I remember a time when I wouldn’t try anything new or out of the ordinary because it seemed like every time I put in the effort I would end up being disappointed.
I would fail.
It’s funny because now I have the complete opposite mentality. I jump into things headfirst, feeling like whatever happens, I’ll be able to make the best of it. But at the time my fear was debilitating.
I listened to the same music I always listened to, seldom willing to change it up for fear of not being able to sing along or recognize the beat as it started.
I played the same games (Risk, chess, Monopoly) and hung out with the same people, certain that if I tried to expand my circle of friends or hobbies that I would be incapable of performing up to my own standards or meeting the standards of the new acquaintances.
I knew I was smart and I knew that I was creative, but I was terrified of flexing those mental muscles for fear that I would find my limit. So long as I didn’t fly too high, I would never find out just how far was too far, and the risk of being pulled back down to earth was minimal.
Unfortunately, this also meant that I stagnated.
While home for the holidays, I’ve been perusing some of my childhood possessions that my parents recently uncovered, buried under closet-rubble. Board games, action figures, sketchbooks.
Paging through piles of old drawings, I found that there were a few years where my style didn’t change at all.
The work was pretty good, but from 2001 until 2003, it was the same old stuff. Same themes, same techniques, same sense of space and emotions evoked. I’m glad I put dates on them, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to tell them apart.
Then something strange happened in 2003: I became an Editor for my school paper and had to meet some serious deadlines.
Up until that point I had been writing and doing artwork for the paper, and I had been taking all of the same art classes expected of a young art enthusiast, but those didn’t do it. What did it was the responsibility that came with the ‘Editor’ position. All of a sudden it wasn’t just my grade and reputation on my shoulders, but that of everyone on the staff.
To bear the load, I had to innovate.
The way I was working previously worked great for me, and very likely I could have kept the same routines and rhythms going for decades into the future, but because of this environmental change I was forced to evolve and figure out new ways to do what I was doing before, plus more.
And it all changed at once. I can pinpoint the exact day that it all happened in my sketchbook, and looking back I can’t even remember drawing it, but the evidence is stark.
The style, previously good but stagnant, shifted into something familiar but much more experimental. Jazzy, even.
Everything in the book from that point on isn’t perfect, but it’s interesting. Whereas before I could fill a notebook with really solid drawings, now I would have a 70/30 split. A full 70 percent of the work had now become much better than anything I had done before.
The other 30 percent were failures.
Or were they?
Honestly, even the failures were interesting, and some of them clearly led to better solutions down the line.
So my unflawed reputation was tarnished, but overall I grew. And grew. And grew.
It’s amazing how changes in one aspect of your life can lead to dramatic shifts in completely unrelated areas. Something to think about if you’re feeling trapped or stagnant.
If the problem is too big to tackle head-on, why not aim for a sneak attack, via some other facet of your personality or day?
If you shake any piece of your life hard enough, the untouchable problem area is likely to be rattled and come loose, allowing you to jump in and reshape it.
As a former gamer, I like to think of it this way: life is not Candy Land, it’s a Rubik’s Cube. There isn’t one path to happiness, and every move you make can change the big picture.
Update: February 3, 2017
Helping other people, I think, also helps one grow quite a bit. I recall that part of what ensured I was always on top of my university courses was helping other students figure out the design tools we were learning. At some point, you start studying differently, but you also reinforce the ideas in your head by having to explain them to others. Further, as you become known as someone with decent ideas and who can give feedback, you start to look at all work more intentionally, including your own.