Who Are You Trying to Impress Anyhow? (And Why?)

— Too often we put ridiculous pressure on ourselves and worry ourselves sick about how our work will be received, whether it will be praised or not, and generally who will like it (or worse: who might NOT like it, and what they might say).

We also (at a certain point) begin putting pressure on ourselves to “succeed” as artists — which usually means to accumulate praise, even acquire a bit of fame perhaps, and ideally earn some real money from our work.

I don’t think there is anything at all wrong with hoping to see our efforts translate into worldly acclaim or financial success.

But I feel it’s important you not make that your focus.

It’s nice knowing our work is appreciated, sure. That’s natural. The problem is, if you let yourself get too caught up in being appreciated, you end up pinning your enjoyment of creating art on winning praise or earning money from it.

And that’s just not something you can entirely control.

Where should your focus be? I think 99.9% of your focus should be on simply working to create the best work you can create. Not for the sake of what it might bring you after the fact, but for the sake of what it will make of you along the way.

And most of all, because it brings you joy.

I am an earnest champion of Roman Stoicism as a life philosophy. (I keep Seneca, Epictetus, Musonius Rufus, and Marcus Aurelius on my bedside table. And one of my favorite books right now is a practical guide to Stoicism: A Guide to the Good Life, by William B. Irvine.) Stoicism resonates with me in a way that few other approaches to living do.

But there’s one bit I don’t agree with, and it has to do with the classic Stoic view of what constitutes good work in this world. The Roman Stoics would tell you that what matters most is that our work serve some manner of duty or public service. This isn’t something I see concerning me much.

My view and practice of Stoicism draws rather from a different well in this regard. In regard to work, I follow the example of Howard Roark from Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead.

Howard Roark represents the natural Stoic and an ideal hero to me.

His complete indifference to the outward trappings of success, to “fame” or “fortune,” or to the opinions of others … His concern solely with his own internal standards, and his disdain for “competing” with others … His independence, his absolute integrity, and his unfettered, selfish joy in living …

All of this strikes me as perfectly Stoical.

Roark doesn’t give a fig for “service” or social “duty,” but he IS deeply concerned with his work as an architect.

But the important thing here is — he doesn’t work at his career for the purpose of winning praise or earning a lot of money. He’s not in it to buy a fancy new car or a large-screen television or an expensive watch to make himself look successful. He’s not working in order to build himself a big house and fill it with expensive furniture. And he’s not working to get himself on the cover of Architectural Digest or to win accolades from his peers.

He is utterly indifferent to all of that.

His work is the centerpiece of his life — quite simply because it’s the most important expression of his life.

He works and creates not to get rich or win praise, nor to buy a bunch of stuff he doesn’t need, nor to feel important or “successful” in comparison to others.

He works because he loves his work.

He works because it’s his central purpose — unifying all of his virtues and staking his right to live as an independent man.

He works because it is the moral stance that allies him to reality, not to other men or what they might think of him or do for him.

This is THE critical refinement I think Howard Roark brings to Stoicism and what makes it a viable life philosophy.

What can an aspiring photo artist pull from all this?

Maybe this: Don’t feel you need to aspire so darn much. Not if it means worrying yourself sick about what others think of you. And not if it means trying to bend your style to fit what you think others will like.

Instead, why not just create, why not simply produce the very best — the very truest — work you can, and enjoy the journey? Let the rewards come when they come.

Not to say that earning admiration (or a few bucks along the way) is bad. No harm in that at all! You just don’t want to let that become the measure by which you begin to judge yourself or your work. Put another way, you don’t want to allow any lack of praise or profit come to throw you off your stride.

In short, I suppose my recommendation is simple enough:

Create because you love the work itself, not for any acclaim or rewards it might bring you later.

Create because it challenges you, and makes you grow, and in some sense completes you.

You only get one life. Don’t waste another minute of it under the crippling delusion that other people and their reaction to your work somehow determines your worth. Stop comparing yourself to others and stop worrying about what they think. Embrace your independence and put your focus on what you can control: the passion, the intensity, and the integrity you bring to your work.

Do this and, perhaps rather to your surprise, you might just find that all the other rewards follow of their own accord.

– Sebastian


End Note: It’s totally normal to feel rather glum if your work isn’t praised or admired once you release it to the world. Sometimes your work is applauded, sometimes it’s met with crickets. That’s just something you get better at dealing with over time.

I’m mostly speaking in this piece about your psychological state BEFORE you even put it out there, the way you approach your work from the outset.

While you are creating, you should just be enjoying the process of creating — without concern for what others will think of it, and without concern for what it might bring you afterward.

If you worry too much about that stuff while you’re trying to create, you will end up compromising your style in weird ways or just plain give up.

But after it’s done, after you put it out into the world — sure, you can’t help but hope people will like it. That’s normal. Though if it turns out your work is met by crickets (or insults) rather than applause, all you can do is try your best to shrug it off, accept that it’s not something you can control, and move on to the next piece.


The image featured on this post is by New Zealand AWAKE artist Rochelle Marshall. She has a fantastic online portfolio — not to be missed: https://artboja.com/art/rqqnbo/