Facing uncertainty and choosing positive stories

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

When faced with the uncertainty in artmaking, you may find yourself believing in the story that you’re not good enough. Jonathan Fields in How To Live a Good Life suggests “When we enter a place of uncertainty, we tend to start spinning stories that predict failure endlessly in our heads… consider a different story. One fuelled by possibility rather than defeat.” What if instead of believing you’re not creative, you chose the opposite story that you ARE creative? What if you took all the negative (and unhelpful) stories around your art and created opposite positive stories?

  • “My art is too messy, it’s bad” becomes “I love how free it feels to have a safe place be messy.”
  • “I can’t draw properly” becomes “I’m a beginner so it’s understandable I’m not an expert drawer yet: Practice over time builds confidence and skills.”
  • “I shouldn’t spend time on something that’s unproductive” becomes “I enjoy time spent making art so it is therefore valuable to me.”

You always have a choice about which version you pick. You also have the choice between uncertainty and certainty. David Bayles and Ted Orland in Art and Fear explain “In the end it all comes down to this: you have a choice (or more accurately a rolling tangle of choices) between giving your work your best shot and risking that it will not make you happy, or not giving it your best shot – and thereby guaranteeing that it will not make you happy. It becomes a choice between certainty and uncertainty. And curiously, uncertainty is the comforting choice.”

Choosing the uncertainty of art making is always a better option than the certainty of not making anything all.

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How to draw dot-to-dot

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection
Pattern created with black and blue felt tip pens

This fun line drawing experiment is easy to get started and has endless creative outcomes. As an art-making beginner it can be hard to know where to even start. Setting rules and constraints gets you to go from being paralysed by choice, to taking clear action immediately. Making something is always a better than making nothing when it comes to your creativity.

Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire in Wired to Create explain “Because of our natural adversion to uncertainty, there are very few things in life that we enjoy more than a sure thing or a tidy solution! But in order to think differently, the fear of uncertainty has to go.” This experiment is great because it starts you off with a clear objective, which will keep your mind from being paralysed about what to do next. But once you start drawing lines, there’s no one solution so you start to tap into your creativity. In a way it’s a safe kind of uncertainty.

You will need: paper, pen or pencil. Optional: felt tip pens, crayons, coloured pencils and ruler.

  1. Add dots randomly on your paper. Do this quickly, don’t overthink it.
  2. Join the dots using a pen or pencil freehand.
  3. Optional: use a ruler if you want a straighter line.
The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection
Left: using pencil lines. Right: red pen creates a more minimal outcome

Ways you can approach experimenting:

  • Change the quantity of dots: make lots or a little to get a different starting point.
  • Change the quantity of lines: make lots of a little.
  • Change quantity of colours: use multiple colours to draw the lines.

Let your instincts guide you where you draw your next line. There is no ‘wrong’ line you can make, only 100’s of possibilities. In a speech on creativity, John Cleese suggested, “it’s also easier to do little things we know we can do than to start on big things that we’re not so sure about.” Start with little and as your confidence grows with practice, you can gently push yourself to create more ‘complex’ or unusual patterns if you wish. Or continue to keep things simple and enjoy the process of making patterns from the random dots.

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” — Steve Jobs

Career plan B and fear of failure

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

It seems counterintuitive to decide on a career when you leave school given your work/life experience is so minimal. Many factors come into deciding on what pathway to pursuit, a big one being fear. The fear of not succeeding or it being too difficult to get ahead or too intangible to measure future success (the arts being a classic example) drives many to choose a ‘safer’ plan B career. If the thing you really want to do doesn’t work out, you’ve something safe to fall back on is something Jim Carrey’s 2014 MUM graduation speech addresses:

“Fear is going to be a player in your life, but you get to decide how much. You can spend your whole life imagining ghosts, worrying about your pathway to the future, but all there will ever be is what’s happening here, and the decisions we make in this moment, which are based in either love or fear. So many of us choose our path out of fear disguised as practicality. What we really want seems impossibly out of reach and ridiculous to expect, so we never dare to ask the universe for it.”

Plan A gets sidelined but plan B isn’t necessarily a ‘safer option,’ as Carrey suggests:

“My father could have been a great comedian, but he didn’t believe that was possible for him, and so he made a conservative choice. Instead, he got a safe job as an accountant, and when I was 12 years old, he was let go from that safe job and our family had to do whatever we could to survive. I learned many great lessons from my father, not the least of which was that you can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love.”

Fear of failure and the unknown stops so many of us from even trying. If you believed the plan B pathway wasn’t actually safe, would you still pursue it?

