid attention?”
This question chilled me to the bone.
I was asked this question just this past month. I had just finished the first leg of my speaking tour and was rooted in success based on the external - praise for my accomplishments, a crowd bursting into applause, and people celebrating me for my message. But, one day, frustrated by a general sense of being ‘stuck’ waiting for answers on upcoming gigs and stops for the next leg of my tour, I confided in a friend that I was at my wit’s end.
“Haley,” she started, “Would you still speak even if no one paid attention?”
It made me think - would we do anything we do if no one paid attention? If we couldn’t be admired for it, praised for it, followed for it?
As speakers, writers, artists, performers, and other creatives, would we still create? Would we choose to simply create for ourselves? Is doing it for ourselves enough?
At a number of pivotal moments in your life, when you had to make important life decisions about your career path or your place in the world, you were likely asked three questions: 'What are you passionate about?' 'What are you good at?' and 'What can you be successful doing?' One of the most common mistakes that creatives make when crafting our path is choosing next steps based on that last question. And too often, 'success' is defined by wealth and external validation.
The Need for Validation
We crave validation. It’s as natural as craving warmth, a home, belonging. We derive great joy and pleasure from doing things which garner validation. When we receive external praise, it can help us feel seen, worthy, and valued. External validation can momentarily make us feel like we are enough, like we are doing something right. We like how that feels.
Validation comes from the number of copies of your book sold, in the number of people who came to see your show, in the number of likes on your Instagram page, in the awards you receive, in your acceptance to grad schools or prestigious incubator programs, in getting the job you’ve always wanted.
The thing about validation: It’s a survival technique. It feels safest to do what others like in order to survive. It goes back to the cavemen days: if you did something that was displeasing to your tribe, you ran the risk of being excluded. And, being on your own in the wilderness with the lions was just not compatible with survival. We have been designed to seek community approval in order to belong. But what if there was another way?
As chilling as it is, just imagine for a second that you weren’t validated for what you do currently. That your career, your passions, your creations or anything that you have chosen to invest your time and energy in suddenly meant nothing to anyone. Not only did you no longer receive the positive reaction you were looking for, but people hated it. They didn’t agree with your work. They didn’t believe you were talented anymore.
Here, in this imaginary moment of complete invalidation, when we’re stripped of the self-concept and belonging that we constructed dependent on others’ perception of us, is when we can truly understand what we do for ourselves, and for no one else.
WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF NO ONE CARED?
Rachel Hollis is the author of New York Times bestseller “Girl, Wash Your Face: Stop Believing the Lies About Who You Are So You Can Become Who You Were Meant to Be” - and this book certainly isn’t her first rodeo. She’s written a number of books - some were rejected by every publisher she sent it to, some were so good that her publisher asked her to make them into a series - but the one constant in her life was that she continued to write, and continues to, to this day.
In Girl, Wash Your Face, she shares that no matter what the critic’s reviews are - and, even if a reader uses her book to kindle a fire, she will keep writing. All month, all year, every day that she lives. Regardless of if people ask for more, or even write what she reads. She’ll be here, writing. She loves it that much.
Hearing this from someone whose book landed #1 on the New York Times bestseller list and has sold over 2 million copies to date prompts some consideration. It is possible that someone doing something for themselves, sans concern for validation, actually may cause more validation than someone who does something just to be validated?
Perhaps some of this said validation is self-validation; moving from a place of internal satisfaction in the work that we do. I often think of Vincent Van Gogh, whose paintings were so vastly undervalued during his time on Earth. He never ceased to paint, regardless of how others disapproved of his work. He did it for himself.
THE SECRET TO CREATION
There’s a line of thinking that the perfect innovation or creation is born of immense market research; that if one keeps their ear to the ground and works hard, they can manufacture something that will sell or be externally validated.
And yet, the stories behind some of the most magical creations arose from moments that were unscathed by need for external validation. People report getting their ‘AHA’ moments when driving, taking a shower, or doing something else in the mindless state of relaxation. J.R.R. Tolkien came up with The Hobbit when grading papers. He came across a blank sheet of paper, and this line came into his head: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Now, even knowing now how incredible the book would become, that line in itself is hardly worthy of validation. But, it came to him when he was not forcing it, and it meant something to him, so he pursued it.
This is when the greatest of ideas come to us - when we are free to create for ourselves. Contrast this with being forced to create - feeling the pressure of writing a one page book proposal for a literary agent, trying to create the next big work of art that will fly off the gallery wall, or coming up with the perfect idea for a new initiative at work when put on the spot in the boardroom meeting. The ideas that arise out of pressure simply aren’t as good. They’re tainted by the need for validation, which restricts the natural flow of creativity.
So, when it comes to crafting your creative path, the first step is to imagine a path free of exposure to those who can validate or invalidate what you’re doing or creating. Your natural genius and capacity is within you, ready to rise - but, it won’t rise and unleash in its full glory if you’re creating or doing for others.
We no longer have to worry that diverging from the pack will leave us to the lions. And while we all do not live in countries, states, communities, or households were we feel free to pursue all of who we are and each of our creative endeavors, we still owe it to ourselves to find what lights us up and figure out how to manifest it in some way. We owe it to ourselves to determine how we are being impacted by fear or the need for external validation, and figure out how we can redefine success so that we can build a life and a craft that pleases us before - and even without - pleasing others.
Plot your roadmap
To create the next steps for your path, consider the following exercises. Do them all or choose one that moves you.
Create. Just like the cliche “dance like no one’s watching,” create something that no one else will see. Treasure the intimate, precious moments of creating alone, at home, in your safe space, for creations sake. Forbid yourself - even if what you create is already shaping out to be the best book, piece of art, or business plan you’ve ever made - from showing it to anyone. Don’t disturb your creative flow if you get excited about how well it’s turning out. This one’s just for you.
Write. For the next week, write down everything that comes to you. Ideas are abundant, but we so often push them aside in our busy days. Some call these ideas ‘downloads’ - capture your intuition and the ways in which you talk to yourself intentionally, even if you have to ask someone to “hold on a second” during a conversation. Inspiration strikes at inconvenient times. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, author of 100 Years of Solitude, was quite literally struck by the opening line of the book when driving his family on vacation. He turned that car right around and spent the rest of his vacation time at home, writing.
For these types of ‘downloads,’ they may not immediately be as momentous as the opening line to a bestselling classic novel. They can be anything from an idea on how to promote your website to an idea of what to gift your Mom for Christmas… or even just a reminder that you need more honey from the grocery store. Just get into the practice of honoring what comes up mentally, and capturing all of it. Your thoughts are in a safe space, so you aren’t coming up with them for validation.
Reflect. Get real with yourself. What would you do if money were no object? What would you feel compelled to continue doing, just to save yourself or enjoy your time, even if no one else liked it? Write, write, write. These reflections will spur a number of different thoughts over the course of your reflection time. Let your thoughts flow, even if you don’t know where they’re leading. Trust that whatever comes to you at this time is exposing an area of yourself that you need to see to craft your path.
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