Art making as an act of bravery

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

Deciding to try to make art for fun as an adult is a big step and overcoming the multiple hurdles you face before picking up a pencil is a huge victory. The lack of time, material or space can be hard enough, but overcoming the fear of not being ‘good’ at art and the guilt of not spending time productively can halt all creative endeavours.

Continuing to make art regardless of the above is an act of bravery. It takes determination to face the white page and put pen to paper and create from the unknown. But once you decide to do it and you get into the flow of making, the rest will take care of itself. All you have to do is turn up at the paper and be willing to make some marks. That’s it. Don’t over complicate it by having to make something worthy of being in a gallery, that’s not what making art is about. Art making is about having fun and enjoying the process.

Just make something. ANYTHING. Nobody is watching and nobody cares if it’s ‘bad’. How will you know how creative you really are if you never give yourself permission to make any art?

“Don’t give into your fears… If you do, you won’t be able to talk to your heart.” – Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

Uncertainty can preserve and prolong happiness

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Uncertainty is something you have to face regularly when making art, continually asking yourself “What should I make?” and questioning if what you’re doing is any good. But with uncertainty comes creativity and growth because working it out as you go is fertile ground for inner development. The not-knowing actually helps us be happier because if everything was laid out for us we’d be bored and unchallenged. There’d be no spontaneity or a-ha moments of exciting discoveries because only following a limited set of instructions wouldn’t require us to think creatively.

It seems counterintuitive that we crave certainty, even if it ultimately means sacrificing our growth and creativity. Daniel Gilbert in Stumbling on Happiness explains “Uncertainty can preserve and prolong our happiness, thus we might expect people to cherish it. In fact, the opposite is generally the case.” Making art forces you to sit inside the uncertainty and feel around in the dark so it’s a worthwhile practice to get you used to those uncomfortable feelings of not-knowing what you’re doing.

Gilbert continues “The poet John Keats noted that whereas great authors are ‘capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’, the rest of us are ‘incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. Our relentless desire to explain everything that happens may well distinguish us from fruit flies, but it can also kill our buzz.”

Instead of trying to work everything out in advance, take a seat in uncertainty and get on with making your art. Make anything, it doesn’t matter! Because through your action comes clarity about your next step, but you won’t know what that second step is until you’ve taken your first.

Making art in the dark

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

If you ever feel like you’re making art in the metaphorical dark with no idea what comes next, know that this is a completely normal experience. In fact, in order to be creative we have to be comfortable with venturing into the unknown on a regular basis. Ted Solotaroff explains that “Writing a first draft is like groping one’s way into a dark room, or overhearing a faint conversation, or telling a joke whose punchline you’ve forgotten.” From the unknown, unplanned darkness can grow interesting ideas.

David Bayles and Ted Orland in Art and Fear suggest “Art is like beginning a sentence before you know its ending. The risks are obvious: you may never get to the end of the sentence at all – or having gotten there, you may not have said anything. This is probably not a good idea in public speaking, but it’s an excellent idea in making art.” The unexpected, unplanned and unanticipated is not something to be fearful of, it’s the perfect environment for making art. Carolyn Schlam in The Creative Path talks of darkness: “That’s what I’m offering you, a flashlight in the dark and mysterious world of creativity. And it’s a thrilling world, a labyrinth, if you will…. When I describe it this way, the path to art seems rather like the path of our lives, fascinating, mysterious, and yet wonderful.”

By standing in the darkness and facing it head on, you’re open to more creative possibilities compared to all the lights being on. You don’t need to know what the whole room looks like to make art, just gently feel around until you bump into something interesting.

“Sometimes you have to let yourself go into unchartered territory.” – Barbara Abercrombie, A Year of Writing Dangerously

The danger of wanting to fast forward

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

It would be wonderful to wave a magic wand and instantly reach the goal you’ve set or secretly dream about. That would make your ego very happy (well, for a little while, until the next goal). But skipping ahead to the success, when you think it will feel good means you’d miss out on mining gold. The gold is in the journey of learning, making, failing, gaining insight and not in arriving at an imaginary future arbitrary goal. You didn’t know what you need to learn until you’ve learn it. You don’t know how a failure or making something bad will provide insight, knowledge or a valuable lesson. Having it all handed to you on a plate means you won’t have built up the resilience to keep you motivated and committed when things do go ‘wrong.’

The danger of wanting to fast forward and avoid failure and uncertainty is to avoid future potential growth. You learn much more from a failure than you do if everything is smooth sailing. These growth spurts lead to bigger insights, more knowledge and ultimately make you a stronger person.